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Sightings Blog

Friday, January 05, 2018

Merry Christmas!! I would like to wish a happy and wildlife-filled new year to all my readers!
And a big "thank you" to everyone who used and supported my safari guiding services during 2017......

December 2017 was, to use an old football cliche, very much a game of two halves in this area!
We started off, as is quite usual this far north, with northerly winds and a real Arctic feel with two weeks of heavy snow and temperatures down to -13c, but then, rather unexpectedly, mild south-westerly winds began to dominate, the weather turned cloudy and damp, and temperatures began to climb, and remained well above average for most of the rest of the month, and on the 19th, we even had one of our warmest ever (13c) December days!
Despite the days being at their shortest now, with only around 7-8 hours of daylight, we still enjoyed some memorable wildlife adventures, with plenty of exciting wildlife sightings often against dramatic Highland backdrops.
With all our winter-visiting birds now here, full-day safari bird lists topped-out in the 40's, or more if you include a trip to the nearby Moray Coast, whilst mammal day lists varied between 4 and 7 depending on the time of our start and number of habitats visited, with earlier starts , as usual proving to be best....
I was away down in England visiting relatives and friends for the final third of the month, so my report is a little shorter than usual, and may include some photos from previous Decembers that are representative of 'typical' midwinter sightings.
Midwinter on a Highland moor
To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future December visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken by myself or my safari clients will help, clicking on the picture will enlarge it to full screen.

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse (at dawn only), Red GrouseCrested TitDipper and Golden Eagle, and we also had a few decent sightings of Snow Bunting, and just a few brief glimpses of Crossbills, Winter visiting birds were represented by family groups of Whooper Swans and several species of 'grey' Geese, ..and a few Bramblings and Redpolls were seen...... 

Mammals seen regularly during the month included:
Red Deer,  Roe Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel,  Rabbit, Mountain Hare ,Mountain Goat, Bank Vole and Wood Mouse with  just a couple of sightings of Brown Hare. Whilst a couple of trips to the moray Coast gave good views of both Common and Grey Seal...

Black Grouse
Pre-dawn starts - a relatively user friendly 7am at this time of year - gave us decent views of up to 9 Black Grouse on local moorland 'lek' sites, though they did not seem to be quite so 'up for it' on the milder mornings, with more birds and more 'action' being seen on the colder days....

Red Grouse
By way of contrast, by using my vehicle as a 'mobile hide', our local Red Grouse were actually surprisingly easy to see and photograph on their favoured upland heather moorlands this month, as many of the cock birds seem to be getting a bit territorial, with some seen perching prominently on the few higher points and occasionally even being heard uttering their guttural 'go-back, go back' calls, with their red 'eyebrows' aglow....

Crested Tit by Wayne Dixon
Our local Crested Tits continued to show well at my favourite forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, and on the colder days, when they are presumably at their hungriest. There are probably only around 1,200 - 1,500 of these charismatic little birds in the whole of the UK, and they are all to be found in the Caledonian forests of Highland Scotland, so you can imagine that many of my safari clients are delighted to see them, especially if it is a 'life-tick'.

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

Dipper
Our local Dippers appear to already be planning ahead for the spring breeding season, with much aggression, singing and displaying being witnessed , especially soon after dawn, and usually near to favoured nesting spots such as bridges....which is very useful , as it gives us much more chance to see and photograph them....


White-Tailed Eagle by Steve Nicklin

Golden Eagle by Ron Mitchell
As I mentioned last month...the short daylight hours, and no breeding season distractions,  mean that early to mid-winter is definitely the best time of year for raptor sightings in this area, and this month again proved very fruitful, with my favourite local upland glens providing my safari clients and I with regular sightings, and even the occasional (and rare)  photo opportunity, of the much sought after Golden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle, with views of these magnificent and iconic birds providing great entertainment,  numerous 'year ticks' and '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 Merlin,  Hen Harrier and Goshawk, should not be forgotten though, as all were seen at least once.....

Snow Buntings
Snow Buntings could be seen at lower levels early in the month whilst it was cold and snowy, but became much more difficult as the snow receded in the unseasonably mild temperatures, and they presumably followed the snow-line uphill......

Ptarmigan - taken by myself in December 2015
Although I didn't venture up into the mountain-tops myself this month, I understand that with a bit of effort, good sized flocks of Ptarmigan , now in their almost totally white mid-winter plumage, could be seen, usually sheltering on the leeward sides of ridges, out of the cold wind...

Whooper Swan and grey Geese numbers seemed to decrease a little in this area, as many of the birds presumably headed further south, and it was the same story with  Redwings and Fieldfares , as all our berries now seem to have been eaten...

Drake Wigeon
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, several American Wigeon and Green-Winged Teal, and a couple of Shore Larks were reported....

Curlew

Other good birds reported locally this month included: RedpollKingfisher, Twite, Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull....

Onto mammals now....
Possible Scottish/Hybrid Wildcat
Pure Scottish Wildcat sightings are very few and far between now, and very hard to prove without DNA evidence, and this young-looking example that I happened across on the edge of a local forest on the 19th, is probably a 'hybrid' specimen... as a 'true' example should have a totally striped body, whereas this one has a more 'spotty' coat... but the thick, stripy tail, broad head and nervous manner, suggested that it may well have a good amount of Wildcat about it....

Mountain Hare by Ron Mitchell
Mountain Hares , now they are almost completely 'winter white' and at their most beautiful, are often voted as 'mammal of the day' by my safari clients at this time of year, and we were fortunate enough to see them in their upland habitats on a number of occasions. It should be noted though, that a bit of rough uphill walking is often required for photography purposes..

Red Deer
Still up in the glens, though our Red Deer stags still have their magnificent antlers intact, with rutting season long forgotten, they are much calmer beasts now, and are seemingly content to just quietly graze and laze around...
Red Squirrel
Red Squirrels, being absent from most of the UK now,  always prove popular with my safari clients, especially with those seeing one for the first time, and it is unusual for us not to see at least one whilst out on safari.....

Roe Deer are probably much more common and widespread than most people realise, but their nervous disposition and crepuscular nature means that unless you visit fairly quiet sites and are about early or late in the day, you can easily miss seeing them...

Feral Mountain Goat
Sightings of Feral Mountain Goats often come as a bit of a surprise to my safari clients, who are unaware that we have them in the UK, and although not strictly native , they have been kept for centuries in remote and rugged areas for their milk, meat and skins....

Highland Cattle

Well, it looks like another year has flashed by.... and fortunately for me it was one filled with beautiful highland scenery, lots of amazing and memorable wildlife, and happy times spent with lots of friendly and interesting people from all over the world. I hope you have enjoyed reading my safari updates as much as I have whilst experiencing and writing about them.....And I am already looking forward to even more wildlife-filled adventures in 2018...


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....


A snowy Abernethy Forest

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