Sunday 1st April
Ian and his son Robert picked me up at 4.00am and we started the gruelling journey up to the centre of Scotland, picking up Liam Langley from Manchester on the way. We arrived at our B&B at Skye of Curr mid afternoon and decided to have a walk around the local woods to see what we could find. We had limited success here (a pair of Goldeneyes on the river being the highlight) so drove over to Anagach Woods near Grantown-on-Spey, almost immediately picked up a Crested Tit as it called in the top of the pines near the car park! This was a lifer for all of us and they were lovely… it would have just been nice if it was a little lower and/or obliged us for just a minute longer! We heard a couple of crossbills going over but couldn’t do anything with them. Dusk encroached and that was a wrap for the first day… not a bad start considering the time we reached our lodgings. Nice dinner in the local bistro.
Monday 2nd April
A bit of a lie in after the long day before, and breakfast served with Siskins feeding inches away from the window (with little care for our presence). Loch of Strathbeg was at the forefront of our minds, all of us having a score to settle with Greater Yellowlegs, and we shot over there. A singing Corn Bunting afforded great views by the roadside on the way but, more importantly for me, a Hooded Crow wandered around in a field en-route, at bloody last!!! A nice site with a good range of habitats, and a reminder of wetland wilderness. Here we saw Tree Sparrows and Yellowhammers not far from the visitor centre. In fact, it was a bit daunting when we entered the Tower Pool Hide and were presented with an eye-full of water and wader-y edges. Our search produced four Ruff and a few Redshanks and there was no sign of our quarry for a little while until I picked up the GREATER YELLOWLEGS on a small muddy island, it flew, revealing its rump pattern and landed a little further away but it at least gave us prolonged views there.
Having had our fill, we drove south to the Ythan Estuary. We pulled up by a river at Peterhead on the way there to scan through a promising-looking flock of gulls and I picked out a nice first-winter Iceland Gull. The estuary was quite an experience, with the drake KING EIDER showing, at one point, roughly 60 yards away while we where surrounded by the cooing of Eiders, the keericking of Sandwich Terns and the wailing of hundreds of Common and Grey Seals. A true taste of early spring in coastal Scotland. A couple of Red-breasted Mergansers were also cool to see.
|drake King Eider|
The drive back home had us all worrying… perhaps Liam more than anyone else. There were squeals of fright coming from my side as we climbed steep roads with snow culminating all around us. We made it though! We were wondering whether the conditions would frankly bugger the trip up though, and I was already thinking about coming up again in May.
Tuesday 3rd April
|male Siskin a few inches away from the dining room window|
A mix of denial and desperation woke us all up at silly o’clock in the morning to look for lekking Black Grouse but one glance out of the window decided for us that it was simply not going to happen. We hung about for a while, not really knowing what to do, then went for a walk down to Dulnain Bridge which was an instant success with a Dipper performing in the snow. It was so bad, though, that my camera was actually focussing on the falling snowflakes rather than the bird! We walked back for breakfast (seeing a couple of confused looking rabbits sitting in the snow) after which the road had been driven on by a few four-by-fours and it meant we had access to go elsewhere. Cairngorm seemed the only place to go but the conditions were too poor to ascend for Ptarmigan. Nevertheless, we a few Red Grouse showed well and this filled an embarrassing gap in my list. They were great to watch and were really rather neat – the female looked really nice.
|male Red Grouse|
We weren’t sure whether the road to the Findhorn Valley would be open but we gave it a shot and parked up near the private estate. At first, things were quiet, with just a pair of Peregrines to keep us company but Liam soon picked up our first Golden Eagle as it soared at one end of the valley. It was so striking that Ian even dismissed it as a small plane and I agreed, it was only when it gave a couple of shallow flaps that we realised it was a raptor. We were given quite a show in the end by what was probably at least three birds, including two tasseling with each other and skimming over the scree slopes at. It was a bit surreal somehow, watching these huge, stiff and powerful shapes silently and confidently soar over the silent and frosty valley, with herds of Red Deer on the summits and a pair of Wheatears almost as silently flicking about nearby. A long way back so that was it for the day… not bad though! The drive back enlightened me to the true heights of bad misidentifications when Liam exclaimed ‘Oh look a large raptor!!! Sorry no it’s a house’.
|first-winter Golden Eagle|
Also we popped in a quick visit to Loch Garten, where we enjoyed displaying Red-breasted Mergansers, a single redhead Goosander and a few Goldeneyes.
|displaying drake Red-breasted Mergansers|
Wednesday 4th April
With rather limited time left we felt we had to try for the early morning grouse even in the bad conditions so we got up early again and drove around the bend to Loch Garten RSPB. Looking out of windows into the gloom at the Osprey centre, I wasn’t hopeful. It was pretty damn snowy and cold. With dozens of eyes peering out of the windows (numbers considerably boosted by a coach trip from the USA) and minutes passing I wasn’t getting any more optimistic. Then, the guide announced that there was a male Caper on the live camera screen and it was out in the area we were scanning! All eyes were glued to the windows in anticipation and then the call went out… PANIC then everyone including me had managed to see the beast of a male Capercaillie strutting its stuff out on the bog. It was a couple of hundred metres off but it was still impressive. I just wish one of the guides hadn’t announced to the world that my scope was on the bird before I managed to get a record shot!!! I couldn’t complain really, I was stunned we’d seen one when it looked like a hopeless situation and none had actually been seen on any of the previous three Caper watches so far this year.
|the live screen at the Osprey Centre showing the male Capercaillie that I saw, just a few moments after connection (my scope being on the bird was announced to the world before I had a chance to take a record shot)|
We didn’t for a second think we had a chance as it was well past dawn but we went to Tulloch Moor to fill the time before breakfast. To our utter astonishment there was a male Black Grouse presenting itself in a birch right in front of the viewing screen. Literally stunning! This bird flew off but could be heard gurgling and was replaced by another, even showier, male before we left. It was also here that I met ‘the other’ David Campbell… apparently the pagers get us mixed up.
|male Black Grouse|
Breakfast, then time spent looking at crossbills in nearby Curr Woods, a five minute walk from the digs and the best site we found by far. A couple of promising birds were seen, photographed and recorded. Finally, a walk back to Loch Garten, where an Osprey showed well briefly.
Thursday 5th April
Early morning and more crossbill searching around the corner, again with a couple of good Scottish candidates recorded. Back for breakfast as yet more bloody ruddy snow fell outside… grrr! Thankfully it didn’t last too long and we were on the road to Bealach Na Ba where the ‘hairy drive’ described hysterically in a Scottish Highlands guidebook was disappointingly mundane. It was foggy when we got up there but we pressed on and after a couple of hundred yards disturbed a beautiful pair of Ptarmigans from by the path. They ran a little distance and perched up on a rock before flying around the corner. Amazing! Our luck seemed to be well in! The weather was tantalisingly changeable and a run of clear bursts allowed us to pin down two males which showed very well for a long time. Very satisfying – and we got away with not climbing Cairgorm which looked dead long. A Golden Plover was nice to hear there.
|pair of Ptarmigans|
|Bealach Na Ba|
|left to right: me, Liam, Ian and Robert|
Next, Kyle of Lochalsh. The road was closed. Ok, maybe our luck was out at last. Actually, it didn’t turn out too badly, as the road was due to open again at 4.10pm and we filled the spare hour with a light lunch at a nearby tea room that was clearly enjoying the nearby activity. Fuelled with scones, pancakes and other pleasantries we continued and parked up near the tourist information centre. A bit of scanning about and a handful of Black Guillemots gave themselves up on the water – yay, another of my top targets found! They were very smart but sadly a little distant. We enjoyed watching a pair of Ravens commuting between a nest site/larder and a discarded packet of chips and it was great to get further views of Hooded Crows plus seeing a few Guillemots and a couple of Rock Pipits. Back to the B&B.
An early morning walk around Curr Woods found us perhaps the most conclusive male Scottish Crossbill of the trip. After breakfast we embarked on a spur-of-the-moment expedition to see the White-billed Diver at Portsoy. We found a small number of Great Northern Divers distantly, and one looked like it could have been the bird but we’d never have got a conclusive ID from the range that we were at. Notwithstanding the fact that we’d just experienced our first dip of the holiday, it was enjoyable with a good selection of seabirds including large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks and a single Black Guillemot as well as a handful of Fulmars, Gannets, Eiders and Common Scoters etc plus a Rock Pipit around the harbour.
|male Scottish Crossbill|
Finally we got in the car and Ian pointed it firmly south. A tiresomely long journey home was broken by a brief stop off at Glengavel Water, Clyde, where the drake BLUE-WINGED TEAL was successfully connected with, even though it was asleep and/or obscured most of the time! Still pretty smart and great to finally see one. Then home after a top class tip with eleven lifers!!! That’s the highest rate of ticks I’ve had in a week in probably a matter of years now, absolutely brilliant…! And we thought the weather would ruin everything, I still can’t believe how well we did.