There is no such thing as an ugly duck but if there were to be a beauty contest among the different species found in Scotland then I reckon the long-tailed duck would be right up there towards the top.

Such whimsy crossed my mind as I watched a long-tailed duck bob in the sea close to the beach at Tentsmuir Point in Fife. This drake was such an exquisite bird and so perfectly proportioned with his soft rounded head and long spikey tail.

His plumage was in the “eclipse” in-between stage and was still showing some brown from his breeding garb. Soon the moult will be complete and he will transform into a most handsome black and white duck. Long-tailed ducks mainly breed on the Arctic tundra and come to our coasts to spend the winter.

As I watched the duck, the mournful, haunting calls of grey seals swirled and eddied in the gentle sea breeze. In some ways these melancholy cries sound like a mooing cow, but are more drawn out and higher pitched.

I could see the seals now, about 20 of them, resting on an exposed sand bar. Their breeding season is fast approaching but this group seemed content to rest and be in each other’s company.

The tide was coming in fast and a couple of seals had moved out into one of the rapidly filling channels between the sandbars. They seemed excited and swam in an undulating fashion, their backs arching like porpoises. I suspect flounders and dabs were on the move and the seals were intent on hunting them down.

Tentsmuir Point is such a wild and evocative place. As I looked south towards St Andrews, there was a wonderful emptiness of shimmering sand and sea. But turn in the other direction and Tayport and Dundee nestled near. How could nature feel so raw and powerful here, yet these bustling conurbations be so close? It is an incongruity I find most compelling.

I moved further down the beach and cut inland to follow a path by the edge of the sand-dunes. A flickering scurry of black caught my eye in the grass. It was devil’s coach horse beetle – an insect with a feisty reputation. I put this to the test by scooping my hand quickly down to touch it, but just before I could do so, its tail reared up scorpion-fashion in a threatening manner.

Yes, this is not a creature to be messed with. Its pincer-like jaws will nip a finger and that curled up tail can emit a foul smelling fluid as a means of defence. Folklore goes that the devil’s coach horse will point its tail in the direction of someone it wants to curse. Indeed, the beetle is said to be the very embodiment of the Devil himself.

Not one to take a chance, I let the beetle continue on its way.


Long-tailed ducks are accomplished divers and feed on invertebrates, especially molluscs. Never particularly numerous, they can be seen off many parts of the coast of Angus and Fife in autumn and winter.