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A Report from

Return to the Highlands 23 - 27 May 2001,

Graham Mee

Wednesday 23rd May - Alder Tag

Last year on the 6th to the 9th of May I was lucky enough to be sent to Inverness on business. I was extremely fortunate in that the Highland Council liked our web product and decided to purchase it resulting in the need for me to return to conduct a day and a half training.

The training was arranged for the Thursday and Friday and I booked an 08:30 departure from Stansted to Edinburgh and a hire car from there to Inverness. Unfortunately and would you believe it, I couldn't get a return flight until late on the following Sunday evening, this would mean that I would have to spend all weekend in the Highlands - what was I going to do with myself?!

09:50 saw me safely in my hire car driving out of Edinburgh on the M90 heading north. This was only my fifth visit to Scotland and I have to say that each time the weather has been exactly like it was now, 23c and not a cloud in the sky, the weather would stay pretty much like this for my whole visit. Just past Pitlochry on the A9 I had my first sighting of, not one but two of my favourite birds, a pair of Common Buzzard. To me this is the one bird that represents Scotland. I was so overjoyed by this site I pulled in to a convenient lay-by and watched enthralled as the pair circled right overhead.

I had intended to make my first stop the Insh Marshes RSPB reserve so that I could add another tick to my 'RSPB reserves visited list', unfortunately I completely missed it as I didn't see any of the usual very helpful RSPB signposts that most of our reserves seem to have. Carrying on, I headed instead for Loch Garten.

Arriving at Garten at 13:15 I made the usual enquiry after Crested Tits and received the expected reply that it was rather too late in the year. Oh well, I hadn't expected any new ticks on this visit (especially as I had seen a Ring Ouzel for the first time two weeks before at Minsmere!) but I was looking forward to boosting up my year list which I was keeping for the first time this year.

Standing in the main centre hide at Garten I was captivated watching the live video of both of the parent Ospreys feeding the first of their new born chicks. The centre staff informed me that it was very unusual for the male Osprey to actually help with the feeding himself but they thought that the reason was that last year the males mate had sadly died after becoming entangled in fishing line and the male had gone on to raise all three chicks himself as a modern 20th century dad! His new mate obviously recognised this and, having proved himself, he was allowed to become involved a lot more than normal.

Watching the feeders at Garten I suddenly became aware that they were not covered in Greenfinch as would be the case in my garden but were actually full of Siskins! I mentioned in my previous report that the male Siskin in summer plumage is a really striking bird and these were certainly no exception. I had the very frustrating experience of hearing a Crossbill call but was totally unable to get a sighting.

Driving on to Inverness I simply had to stop off in the Findhorn Valley - the valley of the raptors! From the A9 take a right turn marked Tomatin and from this road another right marked to Coignafearn Lodge.

15:00 saw me set up at my favourite spot by the wooden bridge half way down the valley scanning the skies. I didn't have long to wait! My first birds were a Grey Wagtail and a Dipper followed by the wonderful sight of an Osprey catching a fish from the river almost in front of me. Next along was a female Hen Harrier followed by a Goshawk, a Cuckoo and then a Common Buzzard. This valley really is as good as this and I have never been disappointed here. I was just about to leave when I spotted another raptor heading quite low towards me, I stood transfixed hardly daring to breathe as an immature male Golden Eagle came right over my head, across the river, and out over the opposite valley wall. Grinning like a lunatic I decided to take the scenic route back to my hotel and headed back about a quarter of a mile from the wooden bridge taking a left hand turn marked Farr House. This is a gated road but is perfectly O.K. to drive and offers breathtaking views from the top back over towards the valley, the road can also be a good spot for Red Grouse.

On reaching the B851 I headed back on myself a short distance to call in at Loch Ruthven and its famous Slavonian Grebes. I was disappointed to find the reserve closed due to Foot and Mouth restrictions but decided to park by the entrance for a quick look round. I was immediately aware that there was a cacophony of sound coming from the surrounding hills, spotting the culprits I found a pair of Curlew. Believe me, you may think that living in Southend you a perfectly aware of a Curlews call but let me assure you that it is nothing like the sound of a breeding pair! The sheer range of haunting notes and calls defies belief especially when, as happened, a Common Buzzard came to close for their comfort. I finished at Ruthven with a nice Hooded Crow and a male Wheatear.

Thursday 24th May - Constant daylight

A full day at work in Inverness but Scotland at the end of May means very light evenings so a chance not to be missed of some more birding. After a quick visit to the North Kessock Red Kite Centre to watch the wonderful live feed video feed of a Red Kite on the nest with her chicks I decided to head back down by Loch Ness on the B862 to Loch Ruthven again. A very pleasant evening spent alongside the Loch produced; 6 breeding plumage Slavonian Grebes, a pair of Common Buzzards, a pair of Hooded Crows, a pair of Siskin (there's a pattern emerging here!),  2 pairs of Curlew, Willow Warbler and Coal Tit. Yet again Grouse were heard calling but none were spotted.

Friday 26th May - First new tick

Business finished by midday I decided that, as I hadn't got a new tick on this trip, I would go all out for one. A quick change back at my hotel and it was on to the A9 to Loch Garten for Crested Tit. On arrival at Garten I met an awful lot of people that had been searching all day for 'Cresties' with no luck at all. With this in mind I decided to take the forest walk to Loch Mallachie. This is a wonderful three hour walk and, although I wasn't lucky enough to see the wild Otters, the forest compensated by being full of birds. Sightings of good numbers of; Osprey, Tree Pipit, Willow Warbler, Siskin, Coal Tit, Goldeneye and a single female Sparrowhawk made the walk very worthwhile. Now comes the part that will be familiar I am sure to all birdwatchers, within five minutes of returning to the car park I had got my new tick! I was fortunate to meet up with Ray and Carol, a birding couple from Hampshire. Ray told me that they had come here because yesterday at exactly this time they had had sightings of Scottish Crossbill, sure enough, as if on cue, three of these wonderful birds appeared.

I now have a question for my readers: As I am in Scotland in the middle of the Abernethy Forest at the end of May, do I count this as the Scottish Crossbill species? Even the latest Collins offers no real advice on identification. Please email me with any views that you may have on this.

After spending a pleasant time in conversation with Ray and Carol I mentioned that I hadn't seen Grouse on this trip as yet. They very kindly offered to let me follow them back to Lochindorb where they were parking their camper van for the night as the area was full of Grouse. From Nethy Bridge take the B970 to Grantown-on-Spey, then the A939 to Aitnoch. Just before Aitnoch take the road on the left to Lochindorb lodge.

Lochindorb is simply stunning! It is a wild and lonely place where very few people or tourists seem to get to. Just before we parked Ray suddenly stopped and Carol beckoned me back down the road, we moved quietly and, no more than four feet away, a Red Grouse suddenly sprang from the heather. I was immediately distressed to see that this bird had a broken wing as she made an effort to fly off. With relief we then spied her six chicks nearby and realised that this was her decoy trick and very effective it was too, it certainly fooled me! I spent a very pleasant two hours with Ray and Carol - the whole time with an Osprey hunting over the water in front of us. We were also lucky enough to see a Peregrine Falcon fly over the Loch.

Saying my goodbyes to my new companions I drove off back to Inverness. On climbing out of the valley I came to a parking spot which gave a commanding view back over the Loch. I stopped the car and set up my telescope to have a closer look at the island in the middle of the Loch on which was a ruin of a castle looking to all the world like a lavish movie set. Looking at this and the calm water around it I spotted two birds in the water, a closer look revealed a pair of Black-throated Divers. Believe me drawings in the guide books of the male in full summer plumage do not do it justice, the real thing is simply stunning.

Saturday 26th May - The power of the Internet

Before travelling to Scotland I had visited the website of the RSPB Highland Members Group and had emailed a request to find out if anyone from the group would be available to show me around for the day. This had resulted in the very kind offer from John and Doreen from the group to spend the Saturday with me. John and Doreen picked me up at 09:30 and asked me would I like to try for Crested Tit? YES I WOULD, very much so! We set off for Abernethy Forest stopping off on the A9 at the Slochd Summit picking up female Ring Ouzel, Mistle Thrush Male Wheatear and Raven. Instead of heading to Loch Garten itself where I had tried for Crested Tit unsuccessfully on at least six occasions we took a minor unmade road to the south east down to an area called Forest Lodge. Walking down the trail over the bridge and in to real and unspoilt Caledonian Pine Forest we suddenly heard a bubbling trill, straight away I was on to my first ever Crested Tit. We had fantastic views of this bird as it collected food for its family in an old dead tree stump. Willow Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher and Great Spotted Woodpecker were other highlights of this splendid area. Elated, I asked John if we could please have our lunch in the Findhorn Valley as I knew I couldn't leave Scotland without one more visit to this area, this was agreed and I spent a very pleasant two hours with my new friends where we were treated to 4 Common Buzzards, female Hen Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel, Common Gull, Common Sandpiper and Dipper.

So would have ended a superb day but for the fact that I happened to mention to John that I hadn't seen Red Kite on this trip. John then calmly informed me that they had a Red Kite nest with chicks practically in their back garden just outside Dingwall! We picked up my car from my hotel and I followed them north up the A9 to their picture-postcard house just outside Dingwall. I soon had my scope set up on the nest and on one of the parents gliding above the trees.

Bidding farewell to my new friends I took John's advice and decided to stay in the area for a time and head for a valley that he had told me was especially good for Eagles. Taking the A835 out of Dingwall, turn left on to the A832 marked Marybank. From Marybank turn right on to the valley road. This took me down 17 miles of single track road amongst the most beautiful and breathtaking scenery that I had ever seen in this part of the Highlands. I hadn't intended to drive the whole way but I just had to keep going until I reached the end of the road. And at the end of the road? Loch Beannacharain. And on the Loch? A pair of full summer plumage Red-throated Divers. Fantastic! On the drive back by a small car park I heard a Capercaillie call but couldn't pick it up. Even this couldn't spoil what had been a memorable and wonderful day.

Sunday 27th May - The long road home

Leaving my hotel in Inverness I had the whole day to get back to Edinburgh for the flight home at 20:55. This time I was determined to find the Insh Marshes RSPB reserve off the A9 by Kingussie. No problem this time and, sitting in one of the hides, I picked up; Grey Heron, Jackdaw, and breeding Curlew, Lapwing and Greylag Geese. Earlier that day there had been sightings of Long-eared Owl and Marsh Harrier.

Leaving this very scenic and extensive reserve I rejoined the A9 south to my final call at Vane Farm RSPB reserve on Loch Leven. A very pleasant last afternoon was spent on the reserve where the sightings were; Tufted Duck, Pochard, Great Crested Grebe, Wigeon, Greylag Goose, Gadwall, Common Teal, Skylark, Shelduck, Curlew, Jackdaw and Reed Bunting with Grasshopper Warbler heard calling The two highlights being at least three Osprey hunting for fish and a Green-winged Teal.

So ended a very packed four days in the wonderful Highlands of Scotland. If you have a love of birds of prey, if you love seeing your birds in their summer plumage and if you like your birdwatching surrounded by breathtaking scenery and friendly people you must book up a holiday in the Highlands as soon as possible. You certainly will not be disappointed.

Many thanks to: 
Highland Council Trading Standards for their hospitality and for making this trip possible.
The Melrose Villa Hotel for a very enjoyable and warm stay.
Ray and Carol for sharing with me their 'special' Loch.

Very special thanks go to John and Doreen of the RSPB Highlands Group for giving up their time and for showing me some really beautiful places. A really big thank you to you both for finding me at last a gorgeous Crested Tit.

Full Species List:

Loch Garten 


Findhorn Valley
Grey Wagtail
Hen Harrier
Common Buzzard
Golden Eagle
White-throated Dipper
Meadow Pipit

Loch Ruthven
Hooded Crow

Loch Ruthven 

Slavonian Grebe x 6
Willow Warbler
Coal Tit
Common Buzzard
Hooded Crow

Loch Garten 
Tree Pipit
Willow Warbler
Scottish Crossbill

Red Grouse
Peregrine Falcon
Black-throated Diver


Slochd Summit 

Ring Ouzel
Mistle Thrush

Forest Lodge - Abernethy Forest
Willow Warbler
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Spotted Flycatcher
Crested Tit
Common Buzzard
Hen Harrier
Peregrine Falcon
Common Sandpiper
Common Gull

Near Dingwall
Red Kite

Loch Beannacharain
Red-throated Diver

Insh Marshes 
Grey Heron

Vane Farm
Tufted Duck
Common Pochard
Great Crested Grebe
Greylag Goose
Common Shelduck
Osprey x 3
Common Buzzard
Reed Bunting
Green-winged Teal



Where to Watch Birds in Scotland
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  • 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.


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