Two of us flew with Easyjet (http://www.easyjet/) from Gatwick to Inverness for a 4 day birding break in the Scottish Highlands. We spent the three nights in the Glen Mhor Hotel (http://www.glen-mhor.com/) in Inverness – somewhat expensive but well positioned on the banks of the River Ness. A car was hired on arrival at the airport from National /Alamo (http://www.nationalcar.com/).
Day One – The flight was a little delayed but we managed to get away from Inverness airport by lunchtime and decided to spend the first afternoon touring the Black Isle, a few miles NW of Inverness. Given the relatively short time we had, we were relying heavily on a newly published book to ease what was clearly going to be challenging birding (see Appendix -‘Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands’ ). There is no ‘Titchwell’ around these parts to get your list up to 50 birds in the first two hours. We intended the trip to be leisurely, with just two or three target birds, including Golden Eagle, Crested Tit and possibly Scottish Crossbill. It was definitely a case of hoping for everything and expecting nothing.
First stop was Channory Point at Fortrose (NH749556). Common Terns were busy flying west with fish and a few Sandwich Tern was also evident. Several Kittiwakes and Common Gulls loafed on the shingle with the odd Razorbill seen bobbing in between the waves out to sea. However, it was not the birds which stole the show here. Spectacularly close views of up to 8 Bottle-nosed Dolphins had attracted quite a crowd at the end of the point and with these creatures sometimes coming within 20 yards of the water’s edge, it was not clear who was actually studying who.
We moved on a couple of miles to RSPB Fairy Glen (park in the Rosemarkie car park at NH735578), hoping for a possible Dipper at this short trail alongside a picturesque wooded stream. Instead, we got good views of several members of a Treecreeper family and a Grey Wagtail doing what wagtails do along small streams.
We decided to head back to Inverness, calling in at the viewpoint (and hide) at Munlochy Bay (pull into the obvious layby at NH657538). The tide was out and so waders (Lapwing, Curlew etc) were quite distant. We had our first good views of an Osprey as it flew along the loch and a Common Buzzard soared over the far side. Having returned to Inverness and checked-in, we had the opportunity of a quick return visit on the way back to Fortrose to dine with a couple of other friends who were up in the Highlands for a fishing and walking break. The food at their accommodation, the Anderson (http://www.theanderson.co.uk/)was excellent (around £20/ head for a delightful 3 course meal). A choice of over 150 single malts and a vast selection of Belgian beers added to the attraction and ambience of this welcoming pub. This second visit to Munlochy Bay produced the anticipated Red Kite, which literally flew over our heads while standing by the car.
Day Two – We chose to spend our first full day by driving south along the A9 to Speyside. First stop at Milton Loch in the Boat of Garten area (park in CP at the bottom of Birch Grove at NH942192) – a tiny lochan with a new hide. No Slavonians here so we quickly moved onto the Osprey watchpoint near Loch Garten (NH977183). The pair have failed to breed this year but the visitor centre and nest site continue to pull the crowds. The male, Henry, arrived on cue for the morning show. Excellent close views of Red Squirrel and Siskin on the nearby feeders were equally rewarding. We had missed a Crested Tit around the visitor centre earlier that morning, so we headed off for a stroll through the woods - from the carpark along the roadside track and then through the woods to Loch Mallachie. This produced Common Sandpiper (1), Spotted Flycatcher (1), Bullfinch (1), Mistle Thrush (6) and good views of Crested Tits (3).
Continuing south, next stop was Loch Morlich. We had been warned about significant ‘water sports’ activity – and indeed this proved to be the case on a busy sunny Sunday afternoon. However, and somewhat to our surprise, this didn’t prevent 4 female Goldeneye from showing themselves nicely as we drove along the shoreline (NH963098). Our final port of call was Loch an Eilein. We stopped for a brief look in the woods at the turn off point on the B970 (NH890097) as our book mentioned the possibility of Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler. We got Spotted Flycatcher but nothing else. Onto the estate car park (£1.50 per person) at NH897087, On our walk around the loch, we had further and even better views of Crested Tit and a female Redstart posed for us in a marshy area by the lochside. 3 female Goosanders swam in the middle of the loch and we had our first (and only) views of a beautifully marked Golden-ringed Dragonfly, patrolling along a stream as it entered the main body of water. Allocate at least 2 hours for this extremely pleasant stroll to give time to pause and admire.
Day Three – Findhorn Valley. Our book talked of the possibility of 10 raptors in a day – and this prospect, however remote, proved too much for us. First stop was Layby 151 on the A9 (NH843245) about 4 miles south off the Tomatin turnoff. A well-known site for Ring Ouzel and, although it looked just perfect if somewhat noisy, we saw none and could muster only a Northern Wheatear and another Siskin. So back we went and into the Findhorn Valley. We drove at a leisurely pace all along the road to the furthest point of car access at the Old Lodge at Coignafearn (NH710179). We then walked SW about 1 mile along the track. The lightly wooded slopes on our NW side (labelled Glac Torr Chruidh on the OS map) once again looked perfect Ring Ouzel habitat. We even heard one calling a short way up a stream and hastily went in search. But to no avail. Faced with the choice of staying along the valley floor or climbing gently alongside the Allt Calder stream, we choose the latter. Having walked another few hundred yards up the track, we were rewarded with stunning views of a juvenile Golden Eagle. Totally white upper tail feathers together with significant white patches on the wing undersides made this a 1st or possibly 2nd winter bird. We got three separate opportunities to study the detail before it eventually climbed and soared away to the south over the Findhorn Valley. Back to the car (nothing on the surrounding crags except for a Kestrel) and we retraced our steps back down the valley to turn toward Loch Ness along the Farr Road. No Red Grouse but Ravens (5) were obviously enjoying life over some distant crags and we disturbed a Sparrowhawk catching prey in roadside vegetation.
Our final stop was at RSPB Loch Ruthven – important for the numbers and breeding success of Slavonion Grebes. It didn’t disappoint. From the hide, we got good (telescope) views of a single bird in full breeding plumage on the far north side. On our return to the carpark, a low flying aircraft put up a single raptor over the moor to the north of the loch. This is turn put up two more. ID was simplified by their white rumps and we had 3 ‘ringtail’ Hen Harriers. Several juvenile Whinchat near the car park completed our visit to Loch Ruthven. We stopped briefly on the roadside (NH631284) just past the farm at Tullich to admire the same Harriers again and additionally a single Lesser Redpoll on overhead wires. An excellent end to the day.
Day Four – Ardersier. Our final morning was brief – a short trip into Inverness to stock up on some malts left us with very little time before the need to check-in at the airport. We could only manage a short walk along the shore near the airport at Ardersier (NH781554), hoping for a few more waders and a possible RB Merganser or Eider. In the event, high tide and a strong wind prevented us from adding any more new birds to our somewhat small tally.
Birding in the Scottish Highlands in July is always going to be a challenge and this trip was no exception. Fine views of Golden Eagle, Crested Tits, Slavonian Grebes and Hen Harriers more than made up for any disappoint with the overall tally which was never the objective.
You have to work hard to see the birds – but if this doesn’t put you off then go and enjoy the good food & drink and spectacular scenery which, for the most part, you don’t have to share with anyone else.