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

Thursday, February 28, 2019

February 2019 weather-wise, for the first week at least, continued where January left off, with northerly winds bringing plenty of snow and frosts and a typically wintry feel... then suddenly, and very unexpectedly, the winds switched direction, with southerlies bringing warm air up all the way from north Africa and giving us record high temperatures for February and three weeks of unseasonably spring-like conditions - great for us humans, but very confusing for the wildlife!
So with the days lengthening, snowdrops and crocuses blooming, woodpeckers drumming, songbirds singing, Bumblebees flying and temperatures in double figures for much of the month, it actually felt more like April than February!
Full-day local safari bird lists increased a little this month, with most of our winter visitors lingering and the first returning waders pushing numbers up into the high 40's, though a trip to the nearby Moray Coast or Black Isle can increase this number considerably, whilst mammal day lists varied between 4 and 8 species depending on the time of our start, duration of safari and number of habitats visited, with early starts usually proving more successful for the shyer creatures.

Late winter in a beautiful upland glen

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

Wildlife highlights:

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

Black Grouse (at or soon after dawn only), Red GrouseCrested Tit Dipper , Goldeneye  and Goosander, we also had some decent sightings of Snow Bunting before the snowline receded..., and a few brief glimpses of Crossbills...

Winter visiting birds were represented by family groups of Whooper Swans and several species of 'grey' Geese, .. a few WaxwingsBramblings and Redpolls were seen.and a couple of Great Grey Shrikes appeared locally from mid-month...


A good variety of seabirds, waders,  wildfowl and Geese were enjoyed at the Moray Coast and the nearby inland lochs...



Mammals seen regularly locally during the month included:

Roe Deer,  Red Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel, Rabbit, Mountain Hare (white), and Mountain Goat, with a couple of  sightings of Brown Hare and Sika Deer...

Common Seal and Grey Seal were both seen at the nearby Moray Coast...



February 2019 bird sightings in more detail:


Lekking Black Grouse
Dawn  (still a pretty user-friendly 7 am) on my safaris was usually spent at a local Black Grouse lek site, usually a raised grassy area, where we enjoyed the spectacle of up to 11 of these attractive, and sadly, increasingly rare, blue-black cock birds displaying, posturing aggressively and flutter-jumping in a bid to out-display and intimidate their opponents in a bid to secure their little patch of the moorland 'arena' for the forthcoming breeding season, all accompanied by their strange bubbling and whooshing calls drifting across the moor... surely one of British wildlife's 'must-see' (and 'must hear') experiences? 'Performances' were noticeably better on cold, still mornings.... but please be aware that sightings are not 'guaranteed' as the birds can fail to show in very mild or wet and windy weather....



Male Red Grouse
Still on the moors, our local  Red Grouse adopt a different approach to the breeding season, with the males choosing a 'territory', then defending it from rivals, and attempting to attract a mate,  with much calling and posturing and red eye wattles aglow, from the few higher vantage points, making them nice and easy for us to find!

Crested Tit by Bob Smith
In the Caledonian pine forests, our local Crested Tits continued to show well at my favourite forest feeding stations early in the month when conditions were wintry, especially soon after dawn, and particularly on the colder days, when they are presumably at their most desperate for food, with up to 3 of these true 'local specialities' showing at once...however... they became noticeably more elusive when things warmed up , and we actually had quite a few 'no-shows' as the month progressed ...though of course, if you know their distinctive calls and song, you do have a chance of seeing one whilst walking in the forest....
It is well worth noting that the colder winter months (October-Feb) are actually the best time of year for seeing the 'wee Cresties', as these characterful little birds can be frustratingly secretive, unobtrusive and almost silent during the breeding season, with sightings being much more difficult to obtain between March and September....

Male Crossbill
Continuing the forest theme, I was all set to 'cut and paste' my usual Crossbill sightings report saying "sadly, Crossbill sightings were, as usual, limited to very brief glimpses of birds flying over, with us only being able to identify them by their characteristic 'jip-jip' calls".. and that was indeed the case... up until the 27th, when a lovely male bird (at last!!) posed for me for a few seconds, and I actually managed a photo! Hallelujah!


Still in the forests, sadly, it is not such good news on the Capercaillie front... despite 13 pre-dawn walks, and many slow drives through (previously) good 'Caper' territory this year... I have still to see one myself this year.... let alone find one for my clients to see.....and I am not alone in struggling....worrying times for this iconic Highland species....

Dipper with nesting material
On the rivers, our Dippers are in full 'breeding season mode' now, and early morning visits to known favourite nesting sites (keeping a respectful distance of course) gave us great views of these characterful and hardy little birds singing their hearts out, with wings back and chests pushed out... and toward the end of the month we even saw one delivering nesting material....


Young Golden Eagle (they lose the white patches as they mature)

Common Buzzard (note the proportionately shorter wingspan and diagnostic white breast band)
Golden Eagle is a rare, iconic, localised and much sought-after bird in the UK, and as I have mentioned before, the shorter days of the winter months give us our best chance of seeing them.
This month continued the trend, and early in the month we were lucky enough to enjoy several memorable sightings of these majestic birds hunting in upland glens, though not as many as last month....
Raptors in general were again pretty well represented this month, with Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Peregrine, Goshawk and Red Kite all being seen at least once...though I have still yet to see a White-Tailed Eagle this year.....


Snow Bunting
With the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still out of action for major repairs, and the snow-line receding way up towards the summit plateau making it likely that the Ptarmigan and Snow Buntings would do likewise...I didn't venture up into the mountain-tops myself this month, but we did manage some decent views of the Snow Buntings at lower levels during the first week...and a few intrepid birders who made the effort to walk up to the tops did manage a few Ptarmigan sightings....


Waxwing


Waxwing by Steve Nicklin

With very few berries left now, our remaining Waxwing flocks became very mobile in their search for food so sightings were a bit patchy, with them being seen in a hotel garden, a couple of car parks and a disused railway station among other places....but we still managed some great views, with many of my safari clients seeing these truly beautiful birds for the first time..


Brambling




Female 'redhead' Goosander



Whooper Swan


Great Grey Shrike - apologies for poor quality pic - taken at long range through a heat haze...

Other good birds seen or reported locally this month included: Whooper Swan, Goosander, Goldeneye,  Brambling, Redpoll, Bullfinch and Great Grey Shrike....



Sunrise over the Cairngorm Mountains as seen from a local upland moor




Moray coast highlights:


Red-Breasted Merganser by Steve Nicklin



Water Rail


Guillemot by Steve Nicklin



Purple Sandpiper by Steve Nicklin


Male Eider



Long-Tailed Ducks


Red-Throated Diver by Steve Nicklin

The Moray coast is only about a one 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, Whooper Swan, Water Rail,  EiderWigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Black-Tailed GodwitKnot, Golden PloverRinged PloverPurple Sandpiper, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Red-Throated DiverGuillemotGoosander, Red-Breasted Merganser,and  Long-Tailed Ducks....




Lossiemouth Bay on the picturesque Moray coast




February 2019 mammal sightings in more detail:


Mountain Hare in it's typical habitat..


Stalking Mountain Hares...



Mountain Hare by Michelle and Phil Coyle
Our local Mountain Hares once again 'stole the show' this month, and it is very hard to argue against them regularly being voted as 'mammal of the day' when you take into account their gorgeous looks in their winter white coats, their relative scarcity in the UK, and the often spectacularly scenic upland habitat in which they are found. I was 'hired' for Mountain Hare photography safaris by several keen wildlife photographers this month, and I'm pleased to say that we achieved good results on most occasions, but it should be noted that it can often involve a lengthy walk on rough and often steep terrain....



Red Deer

Red Deer stag
Still up in the glens, Red Deer could often be seen well in their large same-sex herds, well, on the days when no shooting was taking place anyway!.... but only if you used a bit of fieldcraft, and concentrated on looking for them on the leeward side of the hills, as although they are pretty hardy, they are clearly sensible enough not to stay exposed to a strong wind....

Feral Mountain Goats
Also sharing the same upland habitat are Feral Mountain Goats, and we did much better this month, seeing them on nearly every occasion we visited the glens where they live, and although they were keen to keep their distance, there now appeared to be some youngsters among them...


Sika Deer by Jan Shields

Sika Deer were encountered on a few occasions on my safaris this month, with many of my clients seeing them for the first time. For those not familiar with this species, they originate from Asia and were introduced into the UK in the late 19th century...


Roe Deer by Steve Nicklin
Roe Deer however, can be a little trickier to see, being more wary of human disturbance, and most of our sightings were at dawn or in very remote areas, and were usually of the 'brief' variety, as they ran away on becoming aware of us...


What a poser! Red Squirrel by Jan Shields
In our local Caledonian forests, Red Squirrels put big smiles on my safari clients faces, with many of them seeing these rare cute and characterful little animals for the first time. Although most of our sightings are at feeding stations - they love peanuts! - we also had plenty of 'random' sightings of them whilst driving or walking along the quieter tracks...

Unusually for February, and undoubtedly due to the unseasonably mild weather, we also had our first sightings this year of Frogs, Toads and Bumblebees....at least a month earlier than normal!

Summary:

Well, after a quiet January, things really took off for my safaris this month, the great weather, half-term holidays and the continued 'Winterwatch effect' all combined well to keep me nice and busy, with loads of great wildlife seen, and my safari clients all seemed to have a great time., as did I!!

The Winterwatch teepee on the edge of Abernethy Forest



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, January 31, 2019

January 2019 was very much a month of two halves weather-wise in this area -  The first half was unseasonably mild and often more like autumn or spring than winter, with no extreme conditions, and temperatures often up in high single figures.. however....winter bit back with a vengeance in the second half, with plenty of snow and frosts, and temperatures down to -12c which was much more typical of January up here.
By being flexible, and cherry-picking the best days weather-wise, we had some really enjoyable adventures out 'in the wilds', with the excellent off-road and winter weather abilities and interior comforts of my Land Rover Discovery often proving to be a necessity rather than a luxury!
On a positive note, the days are lengthening noticeably now, with over 8 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 usually proving to be best.


Sunrise at a beautiful local loch
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 in and around the Cairngorms National Park and nearby Moray coast, by myself , my friends or my safari clients will help - clicking on the picture will enlarge it to full screen.

Wildlife highlights:


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

Black Grouse (at dawn only), Red GrouseCrested TitDipper , Goldeneye,  and Golden Eagle... 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 WaxwingsBramblings and Redpolls were seen......


A good variety of seabirds, waders,  wildfowl and Geese were enjoyed at the Moray Coast and the nearby inland lochs...


Mammals seen regularly locally during the month included:

Roe Deer,  Red Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel, Rabbit, Mountain Hare (white), and Mountain Goat, with just a few sightings of Brown Hare, and one brief glimpse of a (white) Stoat....

Common Seal and Grey Seal were both seen at the nearby Moray Coast...




Black Grouse displaying soon after dawn
Black Grouse are one of my favourite local speciality birds, and always prove popular with my safari clients, especially from January to May when they usually display and lek. However, our dawn (7:30am) visits to their traditional 'lek' sites gave 'patchy' results this month, with a couple of 'no shows' offset by up to 12 cock birds showing beautifully on one occasion...


Red Grouse
Our local Red Grouse were already showing signs of pre-breeding season territorial behaviour early in the month, however, the Arctic blast from mid-month saw many of them switch to a more survival-based tactic of temporarily forming 'mega-flocks' and moving around to slightly less windswept and cold areas....


Crested Tit
In the Caledonian pine forests, 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 3 of these true 'local specialities' showing at once...
It is well 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, with sightings being much more difficult to obtain between April and September....

Still in the Caledonian pine forests.... and despite my best efforts.. sadly, Crossbill sightings were, as usual, limited to very brief glimpses of birds flying over, with us only being able to identify them by their characteristic 'jip-jip' calls....

Continuing the forest theme, after reasonable success with Capercaillie in October and November, 'normal service' continued , and sadly, despite lots of dawn searching....we did not get lucky with any sightings at all this month...and I still need to see one for my 2019 bird 'year-list'.....



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...and it still makes me shiver every time I see them submerge themselves in an ice-fringed river when feeding, they sure are hardy little critters...


Golden Eagle by Steve Nicklin

Sparrowhawk with prey


January is normally a pretty decent month for sightings of birds of prey in this area, but the wild and wintry weather from mid-month and the consequent lack of  enthusiasm from the public for my safaris restricted my visits to the remote local upland glens to a handful of opportunities, though Golden Eagle, Red KiteCommon Buzzard , Sparrowhawk and Kestrel were still all seen....which is pretty decent I reckon...

With the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still out of action for major repairs, the weather being very wintry, 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 Bunting
Still on a mountain theme, 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.....


Waxwing

Waxwings
Similarly to last month, with most of our local berries now gone, the Waxwing flocks seem to have moved on to pastures new... with just the odd local sighting of small groups, mostly at urban sites...but, alerted by my Rare Bird Alert pager, I ventured up to Elgin on the morning of the 19th to enjoy great close-up views of a small flock of these beautiful and often very obliging birds..


Bramblings



Drake Goldeneye



Hybrid Ross's Goose x Snow Goose by Mark Keighley



Other good birds seen or reported locally this month included: Whooper Swan, Goldeneye,  Brambling, Redpoll, and a probable hybrid Ross's Goose x Snow Goose... 



Midwinter on a local moorland





Moray coast highlights:


Bar-Tailed Godwit


A raft of Eiders




Redshank



Long-Tailed Duck



Purple Sandpiper

The Moray coast is only about a one 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, Whooper Swan, ShovelerGadwall,  Wigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden PloverRinged PloverPurple Sandpiper, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Goosander, Red-Breasted Merganser,and a few Long-Tailed Ducks....






January 2019 Mammal sightings:

Mountain Hare

Mountain Hares 'in their stunning 'winter-white' coats, stole the show' again this month, with these cute looking, but in reality, 'hard as nails' animals most often being voted as 'mammal of the day' by my safari clients. But did you know that the Mountain Hare is Britain's only indigenous 'Lagomorph'? As the others,  Brown Hare and Rabbit were both introduced here by man, from other countries...as Michael Caine might say "not a lot of people know that"....


Red Deer stag
Still in the uplands, our local Red Deer could be seen happily grazing on the tops of the ridges in the mild weather early in the month, but adapted to the much more wintry second half of the month, by dropping down into less exposed and snow-free areas....



Feral Mountain Goat (pic from Jan 2018)
Our local feral Mountain Goats were a bit conspicuous by their absence in the upland glens this month, with most of our sightings at very long range, and I suspect they may well have spent much of their time sheltering from the wintry weather in and around the forestry plantations....



Red Squirrel

In the Caledonian pine forests, the ever-popular and always cute Red Squirrels could be seen taking advantage of the peanuts on offer at feeding stations, though we did also get plenty of 'random' sightings during our walks and drives through suitable habitat..




Roe Deer (pic from winter 2015)

Roe Deer as usual, were mainly seen at dawn or soon after, and generally at the quieter sites well away from human disturbance, their shy nature making them much harder to see than Red Deer, despite being considerably more numerous and widespread than their larger 'cousins'...





On safari in a picturesque local upland glen

Well, despite the particularly wintry start to the year making it a bit 'quieter' than normal on the safari bookings front, I reckon we have still got the wildlife-watching year off to a pretty good start... and the days are lengthening, the birds are definitely sensing that spring is approaching, and the bookings diary is filling up, partly due to the 'Winterwatch effect' - the popular BBC show is currently highlighting the marvellous scenery, special habitats and rare wildlife of this area.....
Find out more at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06zdxl1 



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....