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

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

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