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SPEYSIDE, SCOTLAND - HIGHLAND FLING

Friday 26th April
The group met at Luton Airport for a short flight northwards to Inverness and arriving a few minutes ahead of schedule, we sorted out the formalities of car hire and were soon heading away from Inverness.

The first part of the journey produced a few OYSTERCATCHERS beside the road along with ROOK, CARRION CROW and HOODED CROW here and there. The weather was bright and sunny as we pulled into our first site noting a brief WHEATEAR along the way. CHAFFINCHES and several COAL TITS called from the pines.

Our first priority was lunch but afterwards we checked out the pines for one of our main targets. It didn't take long to locate a singing male CRESTED TIT and it performed a circuit of the nearby trees. A TREECREEPER flew in to the base of a tree and slowly climbed upwards, SISKINS flew over and MISTLE THRUSH was noted.

As we left the area a small skein of PINK-FOOTED GEESE were seen going northwards and another MISTLE THRUSH was feeding in a field.

A drive took us to the village of Burghead where the light and weather was perfect to search for sea duck. A small number of COMMON EIDER were seen and careful searching found us several GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS, a single BLACK-THROATED DIVER and some moulting RED-THROATED DIVERS. Around 120 COMMON SCOTER fed offshore and in the nearby area, around 8 LONG-TAILED DUCKS were seen including a confiding moulting male.

RAZORBILLS and GUILLEMOTS fed offshore along with KITTIWAKE, GANNET and a few SANDWICH TERNS, whilst ROCK PIPIT sang overhead. A nearby roost of waders yielded plenty of OYSTERCATCHER, REDSHANK and a single SANDWICH TERN.

With weather still bright we took a drive south and our first RED GROUSE were seen along with a distant flyover OSPREY. On the northern part of the loch were a few COMMON SANDPIPERS and a summer-plumaged RED-THROATED DIVER swam offshore. A bathing WHIMBREL on the shoreline was a surprise.

In the grazing fields a flock of GREYLAG GEESE fed but were quite distant. Moving southwards along the loch edge we got close views of COMMON SANDPIPER and REDSHANK feeding, before a squall moved through and made us retreat.

Our next port of call was to the south end of the loch where more RED GROUSE were noted as well as a single CORMORANT. By now rain had started to change to snow so we drove southwards towards Grantown-on-Spey. A stop beside a river proved productive with both DIPPER and GREY WAGTAIL seen easily.

After the long day we arrived at our hotel in good time to sort ourselves out before completing the bird list and enjoying a well deserved meal. We all retired to bed early as we had to be up early in the morning for a pre-breakfast excursion.

Saturday 27th April
We met at 4.45am for a visit to the deep, dark Abernethy Forest which got off to an amazing start with a male CAPERCAILLIE walking in front of the vehicle and then flying up and almost hitting us whilst we were moving!

Arriving at Loch Garten we got our tickets for the Capercaillie Watch and walked down towards the hide. A male OSPREY sat in a tree whilst the female was on the nest and eventually the male flew up and off after briefly sitting on the nest.

A male CAPERCAILLIE was later picked out on the camera but didn't show when we were there, although we had been lucky to have seen one earlier and at surprisingly close range! After a snow shower we wandered back to the centre, where we watched RED SQUIRRELS on the feeders.

Leaving the reserve we drove a short distance, where seconds after arriving we picked out a male BLACK GROUSE displaying. Its calls were clearly audible as it jumped up and down in display.

SISKIN, WILLOW WARBLER and LITTLE GREBE were noted, whilst a scan on the opposite side of the valley produced two more BLACK GROUSE. With temperatures just over freezing, we got back into the warm minibus and headed towards Boat of Garten, where a male GOLDENEYE was on the river.

Eventually we arrived back at the hotel where we had a quick break before breakfast which went down very well indeed.

Afterwards we left the hotel and with weather looking good, visited the Findhorn Valley. Driving straight to the end proved advantageous with two 1st year GOLDEN EAGLES being spotted a few minutes after our arrival!

A RAVEN was seen briefly in the valley and on the hillside were a small herd of RED DEER with an occasional RED GROUSE flying over. With the sun shining we wandered along the track and found several COMMON GULL, OYSTERCATCHER and PIED WAGTAILS, but as we neared the trees Steve spotted a male RING OUZEL perched up and allowing good scope views. Two more large raptors were seen and on closer inspection turned out to be another 1st year and an adult GOLDEN EAGLE.

Arriving back at the carpark we met a local guide who put us onto a MOUNTAIN HARE sitting at the base of a rock and just as we were about to leave, a female PEREGRINE was spotted circling over rocky crags before flying off at speed and landing on a distant crag. Lunch was taken close to the River Findhorn and it was a delight in the sunshine.

We then drove slowly over moorland noting several WHEATEAR and quite a few RED GROUSE with some very close to the vehicle. Our next destination was the RSPB Loch Ruthven Reserve, where the walk to the loch found us several REED BUNTING and WILLOW WARBLER. From the rocky promontory we scoped a SLAVONIAN GREBE in its breeding finery, whilst overhead we watched a COMMON BUZZARD glide over as well as a fishing OSPREY.

SWALLOWS and both SAND and HOUSE MARTINS fed low over the water and a scan of the edges yielded a pair of RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, TEAL and another SLAVONIAN GREBE. LITTLE GREBES were noted close by and a pair of WHITE WAGTAILS were seen briefly on an island offshore.

Making our way to the hide we noted a good number of mosses and lichens on trees including the COMMON HAIRCAP MOSS. From the hide we had better views of the pair of SLAVONIAN GREBES and also saw a male GOOSANDER feeding and a flyby pair of WIGEON.

Back at the carpark we loaded up before making our way back to base, where it was good to have a hot shower or bath before our evening meal.

Sunday 28th April
After a late breakfast we left the hotel and drove the short distance to Abernethy Forest. A good wander through the Caledonian Pines was enjoyed and we hadn't got far when a pair of CRESTED TITS were seen foraging along the side of the path allowing close views. Despite spending a couple of hours here and seeing COAL TITS, SISKIN and another CRESTED TIT it was rather quiet, so with lunchtime approaching we headed to nearby Loch Garten. After lunch in the van due to a heavy shower we spent some time around the centre, where we had yet more good views of CRESTED TIT coming to the feeder. SISKIN, COAL TIT and a GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER was heard before we moved on towards the RSPB Insh Marshes Reserve.

We made a tea/coffee stop close to Inshriach, where from the warmth of the tea room we had excellent views of RED SQUIRRELS, CHAFFINCHES and both COAL TIT and SISKIN. Eventually arriving at Insh Marshes we spent some time viewing from the centre/platform.

WIGEON fed on the wet pools and 5 PINK-FOOTED GEESE flew southwards. ROE DEER were watched grazing amongst long grass and a local birder put us onto 7 BLACK GROUSE feeding distantly in a field. A male PEREGRINE flew over as did a KESTREL.

With time running out we left for our base arriving back a few minutes later than planned. Once again we enjoyed a lovely home cooked meal before retiring for the evening.

Monday 29th April
Breakfast was earlier this morning and we were soon heading eastwards. Just west of Newburgh Steve stopped to find a dead SHORT-EARED OWL beside the road which was sad to see. Eventually we arrived at Ythan estuary where a walk to the beach produced a few LINNETS in the Gorse.

Once on the estuary we scanned through flocks of COMMON EIDER that were feeding in the shallows. After around 10 minutes, we found the recently present male KING EIDER and to our delight it showed brilliantly! As we approached we watched RINGED PLOVERS and a few DUNLIN along the waters’ edge before they flew a short distance away.

Getting closer to the Eider flock enabled us to have very good views of this northern vagrant and as the sunshine hit the bird, its colours were stunning. A huge number of GREY SEALS were sprawled out on sand dunes and we also saw RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, 3 WHIMBREL, BAR-TAILED GODWIT and CORMORANTS.

With an approaching squall, we headed for the cover of a shed and whilst the rain fell we spotted a small number of ARCTIC TERN flying over and a single KNOT flying north. Back at the van we drove the short distance to the bridge where we had lunch in the carpark, where another dozen WHIMBREL flew over and a few SHELDUCK fed in front of us.

From here we drove to the small fishing village of Portsoy, where the harbour was sheltered from the fierce NW winds. Scanning from the cliffs provided us with a large passage of FULMAR, KITTIWAKE and GANNET. After a few minutes a summer-plumaged GREAT NORTHERN DIVER was seen and suddenly next to it was a winter plumaged WHITE-BILLED DIVER! Unfortunately not everyone got onto the bird before they both simply disappeared.

More searching produced at least 3 GREAT SKUA and 5 MANX SHEARWATER flying westwards and a few LONG-TAILED DUCK were seen. We changed positions but still had no luck with relocating the diver, although a PUFFIN seen briefly made things exciting.

After a coffee stop we decided to drive round to another viewpoint. During the two minute journey, Steve stopped to look at a flock of gulls roosting in a field and almost immediately said "I've got a GLAUCOUS GULL" and the reply from the one of the group said "I've got an ICELAND GULL!"

Getting the scopes out, we had quite good views of these scarce birds as they roosted. Delayed slightly, we finished up at the carpark where it was quite windy and although another summer-plumaged GREAT NORTHERN DIVER got our pulses racing, we only saw a few EIDER and a few SHAG before we decided to call it a day and head back to base.

Tuesday 30th April
Some of the group met at 7am for a walk to Ladies Garden Wood where we saw several RED SQUIRRELS, COAL TITS, WILLOW WARBLER and down on the River Spey, a pair of GOOSANDER and a pair of COMMON SANDPIPER. After a hearty breakfast we headed round to the Cairngorm Mountains and after getting weather and wildlife updates from the mountain rangers we split into two groups. Two of the group went up the Funicular Railway whilst the remainder aimed to take a walk up the mountain.

We said our goodbyes and the main group had only gone a couple of minutes when a cracking male SNOW BUNTING was seen perched on a rock singing. We managed to get some photographs of this scarce breeding bird as it posed in good light before being disturbed by day trippers. The walk carried onwards seeing quite a few RED GROUSE on lower slopes and after around half an hour we got a phone call to say that whilst at the top of the railway, they had found a pair of PTARMIGAN on a hillside!

Spurred on by this we marched onwards, but as we neared a steep slope, snow prevented us from getting any further. Scanning the slopes seemed a good idea but apart from a perched RAVEN and some probable PTARMIGAN footprints in the snow, we drew a blank.

Returning back down, a small number of REINDEER were seen on the moorland slopes and we met up with the others for a spot of lunch. Afterwards, a decision was made to travel up on the railway to try and find Ptarmigan for us all.

Taking the railway up, the light and visibility was magnificent and you could see the Moray Firth! We were showed where they had found the birds earlier and on closer inspection through scopes, we found 3 birds, 1 male and 2 females feeding on heather shoots. How they had managed to spot these birds with binoculars was simply amazing and we all congratulated them on their find!

After getting our fill of the PTARMIGAN, we went into the cafe for a celebratory cuppa before getting the railway back down. A quick check was made of the lower carpark but there were no birds present so Loch Morlich was our final destination of the day where hundreds of SAND MARTINS and a few SWALLOWS fed over the water.

Three RED-THROATED DIVERS were seen including two birds that flew in quite close and began calling to each other, it was an amazingly haunting sound. GOLDENEYE, GOOSANDER and an obliging pair of WIGEON also kept us occupied before driving back to the hotel.

Dinner was very welcome and we went off to bed tired but happy after a good days birding.

Wednesday 1st May
After breakfast, we drove north to the Moray Firth where we hoped to see some Cetaceans as well as birds. After parking up a walk was taken along the beach to an area in the shelter of a moderate northwesterly wind. Small numbers of KITTIWAKES, SANDWICH TERNS and both GUILLEMOTS and RAZORBILLS were found.

The alarm call of SANDWICH TERNS alerted us to an adult dark-phase ARCTIC SKUA, flying up river which was a real treat. Spending the next few hours here failed to reward us with any dolphins and the gathered crowds went away disappointed. There was some compensation with a HARBOUR PORPOISE swimming by. Both COMMON and ARCTIC TERNS were seen and up to four summer-plumaged RED-THROATED DIVERS flew by, whilst in the outer reaches of the firth we found a large flock of feeding GANNETS.

Lunch was enjoyed in the sunshine before we drove westwards to a valley that was pretty quiet although a day flying PIPISTRELLE was unusual. Other birds included GOOSANDER and COMMON SANDPIPER and RED DEER were seen. On our return along the road, a single RED-THROATED DIVER was seen on a loch before we arrived back on the Black Isle. It didn't take long for us to see at least 9 RED KITE soaring over the roadside.

An earlier dinner was taken before we met in the forest for our evening in the Speyside Wildlife Mammal Hide. The journey provided us with several REDWING and a MISTLE THRUSH in a field whilst a few ROE DEER looked on. After meeting our guide John Picton, we settled into the hide and made ourselves comfortable.

A small herd of RED DEER came in and were only six feet away as they fed right outside the hide. A male TAWNY OWL perched in a tree outside the hide and eventually came closer. Whilst watching the owl, a BADGER came in on the other side of the hide so some of the group moved round to watch this amazing mammal. A few minutes later and to the delight of those still watching, the owl swooped down and stood two feet away to catch a poor unsuspecting WOOD MOUSE!

After the excitement of the owl we carried on BADGER watching and at least three more arrived which were great to watch. At around 11.30pm we called the evening to close and returned to the van. On our journey back to the hotel we watched a RED DEER cross the road and close to Grantown, a BARN OWL flew over the road, a great end to the day!

Thursday 2nd May
After a good breakfast we headed off westwards noting a few RED KITES on the Black Isle as we drove through. A toilet stop adjacent to a river produced a singing TREE PIPIT and another RED KITE overhead. Moving on, the weather started to deteriorate as we crossed moorland. A stop adjacent to the roadside gave good views of a pair of BLACK-THROATED DIVERS in full breeding plumage. Rain had turned to wet snow as we arrived at Little Loch Broom but this did not deter us as we scanned the loch. Two GREENSHANKS fed amongst the seaweed covered rocks, often in company of a REDSHANK whilst a few COMMON SANDPIPER flew around the bay. A summer plumage GREAT NORTHERN DIVER was seen on the loch and both GUILLEMOT and RAZORBILLS bobbed around on the increasingly choppy waters.

A stop was made for a welcome cuppa and a chance to dry off at the tearoom, where we saw another couple of GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS and a pair of RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS. Our next stop was overlooking Gruinard Bay. The waters were relatively calm and this helped to locate a large number of GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS in all ranges of plumage from winter right through to full summer. A BLACK GUILLEMOT was seen and we spotted a mammal in the sea and assumed it was a seal but as we got the bins on it, it turned out to be a large dog OTTER!

Over the next fifteen minutes we had good views as it fed along the shoreline before disappearing around a rocky headland. With lunchtime approaching fast, we carried onwards, stopping at a lovely sheltered cove. A few TWITE were seen at close range and a male WHITE WAGTAIL fed on the beach with several PIEDS. In a sheep pasture we enjoyed views of several REDWING of the Icelandic race and in the bay, a flock of PALE-BELLIED BRENT GEESE flew northwards.

After lunch we visited the beach but rain was still falling although more GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS, 2 BONXIES and a flock of DUNLIN interspersed with RINGED PLOVERS made good viewing. After leaving the site, a quick look at a different loch produced another summer plumage BLACK-THROATED DIVER with a small flock of ROCK DOVES nearby. Driving along the road found us a CUCKOO being chased by several MEADOW PIPITS before perching on a concrete post for us all to see. Further along, another bay was checked out but apart from more GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS and a small flock of COMMON SCOTER it was very quiet.

With weather still poor, we stopped off once again in the tearoom for a warm up before heading back towards Grantown. Our last evening was spent relaxing after a great meal washed down with pint of the local ale.

Friday 3rd May
After an earlier breakfast than normal, we loaded up the van for our journey back to Inverness and our flight to Luton. After checking in at the airport, we chilled out in the departure lounge after what had been a fantastic trip with so many highlights and great company. Our flight arrived on time and we got off the plane to find scorching conditions, a blessing after we had been in snow just a few hours earlier in Scotland.