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

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

March 2014 was generally quite spring-like in this area, with the exception of a more wintry spell in the third week - a big difference from last March, which was cold and snowy throughout. This 'early spring', with the longer days, plenty of sunshine and temperatures into double-figures meant that a number of local breeding species that winter in warmer climes, were able to return earlier than last year, and early risers could enjoy a proper 'dawn chorus' already.
It was also noticeable that many of our wintering birds such as Geese, wildfowl and Whooper Swans vacated our area for their breeding grounds up towards the Arctic considerably earlier than last year too.
The returning waders, grebes and divers helped push our bird day-lists up well into the 40's, whilst our mammal day-lists remained steady at between 5 and 9 depending on our luck.
I was away down in southern England and Malta for much of the middle part of the month, so my local sightings report may be a little shorter than usual.

Wildlife highlights included:

Local speciality bird species seen regularly throughout the month included: Dipper, Goldeneye, Snow Bunting, Crested Tit, Black Grouse, Red Grouse and Capercaillie, with just a few views of Crossbill and Golden Eagle. Whilst the last week of the month gave us our first local sightings this year of returning Ospreys, Slavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver and Ring Ouzel.

Mammals seen regularly included: Roe Deer, Red Deer, Reindeer, Red Squirrel, Mountain Goat, Mountain Hare, Brown Hare and Rabbit, with a couple of brief glimpses of Bank Vole and Stoat.

Both of our local 'rogue' male Capercaillies showed well on and off up to mid-month, providing spectacular 'life-ticks' and great photo opportunities for a number of my safari clients (see pic above). Though sadly, one of the birds ('Rambo' the new and younger bird) was found dead whilst I was away... cause of death unknown at present.. though a SNH autopsy may reveal all shortly.....
I am really hoping that inexperienced/irresponsible birders/photographers were not responsible for 'harrassing' this bird to death........ as in previous years, I will now be leaving 'unsupervised' Capercaillie sites alone during the lekking season (April/May) and will instead be visiting the RSPB Caper-watch hide at Loch Garten instead (5:30am-8am April 1 to May 18).

Our local male Black Grouse continued to entertain at dawn on local lek sites (see pic above), with between 4 and 7 birds calling, displaying aggressively and occasionally actually sparring - a spectacular way to start a day of wildlife-watching!

Red Grouse too were very active on our local heather moorlands (see pic above), with the male birds guttural calls filling the air, as they postured aggressively from raised peat diggings and ridges, and showed off their aerial skills with their distinctive near-vertical display flights.

Crested Tits continued to visit my local forest feeding sites up until mid month (see pic above), though they became noticeably less reliable as the month ended, maybe a sign that their attention has turned more to breeding....

Our local rivers continued to provide good views of Dippers (see pic above), with the birds very active and vocal and some birds being seen carrying nesting material....

Snow Buntings were seen in and around the Cairngorms Ski Centre early month (see pic above), whilst the snow remained at lower levels, though they became harder to find later on, as they presumably followed the receding snow levels up the slopes....

Osprey is an iconic nesting bird on Speyside, and always popular with my safari clients, and the last week of the month saw a number of birds complete their annual spring migration from West Africa to return to local nests, including 'celebrity' birds such as 'EJ' at Loch Garten RSPB reserve (see pic above) and 'lady' at Loch of the Lowes.

Late March also saw three local speciality , and very beautiful, species of  water birds return to their breeding lochs in this area, in the form of Black-Throated Diver, Red-Throated Diver and Slavonian Grebe. The birds are often very skittish upon arrival as they seek to establish a breeding territory and attract a mate, but I hope to get some nice pictures once they are more settled....

Though we did have a few brief glimpses of Golden Eagle in suitable upland glens, they have definitely become more difficult to see recently, as they now have more hours of daylight hunting time, and some of the females may well already be nesting....

Crossbills were frustratingly tricky to get a good view of too , with most of our sightings restricted to brief tree-top sightings and more usually,  their distinctive 'jip' 'jip' calls alerting us to small flocks flying overhead.

Ring Ouzel, or the 'Mountain blackbird' as it is often known, is another local speciality breeder of our upland sites, and I was lucky enough to see a flock of 5 birds fly north overhead, after being alerted to their presence by their distinctive calls. I hope to get some better views of perched birds as they settle into their breeding territories during April.

Golden Plover is a bird that many UK birders will have already seen, but probably not on their upland moor breeding sites and not in their very dapper summer breeding plumage, when they look like they are wearing a smart black and white tuxedo! Our first returning birds actually arrived in late February, and the numbers appear to have increased throughout March.

Mammals were well represented on my my safaris again this month, with up to 7 different species being seen in one day. March is usually your last chance to see our Mountain Hares in their beautiful all-white winter coats, as they begin to go a more mottled blue-grey during April, so I make no excuse for showing one last pic of them at their best (see pic above)

As I mentioned earlier, I spent the mid part of the month visiting relatives and friends down in the South -East of England, where I also managed to sneak in a bit of birding, adding southern specialites, but  northern scarcities, such as Woodlark, Dartford Warbler, Great Grey Shrike, Nuthatch and Ring-Necked Parakeet to my growing 'year-list'...

Malta is maybe not high up on many UK birders 'wish-list' of places to visit, what with it's historic reputation for high levels of hunting and trapping of birds - but maybe it now should be? Thanks mainly to the efforts of Bird Life Malta (www.birdlifemalta.org), though it is still not a completely satisfactory situation, recent years have seen a big improvement in attitude, the education of  Maltese schoolchildren about conservation, the creation of a number of new bird reserves, and stricter new hunting regulations imposed, meaning that there has been a decent reduction in the activities of the bird hunters. Add this to it's location on the 'migration flyway' between Africa and Europe and there is scope for some pretty decent birding, especially in spring and autumn - my last three short mid-March visits have given me sought-after species such as Bluethroat, Hoopoe, Alpine Swift, Sub-Alpine Warbler, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Trumpeter Finch, Black-Winged Stilt, Ashy - headed Yellow Wagtail, Black-necked Grebe and many more..... add these to the  Maltese endemics such as Blue Rock Thrush, Fan-tailed Warbler and Sardinian Warbler, and you can see that maybe it is worth considering a visit yourself? I am a member of Bird Life Malta, and would urge as many UK birders as possible to join too, to help them with their valuable work in protecting  what are in all probability some of OUR breeding birds, during their stay on Malta......

So, to summarise, March saw an unusually early end to winter, and spring came early to the Cairngorms National Park, meaning no problems with accessing the more remote sites, this helping us to enjoy another excellent month of very enjoyable wildlife watching. We are now entering my favourite part of the bird-watching calendar, and I look forward to updating you again in another month, hopefully with stories of more great sightings, and some decent photos too.