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Scottish Highlands 2020

Mark Finn
September 19-26

This was the first tour to take place since late March due to the ongoing pandemic. It proved to be highly successful with a wide range of species observed during the week. Visible migration was evident along the coasts of Caithness and Moray whilst the numbers of wintering wildfowl continued to increase on a daily basis. In the remote region of Wester Ross we had several sightings of both eagle species and concentrations of divers in sea lochs. I am sure the following diary will bring back and help you relive some special moments in the most difficult of times for everybody.

September 19th: Udale Bay, Cromarty Firth, South Sutor. Mount High
Daily 52 New 52 Running 52
Weather: Sunny and pleasant with a NE wind 19C

The first day was a little fragmented as John arrived early afternoon and Barbara later in the day. Our first stop was literally on our doorstep with a visit to Udale Bay with the tide being almost full. Careful scanning revealed a Little Egret which has been present for a few weeks and it is still a rarity in the highlands. On the mud good numbers of Canada, Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Redshank, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Northern Lapwing. On the grass areas a wide range of gull species, Grey Heron, Bar-tailed Godwit and many migrant Pied Wagtails. Next on the agenda was the lay-by beyond Jemimaville where the calm waters of the firth allowed us to locate Slavonian Grebe, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Red-breasted Mergansers. The remainder of the afternoon was spent visiting South Sutor and Mount High where the more common woodland species were located including Long-tailed Tit, Goldcrest and on the forest edge autumn flocks of European Linnets.

September 20th: Achnasheen, Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Mellon Charles, Laide, Gruinard Bay
Daily 59 New 20 Running 72
Weather: Cloudy with a SW wind 14C

Today we set off to Wester Ross: a huge area dominated by mountains, lochs and stands of forest bordering the North Atlantic. Our first birding stop at Achnasheen produced Northern Ravens, European Stonechat, Meadow Pipit and European Goldfinch the latter increasing in numbers and range each year. On reaching the coastal village of Gairloch a scan into the loch of the same name held Common Guillemot, Razorbill, European Shag and several Northern Gannets plunge diving for food. Loch Ewe is further north an elongated and sheltered loch which offers a safe harbour from the Atlantic. In the loch we located Slavonian Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated and Black-throated Divers. A walk into the machair and beach added parties of Twite, the Hebridean race of Dunnock, Eurasian Skylark, Rock Dove, Goldcrest and Coal Tit the last two being migrants. A diversion to Mellon Charles and Laide added Great Skua, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Buzzard and Eurasian Kestrel. The pool at Mellon Charles held two female Northern Shovelers a rather scarce species in Northern Scotland. A bonus came in the form of a returning Great Northern Diver still in breeding plumage. We ended the day at Gruinard Bay with the spectacle of watching an adult White-tailed Eagle perched on a nearby cliff. This bird flew off to be joined by another adult bird which then flew after a pair of Golden Eagles, a fitting finale to the day.

September 21st: Novar Estate, Barbaraville, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Dornoch, Embo, Loch Fleet
Daily 59 New 11 Running 83
Weather: Cloudy on SW winds 16C

This morning I headed towards the Novar Estate where the car park held Blue and Coal Tits, Eurasian Siskin, Goldcrest and Common Buzzard. A walk around a sector of the forest had similar birds plus calling crossbill species which did not land which was frustrating. Next was a stop at Barbaraville on the coast of the Cromarty Firth where Mute Swan and a migrant Grey Wagtail were added to the list. Portmahomack was next on our list with rafts of Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Northern Gannet and close views of Red-throated Divers. Tarbatness is a noted migrant spot where a few feeders are placed in the car park. It was here that the group observed Song Thrush, Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow and several European Goldfinch and European Greenfinch. Lunch was taken at Dornoch with a walk towards the sandy beach and bay. On the shore Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone and Rock Pipit whilst late Barn Swallows were around the airport buildings. Embo and Loch Fleet were our final stops with good numbers of Sandwich Terns at Embo. Loch Fleet held Red-breasted Mergansers and lots of Greylag Geese. A check around The Mound added nothing of interest so I headed back to base.

September 22nd: Corrimony, Nairn East Beach, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie, Loch Flemington
Daily 71 New 15 Running 98
Weather: Cloudy with SW winds 16C

An early departure this morning to meet Simon the warden of Corrimony. From the car park a short drive up to the first lek where Black Grouse were doing their display and making noises which could be heard from several meters. Also in the area we noted a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Mistle Thrush, Pied Wagtail and various corvids. Back to Inverness for breakfast and then towards the seaside town of Nairn which offers good birding in autumn. Arriving on the east jetty Barn Swallows were flitting around and on the beach Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot and best of all a party of Pale-bellied Brent Geese from NE Canada. Offshore we noted Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, European Shag and Sandwich Terns. On the return walk the unusual sight of Reed Buntings feeding on the seawall. A check of the River Nairn had a pair of Goosanders and Grey Wagtails. Roseisle is not faraway a planted forest of conifer trees where we quickly located Crested and Coal Tits, Goldcrest and Eurasian Treecreepers. The sea had a few gulls so I pressed on to the Picktish capital Burghead. The rocky shore held a few waders and offshore Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Common Eider and Red-breasted Merganser. Offshore a juvenile Arctic Skua showed well as it attacked Sandwich Terns for food. The beach at Lossiemouth and its adjacent estuary were quiet for birds apart from an adult Iceland Gull amongst the hordes of Great Black-backed, Herring and Common Gulls. I heard that Loch Spynie was open again with the shallow loch attracting Mute and Whooper Swans, Tufted Duck, Common Coot and a female Western Marsh Harrier hunting the reedbeds. The feeders attracted Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch and Yellowhammer. Time was getting on as I travelled back to Inverness via Loch Flemington. The loch was jam-packed with ducks including a few Gadwall another uncommon species. Little Grebe and Common Moorhen were also seen.

September 23rd: Cairngorm, Loch Morlich, Feshiebridge, Cromdale, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road
Daily 45 New 2 Running 100
Weather: Cloudy with SW winds 4-15C

Today our first destination was Cairngorm where we investigated the upper and lower car parks and adjacent habitat for birds. It was very quiet for birds apart from skeins of Pink-footed Geese high above us and flying south. A check for birds at Loch Morlich produced a female Goosander, Tufted Duck and Mallard. I decided to check the pinewoods at Feshiebridge with a walk along the lower section and then further into the forest. Birds were again hard to find apart from Crested Tit, Coal Tit, Eurasian Treecreeper and Goldcrest. I then headed towards the village of Cromdale where the churchyard held Great Spotted Woodpecker, Barn Swallow, Rook and Hooded Crow. A short walk towards the old bridge revealed a juvenile White-throated Dipper perched on rocks. In the afternoon a slow drive up the Findhorn Valley which is always good for raptors and today was no exception. The lower half had Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Common Kestrel and a calling Peregrine Falcon. At the end of the afternoon a drive along the Farr Road produced a party of Red Grouse close to the road edge.

September 24th: Brora, Lybster, Noss Head, Loch Watten, Dunnet Bay, St John’s Loch, Broubster Leans, Sandside Bay
Daily 67 New 8 Running 108
Weather: Cloudy with a cool N wind 3-11C

From the Black Isle I headed northwards to the coastal village of Brora. En route many familiar birds were observed including a constant stream of goose skeins going south. Once in Brora I checked the river mouth and beach areas. New birds here included Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit. Lybster is further up the coast and worth a check in the autumn with its sycamore bushes and cover near the old harbour. A walk added Song Thrush, Common Chiffchaff, European Linnet, Goldcrest and huge numbers of European Goldfinch. After passing through Wick, which is very depressed in nature I headed to Noss Head with its cliffs and patches of scrub. On the cliffs we located a small number of Northern Fulmars which would normally be out to sea at this time of the year. Back to Wick and to Loch Watten which is a large euphoric lake and important for wintering wildfowl. On the loch impressive numbers of Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye, Mallard, and on the edges European Stonechat and Eurasian Skylark. Dunnet Bay and St John’s Loch are near each other with the bay having gulls, cormorants and shags on this occasion. St John’s Loch had small numbers of ducks including Northern Pintail, Gadwall and Eurasian Wigeon. Broubster Leans is west of Thurso and a little visited reserve of the RSPB. Luck was with us today as a juvenile White-tailed Eagle was on the ground surrounded by many Northern Ravens. Time was getting on as we pulled up at Sandside Bay which overlooks the now defunct Dounreay power station. Pale-bellied Brent Geese were on the beach with Dunlin, Common Eider and rather oddly a covey of Red-legged Partridges. On the way home I travelled through the flow country with no birds of note.

September 25th: Cromarty Firth, Chanonry Point, Redcastle, Strathconon, Strathpeffer, Novar Estate
Daily 74 New 6 Running 114
Weather: Cloudy with a N wind 5-12C

The last day started with a return visit to Udale Bay and Cromarty Firth. Similar birds to a few days ago but with a marked increase in goose and duck numbers. A check of the firth near Jemimaville added little of note which was mainly down to choppy sea conditions. I went on the back road towards Chanonry Point and parked up to observe birdlife within the point. A few Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns were around with Northern Gannets, European Shag and Great Cormorant. Redcastle is further inland and upstream from Chanonry Point and we arrived as the tide was falling away. In the distance thousands of Pink-footed Geese were joined by a party of recently arrived Whooper Swans and Common Goldeneye. A few passerines were around including a Common Chiffchaff and Grey Wagtail. I decided to visit the Novar Estate again and on this occasion Scottish Crossbill was seen in a pine tree. A bonus came when a late Osprey flew over the forest and a Eurasian Jay was heard. It was time to head back towards Cygnus House where the tour concluded.

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