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

Monday, May 31, 2021

May 2021 was, with the exception of the last few days,  the coldest and wettest May we have experienced for many years, thankfully though, the weather was never bad enough to prevent us from enjoying the marvelous selection of spring wildlife available in this area, though we did have to adapt the itineraries a little, in order to get the best out of some days,  and don the winter clothes and waterproofs on a number of occasions.

So although May is actually statistically usually one of our warmer and drier months, my advice to those considering a visit would still to be to check the weather forecast, and prepare for anything and everything weather-wise!

With around 18 hours of usable daylight, and all of our summer visiting birds arrived by mid-month, our local full-day bird species day-lists climbed ever higher, with 50+ species a regular occurrence, and the early starts - when mammals are more active - (now 4am or earlier) for the Black Grouse 'leks', also helped us to see up to 9 different mammals in a day too!!

With the 'dawn chorus' still in full swing, the wild flowers in full bloom, and butterflies,  bees and other insects on the wing, a day out in the wilds, visiting a huge variety of habitats, in May in this area really could honestly be described as a 'whirlwind of wildlife'

Typically this month, a few day-trips further afield to various favourite places, often including the Moray coast,  Isle of Mull, RSPB Fowlsheugh , the Ythan Estuary and SWT Handa Island usually give me my annual 'fix' of seabirds ,  including SkuasTernssea ducks and Auks including Puffins, and often some decent raptor and mammal sightings.

The Cairngorm Mountains seen from a local upland moor

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

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

Black Grouse (at or soon after dawn only), Red Grouse, Osprey, Ring Ouzel, Slavonian Grebe, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver,  Goldeneye and Dipper, with a chance of Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher...and a (very slim) chance of a glimpse of Capercaillie....

We also had one or two decent local sightings of Golden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle, though they are definitely getting harder to see...

It should  be noted that, due to their very secretive and almost silent nature at nesting time , Crested Tits continue to be extremely difficult to see during their breeding season (April-May), and we usually struggle to see them well until they fledge their young late in the month....and Crossbill sightings, are usually largely restricted to brief fly-over glimpses...

With the snow largely restricted to the mountain tops by May, that's where you have to go to have a chance of seeing Snow BuntingPtarmigan (and from mid-month) Dotterel....please be aware that this would usually take a good part of a day, and a lot of strenuous hill walking to achieve, and would need to be a separate adventure from a 'normal' safari excursion.....

Summer migrant birds continued to flood in throughout the month, with Common Swift, Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher , Wood Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler, Whinchat, and a few Dotterel joining WheatearCommon SandpiperSand MartinHouse Martin,  SwallowWillow WarblerChiffchaff,  Blackcap, and Tree Pipit, to name just a few....

Mammal species seen regularly included:

Rabbit, Brown Hare, Mountain Hare (now a mottled blue-grey), Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Roe Deer, Reindeer, and feral Mountain Goat, and we also had a couple of sightings of Sika Deer, and one brief glimpse of a Stoat....Whilst trips to the coast usually provided both types of Seal.

May 2021 bird sightings in more detail:



Our local Ospreys continued to entertain and excite my safari clients, often being voted as 'Bird of the day', though it should be noted that, with the female birds spending much of the month deep in their nests incubating eggs with just their heads visible, and later in the month, brooding young, sightings could be a bit frustrating, as we needed a bit of luck to time our visit with the male birds being 'at home' or delivering a fish or more nest-building materials.....though we did also see birds fishing local lochs and rivers on a few occasions...one bird carrying a fish being harassed by gulls, and sometimes we even witness a successful 'plunge-dive'!! always a treat....

Up on the moors....

A snowy early May morning on a local moorland

Lekking Black Grouse

Black Grouse

Black Grouse 'lekking' is surely one of British wildlife's top 10 sights (and sounds), and our local birds  continued to 'perform' throughout the month, with up to 11 cock birds seen fighting it out, though not quite as vigorously as in April,  and sometimes with a few females 'spectating' early in the month,  though with dawn at around 4 am, and the performance only lasting for around 90 minutes on average, it should be noted that a very early start is needed if you want to see them...and that we have to view from a respectful distance to avoid disturbance........but with a quality spotting scope, this is still a highly recommended and memorable experience, especially as on a few occasions whilst watching the lek, we can have a supporting cast of hunting raptors, displaying Curlew and Snipe and calling Cuckoo, and up to 5 different mammal species including Mountain Hare , all in the first hour and a half of daylight!!

Please note though, that by the end of May the Black Grouse lekking season is usually over, with the birds seemingly losing interest, numbers at the lek decreasing, and them generally 'disappearing' until the winter....

Female Red Grouse

Male Red Grouse by Bob Smith

Also on our local heather moorlands, the much more common and obliging Red Grouse continued to show well, with some cock birds even still displaying and calling whilst defending their territory and nesting female, their guttural 'go bak go bak' calls echoing across the moor, and late in the month we began to see the hen birds with their newly fledged families of very cute fluffy youngsters...

On the lochs...

A picturesque local loch by Tim Bucker

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe by Bob Smith

Slavonian Grebe

Red-Throated Diver

Black-Throated Diver

Slavonian Grebe,  Red-Throated Diver and Black-Throated Diver UK-wise, are only usually found breeding, and in their dapper summer plumage, on suitable secluded lochs in northern Scotland and it's islands. Though the Slavonian Grebes can be quite obliging, due to the Divers' general wariness of humans, most of the views we get of them are through a scope at a fair distance, and any decent ripple on the water makes finding them very difficult to find, but on a number of occasions, and with a little persistence, we got lucky and obtained a slightly closer look, without risk of disturbing them, and even managed a few rare photo opportunities....

Male Goldeneye

The same could be said of our Goldeneye, with this attractive tree-nesting duck (yes, really!!) being a north of Scotland breeding speciality too, and late in the month we often get to see a few females with their ridiculously cute youngsters too... nice!

Female Goldeneye with young

On the rivers...

A local river

Adult Dipper

Newly-fledged young Dipper

Dippers always prove to be popular with my safari clients, being absent from large parts of the central, eastern and southern UK, many struggle to see them,  and from mid-month we got to see the first newly-fledged, pale looking youngsters ....

In the forests...

Ancient Caledonian Pine Forest

Female Capercaillie by Paula Moore

With no 'rogue' birds in this area to go for these days, and numbers confirmed to be declining to dangerously low levels,  Capercaillie sightings are now much more difficult to come by, and we only managed a couple of brief sightings of females this month, despite many walks and slow drives through suitable Caledonian forest habitat, where we had been successful before...

Please note: In order to help protect them and keep sensitive sites 'off the radar', I no longer take clients on specific Capercaillie-hunting missions, and although we do visit suitable areas of forest, I would only rate our chances of seeing one on my safaris as "very slim" at best, 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 elusive bird to (hopefully) lek and breed in peace....

Crested Tit

Crested Tit sightings are usually very difficult to obtain in May, with the birds nesting very secretively, rarely visiting feeders, and only occasionally heard singing or calling. To give you an example, one May we spoke to a party of birders who had spent 10 hours one day, walking round several local pine forests without a hint of a sighting...though with a lot of persistence, we can sometimes manage a couple of decent glimpses, though you really do need to be familiar with their distinctive calls and song...

As I have mentioned previously, 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....

Male Crossbill

Continuing the forest theme,  Crossbills are all too often the cause of much frustration on my safaris, with me regularly hearing their distinctive 'jip' jip' jip' calls overhead, and my safari clients getting just a brief glimpse of the birds flying away, usually never to be seen again! But occasionally they can actually be more obliging, with us getting some good views, sometimes even through the scope, of family parties feeding together on pine cone seeds, giving us the chance to admire the brick-red males, greeny-yellow females and streaky youngsters, Photographic opportunities are usually a rare occurrence though...

Up in the glens...

A spectacular local upland glen


Common Buzzard

Golden Eagle

White-Tailed Eagle

Bird of prey sightings usually become less frequent during the longer days of spring and early summer, with many of the adult female birds now nesting, often with the adult males in attendance, and many more hours of daylight available for hunting, and that proved to be the case this month, however, we still managed reasonably regular sightings of Osprey , Common Buzzard , Red Kite, Peregrine, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk,  and there is always a chance of GoshawkGolden Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle, and maybe even a Merlin....

Up in the mountains....

May in the Cairngorm Mountains

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings by Bob Smith

Male Snow Bunting by Paula Moore

Although I did not walk up to the the summit area myself this month - the Cairngorm Funicular railway is still out of action and the ATV not running - visits to the ski centre car park early in the month, while the unseasonable snow was still down to lower levels, gave us some good views of a few lingering Snow Buntingsbut they soon retreated high up to the mountain tops as the snow line receded....

Male and female Ptarmigan (photo from May 2018)

Dotterel by Steve Nicklin (photo from May 2018)

Those that do walk up though, can sometimes get some decent sightings of Ptarmigan as well, with them now morphing into their summer plumage, and mid - May usually sees the arrival of a few Dotterel to the Cairngorm plateau...I hope to have a walk up and try for them myself soon...

Please be aware though, that several miles of strenuous hill-walking is required, so a good level of physical fitness is needed, and some basic survival/navigation skills preferable, as well as suitably friendly weather, 

Male Ring Ouzel by Paula Moore

Male Ring Ouzel

At slightly lower levels, but generally still above 1,500ft/450m,  Ring Ouzels can often be seen in their upland and mountainside habitat, especially early in the day, though when compared to April, they now become a little harder to find, as most will no longer be singing or calling, and sightings are mainly restricted to male birds collecting beakfuls of worms, as the females will presumably mostly be still on nests.....

In the birch woods....

Spring in a local birch wood

Wood Warbler 

Female Pied Flycatcher

Male Pied Flycatcher

Although Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher are more usually found in the ancient Atlantic oak woods on the west coast of the UK, we are usually fortunate to get a few in our local birch woods from May-August, and with a bit of persistence, and by using our ears to follow their distinctive calls and songs, we managed to get a few decent views and even a couple of photos this month. 

Lingering winter-visiting birds seen locally:

The vast majority of our winter-visiting birds had departed by the end of April, but a few Redwings and Fieldfares lingered early in the month, and one or two Pink-Footed Geese could still be seen here and there...

A few more newly-arrived migrant birds:

A very distant view of a Cuckoo

Common Whitethroat

Northern Wheatear

Common Sandpiper

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

Long-Eared Owl

Green Woodpecker

A very rare sighting of a beautiful Long-Eared Owl, Green Woodpecker (my first here in nearly 20 years!), Nuthatch, Scaup, Little Ringed Plover, Shoveler, and a 'one-day wonder' Hoopoe...

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

Grey Heron

Greylag Geese

Male Goosander

Lesser Redpoll

Female Bullfinch

Male Bullfinch

Male Blackbird



Adventures 'out of area': 

Sea cliffs on Handa Island 

Common Guillemots and Razorbills on the great stack at Handa Island

Arctic Skua

Great Skuas



May, June , July and the first half of August are the only months in which to visit a coastal seabird colony, so taking advantage of  the re-opening of Scottish tourism, the 14th and 19th saw us take a couple of very scenic drives up to the north-west coast, then on  pre-arranged boat excursions to the SWT's wonderfully remote and beautiful  Handa Island.

Black-Throated Divers and Red-Throated Divers were seen on lochans en route, and Twite, Ringed Plovers and Common Sandpipers  were seen feeding around Tarbet harbour car park, and even the short ferry crossing gave us super close-up views of Arctic TernsSeals, and Common Guillemot , and once on the island,  we went on to see more Red-Throated Divers,  Snipe, Red Grouse,  WheatearsSkylarksArctic Skuas and Great Skuas nesting on the moors. 

Once at the impressively high (350ft+) cliffs and coastal stacks, we were treated to the unique sights, sounds (and smells!) of a seabird city, with good numbers of  FulmarsKittiwakesRazorbillsGuillemots  and yes, plenty of everybody's favourite - Puffins!

Moray coast birds:

Spring at the ruggedly beautiful Moray coast


Black Guillemots by Bob Smith

Black Guillemot by Steve Nicklin

Shag by Steve Nicklin

Kittiwake by Steve Nicklin

Fulmar by Steve Nicklin

I only visited the Moray coast a couple of times in May, with a couple of birding mates, and we had two really enjoyable and productive days , the highlights being White-Billed Diver, Great Northern Diver, Red-Throated Diver, Black-Throated Diver, Black Guillemot, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Gannets , Eider, Shag,  and a Great Skua...

May sees Orchids appear, this is the Common Spotted variety

May 2021 mammal sightings in more detail:

Mountain Hares

With the weather being very wintry, unusually,  our local Mountain Hares seemed to retain a lot of their thick white coats for longer this year, and we were lucky enough to manage pretty regular sightings, though it should be noted that most were very early in the morning....

Red Squirrel by Bob Smith

In the Caledonian forests, with a bit of patience, Red Squirrels can normally be relied upon to make an appearance, and I reckon we saw one on nearly every forest drive/walk we did this month, sometimes more, though perhaps unsurprisingly, feeding stations still tend to be a 'hotspot'....

Red Deer hinds gathered at a local 'birthing area'

Red Deer stags

Red Deer are most commonly encountered up in the hills and glens, but during May it is not uncommon to see the hinds (females) assemble in rough fields with long grassy tussocks, in preparation for giving birth soon. Here,  the new-born youngsters can be hidden, making them much less likely to fall prey to patrolling Eagles, who tend to stick to higher altitudes....

Feral Mountain Goats

Feral Mountain Goats too, can often be seen in my favourite upland glens, often in large extended family groups, and always prove to be popular with my safari clients, as, being largely a remnant of the 'crofting' communities, they are not found in many places in the UK...

Roe Deer

Roe Deer can be encountered just about anywhere, except for the high tops, but being very wary, nervous animals, they are usually quite 'crepuscular' in their behaviour, but we saw plenty whilst out on our early morning adventures...

Brown Hare (photo from May 2020)

Brown Hares too can be a bit elusive away from dawn and dusk, and tend to 'spook' easily, so, as usual,  most of our sightings this month, were during the first couple of hours of daylight..

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.

Other wildlife:

Sadly, the very unseasonably wintry weather, meant that butterfly sightings were very few and far between this month,  but in a more 'normal' May, I would usually be seeing Peacock, Red Admiral, Speckled Wood, Orange Tip, and Painted lady among others...

Even the Wood Ant nests in the local forests seem strangely inactive too...and I have still yet to see a bat this year....

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....

Carrot time for Murdo!


The BIG news is that from 26th April all tourism/hospitality/activities in Scotland re-opened, and that I have now completed a very busy and extremely enjoyable full month of safaris with clients with no major issues arising.

With all national travel restrictions lifted too, Scotland is now officially 'open for business' for visitors from all over the UK.

For those considering a visit, these wildlife/outdoor tourism websites may prove useful:


NatureScot (outdooraccess-scotland.scot)

Can Nature Help Health? | Nature Prescriptions - YouTube

Scotland, Yours to Enjoy. Responsibly. - YouTube

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 have been anti-COVID vaccinated.

I check myself regularly with the NHS Test and Trace COVID-19 Rapid Antigen kits, and have always tested negative.

I have re-commenced my wildlife safaris - 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.

The old packhorse bridge at Carrbridge


Words honestly cannot fully describe just how happy I am to be sharing the magnificent scenery, unique habitats and special wildlife of this area with my safari clients again. One of the most enjoyable moments for me on any safari, is seeing my guests faces light up, and hearing the "wow", when they see something really amazing, or 'tick' a species that they have always wanted to see, for the first time. I consider my self to be very fortunate and feel privileged to spend my days doing something that I love, and despite the often unhelpful weather, I reckon we did extremely well for wildlife sightings on our adventures this month, and more importantly, put lots of smiles on lots of faces.


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