Having spent a year in Angus, Scotland, in 1979, it was nice to get back there 40 years later, to see the changes that have happened, and how the county has become a potential hotspot for wildlife tourism. Back then, there seemed to be only two spots worth visiting – Kinnordy, where I was working, and Montrose Basin, with its winter geese. A hard core of birders covered the coast and I bet none of them thought that, in 2019, they might be watching White-tailed Eagles overhead, never mind Ospreys nesting.
My family, minus me, actually visited the county in 1999 – Carnoustie, to watch the Open Golf Championship, where Aberdeen’s Paul Lawrie won, to the delight of my wife, an Aberdeenshire native.
The golf course joins up to the Barry Links, a military training ground better known as the Barry Buddon, so there’s little access when the red flags are flying, but by parking at the railway station you can follow a track to view the pools in safety (but beware of golf balls!).
A mixture of wildfowl and waders use the area throughout the year and on a late June day, Mute Swans, Little Grebes and Mallard were found, with Sedge Warblers singing by the edge of the water. Rarities found here have included Red-necked Phalarope and even Bee-eaters.
Moving north, the bay at Carnoustie is a great place to look for passage waders such as Dunlin, Ringed Plover, and even Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper. This is also a good place to check the rocks for mixed gulls at low tide and look out for terns in summer and Little Gulls later in the year.
A change in habitat sees two wooded streams at Panbride and East Haven, which offer the chance of migrants in autumn – Arctic Redpoll, Ortolan Bunting, Firecrest, Yellow-browed, Pallas’s and Barred Warblers have all been found over the years. I checked out Arbroath harbour, too, but a June visit, a popular month for visitors, is not likely to find ‘white winged’ gulls.
Close to Puffins
From Arbroath north, there are many dramatic cliffs, stacks and caves to view and with this comes an impressive number of seabird colonies. Every face seemed to have Kittiwakes and the best cliffs had Guillemots and Razorbills, with the odd Shag. Puffins breed around Auchmithie, but the impressive Lud Castle, site of a prehistoric fort, gives you chance to get close to Puffins, especially on the water. Other seabirds are easy to watch from a grass bank well off the main coastal path.
More coastal gullies have attracted migrants, with Auchmithie itself and Castlesea Bay both drawing some special birds. Species like Blyth’s Reed, Greenish, Yellow-browed, Icterine and Marsh Warblers, Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Red-breasted and Pied Flycatchers, Rustic Bunting, Turtle Dove and Bee-eater, mainly in the autumn.
Moving north, you can’t miss the Red Castle on the side of Lunan Bay, with its Fulmars enjoying the uplift of the remaining stone structure. The bay is noted for its long beach, as well as winter ducks, especially Common Scoter, but look out for both Velvet Scoter and the odd Surf Scoter as well. Long-tailed Duck, Red-necked Grebe, Black-throated and Red-throated Divers and even Great Northern Divers are also likely on the sea.
Geese, waders and ducks
The fresh water of the Lunan River can add gulls and terns with Iceland, Sabine’s, Little, Mediterranean and Glaucous Gulls, all seen here. Crossing the river is the Angus and Dundee Bird Club hide, and a walk on the southern cliffs brings you to the Ethie Mains area, where a Collared Flycatcher was found in the spring of 1997.
Moving north to Montrose, you’ll come across Scurdie Ness lighthouse, with a list of good birds, including Richard’s Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher and winter buntings. But it’s the large tidal area of Montrose Basin you simply can’t miss. For years, I saw this expanse from a train while courting my future wife, so it was great to finally make it back there.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust has a visitor centre overlooking the Basin, and what a great job it has made of the viewing facilities. It’s added a Sand Martin bank, with up to 70 pairs now using it, and also a tern nesting enclosure in front of the centre. I know winter is the peak time, with thousands of Pink-footed Geese, waders and mixed ducks in the area, but with these facilities the area is a draw 12 months of the year, with hides set around the Basin. Kingfishers are a great draw for photographers, too.
Angus may miss out on the 10-mile stretch of the Tay reedbed in Perthshire, but many of its inhabitants have made their way into Angus, especially the beaver. The Forfar Lochs offers mixed habitat with Alder/willow carr, reedbeds and open water, starting with Balgavies Loch, another Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. Throughout the summer, Ospreys are the star birds and with a convenient hide they can be watched as they fish around the complex of waters.
A circular walk is ideal for looking for other species, with plenty of reedbed birds and wildfowl to enjoy.
The 200-acre loch of Rescobie next door is run by anglers and is full of trout (attracting Ospreys), and can be viewed from a minor road to the north. Species like Smew, Green-winged Teal, Great White Egret and Mediterranean Gull have been found here, with Little Gull enjoying the fly larvae – with up to 34 being counted at any one time. A private reserve at Murton has a walk and a good place to look for Little Ringed Plover in summer.
Forfar Loch is the most westerly of this chain, dug out by the last ice age. It is a country park with a 2.5-mile walk around its shores. Over the years, it has had good records, especially wildfowl like Ring-necked and Long-tailed Ducks, Gargarney, Tundra Bean Goose, Common Scoter and Scaup.
A first for Scotland
I saw large numbers of breeding Great Crested and Little Grebes and even an attack by a Pike on a loafing Mallard. Other grebes recorded have been Slavonian and Red-necked. Black-necked was a former local breeder but with few Black-headed Gulls nesting, has disappeared. Winter sees a gull roost, so both Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are likely, while a Kumlien’s Gull was a great find.
My historical experience of Angus was as warden of the RSPB’s Kinnordy reserve, north-west of Forfar. This is a loch created by the extraction of marl, a form of soft limestone used to fertilise local fields.
The reserve was leased from the local estate and two of us built the first hides here. At that time, the reserve was famous for the Black-headed Gull colony, with 6,000 pairs, but, today, you’re lucky to see any breeding.
Bog Bean rafts formerly filled the reserve and this is where gulls would nest. With these came the largest breeding concentration of ducks, including Shoveler, Wigeon and Pintail. The first breeding record of Ruddy Duck for Scotland was here, as well as the expanding Black-necked Grebes.
Today’s star bird (small in size) is the Spotted Crake. I had the first record back in 1979, along with the first record of Cattle Egret for Scotland. More new arrivals include Bearded Tits and Marsh Harriers from the Tay reedbeds, with wintering Bittern, too. Smew is now a good wintering bird to see. Osprey, Cranes and even Glossy Ibis have all graced this reserve. Beavers are now present along with Otters, making the site a great year-round location.
Angus is a highly farmed area, so many woods are commercial conifers but try the Caddam Wood north of Kirremuir for Wood Warbler and Redstart. The nature trail at Glamis Castle is also worth a visit for woodpeckers and Treecreeper.
Moving higher are two reservoirs, with Loch of Lintrathen now a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. It has always been a magnet for geese, with the Greylags attracting many other species, such as Snow, Bean, White-fronted, Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese, along with a good number of duck species. Both Golden and White-tailed Eagles have been seen here but high up the hill is the Backwater Reservoir. Stretching north into Glen Damff, the two-and-a-half-mile long ribbon of water, flanked either side by hills, moorland and forestry is maintained by Scottish Water. This is Black Grouse country and one of the best locations to find them.
Two better known Glens are Prosen and Clova. They used to be great for breeding birds of prey, with Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Merlin and Goshawk; but intensive Red Grouse shooting has left many of these upper areas devoid of raptors. Clova is one of the best glens in Scotland for Alpine flowers, with a section of serpentine rock holding Alpine Catchfly, Mountain Avens and other rare species.
This is now part of the southern section of the Cairngorm National Park. I once spotted a man focusing on an old eagle’s nest up here only to find he was just plant hunting! Ptarmigan and Dotterel are here, especially on Glas Maol right up to the Angus boundary with Aberdeenshire and Perthshire, with Golden Plover and Dunlin found in the same area.
You should find many a place and time to suit you in this fascinating county – try it for yourself.