Well I am back from an intense week of birding in Scotland, as there is a lot I want to share with you I am breaking the trip up into two posts, the second will be posted later this week. Suffice to say it was an amazing experience, with mostly great weather, beautiful landscapes and some really special birds. Plus the midges weren’t too bad.
So having got back from Shetland the night before we drove out from Aberdeen towards Aviemore, where we were staying, passing through prime whiskey country and more conifer forests than you can shake a stick at. We didn’t waste any time, going straight to Loch An Eilein (just outside of Aviemore) which promised Caledonian pine forest and freshwater habitats. The sun was blazing and John and I soon worked up a sweat, something I had not considered would happen in Scotland.
One of the first birds we saw was a Spotted Flycatcher, a bird that turned out to be quite common in this part of the country, which is great as they are not doing too well down south. Willow warblers are the dominant songsters in the highlands; hundreds of them were singing from the pines and birch as we wandered around the Loch, quite at odds with Sussex where Chiffchaffs are in the majority. A sleeping female Goldeneye was drifting on the water, a species which breeds in good numbers around here, but there was little else on the Loch.
Just before we stopped for lunch two Ospreys circled in the hot air above the pines; only my third sighting of this impressive raptor and my first in Britain – I hadn’t expected to see them so soon. Further round Loch An Eilein we heard a loud persistent call from the low branches of a pine tree on the edge of the water, after some searching through the foliage with our bins a fabulously smart Crested Tit emerged. It was hunting for invertebrates in the needles and bark and at one point hopped to within a few metres of us, giving great views. On the same walk we found singing Tree Pipits (common here) and Mistle Thrush.
Our next stop was not planned, we had heard on the grapevine that a singing male Icterine Warbler was in a nearby village, this is a scarce vagrant from the continent and one which I had yet to see – the temptation proved too much and we headed off to twitch it. 45 minutes later we were standing in the small village park in the sunshine looking up at a medium-sized warbler with bright yellow undersides and an orange bill that was singing its thrush-like song with fervor. Fantastic!
An evening walk around Loch Morlich produced a Red-breasted Merganser, more Goldeneye, a Teal family, Siskins (Scotland’s 2nd commonest bird after the Chaffinch, probably) and another close view of a Crested Tit.
Day two was not quite so productive but had its highlights. One good bird was a Little Grebe on a pond at Boat of Garten – my first of the year would you believe. Then we spent two hours at the RSPB Osprey watch-point by Loch Garten; we saw the female on the nest shielding the two chicks from the strong rays of the sun. The male had gone out hunting but did not return while we were there. A Red Squirrel on the feeder there was nice too.
Then we embarked on a what turned out to be a very long walk through the pine woods around the Loch, we were in search of Crossbills but after half the day getting lost in the forest we had little to show for it but a brief Redstart and a Common Sandpiper. Our final stop of the day was quite good though; we visited Nethy Bridge where we saw a juvenile Dipper (always good to see), a singing Sedge warbler in some gorse and a huge colony of Sand Martins in the bank of the river Spey.
The next day Cairngorm was shrouded in cloud so we headed off instead to the Findhorn Valley in search of birds of prey. This is a renowned hot-spot for all sorts of falcons, hawks and eagles so we drove slowly up the deep-sided glacial valley with eyes on the hill peaks. The river Findhorn that flows through the valley was alive with birds; Common Sandpipers, Oystercatchers, Lapwing, Grey Wagtails, Dipper, Sand Martins and Common Tern – as well as displaying Curlew and Snipe on the floodplain.
Reaching the far end of the road we got out and almost immediately saw one of our target species – Ring Ouzel. This charming thrush migrates here for the summer from north Africa, it looks much like a Blackbird but for a large white bib, a pale panel on the wings, slight scalloping on the belly and it is more dark-brown than black. It also has an unusual song; a three-note whistle which is the first we knew of this bird as we heard it calling from a steep rocky gully. The bird then flew down the slope and landed in front of us, obscured by grass, fortunately it moved onto a short-trimmed lawn by a group of cottages where it began to catch worms in full view. It must have been feeding young as it took a beak-full of worms back up to the gully and the female also flew down to gather food.
After much waiting no raptors appeared so we headed onward to Loch Ruthven nearby, in search of a rather special Grebe. Upon arriving at this ridiculously picturesque Loch we heard a calling Cuckoo, not our first or last on the trip as they seem much commoner up here than in England. A few Little Grebes were false alarms as we walked up to the hide, we also passed a returning birder who said she had seen our quarry from the hide just minutes ago. Excited now we entered the hide, sat down, looked out and saw… nothing. We waited roughly ten minutes (which felt longer) before I spotted a pair of birds swimming further down the Loch, through my binoculars I could clearly see they were grebes and that they had large pale ear-tufts. There was only one thing they could be – Slavonian Grebes in full breeding plumage, cor blimey.
They approached the hide slowly then veered right into a large patch of sedge growing out of a shallow part of the Loch, we could see clearly now their fabulous yellow head plumes and rich-red plumage as well as that glowing cherry-red eye. As we watched it became clear that they had a nest in the process of being constructed amongst the sedge, they went back and forth with material to build it up and they even mated once on the nest – this was incredible to see as there are no more than 30 odd pairs in all of the UK, all on Scottish Lochs.
A passing Osprey was also nice but the grebes only lost our attention when a very obliging Cuckoo fluttered onto a stump a mere 5 metres in front of the hide, everyone’s cameras clicked frantically away as the bird hopped around – the best view of this species I’ve ever had. On the way back to the Findhorn valley we saw an overhead Red Kite, not very common in this part of the country, as it hunted over the moor. Back in the valley we joined a small group of birders to await raptors once more – a good idea as they put us on to a Peregrine nest which we watched for a while before moving on, as there was no sign of any eagles.
Already some great lifers and some other fab birds, the weather was holding and the scenery breathtaking, our next target was some mountain birds right at the top of Cairngorm.