Scotland 24th to 27th April 2010
Not having been up to Scotland for a number of years we decided to have a few cheap nights away in the Highlands looking for Scottish specialities. On the way north we stayed at the Kinross Travelodge on the M90, south of Perth. We then moved on to the Inverness Travelodge on the A96 and finally, returning south, we stayed at The Hilton Coylumbridge to be near Loch Garten for a dawn Capercaillie watch.
ITINERARY and DIARY
Saturday 24th April - As we only had a 4 hour journey to our first overnight stop, we decided to make a slight detour to Abbeystead in the Trough of Bowland, to find the male Dotterel which had been there for a couple of days with a small flock of Golden Plover. Arriving at the location at a little after 10.00hrs we immediately spotted the flock of birds which was just settling down amongst the grass tussocks in an upland sheep meadow. Despite a lengthy examination we were not immediately able to locate the bird, with the whole flock hunkered down against the strong breeze. Our patience was eventually rewarded after about 40 minutes when first one, then another bird started to wake up and preen. The male Dotterel, although quite pale, soon became evident and eventually started to feed. Off to a good start, we returned to the M6 and set off North again. We arrived at our destination a little after 15.00hrs and, having checked in and freshened up, we went out again to the nearby RSPB Vane Farm reserve on Loch Leven. On arrival we were met by one of the young volunteers who offered to take us along the woodland track to see three young (40 days old) Tawny Owl chicks roosting in the conifers near the track. The 3 balls of fluff were sat on separate branches totally oblivious to the world around them and enjoying the afternoon sunshine. As we had only popped in for a cup of tea, this was an unexpected bonus. Next we went to Largo Bay, by Methil Power Station and although the tide was out we had good views of Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and Sandwich Tern. We carried on around the Fife coast to St Andrews where we picked up a single Gannet and hundreds of Fulmar in and around the breeding colony on the rock face near the famous St Andrews golf course clubhouse. As we were travelling we picked up several Yellowhammer and a pair of Grey Partridge in the roadside fields. On our way back to the hotel we stopped at the Stagshead Inn at Largoward for a surprisingly good meal of battered Haddock and chips. Today was a beautiful, sunny, Spring day with the temperature kept down near the coast by a stiff breeze.
Sunday 25th April - We set off a little before 09.00hrs on the short drive to Speyside and called first at Loch Vaa, just outside Aviemore to catch up with the regular breeding Slavonian Grebe. Although it was 10 years since our last visit, we were not disappointed and soon located a pristine male in full breeding plumage, along with a Little Grebe and Goldeneye. Next we moved on to RSPB Loch Garten to check on the nesting Osprey and try to find Crested Tit around the reserve. Despite a plethora of Siskin and Chaffinch on the feeders, no Crested Tits had been seen for a few weeks, having by now moved up into the canopy. As we arrived at Loch Garten it started to rain and by the time we left it was raining quite heavily. Passing through Grantown-on-Spey we stopped at Maclean’s, a small bakery/café for a spot of lunch as it was raining and we were on our way to Lochindorb, a new site for us, to look for divers. On arrival we quickly located a pair of Red-throated Diver at the northern end of the loch. The road runs conveniently along the side of the water for most of the length of the loch here, affording good views of anything on it. As we moved down the loch we spotted numerous Red Grouse and a hunting Merlin being mobbed by Oystercatcher. Stopping near the woodland by the roadside, we looked back up the loch and located a distant male Black Grouse on top of a small hawthorn and an Osprey perched majestically, surveying the water for its next meal. Most lochs in the area hold pairs of Goldeneye and Common Sandpiper and in addition here, we found several Wigeon as well. Moving down to the southern end of the loch we located our main target here, a pair of Black-throated Diver, going about their business fishing and giving excellent views. Next we decided to try for Ptarmigan and Ring Ouzel at Cairngorm. Unfortunately the top third of the mountain was in cloud for most of our visit and the area absolutely hammered with skiers enjoying the last of what has probably been the best winter snow for years. We had an abortive trip on the mountain railway (costing nearly £20) and a quick cup of tea in the café. The only birds of note were a pair of Red Grouse on the hillside above the car park. Anyone visiting Cairngorm can check the latest conditions and forecast at Cairngorm Mountain. Undeterred, we moved on in the late afternoon to Loch An Eilein for a three mile walk in the Rothiemurchus forest around the loch. Willow Warbler and Chaffinch song was everywhere but our main target, Crested Tit, was conspicuous by its absence. We walked counter clockwise and after about 2 miles and almost giving up hope of anything different, we came across a small flock of Blue and Great Tit and a lone Treecreeper which quickly disappeared from view. We then heard Redstart calling and soon found a pristine male about 20 feet above us. As we walked on, after about 200 yards in a stretch of more open mixed woodland, we heard another Redstart and quickly located the bird using a convenient nesting hole in a tree trunk, only a few feet off the ground and about 30 feet away from the path. We watched the delightful bird for about 10 minutes, coming and going from the nest and perching on a nearby low branch (some idiot had left his camera in the car!). While we were watching, a Crested Tit warily approached the nest hole and looked in whilst the Redstart was inside….I don’t know who was trying to steal whose des res. The bird then moved a few feet on to one of the nearby branches and gave us excellent views for well over a minute…superb! As we were staying in Inverness tonight it was time to move on. We dined at The Snow Goose next to the Travel Lodge and had a surprisingly good, reasonably priced, meal.
Monday 26th April - Originally we planned to drive over to the west coast in search of eagles and Great Northern Diver today but, with a strong and cold south westerly wind blowing we decided to stay relatively local rather than set off on another long drive, as we were returning to Aviemore in the evening. In theory a good idea, but in practice the birding was quite disappointing. Although there was hardly a cloud in the sky, the wind seemed to keep bird activity down to a minimum. We started off at Chanonry Point on Black Isle hoping to see some Dolphins, but we arrived a couple of hours before high tide and everywhere was quiet. There were several White Wagtails on the golf course together with Pied Wagtail and Meadow Pipit. As we drove back to Inverness a Red Kite drifted over the car and, continuing south, we stopped at lay-by 151 on the A9 in the hope of finding Ring Ouzel. It was relatively quiet here, apart from the passing traffic, and we picked up a singing male Northern Wheatear, along with a pair of hunting Kestrel, a lone Song Thrush and a ring-tailed Hen Harrier overhead. The harrier was heading towards Findhorn Valley which was our next destination, and again, everywhere was quiet apart from singing Willow Warbler and Chaffinch. By the small car park at the end of the public road, several Wheatear and numerous Meadow Pipit were active, but despite walking along the valley for about an hour we were still unable to locate any Ring Ouzel. Dipper and a pair of Common Sandpiper were busy on the river and several Oystercatcher, Lapwing and Common Gull appeared to be breeding nearby. Kestrel hunted over the adjacent fields, but otherwise, the skies were empty. We decided to have a spot of lunch in Aviemore before moving on briefly to Loch Garten and then the Insh Marshes. We tried the Mountain Café which is situated above The Mountain Shop on Grampian Road and had an excellent lunch followed by one of the many delicious looking home-made cakes on offer. Certainly one to remember for future visits. We had a close encounter with a Red Squirrel at Loch Garten, saw the head of an Osprey on the nest there, incubating three eggs and had a good chat with one of the volunteers about the re-forestation project which is underway. Our drive along the road by the Insh Marshes produced little of note other than a few Roe Deer and finally we stopped at the churchyard just outside Kincraig to see if we could get better views of Osprey at the nest by the loch side. Unfortunately all we saw once again was the head of one of the incubating birds. Dinner at the Hilton that evening was a little disappointing, a bit like the day’s birding, but at least it hadn’t rained.
Tuesday 27th April - Joy of joys, we were up at 04.30hrs to get to Loch Garten for the 05.30hrs start of the Capercaillie watch. Surprisingly we were not alone, with about ten other people queuing to get into the reserve and another twenty or so joining the queue before opening time. A male Capercaillie was active in the lek this morning with a rugby scrum of thirty eager birders all vying for the limited space in the main hide and the handful of scopes set up by the warden. The bird was at least 500 yards away and partially hidden by the bushes and clumps of grass as it “strutted its stuff” in and out of scope view. The on site camera provided marginally better images with two attendant females being just about visible, crouched in the long grass. Birding should be enjoyable and this was definitely not our idea of a good time, (especially just after dawn!) so we escaped after about 10 fairly frustrating minutes. We moved on to the Black Grouse lek on the nearby Tulloch Mhor where we eventually managed to locate c4 distant lekking males, again quite difficult to see in the tall vegetation. We did hear other birds calling nearby and as we left, barely 100 metres down the road, the car screeched to a halt as we spotted a posing male Black Grouse out in the open on a little hillside, barely 20 metres from the road. Unfortunately the light was too poor to get a good photo, but the view was stunning. A little further down the road we came across a solitary Hooded Crow in a roadside field and, feeling our luck had now changed, we set off for Cairgorm once again to try for Ptarmigan whilst it was still quiet. We stopped at the overspill car park along the way to try once again for the elusive Ring Ouzel without any luck. Although it was still only 07.00hrs we were not the first in the main car park with a couple of early walkers already out on the hillside. As we scanned the slopes for any signs of activity a small black bird flew across my line of sight and a pair of Ring Ouzel landed on the fence posts just below the buildings, giving us excellent views at long last. After about five minutes the birds moved on so I took the trail to the northern corries in search of our other target. Unfortunately, with breakfast calling, I didn’t spend enough time on the hillside as I probably would have needed to walk for up to an hour to get to an elevation where the Red Grouse were eventually replaced by Ptarmigan. Ah well. Some other time! Before returning to the hotel we made another short detour to the area around the monument at the entrance to Loch an Eilein. As soon as I opened the car door I could hear two Wood Warbler calling nearby and within minutes we managed to locate one of these effervescent little birds as it perched in the open on a low branch at the side of the road calling its heart out for a few minutes before moving on. After a hearty breakfast we left the hotel at 09.30hrs for the long drive home and almost immediately saw an Osprey rising above us across the road with a fish wriggling in its talons. I think it might have just paid a visit to the nearby fish farm.
Although we didn’t manage to catch up with all our targets, we did end up with 78 species for the trip and along the way we picked up some special birds we are unlikely to see again this year.
David and Amanda Mason
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