Trip Reports ______________________________________________________



Scotland (Highlands) 2016 (1 of 4)

...with Mark Finn

April 3rd - 10th

This was the first of several tours for Black Isle Birding in 2016. Early April often brings a few surprises and on this tour it was no different to previous years. The group visited several different areas of the Highlands taking in a wide variety of habitats and sites. There was a significant build up of wintering birds which had started their migration northwards including a substantial build up of Slavonian Grebes in the Cromarty Firth totalling over fifty individuals. Pink-footed Geese numbers were starting to build and the group also managed several species of gulls including Glaucous and Iceland. The first Ospreys were noted plus a singing Ring Ouzel in the Cairngorm Mountains. Ptarmigan were also seen at lower levels than normal due to heavy snow. Black Grouse at Corrimony put on another super show whilst the pools near Strathpeffer attracted the first Sand Martins and Barn Swallows.

April 3rd: Charonry Point, Cromarty Firth, Udale Bay.

Weather: Unsettled with rain showers 9 C

Today was a day of pick ups from Inverness Airport in the afternoon. We stayed on the Black Isle for the few hours we had available. First on the agenda was Charonry Point which has seen a major refurbishment since the summer of 2015. A walk towards the point saw us looking at a very close Bottle-nosed Dolphin. Behind the dolphin several rafts of Common Guillemot and Razorbill, whilst in the air above returning Northern Gannets and Sandwich Terns. We made short stops at the Cromarty Firth and Udale Bay before arriving at Cygnus House our base for the week.

April 4th: Udale Bay, Cromarty Firth, Ullapool, Tollie, Strathpeffer, Dingwall.

Weather: Frequent rain showers on a west wind 7 C.

The feeders at Cygnus House were crammed full of hungry birds as the temperature was low this morning. On the feeders were Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Chaffinch, Brambling, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Eurasian Siskin, House and Tree Sparrows and the resident Blackbirds and Dunnocks. After breakfast the first stop was the hide at Udale Bay. The exposed mud attracted Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Shelduck and a few lingering Pink-footed Geese and Eurasian Wigeon. The gull roost was starting to form with Great Black-backed, Herring, Common and Black-headed present. A short distance down the road a further stop allowed us to scan the deeper waters of the Cromarty Firth which provided us with sightings of Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers. Due to weather I decided to head west towards the port of Ullapool with a stop on the way for a pair of Whooper Swans, Tree and Meadow Pipits and Reed Buntings all of which were on territory. On arrival in Ullapool a check of the waterfront added a returning Greenshank, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and just offshore Red-throated Diver and Black Guillemot. A check of the harbour added a first year Glaucous Gull. A return to the Dingwall area and a visit to Tollie where we enjoyed the spectacle of Red Kites being fed meat scraps. Strathpeffer is close by and with it the Slavonian Grebes which showed well. Also on the lochans were Barn Swallow and Sand Martins. A Common Chiffchaff was heard before we returned back to base for the night.

April 5th: Brora, Helmsdale, Wick, Loch Watten, Dunnet Bay, St John's Loch, Scrabster Harbour, Thurso, Broubster Leans.

Weather: Cloudy and a northwest wind 7 C.

Today we headed north into the wilderness of Sutherland and Caithness. Before leaving a male Brambling in breeding plumage was seen on the feeders, a truly beautiful bird. Our first stop was at Brora where the tide was extremely high, this worked to our advantage as Purple Sandpipers were roosting on the exposed rocks - 32 in total. Offshore there was a steady stream of Red-throated Divers and auks plus the commoner gull species. In a bay adjacent to the golf club several rafts of Common Eiders and passing Northern Fulmars. We continued north making a brief stop at Helmsdale and onto Wick and the river of the same name. A surprise find was three Ruff, a scarce species at any time of the year in Northern Scotland. Filled up with fuel and travelled to Loch Watten a large loch which attracts wildfowl in numbers. Good numbers of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, Tufted Duck and Common Goldeneye. At the far end of the loch a mixed group of Mute and Whooper Swans. It was time for lunch at Dunnet Bay a sheltered spot away from the Pentland Firth. The waters here had Great Northern and Red-throated Divers and Sandwich Terns. On the sandy beach an assortment of gulls, Grey and Pied Wagtails and a Bar-tailed Godwit. Off to St John's Loch with Common Stonechats en route. At the loch plenty of diving ducks and swans whilst the pool had a pair of Northern Shoveler, Common Moorhen, Little Grebe and a hunting Eurasian Kestrel. Stops at Thurso and Scrabster Harbour added little of interest so I pushed on to Broubster Leans. This remote and rarely visited reserve gave us views of Northern Lapwing, European Golden Plover, Common Redshank, Common Snipe and a flock of Lesser Redpolls perching on fence lines. Our journey took us through farmland and moors with a fast-flowing river which had a White-throated Dipper and singing Reed Buntings. A great day in the extreme north of Scotland.

April 6th: Loch Flemington, Nairn, Findhorn Bay, Roseisle, Burghead, Hopeman, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie.

Weather: Cloudy with a wet wind 8 C.

A change of habitat and scene today as we headed east along the Moray coast with a first stop at Loch Flemington. Similar birds to a week ago with the addition of migrant Sand Martins. Nairn was next on the agenda with the tide again being high. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk was seen on the outskirts of Nairn whist the beach area held gulls, Sandwich Terns and Razorbill. A quick check of the river revealed Goosander, Grey Wagtail and White-throated Dipper. Next was Findhorn Bay where a roost of Knot was notable along with a few Bar-tailed Godwits. Roseisle is just along the coast a complex of pine woods and coast with mixed farmland on the entrance road. A scan of the sea revealed the presence of Long-tailed Ducks, Velvet Scoter and passing Northern Gannets. In the forest calling Coal Tits, and overhead a group of Common Crossbills. Continuing along the coast towards Burghead and Hopeman where the sea added a group of Common Scoters, Common Eider and close inshore a Red-throated Diver. Lunch at Hopeman and the nearby pig farm the latter having plenty of gulls. En route to Lossiemouth a regional rarity in the form of a Eurasian Magpie flew across the road. A check at Lossiemouth added nothing new for the day. Loch Spynie was the last place where the woodland had Great Spotted Woodpecker, Dunnock and European Robin. In the woods breeding Grey Herons. From the hide a scan of the loch produced the commoner swans and ducks but no migrants or unusual birds on this occasion.

April 7th: Achnahalt, Achnasheen, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Laide, Mellon Udrigle Loch Gruinart.

Weather: Rather mixed on a west wind 10 C.

Wester Ross and its varied landscapes was our destination today. After passing by Dingwall we turned west towards a largely uninhabited area dominated by mountains and sea lochs. Before Achnahalt a check on the Osprey confirmed it had arrived back from its wintering grounds in Africa. Both Achnahalt and Achnasheen were shrouded in low cloud making birding difficult so we pressed on to Kinlochewe. The mature trees here attracted finches, tits, Goldcrest, and both Song and Mistle Thrushes. A short diversion westwards revealed a Black-throated Diver back on its breeding loch. Today was proving to be rather frustrating for sightings with the beach and loch at Gairloch having Ringed Plover, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Guillemot and Razorbill. Best of all was a hunting Common Otter close inshore. Our luck started to change as we drove down the side of Loch Ewe with the first Northern Wheatear of the spring. Windy conditions were making it tough to find birds on the choppy loch waters with the exception of the Poolewe end. A stop here added Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Red-breasted Merganser, Slavonian Grebe, Grey Heron and Common Ravens. Laide was visited for divers before heading along the dead end road to Mellon Udrigle. The fields were full of migrant Redwings and at least two White Wagtails. Time was getting on as we stopped at Loch Gruinart on our way home, no sign of any eagles today despite good weather in the afternoon.

April 8th: Corrimony, Novar, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road, Redcastle.

Weather: Cloudy with rain showers on a west wind 8 C.

An early departure today to be at Corrimony for first light. On arrival we met up with Simon and travelled up towards the first lekking ground for Black Grouse. They put on a fantastic display this morning with five on the first lek and fourteen on the second. The loch in between the leks had a pair of Red-throated Divers, Greylag Geese, Common Goldeneye and Goosander. A drive to the turning circle provided us with views over the reserve plus a singing Common Chiffchaff, Lesser Redpoll and Common Raven. On the return route the fields attracted a few Northern Lapwings and Eurasian Curlews. Breakfast was taken in Dingwall followed by a visit to the Novar Estate. Overhead a steady northward passage of geese. A walk around the lower forest revealed high numbers of Coal Tit and Goldcrest and parties of Eurasian Siskins. To ourdisappointment there was no sign of the regular crossbill flocks. It was time to make a major decision due to the weather, and we decided to head south towards the Findhorn Valley. This proved to be a good move as our first stop produced views of Mountain Hares still in white winter plumage, an easy target for any raptors. In no time at all at least two sub-adult Golden Eagles appeared over the ridge to hunt the hares - excellent views. Further up the valley a few Red-legged Partridges and hunting Eurasian Kestrels. The road over the Farr Road had plenty of Red Grouse close to the road. Our final birding spot along the Beauly Firth at Redcastle provided us with many ducks including Northern Pintail a rather localised and uncommon bird.

April 9th: Cairngorm, Loch Garten, Abernethy, Udale Bay, Cromarty Firth.

Weather: Mixed with heavy cloud and snow showers on Cairngorm 0 C / 11 C.

Down the A9 to Aviemore and up to the Cairngorm Railway where I used my guiding permit to take the group out at the top. To my surprise the top levels were still covered by thick snow along with poor visibility. So we headed back down again after about an hour. By the car park up to four White-throated Dippers flew downstream with a Grey Wagtail. On the hillside several Red Grouse and displaying Meadow Pipits. Best of all was a singing male Ring Ouzel in the mountain garden a real bonus for the time of year. A scan of the rocky hillside also produced a pair of Rock Ptarmigan at low levels. Off to Loch Garten with the Osprey back on its nest. Plenty of birds on the feeders including a pair of Crested Tits which can be tricky to locate in April and May. Lunch taken at Abernethy where the forest was very quiet apart from a pair of Long-tailed Tits. I decided to go back towards the Black Isle and revisit the Cromarty Firth and Udale Bay - a masterstroke. The firth was dead flat and calm meaning we could see everything which was present. Up to 54 Slavonian Grebes together must be a good record along with just under 200 Greater Scaup and a scattering of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eiders. An Osprey literally flew over our heads with a fish and headed towards the forest. At Udale Bay a substantial increase in Common Redshanks concluded an interesting day's birding.

April 10th: Burghead, Muirton, Loch Flemington.

Weather: Light rain showers on a west wind 8 C.

The final morning was spent in Moray looking for birds that were reported in the last few days. I checked Burghead again only to find a higher number of Common Scoters offshore and a light passage of Northern Gannet, Red-throated Diver, Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Muirton was visited which is south of Lossiemouth and is known for its pig farms. On the road to Muirton a flock of Whooper Swans and scattered numbers of Greylag Geese. I checked a farm near the air base which resulted in the location of an adult Iceland Gull and a group of Eurasian Linnets feeding on seed heads. We had to be at the airport for 1300 hours so wet set off via Loch Flemington again. Similar birds to our last visit with an increase in the number of hirundines.

Scotland (Highlands) 2016 (2 of 4)

...with Mark Finn

May 7th - 14th

This was the second week-long tour of 2016 and the first during the important birding month of May. In total the group recorded 136 species of birds during the week. The group had many highlights with several sightings of lingering winter visitors including Pale-bellied Brent Geese, and large flocks of Common Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks off Portmahomack. Large numbers of divers were observed in their splendid breeding dress. Rarer species included an unexpected European Honey Buzzard in Wester Ross, a male Northern Goshawk, White-tailed Eagle, Iceland Gull and a Wood Sandpiper on its breeding grounds. A good selection of summer migrants were also noted including Spotted Flycatchers, Wood Warblers and Common Redstart. A highlight for many was the lekking grounds of Black Grouse and a male Ring Ouzel at Cairngorm.

The next spring tours of the Highlands are planned for late April and May 2017.

May 7th/8th: Inverness area, Achnahalt, Achnasheen, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Laide,
Mellon Udrigle, Loch Gruinard.

Weather: Rain showers followed by afternoon sunny spells. NE wind 8 C/20 C

May 7th was mainly a pick up day from Inverness airport as flights started to arrive from early afternoon onwards. At Cygnus House the group were treated to the delights of the feeders which held high numbers of Eurasian Siskins and many other species. On the morning of the 8th we set off in a westerly direction and joined the Wester Ross Coastal Trail a scenic ride which passes through dramatic mountain scenes and rugged coast. The first stop was at Achnahalt with an elevated viewpoint out across a loch towards an abandoned village. A careful scan of the loch revealed a pair of nesting Whooper Swans, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and displaying Common Greenshanks. By the road the trees had singing Willow Warblers, Eurasian Wren plus Common Cuckoos looking for likely hosts. A short stop at Kinlochewe with its gardens and large trees is often rewarding. On this occasion the commoner tits, Northern Wheatear and Common Stonechats. The road passes Loch Maree and eventually to the coastal settlement of Gairloch. The beach here held Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Ringed Plover and displaying Rock Pipits. In the sheltered waters of Loch Gairloch we watched Red-throated Divers with a few Great Northern Divers mixed in as well. As the day progressed a stop for lunch at the head of Loch Ewe an important birding area as and former marine base from years gone past. Various gulls were around the shore edge and Grey Herons feeding on seaweed from the nearby colony. The main interest was to come near the end of the road when a dark phase European Honey Buzzard suddenly appeared from nowhere. A rare sighting this far north. The sheep fields were attracting migrant Whimbrel, White Wagtails and singing Eurasian Skylarks. The offshore waters of the loch held many Black-throated Divers and north bound Arctic Terns. Further stops at Mellon Udrigle, Laide and Gruinard Bay added little of note so we headed home to the Black Isle.

May 9th: Corrimony, Strathconon, Strathpeffer, Tollie, Udale Bay, Cromarty Firth.

Weather: Foggy in the morning followed by sunny spells. SE wind 7 C/18 C.

An early departure for Corrimony a remote and beautiful reserve close to the Great Glen. I had arranged to meet up with Simon the warden at 5am to visit two Black Grouse leks with the group. The grouse duly danced and called at close range giving us all a memorable experience. A female Red Grouse was seen just below the turning circle where we stopped to admire the view. Nearby a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, Common Cuckoo, Willow Warbler and ever-present Meadow Pipits. A stop by the loch on the return journey produced two Red-throated Divers, Eurasian Teal, Goosander and a male Grey Wagtail. After saying goodbye to Simon we set off for Dingwall and breakfast which was appreciated by all. Strathconon was next on the agenda, a long glen with at its start extensive birch forests. A good start with a pair of Spotted Flycatchers recently arrived from sub-Saharan Africa. Careful searching and listening came up with views of Common Redstart, Wood Warbler, Eurasian Treecreeper and a hunting Red Kite from Tollie. Strathpeffer is not faraway with the lower lochan holding a pair of Slavonian Grebes. Also on the loch were Eurasian Coots, Sedge Warbler and Reed Bunting. The top lochan had similar birds plus Little Grebe, Mute Swan, Tufted Duck and in the sedges Common Moorhen, Long-tailed Tits and Lesser Redpolls. Back to the Black Isle where a late flock of Pink-footed Geese fed on the grassland with Common Shelduck, Common Redshank and Bar-tailed Godwit. Further down the firth a few Common Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks in their handsome 'chocolate' plumage. A quick look at the coastal village of Cromarty was followed by a slow drive through the extensive farmland. This paid off with views of Grey Partridges an increasingly rare bird in Britain.

May 10th: Ullapool, Achatilbuie, Handa, Balnakiel.

Weather: Sunny and warm with south winds 25 C.

Back to the west coast and the fishing and ferry port of Ullapool. Lots of gulls around the harbour and beach with the addition of Common Sandpiper and Whimbrel at the latter. Over the next hour or so we explored the area north west of Ullapool for a King Eider without much success. We went north to Handa where we had lunch followed by a visit to Handa island. The crossing had Black Guillemots and rafts of Black-legged Kittiwakes. On landing at Handa a walk towards the Great Cliff allowed a close approach to Great and Arctic Skuas. At the cliff views of seabirds including Northern Fulmar, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and marauding Common Ravens. On the return walk David had seen a White-tailed Eagle flying over the island whilst a few of us glimpsed a female Hen Harrier. Another surprise came on the beach when an Iceland Gull flew over our heads and promptly went out to sea. Checked in at Durness for an evening meal of fish and chips. At 8pm we headed out to Balnakiel to look over the marshes. It always produces good birds with this visit having Little Grebe, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck and on our return a Wood Sandpiper which was probably nesting in the area.

May 11th: Kyle of Durness, Balnakiel Bay, Hope Valley, Dunnet Bay, St John's Pool, Dunnet Head,

Weather: Sunny with SE winds 19 C.

A pre-breakfast visit to the Kyle of Durness produce Sandwich Terns on the sand bars and Twite feeding on dandelions by a stonewall. In Balnakiel Bay two Great Northern Divers had arrived overnight. Our journey took us east along the shores of Loch Eriboll and into the Hope Valley which is dominated by Ben Hope a large pointed mountain which dominates the countryside here. In the loch which runs through the glen another pair of Whooper Swans, Greylag Geese and singing Sedge Warblers. No eagles on this visit but a bonus came in the form of a showy Grasshopper Warbler singing from the top of a small bush - great views. We picked up supplies in Thurso and headed to Dunnet Bay where Red-throated and Black-throated Divers showed in the calmer waters. Common and Arctic Terns were also present along with a small party of Long-tailed Ducks. St John's Pool has several hides allowing a close approach to the birds. Sandwich and Arctic Terns were nesting with Black-headed and Common Gulls. In the denser areas of reeds Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Northern Shoveler and Common Moorhens. Dunnet Head is close by the most northerly point of mainland Britain. A scan of the cliffs had all the regular auks and gulls whilst offshore we watched passing Northern Gannets. Time to head south and home with a diversion at Forsinard for European Golden Plovers and an immature male Hen Harrier hunting over the extensive moors.

May 12th: Novar Estate, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Embo, Loch Fleet, The Mound, Brora.

Weather: Sunny with cool SE winds 16 C.

A later start today as we headed to the Novar Estate near Evanton. Although private, a series of paths run through the old pinewoods and plantations. In the car park the songs of Coal Tit and Goldcrest. A short walk further up the path produced a Tree Pipit giving its distinctive song from the top of a pine tree. Luck was with us a few minutes later when a pair of Scottish Crossbills were noted feeding on large pine cones. The circular walk passes through mature conifers where we had brief but good views of a male Northern Goshawk sailing over the forest. Portmahomack is further east and situated on the North Sea coast. We gambled on locating late winter sea-ducks and this paid off with a large group of Common Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider and Red-breasted Mergansers. A bonus came in the form of a Black-throated Diver which is scarcer on the east coast. Tarbatness is close by, a long peninsula dominated by a lighthouse and a habitat of heather and gorse. In the car park feeders attracted Yellowhammer, Great, Blue and Coal Tits and a few Dunnocks. The walk down to the point added Willow Warbler, Eurasian Linnet and European Robins on the wires. Lunch was taken and then a journey further north to Embo and Loch Fleet. A few waders were seen including Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Whimbrel and Common Greenshank. A diversion to Brora added a fishing Osprey and Common Sandpiper but nothing else new for the day.

May 13th: Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Loch Garten, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road.

Weather: Rather mixed with NE winds 8 C.

Down to Cairngorm this morning and an excursion into the mountains. To our dismay the railway was closed due to technical reasons so we had to abort it for the day. A walk around the lower car park added a superb male Ring Ouzel and several Red Grouse giving their gruff calls. A stop at Loch Morlich had Common Goldeneyes near their nest boxes around the lake. we decided to give Loch Garten a visit where the car park feeders attracted a Crested Tit, sometimes a tricky bird to see in May. In nearby larch and spruce trees good views of Common Crossbills. Next on the agenda was the Findhorn Valley where White-throated Dippers put in an appearance on the rocks of the Findhorn River. In the grassy areas Red-legged Partridges and breeding Northern Lapwing. We ended the day driving slowly over the Farr Road with close views of Red Grouse.

May 14th: Black Isle, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie.

Weather: Sunny with NW winds 10 C.

The last day of the tour as we headed east towards the coastal town of Lossiemouth. On the east beach hordes of roosting gulls of several species including a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Shorebirds were few but included Ruddy Turnstone and Dunlin. In the deeper waters a male Goosander was of note. Inland from the coast is Loch Spynie an enclosed freshwater loch surrounded by deep reedbeds. On the entrance track Great Spotted Woodpecker, Willow Warbler and Yellowhammers. A male Blackcap was also singing from cover. From the hide the loch revealed Little Grebe, Great Cormorant, Tufted Duck, Mallard and Eurasian Wigeon. In the reeds the distinctive songs of Reed Buntings and Sedge Warblers.

Scotland (Highlands) 2016 (3 of 4)

...with Mark Finn

May 24th - 30th

This was the second week tour taking place in late May. Good weather helped in finding several excellent species during the week including a Hoopoe close to Cygnus House. Other highlights included lekking Black Grouse at Corrimony, some very showy Rock Ptarmigan on the top ofCairngorm with Eurasian Dotterel and displaying Snow Buntings. Lower down a pair of Ring Ouzels feeding young was a memorable experience. White-tailed and Golden Eagles were noted with pairs of Slavonian Grebes near Strathpeffer. Passerines were starting to settle down to breed although we located singing Wood Warblers, Common Redstart and a Corn Bunting the latter a rare species of the Highland region.

The next spring tours of the Highlands are planned for late April and May 2017.

May 24th: Achnahalt, Achnasheen, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Laide, Mellon Udrigle,
Gruinard Bay, Badcaul.

Weather: Rather mixed with a cool NW wind 16 C

We started the week-long tour by heading west into the wilderness of Wester Ross, a huge sparsely populated area of mountains, lochs and forest. Our first stop at Achnahalt produced a pair of Whooper Swans, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Mallard and Common Sandpipers. In the silver birch trees singing Willow Warblers and Tree Pipits. A short diversion at Achnasheen saw us watching a superb Black-throated Diver at close range. The weather was showery as we drove down to Kinlochewe where a few trees attract many birds. The commoner species were around, plus a singing Blackcap, Eurasian Siskin and displaying Lesser Redpolls. Our journey continued to the coastal village of Gairloch where the sea loch had Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Eider and European Shag. On the beach a pair of Ringed Plover and a summer plumaged Ruddy Turnstone. Several Arctic Terns were in and around Gairloch fishing along the edge. It was time to visit the sheltered Loch Ewe area which to start with was rather quiet. A slow drive down the road added Common Stonechat, Sedge Warbler, Northern Wheatear, Eurasian Skylark and flocks of Rock Pigeons. Lunch was taken at the campground where a Greenshank showed plus a Golden Eagle with well-grown young on a distant sea cliff. Laide and Mellon Udrigle produced a Black Guillemot, at least three pairs of Twite and smart Pied Wagtails. On the way home we passed the towering mountain of Ben Wyvis which still had snow on the highest peaks.

May 25th: Corrimony, Strathconon, Strathpeffer, Novar Estate, Portmahomack, Tarbatness.

Weather: Cloudy with NE winds on the coast 11 C.

An earlier departure today in order to watch Black Grouse at Corrimony, with this being about the latest spring date to watch them before their dispersal to moult. We met up with Simon at 5am and proceeded to the forest and lekking grounds. Great views of nineteen birds at two leks followed. The small loch was also productive for Red-throated Diver, Greylag Goose, Eurasian Teal and Greenshank whilst the short-cropped grass attracted Northern Lapwings and Song Thrushes. Back to Dingwall for a welcome breakfast and then onto Strathconon, where the birch woods are attractive to migrant breeding birds. Bird song was rather less than two weeks previously, with Mistle Thrush and Eurasian Wren being in full song. With a bit of perseverance we managed to find a male Common Redstart and a Wood Warbler belting out his beautiful song. Next on the agenda were the lochans at Strathpeffer where we were greeted by singing Common Whitethroat which arrived late this year. The lochans provided us with excellent views of Slavonian Grebes plus Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Common Coot, Common Moorhen and hordes of House and Sand Martins, Barn Swallows and a good count of Common Swifts numbering almost 50 in total. Deep in the reeds a Water Rail gave its pig-like squeals. In the trees and rushes the group located Sedge Warbler, Reed Bunting, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Treecreeper and a singing Common Chiffchaff. Novar is not far from Dingwall a lovely mixed forest with traditional pines dominating. Common Buzzards greeting us on our arrival and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were calling within the forest.

A slow amble around soon revealed a pair of Scottish Crossbills munching away on huge cones of a Scots Pine - excellent views. Due to our early start a few of us started to fade as I pulled up at Portmahomack. Not too much offshore apart from Common Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers. At Tarbatness lighthouse where the strong NE wind was pushing seabirds close to shore. A short seawatch produced Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, various auks, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Northern Gannets at close range. At 1600 hours I returned to the Black Isle and Cygnus House a happy but tired group of birders.


May 26th: Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Loch Garten, Nethybridge, Udale Bay.

Weather: Sunny with cool NE winds 12 C.

Today we headed down the A9 to Aviemore and then up to the Cairngorm railway. Black Isle Birding have a permit to guide people out at the top, and today proved to be good weather wise. It was actually warmer at the summit than at the base car park! After leaving the train we started the walk up towards Cairngorm, luck was with us as the wind had subsided and the sun broke through the clouds. The walk provided us with views of Northern Wheatear, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and a Rock Ptarmigan sitting on a distant ridge.

Still snow around so the group skirted around it towards the summit. At the top we watched a pair of Eurasian Dotterel at close range, a male Rock Ptarmigan with two females plus a displaying Snow Bunting and his mate. Everybody was thrilled to see these special mountain birds.

Back down on the railway and a stop in the alpine garden where a pair of Ring Ouzels fed young. Next was Loch Morlich which had little of note due to disturbance so we advanced to Loch Garten where a female Common Goldeneye was with eleven ducklings - amazing. From the hide at Loch Garten we watched Ospreys on the nest before heading to Nethybridge. The river here held many hirundines and anglers fishing in the river so I decided to head back to Udale Bay on the Black Isle. The usual birds were around including a few lingering Pinkfooted Geese. Back to Cygnus House to watch the garden feeders being decimated by finches and
tits plus returning Tree Sparrows with young.

May 27th: Ullapool, Kylesku, Scourie, Handa, Balnakiel.

Weather: Sunny with NE winds 14 C.

The far northwest of Scotland was our destination for the next two days. First stop in the fishing port of Ullapool had lots of gulls mainly Herring and Great Black-backed in the harbour. The tide was high so there were no waders around. Our journey north took us through spectacular landscapes to the village of Kylesku where Arctic Terns were fishing in the sea loch. At Scourie the beach attracted a late White Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, Common Cuckoo, and in the harbour a pair of Red-throated Divers. It was time to visit Handa a great place for seabirds. On the crossing to the island groups of Black Guillemots and Common Eiders. Once on Handa we progressed up the boardwalk towards the Great Cliff stopping to pause and gaze at Great and Arctic Skuas. Near the cliff a pair of Red-throated Divers on a lochan. The cliffs were an amazing spectacle with thousands of Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwakes. A few Common Ravens were loafing around no doubt looking for food. Passerines were few on this visit including Northern Wheatear, Common Stonechat, Meadow and Rock Pipits and fly-over Lesser Redpolls. On the road out of Tarbet we were treated to three Black-throated Divers in full breeding plumage by the roadside - fantastic views. Checked in at Durness for an evening meal of fish and chips followed by a late evening visit to Balnakiel. A flock of Whimbrel flew above us followed by two Barnacle Geese. In the meadows Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Redshank, Black-headed and Common Gulls, Northern Lapwing and singing Sedge Warblers. A check of the beach added Sandwich Terns resting on the sands.

May 28th: Kyle of Durness, Balnakiel Bay, Hope Valley, Sandside Bay, Scrabster Harbour, Dunnet
Bay, St John's Pool, Forsinard, Balblair.

A pre-breakfast visit of habitats around Durness started with the Kyle of Durness. The stone walls attracted Twite and displaying Rock Pipits. In Balnakiel Bay two Great Northern Divers had appeared overnight with both in non-breeding plumage. After breakfast I headed to the Hope Valley where Lesser Redpolls appeared to be flying about all over the place. I could hear the song of Common Snipe from a marsh and Common Cuckoos on the search for Meadow Pipit nests. No sign of eagles on this visit, so headed east making a stop at Sandside Bay near Dounreay. The beach had Dunlin and Ringed Plovers and many gulls. Stopped in Thurso for supplies and headed to Dunnet Bay for lunch. The sheltered bay had Red-throated Divers, Common Eider and Common Terns resting on the rocks. St John's Pool is a great place to visit with its hides and viewpoints. Breeding colonies of Common and Black-headed Gulls, Sandwich and a few Arctic Terns were worth viewing. Also present was Little Grebe, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall and Tufted Duck. It was time to head back south through the flow country of Forsinard with a stop for European Golden Plovers feeding in a sheep field. Along the river Helmsdale a stop for a male Goosander. Late in the day at Balblair we had news of a Hoopoe in a private garden. Luck was with us as it was feeding under a bird table a great end to the day.

May 29th: Findhorn Valley, Farr Road, Ruthven, Dingwall, Udale Bay.

Weather: Rather mixed with cloud and sunny periods on a NE wind 18 C.

Back down the A9 again with a visit to the Findhorn Valley, an important area for birds in spring and summer. In the first sector of road we encountered Song and Mistle Thrushes, Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlews with young, Northern Lapwings and small groups of Red-legged Partridges. I parked up at the end of the glen where scanning the hillsides is often productive for raptors. On this occasion a first year Golden Eagle being mobbed by Common Buzzards was followed a few minutes later by a juvenile White-tailed Eagle flying purposefully towards the west. In the River Findhorn itself a female White-throated Dipper with two well-grown young and Common Terns flying up and down the river. A lot of traffic for the area today along the Farr Road only resulted in hearing Red Grouse and observing a Grey Wagtail by the first bridge. Stopped for lunch at a scenic overlook near Loch Ruthven with familiar birds of the moors nearby. Our journey went along the Beauly Firth towards Dingwall where a walk down towards the River Conon added Osprey, Goosander, Common Whitethroat and Yellowhammer to the day list. Ended up at Udale Bay where the summers first Canada Geese arrived to moult.

May 30th: Loch Mallachie, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie, Inverness Airport.

Weather: Sunny with a NE wind 16 C.

TThe A9 was starting to look very familiar now as a visit to the Loch Garten area and Loch Mallachie was on the cards. The trail around the loch is good for woodland birds with sightings of Willow Warbler, Tree Pipit and Spotted Flycatcher joining the resident Great and Coal Tits. After about an hour we had the briefest of views of Crested Tits. At the end of the trail Common Crossbills perched in the top of spruce trees and flew overhead calling. Later in the morning we headed towards Burghead on the coast with a visit to the harbour and waterfront area. Apart from hordes of gulls, Common Eiders and two displaying Rock Pipits not too much about. Off to Lossiemouth along the coast which brought back memories of years gone by to one of the group. The east beach is usually good for birds and on this visit was jam packed with gulls including a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. In the grass we could see Dunlin and Ringed Plover. A diversion to Loch Spynie had a Common Chiffchaff singing from a dead tree. In the reedbeds a singing Sedge Warbler and Reed Bunting. The platform on the lake had nesting Common Tern and Black-headed Gulls. Ducks were low in numbers but included Mallard and Tufted Duck. On the way back towards the Black Isle a stop at Inverness Airport where we located a singing Corn Bunting near the control tower, this is a very rare bird in Highland with a restricted and dwindling population of birds. Finally caught up with a pair of Eurasian Kestrels hunting the runway edges. A good end to a great birding week in the Highlands of Northern Scotland had come to an end.

Scotland (Highlands) 2016 (4 of 4)

...with Mark Finn

October 9th - 16th

Our annual birding trip in autumn was dominated by a high pressure system sitting over Scandinavia. This in turn produced exceptional weather conditions for the week apart from the 15th when we experienced strong easterly gales and rain. Birding highlights included a wide range of raptors and falcons and a few surprise sightings notably Tundra Bean Goose, Little Egret, Little Gull and Green Sandpiper to name a few. The natural spectacle of thousands of migratory geese filled the skies along with their distinctive calls.

October 9th: Cromarty Firth, Eathie, Inverness Airport, Findhorn Bay, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth.

Weather: Sunny with light NE winds 15 C

The majority of the party met up at Cygnus House at 9am and watched the feeders sited within the garden. The usual birds were present with European Goldfinches and a fine male Eurasian Siskin. We then set off down the Cromarty Firth stopping beyond Jemimaville to watch a small party of Greater Scaup. Distant views and they remained elusive for the remainder of the week which is unusual. Out in the deeper waters of the firth Slavonian Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Eiders were present. After passing through Cromarty we took the back road to Eathie which can be productive. A patch of spruce and rowan trees attracted Eurasian Bullfinch, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Yellowhammer and the first of many European Robins. A stop at Inverness Airport added Common Stonechat on the fence and a Eurasian Kestrel hovering over the fields. Picked Jane up from the BA flight and headed east towards Roseisle. Being a Sunday it was busy with locals and tourists. In the car park the sound of Great, Coal, Blue and Crested Tits plus a Eurasian Treecreeper working its way around a mature pine. A walk towards an elevated position above the beach allowed us to watch birds in the Moray Firth. Careful scanning added Common and Velvet Scoters in the distance. Burghead is a short drive away when we came across a party of Barn Swallows who appeared to be still feeding young. From the beach Red-throated Diver, Common Guillemot and Razorbill were noted along with masses of gulls. A short visit to Lossiemouth added Goosander, Herring and Common Gulls in abundance and a few Eurasian Wigeon. On the return journey another visit to Findhorn Bay added Little Egret, thousands of Pink-footed Geese and a few Barnacle Geese as well. A good first day for birding which was made better by unseasonably good weather.

October 10th: Cairngorm, Feshiebridge, Findhorn Valley.

Weather: Sunny with light SE winds 14 C.

A gamble on the weather today as we headed south down the A9 towards Aviemore and up into the Cairngorm Mountains. Low cloud and mist greeted us on the lower slopes along with great views of calling Red Grouse and overhead a skein of Greylag Geese. Using my guide permit we caught the first train up and walked out onto the mountain. Poor weather with a swirling mist made things tricky although a bonus came in the form of a Snow Bunting that called and perched at close range for us all. We had to wait until the mist cleared before a party of Rock Ptarmigan showed well feeding on seeds within a rather gravelly area. On this note back down the mountain and a drive towards Feshiebridge. On arrival we had lunch and watched a Great Spotted Woodpecker and Coal Tits feeding in the pinewoods. A walk added a few of the commoner birds but little of note. Back in the van for a drive into the Findhorn Valley. Birding was slow to start with although White-throated Dippers were busy feeding on the river. A farm held lots of Red-legged Partridges. Our best viewing was to come at the end of the road. Red Deer were rutting and calling from the hillsides but the birds of prey were going to steal the show. Eurasian Kestrel and Eurasian Sparrowhawk were noted before two Golden Eagles drifted over only to be mobbed by a Peregrine Falcon - great stuff. Common Ravens were seen drifting over a nearby hillside as we went home after an enjoyable day in Speyside.

October 11th: Achnahalt, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Mellon Udrigle, Loch Gruinard.

Weather: Sunny with SE winds 14 C.

A few migrant Redwings flew over Cygnus House as we departed for the sparsely populated and remote region of Wester Ross. A short stop at Achnahalt added Eurasian Teal hiding in a patch of reeds. Kinlochewe is always worth a stop with today bringing us sightings of the commoner woodland birds and a few Song Thrushes. The road winds its way to Gairloch the largest village along the trail. At the head of the loch careful scanning of the sea and beach provided us with views of Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Razorbill, Common Guillemot and many juvenile Northern Gannets. On the beach a couple of Rock Pipits, Meadow Pipit, Ringed Plover and Eurasian Oystercatchers. Loch Ewe is a good birding stop and today was no exception as we parked up and walked towards the beach. In the sea at least two groups of Black-throated Divers, a winter plumaged Black Guillemot, various gulls and a single Bar-tailed Godwit and on the shoreline rocks a migrant White Wagtail. A cattle pen attracted Common Stonechat and Twite plus a party of Rock Pigeons. On a nearby ridge an adult White-tailed Eagle showed well and a Golden Eagle drifted along the top. Common Snipe were flushed from the long grasses. At the top of Loch Ewe several Slavonian Grebes were present with three Long-tailed Ducks. Visits to Mellon Udrigle and Loch Gruinard provided us with three summer plumaged Great Northern Divers. On the way home we encountered a blown tyre which meant a change of plans. Overhead we watched migrant Redwings and Fieldfares before the repair truck arrived. The group had a meal in a nearby hotel whilst I went with the van to have a new tyre fitted. The journey home took time with many Red Deer on roadside verges making driving difficult with their habit of walking into the road at the last minute - thankfully this did not happen.

October 12th: Corrimony, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Novar Estate.

Weather: Rather mixed with sunshine and showers on a SW wind 15 C.

An earlier start today as we went over to Corrimony to visit the reserve under the guidance of Simon. Arrived on time and headed up towards the two leks which were surprisingly empty this morning. However things started to change after the turning circle where Lesser Redpolls were calling above our heads. Black Grouse were eventually located feeding quietly in a patch of heather dotted with silver birch trees. Back to Dingwall for breakfast and into Easter Ross and the community of Portmahomack. En route we encountered a herd of 195 Whooper Swans resting in a grass field whilst skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed overhead. At Portmahomack a scan of the sea revealed Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver, Slavonian Grebe and a winter plumaged Black Guillemot. On the way to Tarbatness we had a close encounter with a female Merlin just missing the van in flight. On arrival at the point a visit to the plantation where Goldcresta and European Robins appeared to be everywhere. At the point itself a steady stream of Northern Gannets and a few European Golden Plovers. Two parties of Knots flew past and a Peregrine Falcon was also seen. We ended the day by visiting the Novar Estate. A walk around the usual circuit had Eurasian Siskin, Eurasian Treecreeper and eventually a few Common Crossbills feeding in spruce. Returned home slightly earlier after our early start.

October 13th: Brora, Wick, Loch Watten, Dunnet Bay, St John's Loch, Broubster Leans.

Weather: Rather mixed with SE winds 13 C.

This morning I headed north along the A9 with our first stop at Brora. A drop in temperature was noted when stepping out of the van at Brora. Lots of Northern Gannets offshore and two Long-tailed Ducks flew past at high speed. Further out I picked out Little Gulls flying daintily along and showing their dark underwings. A Purple Sandpiper was picked out sleeping with other waders on rocks. As we headed towards Caithness large skeins of Pink-footed and Greylag Geese started to appear. On arriving at Wick a check of the caravan park trees added a Common Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Goldcrest and a lots of noisy Dunnocks. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk flashed by no doubt looking for a tired migrant. A check of the river added Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Mallard and Goosander. A diversion to Tesco for fuel and onto Loch Watten a lake rich in natural food. Lots of Tufted Ducks here with Eurasian Wigeon and Common Goldeneyes. En route to Dunnet Bay another group of Whooper Swans and even more wild geese. At the sea Red-throated Diver, Long-tailed Ducks and auks. Ruddy Turnstones were feeding in seaweed. St John's Loch held a family of Whooper Swans and in the distance many Mute Swans. Time was getting on as we approached Thurso Harbour and nearby Scrabster. The only birds of note were Common Eiders and Razorbills. We ended the day at Broubster Leans which was disappointing on this visit. Headed home after a rather mixed day in the far north of Scotland.

October 14th: Findhorn Bay, Nairn, Ness Islands, Beauly Firth, Tollie, Strathpeffer, Dingwall, Charonry Point.

Weather: Cloudy with SE winds 12 C.

We set off towards Findhorn Bay to have a look at the birds from a different angle. Several thousand Pink-footed Geese present along with a few Barnacle Geese. A pair of Northern Shoveler were on the far side of the bay with the commoner duck species. On the way to the airport a stop at Nairn was made with Northern Gannets and European Shags being the most obvious species. I then dropped Dominic off at the airport and headed to the Ness Islands in the centre of Inverness. On the River Ness there were Goosanders and at least six White-throated Dippers. In the woodland Goldcrest, European Robin, tits and finches. The tide was high as I drove alongside the Beauly Firth until we reached Redcastle. The raised bank here is favoured by roosting waders and on this occasion included Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Greenshank, Eurasian Curlew, Dunlin and European Oystercatchers. Tollie is not faraway where the Red Kites are fed on a regular basis. No problem with the kites as they were hanging around for food scraps. Also present was a male Merlin and Eurasian Sparrowhawk plus a few Herring Gulls looking for scraps. Next on the agenda was Strathpeffer where the lower loch was packed with Common Coots and a pair of Common Moorhens. On the upper loch several Common Goldeneyes had arrived to join the resident Mute Swans and Little Grebes. Our last stop was at Dingwall with a walk towards the old salmon bothy by the Conon River. A surprise find here was a Green Sandpiper feeding on the mud with Dunlins. Plenty of the commoner waterfowl around and good numbers of Northern Lapwings. Headed back to the Black Isle and looked at the marvellous concentrations of geese to end the day on.

October 15th: Embo, Loch Fleet, Nigg Bay, Shandwick, Loch Eye, Udale Bay.

Weather: Heavy rain and E winds 11 C.

This was by far the worst weather day of the week with long spells of rain and a strong easterly wind making it feel very cold. We went straight to Embo where the weather conditions may bring species close to shore. Before entering Embo a large flock of geese had two Barnacle among the numerous Pink-footed. On arrival in Embo we parked up and watched from the van. To my surprise a flock of Great Skuas passed by numbering around 40 birds whilst further offshore a Pomarine Skua flew into the firth. Common Eiders were riding the waves along with Long-tailed Ducks and a Red-throated Diver. Loch Fleet was not sheltered at all despite being slightly inland so I decided to visit the hide at Nigg Bay. On arrival the tide was high making the birds literally just outside the hide itself. A bonus was a party of Pale-bellied Brent Geese and a nice selection of waders including Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Knot, Dunlin, European Golden Plover and Eurasian Curlews. Common Shelducks were looking particularly smart after their moult. A slow drive through Shandwick produced a large flock of Eurasian Linnets which were being hunted by a whacked out Eurasian Sparrowhawk which looked as if it crossed the North Sea and had no energy. Loch Eye was briefly visited where Mute and Whooper Swans were present in numbers. We ended the day back at Udale Bay with similar birds from our previous visits.

October 16th: Udale Bay, Cromarty, Inverness Airport

Final species total : 125.

Weather: Sunny with W winds 14 C.

The last morning was spent ambling down the Cromarty Firth with similar results to the last few days and the addition of a Grey Wagtail. This made out total for the week to 125 species. Further checks of the estuary and fields around the airport added nothing new as we dropped Jane off at the airport at 1045. A good week had come to an end with an interesting bird list to go with it.

For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at enquiries@birdwatchingbreaks.com.

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