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

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....


Saturday, January 05, 2019

Merry Christmas!! I would like to wish all my readers a happy and wildlife-filled new year ..
And a big "thank you" to everyone who used , supported and recommended my safari guiding services during 2018......

December 2018 was really changeable weather-wise in this area, with seemingly no two consecutive days the same. Temperatures varied wildly from minus 8c to plus 13c and we experienced warm sun, fog, rain, sleet, hail, ice and snow at some stage during the month, whilst storm Deirdre brought winds in excess of 60mph!
Despite the days being at their shortest now, with only around 7-8 hours of daylight, by 'cherry-picking' the best ones, we still enjoyed some memorable adventures, with plenty of exciting wildlife sightings, and often against dramatic 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, 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.

A favourite local upland glen - surprisingly snow-free!
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 and nearby Moray coast by myself, my friends or my safari clients, will help....clicking on the picture enlarges 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, and we also had a few decent sightings of  White-Tailed Eagle and Snow Bunting and just a few brief glimpses of Crossbills.

A good variety of seabirds, waders and wildfowl were 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, Bramblings and Redpolls were also seen...



Mammals seen regularly during the month included:

Red Deer,  Roe Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel,  Rabbit, Mountain Hare (white) and Mountain Goat, with a few dawn sightings of Brown Hare and one brief glimpse of a (white) Stoat. 
Whilst a couple of trips to the moray Coast gave good views of both Common and Grey Seal...


Lekking Black Grouse
Pre-dawn starts - a relatively user friendly 7am at this time of year - gave us decent views of up to 4 displaying male Black Grouse on local moorland 'lek' sites, though they did not seem to be quite so 'up for it' or failed to show at all on the milder, wetter or windier mornings, with more birds and more 'action' being seen on the colder dryer 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 aggressive and 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
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 most desperate for food. 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. 

Still in the Caledonian pine forests, I'm afraid 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...though the new year should see a few male birds beginning to sing to attract a mate... so we may stand more of a chance...

Continuing the forest theme, after reasonable success with Capercaillie in October and November, normal service was resumed , and sadly, we did not get lucky with any sightings at all this month...



Dipper by James Ball  www.instagram.com/james.wildlifeworld

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



Golden Eagle by Steve Nicklin




Common Buzzard



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 Rough-Legged Buzzard should not be forgotten though, as all were seen at least once.....



Ptarmigan by Paul Sharman https://www.facebook.com/paulsharmanoutdoors/

With the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still out of action 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. 



Snow Buntings
Snow Buntings became 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...

With most of our local berries now gone, last month;s Waxwing flocks seem to have moved on to pastures new... with just the odd local sighting of small groups, mostly at urban sites...though I did not get to see them myself....

Other good birds seen or reported locally this month included: Brambling, Hawfinch and Redpoll...


Moray coast highlights:



Long-Tailed Duck




Golden Plover and flock of Dunlin



Male Eider



Oystercatchers and Knots



Cormorant
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, Pink-Footed Geese, Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden PloverGrey Plover , Ringed PloverPurple Sandpiper, Common Scoter, a few Long-Tailed Ducks,  and a bird rarely seen on Speyside, a Kingfisher...



December 2018 mammal sightings:


Mountain Hare by Steve Nicklin
Our local Mountain Hares, 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 a little rough uphill walking may be required in order to get close enough for photos...


Red Deer stags by Steve Nicklin
Still up in the glens, Red Deer, now mostly back in their same-sex herds, the rut seemingly long forgotten, 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 Goat
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....

Roe Deer
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...

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.....



Sundown at a beautiful  local loch

Well,  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 2019...

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....