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

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Well, the Coronavirus crisis certainly ensured that April 2020 was like no other April I have ever experienced - and not in a good way!!!!!!!

With all tourism and accommodation completely shut down, access to many of my favourite reserves and sites denied, and unable to provide guided safaris due to travel restrictions and social distancing regulations, rather than dwell on the potentially business threatening implications of no work and no income at what is usually my busiest time of year,  in an attempt to retain as much 'normality' as possible,  I decided to turn my allowed daily local exercise walks into 'solo mini-safaris', often setting off before dawn, and visiting as many different types of habitat as possible, in search of a good selection of local speciality wildlife, always with my camera to hand of course.

The plan was that I would get some great exercise, keep my 'finger on the pulse' of the local wildlife comings and goings, avoid the 'crowds' of people all using the popular local walks later in the day, hopefully still get a few photos for my monthly blog to illustrate what it is possible to see here in April, and of course, keep my sanity intact as far as possible, as being very much an 'outdoor person',  I'm not great at staying home!!

So, my sightings report this month will be an amalgamation of  'actual' April 2020 sightings combined with archived reports from April in previous years....

Weather-wise, April 2020 was one of the driest and warmest April's in recent memory, with high pressure dominating, we enjoyed light winds, very little rain and just a few overnight frosts, and (rather frustratingly) it was actually pretty much perfect for wildlife-watching.

The days really are lengthening nicely now, with around 14 hours of usable daylight, but dawn (for the Black Grouse lek) is now a slightly less sociable 5 am, so if this species is on your 'wish-list', be prepared for an early start...

Although many of the winter visiting birds had departed by the second week, the influx of summer migrant birds north into this area from mid-month helped bird species day-lists creep ever higher, and 50+ species would not be uncommon on a full day local safari, or considerably more if you include a visit to the nearby Moray coast - though sadly, travel restrictions meant that I was unable to make a visit myself this month,  whilst full day mammal species day-lists can creep up towards double figures, with early starts usually providing best results for the shyer ones.

Early spring in a beautiful local upland glen

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are planning a future April visit yourself,  I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken in and around the Cairngorms National Park by myself , my friends or my safari clients during this, and previous April's will help - clicking on the picture will enlarge it to full screen.

April wildlife highlights:

Local speciality and upland bird species seen regularly throughout the month included: 
Black Grouse (at dawn only), Red Grouse, Osprey, Ring Ouzel, Slavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver, Dipper, and Goldeneyewith just a couple of brief glimpses of Crossbills.  

Capercaillie, despite numerous walks in suitable forest habitat ,sadly, proved to be very elusive, with just one female seen briefly, and It should also be noted that, due to their very secretive nature at this time , Crested Tits also become extremely difficult to see during breeding season (April-May), and we often struggle to see them this month..
Trips to local upland glens always give us a chance of seeing raptors, including Eagles, but  my opportunities to visit suitable habitat were very limited this month and it should be noted that , in general, raptor sightings become far less frequent in spring and summer.....
Snow Buntings were seen at low level sites early in the month, but seemed to retreat high up to the mountain tops, as the snow line receded...where Ptarmigan can also often be seen....
Winter visiting birds were represented by a few remaining family groups of Whooper Swans, flocks of Greylag Geese, wildfowl such as  Wigeon and Teal, and a few WaxwingsRedwings , Fieldfares, and Redpolls lingered, but had mostly departed by mid-month...

Summer migrant birds flooded in from mid-month on the warm southerly winds, with the first sightings this year of Common Sandpiper, Sand Martin, House MartinSwallowWillow Warbler, ChiffchaffBlackcapWood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Tree Pipit to name just a few...

Mammals seen regularly during the month usually include:
Red Squirrel, Roe Deer, Red DeerReindeer, Feral Mountain Goat (with well grown youngsters), RabbitBrown Hare and Mountain Hare (now a mottled blue-grey).......with the possibility of sightings of Sika Deer....

April 2020 bird sightings in more detail:

Osprey by Steve Nicklin (photo from April 2018)

A local pair of Ospreys - Can you spot the half-eaten Trout?
One of my favourite wildlife moments every year, is the return of our local Ospreys to their nesting sites. 
These impressive birds of prey are always popular with my safari clients, with their dashing good looks, large size, aerial acrobatics and spectacular plunge diving to catch fish. Many of our local pairs were reunited by mid-month after a winter apart in West Africa, and were soon seen building up their nests, chasing off intruders and mating frequently, and by the very end of the month some of the hen birds appeared to be incubating eggs as the cock birds began to perform all of the fishing duties, whilst the females presumably brooded the eggs .....

Dawn at a local Black Grouse lek

Lekking Black Grouse
April is definitely THE month to see Black Grouse, and dawn (now around 5am) visits to local Black Grouse leks usually delight and amaze my safari clients with as many as 12 blue-black cock birds seen 'performing' in spectacularly aggressive fashion, their incredible  bubbling and whooshing sounds drifting across the moor, and late in the month, we are often lucky to witness the hen birds walking among them ,watching the action, and presumably 'rating' the contestants, only around 20% of whom will 'get lucky',  and sometime we even get to see them mating with their chosen partner - a truly fantastic wildlife spectacle and a great way to start the day! 

A cock Red Grouse standing guard over his moorland territory.
Our local moorlands continued to echo with the characteristic cackling calls of the cock Red Grouse, many of whom were seen still actively displaying from raised positions, with red 'eyebrows' aglow, presumably 'guarding' their territory,  and from mid-month I saw very few hen birds, suggesting that many may already be incubating eggs.....

In our local Caledonian forests, with no 'rogue' birds in this area to go for these days, and numbers now confirmed to be declining to dangerously low levels,  Capercaillie sightings are now much more difficult to come by, and sadly, I only managed a single , brief dawn sighting of one female bird this month, despite several walks in suitable Caledonian forest habitat, where we had been successful before...

Crested Tit
Still in the forests, Crested Tit sightings too were harder to obtain this month, with one or two birds seen early on using forest feeding stations on the colder mornings, but generally they were pretty elusive, seemingly quietly going about their business breeding.....and I should point out that you really need to be familiar with their 'chuckling trill' of a song to have a realistic chance of seeing them...

Male Crossbill

Female Crossbill
Continuing the forest theme, I think probably because I was able to spend more time than usual looking for them, I actually did pretty well for Crossbill sightings , though most of them were of the typical and rather annoying fly-over variety ,  I also had a few better views, and (unusually!) even managed a few photos!

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe

Red Throated Divers (Loons) - photo from April 2015

Black-Throated Diver (Loon)
Now the local lochs are no longer in danger of freezing over, some of our highly prized local speciality water birds are back on their summer breeding territories, and I managed to see some of the most attractive and rare examples regularly this month - namely Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, Red-Throated Diver and Black-Throated Diver, all in their splendid summer plumage.

Displaying male Goldeneye by Ron Mitchell (photo from April 2019)

Pair of Goldeneye 

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

Dipper on the River Spey
On the rivers, it was noticeable that there were increased occurrences of male Dippers seemingly delivering food to the now well hidden female birds at their nest sites , usually underneath bridges or under high , overhanging banks...and I also witnessed a few instances of rival males having territorial disputes....

Snow Bunting (photo from April 2019)

Male Ptarmigan by Steve Nicklin (photo from April 2018)

Female Ptarmigan by Steve Nicklin (photo from April 2018)

Up in the mountains, as I mentioned earlier, although I did not make a trip up to the the tops myself this month - the Cairngorm Funicular railway is still out of action , and , being a popular tourist destination, access to Cairngorm Mountain was closed off,  visits to the ski centre car park when the snow is usually down to lower levels can often give good views of a few lingering Snow Buntings, and those that do walk up can get some decent sightings of Ptarmigan as well, with both species now morphing into their summer plumage...

Singing Male Ring Ouzel (photo from April 2017)

At slightly lower levels ( but still generally at 1,500ft/450m +)  Ring Ouzels  always prove to be popular with my safari clients, presumably because not many will have seen them, as they tend to breed only in remote upland areas well away from human disturbance, and can be quite tricky to find. We are fortunate in having plenty of suitable habitat for them in this area though, and we are often able to get decent views and sometimes photographs of newly-arrived male and female birds .....

Soaring Common Buzzard by Andrew Palmer (photo from April 2018)

Goshawk by Steve Nicklin (photo from April 2019)

A distant view of a soaring (sub-adult) Golden Eagle (photo from April 2019)

Up in the local glens, bird of prey sightings usually become less frequent during the longer days of spring and early summer, with many of the female birds  nesting and many more hours of daylight available for hunting. However, we still usually manage reasonably regular sightings of OspreyCommon Buzzard, Red Kite, PeregrineKestrel and Sparrowhawk,  maybe  a few views of Goshawk, Golden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle, and, if we are really lucky, possibly a Merlin too...

Wood Warbler by Steve Nicklin (photo from April 2017)

Male Pied Flycatcher
The last week of April (or first week of May), usually sees the arrival of a couple of interesting and locally scarce bird species to our local birch woodlands - Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher, and I was delighted to get to see both on my early morning walks from the 24th of the month onwards. 
Both species are quite active and 'flitty', and can easily be missed, so I would really recommend learning their distinctive songs, to give yourself a better chance of picking them out among the other more common birds...

Early spring in a local birch wood

Other good/scarce birds seen or reported locally included:

Glaucous Gull, Black-Tailed Godwit, Kingfisher, Cuckoo, Black Redstart, Marsh harrier, and Pink-Footed Goose.....

A few photos of more common birds seen locally this month: 

Red-Legged Partridge

Male Stonechat

Common Sandpiper

Grey Heron

Early morning in a local Caledonian Forest

April 2020 mammal sightings in more detail:

Spring Mountain Hare by Steve Nicklin (photo from April 2019)

Despite being in their mottled white and blue-grey spring outfits, Mountain Hares usually seem to be the one to beat in our 'mammal of the day' awards in April, though they certainly become tricky to find among the mottled white and blue-grey rocks of their upland homes!!

Red Deer stag (photo from April 2017)
Red Deer too, always prove popular with my safari clients. Being an iconic animal of the Scottish Highlands, the 'Monarch of the Glen' is on most visitors 'wish-lists', and we usually manage to see them regularly in large same-sex herds in upland glens this month, though many of the stags have now lost their old fully-grown antlers, and are growing a new set...

Young feral Mountain Goats

Feral Mountain Goats too are only found in a few remote upland areas of the UK, and we are usually lucky enough to have many good views of these wild looking, multi-coloured creatures, with the youngsters now almost as big as the adults...

Red Squirrel (photo from April 2017)

Red Squirrels too, are very localised in the UK, but we usually manage at least one, and often several sightings on each safari in a typical April, often at forest feeding stations, but occasionally chasing around or leaping from tree to tree in the forest...

Roe Deer Buck
Roe Deer however, are common and numerous over most of the UK, but due to their nervous nature and crepuscular habits, they are rarely seen well unless you are out and about early or late...

Brown Hare by Steve Nicklin (photo from April 2018)

Brown Hares are usually witnessed 'boxing' and friskily chasing around this month in suitable habitat, with early mornings proving to be most successful for sightings...

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 (maybe one or two a year) 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 16 years of providing wildlife safaris should give you an idea of how difficult they are to see.

Other wildlife:

As the temperatures rise, we usually see our first few brave Butterflies this month, Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshell and Orange Tip among others,  as well as numerous Frogs and Toads ......

A local loch with the Cairngorm Mountains in the background


Despite not being able to share it with anyone, April 2020  turned out to be a really excellent and very enjoyable month for 'solo' wildlife watching in the Cairngorms National Park , albeit in a very restricted way.  With the local speciality birds displaying and singing, the returning summer visiting birds flooding northwards to join our resident species and a few winter stragglers, the days lengthening, flowers  blooming, butterflies and bees on the wing , the stunning scenery - especially at and soon after dawn - and the weather(generally!)  improving, I can honestly say that I felt very lucky to have such a great variety of habitats and wildlife species so close to my home, and would not want to be anywhere else in the world than here in the majestic Scottish Highlands at this time of year....


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....