Highlands and Aberdeenshire 2012

Mark Finn
October 6th-13th

This tour of the Highlands and Aberdeenshire was reduced by a day in order to fit in with the client’s requirements. The week was dominated by the often poor weather, especially in Aberdeenshire. In the Highlands we had a number of great birding moments including a hunting White-tailed Eagle in Wester Ross, the first Great Northern Divers of the autumn and a flock of post-breeding Black-throated Divers. Black and Red Grouse were also noted at two traditional sites. In north-eastern Aberdeenshire the numbers of wintering wildfowl were lower than in previous years. Despite this we managed good numbers of Pink-footed Geese, Whooper Swans, Common and Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, a significant passage of Common Goldeneye off Fraserburgh Harbour with the harbour itself holding a first year Glaucous Gull. Further south the Montrose Basin attracted many birds including wintering Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwits. The last morning saw an influx of Redwings and Goldcrests at Collieston.

October 6th: Balintore, Tarbatness, Tain, Dornoch, Embo, Loch Fleet, Brora, Bonar Bridge, Nigg.
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and showers on a northwest wind 11C.

We started the day by observing the birds attending the feeders in the grounds of Cygnus House. Species included Great, Blue and Coal Tits, European Greenfinch, European Siskin, European Robin and several Eurasian Sparrowhawks chasing and hunting the birds. Our journey north along the A9 added Red Kite and Common Buzzards perching on straw bales. Overhead small parties of Pink-footed Geese flying towards their feeding areas of recently cut cornfields. Balintore was the first birding stop an old herring village situated on the Moray Firth. Offshore we located a female Common Scoter, Razorbill and Common Guillemot. Tarbatness was next on the agenda, a long spit of land with bushes, gorse and fields. Feeders around the car park attracted Coal and Great Tits, European Linnet, Yellowhammer and Tree Sparrow. The walk towards the point was uneventful for birds, but at the end a female Merlin was observed sitting on the foreshore. Also present were Red-throated Diver, Black Guillemot and two late Barn Swallows. At Tain we travelled down to the shore where the tide was a long way out. Searching among the hundreds of birds revealed Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail and Mallard. We then crossed the Dornoch Bridge and onto Dornoch the county town of Sutherland. At the golf course we walked towards the beach where we located Red-breasted Mergansers and a late Arctic Tern. Lunch was taken at Embo where, on the rocks, we observed feeding Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Rock Pipit and a migrant White Wagtail. Visits to Brora and Bonar Bridge added a pair of Eurasian Jays at the latter site a scarce bird in the region. We ended the day at Nigg where the tide was high allowing close views of Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew and Northern Lapwings.

October 7th: Shieldaig, Loch Maree, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Mellon Udrigle, Loch Gruinard.
Weather: Sunny with a westerly wind 11C.

Today we headed westwards into the vast, empty spaces of Wester Ross. Shieldaig was our destination, a picturesque village opposite a wooded island. This is a noted area of White-tailed Eagles but on this occasion they were not present. Birds present in and around the village included Long-tailed Tit, Common Raven, Mistle Thrush, Eurasian Kestrel and Rock Pigeons. Travelled to Gairloch via Slatterdale where Common Stonechats were perched on the tops of bushes. Gairloch offered us the commoner seabirds and views towards Skye and the Western Isles. I decided we should visit the southern shore of Loch Ewe. At the far end we located a flock of Black-throated Divers, Black Guillemot and a hunting adult White-tailed Eagle. On the beach Common Ringed Plovers resting on the sand. The army were involved in military manoeuvres and we were asked to move on. Ended the day at Loch Gruinard where we located the first returning Great Northern Divers of the autumn, Red-throated Divers and Black-legged Kittiwakes.

October 8th: Corrimony, Loch Garten, Nethybridge, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road.
Weather: Sunny with a cool westerly wind 10C.

Corrimony was our destination this morning where I had arranged to meet Simon the warden at 7 o’clock. We travelled up onto the reserve where Black Grouse were lekking close to the track this despite continued disturbance from wind farm traffic (this ends shortly). Good views obtained as usual and after this fantastic spectacle we headed to Inverness for a late breakfast. Afterwards we journeyed down the A9 and diverted into Nethybridge where a pair of White-throated Dippers showed well on the river. Downstream a female Common Goldeneye flew away from us. Loch Garten was next up and the feeders here attracted several very tame Coal Tits which fed out of my hand. Also present were Great, Blue and Crested Tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Treecreeper and a male Eurasian Sparrowhawk perched in a stunted pine tree. The pictureqsue Findhorn Valley was next and is particularly beautiful at this time of the year with the leaves turning on the trees and autumn colours of moor and forest. At the far end several Common Buzzards and up to forty Common Ravens were feeding on a recently dead Red Deer. The hills were alive with the rutting calls of Red Deer stags and their attendant hinds. Lunch taken, followed by a drive along the Farr Road. The windy conditions made birding tricky but we soon connected with Red Grouse close to the road.

October 9th/10th: Inverness, Peterhead, Loch of Strathbeg, St Combs.
Weather: Sunny with a light south wind 12C.

From Inverness we headed in an easterly direction via Aberdeen and northwards to Peterhead the major fishing port of Scotland. The estuary next to Peterhead golf club allows a close view of birds using the area including; Northern Lapwing, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-headed, Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, Carrion and Hooded Crows and many Grey Herons. Loch of Strathbeg was our main birding stop of the day which is located between Peterhead and Fraserburgh two historical fishing ports. The feeders by the reception centre held the commoner birds and Tree Sparrows. A walk towards the tower hide produced European Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers feeding on the seed heads in a fallow field. On arrival at the hide we scanned across the extensive pools, reedbeds and farmland searching for birds. Pink-footed and Greylag Geese were present in lower numbers than previous visits. Also using the area were Ruff, Common Snipe and Northern Shoveler the latter being a scarce bird within the northern Scotland area. We ended the day at St Combs a rather drab seaside village with views over the North Sea and south to Rattray Head. The sea held lots of Northern Gannets, Common Guillemots, Red-breasted Mergansers and Red-throated Divers.

October 11th: Collieston, Miekle Loch, Ythan Estuary, St Cyrus, Montrose Basin.
Weather: Cloudy with a strengthening south wind 12C.

This morning our first stop was the coastal village of Collieston. En route we observed the common farmland birds of Aberdeenshire. Parked up by the sea and walked toward the church and cemetery a migration hot-spot in the right wind conditions. Careful searching of the area produced a few birds; Meadow Pipit, Eurasian Siskin, some migrant European Robins and Eurasian Wrens were singing from the tops of stonewalls. A short seawatch followed which produced hundreds of Northern Gannets and Common Guillemots. On the way out of Collieston a stop was made for large flocks of Pink-footed Geese feeding on stubble fields. Miekle Loch is nearby an important wintering area for wildfowl. Scanning around and in the lake revealed more geese, Eurasian Coot, Common Goldeneye, Tufted Duck and a single male Common Pochard the last species appearing to be in rapid decline within Scotland. The Ythan Estuary is a short distance away and we visited the hide first as the tide was starting to rise. Birds using this part of the river included Eurasian Teal, Red-breasted Merganser, Northern Lapwing, Common Shelduck and a hunting female Peregrine Falcon. Back at the main road a viewpoint added Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Pied and White Wagtails and our first European Golden Plovers of the trip. At Newburgh we picked up supplies and made our way to Inch Road which ends at a great place for Common Eiders. Hundreds were present and afforded close views for all concerned. I decided to head south passing through Aberdeen to visit the St Cyrus and Montrose areas. Aberdeen was a little chaotic for traffic as we headed to St Cyrus and the nature reserve which hugs the North Sea coastline. The inland cliffs and old trees attracted Common Buzzard and Great Spotted Woodpeckers whilst the weedy fields had flocks of European Goldfinches. Offshore waters held the usual seabirds and Common Scoters. Our final birding stop was at the Montrose Basin an impressive reserve operated by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. This huge area held thousands of Pink-footed Geese, Mute Swan, Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, wintering waders included Common Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwits.

October 12th: Ythan Estuary, Collieston, Cruden Bay, Fraserburgh, Loch of Strathbeg.
Weather: Heavy rain accompanied by a stiff south-easterly wind 11C.

The weather forecast today was dire with heavy rain and wind for northeast Aberdeenshire coast. Despite this I had a plan to avoid the worst of the weather using the van as a hide at exposed spots and utilising the hides at Loch of Strathbeg and the Ythan Estuary. Our first stop at the Ythan Estuary coincided with a rising tide resulting in wading birds coming close to the hide. Exceptional views of Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers, Dunlin and a male Peregrine Falcon hunting over coniferous woodland. In the deeper water channels we watched Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser. It was time to move on towards Collieston with the weather and wind direction being a good indicator of possible seabirds. A seawatch produced hundreds of Northern Gannets, Common Guillemots and lesser numbers of Northern Fulmar, Red-throated Diver, Velvet Scoter and Black-legged Kittiwakes. The weather had worsened as we took the coast road towards Cruden Bay. A bonus here was a juvenile Merlin complete with prey sitting in the middle of the road, close views obtained before flying off along the fence line. At Cruden Bay the sandy beach attracted Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstone and Ringed Plovers. I then made a decision to visit Fraserburgh and the harbour area which is situated on the extreme north eastern point of Aberdeenshire. The harbour was full of super trawlers and those used for short forays into the North Sea. The harbour has a reputation for gulls with Great Black-backed, Herring and Common Gulls being the dominant species. Careful searching produced a first year Glaucous Gull on the outer harbour wall. Another seawatch followed by the lighthouse which resulted in a remarkable passage of Northern Gannet, Eurasian Wigeon, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Guillemot the latter being in their hundreds. We ended the day at Loch of Strathbeg where Jo located a pair of Gadwall by the reception area. A visit to the hide by the old runway allowed close views of Great Crested Grebe, Whooper and Mute Swans and Pink-footed Geese. On our return along the boardwalk we could hear the distinctive calls of Water Rails. The journey back south towards Aberdeen was slow due to heavy rain and surface water en route. Despite the poor weather we had an excellent days birding along the coast.

October 13th: Balmedie, Collieston, Don River, Girdle Ness.
Final species total : 115
Weather: Cloudy with an east wind 10C.

The awful weather of yesterday had thankfully cleared to be replaced by an easterly wind. Outside the hotel, a significant passage of Redwings and European Robins was apparent. I decided to head back to Collieston again as conditions looked good for migrants. A stop at a small loch added Little Grebe and a party of Common Pochards. Parked by the cliffs and walked up towards Collieston church. The bushes here were alive with Goldcrests, Chaffinches and at least two Bramblings. A drive northwards added a migrant Song Thrush and a covey of Grey Partridges in a recently harvested corn field. Further on a grass-field held several hundred Northern Lapwings. We then headed back towards Aberdeen and onto the esplanade which was rather busy with walkers and joggers thus causing a lot of disturbance. I decided to head up towards Girdle Ness which overlooks the harbour. Offshore we noted Common Eider, Common Scoter, Common Guillemot, all the regular gull species, Red-throated Diver and Northern Gannets. The old quay attracts many species with Great Cormorant, European Shag, Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Redshank and Ruddy Turnstone. At mid-day we headed to Aberdeen station where the tour concluded.

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