Autumn in the Highlands, 2022

Mark Finn
September 3-10

This was the first of several autumn tours based in Scotland. The week was dominated by an easterly air flow which brought rather mixed and wet weather. Despite this the group managed to record 118 species which included several scarce migrants notably European Pied Flycatcher and Icterine Warbler. The forests were generally quiet and a few species were notably absent. Around the coast we witnessed good numbers of seabirds on migration. The following trip report and bird list should help relive a very good birding week in Northern Scotland.

September 3rd: Chanonry Point, Mount High, Udale Bay, South Sutor
Daily 60 New 60 Running 60
Weather: Sunny spells with an E wind 17c

Our first stop today was at Chanonry Point near Fortose which is famous for close views of dolphins. It is also a notable area for the visible migration of seabirds and waders. On the approach road the golf greens held Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Oystercatcher and a flock of House Sparrows. At the point we located high numbers of Northern Gannets, Great Cormorant, Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns, Common Guillemot, Razorbill and a calling Whimbrel which flew overhead. It was time to move on and explore an area of forest at Mount High. The main attraction here was a group of Scottish Crossbills giving their distinctive calls over the native pine species. Also present were Coat Tit and a party of Eurasian Siskins. Udale Bay is not faraway where the tide was rising which gave us views of Pink-footed, Greylag and Canada Geese, Grey Heron, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Teal, Mallard and Eurasian Wigeon. A few waders were present including Red Knot, Dunlin and Common Redshank. Further down the road to Cromarty a stop beyond Jemimaville produced Great Scaup, Red-breasted Mergansers and distant Common Eiders. A diversion to South Sutor via Cromarty added little of note apart from migrating Barn Swallows and views towards North Sutor and its seabird and cormorant colonies.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal (2)

September 4th: Nairn, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth East Beach, Loch Spynie
Daily 69 New 22 Running 82
Weather: Frequent rain showers on a brisk E wind 15c

Today I headed eastwards towards Nairn and onto Moray. The first stop was a walk along the jetty at Nairn east beach where the stony beach attracted Ruddy Turnstone, Common Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and a wide range of gulls. Out in the firth many terns, gulls and Northern Gannets. On the River Nairn which appears to be low on water a female Common Merganser. En route to Burghead, a diversion to Roseisle produced nothing of note. The rocky foreshore at Burghead attracted Red Knot some being in breeding plumage. Offshore the group located Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Eider and a distant Manx Shearwater. Lossiemouth east beach held hundreds of gulls which included a first year Glaucous Gull and a lingering Lesser Black-backed Gull. Loch Spynie was next on the agenda where the entrance track held a feeding flock comprising of Great, Blue, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Goldcrest, European Robin and Willow Warbler. At the hide overlooking the loch the group found Mute Swan, Little Grebe, Gadwall, Mallard, Tufted Duck and at least four Sedge Warblers on the reed edge. In the reedbeds we could hear Water Rail and glimpsed Common Reed Buntings. On the return walk up to five Great Spotted Woodpeckers feeding and flying between the old dead trees. I returned to the beach at Lossiemouth with no additions to the list.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal (3), Common Rabbit (5)

September 5th: Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Embo, Loch Fleet, Brora, Strath Brora
Daily 65 New 14 Running 96
Weather: Rather mixed with showers and sunny spells on a NE wind 17c

The weather forecast was not encouraging as I set off for Easter Ross and the village of Portmahomack. Our first stop was overlooking the large bay which offers shelter for the worst of the elements. Careful scanning revealed Red-throated Diver, Common Eider, Black Guillemot, Common Scoter and Northern Gannet. The drive down to Tarbatness goes through farmland where we located groups of Eurasian Linnets, Pied Wagtail and Barn Swallows. The feeders around the car park attracted several species which included Great and Coal Tits, Dunnock, Yellowhammer and European Goldfinches. I decided to walk towards the plantation which can be productive for birds in the right wind conditions. Along the fence line a juvenile European Pied Flycatcher (and later a male) plus a first year Icterine Warbler which showed briefly but well. A walk adjacent to the lighthouse added a family party of Dunnocks, European Robin, Northern Wheatear, Goldcrest and a Common Buzzard. A short seawatch at the point added the commoner seabirds. Our journey continued north towards Embo and the ruined jetty which regularly attracts many waders. On this occasion Ruddy Turnstone and Red-breasted Mergansers. At Loch Fleet the fields had Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Greenshank and dozens of Greylag Geese. The remainder of the day was at Brora and inland at Strath Brora. Despite careful searching we only added a pair of Whooper Swans and hunting Common Kestrel.

September 6th: Achanalt, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Mellon Charles, Laide, Gruinard Bay
Daily 56 New 5 Running 101
Weather: Rather mixed with heavy rain showers, sunny spells and inconsistent winds 16c

Today I travelled west with the group to explore the vast and under populated area of Wester Ross. The weather was again to play apart as we arrived at the overlook to Achanalt a large marsh with various areas of open water. In the surrounding area large cliffs, forests and abandoned buildings from time gone pass. On arrival a pair of Whooper Swans was grazing on the loch edge and to my delight an adult White-tailed Eagle sitting motionless on the marsh mud. In the same area we added Lesser Redpoll and calling Eurasian Wren. Gairloch is on the west coast with another stop at Loch Gairloch.  On this visit only observed Red-breasted Merganser, Northern Gannet and Ringed Plovers on the beach. Loch Ewe was next on our radar a productive area for birds. I made stops at Naast to search the lightly wooded gardens for migrants but only found Goldcrest, Coal Tit and an out of place Great Spotted Woodpecker on a telegraph pole. Near the end of the road a beach area was excellent for scattered flocks of Black-throated Divers, a single Red-throated Diver. Further stops added little of note so I headed back to base.

September 7th: Lybster, Skirza, St John’s Loch, Dunnet Bay, Scrabster, Forsinard
Daily 71 New 8 Running 109
Weather: Sunny spells and rain showers on a E wind 16c

I headed north today with the first stop being the old herring port of Lybster. The narrow gulley down towards the harbour often attracts migrants in the autumn period. The common birds were around and around six Rock Pipits on the harbour walls. After passing through Wick the group ended up in the coastal village of Skirza. Offshore we were fortunate to find a pair of Great Skuas which have been badly affected by bird flu. Also present in good counts included Northern Gannet, Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwake. Fields near John O’Groats attracted Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Skylark and concentrations of Greylag Geese. The freshwater loch at St John’s held a pair of Sand Martins, Mute Swan, Common Moorhen and impressive flocks of Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon. Lunch was taken by Dunnet Bay. In the bay itself Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Arctic and Sandwich Terns and a range of shorebirds including Sanderling, Red Knot, Common Redshank, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone. At Scrabster Harbour up to three Common Eider and two Black Guillemots. I decided to go back via the flow country of Forsinard. From a viewpoint over the moorland we added Grey Heron, Common Stonechat and a party of Mistle Thrushes.

September 8th: Corrimony, Cairngorm, Feshiebridge, Loch Garten, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road
Daily 35 New 5 Running 114
Weather: A day dominated by showers on a E wind 16c

An early departure today with a visit to Corrimony where we met Simon the warden. Our main target Black Grouse was seen well on the first lek and feeding on slopes further up the track. A Grey Wagtail near the car park was an added bonus before we headed off to Inverness for a late breakfast. Down the A9 to Cairngorm National Park. At the present time the whole area is like a building site and devoid of bird life due to disturbance. Not much to report here and at Loch Morlich. On the road to Feshiebridge a Song Thrush crossed the road in front of us. The next hour or so was spent walking around the forest trails in search of birds. In the end the commoner species were recorded in a rather quiet environment. Loch Garten and the Findhorn Valley were visited before crossing the Farr Road. The finale here was an adult Golden Eagle hunting along a grassy ridge. A long and slightly frustrating day for birding.

September 9th: Applecross, Kishorn, Ness Islands, Udale Bay
Daily 55 New 4 Final 118
Weather: Sunny spells although cloudy and cool in the W 12c-15c

Our last full day with a visit to the west coast and the high areas around Applecross. The entrance road is spectacular giving great views over to Skye and beyond. Our main task was to locate Rock Ptarmigan at lower altitudes and this area was to give us a reasonable chance of locating this cryptic bird. After spending a long time searching rocks and peaks I conceded that the birds must be higher in the mountains. I dropped down to Kishorn where we located a wide range of gulls and waders including Bar-tailed Godwits. Back to Inverness and a stop along the road near Loch Carron where a calling Red Crossbill was heard. Ness Islands was suffering from high water levels although Common Mergansers were on the River Ness. I ended the day at Udale Bay where two Western Osprey were located with one perched on a stick in the bay and the other unusually on a hale bale. In the Cromarty Firth numbers of Greater Scaup had increased and joined by a Horned Grebe in winter plumage.

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