Scottish Highlands, May 2024

Mark Finn
Photos: Charlie Cowan
May 5-12

May 5th: Ness Islands, Merkinch, Alturlie, Ardeseir, Easter Dalziel, Nairn West Beach
Daily 70 New 70 Running 70
Weather: Rather cloudy with a light SW wind 14c-20c

This was the second tour of our May programme in Scotland. I started with a visit to the Ness Islands in Inverness which had many people enjoying the area and plenty of bird life. After crossing the bridge we quickly located a Eurasian Treecreeper feeding in a lichen covered tree and nearby a pair of Eurasian Bullfinches and singing Willow Warblers. On the river we had sightings of Common Merganser, White-throated Dipper and Grey Heron. The return walk passes by mature trees where we observed Goldcrest, Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits and a singing European Robin. Next on the agenda was the coastal reserve of Merkinch where the rough grassland and shrubs attracted Grasshopper, Sedge and Willow Warblers, Reed Bunting, European Goldfinch and European Greenfinch. A walk towards the lagoons added lingering Eurasian Wigeon and Barn Swallows collecting mud for nest building. Alturlie was the next destination where the wires held Dunnock, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Yellowhammer. The wetlands were quiet although Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Common Coot and Common Moorhen were present. I decided to have lunch at Ardeseir which overlooks a section of the Cromarty Firth. The muddy sections interspersed with rocky mounds attracted  Common Eider, Sandwich Tern, Great Black-backed, Herring, Black-headed and Common Gulls. In the firth itself we found good numbers of Red-throated Divers and Long-tailed Ducks. As the tide receded Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot were seen feeding among the seaweed. Easter Dalziel had nothing new so I went to Nairn west beach where a Northern Wheatear was seen on the rocks.
Mammals: Brown Hare (2)

Female Northern Wheatear

May 6th: Cromarty Firth, Nairn, Findhorn, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie, Balmedie Pig Farm
Daily 85 New 33 Running 103
Weather: Cloudy with a SW wind 8c-14c

Cygnus House and its gardens held similar birds to yesterday morning. Our first stop at Udale Bay was very quiet so I pressed on to the lay-by beyond Jemimaville. A scan into the calm waters of the firth made viewing conditions excellent. By the rigs we located scattered groups of Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider and Red-breasted Mergansers. The trees around the car park held Song Thrush, Common Whitethroat and Yellowhammer. It was time to explore the jetty at Nairn where the offshore waters attracted migrant Arctic Terns, Common Guillemot and on our return a female Northern Wheatear (Greenland race). Beyond Forres I turned towards Findhorn Bay which was full tide. By the new hide large numbers of Pink-footed Geese, Common Merganser, Northern Pintail and Common Teal. In the fields a bonus was a pair of Grey Partridge and displaying Northern Lapwings. The viewpoint at Roseisle has been good in recent weeks and today was no exception with sightings of White-billed, Black-throated and Red-throated Divers and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Burghead is close by with a large area of rocks which in turn attracted Red Knot of which some were in summer plumage, Ruddy Turnstone and at least four Purple Sandpipers. Offshore a few Common Scoters were seen. Lunch was taken at Lossiemouth where exposed mud held Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwits. Loch Spynie was again good for birds with sightings of Little Grebe and Common Goldeneye among the more numerous wildfowl and a bonus in a fishing Western Osprey. Our last stop was the pig farm at Balmedie with the best birds being a migrant flock of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits.
Mammals: NA Grey Seal (2), Common Rabbit (2)


May 7th: Cairngorm, Feshiebridge, Loch Garten, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road
Daily 56 New 11 Running 114
Weather: Cloudy with a W wind 6c-14c

Cairngorm was our first birding stop. A visit to the lower car park held little of interest so I went to the upper area and explored the path towards the summit. Birding was slow although views of Willow Warbler, Meadow Pipit and Mistle Thrush were made. Our main interest was the rocky slope where a singing Ring Ouzel showed itself on a prominent rock. A male Grey Wagtail flew upstream was an added bonus. I decided to visit the forest at Feshiebridge and this was hard work with little bird song and sightings. A walk along the trails added a pair of Tree Pipits, Eurasian Bullfinch and Common Cuckoo. At Loch Garten I checked on recent information and went on a walk adjacent to Loch Garten. This was also very slow apart from a party of Red Crossbills and a calling Lesser Redpoll. I eventually went up the Findhorn Valley which was also quiet for birds apart from Common Buzzard, European Golden Plover and pairs of Red-legged Partridge. At 1700 hours a return to the A9 via the Farr Road with Common Buzzard and Northern Wheatear for company.
Mammals: Common Rabbit (5), Roe Deer (1), Red Squirrel (1), Pine Marten (1)

May 8th: Orrin, Strathpeffer, Glen Loth, Forsinard, Sandside Bay, Scrabster, Dunnet Bay, St John’s Pool
Daily 85 New 13 Running 127
Weather: Sunny with heavy rain showers later on a SW wind 7c-13c

I started the day by visiting the silver birch woodlands at Orrin. Still no sign of Wood Warblers which may be late arriving this year but we observed several Tree Pipits, Lesser Redpoll and the commoner birds of the area. Strathpeffer is close by and the Horned Grebes put on a real display for us along with Little Grebes and Tufted Duck. In the reedbeds we had views of Reed Bunting and singing Sedge Warblers. It was time to head north along the A9 and diversion to Glen Loth a remote road running through to the flow country. Along the road we found Northern Wheatear, Common Stonechat, Meadow Pipit and Common Cuckoos. A large loch was productive for Black-throated Divers and at least five Common Scoters the latter being a part of the local breeding population. Forsinard held displaying Common Snipe and returning House Martins. Sandside Bay is a good spot for birds where the beach was attracting Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Pied and White Wagtails and displaying Rock Pipits. Offshore we found a few Great Northern Divers, Common Guillemot, Common Eider and European Shags. Scrabster was quiet on this visit with Common and Black Guillemots being present so I pressed onto Dunnet Bay. The area was alive with hundreds of gulls including the declining Lesser Black-backed. A single Arctic Skua was chasing Arctic and Sandwich Terns without too much success. On the sea dozens of Long-tailed Ducks were gathering for their northward migration. I ended the day at St John’s Pool which is now open again. From the hide we found scarce ducks in Gadwall, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler. The terns were settled on islands and a party of Whooper Swans flew overhead. The weather started to draw in with low cloud and rain so back to Thurso for the night.
Mammals: Brown Hare (2), Common Rabbit (C), Weasel (1), Red Deer (100)

Arctic Tern

May 9th: Broubster Leans, Bettyhill, Hope Valley, Balnakiel
Daily 69 New 2 Running 129
Weather: Cloudy with a SW wind 7c-14c

Our first birding stop was at Broubster Leans which was attracting brisk SW winds. This had an effect on the birds seen although Common Snipe and Northern Lapwing were in display mode. A scan of the marsh revealed Whooper Swans and a female Hen Harrier which showed briefly. A pair of European Golden Plover showed well in a nearby field. It was time to visit Bettyhill where the tide was high and birdlife almost non-existent so I headed towards the Hope Valley. Once again the wind dictated events. Balnakiel was next on our agenda where a male Garganey was the highlight plus the commoner ducks and a pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A check of the bay held Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot and Razorbill. Arctic and Sandwich Terns were around with the fields holding Rock Doves. Time was running out as I headed south via Scourie and Loch Awe with the latter having a pair of Black-throated Divers.
Mammals: Brown Hare (1), Common Rabbit (C), Red Deer (50)

Female Goosander

May 10th: Corrimony, Novar Estate, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Embo, Loch Fleet, Brora
Daily 85 New 3 Running 132
Weather: Sunny with a warm SW wind 11c-20c

Today we started with a visit to Corrimony. I met up with Simon the reserve manager and headed towards the first of three lekking areas for Black Grouse. The birds duly obliged with close views giving their strutting runs and far carrying bubbling calls. Also present on the reserve were Common Stonechat, Tree and Meadow Pipits, Willow and Grasshopper Warblers, Little Grebe and Tufted Duck. Near the car park a pair of Goosander was located nesting in an old pine tree. Breakfast was taken in Alness followed by a walk through the mixed coniferous woodland. No sign of crossbills today although we had sightings of Goldcrest, Coal, Great and Blue Tits and Eurasian Bullfinches. I decided to visit the arty village of Portmahomack where the sea made ideal viewing conditions in locating birds. A scan of the sea revealed hundreds of Common Scoter plus smaller numbers of Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Diver, Common Guillemot, Razorbill and a lone Greater Scaup. A walk towards the lighthouse at Tarbatness was an enjoyable experience with the gorse attracting singing Dunnock and the commoner species of Easter Ross. At Embo the rocks had Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Purple Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. Further along the road the viewpoint at The Mound had an Osprey on its nest and Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser, Common Sandpiper and Greenshank on the exposed sand bars. A visit to Brora had similar species plus a single Red Knot in summer plumage. I headed inland towards Rogart which produced nothing of interest so I went back to base.
Mammals: NA Grey Seal (2), Common Rabbit (C)

May 11th: Achanalt, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Laide, Mellon Udrigle, Gruinard Bay
Daily 73 New 3 Running 135
Weather: Sunny with light SW winds 18c-24c

Wester Ross is a large and sparsely populated area of Northern Scotland where many rare breeding birds find a summer home. The first area was the marshes, lochs, cliffs and forest around Achanalt a remote village with a railway station. From the viewing point we had brief views of an adult White-tailed Eagle, rare breeding ducks including Eurasian Wigeon, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Greenshank and Northern Lapwing. A check of the loch further downstream had similar birds plus nesting Common Gulls and Sand Martins in the river banks. Beyond Achnasheen a check of another loch revealed Red-throated Divers. Gairloch sits on the loch of the same name although bird life was mainly absent apart from a Grey Wagtail on the approach road. I decided to take the road towards Melvich although this too was quiet so I headed to Loch Ewe. This large sea loch held Northern gannet and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and the commoner auk species. Laide Jetty was good for Great Northern Divers and Black Guillemots and afterwards a visit to Mellon Udrigle. The latter was productive for Twite sitting on fence lines and feeding on grass seeds at close range. Back to our base with views to Gruinard Island being our final stop of the day.
Mammals: Common Rabbit (C), Roe Deer (3)

Common Gull

May 12th: Avoch, Orrin, Strathconon, Alturlie
Daily 47 New 3 Final 138
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 19c-23c

Due to travel times we had a morning in and around the Inverness region. Avoch was our first stop to check out one of the many rafts for nesting birds. Common Terns had returned in good numbers but were late in arriving this year. I decided to check Orrin again for Wood Warblers but no sign of their arrival at the moment. The valley is long and has large, wooded cliffs beyond the village of Strathconon. I parked up and waited for Golden Eagles to appear from the surrounding mountain range. The group were fortunate to have excellent views of one bird as it thermaled high above us and promptly disappeared in this vast region. Time was running out as a visit to Alturlie was made which is adjacent to the Moray Firth. A few farmland birds present which included the rare Corn Bunting singing from a telegraph wire, good views obtained.

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