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, February 29, 2020

February 2020 weather-wise, must go down as one of the wildest months I have experienced since I started my safaris in 2004! After a changeable start, storms Ciara , Dennis and Ellen brought gales of up to 90mph in off the Atlantic, accompanied by every type of precipitation from rain to hail to sleet and snow, and with just a few calmer and sunnier days in between, we definitely had to 'cherry-pick' the best opportunities for the few safaris that I had booked!

On the days that we did venture out though, we actually fared really well for sightings of local speciality birds and mammals, often in spectacular snowy scenery, but I was very grateful for the superb all-weather and off-road ability of my trusty Land Rover Discovery on a number of occasions, including the drive through moorland snowdrifts a metre high!

Despite the weather, the days are lengthening noticeably now, with more than 9 hours of usable daylight, and dawn (for the Black Grouse) is still a relatively sociable 7am,the Snowdrops are emerging, Woodpeckers are drumming, many other birds are singing, and on the nicer days, you could definitely sense that spring is maybe not too far away now.

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 40's, though a trip to the nearby Moray Coast or Black Isle can increase this number considerably, whilst mammal day lists varied between 3 and 7 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 and more crepuscular creatures.

Late 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 February 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. I apologise for the poor quality of some of the photos this month - but in my defence, the wild weather meant that the light was often very poor....

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 Golden Eagle and Snow Bunting  and a few brief glimpses of Crossbills...but despite many more hours of dawn walks in search of Capercaillie, (I'm still trying!)  I only managed one very brief view of a male perched up a tree....

Winter visiting birds were again 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 still appeared to be in very short supply this winter..

A good variety of seabirds, seaducks, 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 couple of sightings of Brown Hare...

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

February 2020 bird sightings in more detail:

Lekking Black Grouse
Dawn  (still a pretty user-friendly 7 am) on my safaris was usually spent visiting one (or more if needed!) local Black Grouse lek sites, usually a flat, grassy area on an upland heather moorland,  where we enjoyed the spectacle of up to 7 of these attractive, but sadly now 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  'arena' for the forthcoming breeding season, all accompanied by their distinctive 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 we have to view from a respectful (and legal) distance, and that sightings are not 'guaranteed' as the birds can fail to show for no obvious reason.....

Male Red Grouse

Still on the moors, the cock Red Grouse are very territorial and full of aggression now, as they defend their chosen 'territory' from rivals and try to attract a mate with much calling and posturing and their red eye wattles aglow, usually from one of the few higher vantage points, making them nice and easy for us to find!

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...and 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....

Female Crossbill

Male Crossbill
Still in the Caledonian forests, similarly to last month, we actually did rather well for Crossbill sightings again this month, with some very decent sightings, and even a couple of rare photo opportunities!...mainly because the period between December and March 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....whereas they can be pretty tricky to see for the rest of the year...

Nice morning light in a local Caledonian forest

As I mentioned in my introduction, many hours of dawn walks and slow drives in the Caledonian forests only produced one very brief sighting of a splendid male bird perched high in a pine, which promptly flew off on becoming aware of my presence.....
Please note though that Capercaillie numbers would still appear to be declining alarmingly, they are definitely becoming very rare and elusive,  and I would only rate our chances of seeing one on my safaris  as "very slim" at best...

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 towards the end of the month we even saw one or two carrying nesting material....

A distant view of a Golden Eagle flying away from us

Soaring Golden Eagle
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 we were lucky enough to enjoy several memorable sightings of these majestic birds hunting in upland glens, though not as frequently as last month....

Peregrine Falcon

Red Kite

Male Sparrowhawk

Raptors in general were again pretty well represented this month, with White-Tailed EagleKestrel, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Peregrine, Goshawk , Merlin and Red Kite all being seen at least once...

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings

With the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still out of action for major repairs, and the  weather rarely good enough, 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 ..and a few intrepid birders who made the effort to walk up to the tops did manage a few Ptarmigan sightings....

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......

Other good/scarce birds seen or reported locally this month included:

Lesser Redpoll

A Long -Tailed Duck on Loch Insh , a Lesser Redpoll in my garden, and a Green Woodpecker (a rare bird in this area) near Aviemore...

On safari on a local upland heather moorland

Moray coast highlights:

A distant view of Common Scoters


Whooper Swans and a couple of Greylag Geese

Pink-Footed Geese

Male Long-Tailed Duck

Male Eider

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 Swans, ShovelerWigeon, Teal, ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Golden PloverGrey Plover , Ringed Plover, Sanderling,  Purple Sandpiper, EiderCommon Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Red-Throated DiverLong-Tailed Ducks, Common Guillemot and a Water Rail....all great 'ticks' for boosting up your 2020 'year-list'!!

The view from the hide at Loch Spynie

February 2020 mammal sightings in more detail:

Mountain Hare

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. 
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, often on snow.

Red Deer

Still up in the glens, Red Deer could often be seen well in their large same-sex herds,  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 animals, they are clearly sensible enough not to stay exposed to  strong winds, of which we had plenty this month! 

Feral Mountain Goats struggling to feed in the deep snow
Also sharing the same upland habitat are our local 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 seemed keen to keep their distance, there now appeared to be some youngsters among them...

Roe Deer
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 quiet or remote areas, and were usually of the 'brief' variety, as they ran away on becoming aware of us...

Red Squirrel
In our local Caledonian forests, Red Squirrels always 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 'chance' sightings of them whilst driving or walking along the quieter forest tracks...

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.

Mountains, moorlands, forests and lochs.... Speyside has all these habitats and more...


Well, despite the often wild and wintry weather turning most of my safaris this month into a bit of an 'adventure', I certainly enjoyed braving the elements, as did most of my safari clients, and on reflecting on my notes and photos whilst compiling this report,  I reckon we actually did pretty well for wildlife sightings too, with plenty of upland and local speciality birds and animals seen, though I have to say that I won't complain if the weather was to calm down and turn a little more spring-like soon...


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....



Thank goodness for 4-wheel drive!!!

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 of the date of purchase....