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

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January 2017 was, with the exception of a brief cold and snowy spell mid-month, unusually mild and largely precipitation free in this area, with no real extremes of weather experienced, especially when compared with previous January's.
So although the lack of snow was not ideal for 'classic' winter scenic photography, or for winter sports enthusiasts, it did make getting around remote areas much easier than normal, and the generally benign conditions were actually pretty good for wildlife-watching. Add in the fact that the days are noticeably lengthening now, with around 9 hours of usable daylight, and we were able to enjoy plenty of excellent days out , with some memorable wildlife sightings, and lots of lovely new 'year-ticks'!!
Full-day local safari bird lists usually topped-out in the 40's, though a trip to the nearby Moray Coast can boost this total considerably, whilst mammal day lists varied between 4 and 9 depending on the time of our start and number of habitats visited.
To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future January visit yourself, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken by myself or my safari clients will help - clicking on the picture will enlarge it to full screen.

On safari in a beautiful local glen

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse, Red Grouse, DipperCrested TitGolden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle, and we also had a few decent sightings of Goshawk and Crossbill whilst a couple of ascents of Cairngorm Mountain produced Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting. 
Winter visiting birds were represented by a few remaining  family groups of Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, lots of wildfowl such as Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Wigeon and Teal, and decent numbers of Redwings and Fieldfares, whilst a few very mobile Waxwings continued to feast on our fast disappearing berries throughout the month...a small flock of Hawfinches lingered, though they too were much more mobile.. a few Bramblings and Redpolls were also seen and we had one sighting of Rough-Legged Buzzard.

Mammals seen regularly locally during the month included:
Red Deer,  Roe Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel,  Rabbit, Brown Hare, and Mountain Hare (white), with  just a couple of sightings of Mountain Goat.
Whilst a couple of trips to the moray Coast gave good views of both Common and Grey Seal...


Duelling Blackcock at dawn
The end of the month saw our local Blackcocks become noticeably more numerous, and considerably more aggressive at their dawn (around 07:30 am) leks, as they prepare to ramp things up for the forthcoming breeding season, with up to 9 blue-black male birds being seen attempting to stake their claim for mating rights with the hen birds in the spring with much posturing and squaring up to rivals, and the frostier mornings providing the best performances.....

Cock Red Grouse
On our local upland moorlands, the Red Grouse also seem to be upping the aggression levels, as they too seek to establish a territory, attract females and repel their rivals, their guttural 'go-bak, go-bak' calls echoing across the otherwise empty moor, and alerting us to their presence in the heather.....

Dipper
On local rivers, the same could also be said of our Dippers, with them too exhibiting a clear awareness of the forthcoming breeding season with much singing, wing-waggling and chasing-off of rivals, especially near to known nest sites...

Crested Tit
Our local Crested Tits continued to show well at my favourite forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, and particularly on the colder days, when they are presumably at their most desperate for food.
It is worth noting that the winter months (October-March) are actually the best time of year for seeing the 'wee Cresties', as these characterful little birds can be frustratingly secretive and unobtrusive during the breeding season....

White-Tailed Eagle
As I mentioned last month...the short daylight hours of mid-winter mean that this is definitely the best time of year for raptor (bird of prey) sightings in this area, and this month again proved to be very rewarding, with my favourite local upland glens and moors providing my safari clients and I with regular sightings, and even the occasional (and rare)  photo opportunity, of the much sought after Golden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle ,with views of these magnificent and iconic birds providing great excitement, 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,  Goshawk and Rough-Legged Buzzard,  should not be forgotten though, as all were seen at least once this month....


Male Crossbill
Being very early breeders, Crossbills actually become (thankfully!!) a little easier to see in midwinter, as the male birds can occasionally be heard singing (rather than just calling) from the tops of conifers, in an attempt to establish a territory and attract a mate...and that was again the case this month, with some decent views being obtained...


Snow Buntings

The unseasonably mild weather and lack of snow at low levels, meant that a trek up towards the snow-line was needed in order to see Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting this month, and it was good to make use of my Cairngorm Mountain Birdwatching Guide permit to use the funicular railway before taking clients on a walk up towards the summit, something which is not allowed to the general public, and which reduces the time spent and effort expended considerably when in search of these iconic and very attractive species.


Ptarmigan
Spey Bay on the Moray Coast
The picturesque Moray Coast is only about an hour north of Aviemore by car, and I can highly recommend a visit in winter, as it can provide an excellent selection of geese, seabirds, waders and wildfowl, and help your 'year-list' along too..... I made a couple of trips to some favourite sites, and saw many species including 'Grey' GeeseEider, Long-Tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Gannet, Redshank, Dunlin, Knot, Turnstone, Godwits, Curlew, Teal and Wigeon to name just a few......

Woodcock by Steve Nicklin
Other 'good' birds seen or reported locally this month included, Great Grey Shrike, American WigeonWoodcock, RedpollScaup, Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull....

Onto mammals now.....

Mountain Hare
Our local Mountain Hares, resplendent in their all-white winter coats must have realised that they were looking far too conspicuous to predators on the relatively snow-free grassy uplands, so they were generally found sheltering on or amongst similarly coloured rocks.....

Red Deer stags
Deep snow always poses a harsh challenge to find food for Highland animals, especially those that inhabit the higher areas,  and the mid-month arctic blast gave us the chance to observe Red Deer digging down through the white stuff to the grass below, impressing us with their hardyness....

Roe Deer
Roe Deer, whilst not quite as physically 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 be warned,  you need to be quick with your camera!

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrels are always a joy to see, and we were fortunate enough to have plenty of good sightings of these endearing little animals this month, both at feeding stations and whilst on walks in their Caledonian forest home... 

Grey Seal
As I mentioned earlier, the sheltered harbours of the Moray Coast gave great views of both Common and Grey Seals, that seem to be relatively unconcerned by us humans, often giving great photo opportunities....

New spotting scope

Well, with some friendly weather, and lots of great sightings, we seem to have got 2017 off to a pretty good start! And there is more good news! Hot on the heels of the safari vehicle upgrade last year, I can now announce that we have a new and much better communal spotting scope ( a Leica APO Televid 82 ) for everyone to enjoy even closer, brighter and sharper views of the wonderful Highland wildlife....


If you think you know someone who may enjoy a taste of what I do, why not treat them to a safari gift certificate. They make an imaginative present and are available for any amount in multiples of £10, and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....

When the going gets tough........

Friday, January 06, 2017

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 and supported my safari guiding services during 2016......

December 2016 was a very strange month weather-wise in this area! We started off, as is quite usual this far north, with northerly winds and a really cold feel (down to -9c), but then, rather unexpectedly, mild south-westerly winds began to dominate,the weather turned cloudy and damp, and temperatures began to climb, and remained well above average for the rest of the month, and we even had our warmest ever (14c) December day! So, though it was not particularly 'festive' weather, and not so good for scenic photography,  it was actually pretty decent for wildlife watching!
Despite the days being at their shortest now, with only around 7-8 hours of daylight, we still enjoyed some memorable wildlife adventures, with plenty of memorable wildlife sightings often against dramatic Highland backdrops.
With all our winter-visiting birds now here, full-day safari bird lists topped-out in the 40's, whilst mammal day lists varied between 5 and 8 depending on the time of our start and number of habitats 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, but to give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future December visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken by myself or my safari clients will help, clicking on the picture will enlarge it to full screen.

An Eagles eye view of a favourite local glen 

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse, Red GrouseCrested TitDipper and Golden Eagle, and we also had a few decent sightings of Crossbill and Snow Bunting. Winter visiting birds were represented by family groups of Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, large numbers of Redwings and Fieldfares, whilst literally hundreds of Waxwings continued to feast on berries throughout the month...a small flock of Hawfinches lingered, though they did become a little more mobile..and a few more Bramblings and Redpolls were seen...... 

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, and one brief glimpse of a Stoat. 

Pre-dawn starts - a relatively user friendly 7am at this time of year - gave us decent views of Black Grouse on local moorland 'lek' sites, though the birds did not seem to be quite so 'up for it' on the milder mornings, with more birds and more 'action' being seen on the colder days....

Male Red Grouse by safari client Tom Southall
By way of contrast, our local 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 a bit territorial, with some seen perching prominently on the few higher points and occasionally even being heard uttering their guttural 'go-back, go back' calls...

Crested Tit by safari client Tom Southall
Our local Crested Tits continued to show well at my favourite forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, and on the colder days, 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, especially if it is a 'life-tick'.

Dipper

Our local Dippers appear to already be planning for the spring breeding season, with much singing and displaying being witnessed , especially soon after dawn, and near to favoured nesting spots such as bridges....which is handy , as it gives us much more chance to see and photograph them....

Golden Eagle

As I mentioned last month...the short daylight hours mean that early to 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 Crossbill

Being early breeders, Crossbills actually become (thankfully!!) a little easier to see in midwinter, as the male birds can occasionally be heard singing (rather than just calling) from the tops of conifers, in an attempt to establish a territory and attract a mate...


Snow Bunting by Steve Nicklin

Snow Buntings could be seen at lower levels early in the month whilst it was cold and snowy, but became much more difficult as the snow receded in the unseasonably mild temperatures, and they presumably followed the snow-line uphill......


Waxwing by Steve Nicklin

Those colourful 'viking invaders', the Waxwings, continued to chomp their way through local berry supplies, providing great entertainment and giving us more opportunities to capture images of these beautifully marked birds...


Hawfinch
Hawfinches are extremely rare on Speyside, and the small flock that arrived last month seemed to become much more mobile, and occasionally split up into smaller groups, so I thought I had better grab the opportunity of a few more pics, before they inevitably depart....


Fieldfare
Whooper Swan and Geese numbers seemed to decrease a little in this area, as many of the birds presumably headed further south, but  Redwing and Fieldfare numbers seemed to remain high, and it was interesting to watch our 'local' Blackbirds trying (usually in vain) to defend 'their' berry bushes from the unwelcome intruders...

Onto mammals now...


An anxious looking Mountain Hare... with good reason... a Golden Eagle was overhead!
Mountain Hares , now they are almost completely 'winter white' are often voted as 'mammal of the day' by my safari clients, at this time of year, and we were fortunate enough to see them in their upland habitats on a number of occasions. It should be noted though, that a bit of rough uphill walking is often required for photography purposes..

Red Deer stag

Though our Red Deer stags still have their magnificent antlers intact, but with rutting season long forgotten, they are much calmer beasts now, and are seemingly content to just quietly graze and laze around...

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrels, being absent from most of the UK now,  always prove popular with my safari clients, especially with those seeing one for the first time, and it is unusual for us not to see at least one whilst out on safari....

Well, another year has flashed by, fortunately for me it was one filled with beautiful highland scenery, lots of amazing and memorable wildlife, and happy times spent with lots of interesting people from all over the world. I hope you have enjoyed reading my safari updates as much as I have whilst experiencing and writing about them.....And I am already looking forward to even more wildlife-filled adventures in 2017...

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If you think you know someone who may enjoy a taste of what I do, why not treat them to a safari gift certificate. They make a great present and are available for any amount in multiples of £10, and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....

Early morning at Loch Garten