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

Friday, November 30, 2018

November 2018 was a bit of a mix weather-wise in this area, with mild westerly winds dominating the first and last weeks, and a colder easterly high in control of the middle part , with temperatures ranging from plus 17c to minus 6c, and just about every type of weather experienced at some stage, but the overall feel was that it was slightly milder, drier and less wintry than average, and with no real extremes,  it was reasonably safari-friendly, allowing us to get out and enjoy the last of the autumn colours, and our first proper snowy backdrops this winter.
Though the days are shortening noticeably now, with only around 8-9 hours of usable daylight (7am-4pm approx), a further influx of winter-visiting birds from further north, including a few rarities, helped to boost local full-day bird day-lists into the high 30's or low 40's, or more if you include a trip to the nearby Moray Coast,  whilst mammal day-lists varied between 4 and 7 species, depending on the time of our start, and variety of habitats visited.

On safari in a wild and beautiful upland glen

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are considering a future November visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken at sites in and around the Cairngorms National Park by myself, my friends or my safari clients, will help....clicking on the picture enlarges it to full-screen.


Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included: 

Crested Tit,  Red Grouse,  Dipper,  Goosander,  Goldeneye, Golden Eagle, and White-Tailed Eagle, with one sighting of a Hen Harrier,  and one brief but very welcome view of a Capercaillie, but sadly, Crossbills were frustratingly elusive again, and unusually , despite several dawn attempts, Black Grouse were not seen at all at traditional lek sites....and the lack of snow at low levels meant that Snow Buntings were not seen either....
A good variety of seabirds, waders and wildfowl were seen at the Moray Coast, and winter visiting birds were represented by Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, Redwings and Fieldfares, whilst  a few decent flocks of Waxwings were seen feeding on berries occasionally during the second half of the month...the first Bramblings of this winter were seen on local farmland, and a stunning looking but very lost Hoopoe surprised us all late in the month!!

Mammal species seen regularly included: Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Reindeer, Roe Deer, Mountain Goat ,  Rabbit and (now mostly white) Mountain Hare.....with just a few (mainly dawn) views of  Brown Hare , a couple of brief sightings of Bank Vole and my first Fox for quite a while ... ...most of the month also saw us continue to enjoy great close-up views of Atlantic Salmon spawning in the upper reaches of our local rivers....



Crested Tit by James Ball  www.instagram.com/james.wildlifeworld
Winter is actually by far the best time to see Crested Tits, as the weather turns colder and snowier, with the easy pickings on offer at my forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, seemingly proving to be almost irresistible. With only around 1200 birds in the UK, and their distribution very localised, 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.

Still in the Caledonian pine forests, Crossbills continued to be a bit of a 'bogey-bird', with (yet again) sightings mainly restricted to snatched glimpses of  calling birds flying around the tree tops...

Male Capercaillie
Continuing the forest theme, I am often asked about where to see Capercaillie, and sadly, always have to reply along the lines of  "I'm really sorry, but they are so rare and elusive now that it is an almost impossible task.. your best bet is just to drive or walk slowly and quietly around a Caledonian forest at dawn (sticking to roads , tracks and paths), and look and listen out for them", and....following my own advice, we got lucky on the 9th of the month, with good , if brief views of a splendid male bird... a great birthday present for one of my clients who was on  a surprise safari for his present!!

On the remote upland moors, 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 good numbers in Highland Scotland, and our dawn visits to their traditional local moorland 'lek' sites are usually fruitful at this time of year, but as I mentioned earlier, despite several  attempts, we failed to see a single bird this month.. I am hoping that the cock birds just need a a few sharp frosts and some snow to 'fire them up' into appearing..... hopefully I will have more positive news to report next month....


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 a few of the cock birds are already starting to get a bit  more 'showy' and aggressive  now the shooting season is over, with a few seen seemingly staking their claim to prime 
territory, and their characteristic 'go-bak, go-bak' calls frequently being heard ....

Dipper by James Ball  www.instagram.com/james.wildlifeworld
On the rivers, 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 by James Ball     www.instagram.com/james.wildlifeworld


White-Tailed Eagle



Common Buzzard




Male Sparrowhawk
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 and moors 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 huge, 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 the chance of even the occasional MerlinHen Harrier ,Goshawk, and even Rough-Legged Buzzard, should not be forgotten though....



Snow Buntings can often be seen well this month, as they usually begin to frequent known lower altitude sites, possibly driven down from the mountain tops by the snow and cold, and with their numbers likely to have been swelled by visitors from Scandinavia...and I am always sure to have a bag of wild bird seed on board, as they can often be tempted to come and feed at quite close range....but sadly, with the Cairngorm Funicular Railway closed , the lack of snow on the hills so far this winter meant that we have yet to see them.....but hopefully I will have better news to report next month...

Cairngorm Mountains viewed from nearby Coylumbridge
With the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still closed for major repairs, and the days so short now,  I didn't venture up into the mountain-tops myself this month, but for future reference, a few Ptarmigan , now almost totally white, can often be seen, up around the 'snow-line', usually sheltering on the leeward sides of ridges, out of the cold wind...


Waxwing


Waxwing
Following on from last month's Redwing and Fieldfare invasion, this month saw a decent influx of more 'Viking invaders' in the beautiful, and very welcome form of Waxwings!! It was a real treat to see large flocks of them feasting on the few berries left by the thrush species, often at quite urban sites like supermarket car parks, school grounds and gardens, with their reasonably confiding nature often giving good opportunities for photography...


Hoopoe


Hoopoe

Bird of the month for me though has to be the Hoopoe that very unexpectedly turned up locally on the 26th of the month. This strikingly marked and very distinctive bird breeds mainly in southern Europe and overwinters in Africa, and although the UK usually get a few 'vagrant' birds in spring and autumn, to see one as late as November, and in the northern highlands of Scotland is very unusual!!!
I therefore, did not hesitate to 'drop everything' and rush to see it when a report of it appeared on  my Rare Bird Alert pager... and with a bit of patience,and a couple of visits, I even managed a few pics...

Moray coast highlights:

Turnstone



Red-Necked Grebe 


Redshanks


Wood Sandpiper

Ringed Plover


The Moray coast is only about an hours drive north of Aviemore, and my trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours gave good views of wintering birds such as Greylag Geese, Barnacle Geese, Pink-Footed Geese, Brent Geese, Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden PloverGrey Plover , Ringed PloverPurple Sandpiper, Common Scoter, a few Long-Tailed Ducks,  a couple of rarities in the form of a Red-Necked Grebe and a Wood Sandpiper, and a bird rarely seen on Speyside, a Kingfisher...

Whooper Swan



Other good birds seen or reported locally this month included: Great Grey Shrike, Smew, Hawfinch and Snow Goose.....


November 2018 mammal sightings:



Mountain Hare
Mountain Hares , being very rare in the UK, and now they are turning '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, though not as frequently as in previous years.....please be aware though, that a bit of rough uphill walking may be required for photography purposes..



Red Deer stag

Still in the uplands, although the annual autumn 'rut' is now over and apparently already forgotten by the participants!, it was still a treat to see the magnificent fully antlered Red Deer stags, seemingly now chilling out after the rigours of October....



Red Squirrel
Red Squirrels also proved popular with my safari clients this month, and who am I to disagree?
Being rare outside of Highland Scotland, attractive, charismatic and cute, they certainly tick a lot of boxes, and thankfully, they can usually be relied upon to put in an appearance at forest feeding stations in the winter months....


Roe Deer
Roe Deer, although much more common UK-wide than Red Deer , can often be overlooked due to their crepuscular nature and nervous disposition... but we managed plenty of decent sightings again this month, especially soon after dawn.....

Brown Hares, similarly to the Roe Deer, can also be very nervous and  'crepuscular' in nature, and most of our best sightings happen in the first hour of daylight, and that proved to be the case again this month....

Our local feral Mountain Goats proved to be unusually elusive this month, with our sightings mainly reduced to long-distance views through the scope....better than nothing I suppose, but with sadly, no decent photo opportunities......

Red Fox
As I mentioned earlier, I saw my first Red Fox in this area for a very long time this month. A very relaxed individual, seen basking in the winter sun on the second of the month on a local nature reserve...



Spawning 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 and this year, very low summer water levels - 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 eventually got lucky with everything falling into place, and good sightings being enjoyed up until the third week of this month..


RSPB Insh Marshes Nature Reserve

Well, I reckon that was a pretty decent month of wildlife-watching, and 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 and photographer, it is far from the case for me up here, with November now one of my favourite and, weather permitting of course, often most productive safari months, with lots of great wildlife to be enjoyed, some of our 'local speciality species' at their easiest to see, the chance of a few rarities, and all in spectacularly picturesque and often snowy scenery.....






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 thoughtful and imaginative present, are available for any amount and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....

Thursday, November 01, 2018

October 2018 saw much of our weather for the month  largely dominated by a succession of low pressure systems from the Atlantic, giving us mild but often breezy and showery conditions... except for the last week, which saw us get hit by an 'Arctic blast' from the north, which brought us some  cold, but sunny and still days, but also our first proper snow and frosts of this autumn.
Though the days are certainly shortening now, we still had around 10 hours of usable daylight, and the Highland scenery is still ablaze with glorious autumn colours, with most of the leaves still clinging on, and our berry trees fully laden.
The autumn rains restored the local rivers to their normal levels, allowing the Atlantic salmon to finally reach their spawning grounds in the upper reaches.
October is a really great month to witness visible migration in action, with large flocks of Geese, Swans, and this year, especially Thrush species often witnessed flying noisily overhead, and this influx of winter visitors from colder areas further north, helped full-day safari bird lists increase up into the 40's, (or more if you include a trip to the Moray Coast), whilst mammal day-lists varied between 3 and 7 depending on the start time and number of venues visited, with early starts, as usual, proving to be best.


Early morning in a Caledonian pine forest

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future October visit, I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken at sites in and around the Cairngorms National Park by myself, my friends or my safari clients, will help....clicking on the picture enlarges it to full-screen.

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Crested Tit, , Red Grouse, Dipper and Goldeneye, we also had several good sightings of Golden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle,  a few fleeting glimpses of Crossbills, and we even had a couple of brief dawn views of Capercaillie. Newly-arrived winter visiting birds were represented by Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, and huge numbers of Redwings and Fieldfares.
A good variety of waders and wildfowl were seen at the Moray Coast,  a few Waxwings were reported locally at the end of the month...and even a couple of  Snow Geese were seen nearby....

Mammal species seen regularly included: Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Reindeer, Roe Deer, Sika DeerMountain Goat , Brown Hare and Rabbit......with just a few sightings of Mountain Hare and one brief glimpse of a Stoat.....The last week of the month also saw us enjoy great views of Atlantic Salmon starting to spawn in the upper reaches of our local rivers....


Crested Tit
Crested Tits, having been generally 'uncooperative' and elusive through the summer months, started to become more regular visitors to forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, and we were fortunate enough to enjoy some excellent and often extremely close views of this true 'local speciality' on a number of occasions....
A bonus by-product of regular winter feeding is sometimes (on colder days) being able to feed the incredibly confiding Coal Tits and (sometimes) Great Tits by hand, an experience much enjoyed by my safari clients of all ages...

Male Capercaillie by Steve Nicklin
Rather unusually, but certainly most welcome!.. were the couple of brief glimpses of the sadly now extremely scarce Capercaillie that we managed on our early morning forest visits this month, though I must stress that this is more of a 'chance happening' than something you can realistically 'expect'...but I guess you never know....

Still in the forests, Crossbills, sadly, but not unusually, were somewhat less obliging however, with our views once again being restricted to snatched glimpses of birds flying overhead...identified only by their distinctive 'jip- jip' calls....

Female Red Grouse
Our local Red Grouse appeared to be still in their (sadly now smaller) family groups, but with the shooting season thankfully almost over, they seem a little less wary and can be a bit easier to see, especially when using my safari vehicle as a slow-moving mobile hide on the quiet tracks through their heather moorland home.

We usually start to see a few male Black Grouse appearing at dawn at their traditional 'lek' sites in October, but neither of my' reconnaissance' visits this month proved successful.. so I will hopefully have better news to report next month...


Dipper
Dipper is a bird absent from large areas of central, southern and eastern Britain, preferring clear, fast-flowing upland rivers over murky, slow-flowing lowland waterways. Fortunately, if you position yourself on a bridge,  it can be a fairly common sighting in this area, often perching prominently on a rock, and always proves popular with my safari clients ...


Amazing Juvenile Golden Eagle pic by Steve Nicklin
Golden Eagle is truly an iconic bird of the Scottish Highlands, and our regular visits to my favourite upland glens paid off on numerous occasions this month, with a number of very decent sightings of these hugely impressive creatures, sometimes hunting ,  often in aerial combat with other raptors, and on one memorable occasion we witnessed one trying to defend it's mountain hare prey from a 'mob' of 9 Ravens! Magic!!

Peregrine Falcon


Common Buzzard


White-Tailed Eagle

In fact, if you are a bird of prey fan, it is worth noting that early winter is always our best time of year for raptor sightings, and this month we also recorded views of  White-Tailed Eagle, Peregrine, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, and numerous Common Buzzards...

Goldeneyes only breed in the UK in northern Scotland, and their numbers have increased greatly in recent years, mainly due to the RSPB providing nest boxes on trees around many local lochs, and we again got to see many large families of these very attractive little ducks this month...

I was scheduled to lead a couple of walks up to Cairngorm Mountain summit this month, to search for Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting.. but unfortunately, the Cairngorm Funicular railway has been closed for safety reasons after the annual inspection raised doubts about the integrity of the support beams....so we will have to hope that it is fixed and running again soon...as it is not really viable to spend hours walking up and down in the short days and often poor weather of early winter...

Redwing

Fieldfare
Winter thrushes flooded into our area from their summer breeding areas further north, in the largest numbers I have seen for many years, first the Redwings, followed soon after by the Fieldfares, and they soon set about demolishing our local berry supplies, much to the annoyance of our resident Blackbirds and Thrushes!


Whooper Swans


Long-Tailed Duck


Pink-Footed Geese


Curlew

Common Eiders

The Moray coast is only about an hours drive north west of Aviemore, and a couple of trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours gave good views of incoming winter migrants such as Greylag Geese, Barnacle Geese, Pink-Footed Geese, Brent Geese, Snow Goose (1), Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden PloverGrey Plover , Purple Sandpiper, a few Long-Tailed Ducks,  and a bird rarely seen on Speyside, a Kingfisher...

Waxwing
Other good birds seen or reported locally this month included: Brambling, Redpoll, Great Grey Shrike, Waxwing, Yellow-Browed Warbler, a presumably storm-blown Gannet!, and Golden Pheasants (though their origin may be 'suspect') 



October 2018 mammal sightings:


Red Deer stag with his 'harem' of hinds
'Mammal of the month' for October just has to be the Red Deer,  with their spectacular annual 'rut' providing my safari clients with some superb entertainment - the fully antlered stags 'bolving' roars echoing through the glens, as they spend much of the month  posturing , fighting off rivals and attempting to mate with as many of their 'harem' as possible - surely one of British nature's 'must-see' experiences?



Still up in the glens, our local Mountain Hares, though still in their browny-grey summer coats are gradually turning whiter from their feet upwards as autumn progresses, in preparation for the snow to come, though actual sightings of them were not as frequent, or as good as I would have liked... but that is not unusual during the 'warmer' months..things should hopefully change next month....


Brown Hare
Brown Hares, similarly to the Roe Deer, can be very nervous and  'crepuscular' in nature, and most of our best sightings happen in the first hour of daylight, and that proved to be the case again this month....

Feral Mountain Goats

Feral Mountain Goats are mainly restricted to a few remote upland areas of the UK, and we are fortunate to have them locally in a few quiet glens, so many of my safari clients get to see them for the first time while out with me....


Red Squirrel
In the forests, our Red Squirrels never failed to entertain, with their cute looks, acrobatic use of  peanut feeders, and chasing off of rivals, and of course, with them being largely absent from most of the UK now, many of my safari clients were seeing them for the first time....



Roe Deer buck
Roe Deer, although relatively common in most of the UK, can actually be quite tricky to see due to their naturally 'nervous' nature, and the fact that they can be very 'crepuscular'  - being more active at dawn and dusk...but we managed plenty of good early morning sightings this month..


Sika Deer
Sika Deer , also known as the spotted deer or the Japanese deer, is a species native to much of East Asia, but they were introduced to many country estates in the UK in the 1800's and we are fortunate to have a few in this area, and we saw them a couple of times this month..


Spawning Atlantic Salmon
Mid October-late November is usually the time of 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 - and this year, very low summer water levels,  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. This time we got lucky with everything eventually falling into place, and decent sightings were enjoyed from the 24th of the month onwards...

So, to summarise, helped by the reasonably 'safari-friendly' weather, the spectacle of the annual Red Deer rut, and the miracle of migration, I reckon October 2018 turned out to be yet another very enjoyable month for wildlife watching in the Cairngorms National Park, with plenty of excellent sightings, many memorable experiences for my happy safari clients - aged from 8 to 80!, and even the odd surprise, and all set against beautiful autumnal Highland backdrops. 
Autumn is in my opinion, one of the best seasons for wildlife-watching in this area, and I can highly recommend a visit during this time...

Early morning at a local loch




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 thoughtful and imaginative present, are available for any amount and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....