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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 2018 was our snowiest and coldest month for several years in the Cairngorms National Park, with temperatures regularly falling well below zero, and some nights seeing minus 13c, and with regular heavy snowfall and occasional blizzards, good wildlife watching days were few and far between! So my report may be a little shorter than usual, and may include some photos taken on January safaris from previous years...However, by being flexible, and cherry-picking the best days weather-wise, we did still manage some pretty enjoyable adventures out 'in the field', with the excellent off-road and winter weather abilities of my Land Rover Discovery often proving to be a necessity rather than a luxury!
On a more positive note, the days are noticeably lengthening now, with over 9 hours of usable daylight, and dawn (for the Black Grouse) is still a relatively sociable 7:30am.

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 8 depending on the time of our start and number of habitats visited, with early starts proving to be best.

An atmospheric River Spey

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 , my friends or my safari clients will help - clicking on the picture will enlarge it to full screen.

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse (at dawn only), Red GrouseCrested TitDipper , White-Tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle, and we also had a few decent sightings of Snow Bunting, and just a few brief glimpses of Crossbills. Winter visiting birds were represented by family groups of Whooper Swans and several species of 'grey' Geese, ..and a few Bramblings and Redpolls were seen......

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

Black Grouse
The middle 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.....though it should be noted that they can fail to show at all on wet and windy mornings.....

Red Grouse
Similarly, on our local upland moorlands, the cock Red Grouse also seem to be upping the aggression levels, as they too seem to be seeking 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.....and by using my safari vehicle as a kind of mobile hide, we managed some great close-up views...

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, with up to 4 of these true 'local specialities' showing at once...
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....

Still in the Caledonian pine forests, rather frustratingly, Crossbills continued to be a bit of a 'bogey-bird', with sightings  restricted to snatched glimpses of  calling birds flying around the tree tops...though this may change soon, as the males should start to sing from the treetops, as they are very early breeders....

Dipper
On the rivers, our local Dippers continued to entertain, with their rarely-heard rippling warble of a song being projected proudly from a prominent rock soon after dawn as they presumably attempt to proclaim their ownership of the territory, and attract a female...

Golden Eagle by Steve Nicklin
January is normally a pretty decent month for sightings of birds of prey in this area, but the wild and wintry weather and the consequent lack of safari bookings restricted my visits to the remote local upland glens to a handful of opportunities, though Golden EagleWhite-Tailed Eagle, Common Buzzard , Sparrowhawk and Kestrel were still all seen....which is pretty decent I reckon...

Snow Buntings
The heavy snowfall actually worked to our advantage where Snow Buntings were concerned, as they were driven down from the inhospitable mountain tops to known lower altitude sites, where a sprinkling of wild bird seed , plenty of patience and some warm clothes gave us some decent sightings of flocks of up to 30 birds....

The Arctic style weather (and multitudes of noisy snowsports enthusiasts!) dissuaded me from making any ventures up into the Cairngorms snowy tops this month..... so sadly I have no information about the Ptarmigan to report..

Whooper Swans
Whooper Swans could still be seen on local lochs, though they became more mobile and elusive, seemingly transferring to the rivers and flooded fields when the lochs froze over....

Greylag Geese and Pink-Footed Geese were both noted locally, seen on lochs, rivers or fields, depending on the weather....

Waxwing by Steve Nicklin
The cold weather seemed to bring a few small flocks of Waxwings over the North Sea into our area,  and I managed to get my 'year-list tick', in the somewhat less than scenic setting of Aldi car Park in Inverness!!! Seems like Waxwings can't resist a bargain too........

American Wigeon
The Moray coast is only about an hours drive North East of Aviemore, and a couple of trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours gave good views of  winter visitors such as Greylag Geese, Barnacle Geese, Pink-Footed Geese, Brent Geese,Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden Plover , and Grey Plover,  and I also managed to see an American Wigeon... whilst a trip a little further north to Loch Fleet rewarded me with my first Shorelarks for many a year...

Bar-Tailed Godwit

Other good birds reported locally this month included:  Kingfisher, Twite, Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull....


Onto mammals now...



Mountain Hare by Steve Nicklin

Our local Mountain Hares are now at their most splendid, their winter-white coats giving them an amazingly 'cute' appearance, that is actually quite at odds with their true character... in reality, these are incredibly hardy animals that can survive the toughest weather that winter can throw at them...


Red Deer

Up in the glens, the Red Deer, in their large same-sex herds, were seen 'digging' through the often deep snow to get to the grass below...though if it gets too deep, they will temporarily vacate the mountain tops for the forests below....



Red Squirrel

With natural food at it's most difficult to find, our Red Squirrels were not shy in visiting forest feeding stations  for the free feasts on offer, which makes it much easier for my safari clients to see them, as they can be surprisingly elusive in the forests....


Roe Deer by Steve Nicklin
As I suggested last month, Roe Deer are probably much more common and widespread than most people realise, but their nervous disposition and mainly crepuscular nature means that unless you visit fairly quiet sites and are out and about early or late in the day, you can easily miss seeing them...


Feral Mountain Goat
Our feral Mountain Goats were a bit elusive this month, and I suspect that they may have temporarily vacated the mountain tops for the shelter and safety of the forests, as they usually give birth to their cute youngsters early in the new year....


Common 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....


Well, despite the particularly wintry start to the year making it a bit 'quieter' than normal on the safaris front, I reckon we have still got the wildlife year off to a pretty decent start... and the days are lengthening, the birds are definitely sensing that spring is approaching, the bookings diary is filling up, and hopefully the weather will improve soon.....





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 and are available for any amount in multiples of £10, and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....



Dusk at a local upland loch

Friday, January 05, 2018

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 2017......

December 2017 was, to use an old football cliche, very much a game of two halves in this area!
We started off, as is quite usual this far north, with northerly winds and a real Arctic feel with two weeks of heavy snow and temperatures down to -13c, 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 most of the rest of the month, and on the 19th, we even had one of our warmest ever (13c) December days!
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 exciting 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, or more if you include a trip to the nearby Moray Coast, whilst mammal day lists varied between 4 and 7 depending on the time of our start and number of habitats visited, with earlier starts , as usual proving to be best....
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, and may include some photos from previous Decembers that are representative of 'typical' midwinter sightings.
Midwinter on a Highland moor
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.

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:
Black Grouse (at dawn only), Red GrouseCrested TitDipper and Golden Eagle, and we also had a few decent sightings of Snow Bunting, and just a few brief glimpses of Crossbills, Winter visiting birds were represented by family groups of Whooper Swans and several species of 'grey' Geese, ..and a few Bramblings and Redpolls were seen...... 

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

Black Grouse
Pre-dawn starts - a relatively user friendly 7am at this time of year - gave us decent views of up to 9 Black Grouse on local moorland 'lek' sites, though they 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....

Red Grouse
By way of contrast, by using my vehicle as a 'mobile hide', 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, with their red 'eyebrows' aglow....

Crested Tit by Wayne Dixon
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'.

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

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


White-Tailed Eagle by Steve Nicklin

Golden Eagle by Ron Mitchell
As I mentioned last month...the short daylight hours, and no breeding season distractions,  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 and White-Tailed Eagle, with views of these magnificent and iconic birds providing great entertainment,  numerous 'year ticks' and '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 Merlin,  Hen Harrier and Goshawk, should not be forgotten though, as all were seen at least once.....

Snow Buntings
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......

Ptarmigan - taken by myself in December 2015
Although I didn't venture up into the mountain-tops myself this month, I understand that with a bit of effort, good sized flocks of Ptarmigan , now in their almost totally white mid-winter plumage, could be seen, usually sheltering on the leeward sides of ridges, out of the cold wind...

Whooper Swan and grey Geese numbers seemed to decrease a little in this area, as many of the birds presumably headed further south, and it was the same story with  Redwings and Fieldfares , as all our berries now seem to have been eaten...

Drake Wigeon
The Moray coast is only about an hours drive north East of Aviemore, and a couple of trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours gave good views of  winter visitors such as Greylag Geese, Barnacle Geese, Pink-Footed Geese, Brent Geese,Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal, Scaup, PochardPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden Plover ,Grey Plover, Purple Sandpiper , a few Little Auks, several American Wigeon and Green-Winged Teal, and a couple of Shore Larks were reported....

Curlew

Other good birds reported locally this month included: RedpollKingfisher, Twite, Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull....

Onto mammals now....
Possible Scottish/Hybrid Wildcat
Pure Scottish Wildcat sightings are very few and far between now, and very hard to prove without DNA evidence, and this young-looking example that I happened across on the edge of a local forest on the 19th, is probably a 'hybrid' specimen... as a 'true' example should have a totally striped body, whereas this one has a more 'spotty' coat... but the thick, stripy tail, broad head and nervous manner, suggested that it may well have a good amount of Wildcat about it....

Mountain Hare by Ron Mitchell
Mountain Hares , now they are almost completely 'winter white' and at their most beautiful, 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
Still up in the glens, though our Red Deer stags still have their magnificent antlers intact, 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.....

Roe Deer are probably much more common and widespread than most people realise, but their nervous disposition and crepuscular nature means that unless you visit fairly quiet sites and are about early or late in the day, you can easily miss seeing them...

Feral Mountain Goat
Sightings of Feral Mountain Goats often come as a bit of a surprise to my safari clients, who are unaware that we have them in the UK, and although not strictly native , they have been kept for centuries in remote and rugged areas for their milk, meat and skins....

Highland Cattle

Well, it looks like another year has flashed by.... and fortunately for me it was one filled with beautiful highland scenery, lots of amazing and memorable wildlife, and happy times spent with lots of friendly and 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 2018...


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 and are available for any amount in multiples of £10, and are valid at any time within a year from date of purchase....


A snowy Abernethy Forest