It was our last day in the Aviemore area before we drove westward to the Isle of Mull, the weather was overcast but dry and the slopes of the Cairngorm massif were free from low cloud. We needed to walk up Cairngorm itself in order to see certain mountain birds, previous mornings had not been ideal for the walk so we had put it off until the Thursday; by which point we had no choice but to go up, regardless of the weather, as we were leaving the next day.
We set off late morning, by which time the early mist had cleared, alas too late in the day for a chance of seeing any Black Grouse as we passed through Abernethy forest. Although Cairngorm is – at 1,245 metres – only a little shorter than Ben Nevis, the walk up is far quicker and less taxing as the car park is already half way up the slope. From this car park we heard and saw a singing male Ring Ouzel and also several displaying Meadow Pipits – a bird which turned out to be common all over the mountain.
The path up was rather steep and we were soon gasping for air and leaking gallons of water due to being a tad overdressed – despite the height the atmosphere was quite mild with barely a breath of wind. However we did see the peeking heads of a few Red Grouse in the heather and more Ring Ouzels; and then after fifteen minutes of climbing we had a pleasant surprise. Cruising around from behind the north-east slope with the confidence of a bird that knows it’s top of the food chain was a Golden Eagle. We could see the white panels in its wings and a pale-coloured tail, it barely flapped as it headed out over Strathspey – the first of the trip and only my second ever sighting.
We took this as a good sign (when is an eagle not?) and carried on without incident to the Ptarmigan viewpoint where we had a breather and some refreshment. Not much further up from the viewpoint (more of a cafe) we heard a very strange and totally unfamiliar mechanical noise emanating from just off the path. It was loud and seemed to be coming from the ground, it was a sort of buzzing, grinding noise like a motor or something electrical and it took a while to realise that it was being produced by an animal. After scanning the ground before us intently John finally spotted it – a Ptarmigan, sitting amongst the boulders behind a fence only a few metres away.
The Ptarmigan is a true mountain species; it doesn’t migrate or move off the mountain in winter and it can’t be found in any other habitat, this grouse would easily win a ‘Britain’s Toughest Bird’ competition. Hoping to see more we carried on up to the summit, the view from which was really something else, then decided to head along the ridge to the south-west to take in more of the montane habitat. As we sat on a rock eating lunch a surprisingly high Osprey flapped overhead, not a species we had expected to see up here!
We managed to spot three or four more Ptarmigan along our walk; they were quite confiding, seemingly unconcerned about our presence, allowing great views and photo opportunities. We even had the blessing of seeing a male Ptarmigan perform his display flight – a short flap up into the air then a glide down to the ground whilst making a strange guttural rumbling noise.
We had also journeyed up the mountain in the hope of getting a chance to see Dotterel and Snow Bunting – two montane birds that are rare breeders, the former a plover with beautiful plumage and sex-role reversal behaviour and the latter a gorgeous little bird all black and white. Despite avid searching and a day-long walk along the ridge in seemingly perfect habitat we failed to see either species apart from a distant, possible singing male Snow Bunting that was on a far crag and little more than a smudge of white – not a sighting I was going to count. Apart from more Ptarmigan, Meadow Pipits and some oddly tame Red Grouse that were having a dust bath on the path on the way back down, we saw no other notable species and retired to bed quite exhausted.
The weather on Friday was the very definition of ‘miserable’, with low grey cloud and drizzle that occasionally worked itself up into proper rain and the air had a fair few midges in it. A good day for driving half-way across Scotland then. We were heading for Mull but first thing in the morning we set off in the opposite direction – north-east towards Lochindorb. This is a large Loch north of Grantown-on-Spey which we had heard held breeding Black-Throated Divers, a fabulous species that I had never seen and which we were concerned might evade us due to it being rather rare.
We arrived at Lochindorb, parked in a lay-by and almost immediately saw a Black-Throated Diver paddling along the far shore of the southern end of the Loch. The viewing conditions were not exactly favourable but through the telescope we could see all the identifying features and could also admire the thigh-strokingly lovely plumage. Quite a fab bird and it beat seeing a grey-white winter plumage bird off of a soggy, cold pier in the south by a country mile. Elated we headed back towards Mull, making several stops along the way in search of more birds but the weather was against us and we saw nothing of note for the rest of the day – making the diver even more precious.
Mull! Hailed by many to be the best place in Scotland for wildlife (a big claim), not just for birds either – mammals including seals, deer, Otters and cetaceans, rare plants and invertebrates and a rich marine ecosystem. After cramming a large breakfast at our B&B in Tobermory into our stomachs we set out with a long list of sites to visit on just this one day. The weather was in a nervous state; low wispy stratocumulus brushed the tops of the hills and visible evapo-transpiration rose up from the trees, drizzle started and stopped and sunlight occasionally glowed through the damp atmosphere.
Mull really has what I call a landscape – high, steep hills (verging on mountains), glacial valleys with Lochs filling them, open fields scattered with rocks and a complicated, dramatic coastline. We stopped at the Mishnish Lochs where we were treated to a singing Whinchat – a delightful bird that I have only seen a handful of times. A little further on we stopped at a reedbed where we saw Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat and Reed Bunting – all the while we were secretly tense and our eyes strayed to the sky and the ridges in hope of a certain eagle.
We came to a sea Loch where we parked up in a well positioned viewpoint from which we could scan the mountains on either side for birds of prey. Patience is key with raptors and after a while we picked up two somewhat distant Golden Eagles soaring along the ridge of Mull’s highest peak. After they had moved on we scanned and watched for around twenty minutes before I decided we had better carry on as we had a lot to do, then seconds after I had spoken, with my hand on the car door, I looked around one last time and saw something huge. It was a bird with a wingspan as large as the car, it was gliding casually towards us over the Loch and had a great yellow beak visible with the naked eye.
After shouting at John I followed it through my binoculars as the eagle flapped over us and up the opposite hillside before dropping down into some firs. I had seen all the details; the short, wedge-shaped white tail, the long neck, the yellow legs, the pale head and the impossibly broad wingspan. It was a White-Tailed Eagle, Britain’s largest bird of prey and 2nd largest eagle in the world, it had been re-introduced to the west coast and islands of Scotland after its extinction in the early 20th Century. After 5 or so minutes the eagle took off again and spiraled through the air in a thermal to gain height before drifting off inland – allowing great views and even a few record pics.
We were then further blessed to see another individual sitting atop a pine as we passed it along a road, its great bulk was bending over the whole top of the tree, we didn’t stop long as it was raining and there was nowhere to park. As we gradually moved around the island we saw a large group of Grey Seals hauled up on some rocks, Red-breasted Mergansers on the Lochs as well as Wheatears everywhere and we heard a few Cuckoos.
We eventually reached Fionnphort where we were perfectly on time to catch a ferry to the wee island of Iona, a tiny place with an Abbey and a Spar that just happens to be the home of 30 odd pairs of Corncrake in the summer. Corncrakes are rare and mysterious creatures, once widespread on farmland now exiled to remote Scottish islands they have a remarkable call and are nearly impossible to see, nearly.
The weather did not improve but we walked past the Abbey and were heading up one of Iona’s only hills when I managed to extricate a grating call from the wind originating from a nearby field. I was pleased as punch to hear this iconic noise ‘crex-crex’ as its Latin name puts it so well and we headed back to the road to try and hear it better. Most fortuitously a passing woman informed us that she had heard and seen a few Corncrakes just down the road near a hostel. We scurried off, the rain shower passing to reveal calmer conditions, we heard a few more Corncrakes but they were distant and in long grass so we did not attempt to see them.
As we approached the ‘eco-hostel’ (Iona is that sort of place) we heard a very loud Corncrake calling just ahead of us and after some searching managed to narrow it down to a large bed of Yellow-flag Iris immediately next to the hostel. It was great to hear one so well and without expecting to see it we scanned with our bins on the off-chance. As I passed my magnified eye over a small open area in the Iris bed I nearly had a heart-attack as I saw standing in full view, neck stretched to the heavens, wedge-shaped bill, corn-coloured plumage with a blue blush on the neck – a Corncrake. Somehow I managed to remain conscious and inform John of its position, he saw it and for a full 5 seconds we both saw it, then it bent down and melted into the undergrowth. I was shaking; elation, excitement, intense joy – words cannot quite describe how I felt in that moment but it was without a doubt one of the happiest moments of my life and instantly went to the top of the list as best birding moment of the trip.
So there we are, a truly amazing trip to a gorgeous and wildlife-rich part of the world, I will definitely be returning at some point and I highly recommend that anyone with the slightest interest in nature or landscape should do the same.