Day out: Edinburgh, Midlothian

Discover the best spring birding spots in and around Scotland’s capital, from the inner-city hills, lochs and glens of Holyrood Park to the broad flaxen sands of Aberlady Bay and the rolling Pentland Hills

Loch, hills and city

Glancing up between city buildings, a scraggly flock of pink-footed geese flies north, marking the end of an Edinburgh winter. As spring unfolds, the last winter visitors linger on: waxwings feast on tree-top berries, whooper swans patrol the lochs and white-winged gulls scour the beaches. 

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Then the spring migrants begin to trickle in. It’s a time of much excitement, when a day of birding can conjure the unexpected and the city’s nature reserves really shine. 

Local birdwatcher Sorrel Lyall suggests some of the best places in and around Edinburgh for spotting spring birdlife.

Small bird in field of flowers
Bluethroats are very rare passage migrants sometimes seen along the east coast of the British Isles in spring – check birdwatching sites for recent sightings around Edinburgh/Credit: Alamy

Where to see birds in and around Edinburgh

Blackford hill

A spot I always return to is Blackford Hill, a beautiful mixed woodland in the south of the city. Great spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches and bullfinches flit among the trees, while dippers and grey wagtails bob along the stream. As the days lengthen, the ground flora blooms with clusters of wood anemones, wild garlic and bluebells, and flocks of tits and chiffchaffs chime above. 

Hill and city
Blackford Hill overlooks Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat/Credit: Alamy

Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat

Rising from the Edinburgh cityscape is Holyrood Park, where the green slopes of Arthur’s Seat attract migrant ring ouzels and wheatears. Grasshopper warblers, whitethroats and sedge warblers establish territories in the scrub around Duddingston Loch, also home to whinnying little grebes and an impressive heronry. A walk up the glaciated Salisbury Crags reveals ravens, peregrine falcons and even fulmars whirling against a backdrop of spectacular city views. 

hills and sea
Holyrood park is home to a number of species of warbler/Credit: Alamy

Little France

Another urban oasis is Little France, near Craigmillar Castle in the south of the city. This small reedbed is a stronghold for spring warblers, including good numbers of reeling grasshopper warblers. Reed buntings, linnets and a variety of finches frequent this inner-city site, which sits beside a handy cycle path. 

Hills and town
See reed buntings at Little France in the south of the city/Credit: Alamy

Musselburgh

Musselburgh’s harbour and lagoons, to the east of the city, are both premier birding sites. From the seawall look out for long-tailed ducks, divers and Slavonian grebes; you may also see the spectacle of velvet scoters and perhaps even a very rare surf scoter or two.

At the lagoons, the hides provide wonderful views of bar-tailed godwits, knots and oystercatchers, with migrants such as garganeys and wood sandpipers dropping in en route to northern Europe. 

Sea and coast
Bar-tailed godwits at Musselburgh/Credit: Alamy

Aberlady Bay

Further afield, East Lothian presents exciting coastal birding. As the terns, gannets and other seabirds return, spring gems turn up in the coastal scrub, including redstarts, whinchats and the occasional bluethroat. Snow buntings and water pipits linger on the beaches and Aberlady Bay is blanketed with waders at high tide. 

coast and mountains
Head to Aberlady Bay for seabirds/Credit: Alamy

Pentland Hills

Travelling inland to the Pentland Hills, cuckoos can be heard among the cacophony of blackcaps and other warblers. Woodland stands are home to spotted flycatchers zipping back and forth, and a hike
up Scald Law can even turn up dotterel grounded on passage. 

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An Edinburgh spring brings many delights, not least the arrival of swifts screaming as they race through the streets. With so many wildlife hotspots in reach of the city, a whole host of spring birds can be enjoyed. 

Hills
Aerial view over Edinburgh towards the Pentland Hills/Alamy