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

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March 2020 will, sadly, forever be remembered as the month when the Coronavirus crisis really hit the UK, with the 23rd marking the point at which all tourism related activities in Scotland were forced to stop, including my safaris......

However, all the time it was safe (and legal) to do so, I did continue to visit most of my favourite wildlife sites alone though, in order to be able to report my sightings ... get some physical exercise, and to preserve my sanity.. I'm not good at staying home!!

The weather was reasonably helpful, with a large variety of conditions, but no real extremes experienced, though with temperatures fluctuating wildly from -4c to +13c during the month,and sometimes even in one day!,  prospective visitors would be wise to keep an eye on the weather forecast, and bring a selection of clothes and footwear to suit all seasons and all weathers!

The days are lengthening nicely now though, with nearly 12 hours of usable daylight, and dawn (for the Black Grouse lek) is a still not too unsociable 6am, and with a few Daffodils joining the Crocuses and Snowdrops, many birds now singing, Frogs and Toads on the move and Bumble Bees on the wing, I think it may now be safe to declare that winter is (almost) over....

With many of the winter visiting birds still here, and a few wader and water bird species returning to their inland breeding sites in the second half of the month, full-day safari bird species day-lists crept up over the 40 mark, though a trip to the nearby Moray Coast can boost this total considerably,  whilst mammal species day-lists varied between 3 and 8 depending on our luck, time of start, and the variety of habitats visited, with early starts usually proving most fruitful.

I was away down in southern England  visiting family and friends (and adding to my 2020 bird year-list) for the second week of the month, so my local sightings report will be a little shorter than usual and may include a few photos from previous March safaris that are representative of the month.

Late winter at Loch Garten

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future March 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 included:

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly included  Black Grouse (dawn only) , Red Grouse, Crested Tit (reliable early in the month only), Snow BuntingGoldeneye , Goosander, and Dipper, we also had several decent views of soaring Golden Eagle  and a few brief (mainly fly-over) sightings of Crossbills, and from mid-month, our first local reports this year of Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver and Golden Plover - all coming into their splendid summer breeding plumage - and at the very end of the month, our first Osprey, Slavonian Grebe and Ring Ouzels joined the ever-increasing numbers of other Summer visiting birds , such as Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Curlew.
And finally, after many attempts, a post-dawn walk in Caledonian forest at last produced a (3 second) glimpse of a (male) Capercaillie for one of my safari clients!!
Although I personally did not go on any mountain top adventures for Ptarmigan this month, I understand that they could sometimes be seen well on the days when the weather was suitable....though they were generally elusive...

Winter visiting birds were represented by a few remaining family groups of Whooper Swans, flocks of Greylag Geese and Pink-Footed Geese, wildfowl such as Wigeon and Teal,  a few (again annoyingly mobile) Waxwings continued to feast on our now almost totally depleted berries throughout the month..and a few Redwings , Fieldfares, and Redpolls lingered, though I have yet to see a Brambling locally this year....

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, Red Squirrel, Rabbit, Mountain Hare (still mainly white), and Mountain Goat (now with young), with a few sightings of Brown Hare , and just one view of Sika Deer....

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

March 2020 bird sightings in more detail:

Lekking Black Grouse

A rather lonely looking cock Black Grouse...

Black Grouse are not an easy species to see in most of the UK now, having suffered an 80% decline in numbers over the last 20 years, and are birds of remote upland moors, preferably with forests and a grassy 'lekking' patch nearby, a very specific combination of habitats that is not so common nowadays. Fortunately, the Scottish Highlands still has a decent number of active  'lek' sites, where the cock birds gather to 'strut their stuff', and dawn (about 6 am in March) on my safaris in the first five months of the year is usually spent enjoying this memorable experience. 'Performances' were noticeably better on still, frosty mornings.... but please be aware that sightings are not guaranteed, and the birds can fail to show , sometimes without any obvious reason,  or if disturbed by a predator or wandering sheep, cattle , horses.... or inconsiderate birders/photographers...... you know who you are.....

Romance on the moors! Male and female Red Grouse

Cock Red Grouse by Jan Shields

Still on the upland heather moorlands, our local Red Grouse have most definitely already paired-up, and the cock birds, with red 'eyebrows' aglow, seem to be concentrating more on defending their territory and partner from rival birds, often posturing aggressively from the higher parts of the moor whilst cackling loudly, and the 'disappearance' of some of the hen birds late in the month suggests that a few may already be on nests...

Crested Tit by Jan Shields

Crested Tit by Jan Shields

In the Caledonian pine forests, Crested Tits were seen at and around my favourite feeding stations , at least early in the month anyway giving several of my (often very excited) safari clients a much wanted 'life-tick', but after my return from down south, with the temperatures rising, they often failed to show during the latter part of the month, and when they did they didn't stay for long and rarely called, suggesting perhaps, that they are now concentrating on breeding rather than feeding.....
As I mentioned last month, 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....

Late winter in the Abernethy Forest

Male Crossbill

Continuing the forest theme, sadly, after a recent productive spell,  it was back to 'business as usual' for our Crossbill sightings this month, as we were generally limited to very brief glimpses of birds flying over, with us only being able to identify them by their characteristic 'jip-jip' calls".....and sadly, very few photo opportunities...

Capercaillie poo
Still in the forests, as I mentioned earlier, I finally managed to get a safari client a first glimpse - all 2 or 3 seconds as it flew off from it's treetop roosting spot - of a Capercaillie this month....a cracking male bird....though it has taken me many hours of dedicated dawn walks in secluded  areas where I have seen them in the past, to achieve this... and now we are into 'lekking' season, I will be 'responsible'  by staying out of 'sensitive' areas at dawn through April and May to allow this now very rare and declining bird to (hopefully) lek and  breed in peace....
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...

It was better news on our local lochs though, as late in the month it was great to see the return of some of our rarest and in my opinion, most beautiful local speciality birds, namely Red-Throated Diver,  Black-Throated Diver and Slavonian Grebe. 
Speyside is at the south-westerly edge of the world-wide breeding range for these very sought-after species, and I am always very happy (and relieved) to see them back on their favoured waters....and although a photo opportunity eluded me this month, I am hopeful next month may give me some decent chances...

Female Goldeneye

Male Goldeneye

Also on the lochs (and rivers), we must not forget our breeding Goldeneye population , and we were fortunate enough to see them regularly this month, with many of the males now performing their unique and spectacular 'head-banging' mating display!

Dipper by Jan Shields

Dipper with nesting material
Dippers were seen frequently on local rivers this month, and they too seem to have procreation on their minds, as we are now (presumably) only seeing male birds, and they appear to be delivering nesting material to their mates and defending territory near their favourite nest sites of old bridges....

Soaring Golden Eagle

As I have mentioned before, the shorter days of the winter months (Oct-Feb) give us our best chance of seeing Golden Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles although as the days lengthen, the frequency of sightings definitely reduces, and despite the adult females presumably nesting by now,  we were still fortunate enough to enjoy a few decent (if brief, and usually distant) sightings of these majestic birds hunting in upland glens,

Male Sparrowhawk - A regular in my garden!


Common Buzzard

Goshawk by Steve Nicklin

Red Kite by Steve Nicklin

Raptors in general were fairly well represented this month, with Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Peregrine, Goshawk and Red Kite  all being seen at least once...and the first returning Ospreys have been reported in the last few days of the month....

Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting by Jan Shields

March is often our last chance to see Snow Buntings at lower levels in this area, as the snow line tends to recede higher with each month now, and the birds tend to follow it, and true to form,  we enjoyed some nice close-up sightings throughout the month.....

With the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still closed for the foreseeable future, I did not venture up the mountain this month, though it would appear that some hardy and very athletic souls managed to see Ptarmigan by walking up above the snow line, though I understand that they were often very elusive....

Winter visiting birds:

Flock of Fieldfares

Whooper Swans

We saw evidence of northward migration throughout the month, with large flocks of Mistle Thrushes and Fieldfares being noted, whilst a few flocks of Waxwings and Whooper Swans lingered.......

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

Pair of Goosanders

Male Lady Amherst's Pheasant
Goosanders on local rivers and lochs, 6 Kittiwakes on Loch Insh (11th), 3 Pintail on Loch Insh (22nd), and a pair of Lady Amherst's Pheasants at Strathdearn...

Loch Insh

    Moray coast highlights:

Pink-Footed Geese at the Moray coast
Male 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 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 Razorbill...., plus a first summer visitor in the form of a Sandwich Tern...all great 'ticks' for boosting up your 2020 'year-list'!!

Lossiemouth Beach on the Moray coast

March 2020 mammal sightings in more detail:

Mountain Hare

March is the last month to see our local Mountain Hares in their beautiful all-white winter coats, though a  few were already starting to morph into their spring blue/grey colours, and a few had grey-brown faces, but they were undoubtedly 'mammal of the month', with many of my safari clients delighted to see them, often for the first time, and with their upland habitats being relatively snow-free for much of the month, they were not too difficult for me to find, and could actually be quite confiding, often allowing a reasonably close approach for photography....

Red Deer stags in a local upland glen
Red Deer too,  are most commonly seen in remote upland glens, and that was mainly the case again this month, however, when the weather turns really wintry, they sometimes desert the exposed uplands for the shelter of nearby forests, and that was the case in the early part of this month, when we came across a few in the Abernethy Forest...

Feral Mountain Goats
Still up in the glens, we again got to see the Feral Mountain Goats with their very cute youngsters, and they proved to be very popular with my safari clients, many of whom were unaware that there are still 'wild' populations of these very interesting animals in remote parts of the UK...

Roe Deer by Jan Shields
Roe Deer were seen on many of my safaris this month, usually soon after dawn, but being one of the more 'nervous' animals,  they invariably 'disappear' upon noticing us, but we did manage a couple of snatched long-distance photos....

Red Squirrel by Jan Shields
Red Squirrels are pretty reliable visitors to the quieter forest feeding stations, especially during the colder weather, and we managed to see at least one, and often more,  on every safari this month,  and we also had some nice random sightings in more natural settings too...

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.

A beautiful local upland glen


Looking back through my reports and pictures for this month, my safari clients certainly seemed to enjoy themselves, as did I, and I reckon we did pretty well despite the changeable weather. 
We saw plenty of lingering winter birds, a few newly-arrived summer birds, a good selection of indigenous local specialities and noticed a few signs of spring approaching... which has made the current 'lock-down' situation that much harder to take, as we are now entering the best , and my favourite time of year for wildlife-watching in this area.

So, although I am currently unable to physically share the natural beauty and wildlife of the Cairngorms National park with you all, I intend to take my camera on my daily exercise walks, in the hope of getting a few images that I can share with you to help you enjoy it vicariously with me...


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 the date of purchase....