Birdwatching in Dundee

By David Lindo

My visit to Dundee was a special one because it was not only my first time in Scotland’s fourth largest city but it is the birthplace of The Average White Band, one of my favourite 70s funk bands. Yes, Scotland’s got soul!

Dundee not only has the funk, but it has got the birds too. It has a long established birding fraternity, with the Scottish Ornithologist Club and the RSPB both active in the area for more than 50 years.

However, the biggest pool of members for any of its birding societies is the Angus and Dundee Bird Club and I met a couple of its stalwarts for an escorted tour of the city. One of the first things we did was to look up and we were treated to the first skeins of Pink-footed Geese and the very first October flock of Whooper Swans.

Dundee is a fairly small city situated on the north bank of the Firth of Tay. During my induction into the city’s ornithological credentials, I quickly learnt that, like neighbouring Aberdeen, it is one of the first spots in the UK to receive Waxwings. Indeed, these absolutely stunning birds are near annual visitors and are often flanked by Fieldfares, Redwings and Mistle Thrushes. The city’s cemeteries are a good place to start hunting for them.

Birdwatching in Dundee

Dundee has a bird-rich coastline that is ideal for seawatching for seaducks, Red-throated Diver and grebes along with scoping opportunities for shoreline waders. Of course, if you watch the sea often enough, rarities will pop into view.

Recent goodies have included White-billed Diver, Ross’s Gull and Grey Phalarope. Perhaps more remarkable was the recent appearance inland of a Nuthatch, a true rarity in these parts; proof of their slow spread north. This scenario has already been played out by Magpies, a rarity in the city.

Ten years ago they were almost unknown in Dundee, but the species has started to creep into the urban areas, although there are still probably only 10 birds in the city.

The coastline at Balmossie, near the mouth of the Dighty Burn and at the eastern end of the Broughty Ferry Esplanade, is a great little local spot for watching waders. Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlins are to be expected during the appropriate seasons, along with the occasional flocks of Golden Plover and more usual Redshank, Dunlin and Grey Plover.

On the sea, there are normally rafts of Eider and indeed, there were quite a few birds present on the day of my visit, with many of the males displaying at the females, their comical cooing clearly audible.

During the winter months, the numbers of waterfowl to be seen are swollen by the Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser and Mute Swans that also congregate. During the migration periods it is a good idea to scan the beach for migrants such as Wheatear and the trees surrounding the nearby train station for warblers.

One of my favourite urban birding areas in the city was at Dundee Law. It is a hill that is a prominent feature in the centre of the city that, believe it or not, is an extinct volcano. It was the perfect substitute for a tall building, as it afforded a 360° panoramic view of the city including the River Tay and towards Perth.

Exactly what you need for observing visible migration. Just before Perth is an expansive reedbed that stretches for more than 10 miles along the north side of the River Tay. Incredibly, it is home to one of the largest populations of Bearded Tits in Britain, with in excess of 100 birds present. This astounded me, as I was ignorant of the fact that this attractive and unique songbird was found anywhere north of Lancashire.

Tay Reedbeds is also a good place for finding Water Rail and has recently been colonized by Reed Warblers, although they are still quite scarce. Bittern are suspected of wintering here although you will have much better luck locating the breeding Sedge Warblers and the masses of Reed Buntings.

In 2013, seven pairs of Marsh Harrier were present of which five pairs bred raising 14 youngsters.

Dundee surprised me. It is an urban birding venue that has yet to reveal all its secrets.

Key bird species to find in Dundee:

Eider

Perhaps most famous to the general public for being the provider of super soft eiderdown (from the females), Eider is a highly recognisable seaduck, visible from most of our coastlines during the winter.

They are especially a feature of the more northerly British coasts where the bulk of our breeding birds are to be found. Eiders are arctic birds and can be found around the northern coasts of Europe, North America and eastern Siberia.

Our bird is one of four species. The King Eider appears annually here in tiny numbers usually during the winter, the Steller’s Eider is a mega rarity while the Spectacled Eider is yet to be discovered in our waters.

The Eider is a remarkable bird. It’s the largest duck in Europe, and despite its squat, heavyset appearance, it can attain speeds of up to 70mph in flight. It feeds by diving after crustaceans and molluscs.

It swallows the molluscs whole and the shells are crushed in their gizzard before being excreted. Despite being seabirds, keep an eye out for them on your local patch, as they sometimes turn up on reservoirs far inland during the winter.