Trip Reports ______________________________________________________



Scotland (Highlands) 2017 (1 of 2)

...with Mark Finn

May 6th - 13th

This was the second tour of the season taking place in the second week of May which is traditionally an excellent time to visit the Scottish Highlands. Throughout the week we managed to observe most of the Scottish specialties with unusual sightings of Garganey, Wood Sandpiper, the Icelandic race of Black-tailed Godwit, Iceland Gull, Black Redstart, Ring Ouzel and breeding Fieldfare and Redwing. The following trip report will hopefully bring back to life a most enjoyable tour in early May.

May 6th: Ness Islands, Alturlie, Loch Flemington, South Kessock, Eathie, Cromarty Firth, Udale Bay

Weather: Sunny with a NE wind 14c

I started the weeks birding by visiting the Ness Islands in the centre of Inverness an area of mature trees surrounded by swift-flowing water systems. On arrival we immediately located our main target as a White-throated Dipper was located feeding a fully-fledged juvenile on a rock. A walk around the pathway produced sightings of Great, Blue, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Eurasian Wren. Next was South Kessock where several migrants had arrived including Sedge and Willow Warblers, Common Whitethroat and Common Chiffchaff. On the shoreline Eurasian Oystercatchers showed along with Common and Herring Gulls. A diversion to Alturlie added a flock of Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Mergansers and several Sandwich Terns. A stop at the airport was necessary to pick up clients and then onto Loch Flemington which attracted Common Moorhen, Reed Bunting and a hunting Common Buzzard. It was time to cross the Kessock Bridge to the Black Isle and the back road to Eathie. A few birds were noted with Eurasian Siskins being abundant. I dropped down to the Cromarty Firth and Udale Bay which were quiet on this occasion so I pressed home to Cygnus House and the bird feeders. Plenty of birds around the garden which allowed a close approach and views of Tree and House Sparrows, European Goldfinch and European Greenfinch.

May 7th: Achnahalt, Achnasheen, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Laide, Gruinard Bay, Dundonnell

Weather: Rather mixed with cloud and sunny spells. NW wind 13c

Our tour today was to the vast empty areas of Wester Ross with the first stop at Achnahalt. From an elevated position above a loch views of Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck and two scarce wader species in the form of Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper. Overhead a Lesser Redpoll giving its familiar flight calls. Further down the road in a recently felled forest we had a displaying Tree Pipit and a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, both species are quick to adapt this habitat. A detour at Achnasheen added Red-throated Diver, Greylag Goose, Common Eider, Mistle Thrush and Common Stonechat. A short stop at the gardens near Kinlochewe added a Blackcap, Goldcrest, Song Thrush and Northern Wheatear. I pressed on towards the coastal community of Gairloch where the water-front harboured scattered flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and the first Arctic Terns of the spring. Loch Ewe is a huge sea loch which offers shelter from the worst weather. Parked up at the old campsite and wandered down to the shore where the group located Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Common, Black-headed and Iceland Gulls, Rock Dove, Twite and White Wagtails. Offshore at Laide Jetty a few Great Northern Divers, Black Guillemot and the menacing presence of Common Ravens. Gruinard Bay and Dundonnell were the final stops producing similar birds to Loch Ewe.

May 8th: Corrimony, Strathconon, Strathpeffer, Novar Estate, Portmahomack, Embo, Loch Fleet, The Mound

Weather: Sunny with NE winds 14c

At first light we were at Corrimony a remote RSPB reserve of moorland, lochs and low hills. I met up with Simon the warden and proceeded to the first of two Black Grouse leks. Viewing from the vehicle allows a close approach and study of these fantastic birds as they strut and display on the lek (please note there is no vehicle access for the public). On the second lek Eurasian Curlew and Northern Lapwing were noted with the low bushes attracting Willow Warbler, Blackbird and Song Thrush. The large loch also attracted Goosander, Little Grebe and Greylag Goose. It was time to head back towards Inverness for breakfast followed by a visit to the birch woodland of Strathconon. Our main target was Wood Warbler and at least two of these birds were observed in their summer dress and beautiful songs.

At Strathpeffer the two lochans held the rather localised Common Moorhen and Eurasian Coot, Eurasian Teal and Reed Buntings singing from willow bushes. On the upper lochan at least two pairs of Slavonian Grebe, Little Grebe, the first Common Swifts of the summer, Barn Swallow, Sand and House Martins and Sedge Warbler. Back towards Dingwall when a Fieldfare was found feeding along the road edge, it is probably nesting nearby. En route to the Novar Estate we noted Red Kites and Common Buzzards. At Novar the circular walk was productive for the commoner woodland birds, Tree Pipit and a Redwing feeding near an old tree. A bonus came near the car park as a Grasshopper Warbler was located singing from the top of a stonewall. Lunch taken in Portmahomack followed by visits to Embo, Loch Fleet and The Mound. At Embo loose flocks of Common Eider were offshore with smaller numbers of Common Guillemot, Razorbill and Red-breasted Mergansers. At Loch Fleet Grey Seals were hauled out on the sand bars. The Mound was our last stop of a long day where Eurasian Wigeon, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank and an Osprey on its nesting tree brought an excellent day to a close.

May 9th: Ullapool, Kylesku, Scourie, Handa, Durness, Balnakiel

Weather: Rather mixed with a sunny afternoon. Winds NE 12c

Today I headed in a north-westerly direction to the fishing port of Ullapool. On arrival a check of the river mouth attracted a few gulls and waders so I pressed onto Kylesku a tiny village in Sutherland. The sheltered waters here attracted Red-throated Diver, Common Eider, Arctic Tern and various gulls. Scourie was next where the crofts proved attractive to Sedge Warbler and Twite whilst the beach area held Dunlin, Ringed Plover and migrant White Wagtails. A bonus came when we were having lunch as Phil located an adult White-tailed Eagle drifting slowly over the nearby mountains. After lunch we arrived at the departure point for Handa a delightful island which attracts many birds. The passenger ferry across to Handa allowed a close approach to European Shags and Black Guillemots. On arrival after a short talk by the wardens we embarked on a walk towards the main cliff a haven for auks and gulls. The boardwalk is a great place to observe Great and Arctic Skuas at close range.

At the cliff literally thousands of Common Guillemot and Razorbill plus lesser populations of Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwake. On the beach a single Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin and the unusual sight of a Woodpigeon flying over a seabird colony. Back on the mainland we located the only Black-throated Diver of the trip before heading to Durness our base for the night. A short visit to Balnakiel added three Black-tailed Godwits of the Icelandic race, Northern Lapwing and an adult Golden Eagle quartering the nearby hillsides. After dinner a visit to Balnakiel water meadows added Whooper Swan, Pink-footed Goose, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall and Whimbrel to the day list.

May 10th: Durness, Loch Eriboll, Sandside Bay, Scrabster, Dunnet Bay, St John's Pool, Dunnet Head, Forsinard

Weather: Cloudy with light W winds 13c

Outside the guest house we encountered a singing Willow Warbler and a Lesser Redpoll on the feeders. After breakfast the first birding spot was Loch Eriboll where several Great Northern Divers in summer plumage allowed a close approach. The stony shore held Oystercatcher and Common Sandpipers in reasonable numbers and on territory. I drove along the north coast road until reaching the village of Reay where we visited Sandside Bay. The sand and rocks here often attract migrant waders and on this visit included Red Knot, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstone. In the bay European Shag and Black Guillemot were found. Picked up supplies in Thurso and proceeded to Dunnet Bay a sheltered area off the Pentland Firth. The usual gulls and waders were loafing around and the far end held groups of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. A visit to St John's Pool at this time of the year can be very productive with close views of nesting Black-headed Gulls and Sandwich Terns. Scarce breeding ducks were present in the form of Gadwall, Northern Shoveler and Eurasian Teal. A female Peregrine Falcon drifted over and unsettled many birds. A diversion to Dunnet Head the most northerly point in mainland Britain had Atlantic Puffins flying into their burrows on the cliffs along with Common Guillemot and Razorbill. It was time to head south towards the flow country of Forsinard where we to encounter a rather unusual bird for the Highlands. A stop at a small bridge revealed a stunning male Black Redstart singing away being flying onto a stonewall near the farm. Nearby a reeling Grasshopper Warbler and on the river a pair of Grey Wagtails. Just before the centre a stop for European Golden Plovers in their stunning breeding plumage. Back to base via the A9 after some exceptional birds and stunning scenery in this remote part of the British Isles.

May 11th: Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Loch Eilean. Loch Garten, Alturlie

Weather: Sunny with SW winds 17c

Down the A9 this morning to visit the mountains of Cairngorm. Using my mountain guide pass we went up in the train and exited the restaurant area in search of birds. Within minutes we had located several Ring Ouzels giving their distinctive and far carrying songs. A walk around the mountain eventually gave us displaying and feeding Rock Ptarmigans in various plumage stages. At midday the group went back down towards the car park and onto Loch Morlich. Common Goldeneyes were noted on the loch with Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck and Mallard. At Loch Eilean a walk through the forest produced the commoner tits and brief views of Crested Tit a tough bird to find in early to mid-May. Common Redstarts were also noted singing from the tops of conifer trees. I dropped into Loch Garten on the way home with only Osprey to record. Our last stop at Alturlie produced a male Garganey feeding busily away on the pools.

May 12th: Cromdale, Loch Garten, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road, River Conon at Dingwall, Udale Bay

Weather: Sunny with SW winds 19c

Our last full day in the Highlands started by driving south to the village of Cromdale. This is a bird rich area along the River Spey with adjoining forest. The river itself held Common Tern, White-throated Dipper and Common Goldeneye. A walk around the forest edge added the commoner woodland species and Common Swifts hunting insects over the fields. Another visit to Loch Garten produced little of note so I pressed on into the Findhorn Valley a spectacular place for scenery and wildlife. Red-legged Partridges were on the entrance road. At the end parking area a watch of the nearby hills produced a male Merlin chasing a Common Buzzard and Northern Wheatears singing from boulders. A slow drive along the Farr Road had many Red Grouse before I set off for the River Conon at Dingwall. A walk here towards the estuary had Pink-footed Geese, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser and Eurasian Wigeon. A last look at Udale Bay where birdlife was very quiet concluded the day and tour.


Scotland (Highlands) 2017 (2 of 2)

...with Mark Finn

October 1st - 7th

This was our final tour in the Scottish Highlands for 2017. The whole week was affected by the strong winds and frequent rain showers which made birding tough at times. A good selection of birds was noted with all the regular species putting in an appearance including a male Capercaillie. Notable species for the week included Little Egret (still a rarity in Northern Scotland), good concentrations of divers, light passage of Pale-bellied Brent Geese, flock of Common Pochards in Caithness which was the largest count since 2014, White-tailed and Golden Eagles, Glaucous Gull, Pomarine and Arctic Skuas, late Sandwich Terns and the first Redwings of the winter.

October 1st: Nairn East Beach, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth

Weather: Cloudy with SW winds 14 C

After meeting the group at Inverness airport we made our first birding stop of the week at the east beach at Nairn. Offshore we noted a few Sandwich Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes and along the sandy beach groups of Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Redshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling and a wide range of gull species. A check of the nearby River Nairn added Pied, White and Grey Wagtails, female Goosander and a few European Goldfinches feeding on seedheads. Next stop was the forest and waterfront at Roseisle where the choppy offshore waters produced Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet and Common Guillemot. The day ended at Lossiemouth with the estuary having Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal and literally hundreds of gulls including many Herring and Great Black-backed. Earlier Ian had seen a pair of Eurasian Magpies a rare bird in this part of Britain.

October 2nd: Udale Bay, Nigg Bay, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Tain, Embo, Loch Fleet, Brora, Novar Estate

Weather: Rain showers on a NW wind 11 C

The weather forecast was bad for today so we decided to concentrate on Easter Ross. In the garden a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk showed well on the bird table and thousands of Pink-footed Geese were flying around in the bay. A stop at the bird hide allowed us views of Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Redshank, Northern Lapwing, Red Knot and Dunlin. A few Canada Geese were around, another scarce species of the Highlands. Before leaving the hide another scan through the birds produced a single Grey Plover and Red-breasted Mergansers. Beyond Jemimaville a stop at the lay-by added a scattered flock of Greater Scaup, Common Eider and fly-by Ringed Plovers. The rain was falling as we turned up at Nigg Bay on the opposite side of the bay. The hide is good at high tide and our visit was timed perfectly for this. Just outside the hide were Pale-bellied Brent Geese, the Icelandic race of Black-tailed Godwit, several groups of ducks including the localised Northern Pintail, Common Shelduck, Meadow Pipit and singing Yellowhammers. Portmahomack and Tarbatness were next on our list with late Barn Swallows in the village. A walk around the conifer wood at Tarbatness produced little of note. The wires held Linnets and a male Eurasian Kestrel. Lunch was taken at Tain with lots of waders and ducks on the foreshore. Embo is usually a good place for birds and today had Rock Pipit, Whooper Swan and Common Scoter. Loch Fleet adjoins the Embo area where lots of Common Eider and Red-breasted Mergansers were hanging about as the tide dropped. Brora and the enclosed part of Loch Fleet had little of note so we ended the day walking around the Novar Estate. The wind was playing its part today which made things tricky. Goldcrest, Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits and Eurasian Siskins concluded the days birding.

October 3rd: Corrimony, Strathpeffer, River Conon, Redcastle, Ness Islands, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road

Weather: Rather mixed with a W wind 10 C

We had an early departure in order to meet up with Simon at Corrimony. This was the first visit to the lekking grounds of Black Grouse since late May. The group were successful again in observing these fantastic birds at close range. Also present were a party Redwings, Mistle Thrush, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard and a surprise find in the form of a Red Kite. Back to Dingwall for breakfast followed by a short visit to the ponds at Strathpeffer. The ponds held Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Common Coot and Common Moorhen the last two species being very localised in the Highlands. The tide was right to visit the wader roost at the River Conon in Dingwall which held among others Common Greenshank, Eurasian Curlew and Common Snipe. Overhead there was a constant stream of migrant Pink-footed and Greylag Geese. At Redcastle we could compare the differences between Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. A short walk around the Ness Islands had close views of Goosanders. It was time to head down the A9 to visit the Findhorn Valley. The river had White-throated Dipper whilst the hills were home to several Common Buzzards and a male Eurasian Kestrel. We ended the day with a slow drive along the Farr Road. A bonus came when a young Golden Eagle appeared just in front us and flew slowly down the road - great views of this iconic bird. The finale however was coveys of Red Grouse close to the road (probably the safest place in the shooting season). Again very good views of one of Scotland's iconic birds.

October 4th: Achnahalt, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Aultbea, Laide, Mellon Udrigle, Gruinard Bay

Weather: Cloudy with SW winds 11 C

A day in Wester Ross beckoned, one of the most remote and least populated areas of Britain. The day was again dominated by difficult weather with the first stop at Achnahalt being quite blowy. Lesser Redpolls were calling and flying around whilst the large loch had nothing on it at all. Kinlochewe has a few trees which provided us with sightings of Goldcrest, Eurasian Siskin, Coal Tit and Dunnock. Gairloch looked a good prospect if we could get out of the wind, thankfully a row of cottages did this for us. Careful scanning of the sea added Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet, Common Scoter, Common Eider, Common Guillemot, European Shag and an assortment of gulls. It was time to move towards Loch Ewe a large sea loch bordered by small villages and used in World War Two for military operations - an interesting place both for birds and history. The more sheltered gardens had Common Stonechat and Reed Bunting. At lunchtime we could get out of the wind and look into the mouth of the loch which revealed a group of Black-throated Divers. One of the crofts with cattle attracted Rock Pigeons, European Golden Plover and on the beach Pale-bellied Brent and Barnacle Geese both arrived recently from Iceland. In the sheep fields Common Ravens were around looking for scraps. Our journey took us to Laide where we were greeted by a Common Otter feeding on the rocky foreshore. Offshore a Great Northern Diver in summer plumage. A visit to Mellon Udrigle only had a few wagtails and pipits so we headed to the lay-by overlooking Gruinard Island. Here we were delighted to find an immature White-tailed Eagle, a fine way to end the day.

October 5th: Inverness, Cromdale, Feshiebridge, Charonry Point, Udale Bay

Weather: Very mixed with SW winds 11 C

We began with a short stop in Inverness to change the 4x4 which had starting and exhaust problems. Afterwards we headed to Cromdale, a small village bordered by the River Spey. The birding can be good in this vast area and we were rewarded with flight views of a male Capercaillie. The remainder of the forest habitats were desperately poor for bird life and seemed almost devoid of anything. We headed back towards the Black Isle and Charonry Point with the tide dropping which meant the chances of Bottle-nosed Dolphins was slim. A few birds were seen including Northern Gannet, Common Guillemot, Ringed Plover and late Barn Swallows. Ended the day at Udale Bay with similar birds to our previous visit plus a Little Egret.

October 6th: Brora, Wick, Loch Watten, Loch Scarmclate, Dunnet Bay, Scrabster, Broubster Leans

Weather: Mixed with sunny spells and showers on a SW wind 10 C

The day was spent with a full day out in Caithness. We began with a stop at Brora and this proved to be a good move. Offshore a group of gulls had attracted the predatory instincts of a Pomarine and Arctic Skua, with great views of both before they flew off out to sea. A group of Sandwich Terns were seen heading south. The route north passes through dramatic landscapes of cliffs, ruins and old villages with few people. Eventually we arrived in Wick an isolated place and in steep decline commercially. The River Wick held the commoner ducks, Goosander and gulls. the lochs at Watten and Scarmlate added huge numbers of Tufted Ducks, up to 30 Common Pochards, Northern Shoveler, Slavonian and Little Grebes and on the fields Northern Lapwing and European Golden Plovers. At Scarmclate another late Barn Swallow and on the loch parties of Whooper Swans. Lunch was taken at Dunnet Bay where the sheltered waters had Great Northern, Black-throated and Red-throated Divers, Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Common Scoter, Common Guillemot and a first year Glaucous Gull sitting on the beach. Scrabster had a group of Common Eiders so we pressed on to Broubster Leans. Very quiet here apart from Common Stonechats and a hunting Eurasian Kestrel. Headed home via Sandside Bay and the flow country as the weather started to close in for the day.

October 7th: Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Forest Lodge, Roseisle, Lossiemouth

Weather: Mixed with strong SW winds at high elevations 10 C

Our last day of the tour started by taking the train up to Cairngorm and a walk onto the plateaux. The weather was poor at the top with swirling low cloud and rain showers. A short walk proved that birding was nearly impossible in these conditions. We headed back down the mountain to visit Loch Morlich. Out on the loch a few Common Goldeneyes. A visit to Forest Lodge and a walk finally revealed a mixed feeding flock which included several Crested Tits best located by their trilling calls. We headed towards the Moray coast and visit Roseisle and Lossiemouth again. Nothing much had changed apart from a group of Common Scoters and a marked increase in gull numbers at Lossiemouth. We headed back home to conclude another excellent weeks birding in the Highlands.

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

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