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, December 31, 2020

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!!

I would like to wish all my readers a healthy, happy ,and wildlife-filled 2021 ..

Although I think we will all be happy to see the back of 2020, I would  like to say a big "thank you" to everyone who used , supported and recommended my safari guiding services during 2020, especially those of you who got in touch to see if I was ok, and particularly those who very generously helped me financially through some very tough times...it was very much appreciated...you know who you are, and it will not be forgotten :)

December 2020 was much milder weather-wise than the average December in this area for the first 3 weeks, with hardly any really wintry conditions to report  , before we enjoyed some festive snow, and frosts down to -9c to end the month and see out the year.

Sadly, the virtual lockdown for much of the UK, meant that, like November, it was yet another month without a single safari party able to join me for some wildlife adventures...so in order to keep my finger on the pulse of the wildlife activity, I just went out on safari on my own a few times a week, always armed with my optics and camera of course....

Despite the days being at their shortest now, with only around 6-7 hours of usable daylight, by 'cherry-picking' the best ones, I still enjoyed some memorable adventures, with plenty of exciting wildlife sightings, and often against dramatic and picturesque snowy Highland backdrops.

With all our winter-visiting birds now here, full-day local safari bird lists topped-out in the 40's, or more if you include a trip to the nearby Moray Coast - though I didn't manage a trip there myself this month, whilst mammal day lists varied between 3 and 7 depending on the time of my start and number of habitats visited, with earlier starts , as usual proving to be best....

A snowy morning in the ancient Caledonian forest

To give you an idea of what you may realistically hope to see if you are considering a future December visit,
I hope the following more detailed information, illustrated with photos taken at sites in and around the Cairngorms National Park (and occasionally beyond) by myself, my friends or my safari clients, this month or in previous December's will help....clicking on the picture enlarges it to full-screen.

Local speciality/upland bird species seen regularly during the month included:

Crested TitRed Grouse, and Dipper, whilst Black Grouse were occasionally seen at or soon after dawn at traditional lek sites, and I also had a few decent sightings of  Snow BuntingGolden Eagle , and  White-Tailed Eagle.

A good variety of seabirdswaders and wildfowl could be seen at the Moray Coast, and local winter visiting birds were represented by  Redwings and Fieldfares,  family groups of Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, and a few Waxwings and Redpolls were also seen...

Mammal species seen regularly included:

Red SquirrelRed DeerReindeerRoe DeerMountain Goat ,  Rabbit and (white) Mountain Hare.....with just a few (mainly dawn) views of  Brown Hare ,and a few brief glimpses of Brown Rat near bird feeders...

December 2020 bird sightings in more detail:

Crested Tit

Crested Tit

Crested Tits are always a joy to see (and hear - they have a characteristic chuckling trill)), being a true local speciality , and during the winter months they can usually be relied upon to put in an appearance at my favourite Caledonian forest feeding stations, though being extremely 'flitty' and quick, they rarely give good photo opportunities, but having plenty of time on my hands, I persisted patiently, and managed a few half-decent shots.

Hand feeding Coal Tits (photo from Dec 2015)

A bonus by-product of regular winter feeding is often (especially on colder days) being able to feed the incredibly confiding Coal Tits and (sometimes) Great Tits by hand, an experience much enjoyed by my safari clients of all ages...

Still in the Caledonian forests, sadly, Crossbill sightings were, as usual, restricted to the fly-over variety, and I only identified them by their characteristic 'jip jip' calls.....though as they are early nesters, I may have a chance of some better views of singing and displaying birds in the next couple of months... watch this space...

Continuing the forest theme, despite a few walks and drives through suitable habitat, sadly,  I failed to see a single Capercaillie again this month...but I will be increasing my efforts soon, in order to try and get what is becoming an increasingly difficult 'year-tick'!!

Displaying Black Grouse

Black Grouse

Pre-dawn starts - a relatively user friendly 8am at this time of year - gave me decent views of up to 11 displaying male Black Grouse on local moorland 'lek' sites, though rather frustratingly, they proved to be a little unpredictable, with seemingly no obvious pattern to whether they would show or not, so it should be noted that I did fail to see them on a few occasions...

Female Red Grouse by Lizee Oliver (photo from Dec 2019)

Male Red Grouse (photo from Dec 2015)

By way of contrast, by using my vehicle as a stealthy and slow-moving  'mobile hide', our local Red Grouse are usually reasonably easy to see and photograph on their favoured upland heather moorlands this month, as some of the cock birds already seem to be getting a little aggressive and territorial, with a few individuals seen perching prominently on the few higher points and occasionally even being heard uttering their guttural 'go-back, go back' calls, with their red 'eyebrows' aglow....

Dipper by Lizee Oliver (photo from Dec 2019)

On our local rivers, the Dippers are usually pretty reliable in December, with much aggression, singing and displaying being witnessed  especially soon after dawn, and usually near to favoured nesting (and viewing) spots, particularly bridges....which is very useful , as it gives us much more chance to see and photograph them....however, our local rivers were pretty flooded for much of this month, so sightings were less regular than normal....

White-Tailed Eagle (photo from Dec 2017)

A soaring Golden Eagle

As I have mentioned before, the short daylight hours, and no breeding season distractions,  mean that 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 upland glens providing me with regular sightings, and even the occasional (and rare)  photo opportunity, of the much sought after Golden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle, with views of these magnificent and truly huge birds always filling me with awe.....



Common Buzzard

Red Kite

Should the Eagles fail to show, the regular 'raptor back-up cast' of KestrelSparrowhawkPeregrineBuzzard , Red Kite, and the chance of even the occasional MerlinHen Harrier and Goshawk often provide good entertainment by way of consolation though....

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings can often be seen well during the winter 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 sometimes be tempted to come and feed at quite close range....as was the case several times this month....

Ptarmigan by Paul Sharman (photo from Dec 2018)

With the Cairngorm Funicular Railway still closed for major repairs, the weather rarely being  suitable, 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 sometimes be seen, up around the 'snow-line', usually sheltering on the leeward sides of ridges, out of the cold wind...




Winter-visiting birds seen in our area this month included: Whooper SwansGrey Geese (Greylag , Pink-Footed and a few Barnacle),  RedwingsFieldfares.... a few Bramblings... and a solitary flock of Waxwings, which I managed to get to see and photograph - always a treat!

Other good/scarce (in this area) birds seen/reported locally this month included:

Scaup, Jack Snipe, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, and a Rough-Legged Buzzard....

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



Male Bullfinch

Coal Tits

Great Tit

Blue Tit


The River Spey

Adventures 'out of area':

The beautiful west coast of Highland Scotland

A weekend away visiting the beautiful west coast of Scotland around the Oban area didn't produce a lot of bird sightings, but more than made up for that with splendid scenic views , and the bonus of an Otter fishing quite close to, and occasionally on, the shoreline  - magic!



December 2020 mammal sightings in more detail:

Mountain Hare

Mountain Hare by Steve Nicklin (photo from Dec 2018)

Mountain Hares, now they are in their most attractive winter-white outfits, are probably the most exciting mammal to see at this time of year, and with them now having protected status in Scotland, I am hoping to see a gradual reversal of their decline in numbers. If you fancy seeing them, we can often manage that with my telescope from just outside my vehicle, but please be aware that some considerable rough uphill walking may be required for photography purposes...

Red Deer stag

Red Deer stags

Also up in the glens, Red Deer, now mostly back in their same-sex herds, the October rut seemingly ancient history, were seen reasonably frequently, though often at long range, and I struggled on some days as some estates were culling the old, injured or unhealthy animals, and the disturbance made them  a little more easily spooked than normal...

Feral Mountain Goats

Feral Mountain Goats also frequent our local upland glens, and I managed to see good sized groups of these interesting and attractive but very localised animals, though similarly to the Deer, they seemed keen to maintain a healthy distance from humans....

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrels are always a joy to see, with their relative rarity in the UK, cute looks and cheeky nature, and they are pretty reliable visitors to forest feeding stations, and if you avoid sudden movements and keep quiet, you can often creep fairly close for photos.....

Roe Deer

Roe Deer are actually nowhere near as rare as most people think, being present throughout most of the UK, it's just that their nervous disposition and crepuscular nature tends to make them less obvious, and I tend to get most sightings in very undisturbed areas or at dawn and dusk..

Brown Rat

Brown Rat is not a species that features very often in my sightings reports, but in the winter months it is not uncommon to see them at bird feeding stations, taking advantage of the easy pickings on offer..

Murdo the friendly Highland Coo loves carrots!!

Highland Coo's always prove to be popular with my safari clients, especially those who do not have them close to home, so don't be afraid to ask me if you fancy going to see them, and maybe even get to feed and  'pat' them,  as I have a couple of great sites....

Rare/nocturnal mammals:

I get a few enquiries about the possibility of seeing  Badgers and  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 - Please contact me for more information.

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.

The view from Cairngorm Ski Centre car park


Sadly, with Highland region (and all of mainland Scotland) now placed in Tier 4 - Mainland Scotland moves into level 4 lockdown - BBC News -  until mid January, there is not a lot of news to report this month from a personal point of view... but these local wildlife related stories may be of interest...

Latest news | Scottish Wildlife Trust

Grrrrrrreat news for the future of one of our most endangered species (strathspey-herald.co.uk)

Cairngorms National Park Authority


The Scottish Highlands has had very few COVID-19 cases in comparison to most of the UK, and on my safaris we tend to visit remote , wild habitats well away from the more popular tourist areas, and usually have very little interaction with other people, and this is something that I intend to continue.

I can advise that I have not had COVID-19, have no symptoms, and have not knowingly been in contact with anyone who has.

I re-commenced providing my wildlife safaris from 15th July 2020, and have been operating since then, when allowed, and subject to the following conditions/changes:

1) Parties will be limited to pre-booked small, preferably connected groups - so no mixing of unconnected parties unless we can do it safely and legally.
2) There will additional COVID-19 related health questions asked at the time of booking.
3)  My safari vehicle will be deep cleaned before and after each safari.
4)  We will use the middle and rear rows of seats in my vehicle (a spacious Land Rover Discovery 7-seater) in preference to the front passenger seat where possible.
5)  Any parties uncomfortable with travelling in my vehicle will have the option to follow me in their own vehicles.
6)  Whilst on board my safari vehicle your guide and all clients will be required to wear face coverings. 
7)  We will adhere to Government social distancing recommendations where possible.
8)  All surfaces/equipment touched frequently will be cleaned regularly by your guide.
9)  Hand sanitizer will be provided for guide and client use.
10)  Clients will be asked to bring their own optical equipment where possible - any loaned/communal equipment will be cleaned regularly.
11)  Clients will be asked to provide their own food/drink as we cannot do so at present.
12)  Public toilets will be used where possible, with the option to return to client accommodation for comfort stops if required, and 'bush-toilets' only being used as a last resort.
13)  If first aid is required, I may need to ask other members of the party to assist.
14)  I will require all clients to complete a COVID-19 disclaimer/ infection declaration form.
15)  A Health and Safety Executive risk assessment form has been completed and will be displayed in my vehicle..

If you have any questions/queries, please feel free to contact me.


Well, what a strange, difficult, and occasionally scary year that was!!!

Although it has been pretty disastrous from a business angle for me, I am hopeful that, with a vaccine roll-out imminent, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, and that my business will survive ...if we can get back to some sort of normality soon.

Thankfully, it was  also one occasionally filled with beautiful highland scenery, lots of amazing and memorable scenery and wildlife sightings, and happy times spent  -  between the two lockdowns - with lots of friendly and interesting people - special memories that have kept me  -  hopefully them, and maybe you - somewhere near sane during the bad times.... 

I hope you have enjoyed viewing my photos and reading my safari updates as much as I have whilst experiencing and writing about them throughout the year.....And I am already looking forward to even more wildlife-filled adventures in 2021...and hopefully being able to share them a lot more than I was able to in 2020!!

A local upland heather moorland, before the snow arrived...


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:

Safari gift voucher

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....