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A Report from

Seeking the Speyside specialities,

John Girdley


Birders wishing to see Crested Tit, Scottish Crossbill, Capercaillie, Ptarmigan in the UK have little choice but to travel to Scotland, and for the first two species especially there is little choice but to visit Speyside.

Other rewards for a visit to this beautiful area in the summer months include reliable sites for Osprey, Golden Eagle, immaculate summer plumaged Slavonian Grebes and a chance of Dotterel on the summit plateau of the Cairngorms.

The best time to visit is late May to June because this will give the widest possible species range, although the resident species can be seen with less reliability in any month of the year.

Key sites:

Loch Garten: 

Access: Well sign-posted from Boat of Garten (NH 976186)

This is the classic Speyside, RSPB wardened, Osprey site, and the site of the first recolonisation of Ospreys into this country some fifty years ago.  You will have to share the birds with tourists but this is a small price to pay for the work that the RSPB and its volunteers have done to raise the profile of conservation in this area.

Capercaillie can sometimes be seen fro the hide, though in my experience early or late visits are best for this.

On the walk down to the hide, listen out for Crested Tits and Scottish Crossbill. Both are possible here. (Common Crossbill and even Parrot Crossbill have bred in the area - so don't automatically dismiss all Crossbills as Scottish.)  You do need to get a good look at the bill shape or be extremely good at picking up the subtle differences in call.

There is no other entry to the Statutory National Nature Reserve but away from the tourist paths, Siskins, Coal Tit and in summer, Spotted Flycatchers and Redstarts should be obvious. (The track leading to Loch Mallachie can be rewarding),


Access:  Situated just off the main A9(T)

The road to Loch Morlich and the Ski Lifts to Cairngorm, passes over a bridge on the River Spey. (NH 895116)  If you park here in the summer months, Ospreys are often seen overhead fishing in the river or the adjacent Rothiemurchus fish farm.  The fish farm has a small hide by one of its lakes where you can sit and watch the Ospreys in comfort. (for a price!)

On the other side of the A9 from Aviemore is Craigellachie NNR. Peregrines frequent a prominent crag in the in the middle of the reserve.  For those of a lazy disposition, it is possible to "scope" this crag from the carpark of the large hotel in the middle of Aviemore.

Loch Morlich

Access:  Take the B970 out of Aviemore to Coylumbridge and then the minor road up in the direction of the Ski-lifts which passes on the north side of the Loch. (NH 965098)

This is another delightful area, especially if you get up before the tourists.  I have heard Red-throated Diver calling through the early morning mists on the lake. Crested Tits have been known to come down to the Loch side picnic tables and one evening returning late from the summit plateau a female Capercaillie walked across the road in front of me.

The Cairngorm Plateau

Access:  Continue along the road from Loch Morlich to the Ski Lifts.(NH 989061) 

For birders with limited time there is little choice but to take the lifts to the summit.  The walk would be an all day expedition.  It is worth noting that the climate on the summit can be savage and unpredictable.  I have been hit by a snow storm in August!  The lifts will close down without notice if the wind get up.  For walkers more accustomed to the gentle hills of North Wales and the Lake District, the shear scale of these hills can catch you unawares.

Ptarmigan can sometimes be seen when looking down from the lifts but more often a walk along the tops is required.  My personal preference is to head over Cairngorm summit and on along the ridge towards Ben MacDui.  The rule seems to be, the further you walk the better the birds.  Ptarmigan are very tame and so if you do see them you will get good views.  Other possibilities are Dotterel, (I've never managed to see any here - it's much easier to see them elsewhere on passage) Snow Bunting, (difficult) Purple Sandpipers (which are reputed to breed) and Snowy Owl which is very occasionally reported from the vicinity of Ben MacDui.

(In winter it is possible to see both Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting in the ski-lift car park area!)

Loch an Ellein

Access:  Turn SE off the B970 about two mile south of Aviemore. (Park at NH 897085)

This area gets my vote as the prettiest place in Speyside, with its much photographed ruined castle on the small island on the Loch.  Parking fees are on the high side, but worth paying for the views, the walk round the lake and especially the birds.  I have seen both Scottish Crossbill and Crested Tit, within five minutes of getting out of my car.  But don't rush it, enjoy the area. The call of the Crested Tit is a distinctive little trill, and you should soon be picking them up all over the place!


Access:  Fifteen mile NE of Aviemore on the A95.  Park just after the Golf Course on the B9102.  (NJ 045285).

The woods to the east of Grantown were once called "Caper city" to those in the know.  Sadly, Capercaille numbers are now much reduced and these woods should be treated with with much sensitivity in the breeding season and are perhaps best avoided altogether at this time of the year.  Certainly visitors should not stray from the footpaths and certainly shouldn't try to flush birds that may be sitting on nests.

Even in winter "Caper's" are notoriously difficult to see on the ground, especially considering their size and I don't remember ever seeing one in a tree.  More usually, they break cover about a 100m ahead and very rapidly, fly off onto the canopy, never to be seen again.   On rare occasions I have also seen Black Grouse here.  

All the forest species are available.  But beware! It is easy to get lost in these woods and there are few landmarks.  Working these mature Pine plantations can be hard work, as the trees are very tall.  A knowledge of the call of your target species is really helpful. (Isn't it always!)

The Landmark Centre

Access:  Eight miles north of Aviemore at Carrbridge.

This is a Forest Heritage Centre.  If you have children they will love the playground.  There are many displays in the centre, lots of them relating to the wildlife of the Caledonian Forest.  (Do you know the difference between a cone that has been eaten by a Crossbill and a Squirrel?  This may be just the edge you need if you are still desperately seeking your first Scottish Crossbill.  Many birders come away empty handed on their first visit.)

For me the main highlights are the massive forest tower that allows you to look down on the canopy from above and the raised boardwalk that lets you walk straight through it!  I had my best ever views of Scottish Crossbill from this boardwalk.

The Findhorn Valley

Access:  Follow the A9(T) north from Aviemore towards Inverness.  About two miles after Slochd Summit, turn west into the Findhorn Valley. 

Anywhere along the valley is good for the likes of Dipper and Common Sandpiper.  I have also seen Common Terns fishing the river up here.  Osprey is also possible.  Drive to the very end of the public road. (NH 719179) and park.

For the best chance of good birds, and Golden Eagle is the main target, it is necessary to continue walking along the track following the line of the deer fence until it ends. (Just over a mile).  Wheatear and Ring Ouzel are real probabilities here. 

Golden Eagles soar widely.  My best views involved a young bird that landed on a high patch of snow and then proceeded to toboggan down it several times, behaviour that I have never seen before or since.

Loch Ruthven

Access:  Easily combined with a trip to the Findhorn Valley.  About half way along the Findhorn, a road leads NW over the fells, Follow this for about ten miles and then navigate minor roads to NH 368281.  From here a track leads to a hide at the east end of the lake.

On the journey, keep you eyes peeled for raptors on the moorland,  several species are likely, including Hen Harrier and Merlin.  It is possible to get a high day list of raptors in this area!

Slavonian Grebes are the main birds of Loch Ruthven.  "Slav's" can be seen on several Lochs in the Speyside area but Ruthven is a proper RSPB reserve and it is possible to study the Grebes here without fear of disturbance.  For those of a lazy disposition: I have always been able to "scope" the lake from the carpark, though to miss out on close up views of Slavonian Grebe would be a shame.


It would require at least a long weekend to cover all of these sites and there is never any guarantee that particular birds will be seen.  However there is one big plus if you miss something.  It will give you the perfect excuse for returning to this superb area of Scotland again!!

John Girdley.


Where to Watch Birds in Scotland
Mike Madders: Buy from

  • Scotland has my favourite birding in the whole of the UK. This book, now updated, contains more than 140 key sites and numerous additional sites accompanied by maps and line drawings. It concludes with an up-to-date list of local birds Recorders and reports, useful addresses and a code of conduct for birdwatchers. The guide has become indispensable for anyone birdwatching in Scotland.


Collins Guide to Scottish Birds Valerie Thom, Norman Arlott (Illustrator)

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