This trip followed the pattern of many others we have made to the Highlands. Leaving Peterborough at about 0200 hrs, we drove north up the A1 before turning off onto the A68 and cutting up towards Edinburgh. We stopped off at a small picnic site in Durham for a coffee and the dawn chorus before reaching Edinburgh and crossing the Forth Bridge about 0930 -- before the traffic was too bad.
The main reason for this approach is that gives us the chance to stop off at the excellent RSPB Vane Farm/Loch Leven and get in a couple of hours rest and birding at a reasonable hour and then take our time pottering northwards to arrive at Speyside at teatime-ish.
Vane Farm RSPB (well signed from junction 5 off the M90) was excellent and is being developed as a flagship reserve with excellent hides and facilities. I saw a wing flying along a dike and luckily called it correctly as a Short-eared Owl. It then flew round the car park for five minutes giving stunning views. A Peregrine flew along the ridge behind us. A few Pink-footed Geese lingered, and a pair of Corn Buntings flew through -- the first for the year there.
Heading north along the A9 we stopped of at Killiecrankie -- the National Trust centre, not the RSPB reserve -- a lovely steep wooded valley with guaranteed Wood Warblers. We had six between the visitor centre and the Soldier's Leap without looking hard.
And so up to Speyside and our cottage at Boat of Garten. Garden ticks for the holiday totalled 38 species including Slavonian Grebe (on private land), Osprey, Woodcock , Teal, Wigeon, Redshank, Goldeneye, Siskin, Tawny Owl and Curlew.
An evening trip to Lochindorb has always been a favourite and produced a pair of Twite, 2 Black-throated Divers, Red Grouse, female Merlin being mobbed by gulls and another Short-eared Owl.
Sunday was quiet as we recovered from yesterday's driving. Highlights were mammalian. As we arrived at Loch Garten, three Red Squirrels were playing on the road, beautifully backlit. As usual, no camera. Walking to Loch Mallachi, we heard Crested Tit and Capercaillie. Just past the smaller loch, a Pine Marten ran in front of us. Magic! And much bigger than I was expecting. The Ospreys were mobbing a Buzzard, and a Scottish Crossbill gave stunning views as it came down to drink complete with regulation bill -- too big for Crossbill and too small for Parrot Crossbill.
Monday, and a trip to the coast where the highlight was an Osprey diving and taking a flounder about 20 yards in front of the car at Spey Bay. Two others also seen fishing there. An evening trip to Carrbridge and the road that passes under the A9 produced a field of 51 summer-plumaged Golden Plovers stopping off en route north.
Tuesday saw our first long trip to the west coast. Heading towards Ullapool, we stop for a quick scan at Loch Droma which has held divers in the past but no luck. Couldn't find any late white-winged gulls in Ullapool harbour but a nice touch was one of the mountaineering shops having a list of recent sightings in the window. Lunch is spent at Ardmair Point, the first bay north of Ullapool which last year held all three divers plus Tystie (local name for Black Guillemot). Pick up Tystie and Red-throated Diver, and a Sparrowhawk flies over -- something of a surprise holiday rarity so far. Find out later that they are probably being illegally killed in Speyside.
In the afternoon, we drive round the Beinn Eighe loop (A832). Dundonnell at the head of Little Loch Broom produces Great Northern Diver and Greenshank but the highlight is in the next bay when we eventually find a White-tailed Sea-Eagle sitting on Gruinard Island. With something that big, you don't know how you ever missed it but it was only when it moved after having its tail tweaked by a Hooded Crow that we picked it up. It seems not bothered in the slightest at this display of cheek, and sadly for us, the 'flying bedspread' refuses to fly.
Wednesday morning, do a bit of shopping in Aviemore so only have time for a quick visit to the Mhor-mhor car park (just before you get to Loch Morlich on the Cairngorm road). This is a well known site for Crested Tits and sure enough, we hear the odd bird but they are also sitting at this time of year and not as easy to see as say two weeks earlier or later.
One of the jokes back home is to say that you have just missed a flock of Ospreys flying over when asked if you have seen anything on a quiet day. See one flying over, shout to Chris, look back up and am surprised to see four in my field of view! Presumably they are all gathering before flying off to the fish farm at Inverdruie but it is a surprise that there is no aggression behaviour as they pass through another pair's territory.
The afternoon sees my all-time favourite drive in Scotland -- down the Findhorn Valley, over the Farr Road and down to Loch Ruthven. Decide not to drive all the way down the valley (the traditional birders' spot for Golden Eagles) but head straight over the Farr Road and are immediately rewarded with a Merlin as we turn off the road. This narrow gated track climbs through woodland (check for Goshawk) before opening onto moorland. A stoat runs across the road, and several Arctic hares, still in partial winter white scatter.
A party of six Swallows moves through; they are late migrating this year. In front of us, an aerial dog fight is taking place, and we just have time to get the scopes up as a juvenile Golden Eagle is mobbed off by three Buzzards. It's difficult with views like this to see how anybody can confuse the two species but I have seen many false claims. You feel like saying you will 'know' when you've got a Goldie; if there's any doubt, it's a Buzzard.
Finish the coffee and start to pack up when Chris sees another raptor. Back up go the scopes but it is out of view, and I tease her about misidentifying a passing Curlew. We don't need scopes though as a male Hen Harrier glides into view. What a beautiful shade of grey. It flies round the car and then starts to display in front of us -- climbing steeply and then diving in its ritual sky dance, sometimes performing a somersault at the top of its loop, seemingly just for the fun of it. It calls, frequently, something we have never heard before; a five note repeated cackle. Sure enough, the female responds and we watch the pair of them for ten minutes. This is late for such a display -- they should be on eggs now. One of the wardens back at Loch Garten suggests that the original nest has probably been interfered with, possibly by predators, probably by humans. Definitely bird of the holiday.
Dropping down to Loch Ruthven, we find the Slavonian Grebes in front of the hide but there is no sign of the Black Grouse in the fields opposite. Pick up distant Peregrine and Merlin but things are fairly quiet. On the way back at 1930, the Hen Harriers were still displaying.
Chris's birthday and another long day out, this time to the Ardnamurchan peninsula. As we drive past Loch Laggan early in the morning, the only Black Grouse of the holiday flies in front of us. Instead of continuing across our bows, it turns through 90 degrees and flies along the road in front of us for about 100 yards -- long enough to time it at 40mph.
Cross on the Corran ferry south of Fort William. Stop in a lay-by at the first bay to let all the other traffic pass so decide to have a coffee and a quick scan. Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye, Eider, Great Northern Diver and Rock Pipit are quickly logged as well as Common and Grey Seals.
The whole area seems alive with birds, and we log Redstart, Bullfinch, Cuckoo and Stonechat plus loads of commoner species as we drive along. The peninsula itself is a 27 mile long single track road, and it soon becomes apparent that the locals resent all the extra traffic on what is a very slow road. Tip for the day is to make sure that you are the first to go into the passing places. Not only does it appease the natives but means
Just at the entrance to Glen Borrodale RSPB reserve, we stop to scan the bay, looking for otters or whatever. A strange buzzing noise behind us sounds like a fault in the telephone wires but I realise that I've heard it before. I know what it is but it's always nice to see as well hear you bird. Right on cue, a Savi's Warbler hops up on bramble in front of me. A quick check in the books I have with me suggest that this is pretty rare but frustratingly, I have no 'phone numbers on me to report the sighting, and we never saw another birder all day. (Later research suggests that this will be the first record for mainland Scotland if accepted by the appropriate rarities committee)
By the time we reached the lighthouse at the end of the road, the weather was decidedly strange. The sea was so flat, there wasn't even the slightest ripple. Though you could see the sea clearly, mist covered the surrounding islands of Mull and Rhum so there was little chance of finding any wandering White-tailed or Golden Eagles. The sea did produce another five Great Northern Divers, about 40 Manx Shearwaters, auks, Gannets and a harbour porpoise. A pair of Peregrines flew past as we drove away, just ahead of 'the worst storms in living memory.' This was a huge disappointment as the coast road (A861) looked well worth further exploration.
The drive home produce three Black-throated Divers on Loch Tarff and the Hen Harriers again on the Farr Road. Get back absolutely knackered but well satisfied. Certainly an area to explore again at length.
Spend a quiet (??!!) day in Inverness at Balnain House -- a museum of Highland music. The highlight -- for me if not for those anywhere near is a chance to play the bagpipes. Call in at Loch Garten in the evening. There has been a small fall of Spotted Flycatchers. A large bat feeding over the River Spey at Boat of Garten was almost certainly Daubenton's.
Another quiet day up the Findhorn Valley. 100's of red deer and loads of feral goats (soon to be shot by Japanese hunters if the rumours are true). Peregrine, Osprey, Kestrel and Buzzard but no eagles.
Head off towards the Black Isle. In Carrbridge, the mystery warbler has returned from last year and is singing its head off. Originally identified as a Greenish Warbler, it is now thought to be a Northern Willow Warbler, Greenish/Willow hybrid or something stranger. Certainly, it sounds not even remotely close to a Willow Warbler with a repeated di-di-di-di song. It's not helped by the fact that we have not seen Greenish before so no doubts as to what we would like it to be.
Stop off at Longman Point in Inverness to have a look for waders but it is very quiet. Spend most of the time watching a Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler in a battle to see who can sing louder. On to Chanonry Point where we are immediately greeted by 30+ bottle-nosed dolphins in front of us. A fantastic sight and, judging from the looks on the faces of everyone from young kids to grannies, much appreciated. Surprisingly no terns about but we weren't really concentrating on the birds.
Off to the RSPB's Udale Bay on the north side of the Black Isle. Fairly quiet but this is expected as it is at its best in winter. Just about to leave when a strange wigeon flies in with one of its commoner brethren. Not helped by the fact that the tide's out, it lands miles away. Peering through the heat haze, it looks like an American Wigeon -- another bogey bird but it turns out to be an escaped Chiloe Wigeon. Driving back, we find a Red Kite by the Tore roundabout (1st roundabout north of Inverness on the A9). This is a good spot to find these reintroduced birds and we were slightly surprised that we didn't come across any others as we drove round the Black Isle.
In the evening, we visit Insh Marshes and sit in the hide admiring the view as dusk approaches. Plenty of displaying waders -- Redshanks, Snipe, Lapwings and Curlews but the hoped for otter never appears. This is a massive reserve -- 11 miles long -- and is not too popular as you have to work hard for your birds. Against that, you can usually guarantee that you won't see anyone else, and there is always the chance of finding something special -- the first British breeding Bluethroats were found here several years ago. Wood Sandpipers breed though you will be lucky to see them. As darkness falls, we drive round to the entrance of the Highland Wildlife park on the B9152 and listen out for another speciality. Sure enough, a Spotted Crake calls immediately with its 'quip quip' call along with a Grasshopper Warbler. A Woodcock flies over.
Monday, another long day out, this time to the north west coast. We drive up through Glen Oykel, a more interesting route than the 20 miles or so of Loch Shin. Stop for coffee at Kylesku and get tantalising views of a Golden Eagle. One surprise is to see the gorse and scrub alive with Siskins. For anyone who has not visited the area before, a visit to Handa is a must. Take the ferry from Tarbet (not Sundays) for fantastic seabird cliffs plus breeding Arctic and Great Skuas etc. A magical place.
We continue though up to the north coast and round Loch Eriboll, where we find 13 lingering Great Northern Divers and get stunning views of a Merlin chasing a hapless Meadow Pipit. A minor road leads down the edge of Loch Hope where a couple of late Whooper Swans and a pair of Black-throated Divers swim sedately past. A pair of Whinchats play in the area round the ancient broch -- an ancient Pictish round tower in remarkable condition. Drive back via Loch Fleet where waders include a Greenshank and 9 Common Sandpipers. Another Whooper Swan is noted.
Just about the only small bird we haven't found yet is Pied Flycatcher which is on the edge of its range here. Someone had them last year just outside Loch an Eilein but we can only find Spotted Flycatchers instead. Five young Buzzards play tag overhead. Another look at Mhor-mhor produces excellent views of Crested Tits bringing food to the nest.
A final drive down the Findhorn Valley in the afternoon produced a Goshawk by the turn off for the Farr Road. Things looks promising as several people were excitedly looking through scopes as we arrived at the car park at the end of the road. 'There's a Goldie perched on the cliff opposite' we are told. Eventually we find the right bit of rock to look at and it leads to one of those embarrassing situations as the bird they are looking at is a Buzzard.
More people turn up including some who had driven up from Derby to John O' Groats overnight in the hope that the Cretzschmar's Bunting was still on Shetland. It wasn't. Eventually, a Golden Eagle drifted over one of the distant hills, mobbed off by two Buzzards. This is an excellent site for Ring Ouzels and they caused almost as much interest as the eagles with many people never having seen one before.
By now, there were over a dozen of us chattering away, more birders than we had seen in the entire fortnight. Findhorn is a very friendly place, and the more pairs of eyes you have scanning the ridges the better. We didn't even need binoculars though as a Goldie flew straight over the top of the cliff in front of hotly pursued by five Ravens and a Buzzard. Totally memorable.
Walkers returning from further up the valley reported another couple of eagles, and we had distant views of them as well as good views of Osprey, Peregrine, Kestrel and Red Grouse. Driving back, a Redstart flew in front of the car, and we stopped off at the bridge over the River Spey just west of Nethybridge. This is an excellent spot for Dipper. There is also a large Sand Martin colony here, and we saw two Goosanders flying off as well as a ten pound salmon being landed.
Wednesday was misty and drizzly so we headed off towards Deeside for a castle and a bit of culture. As chance would have it, the castle Chris picked was conveniently close to the Ythan estuary, and as it had stopped raining mid afternoon, it seemed churlish not to visit with a hope of finding the more or less resident King Eider there.
Scanning from the bridge and Inch's Point brought hundreds of Eiders, the odd Common and Sandwich Tern and five Bar-tailed Godwits but nothing else. Driving up to the point to finish the flask of coffee, I was busy pouring when Chris said 'isn't that it?' The coffee went everywhere as I attempted to drop cup and open flask while at the same time picking up my bins. There was no need for panic though, and it swam a few yards in front of us for the next 20 minutes.
Thursday we drove down to Perth, a beautiful city we had never visited before. After buying up most of the bookshops, we had a quick scan of the River Tay for Mandarins but no joy. Mid afternoon we headed for the RSPB reserve at Loch of Kinnordy, outside of Kirriemuir. This is a well known site for Black-necked Grebes but they steadfastly refused to come out of the reeds, and the only new bird for the holiday was Ruddy Duck. Just as we were about to leave, all the Black-headed Gulls suddenly rose in concerted panic, joined by Jackdaws, Moorhens and Coots -- a sure sign that there was a predator around. Sure enough, an otter complete with Moorhen chick wandered through the undergrowth in front of us.
The return journey took us up through Glenshee. At the ski-lift car park, another Short-eared Owl flew past. An Osprey drifted over the mountain pass and Chris eventually picked out a Ptarmigan, silhouetted against the skyline on a boulder on top of the highest peak. They come down to the car park in winter and can often be seen from the comfort of the car. Driving back into Nethybridge, a male Capercaillie flew across the road in front of us -- an excellent record at this time of year when they are not too easy to see -- not that they are ever particularly easy.
Friday and a last quiet day before packing the cases. A walk round Forest Lodge, Abernethy produces about a dozen Scottish Crossbills, Crested Tit, Tree Pipit, Redstart and lots of Siskins. A quick visit to Loch Garten to see if the Ospreys have hatched but e.t.a. is still a couple of days away. News is breaking though that some of the Osprey nests nearby have been robbed as well as Sea-eagles on the west coast. A slightly depressing note to end an unbelievable holiday -- 142 species, many mammals, stunning scenery and the friendliest people in the country. Why would anyone want to go anywhere else?
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