Autumn in the Highlands 2021

Mark Finn
September 18th-24th

This was the first of two tours taking place in the Scottish Highlands and Islands during the autumn period. The Highlands was an interesting trip for birds with sightings of many species arriving for the winter period and late summer breeders lingering around the coastal areas. During our explorations there appeared to be an absence of the commoner migrants and a few resident species.
I am sure the following diary report and birdlist will bring back happy memories of a very enjoyable week in the Highlands.

September 18th: Cromarty Firth, Ardeisier, Nairn, Ness Islands, Avoch, Black Isle
Daily 69 New 69 Running 69
Weather: Sunny with a light S wind 18C

The first day is always fragmented with clients arriving at different times into Scotland. I left Cygnus House with Father Tom and headed towards Inverness Airport. Before leaving Cygnus House a late Willow Warbler was found gleaning insects in a rowan tree. A short diversion to the hide at Udale Bay revealed the arrival of Pink-footed Geese the first of the autumn plus waders including Red Knot, Common Redshank and Bar-tailed Godwits. The journey towards the airport was uneventful and as we were early a visit to the shore at Ardeisier was made with the tide being fairly high. In the offshore waters Northern Gannet, European Shag, Sandwich Tern, Common Guillemot and Razorbill plus an unusually early Common Goldeneye. Helen was at the airport so I headed east towards the coastal town of Nairn which was busy with tourists. The result was a few birds mainly to disturbance although we located Mute Swan, Common Merganser and Black-legged Kittiwakes. I decided to visit Ness Islands in Inverness where it was less busy. The river held White-throated Dippers, Common Moorhen and Common Kingfisher which called and remained elusive. Back to the Black Isle to pick up the last couple and head towards Avoch a coastal village. A scan of the rocky beach produced a wide range of birds including Ruddy Turnstone. In the deeper waters several Red-throated Divers and terns. The tern raft warranted another look and to my surprise Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns were perched on the railings giving good views and comparisons.

September 19th: Achanalt, Gairloch, Melvaig, Loch Ewe, Gruinard Bay, Badbea
Daily 55 New 14 Running 83
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and rain showers on a brisk S wind 17C

This morning I travelled west into the sparsely populated and remote region of Wester Ross which is dominated by mountain ranges, sea lochs and forests. The first stop at Achanalt had calling Eurasian Bullfinches but they remained hidden in the leaves. Out on the loch itself we located Tufted Duck, Mallard and Eurasian Wigeon and Common Buzzard. In the roadside scrub we noted Common Stonechat and Dunnock near Kinlochewe. Our route took us past Loch Maree and onto Gairloch a coastal village and settlement with views towards Skye. It was worth stopping here as the shore had Common Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Eurasian Oystercatcher and a host of gulls including Great Black-backed, European Herring, Mew and Black-headed. The offshore waters held little apart from winter plumaged Black Guillemots, European Shag, Great Cormorant and several Northern Gannets. The road towards Melvaig was taken as it runs along The Minch and adjacent moorland with isolated crafting communities. Birds recorded included Rock Dove, Northern Wheatear, Pied Wagtail and hordes of Meadow Pipits. I returned to the main road towards Poolewe and onto the minor road running alongside Loch Ewe. The first stop was good for Red-throated and Black-throated Divers and Red-breasted Mergansers plus the commoner waders. Further down the road an old campsite leads to the shore and a paddock area. Our main target was Twite, a small finch which hangs on in this habitat but is clearly in decline due to changing farming methods. We only heard it this time with sightings of Common Linnet, European Goldfinch, the Greenland race of Northern Wheatear and surprisingly a few Canada Geese. Time was getting on a bit as I made short stops at Laide and eventually Gruinard Bay which looks out to Gruinard Island. Luck was with us as an adult White-tailed Eagle was sitting next to the cairn at the summit of the island. The final stop was Badbea with another look for Twite, no success so I head back to the Black Isle.

September 20th: Tarbatness, Embo, Loch Fleet, The Mound, Bonar Bridge, Novar Estate
Daily 73 New 17 Running 100
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny periods and showers on a SW wind 18C

A change of scenery today with a visit to the farmland and coast of Easter Ross. Due to tide times and wind I headed towards Tarbatness, a long peninsula which juts into the North Sea. En route a covey of Red-legged Partridges were disturbed by the roadside. On arrival it was clear that the area had many birds with the wires attracting Meadow Pipit, Yellowhammer, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Common Linnet and a hunting female Hen Harrier. A walk towards the plantation produced Northern Wheatear, Eurasian Skylark, House Martin and the commoner corvids of the area. At the point a short seawatch was productive for Common Scoter, Common Eider, Lesser Black-backed Gull and a group of Red Knot. On the way back a Common Whitethroat showed well in long grasses and a Song Thrush put in an appearance. In the car park the feeders were attracting Great, Coal and European Blue Tits, Goldcrest and Common Blackbird. Embo was next a sheltered bay with rocky sections and sandy beaches. The tide was coming in and we had close views of Dunlin, Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover and Common Redshank. Offshore waters held Red-throated Divers, Common Guillemot and Razorbill and many Northern Gannets and Sandwich Terns. Loch Fleet was busy with tourists with the fields having Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Merganser. The Mound is going through a period of works so Bonar Bridge and Novar Estate were on the agenda. Birding went very quiet this afternoon so Novar Estate was probably our best bet in the circumstances. A walk through the forest added calling Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Treecreeper and eventually a party of Scottish Crossbills feeding in native trees.

September 21st: Feshiebridge, Loch Morlich, Loch Garten, Nethybridge, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road
Daily 47 New 6 Running 106
Weather: Cloudy with occasional sunny spells. SW wind 16C

Down the A9 today towards Aviemore and then to the village of Feshiebridge. En route several Red Kites were seen around the Inverness area. At Feshiebridge a walk through the conifer forests on clearly marked tracks. The first section held the commoner birds of this habitat including Meadow Pipit, Great and Coal Tits, Eurasian Siskin and Eurasian Treecreeper. On the return walk we eventually located Crested Tits feeding actively in the canopy, this is a very arboreal species and rarely mixes with other small birds. Helen was fortunate today as a female Western Capercaillie flew up from cover and promptly disappeared. Loch Morlich was next where the waters held a single Pink-footed Goose, Tufted Duck and Common Goldeneye. Loch Garten is a disappointing place for birds and most of the feeders were empty when we arrived. The usual species present plus Lesser Redpoll and two more Crested Tits in the conifers. A Great Spotted Woodpecker put in an appearance as we headed to Nethybridge and the River Spey. A White-throated Dipper was seen on the rocks. The latter part of the day was spent in the Findhorn Valley and Farr Road with a particularly strong wind blowing down the glen which made birding difficult. Despite this the group added a single Red Grouse to the trip list and distant views of Red Kites.

September 22nd: Corrimony, Nairn, Findhorn Bay, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie, Ness Islands
Daily 70 New 4 Running 110
Weather: Light rain for most of the day on a SW wind 16C

An earlier departure today in order to meet up with Simon the warden at Corrimony. It is early in the lekking season for the grouse but I remained optimistic they would show up and display. On time and like clockwork the Black Grouse started to display and showed well at two locations. The weather started to get worse as we left the area for Inverness where breakfast had been ordered. Afterwards it was off to Nairn where it was less busy than our previous visit. A walk down the jetty quickly revealed a group of Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Arctic and Common Terns, Eurasian Wigeon and a few gulls which included Lesser Black-backed and Black-legged Kittiwake. Roseisle and Burghead are close together with the former having little in the way of birdlife. At Burghead we found a sheltered spot to look at the sea and rocky foreshore. This is a reliable spot for Rock Pipits which duly showed and called. Offshore a selection of auks, Common Eider, Red-throated Diver and ever-present Northern Gannets were seen. Lunch was taken at Lossiemouth where huge roosts of gulls were observed mainly Great Black-backed, European Herring and Mew. The returning Eurasian Wigeon flock had returned and were feeding on the salt-marsh. Loch Spynie has recently been taken over for management by the RSPB hopefully they will make a good job of it. This small loch had Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Mute and Whooper Swans, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal and Mallard. In the surrounding woodland a Common Chiffchaff was singing plus Grey and Pied Wagtails, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Siskin, Eurasian Bullfinch and Eurasian Treecreeper. I decided to end the day on Ness Islands in Inverness which paid off with views of Common Kingfisher which made the group very happy indeed.

September 23rd: Brora, Lybster, Wick, Loch Watten, Dunnet Bay, St John’s Loch, Dunnet Head, Broubster Leans
Daily 66 New 3 Running 112
Weather: Cloudy with sunny spells on a NW wind 14C

A long day was ahead of us as we ventured into the vast open spaces and lightly populated area of Caithness and Sutherland. First stop was at Brora where the commoner shorebirds and passerines were present. Further up the coast a visit to Lybster an old herring port long since abandoned. Overhead were large straggly flocks of Pink-footed Geese heading in a south easterly direction. The bushes revealed nothing of note apart from a single Northern Wheatear. At Wick the river of the same name had the familiar ducks so I headed to Loch Watten one of the many euphoric lochs of Caithness. Careful scanning here revealed large groups of Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon and a party of Black-tailed Godwits on the shoreline. At the western end which is hard to access newly arrived Whooper Swans had joined the Mute Swans. The fields held Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Skylark and Reed Bunting. Lunch taken at Dunnet Bay with Dunlin and Sanderling on the beach and a Grey Wagtail flying overhead. Visits to St John’s Loch and Dunnet Head were non-productive so I went to Broubster Leans which is west of Thurso and slightly inland. The only bird of note was a male Eurasian Kestrel sitting in a stunted tree. I called it a day and travelled back to base.

September 24th: Feshiebridge, Laggan Valley, Strathconon, Udale Bay
Daily 53 New 3 Final 115
Weather: Sunny with a SW wind 17C

Back to Feshiebridge in hope of finding a Western Capercaillie. I took the same route from a few days earlier and again we had no luck at all with the only addition being a party of Long-tailed Tits. I decided to visit the Laggan Valley which is further south a large glen dominated by hills, forest, river and loch. The best bird was a young male Peregrine Falcon which delighted us as it toyed with a pair of Northern Ravens – only one winner here. Lots of scanning and searching the hillsides adding Common Stonechats, Whooper Swans and Common Buzzards. It was tough to make a decision so off to Strathconon near Dingwall for our last chance of new birds. On arrival I parked up and almost immediately a pair of Golden Eagles came into view and showed well at close range, a fitting end to the trip. The group then decided to make a visit to Udale Bay where an Osprey was located sitting on a post. In the last week a sizeable upturn of geese, ducks and waders had started to appear probably on the NW winds of yesterday which would have aided migration.

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