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Sightings Blog

Monday, May 01, 2017

April 2017 was a very strange month weather-wise in this area! With Aviemore being both  the hottest (20c), and coldest (-6c) place in Britain at some point in the month, and with all 4 seasons being experienced seemingly almost daily, I would recommend anyone considering a future April visit to bring a good selection of varied clothing for all conditions!!
The days are lengthening nicely now, with around 14 hours of usable daylight, and although most of the winter visiting birds had departed by mid-month, the influx of migrant birds north into this area throughout the month helped bird species day-lists creep ever higher, with 50+ species not uncommon on a full day local safari, whilst full day mammal species day-lists regularly crept up towards double figures, with early starts providing best results.
Dawn at a Cairngorms moorland
To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future April visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken 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.



Local speciality and upland bird species seen regularly throughout the month included: 
Black Grouse (pre-dawn start required), Red Grouse, Osprey, Ring Ouzel, Slavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver, Goldeneye, and Golden Eagle, with just a couple of brief glimpses of Crossbills. Capercaillie, despite several visits to the RSPB Loch Garten Caper-watch, sadly, proved to be very elusive, and It should also be noted that, due to their very secretive nature at this time , Crested Tit becomes extremely difficult to see during breeding season (April-May), and we struggled to see them throughout the month...


Mammals seen regularly by my safari parties during the month included:
Rabbit, Red Squirrel, Roe Deer, Red DeerMountain GoatMountain Hare (now a mottled white/ blue-grey)  Brown Hare, Bank Vole  and Wood Mouse....whilst a couple of excursions 'out of area' also gave us Dolphins and an Otter.....


Wildlife highlights included:


Ospreys at their nest by Nigel Wedge
One of my favourite wildlife moments every year, is the return of our local Ospreys to their nesting sites. These impressive birds of prey always provide great entertainment, with their dashing good looks, aerial acrobatics and plunge diving to catch fish. My favourite local pair were reunited early in the month after a winter apart in West Africa, and were soon seen building up the nest, chasing off intruders and mating frequently and by the end of the month the hen bird appeared to be incubating eggs as the cock bird began to perform all of the fishing duties, whilst she stoically brooded the eggs despite the often wintry weather.


Lekking Black Grouse by Steve Nicklin (taken from a hide)
Dawn ( now around 5am ) visits to local Black Grouse leks continued to delight and amaze my safari clients with as many as 10 blue-black cock birds seen 'performing' in very aggressive fashion, their incredible  bubbling and whooshing sounds drifting across the moor, and on a couple of occasions we were very lucky to witness up to 3 hen birds watching the action, and some were even seen mating with their chosen partner - a truly fantastic wildlife spectacle and a great way to start the day! 


Cock Red Grouse
Our local moorlands continue to echo with the unusual cackling calls of the cock Red Grouse, many of whom were seen still actively displaying, with red 'eyebrows' aglow,  from prominent positions, and from mid-month we saw very few hen birds, suggesting that many may already be incubating eggs.....


Ring Ouzel by Nigel Wedge
Ring Ouzels  always prove to be popular with my safari clients, presumably because not many will have seen them, as they tend to breed only in remote upland areas well away from human disturbance, and can be quite tricky to find. We are fortunate in having plenty of suitable habitat for them in this area though, and we were able to get decent views and photographs of both male and female birds on a number of occasions. 


Slavonian Grebe by Nigel Wedge
Slavonian ( or horned ) Grebe is not only one of the UK's rarest breeding birds, nesting only in the very North of Scotland, but in summer plumage surely one of our most beautiful, with its chestnut, black and copper toned body, scarlet eyes and amazing golden ear tufts it usually puts a smile on even the most hardcore birders face! .... and we are very fortunate to have a few pairs on local lochs...lucky us! 


Black-Throated Divers
Also on our local lochs we were able to obtain a number of decent views of two other very rare and beautifully marked birds in the rather dapper forms of Red Throated Diver and Black Throated Diver. Decent photos of these two species are generally quite difficult to achieve without a hide though, as they usually seem to like to keep a fair distance from humans, but we got lucky on a couple of occasions.....


Crested Tit
In the forests, with the exception of one presumably 'unattached' bird calling and singing early in the month, Crested Tit sightings became very infrequent indeed as they concentrated on nesting, whilst Crossbill views were sadly, again mainly restricted to the usual snatched glimpses of fly-over birds.......


Dipper by Steve Nicklin
Dippers were seen reasonably frequently on local rivers this month, with most sightings being (presumably) male birds, as they appear to be watching over and defending territory near to their favourite nest sites of old bridges.


Soaring White-Tailed Eagle
Though down on mid-winter levels, local bird of prey sightings were again reasonably frequent this month, with Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Peregrine, GoshawkGolden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle all seen, with some of these species observed again displaying or carrying nesting materials....and most of our local Ospreys now on their nests.....whilst a day-trip to the Isle of Mull also added male and female Hen Harrier to our list....

Snow Bunting
Although I did not venture up onto the mountain-tops this month, a few decent sightings of Ptarmigan were reported , and the snow down to lower levels lured Snow Buntings to the Cairngorm Ski Centre car parks for a few days, giving us some very welcome photo opportunities.
 
Wheatear

Other 'good' birds seen or reported locally this month included BullfinchBramblingRedpoll and Greenshank, our first sightings this year of all 3 HirundinesWillow WarblerRedshank, Redstart, Wheatear and  Common Sandpiper, and the first Cuckoo was heard calling on the 28th...


Brambling


Onto mammals now....


Mountain Hare by Steve Nicklin
Our local Mountain Hares, though they are now in their mainly blue-grey Spring outfits, with just their legs and bellies still pure white, again proved popular with my safari clients, and were often seen to be chasing each other around in a frisky fashion....Being animals of remote upland habitat, they are not easily seen by most UK wildlife-watchers... and were often voted 'mammal of the day'....


Red Squirrel
Though the voting was often a close call, as Red Squirrels, being largely confined to Highland Scotland are always a treat for visitors to see and although forest feeding stations again proved to be our best bet for sightings, we did also manage a few random views of them in more natural surroundings on our forest walks....


Red Deer stag
It's always nice to see Deer too, and early starts and a variety of habitats on the itinerary can give us the best chance of seeing up to four different species, with that iconic upland 'Monarch of the glen' the Red Deer being the most sought-after...
Feral Mountain Goats
The same uplands in this area also have a few Feral Mountain Goats and we were lucky enough to have regular good views of these wild looking creatures, now with well grown youngsters.


Brown Hare
Brown Hares were witnessed 'boxing' and friskily chasing around this month in suitable habitat, though a decent 'action' photo has escaped me so far, I did manage a few static shots...

Dolphins are always high on most peoples mammal wish list when visiting coastal areas, and we are very lucky to have probably the best land based sight in the UK nearby ( about an hour drive from Aviemore ) at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle just north of Inverness. A visit to the Moray Firth at the right stage of the tide on the 19th  gave us excellent close up views of these entertaining,  charismatic and surprisingly large animals fishing for Salmon, though rather annoyingly, a decent photo eluded me....


Otter on the Isle of Mull
Even more sought-after is a good view of Otter,especially as they are largely nocturnal, and rarely seen on my local inland waters, and my aforementioned trip to the wild and wonderful Isle of Mull on the 22nd came up trumps with a super close-up sighting of one eating a fish on the edge of a loch... 


So, to summarise....It is only when I finally find time to sit down and compile my monthly wildlife sightings blog and look back through the photos that I and my safari clients have taken during the month that I really become aware of what a great time I have had, appreciate how lucky I am to live and work in such a wild and beautiful place,  and to spend time out and about sharing it with other like-minded wildlife fans, .... and it would appear that April 2017, despite the strangely changeable weather, turned out to be a really excellent and very enjoyable month for wildlife watching in and around the Cairngorms National Park (and beyond!), With the returning summer visiting birds flooding northwards to join our resident species, the days lengthening, flowers (finally!) blooming, stunning scenery and the weather ( generally! ) improving, I can honestly say that I would not want to be anywhere else in the world than here in the majestic Scottish Highlands at this time of 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....




Dawn at Corran Ferry , en route to the Isle of Mull


Friday, March 31, 2017

March 2017  was again a bit of a mixture weather-wise in this area, starting off cold, dry and wintry, but turning milder and sunnier from mid-month, and finishing with a brief wet and windy spell, but in contrast to much of the UK, it was most definitely still winter this far north, and anyone considering visiting this area in March should remember to bring the appropriate warm and waterproof clothing!
The days are lengthening nicely now though, with nearly 12 hours of usable daylight, and dawn (for the Black Grouse lek) is a still not too unsociable 6am.
With many of the winter visiting birds still here, and a few wader and water bird species returning to their inland breeding sites in the second half of the month, full-day safari bird species day-lists crept up towards the 50 mark, whilst mammal species day-lists varied between 4 and 9 depending on our luck, time of start, and the variety of habitats visited, with early starts again proving most fruitful.

I was away down in southern England visiting family and friends for the middle part of the month, so my local sightings report will be a little shorter than usual and may include a few photos from previous March safaris.

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

Sunrise over a Highland moorland

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly included  Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Crested Tit and Dipper, we also had one all too brief glimpse of a flying male Capercaillie , a few sightings of Crossbills... a couple of decent views of Golden Eagle, and towards the very end of the month, our first local reports this year of OspreyRing OuzelSlavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver and Golden Plover - all coming into their splendid summer breeding plumage, and joining the ever-increasing numbers of other Summer visiting birds , such as Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Curlew .....
Although I personally did not go on any mountain top adventures for Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting this month, I understand that they could often be seen well on the few days when the weather was suitable....
Winter visiting birds were represented by a few remaining family groups of Whooper Swans, flocks of Greylag Geese, wildfowl such as Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Wigeon and Teal,  a few (again annoyingly mobile) Waxwings continued to feast on our now almost totally depleted berries throughout the month..and one or two Redpolls and Bramblings lingered....

Soaring Golden Eagle
Mammals seen regularly by my safari parties during the month included:
Rabbit, Red Squirrel, Roe Deer,  Red Deer, ReindeerMountain Goat (with youngsters), Brown Hare and Mountain Hare (still mostly white).

Lekking Black Grouse
Black Grouse were again the dawn (now around 6am) attraction on my safaris, with up to 9 birds seen performing their impressive 'Blackcock tango' for around an hour at first light, with a noticeable increase in the aggression levels as the month progressed and the April arrival of the hen birds for mating looms.......

Cock Red Grouse
Whereas our local Red Grouse have most definitely already paired-up, and the cock birds seem to be concentrating more on defending their territory from rival birds, whilst the 'disappearance' of the hen birds suggests that many may already be on eggs.....

With no 'rogue' birds in this area to go for these days, our  Capercaillie sightings are much more difficult to come by, so a view of a cock bird in flight early in the month, though brief, was very welcome....

Crested Tit
Crested Tits were seen at and around forest feeding stations early in the month, giving several of my ( often very excited) safari clients a much wanted 'life-tick', but after my return from down south, they failed to show during the latter part of the month, suggesting perhaps, that they are now concentrating on breeding rather than feeding.....

Still in the forests, sadly, most of our Crossbill sightings were of the rather annoying fly-over variety again this month, though those of us quick enough with our binoculars, saw enough to suggest that we were now seeing recently-fledged youngsters with their parents....

Dipper
Dippers were seen frequently this month, and they too seem to have procreation on their minds, as we are now (presumably) only seeing male birds, and they appear to be defending territory near their favourite nest sites of old bridges,

Peregrine Falcon
Though down a little on mid-winter, bird of prey sightings were again decent this month, with Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Peregrine and Golden Eagle all seen, with some of these species observed displaying or carrying nesting materials....and the first returning Ospreys have been reported in the last few days...including our local 'celebrity' - EJ at Loch Garten RSPB reserve, who has already had an interesting encounter with a Pine Marten (to see video- click on the link) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bT3JmWrTA3c&feature=youtu.be

Bullfinches
Other 'good' birds seen or reported locally this month included,  Woodcock, BullfinchBramblingRedpoll, and Water Rail.......

Lesser Redpoll

Onto mammals now.....

Mountain Hare
March is the last month to see our local Mountain Hares in their beautiful all-white winter coats, and they were undoubtedly 'mammal of the month', with many of my safari clients keen to see them, and with their upland habitats being relatively snow-free, they were not too difficult for me to find, and could actually be quite confiding, often allowing a reasonably close approach for photography....

Brown Hare
After being a bit scarce through the winter, our local Brown Hares seemed a bit more active this month, and we were fortunate enough to get a few decent sightings .....

Red Squirrel
Red Squirrels are pretty reliable visitors to the quieter forest feeding stations, and we managed to see at least one on every safari this month, and we even got to see a couple of  very cute youngsters at the very end of the month.....

Red Deer
Red Deer too were seen regularly in their favourite upland glens this month, though some of the stags appeared to have already shed their antlers, leaving them looking somewhat less impressive than usual......

Roe Deer are actually much more common and widespread than most people realise, but their generally secretive and largely crepuscular nature makes it much more likely that you will see them at dawn and dusk....

Feral Mountain Goats
Our local feral Mountain Goats always prove popular with my safari clientsand we were lucky enough to have many good views of these wild looking creatures, now with well grown youngsters.


So, to summarise, this month proved to be very decent for wildlife-watching in the Cairngorms National park, with pretty user-friendly weather,  plenty of lingering winter birds,  a few newly-arrived summer birds and a good selection of local specialities to entertain us, and after a couple of weeks off, I now have 'fully charged batteries' ready for my favourite part of the wildlife calendar.... Spring... bring it on!


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 winter at a beautiful local loch


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February 2017  was, weather-wise in this area, quite similar to the previous month - milder and drier than normal, with just a couple of brief snowy cold snaps - which made for pretty good safari conditions, and with the days lengthening, snowdrops blooming, birds singing, and temperatures hitting double figures on a few occasions, it even felt a little spring-like at times...
Full-day local safari bird lists increased a little, with the first returning waders pushing the totals up in to the high 40's, though a trip to the nearby Moray Coast or Black Isle can increase this number considerably, whilst mammal day lists varied between 5 and 9 species depending on the time of our start and number of habitats visited, with early starts usually proving more successful for the shyer ones.
To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future February visit yourself, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken by myself, my friends or my safari clients will help - clicking on the picture enlarges it to full screen.

A favourite local upland glen

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse, Red Grouse, DipperCrested Tit, Crossbill and Golden Eagle, and we also had a couple of decent sightings of Goshawk and one glimpse of a Merlin, whilst the snow at lower levels on Cairngorm Mountain produced good close-up views of Snow Buntings. 


Drake Goldeneye
Winter visiting birds were represented by a few remaining family groups of Whooper Swans, a few flocks of several species of 'grey' Geese, lots of wildfowl such as Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Wigeon and Teal, whilst a few (annoyingly mobile) Waxwings continued to feast on our fast disappearing berries throughout the month...a small flock of Hawfinches lingered, though they too were much more mobile.. a few Bramblings and Redpolls were also seen , though our Redwings and Fieldfares seem to have largely moved on....

Summer visiting birds , in the form of waders such as Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Curlew began to appear inland for the first time since the autumn...

Mammals seen regularly locally during the month included:
Red Deer,  Roe Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel,  Rabbit, Mountain GoatBrown Hare, and Mountain Hare (white), with just a few brief glimpses of Bank Vole...and at the very end of the month we were lucky to have a brief encounter with that iconic and now incredibly rare creature, a Scottish Wildcat!!!

Black Grouse lekking at dawn
Dawn on my safaris was usually spent at a local Black Grouse lek site, where we braved the usually freezing temperatures and often wintry weather to enjoy the spectacle of up to 10 of these attractive blue-black cock birds displaying, posturing aggressively and flutter-jumping in a bid to out-perform and intimidate their opponents and secure their little patch of the lek for the forthcoming breeding season, all accompanied by their strange bubbling and whooshing calls drifting across the moor... surely one of British wildlife's 'must-see' (and 'must hear') experiences?

Cock Red Grouse
Our local Red Grouse too, most definitely have breeding on their minds, as the cock birds are now very aggressive and vocal, their bulging red 'eyebrows' seemingly glowing, as they take to the highest parts of the moors , strutting around, often accompanied by a female,  and chase off their rivals! This makes them much easier to spot and hear on their vast heather moorland habitat, luckily for me.......

Dipper with nest material
Dippers featured frequently on my safaris this month, with visits to my favourite river sites often giving us good views of these upland river specialities,  sometimes carrying nest material close to likely nest sites, usually near a bridge, and occasionally singing and displaying to a prospective mate......

Crested Tit
My favourite forest feeding stations again proved to be very successful in luring Crested Tits for us to see and photograph at close range, with the colder days proving to be best and the milder days less so, but with the 'Cresties' and many of the other forest birds showing early signs of breeding season behaviour, I suspect that the days of 'easy' sightings may be coming to an end as their reliance on non-natural food decreases, and the urge to breed kicks in....

Crossbill
Crossbills for once, actually proved to be a little more obliging this month! As well as the 'usual' flyover birds, we actually got to see and hear a few birds calling and singing their scratchy high pitched trilling song from treetops in our local Caledonian forests...

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle is a rare, iconic, localised and much sought-after bird in the UK, and as I have mentioned before, the shorter days of the winter months give us our best chance of seeing them. This month continued the trend, and we were lucky enough to enjoy a number of memorable sightings of these majestic birds hunting in upland glens, including the rare treat of one seen through my scope perched on a rock on the 10th.

Raptors in general were pretty well represented this month, with Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Peregrine, Merlin, Goshawk and Red Kite all being seen at least once...

Snow Bunting
Although I did not take a trip high up into the peaks in search of the mountain-top species this month, the couple of snowy cold spells tempted the Snow Buntings down to lower levels, giving us the chance of great close-up views and photo opportunities...

Another mountain adventure

Although I am not a massive fan myself... gull enthusiasts may be interested to know that we have had two 'white-winged'  specialities, namely Glaucous and Iceland Gulls showing well on lochs and rubbish tips locally this month....

Male Bullfinch
Other 'good' birds seen or reported locally this month included, Great Grey Shrike, American WigeonWoodcock, BullfinchBramblingRedpoll, and Scaup.

Turnstone and Redshanks
As I mentioned last month, the picturesque Moray Coast is only about an hour north of Aviemore by car, and I can highly recommend a visit in winter, as it can provide an excellent selection of geese, seabirds, waders and wildfowl, and help your 'year-list' along too..... I made a trip early in the month to a few favourite sites, and saw many species including 'Grey' GeeseEider, Long-Tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Gannet, Redshank, Dunlin, Knot, Turnstone, Godwits, Curlew, Teal and Wigeon to name just a few......though the Purple Sandpipers eluded me  - again!!!

Lossiemouth East Beach
Onto mammals now.....

Mammal of the month simply has to be the Scottish wildcat that we saw (sadly all too briefly) hunting on farmland between forests on the morning of the 26th, and although without DNA evidence it is impossible to prove it's lineage is 100% wild, it certainly looked the part with a large, muscular appearance, broad, black-striped tail and generally alert and stealthy demeanour....

Mountain Hare
Mountain Hares, still in their attractive white winter coats, were undoubtedly runner-up as mammal of the month, with a high proportion of my safari clients keen to see and photograph them, and with snow being in short supply for much of the month, they were not too difficult to find in suitable upland habitat....
Red Deer
Although Red Deer are actually fairly common in our upland glens, it can take a certain amount of fieldcraft to find them, as they will often tuck themselves away on the less windy sides of the hills...or even take shelter in the forests when conditions are really wintry....

Feral Mountain Goats
Still up in the glens, our feral Mountain Goats always prove popular with my safari clients, though as they have their very cute recently born young with them, they tended to keep their distance a bit....

Red Squirrel
In the Caledonian pine forests, we had plenty of good sightings of arguably our cutest local resident, the Red Squirrel, especially at feeding stations where they are not slow to take advantage of the free peanuts on offer.......

So to sum up, February appears to have continued our excellent start to the safari year, with plenty of local specialities, a few winter visitors, the first 'summer' visitors arriving early,  and even a few unexpected bonuses seen.....and with winter finally coming towards it's end and spring on the horizon...we are fast approaching my favourite time 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