S P E Y S I D E
18-25 May 2002
Leaders: Ray Nowicki & John Poyner
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.
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
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
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!
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 – 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
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.
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 – 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 – 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.
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
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.
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’
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
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!
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
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
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!
We all to leave the Steading reluctantly for our journeys
home and we make our farewells leaving beautiful Glen Feshie behind.
||Glen Feshie – Pete Cairns
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker