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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November 2016, despite being colder and snowier than average, was actually quite user-friendly for wildlife watching in this area. With high pressure largely dominant, we enjoyed plenty of cold but dry and sunny days, with light winds and clear skies - ideal for safaris. Add in the last of the autumn colours and some dramatic snow-capped winter landscapes, and a good time was had by all.
Though the days are shortening noticeably now, with only around 8-9 hours of usable daylight, a further influx of winter-visiting birds from further north, including a few rarities,  helped to boost full-day bird day-lists into the low 40's, whilst mammal day-lists varied between 4 and 8 species, depending on the time of our start, and variety of habitats visited.

All photos shown were taken by either myself or my safari clients, and clicking on the picture will enlarge it to full screen.

Winter in a favourite local upland glen

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse, Red GrouseCrested TitDipper, Golden Eagle, and White-Tailed Eagle, and we also had a few sightings of Crossbill and Snow Bunting. Winter visiting birds were represented by Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, Redwings and Fieldfares, whilst literally hundreds of Waxwings were seen feasting on berries throughout the month...a small flock of Hawfinches were a good local 'tick', the first Bramblings were seen, and even a couple of scarce Yellow-Browed Warblers and an incredibly rare Siberian Accentor were reported nearby.....

Mammals seen regularly during the month included:
Red Deer,  Roe Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel,  Rabbit, Mountain Hare and Mountain Goat, with  just a couple of sightings of Brown Hare. The first half of the month also saw us enjoy great views of Atlantic Salmon continuing to spawn in the upper reaches of our local rivers....

Black Grouse
Black Grouse are always popular with my safari clients, probably because of their relative rarity and sadly, declining numbers over much of the UK, However, we are fortunate to have steady numbers in Highland Scotland, and our dawn visits to their traditional local moorland 'lek' sites were usually fruitful, with a maximum of 9, and an average of 6 cock birds seen showing and displaying well this month, with cold, still, frosty mornings generally proving more successful than wet and windy ones. 

Red Grouse
Red Grouse too, being birds of very specific upland heather moorland habitat, are absent from much of the UK these days as well. Thankfully though, we have no shortage of them in this area, and it was interesting to note that once the snow arrived, they seemed to group up into 'super-flocks' often containing dozens of birds, rather than the more usual family sized parties.

Crested Tit by Ron Penn
As the weather turned colder and snowier, Crested Tits actually became less difficult to see, with the easy pickings on offer at my forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, seemingly proving to be almost irresistible. It was a great feeling to show off these true 'Speyside specialities' to my safari clients, especially those who were seeing them for the very first time.

Dipper
Our local Dippers are definitely becoming more aggressive now, with much displaying, dawn singing and chasing each other around being witnessed as they presumably seek to establish winter and breeding territories, and it still makes me shiver every time I see them disappear under the icy water in search of food - they sure are tough little critters!

Golden Eagle or juvenile White-Tailed Eagle? by Ron Penn.. you decide...
As I have mentioned in previous years, and with no apologies for repeating myself... 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 pleasingly regular sightings, and even the odd (very rare)  photo opportunity, of the much coveted Golden Eagle and White -Tailed Eagle, with these awesome and majestic 'Kings of the skies' 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....

Male Crossbill
Crossbills again proved to be  a bit frustrating, with sightings generally being limited to fleeting glimpses of fly-over birds, their 'jip jip' calls alerting us as to their identity. However, on the 27th , we finally got lucky, when a male bird perched and called from a conifer briefly, giving us super views and a very rare photo opportunity.

Snow Bunting by Steve Nicklin
Snow Buntings became a lot easier to see than normal, as they began to frequent known lower altitude sites, no doubt driven down from the mountain tops by the snow, and with their numbers likely to have been swelled by visitors from Scandinavia...

Waxwings
Our local Waxwing flocks continued to grow, with one peaking at around 400 birds! Though they could be frustratingly mobile and elusive, as they work their way through our local berry supplies! By staking out known 'hot-spots' though, I managed to grab a few decent photos....

Hawfinch
Hawfinch is a very uncommon (much less than annual) bird on Speyside, so I was certainly not going to turn down the chance of 'twitching' a flock reported in Larch trees and scrubby bushes near the River Spey at Grantown toward the end of the month. Though they rarely showed clearly for me, I did manage to grab a few reasonable shots..

Onto mammals now....


Mountain Hare
Mountain Hares , now they are turning 'winter white' often feature on my safari clients wish-lists at this time of year, and we were fortunate enough to see them in their snowy upland habitats on a number of occasions. It should be noted though, that a bit of rough uphill walking is likely be required for photography purposes..

Red Deer stag
Although the autumn 'rut' is now over and seemingly already forgotten by the participants!, it was still a treat to see the magnificent fully antlered Red Deer stags now largely back in their same-sex herds in their favoured upland glens, often above the snow-line, with close-up views often leaving my safari clients surprised at their impressive size and powerful build....


Roe Deer
Roe Deer, whilst not quite as impressive as the Reds, are still nice to see, though they can be a little crepuscular, rarely showing well outside of the low-light times of dawn and dusk, and they are generally pretty wary of human disturbance.....so you need to be quick with your camera!


Red Squirrel by Wendy Ball
Red Squirrel is often on my safari clients 'wish-list', being sadly absent from much of the UK now, and I am pleased to say that we had a very good success rate with sightings of these endearing little animals this month, who seemed to spend much of the month hiding and burying nuts ready for the hard times of winter.... 


Atlantic Salmon
November is usually the best month of the year to see our Atlantic Salmon spawning. 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, growing 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! However, sightings are very reliant on the rivers water levels - too little water and the Salmon cannot access the upper reaches - too much water, and they can get there... but we can't see them. As I mentioned last month though, this autumn we got lucky with everything falling into place, and good sightings being enjoyed up until the third week of this month..


When the going gets tough........thank goodness for 4-wheel drive! 
So, although many people that I know seem to get the 'winter-blues' as the days shorten and the temperatures drop , as a keen wildlife watcher, it is far from the case for me up here, with November now one of my favourite and, weather permitting of course, most productive safari months, with lots of great wildlife to be enjoyed, some of the 'local speciality species' at their easiest to see, and all in spectacular and often snowy scenery.....


Cairngorm Mountains - viewed from Nethy Bridge