WADERS AND WILDFOWL
The importance of the Moray Firth
The complex of intertidal areas in the inner Moray Firth is both nationally and internationally important for shore birds as a migration staging post and wintering area. The area lies at the north-west limit of the winter range of species that mainly winter further to the south or east. It is therefore of major strategic importance providing one of the most north-westerly major estuarine sites in Europe and often provides a first and last 'stop-over' site for birds on migration. The area assumes even greater importance during severe winter weather as a cold weather refuge.
Many of the individual Firths and estuaries are nationally or internationally important in their own right. However, the distribution of flocks varies widely within and between sites, therefore the Moray Firth should be regarded as a single site. The table below show those waders and wildfowl present in national and internationally important numbers.
Wader and Wildfowl wintering populations - winter 1998/99
Area Internationally important
(peak number counted 1998/99) Nationally important
(peak number counted 1998/99)
Moray Firth as a whole Wigeon (29,006)
Ringed Plover (720)
Bar-tailed Godwit (4066)
Turnstone (807) Mute Swan (341)
Purple Sandpiper (339)
Dornoch Firth Wigeon
Cromarty Firth Bartailed Godwit
Inverness Firth Wigeon
The soft sediments and adjacent wetlands of the inner firths provide shelter and abundant plant and invertebrate food for wintering waders and wildfowl. Some species rest briefly using the Firth as a staging post during their migration passage to over-wintering areas elsewhere and some remain throughout the winter.
Waders are widely distributed throughout the inner Moray Firth with major concentrations on the large intertidal areas, particularly Loch Fleet, Dornoch Sands, Tain Bay, Morrich More, Nigg Bay, Udale Bay, Munlochy Bay, Longman Bay, Fort George to Whitness Sands, Castle Stuart, Findhorn Bay, and Culbin Sands.
The distribution of waders on rocky shores north of Brora and east of Buckie is less well known although some rocky shores are well counted. Although these rocky areas are used much less intensively than soft shore sites, counts on non-estuarine shores indicate that sand and rocky shores may be favoured in cold weather as they freeze less readily, are more shelters and food is more readily available.
The movement of birds within the Moray Firth and the range of uses of its different components are considerable, Wader use of the area has been found to be complex and may vary between sites, years, seasons and age classes. Some species remain loyal to selected feeding areas throughout the winter and some ranged widely.
Seasonal abundance varies by species although generally there is a gradual increase in overall wader numbers from late summer to a peak in mid-winter, followed by a slow decline. Although total wader numbers are highest in mid-winter, some species peak in the autumn, such as Redshank, and others are fairly stable all winter, such as oystercatcher and curlew. During the winter the most numerous and widespread wading species are Oystercatcher, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Knot, and Dunlin.
Redshank favour Nigg, Udale and Longman Bays. Ringed Plover are present in the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths, and Bar-tailed Godwit at Culbin, Whiteness Head, the outer Dornoch Firth and Nigg/Udale Bays. Knot are highly mobile, peaking in mid-winter and occur in the outer Dornoch Firth.
The main sites for wintering wildfowl are the Dornoch Firth from Edderton to Dornoch, the Morrich More, Loch Fleet, Cromarty Firth, especially Nigg and Udale and Alness Bays, the Beauly Firth, the Inverness Firth, especially Longman Bay, Castle Staurt, and Munlochy Bays, Ness Mouth and Findhorn Bay. Important freshwater sites used by wildfowl in conjunction with coastal sites include Lochs Eye, Ussie, Flemington and Spynie.
Wildfowl numbers are highest during the autumn on their arrival from breeding areas. The principal species recorded at intertidal sites are wigeon, teal, mallard, shelduck, and in some cases pintail. Wigeon are present in very large numbers with a large concentration at Dornoch Sands. Peak numbers of wigeon occur in autumn/early winter with birds moving further south to winter before returning direct to breeding areas in spring. Numbers of shelduck build up through winter to spring and are widespread, favouring areas with extensive intertidal mud and sands. Teal peak in mid-winter with the Dornoch and Inverness/Beauly Firths being key sites. Mallard is widespread and Pintail favour Longman Bay, Beauly Firth, Nigg Bay and Dornoch Bay.
Migratory geese and swans use the intertidal areas mainly to roost, feeding on nearby agricultural land.
Several wader and wildfowl species breed on saltmarsh sites in the Dornoch, Cromarty and Beauly Firths, Culbin Bay and Findhorn Bay. These include Redshank, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Curlew and Shelduck. Nigg Bay, Culbin Bay, the Beauly Firth, Findhorn, Dornoch Point, and Morrich More have been recorded among the top 22 sites with the highest densities of breeding oystercatchers and the Morrich More has been among the top 24 sites for breeding Redshank.
Ospreys feed on the rivers and estuaries of the Firth although nest sites are confined to adjacent areas of pine forest. Areas known to be particularly well used for foraging are the Dornoch, Cromarty and Beauly Firths and Findhorn Bay.
Visit the RSPB(www.rspb.org.uk) website to find out more about visiting their reserves on the Moray Firth and watching the birds.