Not a tour, but we spent three days in Scotland catching up on some of the local specialities over Easter, with another day either side journeying up and back from Norfolk. As I haven’t been up to Speyside for a few years, it seemed about time for a return visit.
Arriving early for our overnight stop on the way north, we decided to have a quick look up on the moors. We were quickly rewarded with good views of at least 10 male Black Grouse. They were not doing much this evening, but we had high hopes for more activity the following day! Heading on higher up, we found our first Red Grouse of the trip too, though they too were keeping their heads down from the blustery wind.
It was an early start the following morning, to get up onto the moor for dawn. As we drove over the ridge and looked down into the valley below, we could see a scattering of black dots in the grass – 19 displaying male Black Grouse on the lek. They are far enough away here so as not to disturb them, so we got out of the car and could immediately hear their bubbling calls. We got them in the scope and watched them running round, flapping their wings and leaping in the air, with their body feathers puffed out, tail fanned and white undertail feathers fluffed up. It was quite a sight! There were a smaller number of grey-brown females there too, looking slightly non-plussed by all the action around them.
Black Grouse – great to watch them displaying on the lek
A little further along, we managed to find a single male Black Grouse closer to the road, so we could get some photos. The Red Grouse up on the tops were now calling and displaying. There were also displaying Common Snipe in the valley and several Curlew and Golden Plover on the moors. It had certainly been well worth the stop here. Then it was on with the journey up to the Highlands.
One of our main targets for our stay here was Ptarmigan. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for our stay was not ideal – windy with blustery showers. Not great for hiking up to the Cairngorm plateau. The best day appeared to be on our first full morning there, but it didn’t look good first thing with snow overnight on the tops and low cloud lingering. Thankfully, after breakfast, the cloud base lifted and we could see a short window of opportunity.
We had hoped we might find a Ptarmigan on the slopes below the fresh snow this morning, but it didn’t help that there were lots of people walking up despite the weather today, it being Easter weekend. We got up to a plateau above 1000m where it was safer to stray from the path and a bit of exploration was quickly rewarded with a Ptarmigan running away from us over the snow. We followed it slowly and were eventually able to get quite close to it. A smart bird!
Ptarmigan – on the Cairngorm plateau above 1000m
The view was impressive up here too, with all the snow on the mountains. However, we could see some darker cloud approaching, so we decided to call it a day and head back down. We were glad we did, as it started to spit with rain for a time and the tops disappeared again into the cloud.
Cairngorm Plateau – still with plenty of snow
On our ascent, we had seen a few Red Grouse, but on the way back down we were able to appreciate just how many of them there were on the moors here, and watch them displaying.
Red Grouse – plentiful on the moors lower down
Back down near the car park, a Ring Ouzel flew up from the shorter grass below the ski lifts.
Ring Ouzel – this smart male was feeding around the ski lifts
Crested Tit is one of the other key target species for any visit to the Highlands and we were not disappointed. They can be harder to see in the summer months, and familiarity with their distinctive call certainly helps in locating them. We heard quite a few Crested Tits, when we were in the Caledonian Forest, and got great views of two pairs. The second pair, we watched collecting nest material and the male courtship feeding the female. They are certainly full of character!
Crested Tits – great birds to watch, we found this pair collecting nest material
As well as the Ospreys at the RSPB’s Loch Garten reserve, we saw several elsewhere. The best moment was probably one flying past the window of our B&B while we were eating our breakfast one morning!
Osprey – a female, calling from the nest, while the male was presumably off fishing
With just a couple of days to play with in the Highlands, and the best morning reserved for the hike up into the Cairngorms, we were always likely to be at the mercy of the weather with our other targets. On our second morning, despite cloud and showers, we headed up to the Findhorn Valley to look for eagles. As we drove up, we could see dark clouds over the head of the valley and when we got there the wind was whistling in and regular sleet showers were blowing through. Not ideal!
We sat in the car for an hour, scanning the hills, but a brief brighter interval produced just a couple of Common Buzzards. Two Wheatears were feeding on the grass in front of the car park and a pair of Common Gulls were hanging around there too. It seemed unlikely there would be any eagles this morning, so we decided to move on.
As we headed down the valley, it brightened up a little lower down. We made our way up over the hills and down the other side to the RSPB reserve at Loch Ruthven. Between the showers, we walked along to the hide. We could see three Slavonian Grebes out on the water, but they were all rather distant while we were there. There are still a lot more to return here yet. A summer plumage Red-throated Diver was fishing on the loch too, along with a few ducks – Goldeneye, Wigeon, Teal and Mallard.
Slavonian Grebe – one of three out on the loch today
With the weather improving a little, and after lunch back at the car park, we decided to have another go at the Findhorn Valley. As we arrived, the head of the valley was still in cloud and another wintry shower blew through. But we could see some blue cloud coming in from behind us and we hadn’t been back five minutes when a 1st winter Golden Eagle appeared over the ridge at the back of the car park. Unfortunately it didn’t hang around and we just got a quick look at it as it disappeared back over the top. A short while later, the Golden Eagle reappeared much further down and we watched as it flew across the valley being mobbed by a Raven. A Peregrine was flying around the hill behind us too.
It seemed unlikely we would better that today and with the day getting on, we headed back down the valley. We took a different route back and stopped off by another loch on the way. It was very windy and the wind was whipping up the water so it was quite choppy. Scanning with the scope in the lee of the car we were able to locate a single Black-throated Diver, a stunning bird in full summer plumage.
There were various other birds which we caught up with on our travels around Speyside. We heard lots of crossbills, but they were rather flighty and often hard to see. We had nice views of Common Crossbill in the forest and of a family which came down to the small deciduous trees alongside the river in Carrbridge, presumably to drink. There were more crossbills in Abernethy Forest, and we heard both Common and Scottish/Parrot Crossbill flight calls from birds passing overhead. Some larger billed birds resembling Scottish Crossbill were feeding in the trees around the car park at Forest Lodge on a couple of occasions but did not hang around long enough for us to get a prolonged look at them.
Common Crossbill – along the river at Carrbridge
Exploring along various rivers produced a few additional species too, including Goosander, Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail. However, the pick of the bunch was Dipper – it was great to watch them feeding in the shallows, dipping under the water.
Chestnut-bellied Dipper – the native British subspecies of Dipper
Mammalian interest on this trip was provided chiefly by the Red Squirrels which we saw at several sites. Two Mountain Hares were seen at the top of the Findhorn Valley. We also saw the herd of (re)introduced Reindeer in the Cairngorms and a few Bank Voles running around under the feeders at Loch Garten.
Red Squirrel – thankfully not uncommon around the forest here
After that, unfortunately our short visit to Scotland had to end and we started to make our way south…