RSPB Forth Reserves Warden, Allison Leonard, tells us about the exciting addition to the RSPB Skinflats breeding bird list.

In early spring, staff and volunteers at RSPB Scotland Skinflats were pleased to see two avocets feeding on the reserve’s mudflats.  
Avocets, the RSPB’s emblematic bird, are a conservation success story. These elegant waders only returned to breed in southern England in the 1940s after being absent from the UK for a century. Sightings in Scotland, whilst regular in localised spots, are still rare enough to cause a bit of excitement, even at a site like Skinflats, where single birds have been recorded several times before, but never two at once.

A lone avocet at Skinflats reserve (Photo credit: Allison Leonard)

We kept a close eye on the birds, half expecting them to fly off at any time but they didn’t.  After hanging about for well over a week the confirmation that they weren’t just passing through came when a local birder told us that he had seen them mating and scraping a nest on a small spit of land on the reserve. While this was great news, the spot they’d picked was very vulnerable to the weather and predators so the wardens weren’t hopeful that the nest would be successful. 

However, the avocets had yet another surprise in store when they moved to a different spot on the reserve, one which was much better protected from the weather and predators that might be interested in eggs or chicks. 

Two avocets with one bird sitting on the nest (Photo credit: Allison Leonard)

Avocets are boisterous birds with a low tolerance for their neighbours, and they were regularly seen harassing the local shelducks, oystercatchers and anything else that dared to come too close to their shallow scrape: all good signs that they were attempting to breed.

In early May, it was suspected that the pair had laid eggs as suddenly one of the birds could always be seen in the same spot.  Not long after, we were able to confirm the avocets had laid four eggs, and then it was just a waiting game to see if they would hatch, and if their aggressive parents could then keep the chicks alive until they were old enough to fledge.

There are no recent records of avocets successfully breeding in Scotland.

Since their recolonisation in England in the 1940s, these black and white birds have gradually increased in numbers, going from 149 breeding pairs in 1973 to around 2,200 pairs in 2016. From their original sites in East Anglia, they’ve also been moving north, reaching RSPB Blacktoft Sands in East Yorkshire by the mid 1990s, County Durham in 2006, and then Northumberland in 2011, where the population had reached seven pairs by 2015.

RSPB Scotland Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire had a displaying pair in 2006 and a pair that made a nest-scrape in 2008, but no eggs were laid. Single birds and pairs have been recorded in most years since, but none have bred. Would the birds at Skinflats be the first record for Scotland?

Yes! We can now reveal that the Skinflats avocets successfully fledged three chicks at the start of July. This pair were probably first time breeders, but they were excellent parents, very protective of their chicks, and clearly able to find all the food they needed on the Forth’s rich mudflats and the lagoons within the RSPB Skinflats site.

Adult avocets with three young, taken in early June (Photo credit Agnes Thompson)

You may be wondering why we’re only talking about this now, but we made the decision early on not to reveal the avocets’ location, due to concerns about disturbance. Avocets are a Schedule 1 bird, which means they are highly protected and it would be an offence to disturb them when breeding. Skinflats is also a very small reserve and isn’t set up for visitors. There are few facilities, no hides or paths, and very little cover. Getting close to the birds without disturbing them was almost impossible, even for staff trying to monitor their progress. We also had to consider our neighbours, as the reserve is at the end of a single track road, which isn’t suitable for a large volume of traffic.

Approx 2 week old avocet chicks taken in mid June (Photo credit: Debbie Johnston)

Now that the young avocets are much more mobile, they are still likely to hang around with their parents for a while yet, but move out to the wider saltmarsh and mudflats. 

If you are considering a visit we would kindly request that you park in the car park by the motorway slip road and walk along the top of the saltmarsh onto the RSPB site.  This is a recognised Right of Way, and will help to avoid any issues with parking on site and disturbance to our neighbours.