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

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.. 

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...

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.


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....


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....