Highland Wildlife and Birdwatch Safaris, Guided wildlife excursions, Aviemore, Scotland
Highland Wildlife and Birdwatch Safaris, Guided wildlife excursions, Aviemore, Scotland

Saturday, November 29, 2014

November 2014 started unseasonably mild, wet and windy, but ended with a spell of cooler, calmer and frequently foggy weather with just the odd frost and an occasional light dusting of snow on the higher tops, but no real extremes being experienced. The days are shortening very noticeably now, with only around 8-9 hours of usable daylight, but with most of our winter visiting birds now arrived, bird species day-lists frequently hit the 40's, whilst mammal day-lists fluctuated between 5 and 9 species.


Wildlife highlights included:


Local/upland speciality bird species seen regularly during the month included: Dipper, Crested Tit, Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Whooper Swan, Golden Eagle, and  White -Tailed Eagle, with both of my 'mountain-top adventures' producing Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting, and one early morning forest trip providing a very rare close encounter with a Capercaillie.......though Crossbills again proved elusive, with our few sightings being limited to the 'fly-over' variety.....


Mammals seen regularly during the month included: Rabbit, Brown Hare, Mountain Hare (now white), Roe Deer, Red Deer, Reindeer, Bank Vole and Mountain Goat, with just a couple of brief   glimpses of Stoat....


Our local Dippers are undoubtedly becoming more aggressive now, with much displaying, singing and chasing each other around being witnessed as they presumably seek to establish winter and breeding territories.....(see pic above)


Crested Tits were seen regularly, especially on the colder days, at my local forest feeding stations, though it should be noted that , being very 'flitty' and quick and never staying very long, getting good photos of them can be quite tricky! (see nice pic above though.. by Deborah & Charles Hutchinson)..Unlike the Coal Tits, Great Tits, Robins and Chaffinches, which frequently feed from the hand!


Black Grouse are always popular with my safari clients, probably because of their relative rarity over much of the UK, and our dawn visits to their traditional local moorland 'lek' sites were very successful, with an average of 8 cock birds seen showing and displaying well (see pic above), but one particularly good (very frosty) morning on the 23rd produced no less than 14 birds!


Similarly, our local Red Grouse seem to be showing more regularly now, with the heather moorlands echoing with their cackling , guttural calls, and some good close-up sightings being achieved as we drive slowly through, using my safari vehicle a s a mobile hide...(see pic above)



Whooper Swans can be quite tricky to photograph, as they usually seem to 'spook' quite easily, but I managed to find a more confiding group on a small local loch that, as long as you showed some fieldcraft  and used your vehicle as a hide, would allow some much closer than average photo opportunities....(see pic above)



As I have mentioned in previous years, 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 providing my safari clients and I with regular sightings, and even the odd (very rare)  photo opportunity, of the much sought-after Golden Eagle (see pic above) and White -Tailed Eagle, (see upper pic above) with these awesome and majestic 'Kings of the skies' providing great entertainment , numerous 'life-ticks'  and putting big smiles on many faces....
The regular 'back-up cast' of Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, Buzzard and Red Kite should not be forgotten though....


Treks up to see the 'mountain-top' species at this time of year are obviously subject to a combination of the weather being suitable, the winds being light, the paths being safe and the cloud level remaining sufficiently high (not a common occurrence!).... so on the rare occasions when everything does fall into place, and we go for it, it is always a treat when our efforts are rewarded and we get to see our target species of Ptarmigan (see pic above) and Snow Bunting, as success is far from guaranteed! So to see no less than 38 Ptarmigan in one group on the 22nd, was very special indeed! Especially as none of  my small safari party had ever seen these very beautiful and incredibly tough species of Grouse before.....the 8 Snow Buntings were a bonus too!


Capercaillie is not a species that I would normally expect to see in autumn/winter, so to stumble across a beautifully marked female taking grit from a remote forest track early one morning was a very nice surprise! (see pic above) Even more so, when our stealthy approach, again using my safari vehicle as a mobile hide, paid off, as she continued to take grit and feed on trackside heather for a good 10 mins , allowing us plenty of time to admire her stunningly coloured plumage and get a few photos,  before finally flying off deep into the forest... a very rare, special and memorable experience.........

The same secluded forest tracks also gave us a few decent early morning views of another normally elusive bird, the Woodcock . With most birders' views of them usually being restricted to brief silhouetted glimpses of them 'roding' over the treetops at dusk, the chance to see a static bird, and enjoy their intricate, cryptic plumage is always a welcome experience....



With the Red Deer 'rut' over for another year and peace restored in the glens (see upper pic above), the 'mammal of the month' was probably either that cute, peanut-loving forest dweller the Red Squirrel (see pic below), or the Mountain Hare (see pic above) - with them now in their dapper white winter coats, they became much easier to pick out against the (still snow-free) upland slopes they inhabit, and of course, being very much an upland species and absent from much of the UK, most of my safari clients were seeing them for the first time...





Fish do not appear very often on my reports, but November is probably the best month of the year to see our  Atlantic Salmon spawning (see pic above by Deborah and Charles Hutchinson). 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 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!

So that was my November 2014! I think it would be fair to say that it was indeed an excellent month for wildlife-watching in the Cairngorms National Park, with a splendid variety of birds and animals (and fish!) seen in many different types of often very localised habitat, often in stunning late autumn scenery. I hope you have enjoyed reading my report as much as I enjoyed experiencing and sharing it with my safari clients.........










Friday, October 31, 2014

October 2014 started cool, dry and calm in this area, but ended up wet, windy and unseasonably mild for the time of year, with no fresh snow on the Cairngorms on Halloween for the first time in many years. Though the days are noticeably shortening now, we still had around 10 hours of useable daylight, and the Highland scenery was ablaze with glorious autumn colours, providing many of my safari clients with some very picturesque landscape photos.
A mid-month influx of winter visitors from colder areas further north, helped bird day-lists increase up into the 40's, whilst mammal day-lists varied between 5 and 9 depending on our luck.



Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Dipper, Crested Tit, Golden Eagle, Whooper Swan and 'Grey Geese', with a few glimpses of Crossbill, and a mountain-top adventure also giving views of Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting.

Mammals seen regularly during the month included:
'Rutting' Red Deer, Roe Deer, Reindeer, Rabbit, Brown Hare, Mountain Goat and Bank Vole, with just a few sightings of Mountain Hare, Weasel and Stoat.


The cock Black Grouse on our traditional moorland 'lek' sites, having been largely missing since early June, began to assemble and occasionally even display at dawn, especially on the frosty mornings, with my safari clients seeing an impressive 10 birds on the 2nd.


Our local Red Grouse appeared to still be in their large family groups, and with the shooting season virtually over, they became a little less wary and easier to see, especially when using my safari vehicle as a mobile hide on the tracks through their heather moorland home (see pic above)



Dippers, being birds of fast-flowing, clear-running upland rivers, are largely absent from much of the UK, which means they are always popular with my safari clients. Luckily, they are relatively common on our local rivers, and we managed some good sightings at some of my favourite local sites.

Crested Tit is a true local speciality, with Speyside being their UK stronghold, but with them largely being part of roving mixed species flocks in winter, they can be surprisingly difficult to see.
However, a post-dawn visit to a forest feeding station increases your chances, and we were lucky enough to get some good views on a number of occasions. (see pic above)


Golden Eagle too is truly an iconic bird of the Scottish Highlands, and our regular visits to suitable upland glens paid off on several occasions, with some decent sightings of these majestic raptors being obtained. In fact, I have found that the shorter days of the winter months actually seem to give us more chance of seeing them, as they have less available hours of hunting time....(see pic above)


The same applies to the other birds of prey, with Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, Red Kite and Common Buzzard (see pic above), all being seen on my safaris this month.


Crossbills again proved a little frustrating, with our views being limited to fleeting glimpses of fly-over birds, their 'jip jip' calls alerting us to their presence.



Although not exclusively winter birds of this area, northern Scotland is often the first landfall for the Whooper Swans (see pic above) and 'Grey' Geese arriving from their Arctic breeding grounds, and the second week of the month saw us get our first proper influx, as they fly south to enjoy our (in relative terms!) milder winter weather.


The same could also be said of the 'winter' Thrushes - first the Redwings (see pic above) arrived, shortly followed by the Fieldfares,  and they soon set about pillaging our local berry supplies, much to the annoyance of our resident Blackbirds and Thrushes!


As I mentioned in last month's blog, a Snowy Owl had been seen in the Cairngorm mountains up near the summit of  Ben Macdui. Well, further positive reports early this month, together with a favourable weather forecast, spurred me to take on the challenge on the 17th. The gruelling 5 mile,  4 hour ascent up into the clouds to over 4,000 feet was made bearable by the chance of a much sought-after 'life-tick'... but sadly it was not to be.....despite a thorough search, there was no sign of the target bird... and as far as I am aware it has not been reported since... so it would appear that I missed it by a whisker.... by way of consolation, however, I did get some decent views of  Mountain HareSnow Buntings and Ptarmigan (see pic above)


An unusual bird sighting (inland at least) in this area on the 10th, was a winter-plumage Slavonian Grebe on a local loch (see pic above) -  the vast majority of our birds depart for the coast in early September after breeding....


'Mammal of the month' for October has to be Red Deer, with their spectacular annual 'rut' providing my safari clients with some terrific entertainment - the fully antlered stags spending much of the month roaring, posturing , fighting off rivals and mating with as many of their 'harem' as possible - surely one of British nature's 'must-see' experiences? (see pic above)


...With second place going to the ever popular Red Squirrels, (see pic above) who can usually be relied upon to appear for a free feed at forest feeding stations.....

So, to summarise, October 2014 turned out to be another excellent month for wildlife watching in the Cairngorms National Park, with plenty of good sightings, many memorable experiences and the odd surprise, all against a beautiful autumnal Highland backdrop.......







Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September 2014, after I 'officially announced' the end of Summer and start of Autumn in my last blog update, of course, then turned out to be one of the warmest and dryest on record! I suspect the Met Office will not be offering me a job anytime soon.....
Though there were no real extremes of weather, the days are shortening noticeably with only around 12 hours of usable daylight now, but by way of compensation, many trees are full of colourful berries, and the leaves and ferns are starting to change colour into their attractive autumnal hues.....
I was away 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 all the summer visiting bird species gone by mid-month, and the winter visiting bird species not yet arrived, bird day-lists remained in the 30's, whilst mammal day list varied between 5 and 9 species.


Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality bird species seen regularly during the month included: Osprey (first week only), Dipper, Red Grouse, Crested Tit and Goldeneye, with a couple of sightings of Golden Eagle....

Mammal species seen regularly included: Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Reindeer, Roe Deer, Mountain Goat and Rabbit......with just a couple of brief glimpses of Stoats ... 




A few of our local Ospreys (see pic above) lingered around their now redundant nest sites for a few days early in the month, giving us our last chance to admire these impressive raptors and their fishing skills, until they return in the spring.......


The Dippers (see pic above) on our local rivers appeared to be getting a little territorial, with some aggressive behaviour being witnessed near to prime nest sites, especially at first light...


The Red Grouse on the upland moors, many still in large family groups, continued to entertain my safari clients, and by using my vehicle as a mobile hide, we were often able to get some decent photographic opportunities (see pic above)



Crested Tit is always high on my safari clients 'wish-lists', and although they are 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 soon after first light (see pic above by Steve Simnett)


Golden Eagles are probably more commonly seen on my safaris during the short days of winter, when they have less hours of daylight in which to hunt, but a safari on the 20th saw us enjoy fairly distant, but still excellent views of a pair of sub-adult birds spend over an hour 'herding' a group of Red Deer hinds towards a precipitous cliff edge in a local upland glen, presumably in the hope that one or more would fall to their death, and provide them with venison for the next week or more! An amazing spectacle! (see pic above). Raptors in general seemed to be pretty active throughout the month with us seeing Peregrine, Red Kite, Common Buzzard, and Kestrel regularly as well...

Our local Goldeneyes appear to have had a good breeding season, with some large family parties still showing on our lochs, though the male birds always seem to disappear for the late summer and autumn....

Whilst I was away on my holiday, reports reached me of a Snowy Owl being sighted on the slopes of Ben Macdui - our highest mountain in the Cairngorm range. This is an extremely rare bird in the UK, and most sightings are usually confined to the northern and western isles of Scotland, so a mainland bird will be a 'must-see' for many 'twitchers'! As yet, I have not managed to make the trek up to try and see it, having been thwarted by bad weather on more than one occasion! But watch this space............



With the number of bird species available probably at it's lowest in September , mammals featured highly on my safaris, and towards the end of the month we began to notice some of the larger Red Deer stags starting to show signs of preparing for the forthcoming 'rut', with much roaring and aggressive posturing from elevated positions (see pic above)


Red Squirrels (see pic above) again put a smile on many of my safari clients faces, especially those seeing these attractive and characterful creatures for the first time...

So despite my absence for half of it, September 2014 actually turned out to be a pretty good month for wildlife watching in this area with some very memorable and enjoyable experiences, all in spectacular scenery, and with the winter visiting birds due to arrive, and the Red Deer rut looming, I am already looking forward to October....







Tuesday, September 02, 2014

August 2014 was very strange weather-wise in this area! Starting with rain and floods of near biblical proportions! , it then dried up a little, but turned much cooler and autumnal, with even a few dawn frosts towards the end of the month. The days are noticeably shortening now, but we still have 14-15 hours of usable daylight this far north. With many of our summer visiting bird species departing this area for their wintering areas throughout the month, it was inevitable that bird day-lists would reduce down into the 30's, whilst mammal day lists varied between 6 and 9 species, with earlier starts generally proving more successful. The Highland scenery is extremely picturesque now, with the heather is at it's beautiful purple best,  the ferns turning coppery gold, and the Rowan trees fully laden with brightly coloured berries.


Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality bird species seen regularly included:
Dipper, Red Grouse, Crested Tit, Goldeneye and Goosander, whilst Osprey, Slavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, and Black-Throated Diver were all seen early-month but sightings became less frequent after mid-month, and we also had a few views of Crossbills and Golden Eagle...sadly, Capercaillie and Black Grouse were not seen at all, though that is not unusual at this time of year....

Mammal species seen regularly included:
Red Squirrel, Roe Deer, Red Deer, Reindeer, Mountain Goat, Stoat and Rabbit, with just a few sightings of Brown Hare, Mountain Hare, Sika Deer and Bank Vole...and one memorable early morning encounter with a fishing Otter!


Osprey was again probably most frequently voted as 'bird of the day' by my safari clients in the first half of the month - hardly surprising I suppose when you consider that they are impressively large and attractively marked, and provide additional "wow" factor when seen plunge-diving or carrying fish! (see pic above)


As I mentioned last month, Slavonian Grebe is a very rare breeding bird in this area, so it was a real treat to be able to see at least 2 pairs with youngsters learning to fish and fly on our local lochs before they departed around mid-month.... (see pic above)


It was the same story with our local Red-Throated Divers (see pic above) and Black-Throated Divers, both species of which were seen to have bred successfully, but they too appeared to have vacated this area by the end of the month....


Our local Red Grouse showed well in large family groups on suitable heather moorland early in the month (see pic above), though not surprisingly, those on 'managed' moors became noticeably more wary of humans after the 'glorious' 12th......

Crested Tits, as I explained last month, are now in their 'mixed winter flocks' of  6 or more different bird species 'working' through our local Caledonian pine forests... so to see the 'Cresties' you have to first find a flock, then listen out for their distinctive chuckling trill , then try and pick them out as they move annoyingly flittily through the branches - not an easy feat! , but, satisfyingly for me as a guide, we managed it on a good number of occasions, with many of my safari clients obtaining a difficult and  much sought after 'life-tick' (see pic above)

Dipper sightings were a little up and down, rather like the rivers, as water levels fluctuated in height so much, but we managed a reasonably good success rate by employing my favourite tactic of using a raised bridge vantage point to stake-out a likely looking stretch with plenty of exposed rocks...

Golden Eagle sightings were a bit scarce, and mostly of the very distant variety, apart from one memorable close encounter on the 29th with a juvenile bird seen at quite close range and unusually low to the ground 'duelling' with a Common Buzzard in a secluded upland glen, it's white wing patches and tail base showing well against the 'solid' background....


Raptors in general were seen more frequently than last month, with Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Peregrine (see pic above) and Sparrowhawk all regulars , and Red Kite and Hen Harrier sighted at least once....

Although our Dotterel appeared to have vacated the mountain tops by early August, it was still possible to see large family groups of Ptarmigan and small groups of Snow Buntings with a bit of persistence, although there were very few days that were good enough weather-wise to attempt a 'mountain mission'....


With some of the summer visiting local speciality birds departing this area, mammals became more of a focus on my safaris, and we were fortunate to see a good variety throughout the month. The winner of my guests 'mammal of the day' award was invariably the Red Squirrel (see pic above) - with many of my safari clients getting their first ever sighting of these very endearing and attractive 'Highland speciality' animals.
The Red Deer often ran a close second though, especially when a stag was seen on the ridges of a beautiful upland glen in true 'Monarch of the glen' style (see pic below)


We had a number of good sightings of Stoats this month, especially groups of playful youngsters, including the amazing spectacle of a 'ball' of several 'wrestling' youngsters rolling down a moorland road in front of my safari vehicle! You will be pleased to hear that they 'exploded' off safely in different directions when they finally noticed us approaching!


Butterflies showed well early in the month, including our local speciality the Scotch Argus (see pic above), although sightings reduced noticeably as the temperatures dropped later in the month....


One good thing about the floods this month was the rising rivers finally giving the Salmon the chance to make their way upstream towards their spawning grounds, with trips to a couple of known 'Salmon leaps' (see pic above) providing decent views of these iconic fish completing their amazing migration....


So August 2014 turned out to be a pretty good month for wildlife-watching in the Cairngorms National Park, with lots of good sightings, many memorable experiences, great scenery and a few nice surprises like the Otter and the Stoats, putting smiles on the faces of my safari clients who were visiting Scotland from all around the world......