Scottish Highlands, May 2023
This was the second tour of the spring season in the Scottish Highlands. It was an eventful week with the group recording 144 species in rather mixed weather conditions which were dominated by south-westerly winds. Highlights during the week included Bar-headed and Greater White-fronted Geese in amongst a group of Pink-footed Geese at Udale Bay (the nearest Bar-headed Geese are in southern Sweden). Unusual was at least two drake Garganey, Stock Dove on the Black Isle which were out of range by some distance, a male Black-winged Stilt near Wick, several Wood Sandpipers at three locations, Golden and White-tailed Eagles, a single Eurasian Magpie near Bettyhill was a notable record, a wide selection of summer warblers, Crested Tit and a lone Red Crossbill on the first day.
I am sure the following report and bird list will bring back good memories of an excellent tour.
May 7th: Udale Bay, Eathie, Strathpeffer, Orrin
Daily 71 New 71 Running 71
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 17c
By late morning everybody had arrived at Cygnus House for the start of a week’s birding in the Scottish Highlands and far north. As the tide was rising I decided to visit Udale Bay which borders our garden. A check of the Pink-footed Goose flock revealed two unusual species in the form of a Greater White-fronted and a Bar-tailed which probably originated from southern Sweden. The long grasses near the hide held Sedge Warbler, Blackcap and Reed Bunting. Out on the mud waders were few but included non-breeding Eurasian Oystercatchers with their white collars, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Eurasian Curlews. Further down the Cromarty Firth beyond Jemimaville the group located Greater Scaup and Long-tailed Ducks. I went over the Black Isle to join the Eathie road which passes through farmland, forest and fields grazed by livestock. A stop near a spruce plantation added a male Red Crossbill, Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Yellowhammer, Great, Blue and Coal Tits and a singing Mistle Thrush. In the afternoon a visit to the lochans at Strathpeffer where at least two pairs of Horned Grebes showed well at close range along with the resident Little Grebes, a bonus here was a Water Rail which flew from cover and landed on the other side and promptly disappeared. Also present were Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Common Cuckoo, Song Thrush and Tree Pipit. A diversion to Orrin produced nothing of note so I went back to Cygnus House via the central road. A bonus here was a pair of Stock Doves a rare bird this far north on a ploughed field.
Mammals: Brown Hare (1)
May 8th: Easter Dalziel, Nairn, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie, Balmonie Pig Farm, Spey Bay
Daily 82 New 28 Running 99
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and showers on a SW wind 14c
The usual species were around the garden this morning. After breakfast I headed towards the hamlet of Easter Dalziel which is close to Inverness airport. On arrival I parked up and started to look at the farmland, reedbeds and bushes which dominate the area. The local farmer came out to meet us and give up to date information on the areas wildlife and birds. Species of note included the near locally extinct Corn Bunting, House Martin and Common Stonechat. Nairn is further east and we walked out on the jetty to view a section of the Moray Firth. In the firth we located European Shag and Great Cormorant whilst the jetty held Rock Pipits. Across the river the scratchy song of a Common Whitethroat could be heard. Roseisle is an interesting area in early May and today was no exception as the group located Common, Red-throated and Black-throated Loons, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers from an elevated lookout. Burghead is clearly visible and a few miles further east. The rocky shore here attracted a party of Red Knot some being in brick red plumage. Offshore a steady passage of Northern Gannet, Arctic Tern and rafts of Razorbills. Lossiemouth was oddly quiet but we did locate Northern Wheatear, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Pied Wagtails. Loch Spynie was next on the agenda a loch surrounded by reedbeds which is a rare habitat in northern Scotland. New species observed included Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Common Moorhen, Common Goldeneye and above the reedbeds a male Western Marsh Harrier and Red Kite. I then received reports of birds at a nearby pig farm where a seasonal pool attracted Garganey, Gadwall and a group of Wood Sandpipers. I had time to make a visit to Spey Bay where good numbers of Common Merganser were around the river mouth with Common Sandpiper and a pair of Common Terns resting on a floating tree trunk.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal (2), Common Rabbit
May 9th: Loch Fleet, Borrobol, Forsinard, Sandside Bay, Scrabster, Dunnet Bay, St John’s Loch, Dunnet Head, Thurbster Mains
Daily 88 New 17 Running 116
Weather: Mixed with SW winds 16c
This morning the group headed north to the wilderness of Sutherland and Caithness. Our first stop at Loch Fleet quickly added Common Greenshanks feeding by grass islands along with Eurasian Oystercatchers, Common Sandpiper, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, White and Pied Wagtails and above average numbers of Eurasian Teal. An Osprey was also noted sitting low on her nest, other raptors around included Red Kite and Common Buzzard. I turned up Glen Loth a remote and beautiful valley just south of Helmsdale. This remote road had displaying and singing Common Snipe, Northern Wheatear, Common Stonechat, Common Cuckoo, Mistle and Song Thrushes and several Lesser Redpolls passing overhead with their distinctive calls. I dropped into the remote house of Borrobol to try and locate a Eurasian Hoopoe, no sign of this so we headed north to Forsinard checking the roadside lochans and moorland for birds. A pair of Red-throated Loons were present on a large loch with Sand and House Martins hawking for insects low over the water, a patch of scrub held a singing Sedge Warbler. On reaching the northern coastal road I turned east towards Thurso and visited Sandside Bay at Reay. The sheltered bay here held Common Loons in breeding dress, Black Guillemot, Common Murre, Long-tailed Duck and Northern Gannets. After lunch a brief visit to Scrabster Harbour added Common Eider for the day list. Dunnet Bay always has a few birds and as the tide was high we had close views of Ruddy Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit and Arctic Terns. St John’s Loch is mainly a winter site but a check here revealed Little Grebe, Mute Swan and Tufted Ducks. Dunnet Head is the most northerly point of mainland Britain with steep cliffs where we watched auks, Rock Doves, Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwakes at close range. Our final spot was near Wick at a place called Thrubster Mains. We had a little bit of luck here as a male Black-winged Stilt could clearly be seen on a distant pond with a drake Garganey and several other wildfowl species.
Mammals: Red Deer (c), Roe Deer (c)
May 10th: Hope Valley, Balnakiel, Lairg Road, Udale Bay
Daily 70 New 6 Running 122
Weather: Sunshine and showers on SW winds 14c
I headed westwards this morning towards Durness the most north-westerly village in Britain. The usual species were seen along the coast road which included our first Northern Ravens of the tour. A facility stop at Bettyhill produced a rare species in northern Scotland a Eurasian Magpie flying powerfully southwards, a total surprise for us all. A visit to the Hope Valley on this occasion was very quiet apart from the constant songs of Willow Warblers, Blackcap, Meadow Pipit, Song and Mistle Thrushes. Around midday we entered the village of Durness which is literally under siege from camper vans and tourists an unpleasant experience for local people. I parked up by the old cemetery and church at Balnakiel with an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull on an exposed chimney and Rock Pipits breeding in the stone walls. A walk towards the marsh revealed a pair of Whooper Swans, Mallard, Gadwall, Common Moorhen and the extraordinary site of displaying Wood Sandpipers. In the reedbeds we could hear the pig like calls of Water Rails, Sedge Warbler and Reed Bunting. On our return to the bus Common Linnet and Twite which we could compare side by side to show how different they are in structure and size. Out at sea Northern Gannet, Arctic Tern and migrant Whimbrel. I set off home via the Lairg road when a stop allowed us to watch and study an adult Golden Eagle. Not too much else was seen today and even Udale Bay had seen a recent clear out of birds.
Mammals: Rabbit (c), Red Deer (1)
May 11th; Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Loch Garten, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road
Daily 51 New 4 Running 126
Weather: Sunny with mist at higher elevations on a light SW wind 11c
A change today as we went south to visit Cairngorm Mountain. In and around the car park singing Willow Warblers and Meadow Pipits were observed flitting around the heather. The group joined the funicular railway and walked out at the top where the mist was rolling about making visibility patchy at times. A walk of around 1km towards the summit was possible and most snow had melted from a week ago. Northern Wheatears were very active singing and making territories and we were fortunate to find a pair of Snow Buntings feeding on the ice pools at close range. I decided to head back down towards Loch Morlich via the lower car park where Arthur located a male Willow Ptarmigan calling away, Eurasian Siskin and a singing Tree Pipit. At Loch Morlich the group quickly located Common Goldeneye and Common Mergansers. A flying visit to Loch Garten added an Osprey feeding on a fish and not much else as we ventured up the Findhorn Valley. A scan of the sheep fields revealed European Golden Plover, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Cuckoo, Mistle Thrushes and several pairs of Red-legged Partridges. It was time to go over the Farr Road where a few more Willow Ptarmigan were recorded plus a singing Common Snipe.
Mammals: Rabbit (c), Mountain Hare (1), Red Deer (70), Red Squirrel (1)
May 12th: Corrimony, Blackfold, Ness Islands, Slochd, Feshiebridge, Findhorn Valley
Daily 57 New 12 Running 138
Weather: Early mist giving away to a sunny day on a warm S wind 16c
This morning the group visited Corrimony which is an isolated reserve near the Great Glen. On the way brief views of a Western Barn Owl hunting along the roadside. At the car park we could hear a reeling Grasshopper Warbler. Simon joined us to visit the first of two lekking grounds where we had close encounters with the rare and declining Black Grouse. The loch held a pair of Red-throated Divers and Common Greenshank. I then travelled back to Inverness for breakfast followed by a visit to Blackfold an area of managed coniferous woodland high above Loch Ness. The woodland was alive with birds which included singing Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Common Redstart, Long-tailed Tit and Lesser Redpoll. Next on the agenda were the Ness Islands where we found White-throated Dipper, Common Merganser and Eurasian Treecreeper. It was time to head back down the A9 where I stopped at the Slochd Summit which used to be a regular area for Ring Ouzel. Luck was with us as a male Ring Ouzel was seen in flight and a female was also present among the juniper bushes. A pair of Grey Wagtails flew over and a Common Kestrel showed well on the cliffs. A diversion to Feshiebridge and a walk through the forest along well constructed tracks produced several Tree Pipits singing from treetops, a pair of Crested Tits in almost the same spot as last week and a Peregrine Falcon calling from and sitting on a nearby crag. I went back towards the Findhorn Valley before heading back home after a long day in the field.
Mammals: Brown Hare (2), Mountain Hare (1), Roe Deer (3), Red Deer (70)
May 13th: Orrin, Achanalt, Achnasheen, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Mellon Charles, Laide, Gruinard Bay
Daily 79 New 5 Final 143
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 19c
Today I crossed the Black Isle towards the power station at Orrin, a surprise find was a pair of Grey Partridge near the A9 a rare bird in the Highlands. On arrival at Orrin a check of the silver birch forest had the commoner warblers, Eurasian Bullfinch and several singing European Robins. I was about to leave when a short diversion up the road produced singing and displaying Wood Warblers much to my and the groups relief. Stunning views we had of this wonderful bird which is slowly increasing in numbers within the Highlands in silver birch forests. I then travelled to Achanalt and the overlook into the shallow loch. On the edge of the loch an adult White-tailed Eagle was located by Arthur. On the open water areas a pair of Whooper Swans, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Teal, Canada Geese and a single Pink-footed Goose. The birch trees were alive with bird song including Tree Pipit, Blackcap, Lesser Redpoll and Eurasian Siskins. On the loch edge we located Common Redshank, Common Greenshank and Ringed Plover. The river confluence and loch at Achnasheen held high numbers of Barn Swallow, Sand Martin, Common Cuckoo and Meadow Pipits. The road to Gairloch passes by Loch Maree and ranges of snow-capped mountains. On arrival in Gairloch a scan of the sea loch revealed Red-throated and Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Northern Gannet, Great Black-backed, European Herring and Common Gulls. A slow drive alongside Loch Ewe was oddly birdless today until we reached the end point. Looking out to sea we managed to locate Great and Arctic Skuas, Common Guillemot, Razorbill and northbound Arctic Terns in large, loose flocks. I retraced our journey back to Poolewe and onto the reed fringed lochan at Mellon Charles the latter having little of note until 800m back I heard a Grasshopper Warbler from the van. The group had decent flight views as the bird crossed the road and started reeling again in a crofters garden. A stop at Laide jetty was good for views of loons and auks plus late Whimbrels resting on the rocky foreshore. Our last stop was the lay-by overlooking Gruinard Island but no sign today of any eagles or harriers.
Mammals: North Atlantic Grey Seal (15), Brown Hare (1), Red Deer (1)