Wednesday 19th April 2017
We left our base in Essex early in the morning and after making our pickups were on our way northwards for the start of the long drive north. Bird-wise it was pretty quiet with quite a few COMMON BUZZARDS and it wasn’t until we reached Cumbria that we began noting lots of OYSTERCATCHERS, COMMON CURLEW, REDSHANK and LAPWINGS.
Reaching the Scottish border in good time enabled us to aim towards Speyside where we hoped to squeeze in a spot of birding before checking in at the hotel. As we drove through the Monadliath mountain range we spotted a fine male RED GROUSE perched on top of heather.
Eventually we pulled off the road and checked out a nearby stream and it wasn’t long before a GREY WAGTAIL was spotted and then a WHITE-THROATED DIPPER zipped past, a short while later it came back and perched on a small streamside rock.
COMMON & BLACK-HEADED GULLS drifted over and a few MALLARDS were seen before it was time to check in at our hotel for the week. After a hot shower we met for a pre-dinner drink and went through our plans for the trip before enjoying a lovely home-cooked meal.
Afterwards we headed off to our rooms for some well deserved rest after a long day.
Thursday 20th April 2017
After a good rest we met for breakfast at 7.30pm which went down well and we were soon in the minibus heading out towards Aviemore. With the weather looking good we drove up to the Caingorm mountain area making a brief stop to overlook the area around Loch Morlich before heading up to the ski area.
A male RING OUZEL was seen in the carpark and with the area nice and quiet, we took the opportunity to get the first Funicular train of the day. Several more RING OUZELS were seen on the way up and around halfway we had brief views of a male ROCK PTARMIGAN close to a snow fence. Unfortunately not everyone got onto it as we were moving quite quickly.
Reaching the top station we headed straight to the viewing area where visibility was excellent although it was quite blustery on occasions. With perseverance we managed to locate a pair of ROCK PTARMIGAN in the distance and although not close we enjoyed good scope views.
More delightful was a male ROCK PTARMIGAN much closer as it fed along the edge of a snow fence. The only downside was that it chose to feed on the sheltered side but then we found a female that just appeared from nowhere!
A pair of NORTHERN WHEATEARS were seen briefly before the cold set in so we headed into the cafe for a well deserved coffee.
With our main target seen we headed down noting more RING OUZELS along the way plus a pair of RED GROUSE. Manoeuvring the van gave good views of a young male RING OUZEL in the lower carpark before we dropped down to Loch Morlich for lunch.
It was really warm in the sunshine as we tucked into our lunches whilst scanning the loch for birdlife. A small party of TUFTED DUCK and a few GOLDENEYE were seen but best of all were two summer plumaged RED-THROATED DIVERS that showed reasonably well. A few SAND MARTINS zipped low over the loch and singles of COMMON TEAL and GOOSANDER frequented the loch edges.
With the weather now clouding up and Cairngorm swathed in cloud we drove to Loch Garten RSPB reserve. In the carpark we watched three COMMON CROSSBILLS flying around and perching in the tops of the surrounding pines. A few SISKINS flew over as we strolled up to the Osprey Centre.
CHAFFINCHES crowded the feeders with GREENFINCHES and SISKINS thrown in for good measure. From the centre itself we could see the top of EJ, the female OSPREY on the nest whilst her mate Odin was perched out of sight. GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER and a BANK VOLE fed on and near the feeders before we headed deeper into the woods.
A very enjoyable walk was taken in the beautiful Caledonian Forest where more COMMON CROSSBILLS showed well for us but the real prize was at least three CRESTED TITS giving good views as they flitted in pines close by. LESSER REDPOLLS, SISKINS and COMMON CROSSBILLS fed together on the prolific pine crop and a few TREECREEPERS showed well as they were very vocal and easy to locate.
With time to spare we headed off to a nearby site which at first, seemed rather quiet but we were lucky to see a female BLACK GROUSE that flew past before disappearing into dense bird woodland.
It was then time to head back to base for some rest before meeting for another excellent evening meal.
Friday 21st April 2017
With the forecast of early rain, we had a normal breakfast time and after a hearty meal, made a short drive towards Nethybridge where a small flock of Waxwings had been reported the previous day. On the river Spey were four GOOSANDERS and on reaching Nethybridge we had a thorough search for the birds in drizzly conditions, but failed to locate any.
Our destination was the Strathdearn Valley with the hope that the weather would eventually clear and encourage raptors to be up and about.
A slow drive produced a few ROE DEER close to the road as well as a melanistic COMMON PHEASANT and on the river Findhorn we watched BARN SWALLOW, SAND MARTIN, GREY WAGTAIL and a couple of WHITE-THROATED DIPPERS, whilst WILLOW WARBLERS flitted around the birch scrub on the river bank.
We made a stop and saw a nesting pair of WHITE-THROATED DIPPER plus COMMON SANDPIPER on the river. As it was still drizzly and quite nasty we carried onwards but it was rather quiet except for three GOOSANDER.
We arrived in the car park and after a short while the rain stopped although it was pretty windy as the wind buffeted through the valley. A few COMMON BUZZARDS, COMMON KESTRELS, two HOODED CROWS and an OSPREY flew over the hillsides and eventually we were rewarded with a single GOLDEN EAGLE soaring over a distant ridge.
We were delighted to see that there were now five GOLDEN EAGLES in the air as they circled over the hills! Although distant, we had good views and they were first/second year birds.
A pair of PEREGRINE FALCONS were seen roosting on a nearby cliff and lots of RED DEER were on the hills. A MOUNTAIN HARE ran along a ridge before disappearing over the top and a pair of NORTHERN WHEATEARS showed well in the grassy fields with COMMON GULLS keeping them company.
With cold starting to set in, we took a walk along the track hoping to get better views of the eagles and on our way had excellent views of the PEREGRINE FALCONS above us. Further down a female MERLIN zipped along the ridge.
We had better views of three GOLDEN EAGLES both in flight and on the ground, often in the company of several NORTHERN RAVENS. With inbound showers heading towards us we strolled back to the carpark but unfortunately we got caught by a sleety shower.
It was good to get back in the van and tuck into our lunch and then we headed off eastwards and made a stop, where following a tip off we had good views of a male BLACK GROUSE. It wandered around a field and at times displayed to a male COMMON PHEASANT!
A flock of EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVER fed in a grassy field and over the ridges we added RED KITES to our list as well as another GOLDEN EAGLE.
We then took the road over the moors and had stunning views of many RED GROUSE including several photogenic individuals. With time getting on we dropped into the RSPB reserve at Loch Ruthven.
A few WILLOW WARBLERS sang from Birches and on reaching the loch, it didn’t take long before we found a fine pair of breeding plumaged SLAVONIAN GREBES plus around three LITTLE GREBES. It was great to see the SLAVONIAN GREBES in their bright colours and not in grey winter plumage as is usual around the Essex coast.
It was then time to head back to our hotel after what had been a very productive day with plenty of highlights. Our evening meal was once again excellent and we certainly didn’t go hungry.
Saturday 22nd April 2017
We awoke to find much colder conditions as we headed northwards to the Moray coast. On the journey we spotted a OSPREY flying south over the town of Forres and a brief stop for facilities produced two YELLOWHAMMERS along a fence line. In a group of pines we located several COAL TITS and SISKINS.
Our first port of call was the village of Burghead where we headed to the east side attempting to shelter from the cold northwesterly wind. A flock of COMMON EIDER bobbed around in the choppy sea and a pair of LONG-TAILED DUCK flew past.
Good numbers of NORTHERN GANNET and BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE flew past and a couple of NORTHERN FULMAR kept low to the waves.
The air was alive with the ‘kerick’ calls of SANDWICH TERNS and in the distance were a roosting group along with RED KNOT, EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER and BAR-TAILED GODWITS.
We decided to get closer to them and along the way found a pair of EUROPEAN STONECHAT, COMMON LINNETS and some displaying ROCK PIPITS. The wader flock showed really well and we managed to pick out two colour-ringed BAR-TAILED GODWITS.
In the slightly sheltered waters there were both summer and winter plumaged RED-THROATED DIVERS plus further out a fine adult GREAT NORTHERN DIVER in summer plumage.
The cold was setting in so we strolled back to the van where another scan produced COMMON GUILLEMOT and RAZORBILLS in the surf.
With the tide now dropping we moved round to Findhorn Bay and just outside Burghead were two singing male CORN BUNTINGS along the fence line. From the viewing area were a small flock of PINK-FOOTED GEESE, SHELDUCK, lots more SANDWICH TERNS and in the distance a flock of summer plumage BLACK-TAILED GODWIT. At least two WESTERN OSPREYS were feeding out in the bay and four WHIMBREL flew in to the sandy spit in front of us.
It was time for a coffee break which we enjoyed in the sailing club cafe noting a few HOODED CROWS, SANDWICH TERNS and RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS from the windows.
Lunch was enjoyed in the carpark whilst a very icy shower passed through and then we drove to Fort George, which is a large 18th century fortress opposite Chanonry Point. Despite it being low tide, we found a moulting GREAT NORTHERN DIVER, RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS, COMMON SCOTERS, GREY SEAL, RAZORBILLS and two COMMON EIDER.
We checked out the eastern side of the fort and to our surprise were 26 PALE-BELLIED BRENT GEESE feeding on the foreshore. Many BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE and NORTHERN GANNET were seen in the Moray Firth plus COMMON EIDERS and a single LONG-TAILED DUCK.
A couple of male REED BUNTINGS were on the short turf surrounding the fort along with a couple of HOODED CROWS.
Leaving the area, we headed back early to the hotel, stopping abruptly when six BLACK GROUSE were spotted close to the road. We parked carefully and had great views of this scarce species.
Quite a few RED GROUSE frequented the vast moorlands as we drove south and we arrived back at the hotel just before 5.00pm.
We enjoyed an early evening meal and at 7.30pm, headed off towards our rendezvous point on the Rothiemurchus estate. Here we met up with John our guide for the evening.
A slow walk was taken down to the mammal hide and we had great views of both ROE and RED DEER in the nearby woodland and fields whilst a couple of EURASIAN WOODCOCK were seen roding overhead. Arriving at the superb hide we took our positions as food was put out for the wildlife.
Whilst patiently waiting for it to get dark, we were entertained by lots of WOOD MICE scuttling around in front us. At 9.40pm we hit the jackpot when a female PINE MARTEN came in for a short while and took a whole raw egg off the table. She was quickly away but luckily returned and we had superb views!
A short while later she ran off and our first BADGER of the evening appeared. During the next thirty minutes we watched six individuals at incredibly close range as they fed voraciously on the food.
At 11.00pm, with the mammals back in the woods we headed to the van delighted after a brilliant evening. The journey back produced two more BADGERS plus a WESTERN HEDGEHOG close to the road. We arrived just after midnight and headed to bed for a well deserved rest.
Sunday 23rd April 2017
After a late night we met for a later breakfast and afterwards headed to a large Caledonian pine forest where we enjoyed a relaxed walk. The first part was rather quiet but the birding soon picked up with good numbers of LESSER REDPOLLS and EURASIAN SISKINS plus a few unidentifiable Crossbill species.
A female EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK was seen briefly and we had better views of Crossbills which looked pretty good for SCOTTISH CROSSBILLS. As we reached an area of dead pines a CRESTED TIT was seen and showed well as it sang from the top of a small pine tree.
Our return leg revealed some very fresh WESTERN CAPERCAILLIE droppings close to the path but despite a good scan, we failed to locate this now very scarce bird.
A couple of RED SQUIIRELS ran around an area of birch trees and it was lovely to see this iconic species. After lunch we headed over the moors to Lochindorb and sadly we saw see quite a few roadkill MOUNTAIN HARES on the road.
RED GROUSE were very numerous as they sat amongst the heather and down on the edge of the loch were a couple of COMMON SANDPIPERS. A diver flew down the loch which looked like a Black-throated but was just too distant to be sure.
We relocated and scanned the loch and eventually found a superb summer plumaged BLACK-THROATED DIVER that was tricky to see in the very choppy waters. Eventually we lost sight of the bird so moved along and had great views of COMMON SANDPIPER, MEADOW PIPIT and COMMON REDSHANK.
Our drive took us though a large COMMON GULL breeding colony and then we checked out the field where we had seen Black Grouse the previous day. We did manage to find a male BLACK GROUSE as it hunkered down out of the wind on the sheltered side of the ridge.
We headed back along the loch edge and at the southern end located the BLACK-THROATED DIVER and had good scope views as it fed in the sheltered waters.
It was great to get back to the hotel for a hot shower before meeting for another delicious evening meal with the ‘Castle Folly’ particularly popular.
Monday 24th April 2017
The forecast today was for very snowy conditions in the highlands so we opted to head to the west coast hoping the maritime environment would keep the worst at bay.
It was okay until we reached Inverness but the first of several frequent snow showers came through and made driving rather unpleasant. Our first stop was at Little Loch Broom which produced a superb EUROPEAN OTTER fishing in the small creeks which didn’t seem bothered by the weather at all! A few COMMON GREENSHANK fed in the shallows and both COMMON REDSHANK and COMMON RINGED PLOVER were seen also.
With the weather cold we stopped off for coffee and cake in one of our favourite cafes and offshore found a couple of RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS fishing nearby before we escaped from the continuing inclement weather.
The wind was very strong which made viewing difficult in the channels towards Gruinard Island but we still managed to locate GREAT NORTHERN and RED-THROATED DIVERS with around eight of the former.
The weather looked like it would improve so we drove round towards Mellon Udrigle and a couple of stops yielded BLACK GUILLEMOT, GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS and some pure ROCK DOVES.
The sun was shining by the time we reached the small village of Mellon Udrigle and we tucked into lunch whilst sitting in the shelter of the van. Lots of MEADOW PIPITS fed on the short turf plus a few NORTHERN WHEATEARS and a single EURASIAN SKYLARK. Afterwards we headed down to the beach which was rather quiet but we managed to find COMMON RINGED PLOVER, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, NORTHERN WHEATEAR, NORTHERN GANNET and best of all, up to four REDWINGS of the Icelandic race coburni.
The sky turned rather black so we headed back but got hit by a snow storm that sent us running to the van. With the forecast not improving we retraced our steps heading back along the coast noting a few COMMON EIDER, COMMON GREENSHANK, ROCK DOVES, EUROPEAN STONECHAT and GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS.
It was good to get south of Inverness where the weather was much improved but as we reached Carrbridge the area turned white after a substantial snowfall.
On reaching our hotel and after a hot bath, we met for dinner which again was superb before completing the bird list. We headed off to bed with the snow falling heavily and with more forecast the following day!
Tuesday 25th April 2017
Awaking to around four inches of snow was quite beautiful and quite a few photographs were taken of the snowy town. After another large breakfast we drove north to Inverness through blizzard conditions and got stuck in a large queue due to an accident involving a lorry. Nevertheless we soon arrived in Inverness where we dropped Trevor off as he went in search of a pair of tartan trousers!
Whilst he was shopping we drove to Chanonry Point where we hoped to get some shelter from the very dodgy weather. Four superb GREAT SKUA flew past as did a single ARCTIC TERN and a few SANDWICH TERNS but best of all were at least seven BOTTLE-NOSED DOLPHINS that put on a show for us leaping out of the water and generally having a good time.
We headed to pick up Trevor after his successful shopping trip and had a quick coffee before returning to Chanonry Point where we bumped into wildlife presenter Iolo Williams who was leading a birding group.
A large flock of BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES flew through in front of a heavy snow shower and with it looking brighter, we drove to the northern part of the Black Isle to Udale Bay RSPB reserve. Good numbers of PINK-FOOTED GEESE on the saltmarsh and a scan through the EURASIAN WIGEON produced a fine male AMERICAN WIGEON which appeared to have an injured leg. A RED KITE flushed the geese onto the mudflats where they landed before having a wash and brush up.
The cold wind was once again biting so we headed into the coastal village of Cromarty and along the coast road and couldn’t believe our luck when two WHITE-TAILED EAGLES flew over the road. We bundled out of the van as quick as we could without fear of being trampled and had good views as they circled before drifting off. This certainly was a magic moment and a new UK bird for some of the group.
It was then time to head back to base and luckily the snow had cleared enough to give us a good run. Our last dinner of the tour was superb and we had a cake to celebrate Trevor’s birthday. Everyone in the restaurant sang Happy Birthday which was a great finale to our last birding day in Speyside!
Wednesday 26th April 2017
After breakfast we said our goodbyes to the hotel staff who had been excellent and started our long journey southwards. After several snow flurries the weather improved and there were a few birds of note including RED GROUSE, lots of COMMON BUZZARDS, COMMON GOLDENEYE and close to Peterborough we spotted 12 RED KITES.
We arrived back in East Anglia early evening after a good run home and concluded what had been a superb tour with many top birding highlights, all spent with a great group of customers!