Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Musselburgh, Aberlady and Waxwings

12th Nov.  Sam and I joined the RSPB Group trek to Musselburgh and Aberlady today.  These treks for us are now as rare as a mega rarity on patch, but we had on this occasion been attracted to the possibility of visiting George Waterston House, the SOC centre at Aberlady, where we knew there was an excellent library and a fine collection of used birding books for sale.   We have both read a good deal about George Waterston’s work on the protection of the Osprey in Scotland, his work with the bird observatories on Fair Isle and the Isle of May and his interest in birds during his confinement as a prisoner of war.  Much gratitude is owed to George.  So we left Newcastle’s dampness behind us and ignored the skitty remarks about new members turning up.  We were soon into dryer and clearer weather and a Little Egret, Common Buzzard and Kestrel were possibly the star birds of the outward journey.

Waxwings at Aberlady, courtesy of Samuel Hood

I’ve been to Musselburgh on a number of occasions now, but can’t remember having been on such a sunny and warm(ish) day, perhaps because I’ve usually been there in winter rather than the back end of autumn.  The timing this year I guess accounted for the lack of birds on the sea.  It was certainly far quieter than any visit I have made in the past.  Although quiet in terms of seabirds, it was far from such in terms of folk, as there was at least another two groups visiting, one of them from Yorkshire and another from Edinburgh led by a friend of Sam’s.  Sam and I tried in vain to avoid the crowds   most of the time, but as it happens enjoyed some good chat along the way.  Some time you just have to surrender and be sociable I suppose.  Soon after our arrival a skein of sixty Pink-footed Geese flew in the distance.


As we left the river behind and joined the sea-wall I’m told a Kingfisher flew over my head and yes, I missed it.  Canada Geese had been feeding on the bank of the river.  The tide was high so the usual area I have watched waders was under water.  We did eventually have reasonable to good sightings of Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Long Tailed Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Red Throated Diver, one Guillemot and one Razorbill.  All these species were few in number.  I may have caught sight of a Slavonian Grebe (or Slav Grebe as people kept insisting on calling it) but my bird dived so quickly and disappeared that I won’t be counting it as a definite sighting.  Even the numbers of Eider Duck and Goldeneye were well down from that of previous visits.  I was enjoying the day despite low bird numbers and it helped that I had to loosen clothing because of the warmth.  One of the birds of the day for us were the Twite found by Sam and I near to the pathway.  A local couple asked what we were watching and my reply brought a disinterested response and advice as to where to find Waxwings!  The Twite showed wonderfully well and we were able to put a very pleased Yorkshire Group onto them.  We reckon that initially there were five or six of this species and certainly four perched on the wall together at one point.  We watched them for what seemed like twenty to thirty minutes and they weren’t at all fazed by watchers.  One or two Reed Buntings showed well and Meadow Pipits showed well too, one of the latter species being in pristine condition, and a Skylark sang.  Then it was eventually time to move on.    Redwing were heard.  A Goosander flew across the sea with four Redshank.

As we approached the lagoons four Bullfinch flew from the bushes and Goldfinch showed.  The hides at the lagoons were unusually busy as each group seemed to reach them at about the same time.  I found that if you are going to sit in the concrete hides it might be best to have water-proof trousers on!  As the tide was high we were treated to a good showing of waders with great numbers of Oystercatchers taking the eye.  Another notable sighting was a late (possibly over wintering) Sandwich Tern.  Other waders included Lapwing, Dunlin, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew.  A skein of Greylag Geese lifted as we watched.  Despite the crowded hides I thought it time to have some lunch.

There was a quick route back to our coach, but Sam and I decided to walk back along the sea wall and we did have close up views of Long-tailed Duck, Great Crested Grebe, but as we had to put a spurt on we had little time to scan the sea again, but in any event it appeared that there were still few seabirds about.

Aberlady Bay 

Our nest stop was to be the SOC Centre.  I’d not been her before and had been hoping to spend some time there.  It seemed that it was likely that the library was not an option because of a photography course, so a half hour proved long enough although not long enough for me to decide upon any second-hand books I wanted.  Sam had a better idea as to what he wanted and ended up spilling the cash and bringing home some books.  I require another visit with more time.  On this occasion we were able to leave our boots on our feet as there was no mud and I can’t help feeling that in any event George Waterston, a practical man, would not have been in the least concerned about a little mud on the floor.  We then set off for Aberlady Bay passing some Waxwings in the village but only having a fleeting sighting.  We had already been told that there were 200+ Waxwings in the next village and we had the directions as to how to find them but it seemed the coach was not going to stop there.  I’ve no idea why that wasn’t possible, as it was on route and a fifteen minute visit would not have been a problem surely, but there you are that is my gripe about coach trips.  Not to be beaten Sam and I walked back to the Waxwings we had passed and had a really good sighting of at least 150 Waxwings.  Good to listen to the calling as these restless birds moved about from time to time.  A dream of mine would be to be amongst thousands of these calling birds.  That type of experience would put any sighting of rarities into the shade as far as I am concerned.  Eventually a Sparrowhawk really spooked them and they lifted en-masse and didn’t return for quite sometime.  I was surprised we had only been joined by three other members of the group.  We had an interesting chat to a young guy from, I think the Motherwell area, as we watched the Waxwings fly catching.  As we left on the return walk a a small proportion of the larger flock of Waxwings flew around the area for sometime, occasionally flying though shafts of light from the now very low sun.  This showed them wonderfully well and I can’t help feeling that many of our fellow group members had missed the treat of the day. 

Wawings at Aberlady, courtesy of Samuel Hood 

We would not have had time to walk very far around the bay so we enjoyed a slow walk back and watched the changing light and skies over the bay and the flocks of waders lifting.  Our discussion centred on the splendour of wide open areas such as we were experiencing and the importance of taking in a sense of place.   That was better than making a forlorn attempt at finding the Surf Scoter which just wasn’t going to happen in such limited time.  It had been reported at Aberlady in the morning and there had been no sign of it at Musselburgh.  There was a large flock of Lapwing flying for sometime and I wondered if they had been put up by a raptor, but I saw no sign of one.  The light really was wonderful just before the sun fell and set behind the trees.

Aberlady Bay 

Aberlady Bay

I ignored the eating on the coach is ‘verboten’ instructions I had been made aware of and ate my crisps and Sam’s chocolate anyway, being careful not to drop any crumbs and have them lead a trail back to me as goodness knows what the penalty would be.  I noted that I wasn’t the only one to break the rules so if I’m found out I’ll take the others down with me.  These RSPB members can be a militant lot you know!  Light soon disappeared apart from that of a full or almost full moon that seemed to accompany us homewards, but you will be glad to know I stifled any thoughts of breaking out into song.

Aberlady Bay

Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

Perhaps in the circumstances on this occasion Blue Moon should be replaced by Super Moon.


  I dozed for much of the journey and so it passed quickly.  I had really enjoyed the day and was still taking in our final minutes of this particular trip.  I’ll be surprised if I don’t see more Waxwings during what is building up to be a real Waxwing winter.  The group had run an enjoyable and well organised trip.


  1. Hi Brian,
    The number of sea ducks might have been down but the fact that non-experts like myself had near views of male and female Common Scoter AND Velvet Scoter allowed us to nail the subtle (to me) differences between the species and the sexes. Also, the sight of nearby Long-tailed Duck & Red-throated Diver was much more useful than my previous experiences of being told by an expert that 'Those little dots on the horizon were indeed LTD & RTD'.

    A good account of the trip though!

  2. I take your point Ian. It does help having a decent close sighting and sometimes fewer numbers means your able to devote more time to identification. Very quiet on the sea though in comparison to previous visits, a view shared by locals we spoke to.

    Glad you enjoyed the trip. Waxwings were the stars for me.