For our recent three nights stay in the Scottish Highlands we based ourselves in Aberlour, at the very acceptable Mash Tun pub – relatively convenient for accessing the Caledonian forests, mountain areas of Cairngorm and the coastal belt of the Moray Firth. We used Gordon Hamlett, our former Peterborough birding colleague’s, excellent guide to Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands – published by Buckingham Press and currently undergoing a major revision, some prior experience of the region and a couple of tips provided by friends and locals, as a basis for finding our targets.
Bird-finding in this region is never easy – hundreds of square miles of countryside with a relatively modest and thinly spread bird population means you generally have to work hard for your birds. Add to the mix that we visited in November, when their are no summer visitors, few migrants and only a handful of winter residents and you’ll appreciate why our list of ‘trophies’ was a relatively modest one. Nonetheless we did find a few ‘year ticks’ and enjoyed some nice long winter walks!
The woods around Grantown on Spey are well known for holding a respectable number of the areas prime species, so not surprisingly this was our starting point – it was a place to which we returned again and again! – read on for details. On our first visit we walked miles, encountered few birds but did eventually see Crested Tit – easy to locate on call and a single Scottish Crossbill. Hours spent in the woods around Loch Garten failed to produce anything extra as did a stint in the main car park at Cairngorm, which was experiencing a bit of a ‘white out’ at the time. A few winter plumage Red Grouse here did get our hearts racing for a while though. The day ended with walks around a couple more damp, dark woods.
Day two started with more woodlands, included a trip up the majestic Findhorn Valley – where we did see Golden Eagle hunting Red Grouse and finished on the Black Isle, looking for ducks. At Udale Bay we managed to find the American Wigeon, amongst 5000 ordinary Wigeon, at the high tide roost and further round the coast 400 Scaup – a bird we rarely see in England and certainly not in any numbers.
The final day was our best. Following up a tip from a local birder, we again went to the Anagach Woods around Grantown and after a long and squelchy walk we finally connected with two male Capercaillie – a bit like Pheasants on steroids, fantastic! Our return journey took us over the pass at Glen Shee, a well known spot for Ptarmigan. An hour or so spent staring at the snowy hillside had produced nothing when eventually Jane spotted a distant bird above the ski station – in near full winter plumage, it blended perfectly with the surrounding landscape. A speculative stop at Loch of Lintrathen provided a wealth of wildfowl, which were obviously unusually restless – not surprising, as minutes after arriving in the hide, an immature White-tailed Sea Eagle did a menacing fly-by. A methodical search through the 350 or so Pink Feet produced our final trip tick in the form of a single Tiaga Bean Goose.
Given the short days, weather and woodland nature of much of our birding, no pictures I’m afraid of some of the key species.. but to make up for it, some fantastic landscapes – here, Loch Garten on a still winters day
First encounter with a Scottish speciality, Hooded Crow, which rarely stray south of the Great Glen fault-line
Part of a flock of 400 plus Scaup, in the Moray Firth, just off Jemimaville
By the time I’d got my camera out this Capercaillie was nearly across the river and out of sight. This was our sixth attempt, covering four different locations, to find this classic Highland species
A winter plumage Red Grouse doing a passable impression of Ptarmigan – it didn’t fool us though (not for long that is!)
A young White-tailed Sea Eagle doing a ‘fly-by’ at Loch of Lintrathen
Final tick of the trip, a Taiga Bean Goose, found amongst hundreds of Pink Feet. It’s the one in the centre of the shot – slightly bigger, long necked with extensive orange on the bill and orange legs
This wasn’t just a birding trip – rare mammals are always of interest. Here, a chance encounter with a rare group of Speyside Yellow Sheep!