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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

May 2016 finally saw spring reach the Cairngorms National park. With no real extremes of weather, the mixture of sunshine, cloud and showers and temperatures creeping up into double figures, the landscape now has a healthy, fresh green glow, and our wild flowers and butterflies could finally emerge and add a splash of very welcome seasonal colour. Add in over 16 hours of usable daylight, and the fact that all of our summer visiting birds have now arrived, and you have a recipe for some very successful and enjoyable wildlife-watching adventures, with full-day safaris regularly giving us bird species day-lists over 50 and mammal species counts approaching double figures, with early starts and a large variety of habitats visited giving us noticeably more and better views.

An atmospheric shot of a Cairngorms moorland at dawn

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future May 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 this month included:
Osprey, Black Grouse (pre-dawn start required), Red Grouse, Ring Ouzel, Slavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver, Goldeneye, Dipper, and rather surprisingly, Scottish Crossbill, with just a couple of views of Golden Eagle and Merlin, and one of a Short-Eared Owl .....it should be noted though, that we failed to see the very secretive Capercaillie and Crested Tit at all this month...

Mammals seen regularly by my safari parties during the month included:
Rabbit, Mountain Hare (now a mottled grey-white), Brown Hare, Roe Deer, Red Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel, Mountain Goat and Bank Vole, with just a few brief glimpses of both Stoat and Weasel...

Osprey with trout by safari client Gary Wills
Our local Ospreys continued to entertain my safari clients, often being voted 'Bird of the day',  and although the female birds spent much of the month deep in their nests incubating eggs, and later in the month, brooding young, we occasionally witnessed the male birds 'plunge-diving' to catch a fish,  delivering fish and more nest-building materials, and witnessed flights overhead on many occasions - impressive stuff!!


Black Grouse lekking at dawn
Black Grouse 'lekking' is surely one of British wildlife's top 10 sights (and sounds), and our local birds continued to 'lek' throughout the month, with up to 10 cock birds fighting it out, occasionally with a few females 'spectating',  though with dawn at around 4:15am, and the performance only lasting for around 90 minutes on average, it should be noted that a very early start is needed if you want to see them...and that we have to view from a respectful distance....(I took the above unusually close-up pic from a hide).....but this is still a highly recommended and memorable experience, especially as on several occasions, we had a supporting cast of Short-Eared Owls and a Merlin hunting across the moors close to the lek site!!!


Cock Red Grouse
On our local heather moorlands, the Red Grouse continued to show well, with some cock birds still calling and displaying, and late in the month we began to see the hen birds with their newly fledged families of up to 8 very cute fluffy youngsters...

Ring Ouzel
Ring Ouzels were seen regularly in their upland habitat, especially early in the day,  though they were now a little harder to find as they were no longer singing, and sightings were mainly restricted to male birds collecting worms, as the females were presumably on nests.....

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe
The extremely beautiful (and incredibly rare) Slavonian Grebes were again seen and enjoyed regularly on suitably quiet local lochs, with the male birds seen fishing and delivering food to the nests hidden in the bankside sedge beds.....

Black-Throated Diver
Both Red-Throated and Black-Throated Divers too, UK-wise, are only really found breeding, and in their dapper summer plumage, on suitable lochs in northern Scotland. Due to their general shyness, most views we get are through a scope at a fair distance, and any ripple on the water makes finding them very difficult,  but on a couple of occasions we get lucky and obtained a slightly closer look.. 

Drake Goldeneye
The same could be said of our Goldeneye, with them too being a north of Scotland speciality, and late in the month we got to see their ridiculously cute youngsters too... nice!

Newly-fledged Dipper 
Dippers are always popular with my safari clients, and from mid-month we saw the parent birds flying back to their nest with beaks full of insects (see pic above) and later on we got to see the very cute newly fledged youngsters out on the rivers with their parents for the first time this year....

Male Scottish Crossbill
Scottish Crossbills are usually the cause of much frustration on my safaris, with me regularly hearing their distinctive 'jip' jip' jip' calls overhead, and my safari clients getting just a brief glimpse of the birds flying away, never to be seen again! But this month, they were actually very obliging, with us getting some great views, on a number of occasions, even through the scope, of family parties feeding together on pine cone seeds, giving us the chance to admire the brick-red males, greeny-yellow females and streaky youngsters - excellent stuff!

Golden Eagle is another iconic Scottish bird which always seems to be on visiting birders 'wish-lists', and we are fortunate to have a number of suitable upland glens nearby, however, with 18+ hours of daylight in which to hunt, the chances of just happening to be in the right place at the right time to see one are fairly low during the summer months, we did however manage to get a few decent views, particularly earlier in the month...

Merlin is another raptor which you need a bit of luck (or lots of time!) to get to see hunting over it's moorland home, on the 13th however, we got to see one chasing a Meadow Pipit and then perching on a rock briefly...then flying away as I raised my camera....

Wood Warbler
Other good birds of note seen this month included:
Several pairs of Wood Warblers singing well in a local birch wood, and at the same venue, a female Pied Flycatcher, seemingly prospecting a nest-box....Bullfinches early in the day at forest feeding stations ,Cuckoo, Redstart, Golden Plover,  and plenty of Spotted Flycatchers catching insects in our local forests....

Male Bullfinch by safari client Gary Wills
Although I didn't make any trips up to the mountain-tops this month in search of Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting, a few of my safari clients did, with a few decent sightings of both species being achieved....

May is definitely 'fledgling month', and we saw youngsters of many species, including Osprey, Scottish CrossbillRed Grouse, Dipper, Lapwing, Curlew, Goldeneye, Mallard and Greylag Goose...


Onto mammals now........


Our local Mountain Hares, though they are now in their blue-grey Spring outfits, again proved popular with my safari clients, and were seen to be chasing each other around in a frisky fashion....Being animals of remote upland habitat, they are not easily seen by most UK wildlife-watchers... and were often voted 'mammal of the day'....


Young Mountain Goats
The same could also be said of Mountain Goats and we were lucky enough to have many good views of these wild looking creatures, with their youngsters now almost as big as the adults...


Red Squirrel by safari client Gary Wills
Red Squirrels, being largely confined to Highland Scotland are always a treat for visitors to see and although forest feeding stations again proved to be our best bet for sightings, we did also manage a few views of them in more natural surroundings on our forest walks....


Super Red Deer stag action pic by safari client Deborah Hutchinson

It's always nice to see Deer too, and early starts and a variety of habitats on the itinerary can give us the best chance of seeing up to four different species, though it is the local speciality Red Deer and Reindeer that are usually the most popular....

Caledonian pine forest


So to summarise, May was another excellent month for wildlife watching in this area, and is probably THE month to visit if you are wanting to see a good cross-section and maximum numbers of both Highland and more common bird and mammal species in a large variety of very different habitats, in (usually) good weather conditions, and still with nice snowy backdrops. I certainly enjoyed looking through my reports and photos whilst compiling this update, and I hope you enjoyed reading it too....


Saturday, May 07, 2016

April 2016 was certainly the coldest and snowiest April I have experienced in my 14 years living on Speyside! The almost continuous northerly airflow brought cold air down from the Arctic circle and the regular snow, sleet and hail showers made it feel more like midwinter than early spring! Anyone considering visiting this area in April would be well advised to check the weather forecasts, and be sure to bring the appropriate clothing!
On the plus side though, it was actually a generally sunny and dry month, which made for good wildlife-watching conditions, and with around 14 hours of usable daylight now, we enjoyed many memorable days out, with lots of excellent sightings.
Although most of the winter visiting birds had departed by mid-month, the influx of migrant birds north into this area helped bird species day-lists creep ever higher, with 50+ species not uncommon on a full day, whilst full day mammal species day-lists regularly crept up towards double figures.

Early morning at Loch Morlich

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future April 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: 
OspreyBlack Grouse (pre-dawn start required), Red Grouse,  Ring Ouzel,  Slavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver, Goldeneye,  Snow Bunting and Golden Eagle, with a few dawn views of Capercaillie, and a couple of brief glimpses of Crossbills. It should be noted though, that due to their very secretive nature at this time , Crested Tit becomes extremely difficult to see during breeding season (April-May), and we struggled to see them throughout the month...

Mammals seen regularly by my safari parties during the month included:
Rabbit, Red Squirrel, Roe Deer,  Red DeerReindeerMountain GoatMountain Hare (now a mottled white/ blue-grey)  Brown Hare, Bank Vole, and  a few brief glimpses of Stoat and Weasel.....

Wildlife highlights included:

Osprey in nest
One of my favourite wildlife moments every year, is the return of our local Ospreys to their nesting sites. These impressive birds of prey always provide great entertainment, with there dashing good looks, aerial acrobatics and plunge diving to catch fish. My favourite local pair were reunited early in the month after a winter apart in West Africa, and were soon seen building up the nest, mating frequently and by the end of the month the hen bird appeared to be incubating eggs as the cock bird performed all of the fishing duties.

Black Grouse lekking at dawn
Dawn ( now around 5am ) visits to local Black Grouse leks continued to delight and amaze my safari clients with as many as 14 cock birds seen 'performing', their incredible  bubbling and whooshing sounds drifting across the moor, and on several occasions we were very lucky to witness up to 5 hen birds watching the action and some were even seen mating with there chosen partner - a truly fantastic wildlife spectacle and a great way to start the day! 

Cock Red Grouse - impressive eyebrows!
Our local moorlands also continue to echo with the unusual cackling calls of the cock Red Grouse,many of whom were still actively displaying  from prominent positions, but from mid-month we saw very few hen birds, suggesting that many may already be incubating eggs.....

Male Ring Ouzel
Ring Ouzel is always popular with my safari clients, presumably because they tend to breed only in remote upland areas well away from human disturbance, and can be quite tricky to find. We are fortunate in having plenty of suitable habitat for them in this area, and we were able to get decent views and photographs of both male and female birds on a number of occasions. 

Slavonian (Horned) Grebes
Slavonian ( or horned ) Grebe is not only one of the UK's rarest breeding birds, nesting only in the very North of Scotland, but in summer plumage surely one of our most beautiful, wit its chestnut, black and copper toned body, scarlet eyes and amazing golden ear tufts it usually puts a smile on even the most hardcore birders face! .... and we are very fortunate to have a few pairs on local lochs...lucky us! 

Red-Throated Divers
Also on our local lochs we were able to obtain regular decent views of two other very rare and beautifully marked birds in the rather  dapper forms of Red Throated Diver and Black Throated Diver. Decent photos of these two species are generally quite difficult to achieve though, as they usually seem to like to keep a fair distance from humans. 

Drake Goldeneye
Still on the lochs splendid drake Goldeneye continued to perform their elaborate courtship displays, though with many of the females now on eggs their audience is becoming noticeably smaller.....

Snow Bunting
Although we did not attempt any mountain top adventures in search of Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting this month we regularly saw a flock of up to 18 of the latter frequenting the Cairngorms Ski Centre car park when the snow returned to lower levels. 

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle is certainly an iconic bird of the Scottish Highlands and one that almost every visiting birder wants to see. Generally speaking the short days of winter give us the best chance of seeing these magnificent birds of prey but we did surprisingly well this month, with lots of good sightings. Though most views were quite distant we also enjoyed several reasonably close encounters with hunting birds - always a very memorable wildlife experience! 


Capercaillie too is another iconic bird of this area and early morning visits to the RSPB Loch Garten Caper - watch initiative ( 5.30 to 8.00 am  from 1st April to 20th May each year ) were a little disappointing this month with just a handful of very distant views obtained. Generally though a visit to their hide does give you the best opportunity of seeing these impressive but very secretive birds, and without disturbing them.

Crossbill (juv/female)
Crossbills are probably one of the most difficult of our local speciality birds to get a good view of. However, this month we did actually manage a few decent sightings of perched birds feeding from cones near the tops of conifer trees. Although I only managed one very poor photo.........

Woodcock
Other good birds of note seen this month included an unusual but very welcome daylight sighting of a usually crepuscular species, namely the Woodcock. With one obliging individual showing well down to close range at the edge of a quiet forest track. Bullfinches are always a delight to see and we were fortunate enough to get some excellent close up views of these attractively coloured but increasingly rare birds. 

Male Bullfinch
As well as the aforementioned Ospreys and Ring Ouzels, other returning migrant birds seen this month for the first time this year included Wheatear, Sand Martin, House Martin, Swallow, Willow Warbler, Redstart and Common Sandpiper.

Great Northern Diver
A trip to the wild and wonderful Isle of Mull at the very end of the month also gave views of White Tailed Eagle, Hen Harrier ( male and female ), a selection of sea birds including  Gannets and Eiders and the much sought after West Coast specialities, Black Guillemots and Great Northern Diver, as well as providing some wonderful scenic photo opportunities. 


Onto mammals now........

Mountain Hare
Our local Mountain Hares, though they are rapidly morphing their attractive all white winter coats into their blue-grey Spring outfits, again proved popular with my safari clients, presumably because they are confined to upland areas of the UK and are therefore not easily accessible to most wild life watchers. 

Mountain Goats
The same could also be said of Mountain Goats and we were lucky enough to have many good views of these wild looking creatures, now with well grown youngsters.


Red Squirrel
Similarly, Red Squirrels, being largely confined to Highland Scotland are always a treat for visitors to see and forest feeding stations again proved to be our best bet for sightings.

Red Deer stag - unusually close!
It's always nice to see Deer too, and early starts and a variety of habitats on the itinerary can give us the best chance of seeing up to four different species.

Brown Hare
Brown Hares were witnessed 'boxing' and chasing around this month in suitable habitat, though a decent 'action' photo has escaped me so far.....

Dolphin
Dolphins are always high on most peoples mammal wish list when visiting coastal areas, and we are very lucky to have probably the best land based sight in the UK nearby ( about an hour drive from Aviemore ) at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle just north of Inverness. A visit at the right stage of the tide on the 29th  gave us excellent close up views of these entertaining,  charismatic and surprisingly large animals. 

And on to amphibians!!!

Frog
The warmer days saw the emergence of our local Frogs and Toads. I only started photographing these last year, so I thought I would have another go this year - I am actually quite pleased with some of the shots!


So, to summarise....It is only when I have time to sit down and compile my monthly wildlife sightings blog and look back through the photos that I have taken during the month that I really become aware of what a great time I have had, appreciate how lucky I am to live and work here,  and see how successful our safaris have been.... and it would appear that April 2016, despite the unusually wintry weather, turned out to be a really excellent and very enjoyable month for wildlife watching in and around the Cairngorms National Park. With the returning summer visiting birds flooding northwards to join our resident species, the days lengthening, flowers (finally!) blooming, stunning scenery and the weather ( generally! ) improving, I can honestly say that I would not want to be anywhere else in the world than here in the majestic Scottish Highlands at this time of year....


Sunrise at Corran Ferry