Scotland - the Highlands & Lewis/Harris - 19th to 26th April 2007

Published by Geoff Dicker (bittern1 AT aol.com)

Participants: Geoff Dicker

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This was my first visit to Scotland for eight years. I started off at Loch Venachar for the Barrow’s Goldeneye and then visited Speyside, the West Coast around Ullapool, the Hebridean islands of Lewis and Harris, then over to Skye, returning to Speyside via the Applecross Road and Gruinard Bay.

Itinerary

19th April – Overnight drive from Trowbridge to Loch Venachar, Glen Quaich and then to Boat of Garten.
20th April – Loch Garten, Forest Lodge (Abernethy), Findhorn Valley, Farr Road, Bunachton Road, A9 (lay-by 151), Lochindorb, overnight in Boat of Garten.
21st April – Drive to West Coast via Gairloch and Gruinard Bay, ferry to Stornoway Isle of Lewis. Overnight in Stornoway.
22nd April – Borve, Port Sgigersta, Butt of Lewis, Arnol, Loch Barvas, Tolsta Head. Overnight in Stornoway.
23rd April – Borve, Port Sgigersta, drive to Tarbert (Harris) via the road to Eisgean, ferry from Tarbert to Uig (Isle of Skye). Overnight in Uig.
24th April – Uig, Staffin, Portree, then drive to summit of steep road to Applecross via Duirinish, Gruinard Bay, drive back to Speyside. Overnight (in car) at Loch Garten.
25th April – Loch Garten, Loch Morlich, Moor Car park, Black Isle and Cromarty, Strathcarron. Overnight in Boat of Garten.
26th April - Forest Lodge (Abernethy), Findhorn Valley, Farr Road, Loch Ruthven, Bunachton Road – drive back to Trowbridge overnight.

Loch Venachar

I arrived at my destination just after seven a.m. after the long drive north, intent on seeing the Barrow’s Goldeneye and then moving off to Speyside: this was not to be. Although there were a few Common Goldeneye around the dam, there was no sign of the main attraction. As it was a beautiful morning I took a walk along the south side of the Loch and back for some 7 miles. The woodlands were full of birdsong – Willow Warbler, Siskin, Song Thrush, Goldcrest, Great-Spotted Woodpecker, and an early Redstart. A couple of Common Crossbills flew over “chipping” loudly and a Tawny Owl hooted. In addition to the Common Goldeneye, other wildfowl on the Loch included Red-Breasted Merganser, Goosander, and some “iffy” Canada and Greylag Geese. A small passage of hirundines – Swallows, Sand Martins, and a single House Martin – hawked insects over the water. The bays on the northern shore harboured a few Redshank and the ubiquitous Oystercatcher.

Resigned that I may have to spend the whole day searching for the Barrow’s Goldeneye, I was heartened to see a number of birders by the dam on my return, and there with a coterie of its more common congeners, was the Barrow’s Goldeneye. The bird was displaying to some female Common Goldeneye, but then as if suffering rejection would fly off by itself and feed in front of the yacht club. A pair of Common Sandpipers flitted around the shore whilst the many Pied Wagtails included a migrant “alba” race bird.

Amulree and Glen Quaich

This was my first visit to this area, which was not far from Loch Venachar. I drove down the glen from the village of Amulree, and soon began seeing male Black Grouse, feeding mainly amongst the sedges in the damp fields. A few Wheatears flitted around the boulders. Scanning the distant hills I noticed a pair of soaring raptors, which upon closer scrutiny revealed themselves to be Golden Eagles. The only birds of note on the moors were a few breeding Curlew, and I was somewhat surprised not to see or hear Red Grouse here. Red-Legged Partridge(Grey also occur) were also evident near to Crieff.

Just after joining the A9 north of Dunkeld a Goshawk appeared over the Tay Forest Park.

I then drove on to Boat of Garten and booked into my guesthouse – Moorfields - http://www.moorfieldhouse.com/main.htm. where I had stayed on several previous occasions.

Speyside

A crack-of-dawn start at Loch Garten proved successful for Capercaillie with two males and two females strutting their stuff in front of the main hide. “Caper-watch” is run by the RSPB from April to mid May starting at 0530 and finishing at 0800. Initially, views were only on camera but the birds eventually came into view from the Osprey hide. If the birds are only visible from the forward hide, visitors are escorted in groups of ten to view the birds. The RSPB and its wardens are to be congratulated as this facility prevents birders from thrashing around the forests disturbing these birds during their comparatively short lekking period. The Ospreys certainly take on a supporting role to the “Capers”, as nobody seemed to notice the male returning with a fish!

The photogenic Loch Garten held a few Goldeneye, Wigeon and Common Sandpiper.

After a hearty Scottish breakfast it was off to Forest Lodge to burn off a few calories. I chose the circular walk to Rynettin, which was extremely quiet. The last time I visited the woods were brimming with Crossbills, which I remember an RSPB warden telling people belonged to three separate species – Parrot, Scottish and Common, a concept that is now disputed. This time there were none, but I did manage to see another male Capercaillie sat in the top of a Scots pine some distance away across the river. The woods were full of Chaffinches, with a few Willow Warblers and Coal Tits, and three very vocal Great-Spotted Woodpeckers, which chased each other round the canopy. The only other birds of note being two Crested Tits, a couple of Treecreepers, and several Siskins. All the birders that I met around Speyside said that Crested Tits were extremely difficult to find this year.

Although the weather had turned cloudy with a strong wind, I decided to drive down the Findhorn Valley and across the Farr Road. On the road out of “Boat” I stopped at the viewing platform looking out over flooded fields noting a single Slavonian Grebe with some more Goldeneye and Wigeon. In terms of raptors the valley was disappointing because of the weather (no Ring Ouzels either!) with just a few Dippers, Grey Wagtails, Oystercatchers, and Common Sandpipers on the river. Around the car park there were a few Wheatears and Common Gulls, but the only raptors were Buzzards, Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk. I did, however, have a remarkable encounter with a Woodcock which just sat by the roadside whilst I drew alongside it in the car. My b$*&^y camera was in the boot would you believe!! Because of a lack of raptors I set off over the Farr Road whose appearance had been marred by wind turbines since my last visit. I’ve always found this an interesting drive but rather birdless, the main interest being the very approachable Red Grouse. Once on the main road I turned off to Dunlichotie and then found another minor road signposted to Bunachton. This site, about three miles from the turning where the ground levels to a plateau, had given me one of my most memorable birdwatching experiences anywhere in the UK when I first visited it eight years ago after being tipped off by a warden at Loch Ruthven. On that occasion I saw both Black & Red Grouse, Short-Eared Owl, Hen Harrier, Whinchat and Woodcock. Although the plantations to the left of the road hadn’t grown up all that much, there were only Red Grouse in evidence and a flyover Osprey. So I left the area and drove to Lochindorb stopping off at “lay-by” 151 on the A9 to see if the Ring Ouzels were in residence – they were! It was now very windy so I just did a quick drive by along Lochindorb. No divers were present just some common waders – Redshank and Oystercatchers - and a few Red Grouse on the moors. After turning onto the A939 at Dava I came across a Short-Eared Owl hunting by the roadside.

The West Coast and Gruinard Bay

The next leg involved a drive over to the West Coast and on to Ullapool for the ferry to Stornoway. A couple of Red Kites flew over the A9 near to the picnic site. A pair of Black-Throated Divers were seen as I passed Loch Maree. I stopped off at Gruinard Bay to see if the eagles were there, but there was no sign. Both Great Northern and Red-Throated Divers and a few Shags were seen in the bay; Hooded Crows also started to occur the further north I got.

The ferry to Stornoway produced a good range of sea birds including Fulmar, Black Guillemot, Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, Northern Gannet, and a marauding Great Skua around the Summer Isles.

Lewis and Harris

These two areas couldn’t be more contrasting: Lewis is flat and boggy; Harris is rugged and mountainous. I stayed in the New Valley area of Stornoway in a very comfortable guesthouse – the Stornoway kippers are particularly recommended - http://www.craigard.co.uk/

The next morning I set out for Port Sgigersta on the north coast of Lewis. My main quarry here was White-Billed Diver, which pass along this coastline every year from March to May. This phenomenon was, incidentally, discovered whilst an environmental impact assessment was being undertaken on the proposed wind farm, which will have a huge impact on the island and its people.

Port Sgigersta is a quiet little haven with a small car park just above the jetty. You can sea-watch from here or from one of the headlands. Within an hour or so of arriving I managed to latch onto an adult White-Billed Diver moulting into summer-plumaged fairly close-in feeding off the eastern headland. Also in the bay were three Great Northern Divers, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Razorbill, and Shag, whilst further out more auks passed in an almost constant stream and were joined by Gannet, Fulmars and Manx Shearwater. A few Twite gave their “buzzing calls” as they flew around the houses, Rock Pipits flitted over the headlands, and five late Redwings passed through. I took a walk along the rough track beyond Port Sgigersta towards Cellar Head gaining access to the coast across the boggy peat moors. There were a few more Great Northern Divers and common seabirds on the sea and several pairs of “kosher” Greylag Geese on the moors, but no more “White-Bills.”

I moved on to the famous “Butt of Lewis” lighthouse where Rock Doves were nesting amongst the Fulmars and Herring Gulls.

The weather was worsening and the road to Tolsta Head was totally enveloped in mist, which cleared when I reached the road’s end where another four Great Northern Divers and several Wheatears were seen.

The Snowy Owl that had been residing in a small plantation near outside Borve had unfortunately disappeared the week before, although there were rumours that one had been seen at Arnol further down the coast. Despite a search by several birders there was no sign of the owl.

Loch Barvas held a few common waders, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew and Oystercatcher, whilst a couple of Ravens “cronked” overhead. The gull roost here can evidently hold “white-winged” gulls.

Returning in the evening for another sea-watch at Port Sgigersta, similar birds were seen, including a White-Billed Diver. Two Great Skuas also put in an appearance.

My plan for the next day was to do some raptor watching in the hills and mountains on Harris, but the weather put pay to that. Apart from another brief sea-watch at Port Sgigersta when the skies cleared for a short time, it poured down all day; four Great Northern Divers, a Red-Throated Diver, a Great Skua, and three Twite being the highlights of the morning.

Evidently the mountains around Harris hold several pairs of both eagles. The roads signposted to Eisgean and Rhenigidale, which skirt Lock Seaforth, are productive in the right weather conditions. Hoping for a break in the cloud I drove along the twisting road to Eisgean, but none came, and the only birds of note were Red-Breasted Merganser, Goosander and Greylag Goose. A pair of Black-Throated Divers was also seen on a Loch beside the A859.

So I said goodbye to a damp Harris and set off across the Minch again to Uig on Skye.
The sea journey was the best part of the day with seabirds all around the ferry as it ploughed its way over to Skye in rough seas. Puffins were very much in evidence from their breeding colonies on the Shiant Islands after being totally absent from the Ullapool to Stornoway crossing. Other birds seen included Manx Shearwater, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Guillemot, Fulmar, Shag and Gannet.

Skye, Applecross road, Gruinard Bay and back to Speyside

After spending a comfortable night in the Uig Hotel http://www.uighotel.com/uig_hotel.htm I drove through northern Skye via Kilmuir and Staffin then back to Portree again hoping to see raptors. Once again the weather, despite a promising start, began to close in and soon the mountains were covered in low cloud, so I decided to drive off of Skye and back towards the Applecross road. The only bird worth mentioning on Skye was a Peregrine flying around radio mast near to Staffin. The area of north-east Skye from Uig to Staffin and particularly around Kilmuir can be very productive. Many years ago whilst touring Scotland I stayed with my wife in Kilmuir House http://www.kilmuir-skye.co.uk/index.html http://pages.eidosnet.co.uk/~skye/birds.html and obtained permission to go onto some private land on a farm opposite. On a beautiful evening I stood in what was a drained loch listening to at least four Corncrakes and two Grasshopper Warblers calling, whilst a Short-Eared Owl hunted and Whinchats sat on fenceposts – magic!

My next target species was Ptarmigan so I drove towards the Applecross road via the picturesque Duirinish peninsula. The road up the “pass of the cattle” is not quite as scary as it used to be as the highway authority has put in additional barriers and wider passing places; but it’s still pretty awe-inspiring. By now the weather was showing signs of clearing with some breaks in the cloud when I reached the car park at the summit. The track up to the radio mast could be seen quite clearly so I set off to find what are normally the easiest Ptarmigan in Scotland – I’ve never failed here - and I didn’t this time! About half way up I almost tripped over a pair in full summer-dress feeding by the track. I just sat down and left them feeding contentedly around me whilst I fired off a few “snaps”. Other birds here included a Golden Plover, which flew over giving its melancholy call, and a Ring Ouzel heard from further up on the scree.

Not having had a “sniff” of an eagle of any sort since the first day, I headed north to Gruinard Bay, but despite good weather there was again no sign of them. Hopefully, the birds, which normally frequent the island, were inland somewhere at a breeding site. White-Tailed Eagles are often found around the old gun emplacements at the end of the road to Cove, but no luck there either. Gruinard Bay, however, yielded both Great Northern and Black-Throated Divers, as well as Black Guillemot. Loch Ewe also held some seventeen Great Northern Divers; oddly enough this consisted of four groups of four birds and a singleton.

For a short while the weather turned into one of those clear, sparking Highland days, the sort of day that made you want to stay there forever. That’s why I stayed at Gruinard Bay until the clouds returned late evening and the rain set in again. I decided on a long drive back to Speyside where I would sleep in the car ready for another “Caper-watch” the next morning.

Speyside (again!) – the Black Isle - Strathcarron

After a somewhat disturbed night spent in the car park at Loch Garten I emerged for another Capercaillie viewing. Again the birds didn’t disappoint with one male and two females seen from the hide. BBC Scotland was also there interviewing an RSPB “sharp-suit” about the Ospreys, which had now stolen the limelight from the “Capers.” It seems that the old male Henry had returned to the nest and kicked out the two eggs laid by the female EJ as they were not his, but those of a rival male Orange VS – tune in for the next instalment of this avian soap! http://blogs.rspb.org.uk/lochgartenospreys/archive/2007/04.aspx

Feeling in need of breakfast and a sleep I parked in the “Moor“ car park near Loch Morlich and dozed for a while. A post-snooze walk by the river revealed a couple of Crested Tits feeding in Scots Pine. Not feeling very much like walking I went for a drive around the Black Isle to Cromarty, where in strong winds the best birds were some recently-arrived Common Terns in the Moray Firth from Munlochy Bay as well as Red-Breasted Merganser, and Common Eider. Inland there was the rather unusual sight of an Osprey sat in field avidly feeding on its prey. At Udale Bay, which held the usual Oystercatchers and Redshanks, there was nothing of significance, apart from five rather late Pink-Footed Geese resting on their journey north. A drive down Strathcarron in worsening weather produced nothing more interesting than Grey Wagtail and a Red Kite near Muir of Ord. Feeling very tired after a night of interrupted sleep in the “Green Goddess” (my Ford Mondeo) I booked into Moorfields at Boat of Garten after making another quick call on the Ring Ouzels at “151.”

Forest Lodge – Findhorn Valley – Farr Road – Loch Ruthven – Bunachton Road - Home

For my last day the weather had reverted to sunny and warm, so first of all I headed to Forest Lodge to work off my breakfast. This time I walked towards Nethybridge where several Tree Pipits danced and a single Redstart sang from a pine tree. A single Crested Tit was heard near the car park; they were very few and far between this year as were crossbill sp. I have to say that I never feel entirely welcome here as when you’ve eventually found the place, there are notices with “don’t park here: no entry” and “don’t come into the forest before eight o’clock as you might disturb the Capers.” Fair enough on the last point, but I have a sneaky feeling, derived from some of the photos and trip reports published on the internet, that some independent birders might still be looking for the “Big Grouse” elsewhere than the “Caper-watch” hide. That’s probably extremely cynical and they’ve obviously just come across these photogenic creatures purely by chance!

As the thermals were rising I drove straight to the Findhorn Valley for a spot of raptor-watching –I was not to be disappointed. The light was clear and sparkling when I arrived in the car park; some other birders already had their scopes up ready. After a wait of about an hour, another car drew up and after chatting with its occupant, I realised that we know each other from our local web chat group – small world! Common Buzzards then began to appear; including a bird that we were convinced was a migrating Honey Buzzard. It’s flight profile was very different from its two companions being kite-like; using its tail as a rudder; soaring on flat wings; flying seamlessly when compared to the “wobbling” of the wings that Common Buzzards do when they are negotiating a thermal. The bird then flew off high by itself. From the viewing distance it’s what I would term a 60:40 bird in favour of an early migrating Honey, but in fishing parlance it was akin to the one that got away! Falcons were also in evidence with a couple of Kestrels and three Peregrines. We then got on to a bird, which as soon as we saw it, we called as an eagle. At first we assumed it was a Golden Eagle, but as it came closer we saw that it had a very short tail and the almost “vulturine” appearance of a White-Tailed Eagle. The bird was an immature as there was no discernible white on the tail. Hardly flapping at all the bird gained pace and glided off down the valley. About half an hour later an immature Golden Eagle appeared over another ridge to round off an excellent few hours raptor-watching.

After the successful visit to the Findhorn Valley I drove on over the Farr Road with its wind turbines and Red Grouse to Loch Ruthven. On the loch a pair of Slavonian Grebes in their dandy summer plumage was easily located at the top end, whilst further out a pair of Red-Throated Divers played “now you see me now you don’t.”

Lastly, I returned to the Bunachton Road site but saw only Red Grouse, Curlew, and heard an early Cuckoo. It was then time to drive back home overnight to Wiltshire.

Footnote

I would strongly recommend the site guide “Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands,” by Gordon Hamlett when planning a trip to the Highlands of Scotland.

Species Lists

Red-Throated Diver
Black-Throated Diver
Great Northern Diver
White-Billed Diver
Slavonian Grebe
Fulmar
Manx Shearwater
Northern Gannet
Cormorant
Shag
Grey Heron
Mute Swan
Greylag Goose
Pink-Footed Goose
Canada Goose
Shelduck
Mallard
Wigeon
Tufted Duck
Common Eider
Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Goosander
Red-Breasted Merganser
White-Tailed Eagle
Golden Eagle
Red Kite
Common Buzzard
Honey Buzzard
Sparrowhawk
Goshawk
Kestrel
Peregrine
Red Grouse
Ptarmigan
Capercaillie
Black Grouse
Red-Legged Partridge
Pheasant
Coot
Oystercatcher
Ringed Plover
Golden Plover
Lapwing
Dunlin
Common Sandpiper
Redshank
Curlew
Woodcock
Great Skua
Black-Headed Gull
Common Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-Backed Gull
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
Common Tern
Puffin
Black Guillemot
Guillemot
Razorbill
Rock Dove
Woodpigeon
Collared Dove
Cuckoo
Short-Eared Owl
Tawny Owl
Great-Spotted Woodpecker
Skylark
Sand Martin
House Martin
Swallow
Rock Pipit
Meadow Pipit
Tree Pipit
Pied Wagtail
Grey Wagtail
Wren
Dipper
Dunnock
Robin
Redstart
Northern Wheatear
Stonechat
Song Thrush
Redwing
Mistle Thrush
Blackbird
Ring Ouzel
Willow Warbler
Chiffchaff
Goldcrest
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Crested Tit
Coal Tit
Long-Tailed Tit
Treecreeper
Jackdaw
Carrion Crow
Hooded Crow
Rook
Raven
Starling
House Sparrow
Chaffinch
Linnet
Twite
Goldfinch
Greenfinch
Siskin
Bullfinch
Common Crossbill
Yellowhammer