i n t e r n a t i o n a l !


18-25 May 2002

Leaders:   Ray Nowicki & John Poyner

Day 1

Everyone arrives at Glen Feshie, home of our luxuriously converted Steading and our base for the next week.  We are right below the flanks of the Cairngorms and stunning scenery is all around us.  Those who arrive by car have time to walk our nature trail, seeing such varied delights as Redstart, Goosander, Common Sandpiper and Buzzard to name but a few – even the Ospreys are busy around the artificial eyrie that we have created.

The guests and guides all meet up during the afternoon as we pick some people up from Aviemore station and before long we’re all enjoying the first of our delicious dinners prepared by Darren, our chef.  Conversation is soon flowing around our magnificent dining room table as we get to know one another and anticipate the birds to come.  After dinner, John and Ray run through what there is to look forward to in the week ahead and some enthusiasts head outside to see our local Woodcock and Tawny Owls.  It doesn’t get dark until pretty late and we head for bed excited about the day to come with just the sound of the Oystercatchers to break the silence. 

Day 2

We wake early to a cool, overcast morning – well it’s the Highlands in spring what did you expect?!  There’s an optional early morning excursion and we leave the Steading at 6.30 am and head out to a local private estate to look for Black Grouse.  As we arrive, we can see black and white birds spread out on the handkerchief of green grass on the opposite hillside.  We park and quietly leave the vans to view the 10 male Black Grouse scattered across the lek area.  Several of the birds are still actively displaying, which is quite surprising considering how late in the season it is, and we watch them for about 20 minutes before they gradually disperse.  Eventually they fly off over the moorland and we have a short walk around the area enjoying the early morning birds including a calling Cuckoo, Meadow Pipits collecting food for hungry young, Wheatear, Siskins and Grey Wagtail.

After breakfast we set off for the upper reaches along the River Findhorn at Coignafearn.  It’s spit spotting with rain, but nevertheless we stop at our local Osprey eyrie and with scopes set up, watch the female on her nest.  Her head is just poking up above the mass of twigs and we get super views.  She’s so intent and looks to be sitting quite high, that we think she may possibly be brooding small chicks.  We move on and crossing a bridge, stop briefly to look at the cute Goldeneye chicks all learning how to dive and do other Goldeneye things.

We arrive at the head of Coignafearn, but it’s still raining.  We drive slowly down the strath, stopping every now and then as various birds get called out.  A party of Bullfinches, including a couple of dazzling males, hold our attention for a good five minutes and eventually we find some Dippers on the river and pull over to enjoy them.  We huddle under the raised tail doors of the vans with scopes set up on an adult Dipper feeding a couple of young birds.  The two young are very obvious being much darker grey with speckly breasts – not the clean white breast of the adult.  As we work up further into the hills, steep crags begin to loom up all around us and we begin to see our first Red Deer.  We have a welcome coffee and home-made shortbread break by some trees before heading off for a walk in search of Ring Ouzel.  It’s still raining so we walk down only as far as the rocks where Ray saw two adults birds the previous week.  We scan the boulder scree and birch trees and hear several birds calling in the distance, but can’t see any.  One bird begins to call right above us – its very distinctive high pitched three-note call frustrates us for several minutes before we spot a male sitting up on the rocks.  We start to get the scopes on him and soon pick up a female in the same area.  Both are busy collecting food, and eventually, both birds lead us to two quite recently fledged young sat between the boulders – a great sight.

Having had our fill of the family of Ring Ouzels, we head up along through some pine forest for lunch, park at a vantagepoint and unpack Darren’s inviting hamper.  We scan the moorland for Merlin as the Meadow Pipits are flitting around the heather everywhere we look.  The burn below us is flowing noisily when the cry of ‘raptor’ goes up!  In the distance is a large bird of prey hanging above the hillside.  Telescopes swing round to and though it’s still very distant, it’s profile easily tell us it’s a Red Kite.  It gradually works its way closer and closer and eventually gives very good views.  We then pick up a Red Grouse on the distant mountainside, which takes the rest of us an age to get on to and John also picks out a Mountain Hare, but being at least a mile away the views are hardly stunning!  Nonetheless, zoom eyepieces are cranked up to full power and everyone sees both the grouse and the hare in the end.

Since every passing car is now stopping to ask what we are looking at (!), we are just about to decide to move off back up Coignafearn when something flashes by low over the heather – a Merlin!  It lands on a lichen-clad boulder some distance away and we can see that it’s a blue-grey male.  A nice finish and it sits there motionless and eventually we are forced to leave.

We head gradually homeward and along the River Dulnain make a stop.  From the road we watch the regular flock of Golden Plover, which as usual offer excellent views in various stages of plumage from winter through to full summer.  Ray explains to the group how different populations have varying amounts of black on the underside, with the most northerly breeding birds being the blackest.  We presume this is a flock of non-breeding, possibly young adults that have been chased off the moors by the territorial breeding pairs.  A Red-legged Partridge is seen running through the field ahead of a woman with a white dog and a brightly coloured umbrella, which has the predictable affect of scaring all the birds off!

Still the rain comes down as we stop for tea at the car park at the end of the road.  It might be wet, but the birds keep coming and spirits are far from dampened!  After tea we take a little walk towards the river where we find Ringed Plover with a tiny chick.  A couple of Crossbill fly over calling, almost certainly Scottish, but they disappear over the trees.  A couple more appear calling loudly and unusually land in a nearby maple tree before completely disappearing from view.  Ray frantically tries to locate them in his scope, but all he can find is their feet before they again take to the air and disappear – typical!  Attention turns to a Lapwing with a tiny chick.

We start to make our way back to the Steading making a quick stop en route to check a Peregrine eyrie.  No sooner have we set the scopes up when one male appears on the nest ledge with what looks like a dead pigeon!  The female hops into view, appearing from the back of the nest ledge and takes the prey as the male flies to a nearby perch.  We watch for a further half an hour or more as both birds constantly move back and forth across the cliff face, giving absolutely stunning views both in flight and perched.  Oh – it’s actually stopped raining!

We head for home and a very welcome dinner, after which we run through a very full birdlist.  The evening rounds off with a great slideshow about our local birds from another of our guides, Pete.  The slides are going to be a tough act to follow!

Day 3 

We’re planning our activities around the weather and opt for another early start as we are heading off over to the west coast and our weekly visit to Handa Island.  When we leave the weather is pretty grey, with leaden skies and the hint of rain but as we go north and west it begins to clear – good planning!

En route we stop at a loch and find a stunning pair of summer plumaged Black-throated Divers.  The diver’s beauty is in stark contrast to the surrounding moorland, which looks rather bleak.  Rather unexpectedly John hears calling crossbills, and looking up there is a party of six heading west down the glen!  Attention back with the divers, and a third bird joins the pair.  We can’t work out what’s going on.  All three are clearly summer plumaged adults, but none are showing any signs of aggression as you would expect when an intruder enters the territory of an established pair.  It’s fascinating watching the three of them pirouetting and swimming on the water with the three birds in a circle with their beaks all pointing inwards towards each other as they continuously spin around.

Soon after, we enter the dramatic scenery of Inverpolly NNR, where mountain peaks sweep up from sea level like huge stalagmites.  John’s minibus pulls up to check out a distant speck above a mountain – Golden Eagle!  Both minibuses quickly empty and tripods clatter in the rush to set up the scopes.  Scopes up and a second bird arrives on the scene.  The size difference clearly indicates that we have a male and female.  We watch them for about 10 minutes as they lazily soar over a nearby mountainside and everyone gets good views.

We drive through and on to Scourie, where we break coffee before heading off to Tarbet for the ferry.  The weather is brightening as our boatman Steve comes in and whisks us on the 10-minute crossing to Handa Island. 

The sea between the island and the mainland is beautiful, flat, calm and clear.  Common Terns fly alongside the boat as we leave the jetty, soon joined by our first Arctic Terns, with their distinctive ‘pick-pick-pick’ calls.  Shortly into the journey we see our first ‘Tystie’ or Black Guillemot –  a spanking black and white adult, sitting on the water.  Steve slows its engines and lets us drift quite close to the bird, as it gently bobs and up and down on the water’s surface.  We head on towards the silver sand of the landing beach passing several Shags, more Arctic Terns and a couple more Black Guillemots. 

After our Handa pep talk by the wardens, we head off across the island and immediately we are in to the birds with Wheatear and Skylark by the ruins of the old crofts, Snipe displaying and a very brave Red Grouse by the boardwalk.  Arctic Skuas wheel over our heads while a couple of ‘Bonxies’ or Great Skuas slowly patrol past us.  The Arctic Skuas look menacing as they streak across the skies chasing each other and yelping.  As we walk along the path, we get brilliant views of both skuas sitting feet from the path.  A pair of brutish Great Skuas eye us up as we walk past.  They look quite fearless, not flinching a feather as we tiptoe through their territory. 

Handa Island
Handa Island – Pete Cairns

Walking on across the moorland towards the seabird cliffs, the sky is full of skuas and there’s the sound of gulls in the background.  On a nearby loch a Red-throated Diver is loafing amidst the bathing skuas and we get our first smell of the cliffs – the wind is full of the wonderful aroma of guano.  It’s a strong smell, but quite sweet mixed in with the scent of Sea Thrift, which adorns on the cliff tops above the seabird colony.  Suddenly the cliffs come into view and it’s a stunning sight.

We stop for lunch right by the offshore Great Stack and enjoy the sights, sound and smell of the active seabird city below us.  Ray picks up a Peregrine swooping in from the right that everyone manages to get on to before it takes a sharp dive towards the cliffs, pulling up at the last minute before wheeling back up and around us.  Missed!  A shower swings in off the sea, but soon passes and behind it comes clear skies and brilliant sunshine.  The air soon warms up, and the wind is less biting.  Lunch eaten, we take a closer look the seabirds on the Stack.  There are thousands of Guillemots and Razorbills clinging to the cliff face.  Puffins are busy digging out their burrows on the top – we see little clods of earth being kicked out before an adult suddenly springs out looking rather splendid.  Below, the cliffs are noisy with fluttering, white Kittiwake and stiff-winged Fulmar as they to and fro on the wind.

We can now see clear to Cape Wrath in the north and even out to Lewis on the Outer Hebrides as we begin to make are way back around the north and west sides of the island.  To our right, gorgeous blue waves break over the foot of the cliffs.  We stop at the lovely Sandy Bay by the rocks adorned with grey and yellow lichens, in the hope of finding a late Great Northern Diver, but alas no joy.  A handful of Eider, some Rock Pipits and a couple of Grey Seals entertain us before we make our way back to the beach for the ferry.  It has turned into a lovely afternoon and we enjoy simply sitting on the beach watching beautiful golden sand and deep blue sea.  It’s been an incredible day on Handa. 

Back at the minibuses we have tea and spend a few minutes looking for Twite, which we can hear calling from nearby fields.  It isn’t long before Ray picks up a small flock feeding in the field immediately behind the car park and everyone manages to get good views of this little Highland Linnet-like bird.

We begin our journey home, stopping mid-way at Garve Hotel where we have a welcome dinner before undertaking the final part of our journey back to the Steading.

Day 4

We all enjoy a late and leisurely breakfast after last night’s late arrival back from Handa.  After breakfast we catch up with the bird list from yesterday before leaving the Steading.  The weather is still a bit mucky here and our planned trip up Cairngorm is postponed as the snow line has come down quite dramatically and the tops of the hills are still covered in cloud.

Steading lounge
Steading lounge – Pete Cairns

We visit local Uath Lochan where we have a leisurely stroll.  Everyone is relaxed after the brilliant day on Handa yesterday and are all relieved that we are not going up Cairngorm because of the snow that landed!  We walk around the still blue lochans and among the tangled, gnarled ancient pines but unfortunately can’t find any Crested Tits, although we do manage to get good views of Spotted Flycatcher and everyone enjoys watching a Greater Spotted Woodpecker taking food back to its nest hole.  We stop for coffee by some lichen-festooned trees and as we do so a Crested Tit begins to trill!  With some perseverance we all get pretty good views.

Crested Tit
Crested Tit – Pete Cairns

We drive north to the other side of Grantown-on-Spey, in the hope that we might just pick up a Capercaillie on the woodland edge, but alas no joy.  We enjoy a Cuckoo and then the sight of a lone Buzzard being hammered by three very noisy Curlew.

By mid-day we push off on a broad track into some pinewoods and have a typically frustrating walk looking for Caper.  John and Ray lead us along as quietly as possible and we manage to get three very brief glimpses of male Caper in flight, but on each occasion the bird vanishes quickly in a clatter of wings.  We’re wary of disturbing these threatened birds but have another possibility later in the week.  Most of us though are spellbound by the absolutely terrific views of a Cuckoo in the wood – for some their ‘best ever’.  Some see a Tree Pipit parachuting and quite unexpectedly, a couple of us hear a singing Chiffchaff.  Although Caper-free, everybody enjoys the peacefulness of the pine forest carpeted in verdant green blaeberry.  Back at the minibuses we have a late lunch before deciding to press on to the moorland area of Dava Moor.

Just north of Grantown, a couple of us spot a White Stork flying low over the vans.  We have pines either side of us and can’t see a thing, so quickly turn round and find a minor road that takes us parallel to with the direction the stork is heading.  A quick 10-minute search of the open field, ideal for a stork, but we find nothing (a White Stork spent a day at nearby Nethybridge 10 days before and it was seen again the following week).

We arrive at the north end of Dava, a vast swathe of wild heather moor managed for Red Grouse and just as we pull in off the main road, we immediately pick one up.  Slowing down we can clearly see two adult birds with a group of small chicks.  We park and quietly make our way back up the hill to watch this family group.  The adult birds are nervous, crouching low in the heather.  Every now and then we can just make out a chick moving around.  After several minutes the birds relax and the family group starts moving slowly through the heather, giving brilliant views of both adults and the five young.  As soon as we’ve had our fill, we begin scanning the rest of the moorland.  Grouse pop up left, right and centre all around us.  “There’s one” – “Here’s another” – “ And another”.  There must have been a big hatch, as we find at least five family groups in a relatively small area by the road.  All groused out, the group begin to look for Stonechats, but can’t find any although we do see even more grouse as we drive through the moor towards Lochindorb.

Stopping for tea where we can view the ruined castle amidst the brooding waters, we get really bad views of Black-throated Diver!  Everyone soon loses interest after yesterday’s splendid views and it’s forgotten completely when an Osprey appears over the loch.  It’s clearly looking for fish as it beats slowly up the loch, eyes firmly fixed on the water.  It drifts right up to the shore where we are parked and into the sheltered bay where it spends about five minutes hovering and circling around in search of prey.  Suddenly, from some height, it decides to take a huge dive.  Excitement grips the group as it nears the water and we are all about to launch it to a huge “Hooray” when it pulls up at the last minute, just clearing the water.  Missed.  Our hearts are still in our mouths as the bird drifts slowly away from us, but we are all thrilled with such fantastic views.

We head off for our last stop of the day where we check out several of the roadside pools around the outskirts of the villages and are amazed to find so many Coots plus a single Moorhen – unusual for us!  At first we can only see one of the Slavonian Grebes that we know have bred here.  The pair recently lost their two chicks.  Their disappearance coincided with a nearby forest fire, and a rescue helicopter was using their breeding pool to scoop up water to drop on to the fire!  The sight of Lapwing chicks soon takes everyone’s attention and hearts as these little balls of black and yellow run around the field.  A group of Wigeon feed on the far side of the pool and just as we are leaving, the second Slavonian Grebe appears and we watch both birds displaying.  They swim into the far corner of the pool and start gathering nesting material – perhaps its not too late for them to re-nest and try for a second, successful brood.

We head for home, ready for another delicious dinner.  After dinner it’s still very light and a few of us elect to visit our Badger hide, where we are rewarded with good views of two animals that snaffle the peanuts put out as it gets gradually too dark to see.  By the time we put our spotlght on, they’re gone.

Day 5 

It’s misty and gloomy this morning with light drizzle in the air.  Nevertheless it’s quite mild and at the slightly shocking early hour of 5.15am (!) the enthusiasts among us make a trip over to the Loch Garten Visitor’s Centre with a mind on seeing the mighty ‘Horse of the Woods’ – the Capercaillie. 

Capercaillie – Pete Cairns

Ian from Speyside Wildlife with Laura from the RSPB are manning the hide this morning and they are operating a remote camera aimed at a lek site.  On our arrival we immediately see two males on the TV monitor in the Visitor’s Centre bringing live pictures of the birds fighting and another male out on show in the middle of a clearing.  Occasionally the birds can be seen for real and from a separate hide we manage to get a view of a male through the scope, but all too quickly it flies off.  Just as we are feeling despondent another male shows himself out in the same clearing.  Unbelievably a Fox, which is rare to be seen in daylight in this area, disturbs the male and he flies off on to the top of the tree.  At last he comes to rest and everyone manages to get a view as this male Capercaillie perches at the top of a pine in a somewhat precarious position.  In these days of Capercaillie decline, seeing a bird in the open is a rare sight and we return for a hearty breakfast having achieved our aim.

After breakfast we make a stop off at the Landmark Centre in Carrbridge for postcards and gifts, we head north over the Kessock Bridge for the rolling farmland and copses of the Black Isle.  Within minutes of arriving our first Red Kite is found, wheeling over the nearby woodland.  A second bird is seen to the left and then an Osprey appears circling over a nearby loch.  All around us raptors are popping up and in the air at one time there are amazingly three Red Kites, six Ospreys and three Buzzards.  We enjoy coffee and shortbread and someone nearly causes Ray to choke when they shout “Jay”. Ray appears expecting to see the woodland crow that is very rare here, but instead it’s the letter ‘J’ on the Red Kite’s wing-tag that’s being referred to!  A couple of Goldfinches fly over the group and John and Ray see a Reed Bunting.

After our coffee with the kites we head off to a highland glen.  We drive slowly through the birch woods, stopping off first to listen to a singing Chiffchaff, where we see a couple of very obliging Treecreepers, and then to see a Wood Warbler giving it’s shivering song. 

We arrive at the Golden Eagle eyrie in absolutely brilliant sunshine.  It’s lovely and warm as we check the eyrie and skyline for eagles, and within a couple of minutes of arriving the female Golden Eagle appears over the ridge, swooping down and landing on the hillside!  Scopes swing round and we all get terrific views of her perched before she launches herself off and heads for the nest.  She lands again giving superb scope views of her golden mane and powerful bill in the x60 Leica scope.  There’s no sign of any youngsters and after a while she leaves the nest and soars up along the cliff face – wow!  Eventually she disappears over the hill.  Thrilled, we continue eating our lunch with eyes constantly scanning the skyline.  Over the next hour a couple of Cuckoos, a Spotted Flycatcher and a really cracking male Stonechat keep us occupied until we get further incredible views of both male and female eagle as they patrol the area, guarding the nest.  We’re pretty certain that there must be young but they must already be well fed – at this age they don’t require much!

After lunch with the eagles, we drive down to the loch and pick up two fantastic Red-throated Divers – both birds in full summer plumage.  We remain really quiet so not to spook these wary birds, and this allows us prolonged, marvellous views as they turn their blood-red throats and stripy grey necks in the sun leaving us enthralled.  The divers at times seem to disappear against the water, their grey and brown plumage matching exactly the rippling of the water surface.

Driving back, we stop at a plantation and soon pick up Redwing.  We can hear at least four singing males and see at least three flying to and fro from the nearby fields.  Eventually we all get exciting views of Redwings, either singing from the tops of the pines or sat on the on rocks and fence posts – a scarce Scandinavian nester indeed.

Our day ends closer to home in RSPB Abernethy Forest.  It’s become overcast and all around us big black clouds threaten a soaking, but undaunted we move into the forest of ancient Scots pines and juniper and almost immediately a few people hear a Crested Tit although we fail to pin it down.  We continue to the top of the open ridge and start to get wet as the clouds open up.  We sit the rain shower out and before too long it ceases and the skies brighten up again.  We wander into one of our favourite clearings with the skyline dominated by the distant mountains and find a pair of Whinchat, which everyone manages to enjoy good views of, before turning their attention to a perched Osprey on the forest edge. 

John shouts “Crossbill” and in the distance we can hear some very deep Crossbill calls.  Ray spots a male and female flying across in front of us, but they disappear into the forest.  Quiet.  Attention switches back to the Whinchat and Osprey when a shout goes up “What’s that on top of that tree?” and there, sat out in the open is a male Parrot Crossbill.  Everyone gets good views of the bird with its monster bill, through the scope before it takes flight, but amazingly it flies straight towards us and lands in an even closer, dead pine where it is joined by two very streaky juveniles.  With scopes cranked up to full power, we all enjoy stunning views of this rare bird.  John and Ray explain that they nest here in small numbers among the rather sporadic Scottish Crossbills – we’re unlikely to have another day when we see so many of Britain’s rarest breeding birds with Red-throated Diver and Golden Eagle, and in particular, Redwing and Parrot Crossbill!

It’s already 6.00pm and we need to head back to the Steading or else there will be no time to refresh ourselves before our delicious evening meal.  On the way back to the minibus, Ray finds some Pine Marten and Capercaillie scats and droppings (more for the pooh list!), which the group are entranced with – really!  Someone suddenly shouts “Crestie” and there above us is a Crested Tit.  After about 20 minutes of heartache and agonising, most of us manage to see it before it moves away.  We arrive back at the Steading late, but no one minds after such a magical day.

Day 6

After another good breakfast we jump into the minibuses for the drive north up to the Moray Coast.  We cross the wild and open moors and after an unsuccessful raptor scan at a favourite forest viewpoint, drop down to the low-lying barley fields along the coast.  We press on, cross the river and arrive at Spey Bay where immediately we get stuck in to the birds.

It’s a pretty spot here at the shingle banks where the Spey meets the sea and there are upturned boats, historic ice-houses and picnic tables.  The tide is already up, and Eider are sat up on the shingle banks of the river mouth while Common Terns are all over the place.  There are loads of Goosander and a few Goldeneye.  Out to sea there is a group of Bottlenose Dolphins – at least seven, probably more.  We watch them, as their fins regularly break the surface and a couple start throwing themselves out of the water and rolling – an absolutely stunning sight and cracking views.  We continue to watch them on and off between watching the many birds around us which now include a couple of Red-throated Divers.  Eight Common Scoter fly past and an immature female Long-tailed Duck is right in front of us in the river mouth.  A single Red-breasted Merganser also appears and allows us to see the differences between it and the Goosander females.  A stroll inland along the riverbank produces a Sedge Warbler singing nearby in the scrub and Yellowhammer giving its ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ song.

After coffee we go for a little walk along the river and soon find Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler.  While we are enjoying these, an Osprey drifts along the river to the sea and begins fishing at the mouth.  All attention is now on the Osprey as we get terrific views of it hovering right above us.  The light is fantastic on the bird as it flaps around us before drifting upstream, then another hover before it crashes into the water without success.  Really exciting stuff!  As we climb into the vehicles, a couple of Linnets pop up in the bushes next to us – it’s another new bird for the trip.  We head off to check for seaduck from the other car park and as we get out of the minibuses, there is an absolutely stunning Yellowhammer, a glorious male, sat on the gorse singing its little head off.  In the sun it’s really showing off its brilliant yellow head and bright chestnut rump.  A quick check of the sea produces nothing.  We have a quick drive around the nearby minor roads and find three, plump Corn Bunting, including really cracking views of one male sat up on a wire singing his jangly song.  We head off to Loch Spynie and on the approach track John’s vehicle picks up a Magpie along the wood edge, making up for the two missed earlier in the day.  We arrive at the hide as it begins to rain.  Packed into the hide, we watch the group of breeding Black-headed Gulls and their chicks on the nesting platform.  One of the chicks has fallen off the platform and is paddling around calling and trying to find refuge.  A Common Gull hovers over it, eyeing it up as a snack, before the parents drive it away.  Some of the groups’ dark side comes to the fore as they urge the Common Gull to put the doomed chick out of its misery.  A stark contrast to all the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from some of the others!  A couple of male Ruddy Ducks are displaying to the left, and over the far side, a family party of Mute Swans with five cygnets feed.  Along with Mallard, Tufted Duck, Coot and loads of Swifts and hirundines, there are plenty of things for us to watch whilst sheltering from the rain.  We are excited to spy a female Marsh Harrier sat up at the back of the loch – certainly one of the best finds of the week.  We train our scopes on to her and all get excellent views as she sits there looking very bedraggled in the rain.  

We head off to Findhorn for afternoon tea and enjoy the brilliant sunshine and clear blue sky we now find ourselves surrounded by.  A quick stop at the bird hide proves too blustery despite being really sunny and apart from a pair of Bullfinches over, we see nothing else of note.  Tired, we head back and fill the journey away with the fun inter-minibus bird quiz – lots of laughs all round and just a teensy bit competitive!  We take the Forres to Carrbridge road to look for Short-eared Owls but the area is pretty bird free and we soon find ourselves back home. 

After dinner some try a spell at our Pine Marten hide until dusk.  All is quiet and it seems after a long-feeling hour that there’s none to be seen.  Needless to say however, just as we’re nodding off a Marten bounds in on ungainly legs, it’s creamy bib contrasting with the chocolate-brown fur!  Cat-sized but more agile it climbs up onto the feeding platform, takes an egg and is gone – great views if brief and we head for bed happy.  Needless to say the rest of the bait put out has gone in the morning!

Day 7 

We wake to calm conditions, clear skies and a pleasant day in prospect.  This could mean only one thing – Cairngorm.  After a prep talk on walking conditions (distance and incline!), we organise ourselves into those going for the heights and those staying at lower levels – it’s a 50/50 split – a democratic toss of the coin decides that John will go up and Ray will stay down! 

We all drive to the car park of the ski area and gaze up at the Arctic alpine plateau where our target birds are hiding.  Nearby it’s a bit of a building site since a funicular railway is being built and the chairlift is shut.  The keen walkers are going to have to do just that – walk! 

The lowland group head off for the delights of the pinewoods etc while the ‘highlanders’ head off to tackle the track up to the plateau.  Fortunately our walk enjoys quite calm and clear conditions and we make good progress up around the hill.  The early part only produces the obligatory Meadow Pipits, but gradually we leave the moorland behind and our expectations rise as we enter a rugged landscape of screes and cliffs where the last few patches of snow linger.  A well deserved tea break proves to be very good sense as within minutes an obliging male Ptarmigan is heard and then parades himself in front of us displaying his red wattle and more than satisfactory views are had by all.  These true Arctic birds have lost much of their white winter feathering but still offer an incredible example of cryptic camouflage!  

Dragging ourselves away from this exhibitionist we take on a sensible pace back on up the slope until we reach a high level plateau overlooking the Larig Ghru and Lurcher's Crag – spectacular stuff!  This altitude signals our first scan for Dotterel and to our delight we soon find some!  We scope up a pair at reasonable range allowing all of us to catch up with this enigmatic plover.  The bright female with dark belly and glaring supercilia shows up really well despite the heat haze, but the much duller male pales into the background in contrast to his gorgeous mate.  Half an hour of observation is capped when two more sumptuous females appear from over the hillside.  At various times we can see all four of them in the same field of view of the scope and even better they come closer allowing the heat haze to drop off and producing clear, crisp views.  So with mission accomplished our thoughts turn to lunch.  What could be better than to tuck into our picnic in the company of such tremendous birds amidst the silent solitude of the mountains.

As we return to lower altitudes we see one more Ptarmigan in flight and hear several more before we drop all the way down.  It’s less easy than going up, but soon we are safely back at the car park where here the silence of the mountains is punctured by the helicopter ferrying materials up and down the hill. 

Before we leave and descend down to Loch Morlich, we stop and view the domesticated Reindeer, which at this time of year are without their antlers and are very obvious in their white pelts.  A quick stop amidst the pines below the mountains at Loch Morlich for a scan of the water, produces a pair of Wigeon, a few Teal, a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, several pairs of Goldeneye, with Sand Martins and Swift over the loch.  After a while we spot a distant Red-throated Diver which signals time for a tea and chocolate biscuit break, however our teatime is rudely interrupted by a ‘cheeky-chappie’ of a Crested Tit right beside the van!

As we’ve managed to sort out the high altitude goodies in double quick time, we decide to make a visit to the Rothiemurchus Gift Shop to satisfy a burning desire for postcards and gifts.  With postcards and ice-creams sorted, we set off down the road to look over Loch Insh from the bridge where we see another stunning Red-throated Diver in fantastic light and also for the notebook are a few Teal, Common Goldeneye, Tufted Duck and Sand Martins skimming over the water surface.  Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew, Oystercatcher and Great Black-backed Gull are all sat around the edge of the loch and we see a brief Reed Bunting disappearing into the marsh.  We get back to the Steading just after 6.00pm, everyone having had a good stretch of their legs, although anxious to hear what the other half of the group have managed to see!

For the ‘lowland’ group, well after ticking off the domestic Reindeer we make our way to Loch Morlich, where we quickly pick up on two Red-throated Diver and Common Teal, Wigeon, Common Tern as well as Swift, Sand Martin, Swallow, and House Martin.  We have a quick cup of tea before we head towards Whitewell where there’s an incredible panorama before us over the sweep of pines that make up Rothiemurchus Forest.  There are 18 magnificent Golden Plover trotting around a field full of cows and overlooking Rothiemurchus and the expanse of the Cairngorms, we manage to see Redpoll and watch some unobliging crossbills fly over our heads.

With a need to get better views of Scottish Crossbills, we decide to head for Abernethy and shortly find ourselves walking through more ancient Caledonian pines.  A wander along a track produces several Crested Tits, the first teasing us with brief views and intermittent calls before coming out into the open and allowing satisfactory views.  At a Juniper glade we stop and pick up on a distant Golden Eagle soaring over the forest – probably the male of the local pair – and as if to signal a rush of activity, a flock of crossbills fly in.  Calling very excitedly they land in low trees and then one by one, proceed to come down to a drinking pool on the track no more than 15 metres from us!  Able to assess bill size at leisure, we can confirm that they are all Scottish Crossbills, in fact a family party of a very local pair which nested close by with their three juveniles and four hangers-on – a pair with two juveniles.  More crossbill flyovers on our way back to the van heralds a spurt of activity with many singing Tree Pipits, Common Redstarts and more Cresties.  Back at the van we enjoy a hearty picnic and the time allows us leisurely views of a very noisy and persistent Tree Pipit as well as the usual Robins, Wrens, Chaffinches and Coal Tits.  We then head to the Loch Mallachie car park, where after a short stroll down the track we watch a pair of Crested Tits feeding young in a stump near the loch edge.  The behaviour of the adults is a joy to watch as they quickly catch food and then attend the nest in great excitement – quivering wings, prominent crests and incessant calling – encouraged by the begging calls of the chicks.  This walk also allows us to get our most special scope views of a male Common Redstart singing at the top of a pine. 

Finally leaving the blaeberry and Scots pine, we head to Insh Marshes RSPB reserve and make several stops at the best birding spots.  The viewpoint at historic Ruthven barracks allows reasonable scope views of all the commoner waders including Snipe, Redshank, Curlew and Lapwing, as well as Black-headed Gulls, Common Gulls, Grey Heron, Teal, Mallard and Greylag Goose. 

After a relaxing but full day, we head back to the Steading and look forward to a good meal and some good mountaineering stories from the highlanders!  Our last dinner together is great fun and afterwards we run through the best moments of the week.  There’s a clear winner of Bird of the Trip with those magical Golden Eagles stealing the show.  Place of the Trip gets more of a spread of votes with Abernethy Forest and Spey Bay just pipped to the post by Handa Island, whilst our Magic Moment is a clear tie between those who saw the Dotterel in the mountains and those who enjoyed the Crossbills.  It seems an age since the Black Grouse on our first morning but the week has flown by!

Day 8

We all to leave the Steading reluctantly for our journeys home and we make our farewells leaving beautiful Glen Feshie behind.

Glen Feshie
Glen Feshie – Pete Cairns


Red-throated Diver
Black-throated Diver
Little Grebe
Slavonian Grebe
Grey Heron
White Stork
Mute Swan
Greylag Goose
Tufted Duck
Long-tailed Duck
Common Scoter
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Red Kite
Marsh Harrier
Common Buzzard
Golden Eagle
Red Grouse
Black Grouse
Red-legged Partridge
Ringed Plover
Golden Plover
Green Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Arctic Skua
Great Skua
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Tern
Arctic Tern
Black Guillemot
Stock Dove
Collared Dove
Tawny Owl
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Sand Martin
House Martin
Tree Pipit
Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
Grey Wagtail
Pied Wagtail
White Wagtail
Ring Ouzel
Song Thrush
Mistle Thrush
Sedge Warbler
Wood Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Crested Tit
Coal Tit
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Carrion Crow
House Sparrow
Scottish Crossbill
Parrot Crossbill
Reed Bunting
Corn Bunting


Common Shrew
Red Squirrel
Pine Marten
Field Vole
Wood Mouse
Red Deer
Roe Deer
Wild Goat
Grey Seal
Common Seal
Bottlenose Dolphin
Brown Hare
Mountain Hare