Autumn in the Highlands, 2019

Mark Finn
September 14th-20th

This was the first of our autumn tours in the Scottish Highlands. It turned out to be very good for birds and mammals which are mentioned in the following diary format. The group had many highlights during the week which included a male Capercaillie at a site in Speyside and the extraordinary sight of almost forty Black Grouse on two leks at Corrimony. Migration was in full swing for many birds with above average numbers of Pink-footed Geese, returning Greater Scaup to the Cromarty Firth along with good numbers of Slavonian Grebes at the same location. In the remote areas of Wester Ross we recorded White-tailed and Golden Eagles and a concentration of Black-throated Divers in various plumages. A good selection of shorebirds were noted at several sites along with 8 species of gulls which included an unexpected Iceland Gull at Burghead and a first-year Little Gull at Dunnet Bay. The former area also had an adult Long-tailed Skua never an easy bird to see. Late Common Swifts at Loch Spynie were an unexpected bonus whilst the pinewoods held Crested Tits in small family groups. The Novar Estate came up trumps again with Common and Scottish Crossbills and on the west coast a winter flock of Twite numbering around 100 birds.

September 14th: Udale Bay, Cromarty Firth
Daily 53 New 53 Running 53
Weather: Rather cloudy with SW winds 17C

The first day is always a mixed blessing with clients arriving at different times. With this in mind I decided to keep to areas on the Black Isle. The tide at Udale Bay was rising so it was an optimum time to see what birds were around. Several Ospreys were seen sitting on posts with Grey Herons hunting in the many creeks and gullies. Our main interest was with the waders and we quickly located Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Knot, Dunlin, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Greenshank. The grassy areas held substantial groups of Pink-footed, Greylag and Canada Geese, Northern Lapwing and literally hundreds of Common and Herring Gulls. A short drive beyond Jemimaville added Slavonian Grebe, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Eider. It was onto Cromarty with a brief look at the older houses and church before taking the back road towards Rosemarkie. A few birds here included Common Stonechat and the first Common Buzzards of the tour. Back to base for dinner and in the garden the first of four nights with Pine Martens attending our feeders – fantastic and close views.

September 15th: Barbaraville, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Tain, Embo, Loch Fleet, The Mound, Novar Estate
Daily 78 New 29 Running 82
Weather: Cloudy with some sunny periods on a W wind 13C

The usual birds were in and around the garden feeders which in turn attracted a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk. We were soon heading north along the A9 towards our first stop at Barbaraville. The north side of the Cromarty Firth gets little scrutiny from birders so it was good to check it out. Waders were the same as yesterday afternoon with a lot more Knot feeding close inshore. Careful scanning revealed two female Common Goldeneyes which were rather early arrivals as they usually appear in late October. On the way to Portmahomack a diversion to check an Osprey nest but they had already departed, a bonus came with a juvenile Peregrine Falcon sitting in the middle of a ploughed field, nearby Red Kites put in an appearance. Checked around Portmahomack and then down the road towards Tarbatness and its impressive red and white lighthouse. Offshore the group observed Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Common Scoter and Common Guillemot. Near the point at least two juvenile Whimbrel in the heather with Common Stonechat and Northern Wheatear for company. Next on the agenda was the Royal Burgh of Tain and the waterfront. A rare sight was Tufted Ducks in the sea, Common Shelduck and in the distance a Great Skua chasing gulls. At Embo the tide was about right with waders on the rocks of which Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Ringed Plover dominated. Offshore Great Northern and Red-throated Divers and several Sandwich Terns. Loch Fleet and The Mound had a juvenile Osprey, Little Grebe, Goosander and a party of Long-tailed Tits. Our last birding stop was the Novar Estate with a short walk through native pine forest and a stand of spruce. In the first section Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Wren, Eurasian Siskin and hordes of Coal Tits. The spruce trees also had Common Crossbills. Near the end of the walk we finally located Scottish Crossbills giving their distinctive calls from the tree tops.

September 16th: Brora, Wick River, Loch Watten, Dunnet Bay, St John's Loch, St John's Pool, Scrabster, Forsinard
Daily 69 New 10 Running 92
Weather: Rather mixed with a brisk W wind 12C

Today I headed north towards Caithness with the first stop at the old mining and herring port of Brora. Skeins of geese were noted as we travelled along the A9. Once at Brora a scan of the river mouth produced two Lesser Black-backed Gulls a scarce passage migrant in September. The commoner birds were present offshore so I pressed north towards the rather rundown town of Wick. By the caravan park is the Wick River which attracts dabbling ducks which included Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Teal on this occasion with the deeper water channels holding Goosander. A few House Martins and Barn Swallows were hawking for insects above the trees. It was time to visit Loch Watten although the wind was in our faces making it tricky so I drove around 2 miles and stopped at another location to look over the loch. This was good for Mute and a single Whooper Swan, large swathes of Tufted Ducks and Eurasian Wigeon. Time was running as I pulled up at Dunnet Bay which is sheltered from the worst of the elements. Today it was an exceptional place for visible migration with Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Great Skua, Arctic and Sandwich Terns, Common Guillemot and Little Gull among the highlights. On the shore flocks of Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstones. Brief stops at St John's Loch and pool added little of note apart from a female Northern Pintail and Gadwall. It was time to head south via Scrabster Harbour which gave close views of Common Eider and winter plumaged Black Guillemot. The journey back home through the flow country was pleasant although nothing of note was added.

September 17th: Corrimony, Nairn East Beach, Nairn River, Findhorn Bay, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie
Daily 68 New 12 Running 104
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 13C

Left home at 05.30 in order to be at Corrimony for 06.40 to meet up with Simon the warden. Arrived on time and headed towards the first lek which had several males in display, once again these incredible birds performed to perfection. Two female Black Grouse put in appearance on the track before arriving at Lek 2. Back to Inverness for breakfast and towards Nairn East Beach where we quickly located a group of Pale-bellied Brent Geese, an uncommon winter bird to the Highlands. A lot of birds were around the area including over 700 Sandwich Terns, Bar-tailed Godwits and rafts of Common Eider. A check of the Nairn River yielded White-throated Dipper, Grey Wagtail and two Goosanders and nearby at least two Eurasian Magpies which are still scarce in the area. Findhorn Bay is an important area for passage and wintering birds and on our arrival there were in excess of 12,000 Pink-footed Geese recently arrived from Iceland and Greenland. Among them were the commoner ducks mainly Eurasian Teal and Eurasian Wigeon. A careful scan of the bay also revealed several Ospreys sitting on poles. Roseisle was next on the agenda where the tide was high, a few Arctic Terns passing offshore. In the conifer trees we heard Crested Tits which gave us the run-around unlike the confiding Coal Tits. I decided to take lunch at Burghead, the Pictish capital of Scotland. This proved to be a good move as we located two rather scarce species in Iceland Gull and an adult Long-tailed Skua. Lossiemouth was briefly visited before going on to Loch Spynie which has recently been taken over management-wise by the RSPB. A nice variety of birds on the loch including Mute and Whooper Swans, Little Grebe, Common Goldeneye, Common Moorhen and Tufted Ducks. The feeders had Great and Blue Tits whilst overhead another bonus came along with three Common Swifts. In the woodland Eurasian Treecreeper and Yellowhammer were added to the day list before setting off back home to the Black Isle.

Whooper Swans

September 18th: Achnahalt, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Melvich, Loch Ewe, Laide Gruinard Bay
Daily 61 New 7 Running 111
Weather: Cloudy with a warm S wind 15C

Today I headed west into the wilderness and sparsely populated area of Wester Ross. Achnahalt was the first stop where the old village had three Black Grouse feeding around the old walls. On the loch itself a few lingering birds from the breeding season, mainly Tufted Duck and Eurasian Teal. Our route then took us to the small village of Kinlochewe with its mature trees and gardens. It often attracts birds from miles around and today it held the Hebridean race of Dunnock and Eurasian Siskins. I pressed onto Gairloch where we peered into this vast sea loch recording Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Black-legged Kittiwake and plenty of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. On the shore a group of Rock Pipits a regular haunt for this essentially marine species. The road to Morlich often holds a few species but today it was rather quiet with family groups of European Stonechats and flocks of Rock Doves. Back to Gairloch and then north towards Loch Ewe another sea loch dominated by cliffs and a large island. A stop opposite Inverewe gardens was good for Great Cormorant, European Shag, Slavonian Grebe, Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Ringed Plover and Eurasian Curlew. Further down Loch Ewe a large concentration of Black-throated Divers is various plumages allowed us to study this beautiful bird. Near the end of the road around thirty minutes was spent tracking down the Twite flock of c100 birds which duly obliged giving good views with Eurasian Linnets on fence wires for comparison. Back to the main road when I spotted an adult White-tailed Eagle perched on a rock next to the road (an almost impossible spot to stop in). Thankfully we turned round and found a parking space giving excellent views of the world's largest eagle. At Laide a few Lesser Redpolls flew past before we made our last stop at Gruinard Bay. A scan of the hills and island added two more White-tailed Eagles and a solitary Golden Eagle a fitting end to the day.

September 19th: Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Speyside, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road
Daily 52 New 6 Running 117
Weather: Sunny with warm S winds 19C

A change of direction today as I headed south to Cairngorm. Current problems at the site have made birding more difficult with no access from the train towards the mountains – a real problem for the area’s tourism. A stop at the lower car park revealed a calling Red Grouse but we could not detect him in the heather. At the top car park we managed to locate three Ring Ouzels which were very late in departing this year – a bonus for the week. It was time to visit another area of Speyside and a quiet forest location. Parked up and walked along the trails and dirt roads. Luck was with us as a male Capercaillie was seen flying through the forest. Also present were at least Crested Tits, Eurasian Jay and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Lunch taken and then onto the Findhorn Valley where the sunny conditions led to a feast of raptor watching. The lower valley held many Common Buzzards, Red Kite, Golden Eagle, Common Kestrel and Eurasian Sparrowhawk. At the road end a noisy Peregrine Falcon flying around the valley. Ended the day on the Farr Road with brief sightings of Red Grouse, Mistle Thrush and Common Stonechat. Another great day in the Highlands full of quality birds.

September 20th: Conon River, Lochussie, Strathpeffer, Chanonry Point, Udale Bay
Daily 80 New 6 Final 123
Weather: Sunny with S winds 20C

Our last day which was spent in and around the Black Isle. I started with a visit to the River Conon and an overlook into the estuary. The now familiar birds of earlier in the week were observed and possibly the last Osprey of the summer. Lochussie is not visited by birders on a regular basis with its habitats of silver birch woodland and loch. The birches had a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a lingering Common Chiffchaff. On the loch itself up to forty Goosanders and lesser numbers of Tufted Duck and Little Grebes. On the exit path a Eurasian Treecreeper was noted along with a Eurasian Jay and another flock of Mistle Thrushes feeding on a berry-laden rowan tree. Strathpeffer is not faraway and on this occasion it had few birds apart from Eurasian Coots the first this week. Chanonry Point was basking in sunshine when we arrived and a party of Bottle-nosed Dolphins duly showed offshore. A few terns were around being pursued by a juvenile Arctic Skua. We ended the day at Udale Bay and Cromarty Firth where we added Little Egret, Black-tailed Godwit and Greenshank to the list. Out in the firth good views of Greater Scaup and Common Eiders a fitting finale to the week.

Pine Marten – up to three at Cygnus House on most nights
Badger – one to two usually when people had gone to bed
North Atlantic Grey Seal – fairly common around the coast
Harbour Seal – a few in Moray and off Gairloch
Harbour Porpoise – a single fin seen near Gairloch is likely to be this species
Bottle-nosed Dolphin – up to fourteen in two groups off Chanonry Point
Mountain Hare – one Farr Road
Common Rabbit – widespread
Red Deer – common on high ground and mountain areas
Roe Deer – a few observed at several locations

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