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

Friday, April 01, 2016

March 2016 , similarly to this time last year, was again a bit of a mixture weather-wise in this area, starting off cold, dry and wintry, but turning milder with some sunny days mid-month, and finishing with a 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 5:45am.
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, 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.

I was away down in southern England and Malta for much of the second half 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.

A Cairngorms moorland

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

Local speciality and upland bird species seen regularly throughout the month included:
Dipper, Crested Tit, Black Grouse, Red Grouse, Golden Eagle and Whooper Swan ... We also had one rare glimpse of a flying male Capercaillie , a few brief sightings of Crossbills... and towards the very end of the month, our first local reports this year of Ring OuzelSlavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver and Golden Plover - all coming into their splendid summer breeding plumage. 
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 where the weather was suitable, though it should be noted that there was often a lot of disturbance from snowsports enthusiasts....

Mammals seen regularly by my safari parties during the month included:
Rabbit, Red Squirrel, Roe Deer,  Red Deer, ReindeerMountain Goat, and Mountain Hare (mostly white) with just a couple of sightings of Brown Hare, and one of a Stoat....


Wildlife highlights included:

Dipper
Dippers again featured frequently this month, with visits to my most reliable river sites often giving us excellent views of these upland river specialities. Some seemed to be defending nest sites, usually near a bridge, and we also witnessed them singing, displaying to prospective mates, and carrying nesting material...
Crested Tit
Crested Tit, being a true Speyside speciality, is nearly always on my safari clients 'wish-list', and once again my forest feeding stations came up trumps, giving us some splendid close-up sightings and photo opportunities , though they did become noticeably less frequent visitors towards the end of the month, as natural food became more plentiful, and the urge to breed kicked in...

Black Grouse were again the dawn attraction on my safaris, with up to 11 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 breeding season looms...

Red Grouse (male)
Whereas our local Red Grouse appear to have already paired-up, and the cock birds seem to be concentrating more on defending their territory from rival birds,  never straying too far from their female partner...

As I mentioned last month, with no 'rogue' birds to go for now, our Capercaillie sightings are much more difficult to come by, so a view of a cock bird in flight on the 10th, though brief, was very welcome....

Common Buzzard
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....We also had another solitary sighting of a Hen Harrier (female), and although I have yet to see one this year, the first returning Ospreys have been reported in the last few days...

Curlew
The list of waders returning to their summer breeding grounds continued to grow, with Curlew, Redshank and Golden Plover joining the  Oystercatchers and Lapwings .....

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 again proved popular with my safari clients, presumably because they are confined to upland areas of the UK, and are not 'on the doorstep' of most wildlife watchers..

Feral Mountain Goat
The same upland glens also gave us more good views of Red Deer and feral Mountain Goats, and it was good to see them able to feed more easily than recently, with the snow slowly disappearing....

Red Squirrel
No such problems for our local Red Squirrels though, who are always happy to take advantage of my favourite forest feeding stations and rarely seem to have to go hungry...

Roe Deer
Many of my safari clients seem to enjoy seeing Roe Deer, and I am always surprised to hear that they rarely see them in their local area...as I see them regularly... until I realise that they are rarely out at dawn or dusk, when this species is most commonly seen...


And now for something completely different....

Malta is maybe not high up on many UK birders 'wish-list' of places to visit, what with it's historic reputation for horrifically high levels of hunting and trapping of birds - but maybe it now should be? Thanks mainly to the efforts of Bird Life Malta (www.birdlifemalta.org), though it is still not a completely satisfactory situation, recent years have seen a big improvement in attitude, the education of  Maltese schoolchildren about conservation, the creation of a number of new bird reserves, and stricter new hunting regulations imposed, meaning that there has been a decent reduction in the activities of the bird hunters. Add this to it's location on the 'migration flyway' between Africa and Europe and there is scope for some pretty decent birding, especially in spring and autumn - my last four short mid-March visits have given me sought-after species such as, Spectacled Warbler,  Bluethroat, Hoopoe, Alpine Swift, Sub-Alpine Warbler, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Trumpeter Finch, Black-Winged Stilt, Ashy - headed Yellow Wagtail, Black-necked Grebe, Marsh Sandpiper, Wryneck and many more..... add these to the Maltese endemics such as Blue Rock Thrush, Fan-tailed Warbler and Sardinian Warbler, and a nice bit of late winter sunshine, and you can see that maybe it is worth considering a visit yourself? I am proud to be a member of Bird Life Malta, and would urge as many UK birders as possible to join too, to help them with their valuable work in protecting what are in all probability some of OUR breeding birds, during their stay on Malta........


So, to summarise, March saw the end (I hope!) of the extreme winter weather in the Cairngorms National Park, meaning no more 'endurance test' safaris!,  and this helped us to experience another excellent month of very enjoyable wildlife watching. And with spring approaching, and most of our summer breeding birds about to arrive, we are now entering my favourite part of the bird-watching calendar, and I look forward to updating you again in another month, hopefully with stories of more great sightings, and maybe some decent photos too...

River Dulnain