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

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

February 2016 was the snowiest month of this winter so far in the Cairngorms National Park, with regular sharp frosts, a fair few sunny days, and, to add a bit of variety, occasional rain and gales, but thankfully, overall we had more safari-friendly days than we did in January! This allowed us to get out and enjoy some very successful and memorable safaris in the beautiful Highland scenery, with my faithful Land Rover Discovery again proving it's worth, keeping us safe and warm when conditions got tough.
The days are definitely lengthening now, with over 10 hours of usable daylight, and dawn is still a relatively user-friendly 6:45 am. With a few wader species starting to return to their inland breeding sites, full-day bird species day-lists regularly crept up over the 40 mark, whilst mammal species day-lists varied between 5 and 8 depending on our start time and the variety of habitats visited.

Dawn on a Highland moor

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future February visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken by myself or my safari clients, will help....

Local/upland speciality bird species seen regularly on my safaris this month included:
Dipper, Crested Tit, Black Grouse (dawn only), Red Grouse and Snow Bunting,  with just a few very welcome sightings of Golden EagleHen Harrier, Short-Eared Owl, and Crossbills ...
Frustratingly, the weather was often too bad, or the mountains just too disturbed by snowsports enthusiasts to attempt mountain treks in search of Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting......

Mammals seen regularly by my safari parties during the month included:
Rabbit, Red Squirrel, Roe Deer,  Red Deer, ReindeerMountain Goat, and Mountain Hare (white) with just a couple of sightings of Brown Hare, and one very rare and unforgettable pre-dawn encounter on the 20th with a Scottish Wildcat chasing a Red Squirrel round a tree!!!

Wildlife highlights included:

Dipper
Dippers featured frequently this month, with visits to my favourite river sites often giving us good views of these upland river specialities seemingly defending 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, and a 'stake-out' on the morning of the 20th saw me following the techniques recommended by my pro photographer client to get my best ever Crestie shots after many years of trying!

Still in the forests, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record (giving away my age there ha ha!), Crossbills again proved to be very frustrating, with our sightings restricted to a few fleeting glimpses of flying birds, identified by their distinctive 'jip-jip' calls....

Displaying Black Grouse
Dawn on my safaris was again spent at a local Black Grouse lek site, where we braved the 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?

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 strut around and chase off rivals! This makes them much easier to spot and hear on their vast heather moorland habitat, and many appeared to have 'paired-up' already.....

Capercaillie droppings
Usually at this time of year, I am pleased to include pictures of our local 'rogue' Capercaillie,   'Arnie' strutting his stuff... but sadly, after 4-5 years as 'top-dog',  he appears to have either been ousted from his territory by a non-rogue bird, or has not made it through the winter..... so I am afraid all I can offer you on this occasion is a photo of some Caper pooh that I spotted in a local forest.....clearly consisting mainly of pine needles.......

Snow Bunting
Snow Buntings featured frequently this month too, though not always where we may have expected to find them.....with sightings occurring in upland glens, and on upland moors as well as their more usual haunts on and around Cairngorm Mountain....

Red Kite
Bird of prey sightings , though down in frequency a little compared with the last few months, were still decent, with Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Peregrine, Barn Owl,  and Golden Eagle all seen at least a few times, and some of these species were observed displaying or carrying nesting materials....We also had a solitary sighting on the 13th of a Hen Harrier hunting low across a local heather moorland.....

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


Male Bullfinch
The continuing cold weather again drove 'farmland' species such as Reed Bunting,  Brambling,  YellowhammerBullfinch and Redpolls to visit gardens and feeding stations in this area....

As I mentioned earlier, the end of the month saw a few waders returning to their inland breeding sites, having spent the winter around the coast, with Lapwings, Oystercatchers and Curlews all being noted....

Onto mammals now.....

As I mentioned in my mammal round-up earlier, 'Mammal of the month' has to be the Scottish Wildcat seen briefly in the beams of my vehicle headlights, in hot pursuit of a Red Squirrel before dawn on the 20th... our first sighting of this incredibly rare and sought-after species since April 2014!!

Mountain hare
Which , rather cruelly perhaps, meant that Mountain Hare was harshly relegated into second position, despite us getting some super close-up views and photo opportunities ... though it should be noted that we sometimes had to suffer a little for our art, in that we often had to trek a fair way up steep mountainsides in deep snow and wintry conditions to achieve this.....

Red Deer
It was a similar story with our local Red Deer, who were most frequently seen on the high ridges of upland glens...though when the weather turned really wintry, they were sometimes found sheltering in and around the forests at the foot of the hills...

The same upland sites also gave us regular good (if a bit distant) sightings of feral Mountain Goats .. though a decent photo evaded me, and we have yet to spot any of the new-born youngsters that we normally see at this time of year....

Red Squirrel
In the Caledonian pine forests, our Red Squirrels continued to take advantage of the easy pickings on offer at feeding stations, giving us great close-up views and photo opportunities...

Whilst the forest edges gave us regular dawn sightings of Roe Deer , though their naturally timid nature and  fleet-footedness meant that a decent photo escaped me this month....

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 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.....

Winter sun over a local upland loch