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....

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