Trip Reports ______________________________________________________
This was the first of our autumn tours concentrating on the Scottish Highlands and the county of Caithness. The weather throughout the week was dominated by a south-westerly airflow which was poor for migrants. Despite this the group had good views of Capercaillie, Rock Ptarmigan, Black and Red Grouse, Hen Harrier, Golden Eagle and Crested Tits attending feeders. Around the coast we witnessed a marked passage of juvenile Northern Gannets, Common Guillemots and Razorbills plus pre-dispersing flocks of Black-throated Divers and the more common Red-throated Diver. A few migrants were noted offshore notably Arctic and Sandwich Terns, Great and Arctic Skuas and Slavonian Grebes. The first winter geese started to arrive mid-week with flocks of Pink-footed, Greylag and a bonus in the form of three Pale-bellied Brent Geese. Wintering waders were starting to build up and included Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff two uncommon species within the Highlands. Towards the end of the week Barn Swallow and House Martin numbers had declined significantly from the highs earlier on.
September 15th: Udale Bay, Cromarty Firth, Charonry Point, Newhall Point.
Weather: Sunny with light west winds 17 C.
I travelled to Inverness Airport to pick up the party for the week. At the airport groups of feeding Barn Swallows and House Martins were present. Due to the tide times I decided to head straight to Udale Bay on the Black Isle. The first observation point had Bar and Black-tailed Godwits, the latter of the Icelandic subspecies, Common Knot, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew, Dunlin, Ruff and several Sandwich Terns which were joined by a juvenile Arctic Tern. Duck numbers are low at the moment but included Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard and Common Teal. We headed down the firth scanning for birds with the deeper waters attracting Red-breasted Merganser, and close to shore around 100 Greater Scaup. We passed through the town of Cromarty and along the Eathie road where we found Common Buzzard, Red Kite, Meadow Pipits and a single Northern Wheatear. At Charonry Point a short seawatch produced little of note apart from Northern Gannets, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, and on the beach Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone.
September 16th: Nairn, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie, Loch Flemington.
Weather: Rather mixed with showers and sunny spells. Southwest wind 14 C.
This morning a quick look at the feeders in the garden produced Eurasian Siskin, European Greenfinch, Great, Blue and Coal Tits and Tree Sparrows, the latter being rather localised in Scotland. Nairn was the first birding spot, starting at the east pier which borders the River Nairn as it flows into the Moray Firth. On the beach a resting flock of gulls included Great Black-backed, Herring, Common, Black-headed and Black-legged Kittiwakes. In the firth we could pick out a Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet and European Shags. Shortly afterwards a quick check of the River Nairn added a White-throated Dipper and a group of Goosanders. Next on the agenda were the pine woods and coastal habitats of Roseisle. En route we could hear the distinctive calls of Pink-footed Geese flying overhead. On arrival we walked to a raised observation point and scanned for birds within the Moray Firth. We were rewarded with sightings of Velvet and Common Scoters and Common Eider. Further along the coast a stop at Burghead revealed migrant White Wagtails, Pied Wagtail, gulls and seaducks. It was time for lunch as we arrived at Lossiemouth east beach where the tide was incredibly high. A bonus here was Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Eurasian Wigeon, Grey Wagtail, plus many waders hiding in the long grasses. I decided to visit Loch Spynie whilst the tide dropped. The loch had few birds as it is in-between seasons. Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Mallard and Mute Swan were present along with Grey Herons. Back at the beach Common Knot, Dunlin and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk being mobbed by swallows. Loch Flemington was visited on our return route where we added the localised Common Moorhen to our list.
September 17th: Sheildaig, Gairloch, Rubha Reidh, Loch Ewe, Loch Gruinard.
Weather: Mixed with heavy showers and sunny spells. Freshening southwest wind 11 C.
Today we headed into the vast wilderness of Wester Ross an area dominated by mountains, rocky shores, sheltered bays and little human habitation. The first stop was the village of Sheildaig where we spent some time looking for eagles without success. Great Cormorant and Common Ravens were present plus the commoner gull species. Gairloch was next on the agenda where we stopped to look into the loch of the same name. Windy conditions made viewing tricky but we managed to locate Red-breasted Mergansers, Great Skua chasing Black-legged Kittiwakes and the usual fly past of Northern Gannets. Rubha Reidh lighthouse is reached by following a narrow dead-end track. A short seawatch here added winter-plumaged Black Guillemots, Common Scoter and a Red-throated Diver. On the return journey brief views of a male Merlin before it promptly disappeared from view. Bushes by the road held a family of Common Stonechats, Twite and Eurasian Linnets. Loch Ewe was next on the agenda an area which is protected from the prevailing westerly winds. After careful scanning we located a flock of Black-throated Divers some of which retained their summer plumages. On the sandy beach we found feeding Bar-tailed Godwit and Sanderling whilst the fields had Greylag Geese and a migrant Northern Wheatear. A stop at Gruinard Bay proved to be unproductive so we headed back to the Black Isle.
September 18th: Novar, Loch Fleet, Brora, Embo, Dornoch.
Weather: Another mixed day with cloud and rain showers. Southwest wind 11 C.
We started by visiting Novar a large estate north of the Cromarty Firth. The old trees, moor and open woods make it an attractive place for birds and mammals. A slow walk along one of the many trails produced the commoner woodland species including good numbers of Goldcrests, tits and robins. Above the forest we could hear migrant Pink-footed Geese and the distinctive calls of Scottish Crossbills. Two Eurasian Jays were briefly seen a rare bird of the Highland region. Near the end of the walk we noticed a feeding flock of Mistle Thrushes and a party of Long-tailed Tits. Next on the agenda was the remote road running from Bonar Bridge to Loch Fleet. At the loch we stopped to scan and look into a section which is controlled by flood gates. Greylag Goose, Great Cormorant, Northern Lapwing and Eurasian Curlew were present at the far end. I decided to head north towards Brora which may offer something different. The tide at Brora was very high which concentrated the birds today and made good birding. The River Brora and its adjacent rocks and sandy beaches attracted Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Common Redshank, Sandwich and Arctic Terns, Grey Wagtail and a Northern Wheatear. In the river a White-throated Dipper showed well feeding along the bank. Back at Loch Fleet a Peregrine Falcon was seen hunting gulls and waders. Embo was good where we located Great and Arctic Skuas, Common Eider, auks and a Rock Pipit. Our last stop at Dornoch added a female Merlin sitting on a horizontal branch a fitting end to the day.
September 19th: Grantown-on-Spey, Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Loch Garten, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road.
Weather: Clear skies with showers later on. Sleet at Cairngorm 4 C/11 C.
Started early today and arrived in the forest at Grantown as dawn broke. This was a wise move as we located a male Capercaillie standing quietly in the forest before flying up into the trees to feed. This took the pressure off for the rest of the day as it is an increasingly difficult bird to locate. Further down the track we found several Goldcrests, Coal and Great Tits, Eurasian Treecreeper and overhead southbound Pink-footed Geese. Breakfast taken in Grantown and then off to the Cairngorm Mountains. With our new licence we can take the train up and walk out which was not possible to do before. This proved to be a brilliant time saver as Martin soon located a Rock Ptarmigan feeding among the snow-covered rocks. Little else present as low cloud and sleet prevailed even in mid-September. Loch Morlich added Common Goldeneye before we headed to Loch Garten for lunch. The centre is closed when the Osprey’s leave which is a shame as the forest has much to offer. The feeders allowed us to watch Great Spotted Woodpecker, Coal, Crested, Great and Blue Tits and Eurasian Treecreepers at close range. Our afternoon foray into the Findhorn Valley added Eurasian Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Mistle Thrush and high numbers of Pied Wagtails. At the end the car park was open to the elements and made viewing difficult at times. Next was the Farr Road with fantastic views of Red Grouse and Northern Wheatear. Back at base an Osprey was feeding on a recently caught fish, getting late for this bird being around. It was not seen after this date.
September 20th: Wick, Loch Watten, Loch Scarmclate, Dunnet Bay, St John’s Loch, Loch of Mey, Broubster Leans, Sandside Bay.
Weather: Cloudy with rain showers. Northwest wind 11 C.
Today we headed due north to the town of Wick. Our first birding stop was at the River Wick which flows through the town. The hedges and campsite held the commoner birds including a flock of European Goldfinches. On the river we located Goosander, Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal. Further west is Loch Watten an important area for wintering wildfowl. Careful scanning of the lake revealed Little Grebe, hundreds of Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye and in adjacent fields Greylag Geese (probably Icelandic migrants). Loch Scarmclate is close by where similar birds were present plus four Common Pochards a scarce bird in Northern Scotland. The tide at Dunnet Bay was exceptionally high so St John’s Loch was visited next. On the loch Mute and Whooper Swans, diving ducks and gulls. At the hide a Common Moorhen was present and little else. I decided to visit the hide at Loch of Mey which sadly is in a rundown state of repair. The usual ducks were on the loch plus a flock of Northern Lapwings. Revisited Dunnet Bay recording; Northern Gannet, Arctic Tern, Common Guillemot, Razorbill and a Red-throated Diver. Time was getting on as we entered the road which runs by Broubster Leans. We watched over this extensive marsh until a male Hen Harrier appeared from nowhere to give us spectacular views. The last stop was Sandside Bay where we added a few waders to the bird list including Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwit. Back to base on the Black Isle via the flow country and Helmsdale.
September 21st: Corrimony, Strathconon, Dalmore, Barbaraville, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Nigg Bay, Udale Bay.
Final species total : 112
Weather: Sunny and cool with northwest winds 13 C.
Our final day started with a visit to Corrimony. Met up with Simon the warden and headed up towards the reserve. Bang on time the Black Grouse were lekking at close range allowing extremely close views. Two leks were visited producing 18 males and a female. Travelled to Dingwall for a late breakfast and then to Strathconon a long glen spreading westwards into Wester Ross. It was a slight gamble coming here but it paid off as Martin located an adult Golden Eagles sitting high on a ledge. To our surprise a juvenile eagle started calling and took off to pursue one of its parents. Dalmore Distillery was next on our route but it was very quiet so I pressed on towards the village of Barbaraville. The tide was starting to come in pushing the birds closer to us all the time. Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew and Red-breasted Mergansers were common. In the deeper waters we found several Slavonian Grebes. Lunch taken at Portmahomack and afterwards a visit to the peninsula of Tarbatness. This is a noted migrant trap although the winds were not in our favour on this visit. Two Sandwich Terns plus the usual Northern Gannets were our reward. In the car park the feeders attracted tits, finches and Dunnocks. Nigg Bay is not too far-away so we dropped in as the tide hit its highest peak. The commoner waders were around plus a single Whooper Swan. The best however was a male and female Merlin perched on posts. The early start was kicking in as we visited the new viewing platform at Udale Bay. Similar birds to a week ago with the addition of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in freshwater pools.
This was the first long weekend of our winter bird programme. It was mainly aimed at observing the thousands of geese, sea ducks and waders which winter around the firths of Northern Scotland. During our five days we managed to observe many interesting species including rafts of Greater Scaup, Common and Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Duck and Common Goldeneyes. Less usual geese species included small groups of Pale-bellied Brent and Barnacle Geese on the first day on the Cromarty Firth. Inland we located flocks of wintering finches including a sizeable flock of Twite. On the last morning Bohemian Waxwings were located in a village on the Black Isle plus a large group of Lesser Redpolls were close to Dingwall. In total the group recorded 101 species in four full days.
November 21st: Redcastle, Alcaig, Saltburn, Nigg Bay
Weather: Clear and sunny with a cool southwest wind 7 C
Today started with a visit to Redcastle on the northern side of the Beauly Firth. The tide was fairly low when we arrived at the car park. The commoner geese and ducks were around plus a few wintering Bar-tailed Godwits feeding on the mud. A move onto Alcaig a hamlet adjacent to the Cromarty Firth proved productive. Thankfully the area is not disturbed too much during the winter months. Careful scanning of the channels and mud provided us with views of Pink-footed and Greylag Geese, Eurasian Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew and hundreds of Common Redshanks. Nearby a pair of Red Kites floated over looking for carrion. Our journey took us towards Dalmore Distillery which is close to Invergordon. A brief stop here added a flock of European Linnets, a Grey Wagtail and Common Buzzards sitting quietly in the large trees. Further up the road a stop at Saltburn proved to be productive as a party of Barnacle Geese were resting on the shore. In the firth we found Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eiders. The light was starting to fade as we reached the hide at Nigg Bay. The rising tide attracted Pale-bellied Brent Geese and Northern Pintail two localised and uncommon winter visitors in these parts.
November 22nd: Grantown-on-Spey, Nethybridge, Loch Garten, Farr Road, Nairn, Loch Flemington
Weather: Rain and overcast conditions with a west wind 7 C
The weather this morning was truly awful as we headed south towards Speyside. Our first stop at Grantown-on-Spey was in a sector of old Caledonian forest. En route we flushed a Eurasian Woodcock on the Black Isle. In the forest birdlife was very quiet with sightings of Coal and Great Tits and a brief view of Eurasian Bullfinch. The river at Nethybridge was in full flood so I headed towards Loch Garten. Even here it was rather bird-less around the feeding stations apart from a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blue Tit and several Red Squirrels. Lunch was taken along the Farr Road where we had fantastic views of Red Grouse by the roadside. After this we headed back towards the coast to look at the sea off Nairn. The sandy beaches here attracted many birds including Herring, Great Black-backed, Common and Black-headed Gulls, with Bar-tailed Godwit and Eurasian Oystercatchers both in high numbers. Offshore we had sightings of Great Cormorant, European Shag, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Scoters. Our final stop at Loch Flemington produced Common Moorhen and three female Common Goldeneyes.
November 23rd: Balintore, Tarbatness, Portmahomack, Tain, Loch Fleet, Brora, Embo, Bonar Bridge
Weather: Sunny with a cool southwest wind 7 C
A bright sunny day dawned as we set off for the vast agricultural landscapes and coast of Easter Ross. Balintore was first on the list where a Eurasian Sparrowhawk was hunting small birds by the road. Skeins of geese were passing overhead at regular intervals mainly Pink-footed with the occasional Greylag. The narrow road to Tarbatness passes through stubble fields where several hundred Whooper Swans were grazing with a few geese. Great to see and even better was the number of cygnets within the flocks. Parked up at Tarbetness where the fence-line feeders attracted the commoner birds plus Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer. We walked towards the point a cold place in November. Offshore birds included Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern Divers, Common Eider and surprisingly large numbers of Black Guillemots in winter plumage (up to 30 birds). On the rocks we had views of cormorants and shags, Meadow and Rock Pipits and Eurasian Oystercatchers. Portmahomack was next where the quay and rocks attracted the scarce and declining Purple Sandpiper. In the more sheltered waters Razorbill, Common Guillemot and Long-tailed Ducks. Tain is further north where we stopped by the extensive mud flats of the Dornoch Firth. The area was full of ducks and waders including several thousand Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Common Shelduck, Red Knot and a single Dunlin. Joined the A9 we stopped at The Mound, an area of Loch Fleet. The high tide had affected the birds although we added Little Grebe, Common Goldeneye and Common Raven to the day list. Lunch was taken at Brora where the only bird of note was Ringed Plover. The light was starting to go as we arrived at Embo. The sheltered waters here were a haven for birds with Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet, Common Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebes present. Earlier we had stopped by a house with a single tree next to Loch Fleet which held over 100 Twite and equal numbers of European Linnets. I decided to take the back road towards Bonar Bridge which is a desolate place in winter. On the fields flocks of Fieldfare, Redwing and occasional Mistle Thrush. On arrival in Bonar Bridge we located Common Merganser and the more widespread ducks and geese.
Weather: Sunny with cool southwest winds 6 C
We left Cygnus House before dawn in order to arrive at Nairn for first light. Our main interest was the River Nairn which flows into the Moray Firth. The usual ducks and gulls were on the river including a male Northern Pintail. Steve then found a White-throated Dipper feeding and preening by the bank – it allowed extended views. Afterwards we went on the back-roads to Forres which are dotted with farms, hedges and fields. Near the golf club a pair of Eurasian Magpies on a feeder. The hedges provided us with Tree and House Sparrows, Common Chaffinch, Common Stonechat, Yellowhammer, Fieldfare and Mistle Thrush. At Roseisle we headed towards the overlook with views over the Moray Firth. Numbers of seaducks have declined in recent years but we managed to find Velvet and Common Scoters, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and Slavonian Grebe. In the pines lots of Coal Tits, at least two Crested Tits and Eurasian Treecreepers. We followed the coast road visiting Burghead, Hopeman and Lossiemouth with similar birds to earlier in the day. The exceptions being Rock Pipit, Ruddy Turnstone and a single Purple Sandpiper. We ended the day at Loch Spynie where good numbers of Common Goldeneyes and Tufted Ducks were on the loch. Long-tailed Tits were heard calling from the forest. Back to the Black Isle where we checked road edges, fields and posts for birds without success.
November 25th: Udale Bay, Cromarty Firth, Culbokie, Inverness, Lochussie.
Final species total: 101
Weather: Rain showers and cloud on a south wind 3 C.
A later start today as we bird-watched from the house. The feeders attracted a wide range of thrushes, finches and sparrows. Our first stop was the new viewing point at Udale Bay. Close views of Pink-footed and Greylag Geese, Mute and Whooper Swans, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Red Knot, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew and Eurasian Oystercatchers. Driving round to the new hide we located three wintering Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits and Northern Lapwings. Further down the road past Jemimaville we scanned the firth finding Slavonian Grebes, the large Greater Scaup flock, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Common Goldeneye. The hedgerows attracted Redwing, Fieldfare and Eurasian Blackbirds. A drive around the Black Isle added the locally scarce Eurasian Jay, Goldcrest and Long-tailed Tit on the forest edge. I decided to visit an area near Dingwall but this was delayed as we found a party of Bohemian Waxwings in a garden (c45 birds). Great views were obtained along with Lesser Redpolls. Time was getting on as we made a short visit to Inverness and the Kessock Bridge area. To my surprise a Common Otter was seen eating a large fish under the bridge itself. Long-tailed Ducks and Common Goldeneyes were numerous here. The last birding stop was at Lochussie (our original destination before the waxwings). The woodland here held Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Siskin and a flock of Lesser Redpolls. On the loch Mute Swan, Tufted Duck, Common Coot and some fine male Common Mergansers. The light was very poor as I headed to Inverness Airport where the tour concluded.
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