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Welcome to Caithness Birds

This site is designed to help visitors find out what's going on in the county - all you need know about Caithness birds - and how to get there... fast!

Whether you're just learning about birds or have years of experience, this service will hopefully help you get even more out of your birdwatching.

Happy birding

09 Jun 2016 9 June – The Bird Race 2016 – Post-match analysis
 |  Category: Breeding species, Migration  | Comments off

There was a time (c.1990s) when the prospect of a ‘Bird Race’ would fire at least 5 people up in the club, enough to want to actually go through the inevitable torture.  The reason?  Difficult to say but it’s a bit like Everest – because it’s there.  Possibly more birds in Caithness?

Fast forward 20+ years and well what do you know – 4 or 5 people signed up to the very thing.  It’s not REALLY a race (hoho) said Team Manson… that’ll be Manson then. But we (Team B) knew fine well this was a thinly veiled cover for some high octane birding.

So, The Challenge? up to 24 hours in (and out) of a car chasing down as many species within the county as possible.  Simple.

28th May 2016 was a day like no other in Bird race history. It wasn’t freezing, wet or windy. Hot it wasn’t, but ‘pleasant’ is as good as Mediterranean.

Two teams of 2 and 3:
Team ‘M’ comprised 2 battle hardened birders, Maughan & Manson – ten times captain of the winning squad – undoubtedly a ruthless and efficient combo.
Team ‘B’ fortunately had a secret weapon… ‘B’ – code for ‘Brown’ – a skilled ‘hunter’ of all things avian. The rest of Team B (the Ballast) helped confirm ID and ‘tick’ as applicable. What a breeze!

The final scores on the doors were actually impressive considering the appalling spring.
Team ‘M’ – 107 / Team ‘B’ 119

However the underlying story as ever is what defined the race and indeed the breeding season in Caithness 2016.  Some very surprising  species missing or almost missing just shows the effect of bad weather badly timed. Here’s the combined high and low lights:

Cuckoos – everywhere – we stopped counting at about 18: the other lot were similarly swamped;
Osprey – 4 min. inc. breeding pair but at least 6 in the county on the day;
Wood warbler – 1 new breeding site;

Golden eagle / south/ 28/5/16  E. Maughan

Golden eagle / ‘South’ / 28/5/16 E. Maughan

White-tailed eagle / 'South'  28/5/16  D. Brown

White-tailed eagle / ‘South’ 28/5/16 D. Brown

All surpassed by the pod of 9 Orcas from the Pentland Firth, which team ‘B’ were able to enjoy at their leisure for a couple of hours at Dunbeath.

Grasshopper warbler – 0
Dipper – 0
Corncrake – 0
Merlin – 0
Barn owl 0 (just the wrong night – there are plenty of BOs around Caithness)
Coal tit – 1
Water rail – 1
Kestrel – 1
Quail – 1
Tree pipit – 1
Little grebe - 1
Wheatear – 2 or 3
Swallow – very few
Arctic tern – ditto


TEAM B: (r-l) Dan Brown/ Heaher Byrne / Julian Smith

TEAM B: (r-l) Dan Brown/ Heaher Byrne / Julian Smith


Most of these species are probably victims of the cold weather at the end of April which may actually have killed a large proportion of summer migrants.

The Post-match celebrations were a revelation and everyone agreed (even Manson) that it was a vintage Bird race… same again next year?!

04 Jan 2016 4 January 2016 – Birds of Caithness – Released into the wild
 |  Category: Atlas, NEW SPECIES  | Comments off

Well to say it’s a relief to have published ‘Birds of Caithness’ on time would be a major understatement. From first ‘tetrad bashing’ to final typographical amends has taken over 8 years – felt like 800!  Whatever – it’s done and despite a few minor issues the editors can at last relax.  Feedback from customers has been very positive so far and even if the texts have some embedded flaws nobody can deny the quality of many of the images. But what this book is all about is describing the status of the birds of Caithness today.  So, the central part of the publication and without which the project would have been meaningless, is the maps.  And for these we have to thank Iain Outlaw again for his excellent work.

However, no sooner did the DVD ‘hit the shelves’ – but it seems it might need a revised edition. The Caithness List may have to be updated if the bird below is confirmed.

Get out there and start birding again!!

New to Caithness - Two-barred crossbill adult (illustrated) and 1st year males somewhere in the county on 10 December 2015.

New to Caithness – Two-barred crossbill adult (illustrated) and 1st year males somewhere in the county on 10 December 2015.


16 Nov 2015 16 November – ‘Birds of Caithness’ DVD launch
 |  Category: Atlas  | Comments off
Red-throated divers displaying.  D. Devonport

Red-throated divers displaying. D. Devonport

After only eight years since ‘laying’ down the idea, the culmination of an extraordinary amount of effort by many many people is about to ‘hatch’.

Caithness SOC hopes that ‘Birds of Caithness’ will ‘fly’ in early December.  To place your order please contact:

We sincerely hope you enjoy finding out about the county’s incredible birdlife through the texts, maps and stunning photographs which feature in the publication.

19 Apr 2015 19 April – Raptor-tastic Caithness
 |  Category: Migration, Winter stuff  | Comments off

Since the SNOWY OWL appeared last autumn – and reappeared in a couple of places, there has been a good selection of scarce and rare raptors across the county. For sensitive locations the place names have been kept confidential but the following have been sighted over recent months:

GYR FALCON – Female(?) at Watten and Reay area since February at least;
ROUGH LEGGED BUZZARD 1 seen in Watten area at start of the year may have relocated to Rumster – or not, but there were 3 seen on 15th April at two sites with 2 birds together on the ground;
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE 1 – reported flying over Wick on 11th April
Golden eagle
1 – feeding on a carcass near Wick w/c 13th April;

Still feels wintry by that selection – things seem to warming up so let’s hope for a repeat of the amazing HOBBY and a HONEY BUZZARD double at Dunnet Head from June last year

22 Feb 2015 22 February 2015 – Spring time spring tide
 |  Category: Migration, Winter stuff  | Comments off
Kelp bed at Dunnet Beach 22/02/15

Kelp bed at Dunnet Beach 21/02/15

Exposed kelp_ Dunnet Beach 22-02-15

Exposed kelp at Dunnet Beach 21/02/15

It may not feel quite like it yet but the birds moving through suggest that the breeding season was cranking up. Along with many garden birds Skylarks have been singing on their breeding sites since early February. But then it snowed inland a couple of days ago – and suddenly there’s a ‘big’ flock on the move, 150+ at Skitten.  Nothing to quite match some of the more impressive early spring movements of the 1990s viz. 500 – 1000 in a day over Dunnet Head, or an astonishing 3000 across Dunnet Bay following hard snow showers.

Other stuff on the move and equally as impressive – was the sea.  The tide on 21st February was apparently the biggest in the past 20 years. When it went out it left kelp beds at the north end of Dunnet beach high and… damp.  A very rare sight indeed.  But even rarer on the beach was a hat-trick of Glaucous gulls: a first winter; a second winter and an adult all together.

18 Jan 2015 18 January 2015 – ‘Birds of Caithness’ gets grant funding
 |  Category: Atlas, Features  | Comments off

In December 2014, after  a long and challenging year Caithness SOC managed to attract enough donations to match fund the club’s biggest ever project – Birds of Caithness  The Breeding and Wintering Atlas 2007 – 2012.

Firstly, the club would like to thank everybody who has generously contributed, and without whom, this publication would simply not be possible. Secondly, and importantly, we would like to acknowledge the support and encouragement of Caithness & North Sutherland Fund’s David Shearer – whose professional administration of the club’s application was greatly appreciated.

It is proposed to publish the DVD, hopefully at the end of October 2015.  For more information please click on the ‘Atlas’ link  on the home page.


21 Oct 2014 18 October – Migrants in the sun – another cracking SOC trip
 |  Category: Features, Migration, NEW SPECIES  | Comments off

To say we’ve had it lucky as an SOC group – would be exactly right!  Summer, winter, spring and autumn outings have all been a great success over the past couple of years – and all helped by very obliging weather.  Saturday’s expedition to Noss Head was no exception – but to see 18 degrees from the middle to the end of the day was a major surprise.  The temperature and lack of wind turned a memorable trip into one to dine out on for year’s to come.

The option to go for east coast migration turned out to be a good call.  In fact from the word go it ‘felt’ right.  A dunlin parked in the middle of the road on the way to Noss Farm was an encouraging omen and seemed to suggest things might just line up for us. And so it was.  The morning could hardly have been scripted better, and the lack of a BB rarity didn’t appear to matter.

The first stop at the cottage almost produced the entire suite of ‘British’ thrushes with only Mistle, apparently not lurking in the tiny bunch of conifers.  An extremely obliging Ring ouzel was a ‘tick’ for some of the team and gave tremendous views, unlike the Lesser whitethroat which evaporated into the undergrowth – but not before our ‘Tour Leader’ Dan Brown had grabbed it on film.

Ring ouzel / Noss Farm 18/10/14   D Brown

Ring ouzel / Noss Farm  18/10/14   D Brown

Lesser whitethroat of Asian race blythii  Noss Farm  18/10/14  D Brown

Lesser whitethroat of Asian race blythii   Noss Farm  18/10/14       D Brown

On towards the lighthouse, and the sadly out-of-commission Heligoland trap had miraculously been functioning on auto?! Not only had it ‘caught’ an incredibly helpful Siberian chiffchaff, but then, right on cue, with the audience anticipating a bit more of a show – a Common chiffchaff sidled up on stage and posed.  For beginners and experts alike it was a textbook moment in fieldguide illustration.

Siberian Chiffchaff  / Noss Head  18/10/14  D Brown

Siberian Chiffchaff / Noss Head 18/10/14 D Brown

Common Chiffchaff  Noss Head  18/10/14   D Brown

Common Chiffchaff  /  Noss Head 18/10/14     D Brown

A few minutes later a redstart lead us a bit of a dance around the farm buildings before giving itself up and posing long enough for a shot.  Turned out to be a splendid Black redstart and another ‘lifer’ for some.

Black redstart  / Noss Head  18/10/14   D Brown

Black redstart / Noss Head   18/10/14   D Brown

Meanwhile Redwings and Song thrushes were pouring in from the east and tumbling out of an azure blue sky.  What a morning!  Time for a break.

SOC squad (minus photographer) autumn 14  Noss Head  18/10/14   J Smith

SOC squad (minus photographer) autumn ’14   Left to right: Sinclair Manson, Eric Maughan, Heather Byrne, Dan Brown, Catherine Nicol, Lesley Oliphant.  Noss Head   18/10/14  J Smith

Just as we thought we could relax DB decided to go walk-about and persuaded a Woodcock to do a flypast and add yet another new bird to some of the team’s life lists.  Just to make sure everybody had  seen it well enough the bird was ‘asked’ to repeat the demo – and did it in style.

DB & Woodcock / Noss head  18/10/14  E Maughan

DB & Woodcock / Noss head 18/10/14 E Maughan

Noss Head itself produced at least two more Ring ouzels amongst the thrushes in the whins and the first Snow bunting for most this autumn.

Snow bunting  /  Noss Had  18/10/14   D Brown

Snow bunting / Noss Head 18/10/14  D Brown

The club would (as if he didn’t already know!) like to say a massive ‘Thank you’ to Dan for his exceptional skills in locating and identifying pretty well everything. Cheers.


14 Aug 2014 14 August – To tick… or not to tick?
 |  Category: Breeding species, Migration  | Comments off

One of the thorny issues in birdwatching is – when is a species a species?  Officially it’s when the taxonomists tell us.  But out there – it really is the wild west. Anything can happen – and usually does.  The separation between say, races of wagtails and herring gulls – to name but two families – is literally on the frontiers of bird identification… or not.  Lots of very clever ornithologists spend lots of time trying to make birdwatching a much more certain science, one that everyone can have confidence in.  If only it were that straight forward.

Finch selection - June 2014

Finch selection / St. John’s – June 2014

For everyday birding, out the kitchen window for instance, it’s not uncommon to see redpolls on the feeders.  The more time you spend watching them though, the more you realise, there seems to be quite a bit of variation. Some brown and small, some obviously bigger and paler… some somewhere in between.  A quick glance at a field guide gives you a clue that there are two, possibly three species which you might have in front of you.  Quite often it’s difficult to know which one. ‘Our’ redpoll, the Lesser redpoll Carduelis cabaret is diminutive (smaller than a Siskin) and quite dull by comparison to the Mealy redpoll Carduelis flammea flammea which in its most distinctive plumage is ‘frosty’ and nearly as big as a Goldfinch.  Mealy redpolls are part of the Common redpoll family which includes races of Icelandic and Greenland redpolls.  Still there?  On top of the pile are the Arctic redpolls ‘hornemannii’ and ‘exilipes’ which are redpolls from the high Arctic and look like snowballs with wings.  These are the rarities, and extremely unusual to find on your bird table, although… it does happen.

Arctic redpoll-Barrock 3:99 M. Legg

Arctic redpoll / Barrock 3/99  M. Legg

Ringing in Sweden has unfortunately illustrated that even the ‘classic’ looking redpolls can make a mockery of the whole ‘system’ and by implication, us, the ordinary birdwatchers.  A textbook ‘hornemannii’ Arctic redpoll was caught and ringed at Falsterbo …as a “Lesser redpoll’.  Why?  Because its biometrics meant it could only possibly belong to the smallest redpoll – ‘ours’ .  Why was it not a ‘runt’ Arctic redpoll? Discuss. So, the photo at the top shows a couple of large redpolls nearly as big as a goldfinch, pretty frosty (in the case of the right hand bird) and quite clearly Mealy redpolls – maybe?  Clear as mud.

11 Jun 2014 11 June – Dan’s Dunnet… again!
 |  Category: Breeding species, Features, Migration, NEW SPECIES  | Comments off

For as long as Caithness birdwatchers can remember we’ve bemoaned the fact that there have never been enough eyes to find the birds we know must be hiding out there. Too much country – too few experienced birders – until recently.  Enter a Mr Dan Brown one extraordinary day back in September 2009.  Between the evening of 28th and mid-morning 29th September Dan helped discover not one but two, new American birds for the county – Upland sandpiper and Sandhill crane.  For rarity hunters it was the stuff of legends.

Upland sandpiper / Quoys of Reiss  28/9/09  T. Lowe

Upland sandpiper / Quoys of Reiss 28/9/09 T. Lowe

Sandhill crane  Sarclet - Dunbeath - Berriedale 29/9/09  T. Lowe

Sandhill crane  / Sarclet – Dunbeath – Berriedale  29/9/09 T. Lowe


Fast forward 5 years and Dan’s ‘batting averages’ have been anything but average. Despite living in Glasgow any time Dan visits Caithness something ‘turns up':  Woodchat shrike; Honey buzzard; White-billed diver; Surf scoter; Bonaparte’s gull; Kingfisher – impressive stuff and no doubt set to continue.

urf scoter (right foreground) with Common scoter and Long-tailed ducks  : Dunnet Bay  26:5:14

Female Surf scoter (4th from left) / Dunnet Bay 26/05/14

However, something which has grabbed Dan’s attention, possibly even more than ‘just’ the rarities, is the species’ richness in parts of Caithness, and in particular the area around Dunnet.  With a superb diversity of habitat in the 10km square from Mey to Dunnet Beach, the possibilities of finding birds are endless.  Indeed in both the 1989-91 and 2007-2011 Atlas surveys, ND 27 (the official designation for the square) recorded the most breeding and wintering species in the county.

For birders who enjoy working their local area things went competitive in 2013 with the introduction of the Patchwork Challenge  (

Let Mr Brown explain the finer points of what’s become something of a national obsession.

“This year over 300 people have entered their ‘patch’, which consists of any area of no more than 3km2. Species are tallied and each one awarded a predefined number of points (see the blog for details). Each month the species tally and points are uploaded and the competition advances.  As a newbie its great fun, but the competition takes on an extra dimension when you start competing with yourself on a year by year basis.

2014 dawned with me intent on ‘patching’ Dunnet and Duncansby/Skirza. These are clearly not ‘local’ patches for me, but I felt if I could just manage 2 days a month then I’d get some idea of just how good the county could be.

It’s now June and things have gone well. My Dunnet patch in particular has excelled itself. I hadn’t fully appreciated the breadth of habitats and therefore species that it would hold. From deciduous woodland and streams to dunes, conifer plantation to pools and lochs, cliffs and beach; its got it all. Skirza and Duncansby are far more limited and I suspect their time will come in the autumn when migrants are pouring in.

Highlights have varied widely from finding my first Grey Wagtail at Castlehill sitting next to a Pied Wagtail (also new for the list at the time), and subsequently finding Grey wagtails holding territory there, to an evening only a week ago with White-billed Diver and Surf Scoter in Dunnet Bay. Glaucous Gull, Snow Buntings, Short-eared Owls, singing Water Rail, Lesser Scaup & Garganey, hundreds of summer plumaged waders, migrating geese and swans, St Johns Pool’s first Tree Pipit, and the Loch’s first Kingfisher have all made my four visits to Dunnet incredibly enjoyable. In fact to date I’ve managed to clock up 146 species on the Dunnet patch in those 4 visits with no fewer than 120 species in a single 24hr period in April!

[To put this into context readers – the entire might of Caithness’s finest birdwatchers regularly fail to see 120 species in the same time across the whole county!]

Duncansby and Skirza have been less varied but it has still been great to see the likes of Brambling in winter and Little Gulls and Little Auk bombing by earlier in the season. The highlight to date was a superb pod of 5-6 Orca heading south at the end of May.

I feel there is plenty more to come from these patches and even after so few visits the potential that Caithness has is very clear to see.”

And so say all of us.

'PATCHWATCH' Coastal+Scotland+Points+May 2014

‘PATCHWORK CHALLENGE” Coastal+Scotland+Points+May 2014

Scottish Islands are consistently more productive for migrants than the mainland, so North Ronaldsay (as an observatory) stands every chance of winning. Baliphuil on Tiree has had an exceptional spring including Collared Flycatcher, Rustic Bunting, Red-rumped Swallow, Marsh Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Rosefinch. 

SO in a fighting third place let’s hear it for Dan in Dunnet. If only he didn’t live in Glasgow – think what the real score would be?!  Add on: Spotted crake, White-tailed eagle, Osprey, Canada goose, Green sandpiper, Pintail, Red grouse, Hobby, Honey buzzard and a probable Great grey shrike already recorded (but not by DB), plus another 20+ genuine contenders (NOT including rarities) then it looks as though the race will be a very close run thing come November.

23 May 2014 23 May – All your (dabbling) ducks in a row
 |  Category: Breeding species, Migration, WIldfowl  | Comments off

If you’re a beginner birdwatcher or just don’t often get good views of wildfowl, it’s sometimes difficult to tell distant ducks apart.  A visit to St. John’s Pool near Dunnet can often help remove any uncertainty about what you think you’re looking at – as the past couple of weeks have illustrated.  There are a few regular species of dabbling ducks which can be expected on most days out in springtime in Caithness, such as Mallard, Teal and Wigeon. Any of the others can be difficult to find if you don’t have a telescope or know where to look.  Get all seven in a day and you’ll be doing well.  The full set has appeared on SJP in the past month with at least six regularly – and views have been excellent.

Gadwall drake / SJP  18/5/14

Gadwall drake / SJP 18/5/14

Shoveler  adult male wing stretching 17/5/14  D. Devonport

Shoveler adult male wing stretching 17/5/14 D. Devonport

Garganey adult drake at SJP  19/5/14  D. Devonport

Garganey adult drake at SJP 19/5/14 D. Devonport

Pintail at SJP  7/4/14

Pintail at SJP 7/4/14


Not officially ‘dabbling ducks’ , Shelduck are goose sized and… dabble almost continuously.  A pair seem to be quite happy doing just that in front of the main hide at St. John’s Pool and look likely to breed for the first time on record there.

Shelduck pair  SJP 18/5/14

Shelduck pair SJP 18/5/14