Speyside, Black Isle, Highlands and Inner Hebrides, 29th June - 26th July 2003

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Atlantic Puffin

Hugh Venables & Catherine Burgess



Going birding in Scotland - check out the Capercaillie code of conduct first - click here



Overview:

This was a birding (and other wildlife) trip combined with a post-degree holiday with my girlfriend Catherine (interested in nature but not a birder). We camped to keep costs down (£6-10 per night for 2 people) and flexibility up (we did exactly as planned on 7 out of 28 days). We just found campsites from maps each day.

29th June

Drove up to Holy Island and had a pleasant walk along coast from car park as tide fell. Crossed on to Holy Island and parked by track west of the village which is nearer the beach and free. Plenty of seabirds offshore and a very large empty beach.

30th June

After a night in a hostel in Belford (from Independent Hostel Guide - www.backpackerspress.com) we went to Seahouses for a boat out to the Farnes (pre-booked from www.farne-islands.com/boat-trips). This costs £20 each plus £4.50 landing fee for each island (free for National Trust members). We landed on Staple Island after a trip round some of the other islands for Grey Seals and a look at some seabird colonies. The birds nest near, on and under (puffins) the paths which produces an amazing spectacle and perfect photo opportunities (though digiscopers will have to walk away from the birds or ditch the scope. Inner Farne is second and has all the "cliff" seabirds of Staple Island as well as Sandwich, Arctic and Common Terns (no Roseates this year but Coquet Island is doing well and birds can apparently be seen from the mainland or a boat trip round it). A hat is very useful as the Arctic Terns go for your head beak first (a cardboard patch in the hat helps, as does holding your telescope above your head).

We got back to the mainland at 4pm and set off north again. We diverted to North Berwick for fish and chips on the beach overlooking Bass Rock (Gannet visible well with telescope). We went on to near Loch of the Lowes and found an excellent campsite (Inver Mill) which we reached by 8pm. Dipper and Woodcock from the campsite.

1st July

Went to Loch of the Lowes (opens 10am more details at www.swt.org.uk) and got excellent views of Ospreys on the nest. There were 3 chicks in the nest, flapping around (especially when no adult was present) and both adults came and went. We then tried to investigate a small pool marked nearby on the map but fences and rhododendrons stopped us reaching it.

We drove on to Glen Shee and had lunch in the car park before a short (but steep) walk to one of the tops (the car park is 650m, tops over 900m). There were a pair of Ring Ouzels near the car park and plenty of Mountain Hares (the only ones we saw) near the top but no ptarmigan or dotterels despite suitable habitat.

We went on to Deeside and tried to investigate the woods south of the river near Bridge of Dee (NO184910) but couldn't find somewhere to park so pressed on and parked just past the next bridge (the one in the photo on the front of the OS map) and walked back to it but it was gated and locked! We just sat by the river for a bit. A Salmon leapt up the rapids and a Red Squirrel ran across road (only one seen in Scotland). We stayed in the campsite near Ballater which produced the only Tawny Owl of the trip.

2nd July

We climbed Lochnagar which was a nice climb but not one to be taken lightly. I found a male Dotterel not far below the summit and a Snow Bunting (singing and getting annoyed at its echo from across the gully) in the limited spells of good visibility. No ptarmigan despite many scans and Catherine started to think they didn't exist! There was also a Common Frog, not a species normally worthy of note but next to the trig point at 1155m it surprised us. Drove on to Grantown on Spey.

3rd July

Up early and went looking for Capercaillie. Found a track through suitable woods nearby (I'm being deliberately vague here - I wasn't acting on exact info though). Soon found a male on the path. 4 more males flew off right as I continued and a family of Crested Tits were by the path on the way back (learn their calls before you go as it's distinctive and the best way to locate them). I got back to the car and drove round some back roads in the hope of finding a black grouse but no luck parked at NJ045284. I followed my nose through the woods that were full of life - Crested Tits, Tree Pipits and Spotted Flycatchers amongst many others. On the way back I followed an unfamiliar call to find it was coming from some Crossbills. I got a bit of a look at the bills which weren't too big but without a sonograph, mist net and callipers I'll leave them as Crossbill sp.

Went on to Loch Garten after breakfast (RSPB Abernethy Reserve www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/index.asp). We started at the pool at NH968190. It was overcast but Northern Damselflies were easy to find clinging to grass stems all round the pool. We went back and walked the loop from the second car park (NH971185). There was an Otter fishing in Loch Mallachie and Crested Tits in the woods. We went on to NH982176 (just before road splits south east of Loch Garten) where there is a fenced off pool to the south of the road. The sun was now out and we got good views of White-faced Darters on and around the pond. We then drove over Tulloch Moor towards Aviemore and had a very distant Black Grouse from the road. We went on to the campsite next to Loch Morlich (Goldeneye and RT Diver on loch) which has a wonderful setting with views of the Cairngorms and a sandy beach by the loch but also a lot of midges.

4th July

We drove out to Loch Indorb (NH 9635) today. Nothing of note on route (but we were a bit late after shopping in Aviemore) but Merlin near the loch. We had lunch by the loch and soon spotted an Osprey. I transferred to the scope and gave Catherine the binoculars. It was only after the bird I was watching dived and caught a fish while Catherine's just circled that we realised that we were watching different birds! Thankfully the second bird soon dived successfully. We eventually finished lunch and moved on. There was a pair of Black-throated Divers on the loch. Another Osprey flew close and dived close enough for us to hear the splash! In all we saw at least 4 Ospreys, 9 dives into the water, 5 of which were successful. We tried to get closer to the divers but they had gone behind the island so we had to settle for a family of Red Grouse paddling in the loch (photo through binoculars). No sign of any short-eared owls but they are in the area.

5th July

Last day in Speyside so decided we'd try the Cairngorms. Unfortunately cloud was much lower than previous days but started to lift so we went to the car park (NH 989061) and walked south-west towards the top that is 1083m. Our luck was in as the cloud lifted as we climbed and there was a Dotterel on the top. We turned left up to Cain Lochan and soon found 8 Ptarmigan and got amazing views of the Plateau. A Snow Bunting was singing near the top. The cloud came down again and we came down a new (very steep) path to the 2 small lochs and returned to the car. It's a wonderful place with great birds but you can't trust the weather for more than 5 minutes.

6th July

We drove to the Findhorn valley. No sign of eagles (or anything else of interest except the views). A couple of locals said the Golden Eagles had been hard to see here in the last few years, especially in the summer, and Strathconnon was a better valley. We drove over to Loch Ruthven (NH 6328) where there were Slavonian Grebes and a male Hen Harrier. Then we went on to Loch Bran (NH507192) for Brilliant Emerald, 2 of which duly appeared as the weather brightened. We carried on to the Black Isle and went to the cheap campsite on Chanonry Point. Juvenile Crossbill in a bush next to the tent was a bonus. A walk to the end of the point produced 3 Bottle-nosed Dolphins.

7th July

We had a dolphin trip booked with Dolphin Ecosse from Cromarty this morning. Very good trip, the Dolphins came to within 5 yards and jumped clear of the water regularly. Definitely worth the £20 - I think Catherine would have been on the next trip if it hadn't been fully booked! Also plenty of seabirds, including Black Guillemot. Weather deteriorated after we finished so no chance of Red Kites.

8th July

I dropped Catherine at Inverness Station for her trip to the US embassy in London to try to get a Visa to dig up Mammoths in the States. I then pressed on north, stopping near Evanton (NH 612651) for Tree Sparrows and soon after for cheap petrol. Osprey flew over the car near Dornoch. After investigating the area I got to Loch an Ruthair, there were Red-throated Divers, a brood of Red-breasted Merganser and some Greylag Geese. Very surprised when a Black Kite then came out of the wood behind me as I hadn't heard that it was about. Hen Harrier, Osprey and Short-eared Owl at Forsinard and by the road to the coast. I went to the beach at Melvich, wonderful beach but I was distracted by the seabirds offshore so I went to Strathy Point where a 40 minutes seawatch produced a Manx Shearwater, 2 Storm Petrels, Arctic and Great Skuas and lots of other seabirds. I stayed at Tongue Youth Hostel where the warden was a birder. On his advice I waited on the north side of the causeway by the easterly car park and an Otter duly appeared on time at 10pm and started fishing before being joined by another adult and leaving.

9th July

Started at the mouth of Kyle of Tongue looking for a summering Great Northern Diver. The tide was falling and there were plenty of seabirds fishing together with 3 Minke Whales and some Harbour Porpoise (I think that the tide is relevant for the whales). There was a Short-eared Owl on one of the offshore Islands. Carried on to a Loch where there were 2 Great Northern Divers. Moved on to Durness and heard 2 Corncrakes at NC 396687. Then drove down to Scourie, climbing Farrmheall (NC 308588) on the way. No ptarmigan (suitable habitat starts at about 400m) but a Ring Ouzel and Dunlin on the way down and 2 Golden Eagles over Foinaven. The day ended with 3 Red-throated Divers fishing by the campsite at Scourie.

10th July

Got boat from Tarbert pier to Handa. Lots of Bonxies and Arctic Skuas that you can get reasonably close to but none of them would dive bomb me which was very boring. Thousands of Guillemots on the cliffs (150000 on the island) and some good views of Puffins. Really nice place and a good place for photography if the weather's clear. Went back to Durness and met Catherine in the hostel, she'd had to get there from London by public transport (21 hours - sleeper, second train, post bus)

11-14th July

Holiday time (went back along north coast with Catherine as scenery and beaches are amazing). Highlights were Otter on Invernaver beach, 3 Ptarmigan at the top of Arkle (almost nothing else up there) and 2 more Minke Whales from Durness campsite (again on falling tide). Whales found by watching gatherings of feeding birds and waiting.

15th July

Eventually got to the minibus to Cape Wrath (the small boat the boatman needed to get to the ferry was tied too tightly so a boat was needed to get to the boat that was needed to get to the ferry!) We then walked back towards the ferry along the cliffs - more Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes etc. and an amazing sandy beach. We then cut back to the road and hailed the next minibus back to the ferry.

16th July

Stopped at NC 195374 for Dragonflies. At least 5 male Highland Darters holding territory with Common Hawker, Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Blue-tailed Damselfly were also present. Spent most of the day on a beach (too hot to do much else) but I can't identify jellyfish so little to report. Walk late on to Stoer Point was nice and produced a few more seabirds but it was too windy to look for cetaceans (apparently a good site)

17th July

Early stop at NC 091240 produced Black and Highland Darter, Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Four-spotted Chaser and Emerald Damselfly. We pressed on to Gruinard Bay. No sign of any white-tailed eagles but still a very nice beach (and very good weather). Someone we spoke to later had seen an adult fly over them here on the 18th.

18th July

First day at Loch Maree (Bridge of Grudie, NG966678) and the sun had gone (we'd hardly seen a cloud for the last 3 days). Still some dragonfly activity with Northern Emerald added to the list. The dragonflies are most often seen in the glade near the car park but they are mostly not holding territory there so can be hard to watch as they go past you and carry on away. Perched dragonflies can be found by walking through the heather (you can sometimes hear them beating their wings to warm up) but anything other than Common Hawker or Black darter is unusual. Eventually gave up and went back to Gairloch for a coastal campsite (fewer midges). Saw signs for sheepdog trials so watched them (local round) in the evening.

19th July

Cloudy/rainy day so watched the main sheepdog trials. Weather cleared by evening and had about 20 Harbour Porpoises from the campsite.

20th July

Back to Loch Maree with better weather. Someone else there had an Azure Hawker by the stream north of the road but it had gone once we got there. Tramping through the heather produced a cold Northern Emerald which I could photograph. No White-faced Darters. Eventually gave up on Azure Hawker (the only major dip of the trip) and left. Black-throated Diver on Loch from a car park at the south end. Drove back to Chanonry Point (Red Kite from the car) for another Dolphin trip. We walked out to the point again, no dolphins but a female Otter with 2 cubs ran off the beach into the sea as we returned. Watched them for a bit, it took them longer to eat their fish than catch the next one!

21st July

Dolphin trip as good as last time, less leaping but got to see them underwater a few times. You can take the fact we went back for a second trip as a very strong recommendation. This was definitely Catherine's highlight of the trip. We then drove down to Oban to meet a friend (Tom) doing fieldwork on Coll.

22nd July

Lots of Manx Shearwaters and a Storm Petrel from the boat to Coll and a couple of Harbour Porpoise. We had a short walk before dinner, plenty of Twite but we didn't hear any Corncrakes.

23rd July

Early morning walk with Tom added Little Tern to the trip list and gave me a chance to try out his new scope (Zeiss 85mm - very nice). After breakfast we walked near the south western end (Tom had a car there - taking cars on the ferries is very expensive). Heard a Corncrake but weather was very bad so we didn't see the great yellow bumble bee Tom is studying. Had to go back to Oban, wishing we could have spent longer.

24th July

Weather was better, thankfully as we had a wildlife tour on Mull booked from www.mullbirds.com (includes sites/sighting information and links to tour website). £26 each but for 2 people it's not much more than taking the car (£40) across. We saw 4 White-tailed Eagles, 8 Golden Eagles, Hen Harrier and an Otter which was good going for about 6 hours! The highlight was watching 3 Golden Eagles soaring together which drifted off but by the time we were all back in the bus there were 2 eagles back above the ridge, including an adult White-tailed carrying food. The eagles were perhaps more showy as the previous day was a washout. Drove to south of Glasgow in the evening via a pub meal.

25th July

Went to Haweswater today to show Catherine Red Squirrels (near the dam and in Burnbanks) and because I like the place (I've volunteered there). We saw both the Golden Eagles in Riggindale Valley flying for some time which was unusual. We carried on to Leighton Moss for the evening where the bird list got a boost with species like Marsh Harrier, Garganey, Moorhen and Coot being added.

26th July

Started at Eric and Allen Pools (coastal side of railway just west of Crag Foot village) where there were more waders for the list but nothing of particular interest. Finished by going to the public hide at the main site which produced Marsh Tit but no Bearded tit. Then drove back to Bury St. Edmunds

Summary:

The Farne Islands are a great place to get near seabirds. Speyside is very good but requires knowledge of sites, early starts and luck but there are plenty of other people to ask about sites and sightings. It is fairly central so can easily be combined with the Black Isle, Loch Maree or even the Hebrides. The north coast has some of the most amazing scenery I've ever seen and plenty of wildlife even if there aren't the specialities of Speyside. There is the potential for just about anything to be around as well. It didn't seem very far from Inverness. The west coast has a similar feeling of being a very long way from Edinburgh, let alone London. The deep inlets make the open sea seem hard to find but the scenery is still amazing. The Hebrides are beautiful (I have previously walked the length of the Uists which was an incredible trip) but moving cars about is very expensive. It's not actually that far to drive and is definitely worth it, flying to Inverness and hiring a car is another option. Mull is full of eagles.

Useful kit:
Insect repellant
Cigarette lighter to 240V plug adaptor (£20 from Maplin)
Atlas showing campsites
Diary (it's great to have a detailed account of a trip like this)

For more information feel free to contact me at hughvenables@hotmail.com