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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

January 2016 was yet another strangely changeable month weather-wise in this area! With a succession of Atlantic storms bringing regular gales, heavy rain and floods and occasional snow, and the occasional brief high pressure system giving us a few cold, calm and sunny days, with temperatures fluctuating from a chilly minus 10c to a balmy plus 13c! However, by being flexible with itineraries, and cherry-picking the best days weather-wise, we managed some very enjoyable adventures out 'in the field', with the excellent off-road and winter weather abilities (and heated seats) of my Land Rover Discovery frequently proving to be a necessity! The days are noticeably lengthening now however, with over 9 hours of usable daylight, and dawn is still a relatively sociable 7:45 am.
Full-day bird lists averaged 25-35 species, whilst mammal species day-lists varied between 5 and 9 depending on the time we started and number of venues visited.

Panoramic shot of a local loch and the Cairngorm Mountains

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future January visit, I hope the following more detailed information will help....

Local/upland speciality bird species seen regularly on my safaris this month included:
Dipper, Crested Tit, Black Grouse (dawn only), Red Grouse, Snow Bunting and Golden Eagle, with just a few welcome sightings of Hen Harrier and Crossbills ...

Mammals seen regularly by my safari parties during the month included:
Rabbit, Red Squirrel, Roe Deer,  Red Deer, ReindeerMountain Goat, and Mountain Hare (now fully white) with just a couple of sightings of Brown Hare and Stoat and one solitary glimpse of a Weasel! Whilst a day-trip to the sunny Moray coast to escape poor weather on Speyside on the 23rd gave me good views of Seals...

Dipper
Our Dippers continued to entertain on local rivers, with their rarely-heard rippling warble of a song being projected proudly from a prominent rock soon after dawn as they proclaim their ownership of the territory and attempt to attract a mate.....we also saw them walk underwater and emerge a few seconds later with food.. seeing them immerse themselves like that at this coldest time of year still impresses me!! 

Crested Tit by safari client Sandra Morrish
Forest feeding stations perform two important roles when the weather turns really wintry - feeding the hungry and desperate forest birds, and giving us the chance to see them really close, and even hand-feed some of them! As well as the more common species, we are also lucky enough to regularly see Crested Tits too - these very localised and sought-after Caledonian forest specialities giving many of my safari clients a 'life-tick' , and putting a smile on many a face....

The same forest sites also gave us our few brief views of Crossbills, though once again, they proved frustratingly mobile.....

Cold weather also drives other scarcer species such as Reed Bunting    Brambling,  YellowhammerBullfinch and Redpolls to visit feeding stations, and it is not uncommon for me to record all these species in and around this area in midwinter ......


Our local Blackcock continued to provide our dawn entertainment, with as many as 9 of these increasingly rare birds seen displaying in spectacular style at  traditional 'lek' sites on remote moorlands, often on snow - a splendid reward for an early start, and a great way to start the day! 

Red Grouse (female)
Our local Red Grouse seemed to react to the colder weather, their lack of camouflage on the snow, and the increased threat from predators on the heather moorlands by grouping up into 'mega-flocks' of up to 60 birds - so although we could go a while without seeing any as we crept slowly along remote tracks using my vehicle as a mobile 'hide', when we did find them , we often found lots!! Though on the milder days, the groups disbanded, and we saw the first real 'territorial' behaviour from the cock birds..

Though Snow Buntings can often be seen in coastal areas at this time of year, I think it is even nicer to see them against a snowy upland backdrop more befitting their name.... and we were fortunate to see them several times this month.. including one flock of over 30 birds on the 16th.... 

Golden Eagle is another rare, iconic, localised and much sought-after bird in the UK, and as I have mentioned before, the short days of the winter months give us our best chance of seeing them. January 2016 continued this trend, and we were lucky enough to enjoy a number of good sightings of these majestic birds hunting in upland glens... with the Ravens and Buzzards that often harassed them, looking really quite small alongside these 'kings of the skies' !

Whilst on the subject of Eagles, I am aware of a number of recent sightings of White-Tailed Eagle on my local patch, though rather frustratingly, I was not lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to connect with them this month.....

Still on raptors... we had a couple of nice sightings of Hen Harrier (both ring-tailed females) hunting low over heather moorlands this month, along with numerous sightings of Common Buzzard, Kestrel and Red Kite, and just a few glimpses of Barn Owl, GoshawkPeregrine and Sparrowhawk ....

Although I am not a massive fan myself... gull enthusiasts may be interested to know that we have had two northern specialities, namely Glaucous and Iceland Gulls showing well on flooded fields locally this month....

With many of our local lochs frozen over, these same flooded riverside fields also gave us good views of family groups of winter visiting Whooper Swans and large flocks of Greylag Geese....

Male and female Eider
As I mentioned briefly in my mammal summary earlier, a day-trip exploring the quaint fishing villages along the nearby Moray coast on the 23rd also gave me my first views this year of coastal/seabirds such as Turnstone, Redshank, Long-Tailed Duck, and one of my favourites, The Eider....though a hoped-for sighting of a Little Auk escaped me......

Colourful fishing boats in Burghead harbour


Onto mammals now.....


Mountain Hare sheltering in it's 'form'
Mountain Hares, being absent from most of the UK are always popular with my safari clients, and we did particularly well with them this month, with some super close-up views and photo opportunities ... though it should be noted that you do sometimes have to trek a little way up steep mountainsides in wintry conditions to achieve this.....

Red Deer stag
It can be the same story with Red Deer, who are most frequently seen on the high ridges of upland glens...though when the weather turns really wild, they can sometimes be found sheltering in the forests at the foot of the hills...

The same upland sites also gave us regular good sightings of feral Mountain Goats .. with many of the females looking to be heavily pregnant.... expect some aaaahh! pics of their cute youngsters soon...

Red Squirrel
In the forests, especially in winter, our Red Squirrels can usually be relied upon to take advantage of well stocked feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, often competing with the 'Cresties' for our attention and camera viewfinders!!

Roe Deer are seen frequently soon after first light on my safaris, but are generally very elusive during the remaining daylight hours....I guess their timid nature means that they feel safer under the cover of darkness....

Our local Reindeer however, are far from timid, and although they are free to roam far and wide, they can often be seen on and around the lower slopes of Cairngorm Mountain...occasionally even being found licking the salt from the heavily treated  'ski road'.....

Seals on the Moray coast
Seals do not often feature on my sightings blog, but the aforementioned Moray coast adventure on the 23rd gave me great close-up views of them, that is until an inconsiderate dog-walker let her dog scare them off of their haul-out spot..... grrrrrrr!!!

So, despite the very changeable and occasionally extreme winter weather conditions this month, we seem to have got 2016 off to a good start, with some enjoyable and exhilarating days out and plenty of memorable wildlife sightings, and all in some amazing 'winter wonderland' scenery.......so as the recent Land Rover TV advert suggests... hibernate? ...no... hibernot!!

Another snowy mountain adventure.....




Tuesday, January 05, 2016

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 my safari guiding services during 2015......

December 2015 was a very strange month weather-wise in the Cairngorms national Park, with us experiencing heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures, our worst rain and floods on record, gale force winds, and our warmest December days since records began!!!
Despite the very 'changeable' and challenging conditions, and the days being at their shortest now, with only around 8 hours of daylight, we still enjoyed some memorable days out with plenty of good wildlife sightings against often dramatic Highland backdrops.
Bird species day-lists averaged mid 30's, and mammal day-lists ranged between 4 and 8 species, depending on the start time, length of safari and number of venues visited.
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....

A favourite local upland glen

Wildlife highlights included:

Local/upland speciality bird species seen regularly during the month included:  Crested Tit, Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Dipper and Golden Eagle,..though Crossbills yet again proved frustratingly elusive, with our brief views being limited to the 'fly-over' variety....Whilst a couple of mountain-top adventures gave us sightings of Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting....

Mammals seen regularly during the month included:
Red Squirrel, Red Deer,  Roe Deer, ReindeerRabbit, Brown Hare, and Mountain Hare (most now fully white) with just a few sightings of Mountain Goat.

Crested Tit by safari client Paul Renshaw

Our local Crested Tits continued to show well at my favourite forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, 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 for the first time.

Displaying Black Grouse too proved very popular with my safari clients again this month, with our dawn visits to their traditional moorland 'lek' sites allowing us to enjoy the spectacular 'show' of up to 13 of these increasingly rare birds strutting their stuff, though the poor weather and light conditions meant that a decent photo eluded us...


Red Grouse by safari client Paul Renshaw
In stark contrast, 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 all territorial, with some seen perching on the few higher points and heard uttering their guttural 'go-back, go back' calls...


Dipper
Similarly, our local Dippers too are definitely already planning for the spring breeding season, with much singing and displaying being witnessed , especially near to favoured nesting spots such as bridges....which is good , as it gives us much more chance to see and photograph them....


Overhead shot of Golden Eagle by safari client Paul Renshaw

As I mentioned last month...the short daylight hours mean that 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, with views of these magnificent and iconic birds 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 Hen Harrier and Goshawk, should not be forgotten though, as all were seen at least once.....




Male Bullfinch

Although not really a 'local speciality' bird, it is always nice to get good views of a Bullfinch, and we were lucky enough to get several good sightings of these beautifully coloured, and increasingly rare birds at forest feeding stations.. where another very welcome by-product of regular feeding is the incredibly confiding behaviour of the hungry Coal Tits and Great Tits, who in the colder months are often happy to feed from our hands! 

Coal Tits and Great Tits feeding from the hand



Flock of Greylag Geese with 'mystery' white Goose 

Winter visiting birds continued to show well, with Whooper Swans'grey' GeeseTealWigeonRedwings and Fieldfares all being seen, and just a few reports of Waxwings, though we did not get lucky with them.....



Ptarmigan by safari client Steph Cottell



The changeable weather meant that suitable and safe opportunities for 'mountain adventures' in search of the mountain top species - Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting - were very limited! However, by using my Cairngorm Mountain Birdwatching Guide licence to allow access from the normally 'closed system', and braving windchill temperatures down to -18c,  we did manage a couple of walks that provided views of both species..though it is fair to say we definitely earned them!!



Raven by safari client Paul Renshaw


Although Ravens are seen frequently in this area, and I probably take them for granted a little bit, I am aware that they are much rarer over most of the UK, and I thought this excellent photo showed their 'diamond' shaped tail - a major i.d. tip, very well....


Onto mammals now....

Mountain Hare in winter coat
Mountain Hares, generally being creatures of remote uplands, are not easily seen by most UK wildlife watchers on their local patches, so always prove popular on my safaris. They are now in their finest white winter coats , and visits to my favourite sites provided us with some decent views and a few photo opportunities...


Red Deer stags
The same could probably be said of Red Deer, and it is very unusual for us not to see at least one herd of these impressive animals, when visiting suitable habitat...


Red Squirrel by safari client Steph Cottell

Likewise, Red Squirrels are generally confined to Highland Scotland, and their liking for peanuts at forest feeding stations always gives us a decent chance of seeing them....



So despite the weather, December 2015 once again turned out to be another splendid month for wildlife watching in this area. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and my other sightings blogs throughout the year as much as I have enjoyed experiencing them......And I am already looking forward to even more wildlife-filled adventures in 2016.........




Sundown at a local loch by Steph Cottell