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

Sunday, February 28, 2021

February 2021 was very much a month of two very different halves in this area, the first half was more akin to the Arctic, with northerly and easterly winds bringing lots of snow and the coldest temperatures (down to -17c in Aviemore and -23c in Braemar)) for many years, and  I was very grateful for the superb all-weather off-road ability and heated seats of my trusty Land Rover Discovery on a number of occasions, including one drive through moorland snowdrifts over  a metre high!.....whereas the second half was dominated by a much milder westerly or southerly airflow, the mild, windy, and often wet weather causing a rapid thaw, flooding in some low-lying areas, and occasionally making it feel almost spring-like!

Sadly, the virtual lockdown and travel restrictions across the UK meant that 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, in readiness for when normality returns,  I just turned my local daily exercise walk into a safari a few times a week, choosing the best days weather-wise, always armed with my optics and camera of course....and although certain sites were still out of bounds' , causing a few omissions in my usual species portfolio, I still managed to see a decent selection of wildlife under the difficult circumstances, and it was great to hear the first hints of a dawn chorus, with a few more bird species heard singing for the first time this year , Woodpeckers drumming, and the first few brave insects on the wing, ...welcome hints that winter may soon turn to spring...

The days are really lengthening noticeably now, with up to 10 hours of usable daylight, and dawn (for the Black Grouse) is still a relatively sociable 7 am, with dusk at around 6 pm.

Full-day local safari bird lists usually top-out in the 40's at this time of year, helped by the first returning waders, though a trip to the nearby (one hour by car ) Moray Coast  (when allowed) can boost this total considerably, whilst mammal day lists  can vary between 3 and 8 species, depending on the time of our start and number of habitats visited, with early starts usually proving to be most productive.

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 this month  and in previous February's will help....clicking on the picture enlarges it to full-screen. 

High quality prints of all photographs taken by myself and featured on this website ,  or that I have sent to you attached to emails , or previously posted on our Facebook page can be purchased  at very reasonable prices... see the  'Buying my photos' section at the end of this blog for more details...

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

Black Grouse (usually first hour of light only), Red GrouseCrested Tit and  Dipper, I also managed a few decent views of Crossbills on my forest walks and a couple of distant Golden Eagle sightings up in the glens...sadly, despite many hours spent walking and driving around local Caledonian forests searching for Capercaillie, I failed dismally, and had to settle for seeing some footprints in the snow....

A good variety of seabirdswaders, wildfowl and Geese can be enjoyed at the Moray Coast and the nearby inland lochs...

Mammal species seen regularly included:

Red Deer, Roe Deer, Red Squirrel, Rabbit, Mountain Goat, Mountain Hare (still white), and Brown Hare....I also narrowly avoided running over a fast-moving Weasel that ran across the road just in front of me...and on my couple of coast visits, I was very lucky to see Otter on both occasions, along with both types of Seal...

A snowy local moorland

February 2021 bird sightings in more detail:

Up on the moors....

Take your partners for the 'Blackcock Tango'

lekking Black Grouse

Dawn in February (still a pretty user-friendly 7-8 am) on my safaris is 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 often enjoy the spectacle of up to a dozen 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' are usually 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 apparent reason...

Female Red Grouse

Male Red Grouse

Still on the moors, the cock Red Grouse are now becoming very territorial and full of aggression , 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!

In the forests...

Crested Tit by Bob Smith (photo from Feb 2019)

Crested Tit by Bob Smith (photo from Feb 2018)

Our local Crested Tits continued to show well at my favourite forest feeding stations early in the month , especially soon after dawn, and particularly on the colder days, when they are presumably at their most desperate for food, though I did struggle to get a decent photo , and of course, if you know their distinctive calls and song, you do have a chance of seeing one whilst walking in the forest....however, as the month progressed, they became noticeably less easy to see , so we may already be coming to the end of peak 'Crestie' season....

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....

Hand-feeding friendly (and very hungry) Coal Tits

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  and Robin by hand, an experience much enjoyed by my safari clients of all ages...

Female Crossbill (photo from Feb 2020)

Male Crossbill (photo from Feb 2019)

Still in the Caledonian forests, similarly to last month, I actually did ok for Crossbill sightings again this month, with some decent views...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...

Capercaillie footprints in the snow...

Despite numerous dawn walks in my local Caledonian forests again this month, sadly, I failed to see a single Capercaillie , though I did spot a few piles of Caper poo, and some Caper footprints in the snow....

On the rivers...

A Dipper basking in the dawn sun on a bitterly cold morning


Our Dippers are in full 'breeding season mode' now, and early morning visits to known favourite nesting sites (keeping a respectful distance of course) usually gives 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 often see one or two carrying nesting material....and it still makes me shiver every time I see these tough little birds submerge themselves when feeding in the freezing winter months...

Up in the glens...

Young Golden Eagle (they lose the white patches as they mature)

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 although the heavy snow limited my opportunities to visit my favourite sites in the first half of the month, I was lucky enough to enjoy a couple  of half-decent, if slightly distant sightings of these majestic birds hunting in upland glens, though not as frequently as last month, and I have still yet to see a White-Tailed Eagle this year...

Common Buzzard


Red Kite

A male Sparrowhawk  - photographed in my garden

Should the Eagles fail to show, the regular 'raptor back-up cast' of Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, PeregrineBuzzard , Red Kite, and the chance of even the occasional MerlinHen Harrier and Goshawk often provide good entertainment by way of consolation though, and most of these species seemed to be performing courtship displays, another sign that breeding season will soon be upon us... 

Up in the mountains....

Snow Buntings (photo from Feb 2020)

Snow Bunting (photo from Feb 2020)

Sadly, with  COVID restrictions meaning that the Cairngorm Mountain approach road was still closed to prevent large numbers of  snow sports enthusiasts visiting, I too was unable to access the mountains again this month. 

However, for future reference, Snow Buntings can often be seen well there during the winter as they usually  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....so I have shown some photos from previous February's...

It was a similar story with the other 'mountain species, but I can advise that a few Ptarmigan , still totally white, can sometimes be seen, up around the 'snow-line', usually sheltering on the leeward sides of ridges, out of the cold wind...

Low winter sun in a local Caledonian forest

Winter-visiting birds seen locally:

Distant Whooper Swans on Insh Marshes

Greylag Geese



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 the small, long-staying flock of Waxwings, which I finally got to see right at the end of the month, after several failed attempts...


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

Kingfisher, Water Rail, Hen Harrier, Twite, and a real rarity, in the form of a Little Bunting......

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

Male Stonechat


Blue Tit

Long-Tailed Tit

Great Tit


Male Blackbird


You know it's really cold when the River Spey freezes over!

Adventures 'out of area':

The picturesque Moray coast

The very scenic Moray coast is only about an hour drive north of Aviemore, and my February trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours provided good views of resident and wintering birds such as  Tree SparrowGrey Partridge, Greylag Geese,  Pink-Footed Geese Barnacle GeeseWhooper Swan, Wigeon, Teal,  ScaupPintail,  Bar-Tailed  and Black-Tailed GodwitKnot, Golden Plover ,  Ringed Plover, Shag, Razorbill, Common Guillemot, Rock Pipit, Fulmar, Purple Sandpiper, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Turnstone,  CurlewCommon ScoterDunlinKnot Red-Throated DiverEider and Long-Tailed Ducks... and of course, many of these birds will disappear off north to their breeding grounds soon...

Moray coast birds:

Grey Partridge


Purple Sandpiper



Male and female Wigeon

Male Eider (photo from Feb 2020)

Male Long-Tailed Duck (photo from Feb 2020)

Great Northern Diver

Nice reflections on a local loch

February 2021 mammal sightings in more detail:

Mountain Hare (photo from Feb 2019)

Mountain Hare (photo from Feb 2020)

Our local Mountain Hares  usually 'steal the show' this month, and it is very hard to argue against that 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. 

The extreme snow and lockdown travel restrictions limited access to my favourite sites this month, so I have include a few photos from previous February's to give you an idea of what we usually get to see...

It should be noted though, that most of our views are at range through my telescope, and that a closer view usually involves some considerable amount of rough uphill walking, often on snow.

Red Deer hinds

Red Deer stags (photo from Feb 2018)

Still up in the glens, large same-sex herds of Red Deer can often be seen well, 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

Cute Feral Mountain Goat youngsters

Also sharing the same upland habitat are our local Feral Mountain Goats, and I did well this month, seeing them on nearly every occasion I visited the glens where they live, and although they seemed keen to keep their distance, I noted that there were now some very cute recently born youngsters among them...

Roe Deer by Steve Nicklin (photo from Feb 2019)

Roe Deer however, are usually a little trickier to see, being more wary of human disturbance, and most of our sightings are at dawn or in very quiet or remote areas, and are usually of the 'brief' variety, as they tend to run away on becoming aware of us...

Brown Hare

Brown Hares too are generally of a very nervous disposition, but I managed to get a few sightings this month, and finally managed a photo...

Sorry Murdo... I forgot your carrots....

Only kidding!!

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 17 years of providing wildlife safaris should give you an idea of how difficult they are to see.

Winter here gives lots of opportunities for creative landscape photography...


Sadly, with Highland region (and all of mainland Scotland) still placed in lockdown until the end of March at least - there is not a lot of  other news to report this month from a personal point of view... but these local tourism/wildlife related stories may be of interest...


Cairngorms National Park Authority

Highland Wildlife Park


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 intend to re-commence providing my wildlife safaris when allowed, 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.... despite that being yet another very strange,  often lonely,  and financially difficult month for me, with all my wildlife-watching adventures again being solo excursions....there would  at least now appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel! Although the proposed route out of lockdown in Scotland appeared to be a little 'vague' and slightly over-cautious to me, it does at least appear to have some scope to be flexible, with the reopening of tourism/hospitality etc potentially able to be advanced from the initially proposed May 17th date if the COVID stats and vaccination figures justify it....

So, I am going to be very positive in my outlook, I intend to continue with my solo 'practice' safaris, enjoy watching winter turn to spring and the wildlife prepare for breeding season, and keep my fingers crossed that we continue to make progress in the battle with the pandemic, and ready myself for re-commencement of my safaris as soon as I am able to....

A very flooded Insh Marshes


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....



Buying my photos:

Due to public demand, prints of any of the photos (taken by myself) shown on this blog, going right back to 2015,  reproduced on high quality photographic paper,  with a choice of sizes up to A3, and satin pearl or glossy finishes available, can now be purchased from me at very reasonable prices. So if you see an image that might look nice in a frame (provided by yourself) on your wall, please make a note of the year and month of my blog in which it appeared, and email me for more information.

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 currently valid at any time, with no expiry date........