Well, it wasn’t the best of starts. Things started to go wrong on the Friday night when my TV broke. Luckily it’s just within its extended warranty, so that’ll be sorted soon. Anyway, everything initially seemed to be going to plan on the Saturday morning: we got the DLR to London City Airport, got checked-in, and the new self-service bag weighing system SEEMED to be a good idea. We even saw the Hairy Bikers in one of the cafes while we waited to board our plane. And the flight was fine too. But it all went wrong when we arrived at Inverness.
My luggage hadn’t made it. There had only been about twenty passengers on the plane, and only about five of them had checked baggage, but mine still somehow managed to go missing. I reported it to Flybe’s staff and a lady filled out a PIR form and gave me a copy of it, saying that hopefully it’ll be on the following day’s flight. So we got the bus into Inverness, then the train to Aviemore, where I had to buy replacement boots, waterproof trousers, and other supplies.
Aviemore itself had plenty of snow around, so the boots were the main priority. We had plenty of time though, and we treated ourselves to a haggis toastie for lunch, and then we saw a Sparrowhawk while we waited to be picked up by Jonny. On the minibus to the hotel we found ourselves holidaying with two Sheffield United fans. Luckily the rivalry was good-humoured, so that wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been… Once in the hotel I realised two things: the new self-weighing system for baggage doesn’t give you a label stub like you’d normally get after dropping your bags off, and the member of staff who’d filled out my PIR form had forgotten to provide any reference number. This wasn’t going well.
Sunday morning saw the holiday begin properly. The first stop was to look for Black Grouse. Despite being told that they were showing well by another tour guide we met whilst he was dealing with his broken-down vehicle, they were nowhere to be seen. We did instead get Red Grouse in the snowy hillsides, and a very, very distant Golden Eagle. It was too far away for me to tick though.
Next was the coniferous forest at Tomvaich where we got great views of Common Crossbills. I’d seen them before in Sweden and Norfolk, but I’d never seen them well. Following this we made our way to Loch Garten. By the car park we had great views of Crested Tits and Coal Tits coming to various feeders. A photography tour group were set up for close-up shots, but they hogged the best position in the best light and I didn’t get a look in.
The afternoon saw us scan the gulls at Granish Dump to see if there were any rarities, without success, then we had brief views of a Peregrine at Craigellachie Rock in Aviemore, and we finished with a nice walk through the hillside forest at Glen Festie, where we had Goldcrests and a Treecreeper.
Monday morning saw us walking through the snow in a hillside forest. The target was Capercaillie, and we didn’t fail. Being at the front of the line I was the only person to see every one of the birds, however none of the views were great, being fleeting glimpses as they flew from the trees as we neared. In the way back I was at the back of the line, and a small mammal swam through a stream in front of me, most likely being a Common Shrew.
The next stop was Strathdearn to look for Golden Eagles. At the viewpoint from Daltomach we had Buzzards, Kestrels and Ravens, and after a while we moved off to Coignafearn so we could stop for lunch. There was a nice Mountain Hare on the hillside behind us, and we eventually managed, as we drive away, to see a distant Golden Eagle. We kept track of it and it eventually got nearer and nearer, and landed on the side of the mountain on our left. After a few minutes it took off again and slowly soared above us, and was then joined by a second bird.
I’ve wanted to see Golden Eagles since I was a child, and even coming up to Scotland I didn’t dare hope for more than a distant glimpse, so to get two of them soaring right over our heads and give a show like that was unbelievable and something I’ll never forget. It was #412 on my lifelist.
After this we drove off to Cairn Gorm to look for Snow Buntings and Ptarmigan. At the Coir Cas ski centre we had Snow Buntings right by the car park. In beautiful sunlight a flock was regularly eating from a small mound by a picnic area. To get to this area we had to ascend a flight of stone stairs which surprisingly hadn’t been cleared of snow and ice. I got up okay, but just as we reached the mound someone beeped their car horn and the birds flew away. With Ptarmigan still to see we turned back, and I ended up falling down the steps and cracking my new camera on the stone wall. One of the control dials on the top is cracked, but luckily the camera seems to still be working fine.
Behind the ski centre we positioned ourselves with scopes pointing at the crest of the mountain above, where there were three Ptarmigan, camouflaged against the snow (#413). Distant views, but not disappointingly so. When we returned to the car park the Snow Buntings had come back, but sadly the mountainside was now in shadow and the photographic opportunities were less impressive.
We moved onto the Coire na Ciste car park to scan the area. More Red Grouse were seen here, and some Reindeer.
Luckily, upon arriving back at the hotel I found my luggage had finally turned up, 48 hours late.
Tuesday morning began with us finally getting some Black Grouse. They were fairly distant, but well-viewable with scopes and binoculars. Red Grouse and another nice Mountain Hare were also seen here. On we went towards the coast, stopping to look at various small passerines, such as Tree Sparrows, Reed Buntings, plus some Whooper Swans. Spey Bay brought us Goosander, Red-throated Diver and Long-tailed Duck. We stopped at a large pond near Spynie to look at Goldeneye and a pair of Goosander, and then went on to Lossiemouth for more Long-tailed Ducks, another diver, various waders including Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling and Turnstone, Rock Pipit, and my first Iceland Gull (#414).
Various stops along the coast brought us more Long-tailed Ducks, Eider, and a Purple Sandpiper at Hopeman. We also saw a Sparrowhawk near RAF Lossiemouth which sent up huge flocks of Linnet and an impressive flock of Corn Buntings. We finished the tour with some sea watching at Roseisle.
Jem and I had time to spare on Wednesday morning and spent some of this watching Red Squirrels around the hotel. Back in Aviemore we had some very nice Buzzards, and then had three more at Inverness Airport while we waited for our flight to be called.
In all it was a fantastic tour. Despite the problems of my luggage not arriving, and then slipping on the steps on Cairn Gorm and breaking my new camera, we got almost everything we’d hoped to see, and very good views of nearly all the target species. We enjoyed the hotel, the guides, the food, and the stunning landscape. We’d definitely go back in the future…but next time we’ll get the train…