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Birding Ecosse Blogspot

Welcome to the Birding Ecosse blog, if it is your first visit then thank you very much for dropping in, if you were a regular to my old blog then thank you for updating your bookmarks!

This blog will follow all my trips and tours, so if you have been out with me recently the chances are very high you will make an appearance! Most of the pictures on the blog are my own, however if I do use a third parties  pictures I will have obtained their permission and will give them full credit.

It is designed to be a light hearted read to show how and where Birding Ecosse operates, so if you are thinking of booking a tour check out the Blog and then read through the Testimonials and you should get a flavour of what to expect! Great Birds, Great Scenery with Coffee and biscuits thrown in!  Please note: All  birds will have been viewed in a safe and environmentally accepted way, that is to say by using public access at all times or by the use of hides specifically erected for the observation of this species and by keeping at a  safe distance and viewing through telescopes. Remember you can keep in touch via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/dslaterbirdingecosse or twitter @birdingecosse

 

Wednesday 13 and Thursday 14 April 2016.

 

Birding Ecosse Midweek Special.

 

I was looking forward to meeting up with return victims Dennis and Jean, it had been three years since our last meeting and I was keen to hear about their visit to the rain forest to meet the Mountain Gorillas.  The story was even more interesting than I could have imagined and led me to think that maybe the Birding Ecosse itinerary is way too soft and I need to toughen it up, so from now on we will be using skimmed milk in our tea/coffee :-) that’s tough enough :-)

Arriving at the Moray coast it was, to coin a term “Blawing a hoolie” making scope work almost impossible, so using the binos we were soon watching a flotilla of stunning week Black Guillemots as they paddled around in the foaming surf.  Razorbills flew past at Mach1 as they battled to try and get back on their nesting ledges, the Shags looking resplendent in their breeding plumage had thought better of the whole flying in the wind idea and either hunkered down on their nests or lounged around on some sheltered rocks.  Kittiwakes and Fulmars seemed to have mastered the gales the best and cruised up and down the cliff face.

At a small Lochan outside Elgin we found some respite from the gnawing wind and were rewarded with great views of a “chiff chaffing” Chiffchaff.

 

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

 

Next onto a local estuary, for duck and waders. Wigeon Redshank, Ringed Plover, Herring, Lesser Black backed Gull, Great Black Backed Gull  were all present, at least for a short while, until pandemonium erupted, which at this time of year can only mean one thing……. Osprey!!

 

Osprey

Osprey

 

The bird cruised past just overhead, getting harried and buzzed by the local herring Gulls, two flypasts gave stunning views. (unfortunately the lighting was murky hence poor pics, but nice to get a record shot so early on in the season)  Heading along the coast another summer migrant made itself known, 4 Sandwich Terns loafing around the rocks, probably wondering why they had left their warm and cosy winter quarters for the Moray Coastline!!

And so heading back across the moors we stopped off took watch the local Black grouse perform their afternoon Lek, four males were present and giving it “laldie! trying to impress the ladies!  Final Bird of the day was a Big Female Goshawk, powering across the moors looking for an early supper.

A cracking first day, 41 Species, beautiful scenery and some “interesting” weather.  Roll on tomorrow!

 

Thursday 07 April 2016

And still the rain fell!! It really has been lousy weather the past few days!

Luckily the rain had abated when I picked Rex up from the Grant Arms Hotel and soon we were standing watching a pair of Grey Wagtails frolicking in the weak sunshine and a bonie highland stream, beautiful birds and a great way to start the half day tour.

Heading off to the hills the sky had a glowering slate grey, foreboding appearance but with the backlit sun it made for some stunning scenery shots, but every cloud had a silver lining and ours came I  the shape of two Fiedlfares and a single Redwing, obviously thinking better of flying into the coming storm they had stopped of for a quick feed in a sheltered grassy sheep field.  Oystercatchers and Lapwings buzzed around keeping and peewitting in the background.

 

A drive over the high road got some great views of Red Grouse, and  “Ptarmigrouse” was still in the same location. A strange looking Leucistic Red Grouse.

A Ptarmigrouse :-)

A Ptarmigrouse :-)

Dropping back into the valley they heavens let loose and a wet sleet began to fall, it was plus 4 degrees but felt a lot colder and soon both Rex and Myself were in full winter plumage.  A nice fock of Breeding Plumaged Golden Plover were still feeding the fields at the far side of the river, I wonder if these are non-breeders or birds just waiting for a bit of summer weather before setting up territories?  Anyway a nice bird to get on the day list.  Rex commented that it is the first time he had seen them in full plumage, being more accustomed to seeing them in winter.

After a quick coffee and Tunnock stop it was soon time to be heading back, half way down the valley a fellow birder waved us down and said the White Tailed Eagle was in the area, and within a few minutes we were enjoying views of an adult bird as it soared along the hillside and off into the murk and gloom.  A fine way to end the morning!

Rex enjoying the balmy Scottish weather

Rex enjoying the balmy Scottish weather

 

Sunday 03 April 2016

So lets get things straight right from the get go, two pictures below, one is a MOUNTED Hare and one is a MOUNTAIN Hare.  got it…….. really………. good.  No it couldn’t be I am a top notch, bona fide, superb, outstanding, unbelievable wildlife guide?  No it had to be I had planted a stuffed Bunny on the slops………… honestly :-)

MOUNTED Hare

MOUNTED Hare

 

MOUNTAIN Hare

MOUNTAIN Hare

 

The mounted not mountain hare comment kept me chuckling all day.

The day started with a full car Marianne, Robin and George all present and correct as we headed off for the day.

First stop of the day was a small Black Grouse Lek, the usual four males were present and were in full flow lek mode.  Through the scope they looked like they were levitating as the scurried backward and forwards towards each other, a brilliant start to the tour.  Next stop a local Grouse moors where the Red grouse showed well and allowed some great photo opportunities for Robin.  The Common Gulls that nest nearby looked to have expanded their colony slight which is great news (however there was a rumour circulating at the end of last year that the landowner was trying to get permission to destroy this colony as it was on his Grouse Moor!)

Three Red Throated Divers showed well on a mirror like loch surface, but no sign of the target species Black Throated Divers.

Next onto a beautiful Scottish Valley,  a nice flock of 30+ Golden Plover in full plumage was a nice find, alongside a large flock of Lapwings, are these birds non-breeders or just dragging their feed for going onto territory?  Curlews called and carried out display flight through out the time in the valley.  A coffee stop let me produce my freshly baked birthday cake (freshly baked by Tesco that is) for birthday boy George (the day trip was a present from his daughter for his birthday…. wonder what had done to upset her THAT much!!)

Birthday Boy George

Birthday Boy George

Now but this time the temperature had dipped quite considerably, the cloud had rolled in and a light rain had stated to fall, unfortunately this scuppered any Eagle hopes, and soon we were heading back down the valley!  Stopping off again at the Golden Plover flock we got talking to a fellow Birder than informed me had just been watching two male Black Grouse!!  however with careful scanning we never picked up the birds again, but it is great to know they are in the area, I have picked up the occasional individual at this site but could never locate the lek.

Dropping Marianne and Robin back off at the hotel after their half day tour, George and myself headed off for the afternoon.  A quick stop of at Loch Garten we soon had Osprey under our belt, however no sign of the Crested Tits, they can be a real mare to find in the summertime, however some top tips from the young guy in the ticket kiosk soon seen George tick off his lifer for the day, a stunning wee Cresty feeding in the tops of the Scots Pines.

Next it was up the mountains the easy way, it was a great trip up the mountain, however 10 minutes after arriving at the top station we were clouded out, nae Ptarmigan for us today sadly.  But it was the first time George had used the funicular

Final stop was another shorter valley than we had travelled earlier on in the day, this time even more Golden Plovers were found, I searched through the flock carefully, it can only be a matter of time before I turn up a Dotterel here, I have a feeling in my water!  As we had our final coffee, George looked up and shouted “Osprey” and right above our heads an Osprey glided and headed North, two Ospreys in a day, I love Scotland :-)

Last highlight of the day was yet another Black grouse sighting!  This time a lone male flew over head and landed in a nearby Silver Birch, three locations in a day……. a great result.

 

Male Black Grouse.

Male Black Grouse.

 

Monday 28 March 2016

 

***Stop Press***
Due to a late cancellation we now have two spaces on our 03 May to 06 May 2016 mid week available. Wednesday 04 May we will visit the stunning Gannetry at Troup Head, and on Thursday 05 May it’s Grouse, Diver and Eagle Day!
So get in touch and book early as I don’t expect these dates to be free for long!
See
http://birdingecosse.co.uk/may-2016-mid-week/ for more details and prices.

 

Sunday 27 March 2016

Spring has sprung, the grass has ris, I wonder where the birdies is?………. well they definitely are not on the local grouse moors, nor are the mountain hares, and anything much else if the honest truth be told!
There is a lot happening up here in the Highlands of Scotand, pictures of pick-up trucks filled with an estimated 2500 dead Mountain Hares, A Golden Eagle handed in dead to a vet that had been shot, a sinister turn of events with a local gamekeeper at a local Black grouse Lek and a frustrating encounter with another facebook user who maintains that Grouse moors are a varied and diverse environment, so what do all these things have in common, the clue is in the last example Grouse Moors.
In these days of supposed enlightenment with programmes such as Spring and Autumn watch, memberships of conservation societies increasing year on year, then why oh why is the slaughter on our grouse Moors still being allowed to happen?  There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the news of late featuring the ivory trade in Africa, what would be nice would be if the same reporters spent some time on our own soil reporting on the shenanigan’s going on at home.

What can we do? Well spend as much time on the local moors and estates, observing safely from public areas and roads so they cannot accuse us of disturbance, do things properly and let those who are doing the deeds know that we are watching… and watching….. and watching.  It has to stop.

Friday 18 March 2016

Just had  really nice trip advisor from Val, thank you so much it really is appreciated :-)  To see more reports on Birding Ecosse please visit  https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/birdingecosse

Fantastic Trip Reviewed 3 days ago NEW

I have just returned from another fantastic birding weekend with Dave of Birding Ecosse (my second trip). Dave’s knowledge of birds and the local area is second to none and the three days flew past far too quickly as we visited a range of habitats in the Moray area and then further North. The scenery in this area is awe inspiring, and although we had what Dave calls ‘liquid sunshine’ (rain) on the first two days this did not detract from the experience. Just be prepared for all kinds of weather! Some of the many highlights for me were catching my first Snow Buntings at Cairngorm, being enthralled at the Golden Eagle soaring above the hills (another first) and having a lovely packed lunch at Loch Fleet (with the sun shining this time) whilst watching the huge variety of waders. Dave is an excellent guide, setting things up in the scope for you to see, and sharing his wealth of bird knowledge in a way which is interesting and accessible. Tea, coffee and biscuits are provided frequently and much enjoyed (as is the cheery banter that Dave also supplies!). I thoroughly recommend Birding Ecosse, you won’t be disappointed, and I am already thinking about my next trip!

Visited March 2016

 

Monday 14 March 2016

The day dawned beautifully, with no cloud and light winds, a grand day to be out birding, So at 0730 I picked up Steven, Ruth and Bob and made our way to the local Black Grouse Lek.  It was nice to meet up with the other local guide in the area John Poyner and TV personality Iolo Williams who were out with a personality break at the BWWC at the Grant Arms Hotel.  Soon we were watching the goings on and antics of seven male Black Grouse.  Their rooking calls just audible.

Now things took a sinister turn, the local gamekeeper has taken a dislike to birders watching the grouse, so much so he fronted up a recent tour with another guide accusing them of scaring the birds off the lek with the sun reflecting on all the binoculars and telescopes.  Now seeing as the sun is on our backs at the lek at this time of day the gamie obviously doesn’t understand what he is talking about!  However today he was actually in the field where the lek is, at first I thought he was going to flush the birds straight away, however I think he was aware of so many people watching him, so he walked slowly towards the horses that are grazed in the field and, staring straight in our direction, led a horse in the direction of the birds, result, all birds off the lek and heading for the hills.  Throughout the whole event he kept a steady gaze on the group of birders.  The minute the birds flushed he released the horse, walked back to his landrover and drove off.  Blatant disturbance.

So with that event behind we headed back to the hotel for Breakfast, stopping off on the way to watch a Dipper collecting nesting material at the Broomhill bridge, as a Grey Wagtail sat on the wires a bit further down the road.

Fed and watered Steven and myself headed off for a day in the Glens, in search for the elusive Goshawk.  Starting off in Findhorn Valley things were relatively quiet. Mistle Thrushes were in evidence chattering away, and Lapwings, Curlew and Oystercatchers were all back on territory, hopefully the good weather wont break like it did last year and put all these birds breeding year back a good few weeks.

My office for the day :-)

My office for the day :-)

 

Just as we were leaving the valley we stopped at the usual Dipper bridge, no dippers however an immature Golden Eagle soared into view!  A worthwhile stop.

Heading up another valley we stopped to scan over the nearby Pine Forest looking for displaying Goshawks, the sun was out, it was +14, the sky was blue and not a breath of wind…….. then I movement caught my eye, higher than where we were scanning a raptor, soaring, grey, long tail, broad wings, beautiful white undertail coverts…….. a Gosser!! Bingo!!  Steven took the scope and drank in his target bird for the day, the undertail coverts were so bright they almost joined above the tail, an absolutely stunning bird.  And I now have a good Goshawk watching point to add to the tour itinerary!

Just to round the day off a fantastic Red Kite gave a stunning fly-by, the shots are in silhouette due to the sun position, but I think it add to the drama!

Back lit Red Kite

Back lit Red Kite

So ended an absolutely outstanding weekend of birding, great birds, great scenery but best of all was sharing it with a brilliant set of people….. aye even you bawheid!  Thanks to Val, Jackie, Pam, Irene, Steven.Ruth and Bob for booking Birding Ecosse!

Sunday 13 March 2016

The rain has stopped, THE RAIN HAS STOPPED!!!! It was with these words ringing in my ears that I set off in buoyant mood to collect Val, Irene and Pam from the magnificent Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown on Spey.  Today the victims were to be known and my V(al) I(rene) and P(am) clients (VIP) however I prefer to think of them as Daves Angels and I was their Bosely!

Today was a trip way up North to Brora, Golspie, Loch Fleet and Embo, a very full day beautiful scenery and great birds, I had a feeling today would be a good day!

Arriving at our first stop we were treated to a flat calm sea and plenty of bird scurrying over the waters surface.  Razorbill, Long Tailed Duck, Red Breasted Mergansers wl here in good numbers, however a smaller Auk caught my eye at the mouth of the river, a winter plumaged Puffin, a real Bertie bonus bird.

Daves VIP victims. well VPI in this case, Val, Pam and Irene

Daves VIP victims. well VPI in this case, Val, Pam and Irene

 

Next stop was Golspie,  Redshanks were roosting on the Pier and a very very Olive coloured Rock Pipit fed on the surrounding weed.

 

Redshank

Redshank

 

Very olive coloured Rock Pipit

Very olive coloured Rock Pipit

Stopping off at the Mound for a quick scan we noticed not for the first time today that the Shelducks seemed to be fighting each other everywhere you looked! Pre breeding season  hormones running high!

A familiar call rang out and soon we were watching a Greenshank on the far side of the lagoon, whilst watching the Greenshank Val spotted a large bird gliding down the ridgeline to our right, turned out to be an adult Golden Eagle! Well done Val! this bird was joined by three  Buzzards giving excellent comparisons of size, shape and flight characteristics. Then a Red Kite popped up over the ridge to complete a cracking trio of raptors!

Loch Fleet was at it best, with little wind and calm waters,  Wigeon and redshank fed on the banking and a flock of 30 Red Breasted mergansers entertained us with their synchronised diving routine.  Irenes nemesis bird The turnstone were in a tight little flock roosting alongside with some Oystercatchers and let Iren ID them with confidence…….. if they moved that is!

The beautiful Loch Fleet

The beautiful Loch Fleet

A really pale Greenshank as picked up just along the shorerline from the ruins of Skebo castle, alongside a field of very pretty broon sheep.

Bonnie Sheep :-)

Bonnie Sheep :-)

Soon we were at a cracking the spot for Birding, Grannies Heilan Hame and Embo (I wont tell you the name of the town Embo is twinned with, but check out the village sign as you enter it will make you smile)

Driving through the lovely caravan park (for independent birders travelling to the area check out Parkdean. Grannies Heilan Hame for some cheap, top quality accommodation ) you arrive at Embo pier, and it is here in winter where you will almost always pick up Purple Sandpiper, it really is cracking wee spot!

Nice roosting flock of Sanderlings, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers

Nice roosting flock of Sanderlings, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers

 

On so that was the end of the ay and soon we were heading back to the hotel, it had been a fantastic day, and one of those days that I really love doing Birding Ecosse, great birds, great scenery and brilliant company, thanks Daves Angels :-)

Tally for the day was a respectable 58 species.

Saturday 12 March 2016

Saturday dawned bright and sunny however twenty minutes after waking up the dreaded blooming rain started again!! Picking serial victim Jackie up from Forres the three of us (Val, Jackie and myself) were soon heading off to the coast, Val and myself had already scored Black Grouse on the journey into Forres from Grantown, however a very brief appearance of a Jay was missed by Val as it flew off a road kill into the trees, a pity as it would have been a lifer for Val!  However it wasn’t long before I could put that to rights with an Iceland Gull at a local pig farm!

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Stopping in along various points along the Moray coast we soon had a nice day list going including Mistle Thrush, 22 Whooper Swans (all adults) Tree Sparrow, Bar Tailed Godwit, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard. The rain changed from heavy, to very heavy, to annoying then light throughout the day, the only thing it didn’t do was stop completely!  It didn’t stop us adding some great birds, and also having a lot of laughs as well.  Heading back toward Lossie and Findhorn we collected Common Scoter, Common Eider, Red Breasted Mergansers,Long Tailed Ducks, Red throated and Black throated Divers.

Jackie and Val

Jackie and Val

The last two stops coincided with high tide and gave a great  opportunity to see some birds at roost, 4 Velvet Scoter were initially picked up, but were frustratingly far out to sea, but as luck would have it they took off and headed straight towards us, when they finally did land it they showed all there field mark off well, the white wing patches and the white “coma” under the eye, great to see these birds so close. And so the day ended on a very respectable 60 species exactly, not bad for a rain sodden day!

Friday 11 March 2016

And so the Birding Ecosse season starts in earnest, and it was a very pleasant day in the company of Val, and a day in Speysides beautiful valleys and Glens, if only the weather had played ball!

Throughout the day the rain persisted, sometime heavy, sometimes just a drizzle, but it just went on and on and on!

First good bird of  the day was a lifer for Val, and it came in the shape of seven chirruping Snow Buntings, these wee stars provided fantastic  close views as they fed amongst the heather, pity it was lashing or I could have had a chance to use my new lens, but that would have to wait…

A quick jaunt to Insch Marshes soon has Whooper Swan on the list and a myriad of passerines, next it was off to the valleys.  Dipper and Goosander were early additions and later we had some near perfect views of a Red Kite as it soared over head, watching us watching it!

Red Kite

Red Kite

All to soon it was time to head back to the Grant Arms hotel, but not before a quick stop off at the local Grouse moor, and they didn’t disappoint!

Male Red Grouse

Male Red Grouse

So the day ended very damp, with a very muddy car but a nice total of  35 species for the day, not bad considering the monsoon weather, roll on tomorrow, better forecast and off to the Moray Coast!

 Thursday 28 and Friday 29th January 2016

A very pleasant couple of afternoons spent in the company and my favourite daughter (I only have one child :-) ) traipsing around the Moray area looking for things to photograph, and taking advantage of the soon to be returned Sigma 150 – 500 lens, the more I use this baby the more impressed with it I am.  Extremely quick focus and a superb image…….. my bank account is looking nervous and I really am struggling to fight off temptation to purchase one (Ffordes photographic at Beauly has a new one for just £540 or a good condition second hand one for £440 so not stupidly expenses……….. he says trying to justify getting one!!! ) Anyhoo, we ended up back at Burghead and had a great time photographing  the Grey Seals and Common Eiders, we were still suffering the effects of storm Gertrude so things were sheltering in the actual harbour, and with some really nice low winter sunshine it was a pleasure to snap away.

Sammy the seal

Sammy the seal

nom nom nom nom

nom nom nom nom

Don't play with your food!

Don’t play with your food!

Saint Cuddies Ducks

St Cuddies Ducks

Female Common Eider

Female Common Eider

Common Eiders

Common Eiders

Male Common Eider

Male Common Eider

Thursday 21 January 2016

One of my workmates decided to take himself off on holiday lately and entrusted me with his 150 – 500mm Sigma lens.  Now this has proved a dilemma in as much as I am perfectly happy with my digiscoping kit and my new camera and lens…… and I held off until today when I nipped out to Burghead “just to see what it was like” It is a heavy beast and your arms do get tired when hand holding, but still gives nice images.  The autofocus is mega quick and locked onto the kittiwake first time. Using the car as a support the results were good as well, and with more practice with the camera setting it would produce superb images, All in all a nice lens…… that I have to give back this week………. why oh why did I weaken……. damn you Mr Marrs!! :-)

Red Breasted Merganser

Red Breasted Merganser

 

Mid dive Red Breasted Merganser

Mid dive Red Breasted Merganser

Common Eider

Common Eider

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

Good morning from a white and frosty Highlands of Scotland, as we sit shivering in the first real cold snap of the season what better way to cheer yourself up than planning an early spring birdwatching break?

Below are the limited spaces left on my Weekend and Mid Week Breaks, all staying in the magnificent Grant Arms Hotel, Grantown on Spey, home of the BWWC. Friday 11 to Monday 14 March 16 - 2 Places left Tuesday 22 to Friday 25 March 16 - 1 Place left Friday 01 to Monday 04 April 16 - 2 Places left Tuesday 12 to Friday 15 April 16 - 3 Places left

Not available for a longer break, then what about one of our daytrips in February?

Wednesday 11 February – The beautiful  Moray Coast Thursday 12 February – “The Big Day” can we beat the current record? Friday 19 February – Sea and Coastal Birds, Ducks galore! Saturday 20 February – Way up North to Tarbat Ness and Portmahomack. All above trips are full day 0800 – 1700 and cost an amazing £95 per person. For further details on any of these trips or to see our full programme of scheduled tours then please go to our webpage birdingecosse.co.uk And always remember “There is no dross with Birding Ecosse” See you soon ! Dave

 

 

Welcome to the Birding Ecosse 

January 2016 Newsletter. 

Happy New Year! Well here we are at the beginning of yet another birding year and the excitement of what lies in front of us. 2015 was the best year to date for Birding Ecosse with many returning faces and even more new victims being given the Birding Ecosse treatment…… to each and every one of you a big “thank you” 2016 will see some exciting new trips and “add ons” to existing ones, We have trips planned to Skye in May and June, both of which are now fully booked and a few dolphin cruises are in the planning stages, we are also branching out into merchandising some Birding Ecosse items, T Shirts, Sweatshirts, Hoodies, Fleeces, Tammies, Mugs and lots of other items, keep your eyes peeled on my webpage for details.

Below is a report sent to me from a recent victim that he will be submitting to his local bird club report, way down in South Africa, an excellent read (however he makes me out to have a Scottish accent :-)  

Chasing Highland specials

Though South Africa is now my home, I try to get back to the UK at least once a year – usually at Christmas.  Those of you who have experienced Christmas in the UK know how special it can be!  This year, I decided to make it even more special, with a short trip to the Highlands to hunt down some of those birds that had always managed to elude me – even though I’d lived in Scotland for over 20 years. Making the most of the opportunity, I’d decided to hire a local guide, who knew just where the birds were to be found.  And just as well, because Dave Slater turned out to be one of the most experienced guides that I’ve ever had.  Not only did he find me nearly all the birds that I was looking for, but he made the whole experience really enjoyable from start to finish. My trip started with an uneventful drive up to Grantown-on-Spey.  There were one or two Red Kites around Perth, and the odd Buzzard, but the only interesting bird was a massive, dark, long-tailed game bird that swooped in front of the car.  It transpired to be a melanistic Pheasant – apparently more and more of them are being introduced in the Highlands “to make the shooting more interesting”. Dave had booked me into the Grant Arms Hotel.  The Hotel has been turned into a haven for wildlife watchers, and is the jumping off point for guided tours of all shapes and sizes.  The hotel also has a massive reference library, and its own lecture theatre – with wildlife talks every evening.  They even publish a newsletter every day (“The Daily Chirp”), with the previous day’s sightings and the forthcoming trips.  The accommodation was fantastic, the staff was amazing, and the food was delectable.  And don’t get me started on the Cairngorm Brewery beer (why, oh why, can no-one brew like that in South Africa?). Anyway, back to the birds.  I met up with Dave in reception on the first day, after a wonderful cooked breakfast.  He’d planned a route to maximise my chances of seeing the birds that I was looking for.  We’d been on the road only 10 minutes when I mentioned that I’d forgotten to include a couple of the white-winged gulls on my list of wants.  He screeched to a halt, veered up a side-road and said “what, you mean like that one”!  And there, in a flock of Herring Gulls was a beautiful white Glaucous Gull.  Tick number 1 – just like that.

 

Glaucous Gull

Five minutes later, came tick number 2, the Black Grouse, and perhaps the highlight of the whole trip – after only 15 minutes! I’d always wanted to see a Black Grouse, but unless you know where the Leks are, your chances are slim (a Lek is a place where the birds gather to display; the same Leks can often be used by birds for generations).  Dave had brought me to a known Lek at Nethybridge.  I will never forget my first sight of a group of 10 or so displaying males as the sun made its first appearance over the horizon.  Apparently, they display all year round, so that by the time spring comes (and mating) everyone knows their place in the pecking order.  To see a couple of males squaring up to one another, white tails raised, wings beating, was a sight never to be forgotten.  I even got to see one of them on a fence post, with the long, lyre-shaped tail clearly visible.

Sunrise on the Grouse Moor

How could one beat that – well, Dave was determined to try.  It was off to the coast, to try for some of those elusive sea-ducks.  First, there was a little cultural diversion in Forres.  Dave showed me the Witches Stone on the main road.  Apparently, it marks the place where they used to try ‘witches’.  They used to roll the supposed witch down a hill, in a barrel full of spikes.  If she died in the barrel, she was innocent.  If she survived, she was a witch and was executed.  And we think we have a problem with justice!  Just further on, we stopped to see the Sueno stone.  It’s a beautifully carved stone, around 12 feet high, that dates from the times when the Picts occupied Scotland.  It’s actually mentioned in Shakespeare’s MacBeth.  Legend has it that it contains MacBeth’s three witches, locked up for eternity, but that if it is ever broken the witches will escape to wreak their revenge on the land.  As Dave wryly remarked “it must have been cracked for a long time – how else do you explain my ex-wife”! So we arrived at the sea at Roseisle, and after a wee bit of searching, we identified a well-marked Slavonian Grebe in beautiful winter plumage.  They breed in Scotland as well, and I promised myself that I would one day return in the summer to see the bird with its amazing golden ear-tufts.  That was tick 3, and they were coming thick and fast now.  Just around the corner, in Burghead we saw, in quick succession, Long-tailed Duck (really great views of these spectacular ducks up close), and both Common and Velvet Scoter.   Ticks 4, 5 and 6.  There were also flocks of beautifully marked Eider, some Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser, diving Gannets and Shags, and both Red-throated and Black-throated Divers.  Also, plenty of Carrion Crow and two that Dave thought were probably Hooded Crow, and some Jackdaw and Chaffinch.  But sadly, no Great Northern Divers, which proved elusive throughout the whole trip, as did my Black Guillemot.  And no Arctic Skua either, though these are not particularly rare in the area.  But finally, there on the shoreline, in amongst the Eurasian Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews and Turnstones, was tick number 7 – Purple Sandpiper. The weather was holding fine – not a drop of rain so far (which is pretty unusual for those climes).  So we headed round to Lossiemouth, where Dave had said there had been sightings of an Iceland Gull.  The estuary was bathed in sunshine, and we settled down to scan the flock of several thousand Herring and Black-headed Gulls – with a few Common and Lesser Black-backed as well, not to mention a few hundred Widgeon, the odd Grey heron, a Stonechat, a Magpie and a Kittiwake.  After around 10 minutes of searching through the scope, Dave exploded in a cloud of uniquely Scottish expletives (some of which even I had not heard before!).  A local dog-walker had rounded the point and sent the whole flock into the air.  He had to wait for them all to settle and then start again!  But his perseverance paid off, and after another 10 minutes, there it was, relaxing on a sand bar – an immature Iceland gull.  Tick number 8.  Also in the flock was apparently a Mediterranean Gull, an even greater rarity that far north, but a bird that I had seen before in Norfolk and in France.  And after a few minutes more searching, there it was.  The only difference between the Med. Gull and the Black-headed Gull in winter, is the different shaped mask on the face, and the lack of black in the wing tips.  Easy enough you might think, but just try finding one bird like that, in a flock of over a thousand that weren’t.  But Dave did it!

Iceland Gull

But the day wasn’t quite yet over – Dave had said there was a good chance of Snow Bunting on the dunes behind the estuary.  We searched and searched and finally, there they were – a flock of a dozen or so of these beautifully marked little birds.  Nine ticks – embarrassing really, for a country in which I used to live. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off at Lochindorb, a wonderful grouse estate, and one time home to the Wolf of Badenoch, son of the then King of Scotland.  The ruins of his castle (‘the Wolf’s Lair’) are still to be seen in the middle of the loch.  What wasn’t to be seen was the Long-eared Owls that often quartered the moor on the estate, nor the Woodcock that were supposed to be feeding at the roadside at dusk.  A Woodcock did fly over the car, but yours truly was scanning the verges at that point.  Well, they say that you should always leave a bird to return for!  But we did have a lovely view of a Barn Owl, just sitting on a branch at the edge of the road.  So it was off to the hotel, for a hot bath, another couple of pints of ‘Trade Winds’ and another wonderful meal of Venison Casserole (real deer in this case). Whilst we’d been lucky with the weather on day 1, day 2 started with heavy rain.  Dave was pessimistic, especially as we were going for the more difficult birds on day 2.  After another try for the elusive Woodcock (no-luck), we started at Darnaway Forest, at a section of the woods where there was known to be a Capercaillie Lek.  Capers were the biggest UK game bird, until the re-introduction of Great Bustards on Salisbury Plain.  They can be very aggressive, and have been known to attack walkers and cyclists if they feel threatened.   Dave told me that one found shelter in the entrance of a local hotel not so long ago, and no-one could get in or out until the local gamekeeper had arrived to shoo it away!  But despite these appearances, the Capers are few and far between.  Habitat loss and encroachment from humans is decimating the population and Dave reckons they will be extinct in Scotland before too long.  So it was a real shame that we couldn’t find one – all we saw was numerous Coal Tit, Wren and the odd Great Tit.  But we did find (eventually) a flock of Crossbills – tick number 10.  I had a good sighting of a wonderfully-coloured male, before they flew on to the next set of larch cones.  And before you ask if they were Common or Scottish Crossbills, I’ve no idea.  Nor had Dave.  Apparently, the only way to tell is in the laboratory, with a sonogram.  In fact, Dave says it’s a good way to find a bird-guide in Scotland – if your potential guide promises to find you a Scottish Crossbill, ignore him and find someone else, because “he’s nae idea whit he’s talkin aboot!”. We then spent a couple of chilly hours in the Findhorn Valley, looking for eagles.  The Valley is remote, desolate, but (in between sleet showers) incredibly beautiful.  No eagles, but plenty of Ravens and Common Buzzards (each one scanned carefully, because a Rough-legged Buzzard had been seen the week before).  Also a flock of Fieldfare (with one Redwing), some beautiful Goldfinches, Kestrels, a Sparrowhawk, a couple of Mute Swans, a Greylag Goose,  and the usual Blackbirds and Mistle Thrushes. So thoroughly cold by then, we decided to head back down onto the moors, looking for Hen Harrier and Merlin.  Despite extensive scanning, nothing was to be seen apart from dozens and dozens of Red Grouse.  Lovely birds, almost comical, until one realises what their fate is to be!  Dave was very vocal about the plummeting population of Harriers (less than 250 pairs left in the UK), the persistent persecution that they suffer from the gamekeepers, and the lack of protection from the law.  As he put it, a gamekeeper found guilty of shooting a Harrier might face a R30,000 fine, but the local landowner could get that back from just one days shooting, from just one gun, when the grouse season opens.  For proof, Dave says, look at Europe, where the Hen Harriers are thriving – because there is no grouse shooting. I thought that was going to be it for my two days, and was well satisfied with my ten ticks.  But Dave was determined to end the trip with a bang, and so he did.  We went back to the hotel via Carrbridge, and meandered out of the town on Station Road, and up onto the moors.  And there, just quartering between the hills, was a fantastic, immature White-tailed Eagle.  What a majestic bird, bigger than a Golden Eagle, with a massive 2.4m wingspan.  We stood entranced and watched it for over 20 minutes, in between sleet squalls. So my trip ended on a massive high, with me having seen most of the specials that I was looking for.  And having spent a wonderful two days with one of the most knowledgeable, friendly guides I’ve ever had.  If you are thinking of Highland birding, you must stay at the Grant Arms Hotel and you must hook up with Dave Slater, of BirdingEcosse, at birdingecosse@hotmail.co.uk .  For my part, I’ll be back soon for the Woodcock, the Black Guillemot, the Great Northern Diver and of course the Capercaillie (and if I can time it right, the Dotterel and the Arctic Skua)!  Not to mention the opportunity to spend time in one of the most beautiful parts of the world (and that beer!). Andrew Metcalfe

Thanks go to Andrew for allowing me to reproduce his report, hope you enjoyed the read. December ended if spectacular form, with the Christmas break spent at the Beautiful Grant Arms Hotel.  It really is a magical place to spend the festive season with fantastic rooms and food, great company, and an excellent array of organised trips, talks and walks, with little ol’ me providing an afternoon walk on Christmas eve, netting two Iceland gulls and a lovely hike up to the Grantown on Spey viewpoint, which netted some clients views of feeding Crossbills.