Birdwatch Magazine March 2009 issue 201. This is the article in full. An edited version appeared omitting Dunnet Bay and St Johns Pool,
WHERE TO WATCH BIRDS.
THURSO TO DUNNET HEAD.
You cannot get any further north on mainland Britain . And if that is not enough, it will give you a taste for colder climate species only found within the arctic circle.
Caithness is big and with only a dozen or so active birders covering it a lot of birds are missed. The Baltimore Oriole being one none of us dozen saw. So anyone visiting here is another pair of welcome eyes as long as the recorder is informed ASAP and we can get to se it !
Thurso and Scrabster are the two inner ends of Thurso Bay a catchment area for seabirds local and migratory when its bad weather out at sea. Within the port of Scrabster birds shelter from westerly storms or follow what is left of the local fishing fleet in search of free food.
The River Thurso flows into the bay giving extra shelter and roosting areas for gulls, ducks and waders. It also has the added attraction of a fish monger who scatters leftovers from his shop into the river giving close up views for photography of Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. Within half a kilometre upstream is a river walkway with shrubs and trees sheltering five species of warbler, all three hirundines, Swifts (swift boxes can be found on buildings in the town) and various wildfowl.
Dunnet Head under 20 kilometres east of Thurso is the furthest point on mainland Britain ( not JOG). This massive headland stands at its highest 121 meters with cliffs of 65 meters. Its “tundra” like habitat dotted with lochens and the addition of the sea cliffs provides an unique area for breeding and hunting birds found only in more northerly latitudes. At sea level, deep seas provide feeding for four species of auk, four species of diver including White-Billed and local Fulmar and passing Gannet. Piratical skuas chasing inbound auks full of fish and hunting Raven and Peregrine patrol the cliffs.
Dunnet Bay at the south western seaboard side of Dunnet Head is arguable the best Caithness has to offer in terms of birding. Like all prima sites it can be feast or famine but when its good its very, very good. Over a thousand Manx's wheeling around the bay, Adult Ivory Gull, dozens of Sabine Gulls in large flocks of Kittiwakes, Long-Tailed and Pomarine joining local Arctic and Great Skuas. Vast numbers of Eiders and Long-Tailed Ducks with Common and Velvet Scoters interspersed within them . Feeding Gannets can be in triple figures with mixed wader flocks fuelling up for their long or short-haul migration heading north or south depending on the time of year.
Thurso Bay highlights; Glaucous and Iceland including kumlieni. Visiting Little Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, White-Billed Diver, Great Northern Diver, Manx and Sooty Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Common and Velvet Scoter.
Dunnet highlights; all above plus Hen Harrier, Merlin,Peregrine, Osprey and Raven. Whooper Swan, Slavonian Grebe, Brent, Barnacle, Grey, Pink-footed and White-Fronted flavirostris Geese. Albifrons has turned up and so has Brent. All common waders including seasonal Green and Wood Sandpipers, Curlew Sandpipers, Whimbrel and Greenshank. Grey and Red- Necked Phalarope, Surf Scoter, Red-Necked Grebe. Ivory , Mediterranean, Ring-Billed, Sabines and Yellow Legged Gulls have been recorded.
WHERE TO GO.
Birders do not usually find themselves up here unless they are doing the Scottish “grand tour” or on there way to a mega on Orkney.
Getting on for over 100 miles north of Inverness follow the A9 until you come to the sea, its as simple as that. Thurso and Scrabster are the end of the line, the ferry to Orkney and the road A836 west to Cape Wrath and east to John O Groats.
When entering Thurso from the south take the first right over the bridge, this will take you along the riverside, parking and at the end the river mouth. Here is the fish mongers and breakwater where depending on the tide waders, ducks and gulls will be within scoping distance from the car . Look along the river as you approach the sea, gull roosts need sifting through for Little gulls, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls and over wintering Boneparte's which have turned up for the last couple of years. Jack Snipe, Goosander and Dipper with Otter an added bonus. With the clean up of the sewage outlet gull numbers here have declined but the fish- bits from the fishmonger can attract close up views of a visiting larus among the local gull population. Wigeon, Teal and Tufted can be found within the calm of the groynes while Eider, Long-Tailed and Goldeneye ducks are in open water. Close views of Red Throated Diver although in winter plumage can be had on the river close to the quay and its always worth a look on the near roofs for perching White -Winged gulls.
Out in the bay you can scope from the sea wall . Out at sea is probably too far but Gannets, Divers and Shearwaters can be ID. If there is a strong west / north westerly and a sea haar the bay will be a haven for seabirds seeking shelter and thus closer in. White Winged gulls can be picked out of the mass of Kittiwakes, Black-Headed Gulls and Fulmars. Sabines or a lonely Boneparte's needs much more study and luck, also look through those large Divers for White-Billed.
As you retrace your steps back along the river road, park opposite the public toilets next to the road bridge and walk over the main road and upstream pathway. You can cross over the bridge a short way up and come down stream the other side. Take a look at the boating pond for stray wildfowl, Mandarin Duck for instance. March is not its best time but roosting gulls, wildfowl including Goosander, Dipper and Grey Wagtail can be found. Summer breeding warblers and hawking hirundines over the river with the screaming Swifts overhead are its attraction later on.
For Scrabster follow the road through the town west to the ferry terminal A9(T). Down the hill Peregrine , Merlin and a fall of Woodcock one year were found on its steep banks. As you near the terminal and fishing quays park as you can and look in all the basins in between the boats where Tysties (Black Guillemot) Little Auks, Long-Tailed and Eider ducks shelter on the oiled water between the boats. Turnstones, Redshank and the occasional Dunlin scurry along the quay while Cormorant groups dry off on the walls and railings. The reason for Scrabster as far as birding goes is the gulls that follow the few remaining fishing boats that unload their catch here. Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull are usual but on closer inspection kumliens characteristics have been spotted. Also an American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) in march 1999. The large rooftops of the fish packing buildings provides a good roosting place for gulls and easy viewing for birders. There is ample opportunity for photographs at close quarters with a good lens here but be careful as you move and stand around this slippery industrial area. As you head back into Thurso at the top of the bank Whimbrel and Curlew feed in the farm fields, as a Cattle Egret did in 2007. Some Greylag and Pink-Footed Geese can be seen in these fields but its too close to people and traffic for it to be a regular haunt.
Dunnet is reached back through Thurso south over the river bridge turning left at the lights and following the A836 east through Castletown following the beach and sand dunes links road until Dunnet Village. Just after the Sands Hotel turn left B855 sign posted to Dunnet Head . The road leads to the lighthouse where the RSPB sign and interpretation signs give you an idea of what the end of mainland Britain is. The RSPB have just taken charge of a section of cliffs on the head (se website)
From the car park the obvious cliffs can be viewed from a platform to the right hand side, its safe and secure and you will se all cliff dwelling species; Guillemot including bridled, Razerbill, Tystie and Puffin. Fulmar, Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit and Raven. Out to sea Gannet, Bonxie ,Great Black-Backed Gull are easy ID. But to se the other species you need to get out and walk along the cliff edges. You can do a complete walk around the head and its a full days walk with hill boots and clothing, map OS Landranger 12 and compass (know how to use it). Warning- It can be a dangerous place, these cliffs are high, its always windy and slippery under foot.
Summer species are more numerous across Dunnet Head , Arctic Skua, Red-Throated Diver, Peregrine, Dunlin , Golden Plover and Red Grouse are target species. While in late winter local Greylag Geese and Whooper Swan frequent the lochens, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Raven and Meadow Pipit can still be there with Stonechat, Blackbird and Robin. The species to seek out this time of year is Snow Bunting which can flock over a hundred strong while Twite which do breed on the head will be in small parties only. Hunting Hen Harrier, Short -Eared Owl and Merlin stop over on their migration , these can be UK or European birds.
March can also be the start of the Geese and Whooper Swan migration northwards so flocks will head over Dunnet day and night Arctic bound.
Back along the road nearer habitation Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and mixed finch flocks can be found. Its old style farming here, crofting and less intensive so kind to birds. Redpolls Mealy and Arctic are worh looking for as is Crossbill.
Leaving Dunnet Head , you cannot pass up the opportunity to visit St Johns Pool ND 221728, turn off left at Artsmith sign ,park and walk 100meters to the hide. An on going development by Julian Smith since 1989 with over a 200 species list it has included breeding Sandwich, Arctic and Common Tern and probably now the largest Black-Headed Gull colony in Caithness. It has also attracted such goodies as Mediterranean Gull, Lesser Scaup, Caspian Tern, Black- Headed Bunting, Red-Rumped Swallow, Oriental Turtle Dove, Ring-Neck Duck and more (http://artsmith-caithness.co.uk/artsmith_birds/)
St Johns Loch itself can be scoped from the road (or back of St J' Pool Hide) where all geese and duck Species on the Caithness list have been seen. Slavonian Grebe, Whooper and Mute Swan and four species of tern including Black Tern during the summer through autumn months.
Back track towards Castletown along the links road and you could be lucky and se hunting Short- Eared Owl and Barn Owl . You could visit Dunnet Forest ND225701 , car park and walk the paths finding the usual conifer loving species including Long Eared Owl .The links and “flash” pool ND205680 can attract various Waders and Gulls seeking fresh water . In summer Grasshopper , Willow and Sedge Warbler, Northern Wheatear, Stonechat and Whinchat can also be found near by.
Castle Hill ND201681 and the harbour road gives the best views of Dunnet Bay. Scope from the eastern car park or half way along the road on the grass verge and at the western end up on the obvious rise. These three view points give you the Bay in total or the southern side of it anyway.
Species are very dependent on what time of year it is and what weather it is. An easterly and you can forget it. A westerly will pile in a shed load of goodies in autumn off the open sea into the shelter of the bay. Shearwaters, Petrels, Little Auks, Gannets, Kittiwakes, bringing Sabines and Phalaropes in tow. March can give early views of Bonxie on there way to Hoy and plumage turning Knot, Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper , Long -Tailed Duck and rafts of Common Scoter . In summer you can find four species of tern including Little Tern also Arctic and Great Skua , Black and Red Throated Diver and over summering Great Northern Diver.
Sites and Access
All areas are open to the public but be very careful when on Dunnet Head and walking around Scrabster Harbour. Public transport by train or bus to Thurso or you can fly to Wick on the east coast. Local buses are few and far between and not to Dunnet Head , still a 5km walk to do. Car hire at local garages or inquire at Tourist Information Centre now situated in the old town hall called Caithness Horizons, a new interpretation centre , gallery and museum well worth a visit.
Disable access ok apart from off road on Dunnet Head.
Scot Rail www.scotrail.co.uk 0845 601 5929
City Link www.citylink.co.uk 08700 007007
Stagecoach www.stagecoachbus.com guide 6 caithness local bus time table.
Wick Airport (flights) www.hial.co.uk 01955 602215
Tourist Information 01847 893155 , Car hire etc. www.caithness.org/links/touristinfo.htm
www.caithness.org for all information
Where to Watch Birds in Scotland by Mike Madders (4th ed) 2003 Christopher Helm
Birds of Caithness by Sinclair A M Manson 2008 (private)
The Birds and Mammals of Caithness by Hugh Clark and Robin M Sellers 2005 Bellfield Publications.
Birdline Scotland 09068700234.
Up to date Caithness bird information http://artsmith-caithness.co.uk/artsmith_birds/
Sea Drift Ranger service Dunnet Bay. www.caithness.org/fpb/2007/july/seadrift_centre/index.htm
OS Maps Explorer 451 Thurso & John o' Groats.
Landranger 12 Thurso & Wick .
County Recorder. Stan Laybourne 01847 841244 firstname.lastname@example.org
Julian Smith 01847 851283 email@example.com
Loch Of Mey ND 270737.
Park at ND281738 walk to hide.
Home to approx' 200 wintering Greenland White -Fronted Geese.
Whooper swans, Gadwall, Garganey, Pintail, Shoveler, Hen Harrier.
Visiting Spoonbill, Little Egret, Smew,
B&B locally throughout the region,
Hotels in Thurso and at Dunnet Village.
Camping , Caravaning and Rvs at Thurso and Sea Drift Dunnet .
Holiday cottages can be booked throughout the area.
Check ; “Caithness . Org “ and Tourist Information.
Food and Drink
All hotels do meals in summer but for winter its worth checking first.
Good Indian eat-in and takeaway, a Chip Shop and a Chinese takeaway in Castletown.
Thurso and Scrabster has restaurants, cafes and takeaways. Try the surfers cafe opposite the fishmongers.