Birdwatching at Musselburgh Lagoons

As Autumn is kicking in I decided to take a trip out to Musselburgh in the hope of adding a few birds to my year list. The east coast obviously attracts a range of seabirds we don’t get in Clackmannanshire and can also have migrants travelling through. A Ruff, Little Stint or Curlew Sandpiper would be a good target for the day, or a rarer Scoter. A rare White-Winged Scoter has been seen in past years and a Surf Scoter has been seen in just the last few weeks so I am hopeful.

Our first stop was the mouth of the River Esk. Straight up we are surprised to see a Red-Throated Diver in the river itself close to where we parked the car. It was diving for fish and seemed healthy enough. We watched it for a few minutes and captured a few good photos.

Also swimming around in the river were a couple of Common Guillemots, nice to see the birds so close but not really a healthy sign for this seabird to be on freshwater. This is a widely reported problem along the East Coast of Scotland as I mentioned in my previous post.

Pair of Guillemots

We walked towards the seawall and picked up a Common Redshank feeding on the near shore.

Common Redshank

A few swans were feeding in the river itself, I checked for a Whooper which might be passing through but they were all the more common resident Mute Swans. Still a lovely bird in good light.

Mute Swan

A Lesser-Black Backed Gull flew past with a fairly mean look, whilst a winter plumage Black-Headed Gull fed in the shallows its red legs and bill standing out brightly.

There were lots of Curlew feeding behind the receding tide and some offered close views to fire off a few photos. With their impossibly long curling beak, and large size these birds are quickly marked out from most other waders. For beginners it is a good idea to learn your Curlews and Redshanks early on as they can act as a useful reference point for other waders.

A Reed Bunting lands for a drink in a nearby puddle.

Reed Bunting

Several Greylag Geese were relaxing on the far shore and they got up and moved into the river. Before long the river was alive with Greylags honking their farmyard honk. I looked through for Pink-Footed Geese but couldn’t see any.

Just then as if on order I heard Pink-Footed Geese flying over, high up, possibly just arriving from Iceland – I like to think so. These birds are common in the fields around where I live in Clackmannanshire each winter and I look forward to their imminent return. Their V-shaped flock is a welcome sign of Autumn and the passing of yet another season.

Pink Footed Geese arriving from Iceland

Looking out on the rocks I see the white flash of the rump of a Wheatear. These birds have been breeding inland but are now starting migration and fuelling up on the coast. I follow the bird until it lands and see a Rock Pipit trying to see it off the two facing off from separate rocks. This bird is a much drabber pipit with olive green tones almost disappearing into the rock it is standing on,

A frequent sound I have started to tune in to this summer is the “Eric Eric” of the Sandwich Tern and I hear it now. I see several birds offshore plunge diving for fish. The Sandwich Tern is quite a bit larger than its Common or Arctic cousins and has a bold black half cap almost like an eye-stripe. This is the nature of migration you gain the Geese but loose the Terns. This bird will soon be leaving for West Africa. I enjoy it’s acrobatics now as it may be the last I see this year.

We are now out on the seawall and I set up the scope. I am delighted to see a distant view of a Red-Necked Grebe my first year tick of the day as well as some Great-Crested Grebes. There are also lots of Shags flying backwards and forwards along with Eider Ducks and Gannets from Bass Rock feeding. They are too far to photograph but a small group of half a dozen Goosanders are much closer. These are sawbills and they keep diving for small fish. You have to love the punk hair-doo.


I subscribe to Bird Guides for the latest bird alerts and someone has reported a Surf Scoter off the seawall earlier today. Scoters are small black sea-ducks and most of the Scoters here are Velvet Scoters with a white tick around the eye. The Surf Scoter is much rarer and has a larger bill and white patch behind the head. We find someone with a scope who is on the bird and this affords good but distant views. Another year tick which is good progress for the day.

We leave the coast and walk inland briefly to the hides overlooking Musselburgh Lagoons. The first bird I see is a lovely Grey Heron resting on the shore looking over at a hundred or so Lapwings in the lagoon behind it.

Grey Heron with Lapwings behind

I notice several busy waders feeding around the water’s edge and after checking the features I am delighted to add Ruff to my year list. I count 11 in total which is a record for me. They offer up some great photos. This bird is what is called a passage migrant. They are not here to breed or for the winter, rather they are travelling from their breeding grounds in the north to their winter home in the south. There is a short period to catch them as they are just travelling through.

I notice a bobbing motion in the foreground and see a Common Snipe feeding. The long golden stripes down the back and over the head are diagnostic. These birds are often quite hard to see and rarely offer a good photo. Don’t mind if I do.

I can see a distant covey of Grey Partridge but not really close enough to photograph. I suspect I might be able to see them better from the other hide. We walk around and sure enough they are much closer. There are seven altogether in this family group and they are busy feeding. This partridge is in decline. compared to the introduced Red-Legged Partridge, so it is lovely to see them close up. A Pied Wagtail flies in behind them.

A small flock of Goldfinch fly overhead and land in the nearby Teasels


We walk back to the car by the seawall again adding a couple of Brent Geese to my year list

Brent Geese

A good day which takes me to 180 bird species for the year, on track for 200 hopefully. Musselburgh Esk Mouth and Lagoons is a worthy birdwatching location especially rewarding if you don’t live on the coast.

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