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

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!!
I would like to wish all my readers a healthy, happy and wildlife-filled 2020 ..
I would also like to say a big "thank you" to everyone who used , supported and recommended my safari guiding services during 2019......

December 2019 saw our weather largely dominated by a succession of Atlantic lows brought in by mild south-westerlies, and although this generally kept temperature up above the average, the accompanying rain and wind was not exactly ideal for wildlife watching....
However, despite the days being at their shortest now, with only around 7-8 hours of usable daylight, by 'cherry-picking' the best ones, we still enjoyed some memorable adventures, with plenty of exciting wildlife sightings, and often against dramatic and picturesque snowy Highland backdrops.
With all our winter-visiting birds now here, full-day local safari bird lists topped-out in the 40's, or more if you include a trip to the nearby Moray Coast - though I didn't manage a trip there myself this month, whilst mammal day lists varied between 3 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 week 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.


A beautiful sunrise on a snowy local heather moorland

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are considering a future December 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 GrouseDipper and Goldeneye , whilst Black Grouse were occasionally seen at dawn at traditional lek sites, and we also had a few decent sightings of  Golden EagleWhite-Tailed Eagle and Snow Bunting and for a change, one decent view of Crossbills.

A good variety of seabirds, waders and wildfowl could be seen at the Moray Coast, and winter visiting birds were represented by family groups of Whooper Swans and several species of 'grey' Geese, and a few Waxwings and Redpolls were also seen...



Mammal species seen regularly included:

Red SquirrelRed DeerReindeerRoe DeerMountain Goat ,  Rabbit and (white) Mountain Hare.....with just a few (mainly dawn) views of  Brown Hare ,and a couple of brief glimpses of Bank Vole,.....

December 2019 bird sightings in more detail:


Crested Tit by Lizee Oliver



Crested Tit by Ron Mitchell

Our local Crested Tits continued to show well at my favourite forest feeding stations, especially soon after dawn, particularly on the colder days, when they are presumably at their most desperate for food. There are probably only around 1,200 of these attractive and 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 were delighted to see what is truly a 'local speciality'...




Female Crossbill

Still in the Caledonian forests, Crossbills , as usual, tended to prove elusive, with most of our sightings being 'fly-overs', us only identifying them by sound,  however, on the 3rd of the month we got lucky, finding a family party perched for long enough to enable us to see them well and even get a few photos....

Continuing the forest theme, despite a few walks and drives through suitable habitat, we failed to see a single Capercaillie again this month...


Displaying Black Grouse
Pre-dawn starts - a relatively user friendly 07:30 am at this time of year - gave us decent views of up to 6 displaying male Black Grouse on local moorland 'lek' sites, though rather frustratingly, they proved to be a little unpredictable, with seemingly no obvious pattern to whether they would show or not, so it should be noted that we did fail to see them on a few occasions...


Red Grouse by Lizee Oliver


Red Grouse by Ron Mitchell
By way of contrast, by using my vehicle as a stealthy and slow-moving  'mobile hide', our local Red Grouse were actually reasonably easy to see and photograph on their favoured upland heather moorlands this month, as some of the cock birds already seem to be getting a little aggressive and territorial, with a few individuals 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....


Dipper by Lizee Oliver

On our local rivers, the 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 (and viewing) spots , particularly bridges....which is very useful , as it gives us much more chance to see and photograph them....


Juvenile Golden Eagle

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 even some 'life-ticks'  for my very happy guests...



Common Buzzard




Red Kite



Female Sparrowhawk with prey

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.....

Onto the mountain birds now, and with the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still out of action for major repairs, the weather being generally a bit uncooperative , and the days so short now,  I didn't venture up into the mountain-tops myself this month, preferring to stick to the lower slopes instead,  but for future reference, a few Ptarmigan , now  totally white, can sometimes be seen, up around the 'snow-line', usually sheltering on the leeward sides of ridges, out of the cold wind. 




Snow Bunting


Snow Buntings

However, Snow Buntings were often easier to see this month, driven down to lower altitude sites by the winter snow and colder weather, with  flocks of over 20 of these very attractive birds proving to be very obliging in coming to wild bird seed and giving us some decent photo opportunities, though when there is lots of snow and the subsequent snowsports going on, the increased human activity does mean that they can get disturbed quite frequently.....

Similarly to last month, with most of our local berries now gone, like the Redwings and Fieldfares the Waxwing flocks seem to have largely moved on to pastures new... with just the odd local sighting of small groups, mostly at urban sites...


Other good birds seen or reported locally this month included: 

A Great Grey Shrike, a Snow Goose and a Richardson's Cackling Goose..... none of which I managed to see!!!




Nice early morning light in a local Caledonian forest

December 2019 mammal sightings in more detail:



Mountain Hare
The Mountain Hares of our local uplands, now they are at their most attractive in their winter-white outfits, were most frequently voted as 'mammal of the day' by my safari clients - many of whom were seeing them for the first time - please note though, that some rough uphill walking may be required in order to get close enough for photos...






Red Deer Stag
Also up in the glens, Red Deer, now mostly back in their same-sex herds, the rut seemingly ancient history, were seen frequently, though we struggled on some days as some estates were culling the old, injured or unhealthy animals, and the disturbance made them  a little more easily spooked than normal...



Feral Mountain Goats
Feral Mountain Goats also frequent our local upland glens, and we managed to see good sized groups of these attractive but very localised animals, and with some of the females looking to be heavily pregnant, we should get to see some cute youngsters soon....



Red Squirrel
Red Squirrels, being sadly 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 attempting to hide..

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 or are about early or late in the day, you can easily miss seeing them...



On safari in the snowy Cairngorm Mountains


News update:

For your convenience, we now have a 'universal' in-car mobile phone charger to add to the other accessories on board such as a quality Leica spotting scope, spare binoculars, an ipad with wildlife apps, DVD screens showing safari photos, wildlife reference books, a daily sightings list, a photo album, picnic blankets, fold-up chairs,  tissues, hand wipes etc.... not forgetting the ever-popular hot drinks (tea/coffee/hot chocolate), cereal bars and yummy Walkers shortbread....






My 2020 Highland Wildlife calendar is still available - it features my photos of various local speciality birds, animals and butterflies printed on top quality card with a gloss finish and can now be purchased for the reduced price of £12 (including postage and packing  - in the UK).

Please email me at steve.reddick@btinternet.com  if you would like one.
Summary:


Well,  another year has flashed by.... but fortunately for me it was one filled with beautiful highland scenery, lots of amazing and memorable wildlife sightings, 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 2020...



Reviews:


I know a lot of visitors to this area very wisely check out reviews of attractions at tripadvisor before 'taking the plunge' and booking - if you wish, you can check out my clients comments at the link below....

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g186537-d3335134-Reviews-

Highland_Wildlife_Birdwatch_Safaris-Aviemore_Aviemore_and_the_Cairngorms_Scottish.html






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....



Saturday, November 30, 2019

November 2019 was a bit of a mix weather wise in this areastarting and finishing with westerly winds in charge , a mild, autumnal feel and temperatures up into double figures, but the middle two weeks were most definitely wintry, with northerly winds dominating, bringing sub-zero temperatures and decent amounts of snow, even down to lower levels.
Overall it was a reasonably safari-friendly month though, 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 30's , or more if you include a trip to the nearby Moray coast,  whilst mammal day-lists varied between 3 and 7 species, depending on the time of our start, and variety of habitats visited, with early starts usually proving to be more productive.

Winter in the Abernethy Forest

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, Goldeneye, Golden Eagle, and White-Tailed Eagle. 
Black Grouse were occasionally seen at dawn at traditional lek sites, though they were a little unreliable, ....whilst the snow at lower levels meant that Snow Buntings were possible if conditions allowed,  and we had just one sighting of a Goshawk ,  but sadly, Crossbills were frustratingly elusive again,
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, a few Redwings and Fieldfares lingered, and  a few decent but mobile flocks of Waxwings were seen feeding on berries occasionally throughout the month...

Mammal species seen regularly included:

Red SquirrelRed DeerReindeerRoe DeerMountain 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 we continued to enjoy great close-up views of Atlantic Salmon spawning in the upper reaches of our local rivers....


November 2019 bird sightings in more detail:

Crested Tit by Wayne Dixon


Crested Tit by Rob Ellett
Winter is actually by far the best time of year to see Crested Tits, as the weather turns colder and snowier, with the easy pickings on offer at my Caledonian 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, us only identifying them by their characteristic "jip-jip" calls...

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 to avoid disturbance), and look and listen out for them", and....although we did this ourselves many times this month, we, not unusually,  failed to get even a glimpse of one...

Black Grouse displaying soon after dawn
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 still have good numbers in Highland Scotland, and our dawn (7am approx) visits to their traditional local moorland 'lek' sites produced some good sightings of up to 6 cock birds displaying, though it should be noted that we also had a few mornings when the birds failed to show..

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, often while uttering their characteristic cackling "go-bak, go-bak" calls.. 


Dipper
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 my safari clients and I shiver every time we see them disappear under the icy water in search of food - they sure are tough little critters!


Golden Eagle by Wayne Dixon

White-Tailed Eagle by Wayne Dixon
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' for my safari clients,  and putting big smiles on many faces....



Red Kite by Rob Ellett


Common Buzzard

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 overlooked though....

Snow Bunting


Snow Buntings
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....

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...



Waxwings
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 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...


Moray coast highlights:



Drake Eider


Long-Tailed Duck


Whooper Swans
The Moray coast is only about an hour drive north of Aviemore, and my trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours gave good views of wintering birds such as Greylag Geese,  Pink-Footed Geese, Brent Geese, Whooper Swan, ShovelerWigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden PloverGrey Plover , Ringed PloverPurple Sandpiper, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Red-Throated DiverLong-Tailed Ducks, and a bird rarely seen on Speyside, a Kingfisher...




Other good (rare or scarce) birds seen or reported locally this month included: 

Pochard, American Wigeon and Snow Goose.....


On safari on a snowy local moorland


November 2019 mammal sightings in more detail:


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, ...please be aware though, that a bit of rough uphill walking may be required for photography purposes..


Stag party

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 all friends again and concentrating on feeding and chilling out after the rigours of October....



Feral Mountain Goats
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, very few decent photo opportunities......


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

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....

Spawning Atlantic Salmon by Rob Ellett

A Salmon that looks like it fell victim to an Otter

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 - 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 throughout this month..


A nice reflection at Loch Garten


News update:

Following a visit from the Visit Scotland 'mystery shoppers' for our annual quality assurance assessment on the 7th of the month, I am pleased to report that we achieved a score of 93% and have retained our  5-Star wildlife experience grading.

Summary:

Well, looking through my notes and photos for this month, despite the shortening days and changeable, and sometimes challenging weather conditions, I reckon it turned out to be very decent  for wildlife-watching,
With lots of great wildlife enjoyed, some of our 'local speciality species' at their easiest to see, the chance of a few rarities, spectacularly picturesque and often snowy scenery, a favourable report from the Visit Scotland assessors, and plenty of hot chocolate and shortbrtead,  the 'winter blues' were well and truly kept at bay....




A frozen Loch Morlich outflow

I know a lot of visitors to this area very wisely check out reviews of attractions at tripadvisor before 'taking the plunge' and booking - if you wish, you can check out my clients comments at the link below....

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g186537-d3335134-Reviews-
Highland_Wildlife_Birdwatch_Safaris-Aviemore_Aviemore_and_the_Cairngorms_Scottish.html



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....