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

Friday, January 31, 2020

January 2020 weather-wise in this area, was largely dominated by south-westerly winds bringing us a succession of Atlantic lows, which meant we had generally wet and breezy weather with unseasonably mild temperatures, and just a few still and frosty days in between.
So although I personally prefer the crisp, bright days of a traditional Highland winter,  the mild temperatures and lack of ice and snow did at least allow us full access to all of the remote habitats we visit without any issues, though the rain and winds could be a bit annoying at times.
The days are lengthening noticeably now, with up to 9 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 30's or 40's, though a trip to the nearby (one hour by car) Moray Coast can boost this total considerably, whilst mammal day lists varied between 3 and 8 depending on the time of our start and number of habitats visited, with early starts usually proving to be best.

Winter in a beautiful local upland glen
To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are considering a future January 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:

Black Grouse (first hour of light 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.  Despite many hours of dawn walks in search of Capercaillie, (I'm trying hard!) I only managed one very brief glimpse of a female flying across a forest track....

Winter visiting birds were represented by family groups of Whooper Swans, though in smaller numbers than usual.  and several species of 'grey' Geese, ..and a few Waxwings , FieldfaresRedwings and Redpolls were seen, though Bramblings appeared to be in very short supply this winter..

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:

Red Deer, Roe 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 Bank Vole....

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

January 2020 bird sightings in more detail:

Crested Tit by Bob Smith

Crested Tit by Graham Spencer

Crested Tit by Bob Smith
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...with several of my delighted safari clients seeing them for the first time, and we even managed a few decent photos.
It is well worth noting that the winter months (October-February) 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 March and September....

Male Crossbill
Still in the Caledonian forests, rather unusually,we actually did rather well for Crossbill sightings this month, with some very decent sightings, and even a couple of rare photo opportunities!...mainly because this is breeding season for them, which means that this is your best chance to see them perched in treetops, often singing to establish a territory and attract a mate....

Capercaillie poo
Continuing the forest theme, and with safari bookings a bit 'quiet', I used the spare time wisely, starting my annual quest for my very tricky Capercaillie 'year-tick', and,  after quite a few unsuccessful dawn walks where I often found Caper poo, but no actual birds, I finally managed my first sighting of one this year - a brief glimpse of a flying female on the 18th of the month.
Please note though, that Capercaillie numbers would still appear to be declining alarmingly, they are becoming very rare and elusive,  and I would only rate our chances of seeing one on my safaris  as "very slim" at best...

Displaying Black Grouse by Graham Spencer
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 6 cock birds showing beautifully on one occasion...please be aware though, that they are easily 'spooked' , so we have to keep a respectable (and legal) distance away...

Red Grouse
Still on the moors, the Red Grouse are becoming a little easier to see each week now, as the cock birds become ever bolder, often posturing aggressively and calling loudly to establish a territory and attract a mate, often with their red 'eyebrows' bulging impressively.

Dipper by Bob Smith
On our local rivers, the Dippers too are now most definitely in territorial mode, and we were lucky enough to see them posturing and displaying and often singing their distinctive 'scratchy' song from a prominent rock, often near a bridge...

Soaring Golden Eagle by Bob Smith
Up in the glens, as I mentioned last month...the short daylight hours, and with no breeding season distractions yet,  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 sites providing my safari clients and I with regular sightings, and even the occasional (and rare)  photo opportunity, of the much sought after Golden Eagle with views of these magnificent and iconic birds providing great entertainment,  numerous 'year ticks' and even a few 'life-ticks'  for my very happy guests...

Peregrine Falcon

Red Kite

Common Buzzard
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 and enjoyed at least once.....

Onto the mountain birds now, and with the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still out of action for major repairs, the generally wet and windy weather not being conducive to sightings,  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 Buntings
Snow Buntings can often be seen at lower levels in the winter month on and around our local mountains, but with the mild weather causing the snow line to recede much higher than normal, it would appear that the birds had retreated to higher altitudes too, meaning that we struggled to find them for most of the month, except for the last few days when some fresh snow to lower levels attracted them back again.

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, and I only managed one very brief sighting of a small group of birds in Inverness Cemetery.

Other good birds seen or reported locally this month included: 

Whooper Swan

Juvenile Glaucous Gull
A juvenile Glaucous Gull feeding on a dead pheasant at Insh Marshes, an American Wigeon on Loch Insh, which I missed!, and a few Whooper Swans at various locations.

Tea and shortbread time on a local upland moorland

Moray coast highlights:

Ringed Plovers

Purple Sandpiper

Water Rail

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe in winter plumage by Steve Nicklin

Drake Eider

Drake Long-Tailed Duck
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, Brent Geese, Whooper Swan, ShovelerWigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden PloverGrey Plover , Ringed Plover, Sanderling,  Purple Sandpiper, EiderCommon Scoter,  Red-Throated DiverLong-Tailed Ducks, and a Water Rail....all great 'ticks' for boosting up your 2020 'year-list'!!

January 2020 mammal sightings in more detail:

Mountain Hare
Our local Mountain Hares - still in their attractive all-white winter pelage - stole the show again this month, proving very popular with my safari clients, and rightly so, as Britain's only native 'lagomorph' and with their distribution being restricted to just a few remote upland areas.
It should be noted though, that most of our views are at range through my telescope, and that a closer view usually involves some rough uphill walking.

Red Deer stags
Still up in the glens, with little snow around and conditions far less wintry than usual, the Red Deer were often seen feeding in largely same-sex groups up on the high ridges, meaning that most of our views were at quite long range through a telescope, with just the odd close encounter at lower levels to give us a photo opportunity.

Feral Mountain Goats by Graham Spencer

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 although our views were again mainly quite distant, it looked like there was a few youngsters among them...

Red Squirrel
Red Squirrels are a true Highlands speciality, and we were fortunate enough to see at least one on all but one of my safaris this month, mainly chomping on peanuts at forest feeding stations, but with the occasional random sighting whilst walking or driving in suitable habitat.

Roe Deer by Steve Nicklin
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'...

Rare/nocturnal mammals:

I get a lot of enquiries about the possibility of seeing Pine Marten from my safari clients, many of whom I suspect are unaware that they are actually a largely nocturnal creature, and although we do get the occasional dawn glimpse of one, you would definitely have a much higher chance of seeing them at a specific dusk Badger/Pine Marten watching hide. 

Similarly, our inland Otters too are mainly active during the hours of darkness, and again, although we do get a few early-morning sightings on local lochs and rivers each year, looking for them feeding in a suitably quiet, kelp - filled bay on the coast on a rising tide, but at any time of day, would give you a much better chance.

Whilst we are still on the 'tricky to see stuff', the Scottish Wildcat too, as well as being incredibly rare now, is also generally nocturnal, and the fact that I have had a mere handful of  (dawn or dusk) sightings in almost 16 years of providing wildlife safaris should give you an idea of how difficult they are to see.

Early morning in the Abernethy Forest

Well, despite a quiet month on the safari bookings front, I reckon we have still got the wildlife-watching year off to a pretty good start, with plenty of local speciality birds and animals seen and enjoyed, and the days are lengthening, the birds are definitely sensing that spring is approaching, and the bookings diary is filling up nicely, partly due to the 'Winterwatch effect' - the popular BBC show is currently highlighting the marvellous scenery, special habitats and rare wildlife of this area....check it out at https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/efn6gw/live/cm89mb

Special offers:

My 2020 Highland Wildlife calendar is still available - just a few left now - 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 £10 (including postage and packing  - in the UK).

Please contact me by email at steve.reddick@btinternet.com if you would like one.

Sunset over a local moorland loch


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



Gift Certificates:

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....