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

Friday, December 31, 2021

December 2021

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!!

I would like to wish all my readers a healthy, happy, and wildlife-filled 2022.

Although it didn't start well, with no safaris allowed until late April, and no visitors from abroad all year, I was, thankfully, pretty busy for the period from May until October,  and I would like to say a big "thank you" to everyone who used , supported , reviewed and recommended my safari guiding services during 2021.

December 2021, weather-wise,  had a cold and snowy start and finish, with a more changeable middle part, but, with the exception of Storm Barra, we didn't have to endure anything too extreme, and, thanks to the excellent all-weather abilities of my trusty 4-wheel drive Land Rover Discovery. we managed to access even the remotest sites without too much trouble.

The Cairngorms National Park is the coldest and snowiest place in Britain though, so if you are considering a future winter visit, you would be wise to check the weather forecast in advance, and pack suitable warm clothing and footwear.

Despite the days being at their shortest now, with only around 7 hours of usable daylight, by 'cherry-picking' the best ones, we 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 30'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 our start and number of habitats visited, with earlier starts, as usual, proving to be best....

A frosty morning at a picturesque local loch

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 sometimes further afield, by myself, my friends or my safari clients this month and 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, Golden Eagle and Dipper, whilst Black Grouse were occasionally seen at or soon after dawn at traditional lek sites, and we also had a few decent sightings of Snow Bunting, and a couple of views of White-Tailed Eagle.

Local winter visiting birds were represented by Redwings and Fieldfares,  family groups of Whooper Swans, several species of 'grey' Geese, and plenty of  Bramblings and a few 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 Bank Vole and Wood Mouse underneath bird feeders...

A snowy mountain adventure

December 2021 bird sightings in more detail:

Up in the glens...

A wintry day in a local upland glen

An atmospheric image of a Golden Eagle by Ron Mitchell

Soaring Golden Eagles by Jon Worthington

Golden Eagle by Jon Worthington

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 us with  pleasingly 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 putting a smile on our faces, and filling us with awe.....

Common Buzzard

Goshawk by Jon Worthington

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....

Up on the moors....

A local upland heather moorland

Displaying Black Grouse by Chris Williams

Pre-dawn starts - a relatively user friendly 8am at this time of year - gave us decent views of up to 12 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 we did fail to see them on a few occasions...

Red Grouse (female)

Red Grouse (male)

By using my vehicle as a stealthy and slow-moving  'mobile hide', our local Red Grouse were 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....

In the forests...

Ancient Caledonian forest

Crested Tit

Crested Tit by Chris Williams

Crested Tit by Ron Mitchell

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, especially on the colder days, though it should be noted that,  being extremely 'flitty' and quick, they rarely give good photo opportunities...

Hand-feeding a Coal Tit

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...

Male (Top) and female Crossbill

Male Crossbill

Still in the Caledonian forests, sadly, Crossbill sightings were, as usual, mainly restricted to the fly-over variety, and we usually only identified them by their characteristic 'jip jip' calls.....though as they are early nesters, we now have a chance of some better views of singing and displaying birds over the next couple of months... and that was the case on the 28th when a small group actually posed nicely for a short while, allowing a rare photo  opportunity...

Continuing the forest theme, despite numerous walks and drives through suitable habitat, sadly, but not unusually,  we 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'!!

On the rivers...

The River Spey


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....

On the lochs...

A local loch

Goldeneyes and Tufted Ducks

Whooper Swan

Star birds on the lochs during the winter are probably Goldeneyes, with the males now in their dapper breeding plumage,  and the winter-visiting Whooper Swans, with a back up cast of  GoosanderTeal, Wigeon and Tufted Ducks.

Up in the mountains....

Midwinter in the Cairngorm Mountains

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...

Snowy Owl by Jon Worthington

Snowy Owl by Jon Worthington

A few hardy and brave souls braved the tricky walk up Ben Macdui in search of the long-staying but often elusive adult male Snowy Owl, though it was quite mobile, and not all were successful..a big well done to those that did manage to see it though!

Winter-visiting birds seen in our area this month included: 

Whooper Swans

Fieldfares by Ron Mitchell


Whooper SwansGrey Geese (Greylag , Pink-Footed and a few Barnacle),  RedwingsFieldfares.... and an increasing number of Bramblings...

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

A Great Grey Shrike, a Jack Snipe and a Green Woodpecker.

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

Wood Pigeons


Male Chaffinch

Male Siskin

Coal Tit by Chris Williams

Great Tit by Chris Williams

Adventures 'out of area': 

Although I didn't make a trip there myself this month, the Moray coast is only about an hour drive north of Aviemore, and  trips to favourite reserves, lochs, bays and harbours usually give good views of wintering birds such as Greylag Geese,  Pink-Footed GeeseBrent GeeseBarnacle GeeseWhooper SwanShovelerWigeonTeal Pintail,  Bar-Tailed GodwitKnot, Golden Plover , Grey Plover Ringed PloverPurple SandpiperRedshankOystercatcherTurnstoneCurlewCommon ScoterVelvet ScoterRed-Throated DiverLong-Tailed Ducks, Eiders, Slavonian Grebe, with the chance of rarities such as Snow Geese, rare Scoters, and King Eider.....

December 2021 mammal sightings in more detail:

Mountain Hare (photo from Dec 2018)

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, with less persecution, I am hoping to see a gradual reversal of their decline in numbers . If you fancy seeing them, we can often manage that, at distance, with my telescope from just outside my vehicle, but please be aware that some considerable rough uphill walking may be required to get close enough for photography purposes...

Red Deer stags (photo from Dec 2018)

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 we 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 (photo from Dec 2020)

Feral Mountain Goats also frequent our local upland glens, and we 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 by Chris Williams

Red Squirrels are always a joy to see, with their relative rarity and very localised distribution 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..

Carrot time for Murdo

Happy New Year Murdo!

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.

Other wildlife:

Nothing to report in this category this month, I'm afraid....


The BIG news is that all tourism/hospitality/activities in Scotland are open , are now largely free of restrictions except for social distancing,  and that I have now completed eight (thankfully!) pretty busy and extremely enjoyable full months of safaris with clients with no major issues arising.

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

At the time of writing, due to COVID distancing rules, and as restrictions have recently been strengthened, we are still operating at reduced capacity, and are still trying not to mix unconnected groups, so we are currently recommending 'exclusive' safaris, at a small extra cost.

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

A typical local winter scene


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 am running 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 until I am comfortable that 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.

Sunrise over the Cairngorms


Well, although it was definitely far from perfect, 2021 was certainly better than 2020 from a safari guide's perspective.

No work for the first third of the year due to the lockdown wasn't great for my business, but thankfully May until October was pretty busy, and with some much appreciated help from government grants secured by our representative bodies,  I would say that we have made a partial recovery financially.

On a lighter note, looking back through my reports and photos, it was  a year filled with beautiful highland scenery, lots of amazing and memorable scenery and exciting wildlife sightings, and happy times spent  -  after the lockdown - with lots of friendly and interesting people - some new, and some valued 'regulars' - special memories that have kept me  -  hopefully them, and maybe you - somewhere near sane during these strange and uncertain 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 2022...and hopefully being able to share them a lot more than I was able to in the last couple of years...


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....


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........