Scoping Musselburgh

I’m sure the consistency of my posting on this blog will decrease soon. I’m just not as busy around this time of year.

Today was a coastal birding day, out to Musselburgh which is a brilliant place that I really wish I could go to more often. It is right on the coast, with the River Esk emptying out into the Firth of Forth. There’s wader scrapes, plenty of sand, a few shrubby areas, young woodland, a river, the sea… What more could you need? Maybe a pond? It’s got that too.

My first trip to Musselburgh was by bus, which was not enjoyable as it takes the strangest, longest possible route to get from my house to Musselburgh. Anyway, asides from the bus journey, that day was awesome. At least 5 firsts I think, including Snipe, Grey Partridge, Velvet Scoter, Slavonian Grebe and Goosander. So I had high hopes for my second trip there, with a scope too.

My main intention was to find the Surf Scoter that has been around for a few months now, and is possibly the same visitor every year. It’s a bird that’s supposed to be in North America so it’s quite rare in the UK. I checked the recent sightings page on Lothian Birding and sure enough it had been seen recently.

This time I needn’t get the number thirty bus as my dad had kindly offered to give me a lift. In the car and heading north to Musselburgh, I thought about the other birds I may see. There was a Grey Phalarope that flew over a couple of days before plus an Iceland Gull; Glaucous Gull down the coast; Red-throated Divers, Red-necked Grebes, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and Little Auks too; all of which I am yet to see. That’s one thing I love about birding; you might find something you weren’t expecting.

Once we arrived I got out the car and got the scope out the back seat. I knew the area better than last time as I’d spent so long looking for the right place before. Straight to the sea wall (just by where the river flows out) I decided to go and of course, there were plenty other birders out in force. I quickly saw something I’m not used to seeing but after yesterday’s experience, I knew it was a female Goldeneye, confirmed by the male that decided to resurface next to her.


Along the sea wall I stopped various times, as I saw Turnstones, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, thousands of Gulls, a Ringed Plover and the Ringed Plover’s larger cousin, a Grey Plover. A first for me! Already! Loving it. Further along the sea wall as we got closer to the sea as opposed to the river I saw a few rafts of ducks. Most of which turned out to be Goldeneye, and then further out there were some dozy Eiders.

Turnstones turning stones.

As I was scanning through the Goldeneye, hoping for something else, I noticed some other smaller rafts of darker birds. These turned out to be Velvet Scoters, closer in to land than I had expected.

Velvet Scoters with their giveaway white eye-ring.

Another key feature for identifying Velvet Scoter is that if you watch them long enough they are fairly likely to sort of prop themselves upright on the water and beat their wings. As they do this it should show some obvious white square patches on the wings. They obligingly demonstrated this for me whilst I was watching but I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture.

Female Velvet Scoter.

Female Velvet Scoters have more white markings on their head than a female Common Scoter. The Velvet has a white mark just like the black mark on a winter Black-headed Gull’s head, and it also has some white at the base of it’s bill.

Eiders on the Forth.

Amongst the Eiders I managed to find what I was pretty sure was my first Long-tailed Duck. This was confirmed when another (probably more experienced) birder walked past and very helpfully said “Few Long-tailed Ducks out there now.” Another tick for me!

Another duck I was looking for was also out there although not amongst the Eiders. Two Red-breasted Mergansers (one male, one female) and a juvenile Herring Gull had formed their own little raft and had it not been for the juvenile gull I tried identifying, I would not have seen the Mergansers as they bobbed back up to the surface. Despite all the button mashing I did on my phone whilst pointing the camera through the scope, I only really managed record shots of the male Merganser.

Male Red-breasted Merganser record shot.

Eventually, after many stops we (me and my dad, who had decided to come with) made it to the boating pond and Levenhall nature reserve. The boating pond was where I saw my first Slavonian Grebe but this time there was just a Teal, some Black-headed Gulls, and a few Tufties.
Into the hides by the wader scrapes on Levenhall nature reserve and a slight bit of disappointment came across me. Since the tide was going out, the birds had no reason to be using the scrapes as the nice wet, muddy sand was being revealed. However, I did manage to get some nice shots of the Wigeon grazing and have a wee catch-up with the Grey Partridges.





/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/777/81628714/files/2014/12/img_3386-0.jpg All of these shots have been taken on my iPhone 4S through my scope by the way. I know right? Amazing quality.

So, after being ever so slightly disappointed, we left the scrapes and passed the young woodland, hearing the Goldcrests and Blue Tits in the trees, and seeing a pair of Magpies following the Black-headed Gulls about on the grass.

Dad was starting to complain about being hungry so we headed back to the car at a comparatively fast pace, but still stopping every so often to check out that bird that I can’t identify, which will turn out to be a female Eider or another Goldeneye. Or at one point to get some really nice shots of a Bar-tailed Godwit which was prodding the sand with it’s massive bill.




Having been told by that other, nice, experienced birder that the Surf Scoter is usually seen further along the coast at Fisherrow, we headed there. Once we got there (not very far from where we’d been before) we had our lunch from Greggs and dad decided he’d much rather sit in a café and read his book than sit out on the sand staring at the sea for an hour or so. So off he went, which left me to search for the Surfy myself.

I wandered out on to the sand as the tide was going out and I’d get clearer views of anything at sea if I was closer to the water’s edge. Out by some rocks there were the Oystercatchers; some crows, one of which turned out to be a Hoodie; a few Redshank, which were irritating the Oystercatchers; and loads of gulls.



I set up my tripod so I could sit with my scope at a comfortable level for sea watching and started scanning. I’ve had no lessons on bird watching or been shown any techniques for doing it so I may have looked over some of the Scoter rafts twice, or maybe thrice, but… After looking at at least 7 or 8 of these rafts, I finally found the Surf Scoter! By this time my hands were frozen solid despite having gloves on so my pictures were not even good enough quality to show that birds were the subjects in my picture. So you’ll just have to believe me! The Surf Scoter, or at least the drake, is easily identified by the big white patch on the back of it’s neck, and also it’s large, colourful bill. That’s probably my second proper rarity that I’ve ever seen in Britain, the other being a Rough-legged Buzzard I stumbled upon in the Moorfoot Hills.
So I stared at the Surfy for probably ten minutes before I realised I couldn’t get my eyes to focus both at the same time, as I’d been using just my right eye for so long on the scope.

Anyway, after that I didn’t know what else to look for. Gulls. There’s been a few rare gulls reported around Musselburgh and I could see the huge gull roost appearing near the river mouth. I wandered along the shoreline towards a piece of drift wood which acted as a nice seat whilst I scanned through the gulls on my first gull watch. I could see why people might like doing it as the joy of finally finding a rarity amongst the thousands of Black-headed, Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls must be immense. I didn’t even find a Mediterranean Gull, never mind the Iceland, Glaucous and Little Gulls that had been reported recently.








I was pleased to hear the first Wren I’ve heard in ages, ticking away in the long grass by the sand, and a Pied Wagtail flew over in it’s bouncy way. I found a not-so-Common Gull amongst the Black-headeds which was probably my gull highlight (I know, pathetic). And whilst I was spamming pictures on my phone, it decided to tell me it had 20% battery life then switch off. So I had to wait by the car for 1 and a half hours for dad to return from Costa. In this time though I got good views of Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, Velvet Scoters and many more birds, so not too bad. I also had a quick look at the moon.






So, all in all, a decent haul! Four new ticks: Grey Plover, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and Surf Scoter. Funny how I still haven’t seen a Common Scoter yet…
If I don’t post before new year then I hope everybody has a great new year and that the greatness follows through to the end of the year!

Cheers for reading!

Scoping Musselburgh

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