Wednesday 17th April 2019
After completing our pickups in Essex and Suffolk, we made our way on the long journey north to Scotland. Bird-wise is was pretty uneventful until we reached the Peterborough area where we saw our first RED KITES and COMMON BUZZARDS.
Through Cumbria there were displaying EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHERS, EURASIAN CURLEW and a large flock of FIELDFARE and once in Scotland, we found another RED KITE and a massive gathering of PINK-FOOTED GEESE numbering around 1000 birds!
We reached the Cairngorm National Park pretty much on schedule and had time to visit a small river which yielded a GREY WAGTAIL plus a WHITE-THROATED DIPPER that zipped past at a rate of knots.
It was then time to check in to our accommodation and have a shower before meeting for dinner which was superb. Afterwards we discussed our birding plans for the week and completed the bird-list.
After such a long day we retired for the night, looking forward to our Speyside adventure.
Thursday 18th April 2019
The day dawned bright and sunny with just a little high cloud over the area and we met for breakfast at 0730hrs. We tucked into a hearty spread and soon afterwards were away to explore the area around Strathdearn.
We stopped off briefly at Carrbridge to photograph the ancient packhorse bridge and watched a WHITE-THROATED DIPPER at its nest, whilst on the fast flowing river we had excellent views of a pair of COMMON MERGANSER (GOOSANDER).
A short while later we were on the quiet single track road which was alive with NORTHERN LAPWINGS, EURASIAN CURLEW, EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER and a single COMMON SNIPE, whilst overhead the first COMMON BUZZARDS of the day circled on early thermals.
We made a stop alongside the river and had stunning views of WHITE-THROATED DIPPERS, plus GREY and PIED WAGTAILS whilst a herd of RED DEER were seen on the hillside.
Reaching the dead end of the valley, we spent time taking in the views in glorious sunshine with lots of NORTHERN WHEATEARS zipping around us with the very common MEADOW PIPITS.
A female PEREGRINE FALCON was seen in flight before we tracked it to a rocky crag, where it sat for a while until a male came in from the south and it vanished.
The constant scanning of the hillsides eventually yielded dividends when a 1st year GOLDEN EAGLE drifted along the ridge and just hung in the wind very much like a Common Buzzard, which was also seen and the eagle dwarfed the COMMON BUZZARD!
We watched this bird for around 10 minutes before it drifted off south over the valley not to be seen again. By now the wind had picked up and it was tricky keeping the scopes still, so we took a walk but it was rather quiet bird-wise so we headed back for lunch in the sunshine.
Afterwards we took the Farr Road over the moorland where we had stunning views of around 12 WILLOW PTARMIGAN (RED GROUSE) which kept the photographers happy!
The rest of the afternoon was spent at Loch Ruthven RSPB reserve where we took a stroll down to the Loch and here we found four HORNED GREBES (SLAVONIAN GREBES) out on the water, but they stayed distant as there were fishermen in a boat out on the loch.
Through the scope you could see their amazing summer plumage which is something we don’t see very often as in Essex during the winter they are mainly grey, black and white!
Other species of note included LITTLE GREBES, SAND MARTIN, BARN SWALLOW, COMMON HOUSE MARTIN, EURASIAN TEAL and a lovely WESTERN OSPREY that drifted in from the west and flew over the loch giving reasonable views as it did so.
With it being a long day we headed back to base for a well deserved rest before meeting for our evening meal which was very good and very filling.
After completing the bird-list and talking about our plans for the following day, we headed off to bed after a great day in the field.
Good Friday 19th April 2019
We awoke to find another lovely day weather-wise with great conditions for our morning exploring the Cairngorm Mountain range.
After another hearty breakfast we loaded up and made our way slowly around to Cairngorm, where our first port of call was the Coire Cas carpark and it didn’t take long before we found a stunning pair of RING OUZEL foraging in the sheltered corner of the carpark.
They allowed close approach and as it was a new bird for several members of the group it was large smiles all round!
Eventually they moved off over the other side of the valley so it was our cue to move on up to the main carpark.
On arrival we saw several photographers on the slope and on closer inspection we could see a single SNOW BUNTING sitting on a stone wall, this gave good views before flying off towards the buildings.
We used the facilities and began making our way up towards the summit, but with a keen wind it was hard going. A single RING OUZEL flew from the scrub and we headed up the slope taking plenty of breaks on the way. We then stopped off at a suitable point and scanned the slopes.
We spotted at least four MOUNTAIN HARES most in their white winter coats and after a while, we found a moulting male ROCK PTARMIGAN moving slowly at the top of the ridge. It was quite tricky to get on at times but it was an excellent bird to see!
The descent was much quicker and we headed down for a well deserved cuppa in the cafe before wandering back to the van.
With our stomachs rumbling we stopped off at Loch Morlich which was rather busy with people enjoying the fantastic Easter weather and it was rather choppy on the lake making viewing difficult, even so we did manage to find some COMMON GOLDENEYE and a pair of COMMON MERGANSERS (GOOSANDER). Best of all was a WESTERN OSPREY that came over us being mobbed by BLACK-HEADED GULLS and it promptly dropped down into the shallows where it had a wash and brush up. Eventually it flew off, once again being pursued by the gulls.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent in the Abernethy Forest where we took a stroll through the Caledonian Pine Forest. EURASIAN SISKINS were very common and we heard EURASIAN TREECREEPER but couldn’t locate it. Further along the track some of the group had brief views of a CRESTED TIT and CROSSBILL sp. but they vanished and there was no further sign.
It was then time to head back to base for a hot shower before meeting for yet another meal of epic proportions.
The bird-list was completed and it was off to bed after a lovely day with great weather and birds.
Saturday 20th April 2019
Breakfast was at the usual time and afterwards we drove northwards to the Moray Firth, where our first port of call was Lochindorb. A RED KITE hunted over the moorland and further on, we found a female HEN HARRIER flying south.
Once on the quieter roads we saw plenty of WILLOW PTARMIGAN (RED GROUSE) including a pair of sparring males. The loch was very quiet so we trundled along slowly noting more WILLOW PTARMIGAN (RED GROUSE) until we stopped to scan the northern section and there were a superb pair of summer-plumaged BLACK-THROATED DIVERS!
They were a little distant but showed well in the scopes as they fished along the shoreline. Three COMMON SANDPIPERS were also seen plus the sad sight of a EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER that had got caught up in discarded fishing line and unfortunately died in the process.
Moving on northwards we stopped at a small pine wood and within a few minutes were watching a lovely pair of CRESTED TITS foraging in the pines above us. EURASIAN SISKIN, COAL TIT and lots of COMMON CHAFFINCHES were also noted plus a lone singing COMMON CHIFFCHAFF.
We then made the journey up to Burghead on the coast and it was good to feel the warm sunshine on our backs with only a light breeze, making ideal conditions to scan the sea.
COMMON GUILLEMOTS and RAZORBILLS were seen at close range plus a moulting pair of RED-THROATED DIVERS. Steve scanned in the distance and out towards the harbour at Hopeman there was a summer plumage diver that he was convinced was a White-billed. Unfortunately the distance was just too far so we made our way round the bay to see if we could get a clearer view.
On the way we came across a roosting group of SANDWICH TERNS plus RED KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, COMMON REDSHANK and also COMMON LINNETS.
On reaching the spot there was no sign of the diver, so we concentrated on an area further west and there at reasonably close range was a stonking summer-plumage WHITE-BILLED DIVER! We all had brilliant scope views in perfect light and several record shots were taken of this rare Arctic species.
We watched the bird for around 50 minutes as it fed and preened before it drifted inshore and vanished from view. Whilst enjoying the bird we also saw lots of NORTHERN GANNETS, NORTHERN FULMAR, BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE, LONG-TAILED DUCKS, COMMON SCOTER and COMMON EIDER.
The walk back produced single EURASIAN ROCK PIPIT plus COMMON RINGED PLOVER and a small party of RAZORBILLS. We then headed west to the town of Nairn where we tucked into lunch on the beach overlooking the Moray Firth, with SANDWICH TERNS passing close by and another small party of RAZORBILLS in mixed plumage.
Afterwards we made our way to the jetty to scan the area for a King Eider that had recently been seen, but the lack of wind had created hazy conditions and it was difficult to see far at all. We did see at least three COMMON EIDER plus some distant LONG-TAILED DUCKS, but with no sign of the King Eider we cut our losses and headed to a nearby cafe for hot drinks.
Returning to the carpark we could see the mist had cleared so we gave the river one last look and overhead flew a flock of EURASIAN WHIMBREL plus a single EURASIAN CURLEW. Conditions were far better and a scan produced around 120 LONG-TAILED DUCKS plus BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE and both COMMON and GREY SEALS. It was then off towards our base and during our journey, we found four male BLACK GROUSE in a field close to road, it was a favoured location as we’d seen them here on a previous tour. We had reasonable views using the van as a hide, as they posed for us alongside several GREYLAG GEESE.
By now there was steady rainfall so we got back to the hotel and had time before dinner. A few of the group headed into the woods where they saw EURASIAN TREECREEPER, EURASIAN SISKIN and lots of COMMON CHAFFINCHES.
We met for an early evening meal which was superb, before heading out to the Rothiemurchus Estate where we met with our guide Simon. As we walked down the track, a EURASIAN WOODCOCK flew over displaying and we had really close views of a herd of RED DEER. We reached the comfortable hide and made ourselves at home, whilst Simon baited the area with whole raw eggs, peanuts and raisins. As light dropped we saw our first WOOD MICE of the evening but trying to get images proved easier said than done!
At around 21.30 we were delighted when a superb PINE MARTEN appeared and fed at close range, giving everyone amazing views. Eventually it slinked off and a short while later the first of four BADGERS appeared on the opposite side of the hide, and over the next hour we had some lovely views. At around 22.45 we decided to call it a day after what had been a really successful evening.
We got back to base around 23.30 and headed to bed for a well deserved rest after an action packed day in the highlands!
Easter Sunday 21st April 2019
We had a lie in and met for breakfast at 08.30 and afterwards spent the morning exploring the excellent Anagach Woods.
It was rather quiet to start with but after a while, we found a singing male COMMON REDSTART on top of a pine on the edge of a clearing. This gave good scope views before moving further into the wood.
Further along we heard deep chupping calls and knew immediately it wasn’t a Common Crossbill calling. On inspection through the scope, a male PARROT CROSSBILL perched on top of a spindly pine and we could see the deep set neck and deep heavy bill.
The bird dropped deeper in the wood and despite a search we didn’t see it again, but further along the track we had excellent views of a pair of CRESTED TITS as they foraged at low level right in front of us giving some good photographic opportunities.
Our walk took a circular route and along the many paths we found several fine male ROE DEER plus the usual suspects, COAL TITS and EURASIAN SISKINS.
It was then back to the van and we drove into Abernethy Forest where we had lunch overlooking a valley which was beautiful in the sunshine.
Afterwards we drove to Loch Garten RSPB reserve to spend the afternoon looking at the feeders while having a well deserved cuppa. A male COMMON REDSTART was seen from the main hide as well as several GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKERS and COAL TITS, but there was no sign of the hoped for Red Squirrel.
We met up with Brian who had wandered down to the carpark to find he had seen a RED SQUIRREL just a few minutes before we arrived but despite waiting, there was no sign. We did however, have lovely views of a EURASIAN TREECREEPER foraging amongst the trees.
It was then back to the hotel where we had some time to relax before meeting for a pre dinner drink in the bar and then our evening meal which again was superb.
Bank Holiday Monday 22nd April 2019
Breakfast was at the usual time and we were soon loaded and heading off northwest for our day on the west coast. The weather was stunning as we made our way over the Kessock Bridge and onto the Black Isle.
Several RED KITES were seen plus two WESTERN OSPREY that we pulled off the road for as they flew over a large pine plantation.
After a toilet stop we carried on and noted EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK being mobbed by a group of HOODED CROWS.
The scenery was magnificent as we drove west and made our first stop at the head of Little Loch Broom. The tide was relatively high but a pair of RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS fed at close range and two each of DUNLIN and COMMON GREENSHANK fed on the shoreline.
After a while we moved on and stopped again to overlook Gruinard Island which was used to test for Biological weapons of Anthrax in 1942. Thankfully the island has now been decontaminated and is a wildlife haven.
Scanning from the lay-by we noted around 20 GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS in varying plumages from winter right through to full summer. A single BLACK GUILLEMOT was seen plus COMMON GUILLEMOT, EUROPEAN SHAG, WHIMBREL and the bushes nearby held several territories of WILLOW WARBLER.
With the weather warming up nicely we drove round to the small village of Mellon Charles and along the way had brilliant views of two BLACK-THROATED DIVERS on the sea. Eventually we came across a small lochan and without getting out of the van, we could see our main target close by, a cracking drake BLUE-WINGED TEAL!
We had superb views of this dapper little duck as it fed alongside a female NORTHERN SHOVELER which is another scarce bird to the west coast. This North American duck was a first for our tours and a new bird for all of the participants, so there were big smiles all around.
After getting our fill, we moved on to the fantastic hamlet of Mellon Udrigle and the car park was busy on arrival. Nevertheless we bagged the last space and took our lunch down to the beach which was simply divine with blue skies, white sand and hot sunshine, something we didn’t expect in April!
NORTHERN WHEATEARS, PIED WAGTAILS and several WHITE WAGTAILS were noted feeding amongst seaweed and a couple of EURASIAN ROCK PIPITS fed with the ubiquitous MEADOW PIPITS.
A few COMMON RINGED PLOVERS were on the beach, joined briefly by a EURASIAN WHIMBREL before it flew across the bay. Four COMMON REDPOLLS flew past after being disturbed out of the small croft nearby.
We checked out the short turf near the carpark and were delighted to see a small party of TWITE feeding. We had lovely scope views of these small finches before they flew up into the trees.
Whilst watching these superb birds, a GREAT SKUA was seen briefly but it promptly disappeared never to be seen again.
It was then time to retrace our steps and we made a brief stop to watch three ROCK DOVES feeding in a paddock before they flew off and as we traversed the coast road, there were still lots of ATLANTIC GREY SEALS basking in the sunshine.
Back at Gruinard Bay we found another BLACK GUILLEMOT in summer plumage plus more GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS including two calling birds.
It was then time to start our journey back and we kept our eyes peeled for any birds of prey and eventually came across an adult GOLDEN EAGLE drifting along the ridge before vanishing behind trees.
The journey back was pretty uneventful apart from a small number of RED KITES close to the Black Isle.
We arrived back in good time and after a hot shower, met for a pre-dinner drink followed by yet again, another superb meal.
Tuesday 23rd April 2019
After breakfast we headed off and drove to Chanonry Point on the north shore of the Moray coast, where we hoped to connect with the resident pod of Bottle-nose Dolphins.
Conditions were ideal although the wind was rather cold, which was something we weren’t used to after all the hot weather.
There was plenty of activity bird-wise whilst we waited, with good numbers of RED-THROATED DIVERS, BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, COMMON MURRE (GUILLEMOTS), RAZORBILLS, LONG-TAILED DUCKS, NORTHERN FULMAR, GREAT SKUA, SANDWICH, COMMON and ARCTIC TERNS.
Eventually we caught a glimpse of a few BOTTLE-NOSE DOLPHINS on the far shore and eventually they came closer and we were treated to fantastic views as they fed close to the shore. At least six individuals were noted including a mother and calf which was fantastic to see.
After we’d had our fill we headed off to Fortrose for a hot cuppa before driving around to the south shore, where we had another crack at the King Eider.
Conditions were not great but we positioned ourselves onto the dunes to get some height which paid dividends when we picked out the drake KING EIDER in with the COMMON EIDER flock. Although distant we could at least pick out the colouring and some detail.
The time had come to walk back and along the way we found COMMON WHITETHROAT and YELLOWHAMMER in the gorse.
We then headed to base and along the way came across two separate groups of BLACK GROUSE in roadside field which was good plus RED KITES, RED GROUSE, NORTHERN RAVEN and COMMON BUZZARDS.
Getting back slightly early we had some time to pack ready for our journey home the following day.
Our last evening meal was fabulous and we all commented on how excellent the food and accommodation had been throughout our stay.
Wednesday 24th April 2019
We loaded up the van before breakfast and after yet another meal of hearty fayre we said goodbye to the hotel staff who had looked after us so wonderfully and began the long drive back to England.
The journey produced some WILLOW PTARMIGAN (RED GROUSE) plus some species that were new for the week such as EURASIAN HOBBY, STOCK DOVE and GREAT CRESTED GREBE.
We arrived back first in Suffolk and then in Essex where we said goodbye to a fantastic group of customers who were such a pleasure to be with during the week. We had some brilliant wildlife, with great food and accommodation and lots of laughs throughout!