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Scottish Highlands - May 2010 (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
I recently spent a week birding in Scotland at the beginning of May. We were staying in a cottage in Boat of Garten and planned to spend most of our time in the Speyside area with day trips to the West and North coasts.

Day 1 – Saturday 8th May

We arrived at Inverness airport in the afternoon and went to collect our hire car. In the airport area we saw our first buzzard of the trip and could hear a willow warbler singing.

We arrived at the cottage in the early evening after doing a week’s worth of shopping at the Tesco just outside Inverness. The cottage was just outside a large area of woodland and there were jackdaws nesting in both chimneys of the cottage. Around the garden there were lots of common woodland birds including willow warblers and on one occasion we had a pair of siskin in the trees behind the garden.

As it was a really sunny evening and the weather forecast for much of the week was for rain we decided to go for a walk down the river Spey from the bridge at the end of the village. The view from the bridge over to the Cairngorms was stunning and we were surprised at how much snow seemed to still cover them.

The walk down the river yielded 3 common sandpipers, 2 pairs of goldeneye, 3 red-breasted mergansers, curlew and oystercatcher as well as the ever-present willow warbler.

Day 2 – Sunday 9th May

As the forecast for today was the best for the entire week we decided to head to the Cairngorms in search of the mountain specialties. We arrived at the Ski Centre car park around 9.30 and headed up the path towards Ben Macdui. We hadn’t been walking long when a red grouse exploded out of the heather to the side of the path and we saw many more close by on the walk up the lower levels. Meadow pipits appeared to be everywhere. As we were walking up I noticed two birds flying high up further ahead. Looking through bins I could see they were a grouse species but which one was not clear.

As we headed higher up the heather started to peter out and the terrain became rockier. We were just about to set off again after taking a short drink break when I heard this piping noise and two birds flew into view below us. I managed to get my bins onto them and as I had first thought it was a pair of dotterel. To be honest I hadn’t really expected to see these as I thought it might be a bit early for them to be back in any number. Anyway they circled round and headed back up the mountain, landing out of sight further up the mountain to the side of the path. We headed up a bit further and managed to get one of the birds in the scope and the bird crossed the path and headed out onto a flattish area to the right of the path. We headed up and eventually were on a level with the birds and watched the pair running around on the rocks for about 10 minutes before they went over the ridge.

We pressed on and eventually made it to the plateau area but had still not seen any sign of ptarmigan. We decided to eat our lunch in a place, which looked suitable for ptarmigan but no luck. Up until now the sky had been clear but ominous clouds were looming in the north and we decided it was best to start heading back down. As we left the area, we walked past one of the cairns and were amazed to see a male snow bunting down to 6 feet hopping around the base of the cairn, completely non-fazed by our presence. We sat on the rocks and watched him for about 10 minutes before leaving him to it.

On the way down we bumped into a couple that asked us if we had seen the ptarmigan. We replied no and they said they had bumped into a guy who had been watching them near the cairns. At this point I thought it wasn’t to be and wondered if the weather would be good enough later in the week to have another bash at ptarmigan and go to Carn Ban Mor. With this in mind we set off down the mountain periodically stopping to scan the mountainside for birds. Upon reaching the area where we had watched the dotterel on the way up we both noticed a funny white lump at about the same time and both said “What’s that?”. On closer inspection we found we were looking at a male ptarmigan 30m away, in almost complete winter plumage with patches of grey on its back. Amongst the grey rocks it stuck out like a sore thumb. We watched it through the scope for about 10 minutes before we realised that one of the rocks next to it was a female in complete summer plumage. I took some pretty terrible digiscoped efforts which I have attached below. The two birds started feeding and we watched them for a while before heading down the mountains as the weather closed in and it started raining just as we reached the car park.

Really pleased to have seen my first lifer of the trip, We decided to head to Loach an Eilein for the rest of the day. On turning into the road leading to the loch I opened the car window to listen for wood warbler which I had read were often to be found near the monument here. Immediately I could hear the distinctive song and pulled the car up and watched a wood warbler flitting through the branches for 5 minutes.

We headed onto the loch and saw siskins around the feeders in the car park and heard a cuckoo here as well. Around the loch we saw 2 male redstarts and a great-spotted woodpecker in the woodland and on the loch itself I was amazed to find 2 summer plumaged black-throated divers (my first ever diver of any sort in summer plumage). We also saw common sandpiper and a pair of goldeneye.

On the way back to the cottage I pulled in at the floods outside Boat of Garten. There was one summer-plumaged Slavonian grebe and surprisingly 1 barnacle goose and 4 pink-footed geese.


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Day 3 – Monday 10th May

We scraped ourselves out of bed at 4.30am to head to Caperwatch and were at the queue, which was thankfully quite short at 5.15am. I had been a bit apprehensive about this as other people’s experiences described on this forum had lead me to believe it was a bit of a rugby scrum. The warden at the ticket desk told us a male capercaillie was showing on the cameras but couldn’t be seen from the hide. However, by the time we got to the hide the bird had moved into view and we were shown the bird through the RSPB telescope in the hide and then tried to find the bird in my scope. Unfortunately we were too far to the left to be able to see the bird as it was obscured from view by some pine trees from our position. We entertained ourselves watching the ospreys and also the red squirrels, siskins and a small vole at the feeders. After about an hour the capercaillie had not moved and a lot of people had headed off when it suddenly took flight and disappeared. 10 minutes later on lady found the bird in the pine trees at the back of the clearing and soon most people had the bird in their scopes as it started feeding on the pine needles. The views were distant but it was nice to be able to watch the bird at my leisure through my own scope. After about 20 minutes we left the rest of the hide to it happy to have seen my second lifer of the trip and headed to the screen at Tulloch Moor. Walking up to the screen we could hear black grouse bubbling away and we had good views of 4 males in front of the screen.

It was nearly 8 o’clock and we were starving so we headed back to the cottage for some breakfast, having seen all 4 species of British grouse in less than 24 hours. We headed of to Loch Mallachie after lunch and found the woods almost devoid of birds. We then happened upon 2 birders waiting patiently behind a tree at one point and as we approached they told us a crested tit had been coming back to the same tree every 10-20 minutes or so. We waited a while and then suddenly one appeared in the tree we were watching. Whilst it was perched here another bird flew out of a hole further down the tree and then the first bird flew into the hole and flew out after 30 seconds. We waited in the same spot for half an hour watching the birds come back and forth before leaving them to it and heading on. We also briefly saw a male redstart and a cuckoo but aside from these and the ever-present willow warblers and chaffinches the woods appeared deserted. These were the only crested tits we saw all trip and speaking to other birders they appeared to be the only crested tits seen by anyone.

Day 4 – Tuesday 11th May

We headed up to the Moray Firth and took in some of the other tourist attractions. We saw whitethroat and red kite at Fort George and an obliging treecreeper at Cawdor Castle. We then headed off to Rosiesle Forest car park. On the sea here were 2 black-black throated divers and 3 red-breasted mergansers. We were going to go for a walk through the forest but the heavens opened so we decided to head to Burghead and hope the weather cleared up by the time we got there. Thankfully it did and we saw 1 male long-tailed duck, 4 velvet scoter, 1 shag, 1 razorbill, c15 common scoter, eider, 1 female red-breasted merganser and 3 black-throated divers on the sea and saw a sparrowhawk flying low over the rocks. It was getting late so we headed back to Boat of Garten over the moors in near blizzard conditions so we decided not to have look on Lochindorb on the way back.
Day 5 – Wednesday 12th May

Today was forecast to be the best weather for the rest of the week so we decided to take a drive over to Gruinard Bay on the West Coast. The drive wasn’t too bad and took 2 and a half hours with a few stops on the way to take photos and take in the breath-taking scenery on what turned out to be a beautiful day with barely a cloud in the sky.

When we reached Dundonnel we pulled in to the side of the road and found a couple of greenshank and common sandpiper on the marshy land here and a couple of red-breasted mergansers on the water.

We then headed further round the coast and pulled in at the lay-by overlooking Gruinard Island to look for the White-tailed eagles. I couldn’t see anything on the island with my first scan so turned to my attention to the water. I soon found a number of Great-Northern Divers in summer plumage and a couple of guillemots before I found lifer number 3 for the trip, a distant black guillemot. I then turned my attention back to the island but could still see no sign of life on it apart from a small group of shags and a raven. After about 45 minutes of repeatedly scanning the island I turned my attention to the ridges behind me and further to the north. As I was scanning with binoculars I noticed an upright shape on a crag to the north of the bay. Quickly turning the telescope onto this I realised it was an adult white-tailed eagle perched in the sunshine (lifer number 4). We watched the bird for over half an hour as it sat silently looking out to sea, hoping that this magnificent bird would take flight, but despite perfect soaring conditions, it stayed put. We decided to leave the bird to it and headed further round the bay pulling into various parking spaces and scanning the sea and ridges. We had distant views of another adult white-tailed eagle soaring and being mobbed by a peregrine, saw a cuckoo being pursued by a meadow pipit and had closer views a number of black guillemots. We also saw 2 hooded crows and I calculated that I saw about 16 Great-Northern divers in summer plumage and also 3 red-throated divers. Another highlight however, was an otter playing and feeding in the water offshore. I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of seeing one of these but was delighted, as I have never seen one in the wild before.

We then headed up to Mellon Udrigle where we saw 2 knot, sanderling, dunlin, ringed plover and turnstone on the beach along with a white wagtail and 3 rock pipit. Out to see I saw 4 common terns, 2 gannets and a great skua and there were wheatear everywhere and 3 twite and 2 stonechats. We also heard our only wren of the entire week in some bushes here. My target bird for here had been rock dove, which I had never seen before and as with the ptarmigan it wasn’t until we leaving that we saw a pair of them. With these I had seen the 5 lifers I had hope to see on the trip, with three of them in one day.

Leaving the coast behind, we headed inland again to Loch Maree and Benn Eighe. A walk through the woods here brought a grey wagtail, 1 male redstart, siskin and treecreeper and we heard a tawny owl briefly. We then headed home and saw a red kite briefly from the road outside Inverness. We also stopped at lay-by 151 on the A9 to look for ring ouzel and although we could hear one calling we couldn’t see it.

Day 6 – Thursday 13th May

After a long drive the previous day we decided to stay local and went back to Loch Mallachie in the morning to see if an earlier start would yield anymore birds. The woods were still quiet but we saw the crested tits again at the same spot. We then headed to Dulnain Bridge where we had a brief view of a dipper and one grey wagtail. We then headed up to Poorhouse Wood near Grantown and saw one male redstart and a couple of red squirrels but again the woods seemed empty.

Day 7 – Friday 14th May

We headed to the Findhorn Valley in the morning and despite what appeared to be ideal weather conditions for birds of prey only saw a couple of buzzards and a kestrel. There were wheatears around, as well as the ever-present willow warblers and we also heard a cuckoo.

After lunch we headed to Loch Ruthven, where saw 4 Slavonian Grebes, 2 were really close to the hide and gave stunning views. After this we called it a day and headed back to the cottage intending to stop at lay-by 151 again to try for the ring ouzel. Unfortunately the lay-by was filled with a tow truck a broken down car and a police car so we couldn’t stop. Typical that every other lay-by along the A9 had been empty.

Day 8 – Saturday 15th May

Our flight back to London was at 2 in the afternoon so we took our time to get to Inverness airport. A brief stop in lay-by 151 yielded nothing apart from a buzzard and headed on. We had a look on the sea near to the airport and saw about 30 red-breasted mergansers at Alturlie Point. After this we dropped the car off and headed back to the airport to see news that the ash cloud was coming back and would start affecting airports in Scotland the next day. Luckily we weren’t affected and made it back to London fine.

This was a wonderful trip. We couldn’t really have been luckier with the weather (and the ash cloud which closed Inverness airport either side of our holiday) or the birds. I saw all 5 lifers I had hoped to and pretty much everything else. Birds I had hoped to see but didn’t were ring ouzel (heard only), whinchat, tree pipit and spotted flycatcher and we didn’t see any crossbills of any type.

Gordon Hamlett’s book Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands was invaluable and I would recommend this for anyone planning a trip to Scotland. I first went to the area in 1992 and had forgotten how beautiful it was (although the weather was not great on that trip). I would definitely go again.
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