Wildfowl and Waders

The inner Moray Firth is the most northerly extensive estuarine complex in Europe, and due to its geographical position has long been recognised as internationally important for wintering waterbirds (divers, grebes, swans, geese, ducks and waders). It is also a vital part of the North Atlantic Flyway, being an important spring and autumn staging site for wildfowl and waders migrating between their breeding grounds in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faeroes, Orkney, Shetland, Scandinavia and Russia and their more temperate wintering grounds in western Europe and, for some species, West Africa. It also provides ideal conditions for several species of both resident and migratory birds to moult in late summer/early autumn. Furthermore, in some years, it acts as a vital refuge for wildfowl and waders forced out of northern continental Europe during spells of severe cold weather. For all these reasons the area has been notified as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EC Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds.

Wetland Bird Survey
The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) is the monitoring scheme for non-breeding waterbirds in the UK, which aims to provide the principal data for the conservation of their populations and wetland habitats.  The data collected are used to assess the size of waterbird populations, determine trends in numbers and distribution, and assess the importance of individual sites for waterbirds, in line with the requirements of international conservation Conventions and Directives.  Continuing a tradition begun in 1947, around 3,000 volunteer counters participate in synchronised monthly counts at wetlands of all habitat types, mainly during the winter period.

WeBS is a partnership between the British Trust for Ornithology, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the latter on behalf of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage) in association with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

Knots Feeding (c) RSPB

Bird populations are valuable indicators of environmental quality, and long-term monitoring is a vital tool in assessing changes and trends in population levels. Monitoring in the inner Moray Firth is currently comprised of five different components:

1. Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) high tide counts
2. Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) low tide counts
3. Dedicated counts of divers, grebes and seaducks
4. Ringing studies
5. Monitoring of seabird breeding colonies

International and National importance
To qualify as Internationally important for a species, a site has to regularly hold at least 1% of an international (in this case European or NW European) population. Similarly, to qualify as nationally important for a species, a site has to regularly hold at least 1% of a national (in this case British) population.

In recent winters, internationally important numbers of ten species of waterbirds have regularly been recorded in the survey area, with three other species occurring in internationally important numbers during autumn or spring migration. In addition, nationally important numbers of a further 19 (possibly 20) species were recorded. While we tend to treat the inner Moray Firth as one biological unit, individual sections (e.g. the Cromarty Firth) can qualify as internationally or nationally important in their own right.

For certain species which achieve internationally or nationally important qualifying levels, the true number of birds present throughout the migration period is far higher than that suggested by the peak counts. For example, in April 2000, when northerly winds held up the spring migration of pink-footed geese returning to their breeding grounds in Iceland, a huge concentration built up in the inner Moray Firth. This was conservatively estimated at around 30,000 birds. It is likely that this number utilise the area annually, but in most years the true total is less apparent due to the high turnover of birds.

In an average winter, the inner Moray Firth supports over 130,000 waterfowl, with many more using the area for a brief period whilst on migration.

To find out more about the survey, how to get involved, to access publications and data and to learn more about the Partners involved please click here.

Local web contact is Dave Butterfield (Assistant Conservation Officer) at RSPB Scotland 01463 715000 .  They are always on the look out for reserve counters. If you would like to help with future monitoring of birds in the Moray Firth, please contact Dave or Kenna at the contact details given above.