So, after a pretty intense and determined start to the year, it was finally time for our first guided trip.
Jem and I first tried Scotland in February 2015, on one of Heatherlea’s short breaks. We really enjoyed the holiday but my memories will always be slightly tainted because of FlyBe losing my luggage on the flight up to Inverness, forcing me to splash out on appropriate clothing and borrow a tripod until my bag eventually showed up a couple of days later, and I also slipped on the stone steps by the ski centre on Cairn Gorm and damaged my brand-new camera. However, with the yearlist challenge on our minds we thought it would be a good time to return. This time the short breaks were already booked up but there was a new break called the Birders’ Blast which has a similar itinerary, but with a bit more intensity to try and cram a bit more in. This time we opted for the train as well (the London City – Inverness air route has been scrapped since our last visit anyway).
The Saturday began with an earlier start than originally planned to try and see the Bluethroat on the Reservoirs so we missed out on our planned lie-in. Not to worry – we made our train in good time at Kings Cross and headed north, enjoying the scenery as we went. By the time we passed Perth and headed into the mountains the sun was setting, but we could still make out the snowy caps in the darkness. We were met by one of our guides, Mark, at Aviemore Station and we were whisked off to the hotel in Nethy Bridge in time for dinner.
Day One began with a pre-breakfast drive out to the glens for Black Grouse, which we saw well from a distance on their lek. Lots of Red grouse burbled around us too and we also got Pink-footed Goose onto the list nice and early. After breakfast we headed to Loch Garten for the feeders and also to see the Osprey that had returned a day or two previously. Annoyingly, and despite putting the news out of the Osprey’s return publicly, the RSPB had decided to close off access which also meant we couldn’t get to some of the feeders by the visitor centre. The feeders on the edge of the car park did at least bring in a few good birds, including our first Siskins of the year.
After a short while we headed to a private estate to look for Capercaillie, but with no luck. In fact, there was virtually nothing in the estate’s woodland at all. After the disappointment of the estate we headed to the Findhorn Valley for some raptor watching. Ravens, Buzzards and Goldcrests were seen at the first roadside stop, before we came to a side road where we decided to have our lunch. This was a bit more productive with the standout bird being a Goshawk flying across a stand of pines. As we headed along the road we also encountered Dippers on the river. I saw a large raptor up above a steep valley face – possibly a Golden Eagle – but nobody else saw it before it glided out of view. Eventually we had very brief views of distant Golden and White-tailed Eagles (our first WTEs in the UK). There were a number of brief stops on the way back – as we managed to get through to the other side of an apocalyptic-looking wall of precipitation-filled cloud – which brought us great close-up views of Red Deer and Red-legged Partridges, plus a couple of Red Kites. There was also a brief stop at Broomhill on the way back to look for a Black Redstart – a local rarity – that had been seen in previous days, but there was no sign of it.
Day Two was a slightly less early start as we had breakfast first before heading out to Cairn Gorm in bright morning sunshine. On the way we had the slightly amusing sight of a Common Snipe perched on a fencepost. A short time was spent scanning the snow and scree from the ski centre, but it was mainly Red Grouse that we were seeing. We all agreed that it would be fun to go up the funicular railway to the top of the piste where we would hopefully be able to find a Ptarmigan. And we were in luck, eventually finding two well-camouflaged individuals. Here we also had a stunning male Snow Bunting which flitted around us between a wall and the snowy rocks. After a short break halfway down the mountain for a coffee – and an unsuccessful attempt for Crossbills – we headed off to Boat of Garten Woods. A nice walk through the woods here brought us to some feeders where I was one of the lucky few to get glimpses of Crested Tit. We stayed in the area for a while because at least three Crossbills arrived, occasionally perching on the tree tops. We headed further on to a spot in the hope of finally getting the elusive Capercaillie, and three members of the group got the briefest glimpse of a male before it escaped out of sight, but Jem and I weren’t one of the lucky ones.
After lunch we headed back towards Findhorn Valley, but this time stayed on the south-eastern side of the hills at Dalnahaitnach. From here we had further brief views of both White-tailed and Golden Eagles (despite burning on the moor), and then prolonged views of a young Goshawk with a full crop that circled in the sky for something close to twenty minutes.
Following this we headed off to Lochindorb for our final main stop of the day. The target was a Black-throated Diver on the loch in summer plumage which we found without too much difficulty, and also had a Goosander which zoomed across the water and out of sight. Initially it was on the far side of the loch but it moved to a closer spot and we relocated to get better views. The position of the sun made photography very difficult, so instead I turned my attention to some burbling Red Grouse and got a few nice shots. Just as we were leaving the sun came out again and illuminated another grouse right next to the minibus, so Mark stopped and let me get some good portrait shots. As we headed back towards the hotel we had our first Stonechats of the trip too.
Day Three saw us go out after breakfast to have a look for Crested Tits again, this time having very good views at some feeders close to Nethy Bridge, and then it was off northwards to the coast. We had stops at Findhorn, Roseisle and Burghead where we eventually saw three species of diver: Black-throated, Red-throated and Great Northern, as well as Long-tailed Duck, Slavonian Grebe, Razorbill, Guillemot, Fulmar, Red-breasted Merganser, Gannet, Kittiwake, Common Scoter, Shag, Knot, more Crested Tits which looked like they were scouting for a nest site, plenty of Yellowhammers, many Hooded Crow hybrids and at least one genuine Hoodie, and Purple Sandpiper and Rock Pipit as we had lunch in a squall at Burghead. A quick check of the harbour also brought us a few Eider.
Following lunch we drove slowly around the Lossiemouth area, where we picked up Grey Partridges and a surprise Merlin by the main road by the RAF base. We had another stop for tea and cake by the river at the same site where we had an Iceland Gull last time we were here. This time we got a lifer: a Glaucous Gull (#480 on the lifelist). More slow driving around after leaving got us Tree Sparrows and Whooper Swan before we eventually headed back towards Nethy Bridge.
On Wednesday morning we did a bit of birding in front of the hotel, getting good views of Siskin and Red Squirrel, before we were taken back to Aviemore in time to get our train home. The route back was slightly different, taking us further east before crossing the Forth Bridge. Jem had missed the Goosander at Lochindorb but added one on the train back through the mountains. We also had a brief stop in Edinburgh and had a quick walk around before catching our connecting train back to London.
In all it was another fine trip to Scotland. Interestingly, despite being advertised as a more intense version of our previous visit, it didn’t really seem to be that much different. We may have missed out on Capercaillie, Hen Harrier, Twite and Corn Bunting, but we got pretty much everything else we could’ve wanted, and some great views of birds that we hadn’t seen well before. We got 98 species in total as a group and I added thirty-nine species to my yearlist, taking me up to 148. Also the bonus of the lifer in the Glaucous Gull made it extra good. The weather wasn’t too bad either, with plenty of sun in between the bits and pieces of rain.