The Scottish Highlands A Custom Tour For Two 5 To 11 March 2022

King Eider 7 BB

An adult drake King Eider just one of the wow moments on this amazing tour - photo by Brian Burnett.

Day One 5th March 2022

We love putting together Custom Tours for Two and we had previously put one together for Lyn and John to Yorkshire in Autumn and now they had asked about the Scottish Highlands. A plan was soon in place and we picked up the two great friends at Lyn’s house near Ruthin – John having stayed with Lyn the night before.

It is a long old drive from North Wales to Speyside in The Highlands of Scotland but we made good time stopping for lunch and breaks where needed. As we entered the mountains either side of the A9 we stopped for fuel and were rather shocked to see it took over £100 to fill the tank! Prices have shot up dramatically recently due to the war in Ukraine. After the shock of the prices we had a nice surprise when a Goshawk soared over the conifers just north of the garage! While scanning to relocate this raptor we spotted another, much bigger, a Golden Eagle! Amazing to see an eagle at our very first stop in The Highlands and it got better a second Golden Eagle joined the first! What a fantastic start to our Tour for Two as one the birds the guys had wanted to see was Golden Eagle.

We continued on a minor road from the garage towards Grantown-on-Spey and our lovely hotel – The Grant Arms. We had not gone far when we spotted Red Grouse close to the road and enjoyed super looks at these beautiful birds. Next we made a stop by a tumbling stream to look for Dipper no luck but we again struck “gold” with another Golden Eagle! This one stayed in view for a good while allowing us time to set up the telescopes and soak up really great looks at this “king of birds” we were already loving this tour.

Day Two 6th March 2022

After a superb Grant Arms Hotel breakfast we made the short drive to Nethy Bridge where Waxwings had been reported recently but sadly these birds had moved on. Plenty of birds to enjoy here many of which were coming to feeders in gardens including beautiful Bramblings, Bullfinches and Siskins a riot of colour.

Golden Plover Finland 2017 2

Golden Plover in their breeding plumage are such beautiful birds.

We then headed north into the hills to Strathdearn and stopped at a favourite place of ours to scan the valley and surrounding ridges. At first it was slow going but then Lyn spotted a Red Kite circling low over some fields and we then noticed three beautiful Golden Plover in the those fields. Golden Plover are such beautiful waders in breeding plumage and they shared the fields with Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Curlew and Eurasian Oystercatchers. Common Buzzards soared over and a couple of Ravens flapped by and three Common Crossbills landed in some bare trees and allowed us to enjoy superb views in the sunshine. Through the telescopes the views of the Crossbills were frame fillings and we could even see the “cross-bill” not often you get to see that sort of detail. Then a real treat two Goshawks were over the plantation behind us and put on a breath-taking fantastic display! The male chasing the young female across the blue sky the birds appeared to be fighting rather than courting, perhaps the male telling the youngster time to move out? Whatever the reason for the behaviour it was jaw-dropping to watch as they twisted and turned against the clear blue sky another wow moment for sure. We moved further along the valley and amazingly saw a Goshawk flap across the road in front of us and as we stopped to look for that we saw a big raptor over the ridge. Eagle! Jump out fast and the scopes were set up quickly luckily the massive Golden Eagle was in the mood to be seen and it slowly soared in the sunshine – a fantastic sight! We would see all the details in the scopes including that golden nape and the mottled plumage across the upper wings a totally stunning encounter with one of “the” birds to see.

We continued on and reached another favourite spot by the river and resumed scanning. Not many raptors about here at first but we did enjoy seeing feral goats, red deer, a very distant mountain hare, Oystercatchers and three Dippers. Two of the Dippers posed for us on rocks in the river in the sunshine and what wonderful birds they were.

Then another Golden Eagle came into view and we had a great prolonged view if a little distant over a ridge – so lucky with these superb birds. Our packed lunches tasted good after all the excitement.

After more scanning we headed back down the valley for welcome hot drinks at a nearby café before we headed over to Boat-of-Garten. We had Crested Tits were being seen here but sadly no luck for us this time. Next we swung past Nethy Bridge again but no one had seen the Waxwings on this day at all.

Day Three 7th March 2022

Long tailed Duck drake 1

Drake Long-tailed Ducks are another wow bird that John and Lyn enjoyed on their tour for two.

Today we drove north from The Grant Arms Hotel to the coast at Nairn where a very special bird had been seen – a drake King Eider. We found the Nairn Leisure Centre where the bird had been seen offshore and we set up the scopes but the first birds we watched were a flock of beautiful Pale-bellied Brent Geese feeding along the shoreline. Turning our attention to the sea we picked out gorgeous Long-tailed Ducks and the views were super in the sunshine. Then we picked out “the” bird a stunning adult drake King Eider with a small group of Common Eider and our top of the range telescopes really came into their own allowing good views of this regal duck out on the sea in the sunshine. We were able to share this great rarity with another guest staying at the Grant Arms Hotel who had just arrived.

Next stop was Findhorn Bay where an idiot “bird watcher” had walked out into the middle of the bay flushing all the feeding waders, ducks and geese how totally selfish. We managed some distant views of Pintail and some waders but the birds were sadly so far away.

On again east and to Roseisle where we set up on top of the dunes giving a commanding view of the bay below us. The very first bird Alan put his scope on was “the” bird we had hoped to see here – an immature drake Surf Scoter! Amazing given how many birds were out in the bay again the views through the scopes were brilliant on the calm sea and in perfect light. The Surf Scoter was with a flock of Velvet Scoters and we soaked up the views of these spectacular sea-ducks, not often we have such super views as these. The chap we saw at the King Eider was also here and we were able to share the Surf Scoter with him and he pointed out two Slavonian Grebes on the sea.

A few miles further east took us to Burghead a small village on a peninsula where we parked on the east side and again set up the scopes and scanned the blue water in the glorious sunshine. A Red-throated Diver was just offshore and luckily the bird was busy preening so was not diving; this allowed us all to enjoy frame filling views. More superb Long-tailed Ducks were a joy to watch along with Common Eider, Razorbills, Ruddy Turnstones, Shags and more. Alan was scanning the sea with his binoculars and spotted a “big diver” offshore and called “Great Northern Diver” as he grabbed a scope to share the birds with John, Lyn and Ruth. The diver was quickly in the scope but facing away so Alan moved out of the way so the others could enjoy the bird. The diver then did what divers do and dived so Alan took back control of the scope to be ready to relocate the bird when it surfaced. It popped up and what, hang on, this might not be a Great Northern Diver! A wait for the bird to move into profile and a good hard look before shouting “it’s a White-billed Diver” a really rare bird in the UK! The light was perfect and the telescopes showed the pale bill and more importantly the diagnostic shape of the bill like a monster Red-throated Diver with that up-turned bill. Ruth was able to take photos and video of this fantastic rarity through the scope to prove the encounter and we were all thrilled to bits to have found such a rarity!

What a morning it had been, first the drake King Eider, then the Surf Scoter then finding the White-billed Diver just fantastic birding. We deserved our lunch and the café on the quayside at Lossiemouth was just the place. As we were leaving Lyn spotted a small flock of Ruddy Turnstones roosting on the top of the harbour wall and pointed out the bird on the right looked different. It was indeed different, not a Turnstone at all but a Purple Sandpiper. Another great bird and we enjoyed super looks through the scopes. On the nearby Lossi Estuary we added Sanderling to our very impressive day list.

We then tried a small lake where a Ring-necked Duck had been seen recently but hardly a bird to be seen, usually a good spot, so we assumed there had been some disturbance here. Next we headed to Loch Spynie to look for three Snow Geese which were in the area but spend most of their time feeding in surrounding fields with wild Greylag Geese. We drove the lanes around the loch but no a goose of any description to be seen. Then we went to the hide overlooking the loch itself, stopping to watch Tree Sparrows on the feeders, but again no geese here. We did watch lovely Goosanders, Goldeneye and a rarity up here a Moorhen. Then we heard Greylag Geese calling and scanned the sky but just saw a few birds dropping down behind some trees and none were snow white sadly. A few minutes later and they were up again this time many more flying above the trees and there amongst them the three Snow Geese! Fantastic and so lucky they flew while we were in the hide as the field where they had been was not visible from the hide or lanes. But it got even better the three Snow Geese dropped in and landed on the still waters of the loch and we enjoyed super views.

Then we headed back to The Grant Arms Hotel for a delicious dinner and to relive the amazing day.

Day Four 8th March 2022

Snow Buntings are always a thrill to see and enjoyed wonderful views.

We woke to the sound of gale force winds not good but we still enjoyed a wonderful breakfast before heading out. The car park at Cairngorm Mountain was our first destination and to say it was bleak up there would be a massive understatement! It was so windy people could barely stand up crazy weather but our target birds were still present a gang of Snow Buntings just carried on feeding not bothered by the weather at all. On the slope above we watched a herd of feral reindeer making their way down the hill presumably seeking shelter and as they walked they flushed a pair of Red Grouse from the heather. We didn’t stay long as the conditions were so bad dropping down to Loch Insh we enjoyed a hot drink overlooking the loch. Then we went to RSPB Insh Marshes where the wind was strong but nowhere near as bad as up on Cairngorm. A flock of Whooper Swans were on the marsh below the viewpoint along with two roe deer always lovely to see these delicate looking animals. Ruth picked out a Peregrine Falcon tearing along the banks of the River Spey but it was gone in a flash. A big flock of Pink-footed Geese fed in the fields off to the right and again the scopes allowed super views. After a lot more scanning we were thinking of lunch when a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared over the marsh always a real thrill to see one of these rare raptors. As we watched in the glorious sunshine a second ringtail Hen Harrier joined the first bird and both birds repeatedly dived at a tree out in the bog. We couldn’t see what they were mobbing but both the harriers were really going for it over and over again putting on a wonderful display for us. Eventually the harriers gave up and moved out of sight, and then a female Goshawk flew out of the tree and low across the reserve, mystery solved!

Well pleased with our morning we headed back to Loch Insh to enjoy lunch overlooking the loch. Then a short drive took us to Boat-of-Garten where we walked through the pine forest and sat on a bench watching a bird feeder. At first Coal and Great Tits came but after some fifteen minutes the hoped for Crested Tit arrived! A real Scottish speciality this species and we were thrilled to enjoy this stunning little bird full of character. Next we visited the famous RSPB reserve of Loch Garten but it has to be said it was very disappointing, not a single bird visible on the loch not helped by the allowing of paddle-boarding here now! On an RSPB Reserve what on earth is going on? Similarly the woods were almost devoid of birds as some construction work was being down by the closed visitor centre.

Last call of the day was a lovely area of pine forest close to the hotel where there plenty of birds. Two Treecreepers showed off a new species for the trip and a Red Kite soared over.

Back to the hotel for another superb meal and to do the checklist for the day.

Day Five 9th March 2022

Another day of gale force winds this time with heavy rain and sleet showers making birding pretty tough but we kept going. We headed north for the Black Isle in the hope of better weather but sadly not. At Chanonry Point we could hardly stand up and soon decided to move to move on. A little further along the coast we found a café that overlooked the bay and could set up a scope in the lee of the building and scan for birds. This worked really well, hot drinks, delicious cakes and birds! A flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese feeding on the beach and offshore we watched Kittiwakes, new species for the trip, along with Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Razorbill and Common Guillemots.

Next we headed for the north side of the Black Isle where it was a tiny bit less windy and to RSPB Udale Bay. Lots of birds here and the scopes allowed some fine close up views of Pink-footed Geese, Lapwings, Teal, Wigeon and Common Gulls. A Yellowhammer landed in a tree next to us before being blown out again by the wind. A little to the east we sought some shelter by a copse and scanned the choppy sea, Ruth soon picked out the hoped for Greater Scaup and there were some two hundred of these wintering ducks here. We then made our way slowly to the village of Cromarty seeing Slavonian Grebe, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-throated Diver and more Common Eider. At the village we had distant views of seven Northern Gannets out in the Firth and more good views of Razorbills, Common Guillemots, Shags and Long-tailed Ducks. Sadly the pub was closed so it was a takeaway lunch but good food none the less.

We then headed back to Udale Bay as the tide was coming in fast to see what might be pushed closer in at the viewpoint. On the way we had much better views of Slavonian Grebes coming into their breeding plumage though the light was poor so tricky to see the colours. At the bay masses of waders were being pushed closer and closer by the advancing tide. We enjoyed super views of Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knot and Dunlin and a single Black-tailed Godwit a good bird here. Loads of Eurasian Wigeon were also being moved closer by the tide and offshore a gang of Red-breasted Mergansers – great birding!

The weather really closed in so we headed back to the Grant Arms Hotel to thaw out and dry out!

Day Six 10th March 2022

Our last day of birding in the Scottish Highlands, sadly, and after a great breakfast we headed down to the River Spey in Grantown-on-Spey and to the Old Bridge. This viewpoint over the river is a great place to spend some time and see what comes along and usually turns up something of interest. A pair of Goldeneye were on the river downstream from the bridge great looking ducks. Then a Redwing landed high in a larch tree and posed for us all amazingly the first of the trip. A handsome drake Goosander powered under the bridge such fast flying birds and this was quickly followed by the sighting of a Dipper. The Dipper was feeding mid-stream and then came onto the bank giving us super views. Very happy with our start to the day we headed for the hills.

At Strathdearn it was cold and fairly windy not ideal for raptors but we kept scanning in the hope something would pop up. A beautiful flock of 34 Golden Plover were watched feeding with Lapwings and Curlew in the fields looking stunning in the sunshine. A few Common Buzzards soared around and then two Red Kites before the adrenalin rush of “Goshawk!” and sure enough one of these muscular hawks was over the wood behind us – fantastic. But it got better, much better, the Goshawk a young female bird stooped at a passing Raven and the two evenly sized birds entered aerial combat! Breath-taking stuff to see these two big powerful birds going at each other in the sky! The two twisted and turned in the air the hawk seeming to be having the better of the fight and as they fought they came closer and closer until almost right overhead and low enough to see the yellow eyes of the Goshawk! What an amazing encounter that left us stunned a real wow moment.

We then headed further up the valley and scanned more in the cold but bright conditions checking every bird that rose above the skyline. Plenty of Common Buzzards and a few Ravens were seen and then at last a Golden Eagle! This wonderful raptor followed the ridge line behind us and allowed superb views before it flew away up the valley and began to display what a wonderful bird. After all the raptor excitement we headed for a rather late lunch in a lovely café.

The tops of the hills were clear of cloud here so we decided to try Cairngorm Ski Car Park again in case it was clear and perhaps we could spot a Ptarmigan as we have in the past there. Sadly by the time we reached the car park the cloud had come down and a howling gale was blowing. We had great views of the Snow Buntings again but despite our best efforts of scanning what slopes we could see nothing else moved out there. It was so cold up there we dropped down for a welcome hot drink in a rather bonkers café!

It was time to head back to the hotel but of course we kept scanning the skies just in case. We made one last stop at a viewpoint overlooking the Spey Valley and what a view it was – stunning. Almost at once an eagle was seen over a ridge, could it be? The bird was quickly in the scope and yes it was a massive White-tailed Eagle! Another wow moment on this tour full of wow moments and a bird Lyn and John had really hoped to see talk about finishing on a high. Amazingly the White-tailed Eagle stayed in view for ages as it was mobbed by two Common Buzzards showing just how enormous this raptor is.

Back to the hotel for one final delicious dinner before we packed ready for the journey home in the morning. Huge thanks to Lyn and John for their great company and for making the tour so much fun. A huge thanks to all the staff at The Grant Arms Hotel, Grantown-on-Spey for making our stay just perfect, we can’t wait to be back. We would love to put together a custom Birdwatching Trips tour perfect for you please just drop us a line and we can do the rest…

We look forward to enjoying great birds and wildlife with you soon.

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