Earlier this year some of the RSPB Scotland office headed out on a wee trip to make sure our bird ID skills are up to scratch. RSPB Scotland’s Allie McGregor shares some of the species we saw and some tips for identifying them.

RSPB Scotland’s birding day out: Gulls and Waders

The day was chilly but sunny, we were not being actively snowed or rained on, so that was a good start. We all met up at Musselburgh lagoons after a bit of treacherous travel over a short but very bumpy section of road which it turned out lead to a dead-end (so back over the bumps we went). I was already feeling pretty happy with the trip, despite the bumpy road, having spotted a buzzard on the way in.

Buzzard in flight
Buzzards have broad, rounded wings. They have dark wingtips and a barred tail. Credit: Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Once those of us who hadn’t missed any trains (or got on the wrong one) were assembled we headed for the hides. The sun was shining with surprising enthusiasm for the time of year, but the lagoon was icy and we didn’t get quite the selection of birds we might otherwise have been treated to. This did not dampen our spirits however as there was still plenty to see!

One of the first species I spotted was an oystercatcher, something I’m very familiar with thanks to informal birding with my family. Oystercatchers have a long orange-y red bill and pink legs. They also have rings around their eyes which are a similar colour to their bills.

Oystercatcher. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

The oystercatchers made up just a few of several birds we saw before us, with gulls flying overhead. It is possible that, like me, you once believed all gulls were one species of ‘seagull’ and their main character trait was stealing chips. I’ve gained a new appreciation for them now that I understand the different species that are often lumped together.

Black-headed gulls are sociable, noisy, and misleadingly named. Their heads are more of a chocolate brown, and in winter it throws you off even more as it has a white head. Herring gulls are light grey and white with black wing tips. Their bills are slightly hooked and they have a red spot. Common gulls have a similar appearance to the herring gull, though they are smaller and there is no red spot on their bill.

Black-headed gull. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

The oystercatcher was far from the only wader at the first stop, and many more were to come. Through the morning we saw curlew, redshank, bar tailed godwits, and a turnstone. Curlew are recognisable from their size and their bills. They are the largest of the waders and they have a long bill which curves downwards. Redshank are one of only two waders with bright red legs, the other being a spotted redshank. When in flight they have a quite obvious white edge on their wing, as well as a visible pointed white rump. Bar-tailed godwits have a clearly upcurved bill. They are smaller than curlew, but they have a similar white rump. They also have a barred tail.

Turnstone. Credit: Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)

I have learned some… interesting facts about turnstones since they were features on Winterwatch recently! They are lovely birds though. Turnstones have distinctive wedge-shaped bills and orange legs. As you can probably guess from the name, they are known for flipping over stones to look for prey.

These are just some of the birds we spotted – they can’t actually all squeeze into one blog! There were a variety of other species spotted by the sea, but I’ll save that for another blog…

  • I note that you think gull identification can be confusing, because they decide to change plumage throughout the year and year after year. I sometimes think they do it deliberately to make it difficult for those with poor identification skills such as myself. At least Turnstones can be identified by their behaviour which helps me.