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SPEYSIDE, SCOTLAND - HIGHLAND FLING
Thursday 24th April - Thursday 1st May 2014

Thursday 24th April
Six of our group met early at Luton Airport for our short flight to Inverness which took off on time and after a straightforward journey, landed at a sunny Inverness Airport where we met up with Jane who had travelled a few days earlier from California.

We were due to meet up with John although unfortunately his flight was delayed by a couple of hours but this enabled us to sort out the van and even fit in a spot of birding before his arrival.

We started off close to the airport where the first bird we saw was an adult HOODED CROW on a fence post. The area is renowned for hybrids between Carrion Crow and Hooded Crow so it was good to see a pure one! Although the tide was out, the river was very calm and this enabled us to locate a small flock of SCAUP and a single LONG-TAILED DUCK on the Moray Firth. Scanning of the river also produced male EIDER and several RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS.

The foreshore gave us the chance to see plenty of OYSTERCATCHERS, CURLEW, SHELDUCK, WIGEON and quite a few GREY HERON. Whilst birding, John's plane flew over which was our cue to head back to the airport. After successfully picking up our cargo, we drove eastwards along the coast.

By now our stomachs were rumbling so it was great to have something to eat. Several CHAFFINCHES called from our lunch stop and COAL TITS sang from the pines. Eventually we heard the distinctive call of CRESTED TIT and the whole group managed to get good but brief views as one flitted around the pines in front of us.

Delighted by this, we spent some time around the car park noting GOLDCREST, BLUE and GREAT TITS and several SISKIN. It was then on to Burghead where a small party of COMMON SCOTER were seen on the open water along with a few LONG-TAILED DUCK for company. GANNETS, KITTIWAKES and a few SANDWICH TERN were seen offshore as was a single GUILLEMOT and a winter plumaged RED-THROATED DIVER.

A quick scan of gulls on the rocks produced a cracking adult ICELAND GULL with several HERRING GULLS for comparison. A WHEATEAR was seen distantly fly catching from some sheltered rocks before disappearing from view.

With time getting on, we drove southwards and almost immediately we had excellent views of a pair of RED GROUSE in the heather close to the road. Further along were even more and over the next hour we had excellent views including one just a few feet from the vehicle.

Other species noted here included a distant pair of summer-plumaged RED-THROATED DIVERS, GREYLAG GEESE, COMMON SANDPIPER and an OSPREY heading south.

Checking out the southern end of the loch gave us the chance to scope the OSPREY as it perched on a post on the moorland. With time slipping away, we headed off to our hotel where after checking in it was great to spend some time unpacking and relaxing.

We all met for a wonderful dinner which went down very well indeed after our long day, with us very much looking forward to what our week would deliver.

Friday 25th April
We all met at 4.45am to drive the short distance to Loch Garten to take part in the organised Caper Watch. Unfortunately it was quite misty when we left the hotel and on arriving at the RSPB reserve it was even worse. What made it slightly better was the fact that there were other souls as mad as ourselves in the queue!

At 5.30am we were let in and we made our way to the Osprey Centre where the visibility was so bad you couldn't even see the Osprey nest. Over the next one and a half hours we did get good views of a pair of COMMON REDSTART in the nest box outside of the hide and other species including RED SQUIRREL, GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER, GREAT TIT and the ever present CHAFFINCH.

With the weather not clearing, we left and headed back for a very welcome breakfast and hot coffee. Afterwards we drove southwards through Aviemore, making our way up to the Cairngorm Mountain Centre were we soon located a male RING OUZEL feeding close by.

It was joined by a female but they were pretty wary and didn't allow close approach. A male WHEATEAR perched up on a snow fence and several RED GROUSE called from above us on the slopes.

We obtained our train tickets and took the 10.20 train up the mountain. Was it going to be one of those days as when we arrived the cloud base lowered and you couldn't see very far at all!

Luckily it cleared and soon we located a pair of PTARMIGAN on the hillside. Over the next twenty minutes we saw around 6 birds including three displaying below us. Whilst standing on the terrace we could hear the trilling of SNOW BUNTINGS and soon we saw a pair flitting around including a cracking male in summer plumage. By now the cloud had descended so we opted to have a warming coffee in the restaurant. We tried again to see Ptarmigan afterwards but the cloud prevented us from seeing very far so we headed down for lunch.

After lunch we stopped off at a loch where a pair of GOLDENEYE displayed in front of us and further scanning produced a pair of stunning RED-THROATED DIVERS in summer plumage across the loch as well as TUFTED DUCK, MUTE SWAN and a small flock of SAND MARTIN.

The remainder of the day was spent within Abernethy Forest where we enjoyed a good walk through the woods. CHAFFINCHES were incredibly numerous as were WILLOW WARBLERS with their beautiful song that reverberated through the Caledonian Pine Forest.

SISINS flew over and we managed to get good views of a pair feeding in a pine. We then struck gold locating a small flock of Crossbill and when we scoped them, we saw quite a heavy bill and we could hear a medium pitched 'chup' call. Eventually they landed and with much better scope views we were happy that these were indeed SCOTTISH CROSSBILLS!

The walk produced plenty of evidence that PINE MARTENS were around with droppings everywhere in the tracks. Other species here included TREE and MEADOW PIPITS, MISTLE THRUSH and GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER. We arrived back at the hotel in good time and enjoyed a hot shower before meeting in the bar for a pre-dinner drink.

Dinner was superb and went down a treat after what had been a long day. After completing the bird list, we retired for the evening to get some well deserved sleep.

Saturday 26th April
We had a later breakfast this morning which was once again very enjoyable. After loading up the van, we stopped at a site nearby and within a few seconds of getting out we had excellent views of a DIPPER on the river. As he was nesting close by we gave him some space to be able to visit his nest to take in food. Several COMMON SANDPIPERS were also seen along with a brief sighting of a GREY WAGTAIL that flew over nearby fields.

After watching the Dipper for a while longer we headed off northwards for a spot of raptor watching. As we drove through a wooded section a RED SQUIRREL was seen in trees overhanging the road and several COMMON BUZZARD, a female SPARROWHAWK and a BROWN HARE were seen in the vicinity.

A brief stop alongside the river gave us good views of around 75 SAND MARTIN that fed close by and a scan of the fields produced three GOLDEN PLOVER, two of which were in summer plumage. Other species here included REDSHANK, CURLEW, OYSTERCATCHER, LAPWING and COMMON SANDPIPER.

The journey through the valley was quite dramatic and eventually we reached the end and parked up to find reasonably bright sunshine. A scan of the hillside yielded up to three MOUNTAIN HARE that were moulting out of their white winter coats and were good to see, as were a pair of RED GROUSE which frequented the high ground.

With constant scanning of the ridges, we eventually picked up some COMMON BUZZARDS and both KESTREL and SPARROWHAWK. Perseverance paid off when a short while later we had good views of a 3rd year GOLDEN EAGLE as it soared over the nearby ridge and circled for us to see all the plumage details. It was great to catch up with this sought after species and the sheer beauty of the valley added an extra special feel.

Whilst having lunch we noted a pair of WHEATEAR nearby and overhead flew an OSPREY which eventually returned and was buzzed briefly by a male PEREGRINE. We watched FERAL GOATS and RED DEER on the hillside before we decided to move on.

With the weather still looking good we retraced our steps along the valley stopping to see another pair of DIPPER and further along, a female GOOSANDER was seen on the river. An OSPREY flew down river carrying what looked like an eel before heading away purposefully over the trees.

The drive up over moorland produced a fine male GREY WAGTAIL on a small burn close to the road but the real highlights were RED GROUSE of which there were plenty showing really well.

The last birding site of the day was Loch Ruthven RSPB Reserve where we arrived to see a fisherman out on the loch and no birds! Eventually we found several LITTLE GREBE in the weedy margins but with little else, we wandered to the hide.

A very showy WILLOW WARBLER frequented the area right in front and in loch side bushes we spotted a pair of REED BUNTING going about their business. Eventually a SLAVONIAN GREBE was seen and this came closer and closer before turning round and swimming away. Two more were seen although much further away.

An OSPREY hovered over the water and dived down coming up with a fish, which was an amazing sight indeed. A walk was then taken to see if we could get closer views of the pair of SLAVONIAN GREBE and we were rewarded with reasonable views of these rare nesting species.

It was then back to base via a stop in Carrbridge and an early dinner at the hotel before heading out for the evening.

Our rendezvous for the evening was with Lou Picton who was our guide and we drove down to the Speyside Wildlife Mammal Hide, where we settled in making ourselves comfortable.

As it became dusk a PIPISTRELLE BAT came out and several of the group managed to watch a WOODCOCK roding over the woods. A WOOD MOUSE put on a good show on the other side of the hide and as it became dark we had a short wait until a BADGER came up the track to feed on the peanuts. He was very content feeding and we all had some good photos and video.

He wandered off and at around 11pm the star of the show arrived, a cracking female PINE MARTEN. Lou explained that the average time for feeding is around 8 to 10 minutes and we were very lucky to have 28 minutes! She came just 2 feet from the window and needless to say we were very pleased and everyone had smiles on their faces during the drive home.

We arrived back just after midnight and went to bed after what had been a very good day.

Sunday 27th April
We met for breakfast at 8.30am and managed to get away slightly later than usual for our journey northwards. As we approached Inverness, a Haar enveloped the area making visibility quite poor.

Arriving at Chanonry Point just before high tide, we got out of the van and two summer plumaged RED-THROATED DIVERS flew over our heads. A few minutes later we had located our first BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS as a small party including a small calf swam eastwards past us.

Over the next hour we had reasonable views as they swam around the point. A winter-plumaged GUILLEMOT was just offshore and we had some flybys with two LONG-TAILED DUCK, three RED-BREASTED MERGANSER and a female COMMON EIDER. With the weather closing in, we popped into Avoch to use facilities before carrying on to our next site.

The tide was just dropping when we arrived at Udale Bay RSPB Reserve and this attracted a good number of birds including our second ICELAND GULL of the tour, this time a second-winter bird, roosting with COMMON, HERRING and GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULLS.

Several hundred PINK-FOOTED GEESE were out in the bay and a scan round picked up a largish flock of BAR-TAILED GODWIT and KNOT. Nearby in the creek were REDSHANK and a moulting adult SPOTTED REDSHANK that was nearly in full summer plumage. An OSPREY hovered close to the hide which disturbed the birds, but everything soon came back.

With lunchtime approaching we drove to the coastal village of Cromarty, where we tucked into our lunch on the beach. A few COMMON EIDER were seen and a HOUSE MARTIN hawked over the beach. Some of the group went to photograph a male COMMON EIDER as he crunched on local Mussels and a Crab just under the jetty. Whilst this was occurring, a SANDWICH TERN flew past.

Several of us popped into a cafe to grab a takeaway coffee before heading back through the Black Isle. At least three RED KITE were seen as they drifted over the undulating terrain which was good to see, as up to 16 birds had been found illegally poisoned in the area over recent weeks.

After a brief stop at Inverness for fuel, we stopped briefly at Loch Flemington where we found MOORHEN, LITTLE GREBE and a good number of HIRUNDINES hawking low over the water.

The afternoon was spent at a inland loch where it was raining lightly but this didn't deter us as we watched a male OSPREY feeding on the moorland surrounding the loch. The real highlight was a summer-plumaged BLACK-THROATED DIVER frequenting the southern end of the loch before it was disturbed by fisherman and flew north where it was joined by another bird. The area was once again good for RED GROUSE as we drove past.

Getting back to the hotel at a reasonable hour gave us the chance to relax in the bar before another colossal meal. We completed the bird list and retired for the evening after what had been an action-packed day.

Monday 28th April
Breakfast was at 7.30am, enabling us to be away at a better time for our trip to the west coast. It was pretty misty when we passed by Inverness but this soon cleared as we made our way westwards. A small party of PINK-FOOTED GEESE were seen in a field near Dingwall, no doubt taking advantage of the good weather to feed up before moving onwards.

Our first birding port of call was a large sea loch which produced a single GREENSHANK, RINGED PLOVER and COMMON SANDPIPER on the shore, whilst on the more open water were COMMON EIDER and RED-BREASTED MERGANSER.

We then made an essential stop for tea/coffee and cake nearby and from the car-park we saw a moulting GREAT NORTHERN DIVER offshore which showed reasonably well. In the gardens were GREENFINCH, DUNNOCK, COAL TIT and female SISKIN which fed in the sheltered scrub.

Making our way round the coast, we spent time scanning the open water which was pretty calm in the sunny, warm conditions. Up to 16 GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS were seen in varying states of plumage. Three BLACK GUILLEMOT bobbed up and down just offshore and both SHAG and RAZORBILL were seen. A male STONECHAT performed as it sat on top of bushes close by.

It was then round to our lunch stop which was absolutely fabulous in the sun. On the beach were good numbers of RINGED PLOVER and DUNLIN, the latter in summer plumage. A scan of the bay yielded a summer plumaged RED-THROATED DIVER and offshore up to 10 GREAT SKUAS were seen.

In the seaweed on the beach we located a WHITE WAGTAIL and on the rocks a displaying ROCK PIPIT. Back near the van were a stunning pair of TWITE which showed their pink rumps as they perched on the fence. WHEATEAR were incredibly numerous and included several singing males.

We then retraced our steps and eventually managed to locate a small party of ROCK DOVE near some waterside fields. A stop overlooking the coast produced a gravid female COMMON LIZARD and yet more BLACK GUILLEMOT and GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS.

We then had a brief stop to view a CUCKOO perched up on a dead tree before making yet another stop in the cafe. We then headed straight back to base, spotting a RED KITE on the Black Isle on the journey. We arrived back slightly later than planned and met for a delicious evening meal.

Tuesday 29th April
We assembled at the early time of 4.45am for our second attempt at connecting with Capercaillie at Loch Garten and once again were first in the queue. It was slightly misty during our time there and with nothing much happening, so we cut our losses and headed off to look for Black Grouse.

The first bird we laid eyes on was a cracking female BLACK GROUSE perched in a Rowan, which allowed close approach. Reaching the site, we also scoped three males displaying which showed well although distantly in the morning sunshine.

It was then back for a hearty breakfast and off northwards. Out first stop took us to a site where we once again had good views of BLACK-THROATED DIVER on the southern end of the loch. RED GROUSE were very numerous and other species noted included COMMON SANDPIPER, REDSHANK and LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL.

We then took a walk through woodland where several GREEN HAIRSTREAK butterflies flitted amongst the heather and small parties of LESSER REDPOLL flew around. As we wandered back, a CUCKOO flew past being chased by a TREE PIPIT.

After this we drove north eastwards to the coastal village of Portsoy, but after being in the vehicle for a long time everyone needed a comfort break. This just left Steve and he set up his scope and in full view was a moulting summer-plumaged WHITE-BILLED DIVER!

Everyone got on it and several other birders were also put on it as it bobbed offshore before drifting out to sea. Delighted with this, we had lunch on the quayside before popping into a cafe for a warming cuppa.

Afterward we checked out the sea and came across around 30 LONG-TAILED DUCK including a stunning male complete with long tail. There were GUILLEMOTS, EIDER, RAZORBILL, GANNET, KITTIWAKES and FULMARS and on the rocks were ROCK PIPITS and a small party of TURNSTONE. Two PUFFINS flew past with a RAZORBILL alongside, which was good to see before we carried on along the coast to the RSPB reserve at Troup Head.

Once again the sea mist had rolled in and as we couldn't see more than a few feet in front of us we called it a day and got back to the hotel earlier than planned.

Our evening meal was once again delightful and it was good to celebrate John W's birthday with a glass of something sparkling!

Wednesday 30th April
Once again we left the hotel at 4.45am for our final attempt at seeing Capercaillie at Loch Garten. Instead of driving straight there, we opted for a slow drive around the Tore Hill loop road which didn't produce any birds.

We arrived to find misty conditions once again which was so frustrating, with nothing showing at all on the cameras, but we decided to give it until 6.30am and then leave to do something else. Luckily, at 6.28am, a male CAPERCAILLIE was seen on camera and a few minutes later, someone found it in their scope!

Everybody queued up for a look and although only showing its neck and head, it was a relief to eventually see this sought-after species. It was smiles all around as we headed back for breakfast knowing that we hadn't got to go back on a fourth occasion!

After breakfast we made a brief stop in Grantown for a brief bit of shopping before we headed back down to Loch Garten in the hope that the Capercaillie was still on show. The staff seemed quite content on focusing on the Ospreys only so they had not followed the whereabouts of the male Caper.

We did however see male REDSTART, GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER, the pair of OSPREYS and several SISKIN and a RED SQUIRREL on the feeders. In was then off for a walk that gave us several singing male REDSTARTS, a few COMMON CROSSBILL, TREECREEPER, GOLDENEYE, COMMON SANDPIPER, TREE PIPIT and best of all, a lovely CRESTED TIT that flitted around close to us.

After lunch we visited Insh Marshes RSPB Reserve but by now, rain had started to fall making viewing difficult. Perseverance paid off with a summer-plumaged BLACK-TAILED GODWIT, REDSTART, COAL TIT, CURLEW and REDSHANK amongst others.

With a cup of tea and a piece of cake on the agenda, we visited the Potting Shed Tearoom near Inshriach, where a scrummy selection of cakes were on offer in warm and dry surroundings.

Suitably refreshed, we headed back to base where it was good to get some rest after what had been a long day.

Thursday 1st May
We had an earlier than normal breakfast this morning and were soon loaded up and away heading to Inverness Airport, where we dropped off the van and said farewell to John who was flying back to Manchester on a later flight. Our flight took off on time and we landed in a wet and dreary Luton just ahead of schedule.

We said our goodbyes after what had been an excellent tour with superb birds and wildlife seen throughout the week and with a great group of people.