Autumn in the Highlands, 2023

Mark Finn
September 9-16

September 9th: Nairn, Findhorn Bay, Burghead, Loch Spynie, Eathie, Udale Bay
Daily 60 New 60 Running 60
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 24c

From Inverness I headed eastwards along the Moray coast to the seaside town of Nairn. It was a warm day and activity within the firth was slow although Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Rock Pipit and Great Cormorant were near the estuary mouth. Findhorn Bay was next on the agenda reached by the back-road from Forres. Scanning into this vast area revealed the first Pink-footed and Greylag Geese of the autumn, a lingering Osprey perched on a post, various ducks including Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit and the widespread corvid species. Roseisle was packed with tourists so we ambled on the rocky shore at Burghead. Offshore we observed passing Northern Gannets, Common Eider, European Shag and Great Black-backed Gulls. On the rocks Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Redshank, Ringed Plover, a juvenile Sanderling and Pied Wagtail. I skipped Lossiemouth as it was full of tourists making the best of late summer weather. Loch Spynie was next where the car park feeders were attracting Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Chaffinch and European Robins. A walk down towards the hide and views across the loch were notable for Little and Horned Grebes, Tufted Duck, the rare Common Pochard and two non-breeding Horned Grebes. I had time to head back towards the Black Isle and visit the Eathie road. This was good for a female Hen Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and flocks of Northern Lapwings. Udale Bay produced nothing new so we headed to Cygnus House our base for the week.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal

September 10th: Udale Bay, Nigg Bay, Portmahomack, Tain, Embo, Loch Fleet, Brora
Daily 70 New 22 Running 82
Weather: Rain showers with a cool ENE wind 14c

In contrast to yesterday we were greeted by a cold wind from the east and a constant drizzle of showers. I decided to concentrate on Easter Ross as it offered us the best chances of avoiding the worst weather. The usual birds were around the garden and our first birding stop was Udale Bay where hundreds of gulls were roosting mainly European Herring and Common. A search through the flocks revealed European Golden and Ringed Plovers, Northern Lapwing, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Common Greenshank, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, Eurasian Teal and surprisingly Common Shelduck (most are in the Elbe in their autumn moult). Flocks of European Linnets were feeding on seed heads by the hide. Nigg Bay is literally at a diagonal to Udale Bay in the firth and offers good birding in autumn. On arrival the entrance track attracted Eurasian Blackbird, Dunnock, European Goldfinch and Yellowhammer. Once in the hide a scan of the extensive mud added Canada Geese, a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk and the common wading birds. A diversion to Portmahomack provided us with a few sea-ducks in the form of Common Scoter, Common Eider plus Red-throated Diver and Black Guillemot. Lunch taken at Tain and then onto Embo which was busy with tourists from further south. From the old jetty we had views of Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Sandwich Tern, Common Guillemot and Razorbill. At Loch Fleet and The Mound the Ospreys were still lingering around with Common Buzzard and Red Kite and a family of Common Ravens playing around in the tops of pines. Further north at Brora Arctic Terns and Sanderling were seen just offshore.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal, Common Rabbit

September 11th: Achanalt, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Melvich, Loch Ewe, Laide, Gruinard Island
Daily 59 New 7 Running 89
Weather: Rather mixed with rain showers and sunny spells on a SW wind 16c

Out west today visiting the mountains, moors and coast line of Wester Ross. First stop was at Achanalt where Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon were on the loch. In the trees we located Eurasian Bullfinch, Meadow Pipit, Eurasian Collared Dove and Common Woodpigeon. A migrant Grey Wagtail flew overhead. A stop in Kinlochewe revealed a steady stream of migrating Barn Swallows and House Martins. The weather was rather gloomy as we entered Gairloch where the beach held the commoner gull species, Pied Wagtail and Ruddy Turnstone. Offshore a few groups of Common Guillemot and Razorbill. I decided to drive towards Melvich which offers views towards the Western Isles. The birds were notably absent apart from a lone Northern Wheatear and family parties of European Stonechats. Loch Ewe was next on our agenda a long sea loch bordered by beaches, moorland and dunes. Near the end of the road a flock of Black-throated Divers were seen searching for food (mainly crabs and small fish). Offshore a few Sandwich and Arctic Terns and short-cropped grass had a pair of White Wagtails. Visits to Laide and Gruinard Island had nothing of note so we headed back home. A tough day for birds in the west which was mainly down to weather conditions.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal, Red Deer (10), Sika Deer (1)

September 12th: Dalziel, Ness Islands, Udale Bay, Strathconon, Tollie
Daily 59 New 7 Running 96
Weather: Sunny with showers on a SW wind 16c

This morning a visit to the fields around Dalziel which are situated close to Inverness airport. There was a marked migration of hirundines including a few Sand Martins. In the overgrown fields Eurasian Skylarks were singing and moving around and often joined by Common Stonechat, Common Linnets and Reed Buntings. No sign of Corn Buntings today so I set off to Inverness and visited Ness Islands. The islands held woodland species including Eurasian Treereeper and on the river White-throated Dipper and Common Merganser. It was soon time to revisit Udale Bay again as the tide was rising. On arrival a scan of the goose flocks revealed Band in among the Barnacle Goose and in among the wader flock two juvenile Ruff. In the afternoon a visit to Strathconon a long, dead end valley which runs through hillsides and alongside a river for 17 miles. Bird density is low here but we were eventually treated to great views of two Golden Eagles in the skies above us. In the same area Red Kite, Common Buzzard and Northern Raven.
Mammals: Red Deer (2), Stoat (1)

September 13th: Cairngorm Mountains, Loch Morlich, Loch Garten, Jesus Stone, Loch Indorb, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road, Ruthven
Daily 46 New 7 Running 103
Weather: Cloudy with a cool SW wind 14c

Down to Cairngorm where the railway was once again out of action which meant a change of plans for the day. The only bird of note was a male Red Grouse which was calling low on a hillside. Loch Morlich had two lingering Common Goldeneye before a visit to Loch Garten. The centre was closed but the feeders were active with birds which included several Crested Tits, Goldcrest and Great Spotted Woodpecker. A bonus here was a flock of Red Crossbills which flew above our heads and gave their distinctive ‘jip’ calls. A detour to Loch Indorb added nothing of note apart from several Red Grouse calling and flying around the empty shooting butts!! A slow drive up the Findhorn Valley was productive for Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Mistle Thrush, Common Stonechat, Barn Swallow and Northern Raven. Nothing at all along the Farr Road apart from three out of range Red-legged Partridges. A slow drive passing by Ruthven added little apart from the commoner species.
Mammals: Stoat (1), Wood Vole (1), Mountain Hare (1), Roe Deer (5)

September 14th: Chanonry Point, Novar Estate, Sheildaig, Applecross, Kishorn
Daily 55 New 4 Running 107
Weather: Rather mixed on a SW wind 15c

First stop today was a rather windswept Chanonry Point on the Black Isle which can be an excellent Seawatching point at times. Close to shore we observed Northern Gannet, Arctic Skua, Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Redshank and a notable passage of European Shags. In the deeper waters two species of auks and hordes of Black-legged Kittiwake, European, Great Black-backed, Common and Black-headed Gulls. Next today was Novar Estate an area of native forest close to Alness. On arrival a short walk along one of the many tracks quickly revealed a party of Scottish Crossbills feeding in a native Caledonian Pine tree. It was time to head west towards the isolated villages of Sheildaig and Applecross with a bonus of a male Merlin near Kinlochewe. At Sheildaig lots of tourists were around the village. Bird included Northern Wheatear and Common Stonechat. The road to Applecross is poor for birds and wildlife and today proved to be the same again. The bay at Applecross held the commoner species and the pass over the mountain was literally devoid of life mainly down to strong winds. At Kishorn a group of Eurasian Teal in a roadside pool was of note. Evening meal in a seafood restaurant before heading home.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal, Red Deer (6), Bottle-nosed Dolphin (2), Harbour Porpoise (2)

September 15th; Helmsdale, Lybster, Skirza, Dunnet Bay, St John’s Loch, Broubster Leans, Sandside Bay
Daily 64 New 2 Final 109
Weather: Sunny with a W wind 14c

Our final day with an excursion to Caithness and Sutherland the most northerly of mainland Scotland areas. The first stop was the old herring port of Helmsdale and in particular the harbour and offshore jetties. The latter had high numbers of European Shags, Greater Black-backed, European Herring and Common Gulls. On one section of jetty a Rock Pipit. Further towards Wick another diversion to visit Lybster and its harbour which is reached by a steep road surrounded by scrub and bushes. It looks a good area for migrants in the right wind directions. On this visit just the common garden birds and migrating Barn Swallows. I passed through Wick which is suffering as a town with closed business and decreasing human population. Skirza is on the coast and surrounded by fields and gardens with mature bushes. There was a notable presence of Meadow Pipits which formed loose flocks with Common Linnet, European Goldfinch and European Greenfinches feeding in the cut cereal fields. I then had a general drive around the area known as Greenland to see if any geese or duck flocks had arrived. Nothing doing so headed towards Dunnet Bay where the head gave protection to the wind. On the shore a nice selection of waders including Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Common Redshank and Red Knot. St John’s Loch is nearby where we added a pair of Gadwall, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Mute Swans. A brief stop at Scrabster Harbour had a lone Black Guillemot and not much gull activity as the trawlers were out to sea. On the return journey a stop at Broubster Leans was good for two male Hen Harriers tangling in dog fights above a sheep field. Sandside Bay was our last destination with similar birds to Dunnet Bay so I headed towards the road running through the flow country back towards Helmsdale. Nothing much to report along the road except the odd Common Buzzard and Common Kestrel. Once in Helmsdale I headed down the A9 to the Black Isle where the tour concluded for the week.

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