Monday, 15 May 2017

A wildlife spectacular

On a cold and blustery day at the end of April we drove to Newburgh at the mouth of the River Ythan (pronounced "Eye-than") to do some wildlife watching. Although less than an hour away, we hadn't previously visited and were reminded that we really should do by an article on BBC Radio Scotland's "Out of Doors" programme.

We parked near the golf course and walked a short way along a path through the dunes which are such a feature of this part of the coast to reach the edge of the estuary close to where the Ythan enters the North Sea.  A guided wildlife watching group and some families were already enjoying the sights.

There are lots of birds on the Ythan.  Eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) are simply everywhere; this is the largest breeding colony of these striking sea ducks in the UK with some 1500 pairs nesting in the dunes of the Forvie National Nature Reserve - with non-breeding birds the summer population can be up to 5000 strong.

The heaviest, fastest flying and largest UK duck, Eiders feed primarily on molluscs, especially Mussels which they can swallow whole and crush in their gizzard - crabs are also taken and are similarly swallowed whole once the legs have been removed; a remarkable digestive feat!  The male Eiders are truly beautiful birds; predominantly black and white with pale green napes and a salmon pink blush to their breasts.  They also have a distinctive call - which leads to them being known to generations of children as "woo-woo birds"....try the video on the RSPB page to hear why!

As well as Eiders, the Ythan estuary is home to four species of terns; largely Sandwich Terns and Arctic Terns, but we were delighted to get close views of a Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) which was fishing right in front of us.  Forvie has between 15 and 35 pairs of these lovely little birds breeding each year - and this is a quarter of the entire Scottish breeding population.

Sand Martins were whizzing along the shore and we watched a pair finishing a nest burrow in a sand dune right next to the path.  The birds at Forvie make for a great wildlife experience in their own right, but it wasn't birds we'd primarily come to see....

 Now, I can get close views of seals every single time that I get in a sea kayak, so why come to a beach on a raw day to see them?  Well, just across the channel Atlantic Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) haul out onto the sand to rest, to moult and to pup and they can be seen at quite close quarters without disturbance.

The UK's largest land carnivore, Grey Seal bulls can reach 2.6 metres in length and weigh up to 350Kgs - they're an animal to be respected, especially when in a sea kayak!  The bulls are generally dark grey, brown or black with some lighter blotches whilst the cows are usually lighter grey with some darker blotches.

 The pebbles on the shores of the North Sea and Moray Firth coasts are actually quite similar colours to the seals.

But what makes the seals at the Ythan such a spectacle is that there are a lot of them....... awful lot of them!  Over 1000 animals haul out here; the sight and noise is extraordinary - and if the wind is blowing from the north we're assured that the smell is too.   One of the presenters of the "Out of Doors" radio programme described this as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles not just in Scotland or the UK, but in Europe.

We'd agree - it's a truly world-class wildlife experience and very accessible too. The north side of the estuary is now an area of special protection and this designation means that it's a criminal offence to recklessly disturb seals which are hauled out here.

To get the best sighting, visiting near to low water allows a fairly close approach from the south side of the river, but doesn't disturb the animals.  If they raise their heads or start to move - you're too close.  From the main road through the village of Newburgh, turn onto Beach Road (near the Newburgh Inn) and drive to the car park near the golf course.  A five minute walk will bring you to the water and this remarkable wildlife watching location.


  1. I'd heard that about the Ythan but it's a bit too far for me to visit although I've been to Tentsmuir Forest and The Elbow in Fife a few times to see a similar large group of seals. An impressive sight up close and of course my inflatable kayak is sadly not tooth proof, something I was very aware of last year watching a seal strip the skin off a large eel in under a minute.

    1. The numbers at Ythan really are astounding Bob, and you're right - impressive beasts!

  2. Interesting to read Bob's comment, above. As I read through the post I immediately thought of our time at St. Athernase and seeing a large number of seals on a visit to Tentsmuir - they must be regulars there. Indeed, impressive! Lots of seals here on Vancouver Island but we rarely see those numbers together.

  3. I must try to get to Tentsmuir D & J, it's a place I've only seen from a distance. The sight and sound of 100 + Grey Seals is quite something; and the accessibility of such a great wildlife experience is probably quite unique

    Best wishes to you both