Some people think that to see interesting wildlife, you have to travel for miles, but it’s surprising how many birds can be seen in the Three Towns area and how many unusual visitors have been spotted locally. Starting up at Ardrossan North Shore, you can see large waders like curlew, redshank and oystercatcher, while offshore you can find mallard, wigeon, mute swans and eiders. In summer, the female eiders bring their chicks in a big group (called a crèche) to feed on the rocky foreshore, finding safety in numbers. Greylag geese have been recent regulars on Horse Island and in the fields beside the shore road. In 2001, a bird similar to a grey heron but completely white was seen at the stream where the “Greasy Pole” used to stand and it attracted lots of attention. This was a snowy egret which had been blown across from America and made a safe landfall in Ayrshire. It stayed around for a few weeks and also spent some time in the stream flowing through Stevenston Golf Club. Also, more recently, there have been sightings of white-tailed eagles in the area, one being seen flying over the fields behind Montfode Drive, so it may not be long before they start nesting in this area.
Moving down to Ardrossan Harbour, rock pipits can be seen looking for insects among the boulders and black guillemots, with their white wing patches and red gapes and feet, fish in the harbour and nest in cracks in the walls. In summer, you are likely to hear the harsh “kirrik” calls of the sandwich terns before you see them patrolling the shallow waters. In winter, the spectacle of over a thousand starlings wheeling in formation – known as a murmuration from the sound of their wingbeats – above the harbour before plunging into the recesses under the wooden dock is hard to beat.
Black Guillemots, by Andy Shand
From the rocks at Bath Place to the lookout tower behind the Premier Cinema, a leisurely stroll along the promenade can give great views of shag, cormorant and red-breasted merganser diving in the sea. There has also been a rise in the number of hooded crow/carrion crow hybrids in our area with their grey capes and chests instead of all black plumage. Many years ago, one or two hybrids could be found but nowadays, there are several to be seen among the crows feeding on the insects in the seaweed on the shore.
Saltcoats harbour is a great place to get a good view out to sea. In summer, gannets and terns dive to catch the fish, Manx shearwaters fly low over the water and sometimes puffins can be spotted foraging for food to take back to their pufflings on Ailsa Craig. In winter, divers and skuas can be seen offshore. Sometimes, large numbers of skuas – great and arctic with a few pomerine and long-tailed – form large flocks and numbers in the hundreds have been reported. An occasional winter visitor to the harbour is the kingfisher – surprisingly hard to see despite its bright plumage. Among the new piles of rocks, you can see knot, purple sandpiper and turnstone and sometimes bar-tailed godwit.
The sandy beaches between Saltcoats and Stevenston Point are especially good for waders in winter time. Large numbers of curlew, redshank and oystercatcher can be seen, along with greenshank, dunlin, ringed plover and sanderlings, which look like clockwork toys running backwards and forwards as the waves sweep up and down the shore. Occasionally, unusual birds can be seen at the Point like great northern diver, red-throated diver, kestrel and peregrine, and on a few occasions, grey phalarope. In the summer, the low-lying land behind the dunes is full of summer visitors and you can usually find willow warbler, chiffchaff, linnet, reed bunting, swallow, house martin and may even spot a jack snipe or a bullfinch. In winter, greenfinch, siskin, twite and redpoll feed on the grasses and bushes.
Male Chaffinch, by John Montgomerie
Gardens and patches of woodland, like the old Caley railway line, Stanley Burn, the woodland behind Auchenharvie Academy and Ardeer Rec, support many small birds in winter and provide nesting places in summer. In spring, the path of the old railway echoes with the song of great tit, dunnock, willow warbler, chiffchaff, robin, blackbird and song thrush, making it a lovely place to take a quiet walk. Garden feeders provide a welcome source of winter food for many birds, from the well-known house sparrow, chaffinch, goldfinch and blackbird to more unusual visitors like blackcap, reed bunting, bullfinch, redwing, fieldfare, siskin and even pheasant and woodcock. Ardeer Rec and the ponds at Auchenharvie are good for water birds including tufted duck, coot, moorhen and little grebe with whooper swan and scaup in winter.
This is only a small selection of the birds that can be seen in the Three Towns area, but I hope it has whetted your appetite. For more help in finding and identifying local birds, come along to one of our meetings in the Argyle Centre, Saltcoats.