In today's blog, Eilidh Summers from our Education, Youth and Families team tells us about her recent excursion with the RSPB Scotland Edinburgh Phoenix Group.

It’s a beautiful day as the east coast shakes off the last traces of winter, and I’m joining RSPB Scotland’s Edinburgh Phoenix Group at Musselburgh Lagoons. The group is run by volunteers for young people aged 11-18 who are enthusiastic about wildlife and nature and they have graciously invited me along to their bird watching day.

# 1. Goldeneye

The day starts, as all the best days do, with goldeneye. Most goldeneye do not breed in the UK and only spend winter here so it is lovely to see them before they go in February or March. The male and the female look like different species – one black and white with a glossy green head, the other grey and brown. But the Edinburgh Phoenix Group know their stuff and easily identify the group of birds they find on the River Esk. The 11–13-year-olds also point out to me the black-headed gulls, mallards, Canada geese, and herring gulls.

A male goldeneye is floating on water.

Male Goldeneye by Mike Lane

A female goldeneye is floating on water.

Female goldeneye by Nick Upton

#2 Bar-tailed godwit

The beginning of the walk is also a pooling of resources – there’s an exchange of binoculars and telescopes, and who goes outside without a bird book? Not this lot.

Dylan quickly has his telescope trained on the coastline and he spots a group of bar-tailed godwits as they land on the rocks.

A bar-tailed godwit is difficult to separate from a black-tailed godwit, especially when winter plumage is in the midst of turning to summer colours. The key features are the more curved bill of the bar-tailed godwit and the black and white striped wing on the black-tailed, only visible in flight.

A bar-tailed godwit is wading along a sandy shoreline.

Bar-tailed godwit by Oliver Smart

#3 Turnstone

We reach the coast and start following the sea wall towards the lagoons. The Musselburgh coastal walk is a wonderfully unique patchwork of habitats from coastline to grassland and woodland and ending in species-rich lagoons reclaimed from ash deposits from the old power station. It’s an ideal site for birdwatchers and today many are exploring the area, hoping to score a king eider or a short-eared owl off their list.

I am scanning the shore with siblings Ellen and Rowan, when we spot three turnstones huddled together, well camouflaged amongst the rocks. We set up the telescope and admire their mottled feathers and bright orange legs.

Ellen’s favourite place to go is St Abbs Head, a few miles down the coast. She informs me that on the cliffs, you can sometimes see Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson amongst the razorbills. A few years ago, part of Avengers: Endgame, was filmed there.

A turnstone wades on the shoreline with two others in the background.

Turnstone by David Osborn

#4 Mediterranean gull

In the distance, there is another gem to find. A needle in a haystack, or indeed, a Mediterranean gull surrounded by 78 black-headed gulls, counted by Poppy, Juno, and Rowan. Dylan points out to me the differences: the Mediterranean gull is slightly larger, with a black mask and a red bill.

We also discuss the Phoenix Group, and he tells me he would really like more local groups like this, to learn and meet other people who love nature.

A Mediterranean gull is in flight, shown from beneath with its wings spread.

Mediterranean gull by Paul Sawer

#5 and beyond; the birds of the lagoon

We reach the lagoons and it’s brilliant. Three bird hides are set up along the edge of the flats, giving quiet birdwatchers an up-close view of the waders.

There are a few other enthusiasts in the hides, but the silence is comfortable and companiable. In a whisper, Ellen shows me the shelducks she is watching. Juno and Poppy have identified the wigeon and teal. Rowan is observing the distinctive long legs of the redshanks – the highlight of her day.

An adult male shelduck is in flight.

Shelduck by David J Slater

A common redshank wades through a muddy pool.

Redshank by Ray Kennedy

Finally, the pheasant

The bird I least expected to see today is one I associate with hills and upland areas, rather than coastal habitat. And yet Conner is tracking a brightly coloured male pheasant wandering around the lagoons. It was very strange to see this introduced gamebird in the midst of the waders and migratory species.

Connor has been part of the Edinburgh Phoenix Group for over six years, and he has plenty of stories to tell. At 18, he is now an RSPB volunteer for the group, and it is lovely to hear his journey maintaining his close connections to nature.

An adult male pheasant walks across a grassy field in the mist.

Pheasant by Paul Sawer

I had a great time with the Edinburgh Phoenix group, and it was heart-warming to talk to such enthusiastic people. I am struck by how important it is to facilitate young people connecting with their local natural spaces, for their own sakes’ and for the future’s. This is really summed up by Rowan, who aspires to be an explorer or an entomologist when she’s older.

  • I found your site totally by accident after seeing a 'heart' shaped stone pic & visited the site after reading the message. WOW!!! I wish I lived near y'all & wish I was young again. What a great project to start for young people & a great blog from what I've read. Btw, has it been 11 yrs since u married? How are things? In 11yrs & I never saw that heart stone pic on Pinterest. I'm 70, live near Penn State Univ in PA, USA,  was raised here & left after H.S. I'm a nature lover & get very protective about all feathered friends, all woodsy & non-woodsy critters & rooted living things, as well. I love the mountains here. How I lived in Houston TX for over 45+ yrs breathing city air is beyond me, even though I miss it at times. But I miss the longhorns & real cowboys...the nature of the surrounding concrete city. Not many people get nature, but it's absolutely amazing in millions of ways. You've let me see some new birds/ducks today. THANK U! I'll catch up later.  Good luck & wishing many blessings to all of you.  Lana