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Thursday, November 30, 2017

November 2017 saw winter arrive in the Cairngorms National park, with temperatures consistently below the monthly average, and snow down to lower levels from mid-month. Though the weather overall was a bit changeable, we had enough decent days to allow us to get out and enjoy the last of the autumn colours, some spectacular snowy scenery and many memorable wildlife sightings.
Though the days are shortening noticeably now, with only around 8-9 hours of usable daylight, a further influx of winter-visiting birds from further north, including a few rarities, helped to boost local full-day bird day-lists into the low 40's, or more if you include a trip to the nearby Moray Coast,  whilst mammal day-lists varied between 3 and 7 species, depending on the time of our start, and variety of habitats visited.

When the going gets tough.. thank goodness for 4-wheel drive... and heated seats....
To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future November visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken at sites in and around the Cairngorms National Park by myself, my friends or my safari clients, will help....clicking on the picture enlarges it to full-screen.

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included: 
Crested TitBlack Grouse (at dawn only), Red Grouse,  Dipper, Golden Eagle, and White-Tailed Eagle, and we also had a few sightings of  Snow Bunting at lower levels late in the month. and one brief view of Merlin, but sadly, Crossbills were frustratingly elusive again. A good variety of waders and wildfowl were seen at the Moray Coast, and winter visiting birds were represented by Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, Redwings and Fieldfares, whilst  a couple of small and annoyingly mobile flocks of Waxwings were seen feeding on berries occasionally during the month...the first Bramblings of this winter were seen on local farmland, and a Bittern was reported at a local loch....

Mammal species seen regularly included: Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Reindeer, Roe Deer, Mountain Goat , and Rabbit......with just a few views of  Brown HareMountain Hare and Bank Vole, and a couple of  brief glimpse of  Stoat.....The first half of the month also saw us continue to enjoy great views of Atlantic Salmon spawning in the upper reaches of our local rivers....

Crested Tit by James Ball   www.jameswildlifeworld.smugmug.com 
Winter is actually the best time to see Crested Tits, as the weather turns colder and snowier, with the easy pickings on offer at my forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, seemingly proving to be almost irresistible. It was a great feeling to show off these true 'Speyside specialities' to my safari clients, especially those who were seeing them for the very first time.

Still in the Caledonian pine forests, Crossbills continued to be a bit of a 'bogey-bird', with (yet again) sightings mainly restricted to snatched glimpses of  calling birds flying around the tree tops...

Black Grouse
Black Grouse are always popular with my safari clients, probably because of their relative rarity and sadly, declining numbers over much of the UK, However, we are fortunate to have good numbers in Highland Scotland, and our dawn visits to their traditional local moorland 'lek' sites were usually fruitful, with a maximum of 6, and an average of 4 cock birds seen showing and sometimes even displaying well this month, with cold, still, frosty mornings generally proving more successful than wet and windy ones.

Red Grouse
Red Grouse too, being birds of very specific upland heather moorland habitat, are absent from much of the UK these days as well. Thankfully though, we have no shortage of them in this area, and it was interesting to note that once the snow arrived, they seemed to group up into 'super-flocks' often containing dozens of birds, rather than the more usual family sized parties.

Dipper by Nigel Wedge
On the rivers, our local Dippers are definitely becoming more aggressive now, with much displaying, dawn singing and chasing each other around being witnessed as they presumably seek to establish winter and breeding territories, and it still makes me shiver every time I see them disappear under the icy water in search of food - they sure are tough little critters!

White-Tailed Eagle


Golden Eagle

As I have mentioned in previous years, and with no apologies for repeating myself... November is in my opinion, THE month for raptor sightings in this area, and so it proved again this year, with my favourite local upland glens and moors providing my safari clients and I with pleasingly regular sightings, and even the odd (very rare)  photo opportunity, of the much coveted Golden Eagle and White -Tailed Eagle, with these awesome and majestic 'Kings of the skies' providing great entertainment, numerous 'life-ticks'  and putting big smiles on many faces....
The regular 'raptor back-up cast' of Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, BuzzardRed Kite, and even the occasional MerlinHen Harrier and Goshawk, should not be forgotten though....


Merlin by James Ball  www.jameswildlifeworld.smugmug.com 

Sparrowhawk


Snow Bunting
Snow Buntings became a lot easier to see than normal, as they began to frequent known lower altitude sites, possibly driven down from the mountain tops by the snow and cold, and with their numbers likely to have been swelled by visitors from Scandinavia...and I am always sure to have a bag of wild bird seed on board, as they can often be tempted to come and feed at quite close range....

Ptarmigan (pic taken by myself in Nov 2014)
Although I didn't venture up into the mountain-tops myself this month, I understand that with a bit of effort, a few Ptarmigan , now almost totally white, could be seen, usually sheltering on the leeward sides of ridges, out of the cold wind...

Whooper Swans
The Moray coast is only about an hours drive north East of Aviemore, and a couple of trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours gave good views of  winter visitors such as Greylag Geese, Barnacle Geese, Pink-Footed Geese, Brent Geese,Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal, Scaup, PochardPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden Plover ,Grey Plover, Purple Sandpiper , a few Little Auks, and even a King Eider and an American Wigeon were reported....

Other good birds reported locally this month included: RedpollKingfisher, Great Grey Shrike and Jack snipe....

Onto mammals now....


Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel moved back to the top of the 'Mammal of the day' charts this month, and who am I to disagree?
Being rare, attractive, charismatic and cute, they certainly tick a lot of boxes, and thankfully, they can usually be relied upon to put in an appearance at forest feeding stations in the winter months....



Mountain Hare
Mountain Hares , now they are turning 'winter white' also often feature on my safari clients wish-lists at this time of year, and we were fortunate enough to see them in their snowy upland habitats on a number of occasions, though not as frequently as in previous years.....please be aware though, that a bit of rough uphill walking is likely to be required for photography purposes..



Red Deer
Although the autumn 'rut' is now over and seemingly already forgotten by the participants!, it was still a treat to see the magnificent fully antlered Red Deer stags in their favoured upland glens, occasionally above the snow-line, with close-up views often leaving my safari clients surprised at their impressive size and powerful build....


Roe Deer
Roe Deer, whilst not quite as impressive as the Reds, are still nice to see, though they can be a little crepuscular, rarely showing well outside of the low-light times of dawn and dusk, and they are generally pretty wary of human disturbance.....so you need to be quick with your camera!

Our local feral Mountain Goats proved to be unusually elusive this month, with our sightings mainly reduced to long-distance views through the scope....and sadly, no decent photo opportunities......


Spawning Atlantic Salmon
November is usually the best month of the year to see our Atlantic Salmon spawning. These remarkable and often very large fish spawn in the shallow waters in the upper reaches of our rivers, at the very spot where they themselves were hatched several years before, having originally spent 2-3 years in the river, then another 2-3 years feeding, growing and maturing out in the mid Atlantic, before undertaking a perilous journey many miles upriver, often involving avoiding poachers and predators and negotiating high falls and rapids on the way - an amazing migration story! However, sightings are very reliant on the rivers water levels - too little water and the Salmon cannot access the upper reaches - too much water, and they can get there... but we can't see them. As I mentioned last month though, this autumn we got lucky with everything falling into place, and good sightings being enjoyed up until the third week of this month..


Abernethy Forest

So, although many people that I know seem to get the 'winter-blues' as the days shorten and the temperatures drop , as a keen wildlife watcher and photographer, it is far from the case for me up here, with November now one of my favourite and, weather permitting of course, often most productive safari months, with lots of great wildlife to be enjoyed, some of our 'local speciality species' at their easiest to see, and all in spectacular and often snowy scenery.....




If you think you know someone who may enjoy a taste of what I do, why not treat them to a safari gift certificate. They make a thoughtful and imaginative present and are available for any amount in multiples of £10, and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....



Late autumn at Insh marshes

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October 2017 in this area saw the weather largely dictated by a succession of Atlantic low pressure systems from the south west, meaning it was mainly mild, but frequently wet and breezy, with very few calm but cold days. Though the days are certainly shortening now, we still had around 10 hours of usable daylight, and the Highland scenery is still ablaze with glorious autumn colours, with most leaves still clinging on. In contrast with this time last year though, there are far fewer berries on the trees, and we only had a frost and a light dusting of snow on the Cairngorm Mountains on the final few days of the month.
October is a really great month to witness visible migration in action, with large flocks of Geese, Swans and Thrush species often witnessed flying noisily overhead, and this influx of winter visitors from colder areas further north, helped full-day safari bird lists increase up into the 40's, (or more if you include a trip to the Moray Coast), whilst mammal day-lists varied between 4 and 8 depending on the start time and number of venues visited, with early starts, as usual, proving to be best.

Dawn on the River Spey


To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future October visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken at sites in and around the Cairngorms National Park by myself, my friends or my safari clients, will help....clicking on the picture enlarges it to full-screen.


Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality bird species seen regularly during the month included: Crested Tit, , Red Grouse, Dipper and Goldeneye, we also had several good sightings of Golden Eagle and Hen Harrier, a few fleeting glimpses of Crossbills, The Black Grouse began to show from mid-month again at known lek sites, with up to 6 male birds being seen soon after first light, and we had one brief dawn view of a male Capercaillie............Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting were both seen on a walk up Cairngorm Mountain late in the month, and newly-arrived winter visiting birds were represented by Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, Redwings and Fieldfares.
A good variety of waders and wildfowl were seen at the Moray Coast,  a few Waxwings were reported locally at the end of the month...and even a couple of Yellow-Browed Warblers and 2 Snow Geese and 2 Red Breasted Geese were reported nearby....

Mammal species seen regularly included: Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Reindeer, Roe Deer, Mountain Goat , Brown Hare and Rabbit......with just a few views of  Mountain Hare and Bank Vole, an unusual sighting of 3 Brown Rats using a hanging peanut feeder!!, and one brief glimpse of a Stoat.....The second half of the month also saw us enjoy great views of Atlantic Salmon starting to spawn in the upper reaches of our local rivers....

Crested Tit
Crested Tits, having been generally 'uncooperative' through the summer months, started to become more regular visitors to forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, and we were fortunate enough to enjoy some excellent and often extremely close views of this true 'local speciality' on a number of occasions....
A bonus by-product of regular winter feeding is sometimes (on colder days) being able to feed the incredibly confiding Coal Tits and (sometimes) Great Tits by hand, an experience much enjoyed by my safari clients...

Still in the forests, Crossbills, sadly, but not unusually, were somewhat less obliging however, with our views once again being restricted to snatched glimpses of birds flying overhead...identified only by their distinctive 'jip- jip' calls....

Red Grouse
Our local Red Grouse appeared to still be in their (sadly now smaller) family groups, but with the shooting season virtually over, they seem a little less wary and can be a bit easier to see, especially when using my safari vehicle as a slow-moving mobile hide on the quiet tracks through their heather moorland home.

Dipper by Nigel Wedge
Dipper is a bird absent from large areas of central, southern and eastern Britain, preferring clear, fast-flowing upland rivers over murky, slow-flowing lowland waterways. Fortunately, it is a fairly common sighting in this area, often perching prominently on a rock, and always proves popular with my safari clients ...

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle is truly an iconic bird of the Scottish Highlands, and our regular visits to my favourite upland glens paid off on numerous occasions, with a number of very decent sightings of these hugely impressive creatures, sometimes hunting , and often in aerial combat with other raptors....

Male Hen Harrier by Nigel Wedge
Early winter is always our best time of year for raptor sightings, and this month we also recorded views of Hen Harrier (male and female), Goshawk, Peregrine, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, and numerous Common Buzzards...

Ptarmigan
The aforementioned walk up Cairngorm Mountain (on the 26th) produced great views of 12 Ptarmigan, now morphing nicely into their winter-white plumage, which were actually quite obliging, allowing some decent photo opportunities, though the solitary Snow Bunting we saw refused to pose nicely for us!

Whooper Swans
The Moray coast is only about an hours drive north west of Aviemore, and a couple of trips to favourite reserves, bays and harbours gave good views of incoming winter migrants such as Greylag Geese, Barnacle Geese, Pink-Footed Geese, Brent Geese,Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden Plover and Grey Plover....

Redwing
Winter thrushes flooded into our area from their summer breeding areas further north, first the Redwings, followed soon after by the Fieldfares, and they soon set about tucking into our local berry supplies, much to the annoyance of our resident Blackbirds and Thrushes!

Fieldfare
Other good birds seen locally this month included: Brambling, Redpoll, Scaup, and Kingfisher....

Onto mammals now....


Red Deer stag
'Mammal of the month' for October has to be the Red Deer,  with their spectacular annual 'rut' providing my safari clients with some superb entertainment - the fully antlered stags 'bolving' roars echoing through the glens, as they spend much of the month  posturing , fighting off rivals and attempting to mate with as many of their 'harem' as possible - surely one of British nature's 'must-see' experiences?

Mountain Hare
Still up in the glens, our local Mountain Hares, though still in their browny-grey summer coats are gradually turning whiter from their feet upwards as autumn progresses, in preparation for the snow to come, though actual sightings of them were not as frequent, or as good as I would have liked... but that is not unusual during the 'warmer' months..things should hopefully change next month....

Although not as physically impressive as their Red cousins, Roe Deer are probably more often described as cute, but always seem to prove popular with my safari clients, and we were fortunate enough to see them frequently this month, usually on marshland and woodland fringes, and occasionally on farmland, especially soon after dawn....though a decent photo escaped me ...


Red Squirrel
In the forests, our Red Squirrels never failed to entertain, with their cute looks, acrobatic use of  peanut feeders, and chasing off of rivals, and of course, with them being largely absent from most of the UK now, many of my safari clients were seeing them for the first time....

Feral Mountain Goats
Feral Mountain Goats are mainly restricted to a few remote upland areas of the UK, and we are fortunate to have them locally in a few quiet glens, so many of my safari clients get to see them for the first time while out with me....

Brown Rats
Brown Rat is not a common sighting on my safaris, but we were fortunate to see no less than 3 using a hanging peanut feeder on the 26th......

Spawning Atlantic Salmon
Mid October-mid November is the time of year to see our Atlantic Salmon spawning. These remarkable and often very large fish spawn in the shallow waters in the upper reaches of our rivers, at the very spot where they themselves were hatched several years before, having originally spent 2-3 years in the river, then another 2-3 years feeding, growing and maturing out in the mid Atlantic, before undertaking a perilous journey many miles upriver, often involving avoiding poachers and predators and negotiating high falls and rapids on the way - an amazing migration story! However, sightings are very reliant on the rivers water levels - too little water and the Salmon cannot access the upper reaches - too much water, and they can get there... but we can't see them. This time we got lucky with everything falling into place, and good sightings were enjoyed from mid-month onwards ...


So, to summarise, helped by the reasonably friendly weather, the annual Red Deer rut, and the miracle of migration, October 2017 turned out to be yet another very enjoyable month for wildlife watching in the Cairngorms National Park, with plenty of excellent sightings, many memorable experiences, lots of happy safari clients, and the odd surprise, and all set against beautiful autumnal Highland backdrops.......



If you think you know someone who may enjoy a taste of what I do, why not treat them to a safari gift certificate. They make a thoughtful and imaginative present and are available for any amount in multiples of £10, and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....


An atmospheric image of a local loch

Saturday, September 30, 2017

September 2017 was, like the last few months, a bit changeable weather-wise in this area, with thankfully no extremes of bad weather, though it has become considerably cooler at dawn and dusk, and the days are shortening noticeably now ,with only around 12 hours of usable daylight , but by way of consolation, the heather is still a lovely purple, many trees are full of colourful berries, and the leaves and ferns are starting to change into their attractive autumnal hues.....
I was away on the Orkneys on a short holiday, and in southern England visiting relatives and friends for a good part of the month, so my report will be shorter than usual, and will contain some general observations and pictures from previous Septembers.....
With just about all the summer visiting bird species gone by mid-month, and the winter visiting bird species only just arriving,  full-day bird lists dropped down to their lowest levels of the year (in the 30's), though this could be upped considerably by a trip to the coast, whilst mammal day lists varied between 5 and 8 species, depending on the time of our start and the number of different habitats visited, with early starts usually proving to be more fruitful...

Late summer on a Highland river
To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future September visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken at sites in and around the Cairngorms National Park by myself, my friends or my safari clients, will help....clicking on the picture enlarges it to full-screen.

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality bird species seen regularly during the month included: Osprey (first week only), Dipper, Red Grouse, Crested Tit and Goldeneye, we also had a couple of good sightings of Golden Eagle, and a few fleeting glimpses of Crossbills.....Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting were both reported on local mountain tops, though I did not venture up myself this month, sadly, Black Grouse and Capercaillie were not seen at all this month, though this is not unusual away from late winter/springtime....

Mammal species seen regularly included: Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Reindeer, Roe Deer, Mountain Goat , Brown Hare and Rabbit......with just a few brief glimpses of  Mountain HareStoat and Bank Vole...
Osprey with Trout
A few of our local juvenile Ospreys lingered around their now redundant nest sites and local lochs and rivers for a few days early in the month, giving us our last chance to admire these attractive and impressive raptors and their fishing skills, until they return in the spring. It always amazes me to think that these birds will attempt to undertake a 5,000 odd mile migration unassisted by their parents at the age of around 3 months!!

Red Grouse
The Red Grouse on the upland moors, mostly still in family groups, continued to entertain my safari clients, but with it still being shooting season though, they - unsurprisingly - seem a little wary of humans...but by using my vehicle as a mobile hide, we were often able to get some decent views and photographic opportunities...

Crested Tit
Crested Tit is always high on my safari clients 'wish-lists', with it being a Speyside speciality, and although they are now mainly to be found in mixed flocks roaming around the Caledonian pine forests, we also managed to get some decent views of them at my feeding stations, especially soon after first light on cooler mornings...

Still in the forests, Crossbills sightings were (again!) usually of the rather frustrating 'fly-over' variety, with them only being identified by their characteristic 'jip' 'jip' calls as they flew overhead between different parts of the forests...so sadly, there were no photo opportunities this month...

Dipper
The Dippers on our local rivers began to be seen a little more regularly, and they even appeared to be getting a little territorial, with some singing being heard, and aggressive behaviour being witnessed near to prime nest sites, especially at first light...

Soaring Golden Eagle
Golden Eagles are more commonly seen on my safaris during the shorter days of  autumn and winter, when they have less hours of daylight in which to hunt, and all of the family are active,  but we actually had a pretty good 'strike-rate' this month, with a favourite upland glen providing decent sightings on a number of occasions.
In fact, raptors in general seemed to be pretty active , with us seeing Red Kite, Common Buzzard, PeregrineSparrowhawk and Kestrel regularly as well...and we also had one sighting of a young White-Tailed Eagle early in the month..

Goldeneyes only breed in the UK in northern Scotland, and their numbers have increased greatly in recent years, mainly due to the RSPB providing nest boxes on trees around most local lochs, and we again got to see many large families of these very attractive little ducks this month...

Other good birds seen locally this month included: Spotted Flycatcher (early in the month), Scaup, Hen Harrier and Marsh Harrier.....

Birders prepared to travel away from Speyside a little this month, especially to coastal reserves on the Moray coast or Aberdeenshire would have noticed plenty of incoming waders and wildfowl and a good influx of 'grey' Geese throughout... as well as surprising numbers of Yellow-Browed Warblers....

Onto mammals now....

Red Squirrel
As I mentioned last month, with the summer visiting local speciality birds departing this area, mammals become more of a focus on my safaris, and we were fortunate to see a good variety again this month. The  'mammal of the day' award was invariably won by the cute and ever popular Red Squirrel - with many of my safari clients seeing these these very characterful and attractive 'Highland speciality' animals for the first time..
Red Deer hinds
The very end of September usually sees the start of the Red Deer rut, with the stags beginning to 'check-out' and assemble their 'harems' of hinds, sharpen up the tips of their antlers on rocks and trees, and partake in a little light 'sparring' with likely rivals, often accompanied by a tremendous 'roaring', which echoes round the glens... a marvelously atmospheric spectacle....

Still up in the glens, our Mountain Hares, though still in their browny-grey summer coats are gradually turning whiter from their feet upwards as autumn progresses, in preparation for the snow to come, though actual sightings of them were not as frequent, or as good as I would have liked... but that is not unusual during the 'warmer' months..

Feral Mountain Goats
Our local Mountain Goats however, were a little more obliging...with plenty of decent views of large family groups being achieved....

Roe Deer
Although not as physically impressive as their larger Red cousins, Roe Deer are probably more often described as cute, but they always prove popular with my safari clients, and we were fortunate enough to see them on several occasions this month, especially soon after dawn, or in very remote areas....

So, similarly to August, although it's probably not the best month for the hard-core birder or 'twitcher' to visit, September in the Cairngorms National Park would still appear to have plenty to offer the more casual or beginner nature-watcher or those looking for a less intense or 'taster' wildlife safari experience, with less tourists around and no early starts needed in arguably, one of the most colourfully scenic months of the year....



If you think you know someone who may enjoy a taste of what I do, why not treat them to a safari gift certificate. They make a thoughtful and imaginative present and are available for any amount in multiples of £10, and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....


Sunrise in a Caledonian pine forest