Birdwatching at Ducks in Aberlady

It’s all about ducks in Aberlady – both the feathered variety and the restaurant of the same name. Aberlady Bay is a haven for bird life, while foodies flock to Ducks, the village’s restaurant with rooms.

Aberlady became the UK’s first local nature reserve in 1952 and has also been declared a site of special scientific interest for its birds, plants and geology. Pulling into the reserve car park off the A198, visitors are greeted by the bay’s mudflats, where wading birds such as oystercatchers forage for food at low tide.

Birdwatchers have listed Aberlady as being among the best sites in Scotland, especially in the autumn, when thousands of geese roost around the bay.

My visit on a May afternoon was full of ornithological treats, even though it was at low time. Mud flats and other tidal areas are always good to visit when the tide is coming in, so the birds are driven towards you as the tide rises.

In the bay, several shelduck – bigger than a mallard but not quite as big as a goose – bobbed about on the pools of water. These birds have dark green heads and necks, which look black at a distance, with chestnut and white patches on their bodies and an unmistakable red bill.

After crossing the wooden bridge and following the path through the reserve, I came to the Marl Loch, where I saw a little grebe. Grebes – also known as ‘dabchicks’ in some parts of the country – are diving water birds but, unlike ducks, they can’t walk on land and so build floating nests.

This little grebe was in its summer plumage, with a bright chestnut neck and cheeks, a world away from its brown and black winter garb.

Even if the weather turns, Aberlady has another trick up its sleeve. The Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC), the national bird club, opened its new headquarters not far from the reserve at Waterston House in 2005 and welcomes visitors seven days a week.

Waterston House includes a gallery in which wildlife artists and photographers exhibit their work. The current show – which runs until 28 May – features wildlife artists Szabolcs Kókay and Jonathan Latimer and is well worth a look.

East Lothian is full of other great bird-watching locations, from the wading birds and ducks in the lagoons at Musselburgh to the Scottish Seabird Centre at the harbour in North Berwick, from where you can use remote-controlled cameras to watch birds on the islands in the Firth of Forth, including Bass Rock, Craigleith, Fidra and the Isle of May.

All that birdwatching – and the associated walking – helped me work up an appetite and so I headed back to base at Ducks for dinner.

My starter of confit of belly pork was delicious, served with slices of apple and black budding bonbons. The sharp flavours cut nicely through the rich fat of the belly pork, and a slice of crackling added texture and rounded the dish off.

Ducks’ beef comes from Buccleuch in the Borders and the ten-ounce rib eye steak did not disappoint. I’m not a huge fan of sauces with my steak, but Ducks’ Béarnaise sauce could perhaps convert me. The mini onion rings were wee stars too.

For me, the pudding stole the show. On the menu, it was listed as an ‘apple crumble’, but the waitress hinted it was ‘unusual’. What arrived was a baked apple, stuffed with pieces of crumble and served with a jug of Crème Anglaise that the waiter poured over the top for a flourish of theatre.

When food is served in such a stylish manner, I’m always a bit worried. But I needn’t have fretted – the ‘apple crumble’ tasted as good as it looked and rounded off a superb meal.

Ducks is well known for its extensive wine list, which was a joy to peruse. I settled on a Pinot Nero from Italy and I wasn’t disappointed. Pinot Nero – better known as Pinot Noir in France – stood up to the belly pork and the steak with gusto, having just enough acidity and tannin to cut through the meat while adding plenty of fruit to the mix.

A taste of a Cabernet Franc from the same producer was also really interesting, with the red grape showing a lot more fruit character than it would when it’s grown for blending in Bordeaux.

Ducks is offering package bird-watching deals. Find out more at www.ducks.co.uk

More details about the Scottish Ornithologists Club can be found at www.the-soc.org.uk and further information about the Scottish Seabird Centre is available at www.seabird.org

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