A Week At Aigas

If you have watched BBC TV’s Autumnwatch programme over the last couple of years you may have noticed that it has been based at the Aigas Field Centre at Beauly, near Inverness, in the Scottish highlands. Throughout the year, from spring to autumn, the Centre offers a variety of holidays for wildlife and bird watching, as well as other activities such as nature photography, walking, painting, writing, cookery, and social studies. Some of the weeks are hosted by well-known celebrities, such as Johnny Kingdom and Nick Baker. So, during the summer, a friend and I decided to visit and spent a week there on what was billed as a “Famous Aigas Wildlife Week”.

But first, we couldn’t let all that prime Scottish birdwatching habitat of the central highlands at the Spey Valley & Aviemore area go by without a visit so we spent three days at Aviemore on the way north. We stayed at the Hilton Coylumbridge - very comfortable and amazingly cheap! Book early to avoid disappointment.

The first major sighting occurred as we drove up the A9 just north of Perth when a jay flew across the road in front. As far as I can remember that was the first jay that I have ever seen in Scotland, but certainly the most northerly. According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds (admittedly 1976 vintage) the breeding range just about extends into Perthshire. However, later in the week we were to have several more sightings of jay in the grounds at Aigas, and that’s another 80 miles further north on the other side of the Grampian Mountains! Obviously the birds have extended their range in recent years.


After arrival at the hotel and dinner, we set off to Aviemore to look for the peregrines on Craigellachie cliff. A couple of locals told us that the pair had just fledged three young and I soon had one in the scope. Then an adult flew in with some food and proceeded to feed another of the young. And all the while there were up to 6 ospreys circling overhead. Next we went down to the River Spey to see the sand martin colony. On emerging from the tunnel under the railway there was a dipper on the stream, while at the Spey we had the spectacle of 50+ sand martins flying round the colony in the sandy river bank, and a pair of common sandpipers and an oystercatcher thrown in for good measure. An excellent start to the holiday.

Next day we decided to visit the RSPB Loch Garten reserve. We stopped first at Loch Vaa to look for slavonian grebe, and three stripe-headed youngsters out in the middle of the loch were excellent candidates until they were joined by an adult little grebe. At the Loch Garten hide we had the female osprey on the nest tending 2 chicks while the male sat on the neighbouring tree. The feeders were a frenzy of activity, with chaffinch, greenfinch, siskin, coal tit, blue tit, great tit, and great spotted woodpecker the main participants. A redpoll appeared briefly for 30 seconds before disappearing, never to be seen again. Red squirrels tried to steal a share of the peanuts and a small rodent of some kind was seen scuttling in the heather.


At the entrance kiosk another set of feeders attracted a similar set of visitors but here we also noticed a crested tit that came in regularly every 5 to 10 minutes or so (assuming it was the same bird). It was so close that you almost didn’t need binoculars to watch it. And here as well the red squirrels were so close that you almost felt you could reach out and touch them. Later on, during a walk around the Loch Mallachie loop, we found some treecreepers, and plenty more chaffinches.

At Boat of Garten we stopped at the bridge over the Spey and went for a short walk up-river. There were common sandpipers on the riverbank and large numbers of swifts and sand martins flying overhead and along the river. Further on we managed to locate at least a dozen goldeneye and then a female goosander with ducklings on the river. At nearby Milton Loch we settled onto one of the benches to view what was about. There is a heronry in the trees just behind the loch, but the young birds had left the nests by now and could be seen flying around or in the reeds. Mallard, tufted duck and little grebe were on the loch. A willow warbler foraged in the trees and bushes just by our heads and kept disappearing into the base of a small bush by the loch-side. Presumably it had a nest there but we left it undisturbed. An oystercatcher with 3 chicks was on the loch-side a bit further round.

For the final day at Aviemore we decided to tackle Cairngorm, hoping for a ptarmigan or dotterel or two. Since the mountain railway was opened just over 10 years ago it has not been possible to travel up to the summit on the railway and wander freely over the mountain top. As part of the deal, access is limited to the Ptarmigan Restaurant and exhibition centre. Of course you are still free to walk up the mountain on foot but we decided against that. However, for an extra £5, you can buy a train ticket plus included guided walk to the summit, so that seemed the obvious choice. We saw a ring ouzel from the train on the way up.


At the top quite a gale was blowing (probably nothing unusual here!) and passing cloud intermittently covered the area with mist. We had 30 minutes to wander through the exhibition and shop before assembling with 6 others for the 2-hour walk. We had distant views of a ptarmigan in the mist on the walk up and ravens flying over. Although it seemed windy enough, we had apparently walked up the sheltered side, and the gale at the summit was much, much worse. Winds of over 200mph are regularly recorded here. The plan was to walk back down the other side but several members of the group were having difficulty staying upright so we returned via the same route. That was fortunate since we soon found a dotterel and then had another much closer view of ptarmigan. Lunch and a nice warming cup of coffee at the Ptarmigan Restaurant (highest in the UK) were very welcome.

On returning to the base station we had a search around the car park for snow buntings but without success. So we headed out on one of the level(ish) footpaths round the mountain. Meadow pipits were abundant here. We had just got out of sight of the car park when we flushed a pair of red grouse and several chicks. The female and chicks flew off but fortunately the male stayed behind to keep an eye on us. The female later returned but the chicks remained hidden. A passing kestrel was good reason for that behaviour.

Saturday finally arrived and it was time to leave Aviemore and travel to the Aigas Centre. Check-in was not until 3:30-4pm so we had plenty opportunity for more birding on the way. First stop was at RSPB Loch Ruthven to have another try for slavonian grebe. The water was rather choppy and the only activity in the reed bed was little grebe and female tufted duck. A pair of goosander and some mallards were seen out on the loch, and black-headed gull and common gull near the car park. Eventually one slavonian grebe did appear but it was way over on the far side and was not a good view even in the scope. There were a number of brown hares in the fields here and we started seeing our first hooded crows.


We reached Inverness and carried on northwards over the Kessock Bridge onto the Black Isle to look for red kites. This is the most northerly release site in the red kite reintroduction programme. Before long we had distant views of two birds soaring over the farmland. During the week at Aigas we travelled across the Black Isle several times and had many subsequent red kite sightings from the minibus – some at quite close range. Total number was well into double figures.

For a final diversion before Aigas we travelled over to Chanonry Point on the south side of the Black Isle hoping to see the dolphins. This is the best place in the UK to see bottle-nosed dolphins from land and the sightings can be spectacularly close. And these are large dolphins at up to 4 metres long. There was a large crowd already there and we headed down the beach to join them. An occasional sighting was made way out to sea beyond the Fort but by the time our departure time of 3pm was fast approaching nothing more. Then at 2:55pm the crowd suddenly surged forward and there were the dolphins in the bay within 50 feet away. Small pods were surfacing and blowing all around, it was difficult to know where to look. I didn’t see any leap clear of the water but a good part of heads and bodies were visible. Well, of course, we absolutely had to stay and watch even though it meant arriving at Aigas a little later than planned.

The Aigas Field Centre is based in a Victorian country house situated on the hillside overlooking Strath Glass about 15 miles west of Inverness. It is the family home of our hosts, Sir John and Lady Lucinda (Lucy) Lister-Kaye, who acquired the estate in a severe state of decay in the 1970’s and have since restored it as a base for Scottish wildlife ecotourism and field studies. Their son Warwick is general manager of the business. Guests are housed mainly in log cabins on the hillside just above the main house. There are 3 to 4 rooms per cabin as well as a common area with sofa, table and chairs, oven, sink, coffee maker etc. One or two superior rooms (complete with four-poster bed) are available in the main house.


In the main house is also a guests’ common room, where guests can meet for pre-breakfast coffees and pre-dinner drinks, a well-stocked library and a shop. Dinner is taken together at an enormous long table in the main hall. Lady Lucy is a cordon bleu chef and in charge of the kitchen. Every evening we had a sumptuous three-course dinner. A pre-dinner drink of whisky, wine or beer (the local is Red Kite Ale) is free, as is wine with dinner. If that is not enough for you, you can help your self in the common room and leave some money in the honesty box.

If you go to Aigas expecting an intensive dawn to dusk expedition every day then you will be rather disappointed. Breakfast is at a leisurely 8am followed by a briefing in the common room or library at 9am and departure around 9:30am. Each day’s field trips were led by one of the Aigas Rangers team who would drive us by minibus to the locations. Since there were 24 guests for the week we were split into 2 groups and went to separate locations each day to avoid pressure on the habitat. We would return to the Centre each day for afternoon tea in the common room at 4:30pm, except for the day of the long west coast trip, when afternoon tea was taken in the field (we had ours on the shores of Loch Maree in Wester Ross). A packed lunch was provided each day.

As well as the organised field trips the Centre has plenty of wildlife opportunities on-site. The Aigas Loch has been home to a family of beavers for many years and there is a hide on the loch-side where you can spend some free time watching for them. There are also 2 hides in the forest available for use 24 hours a day and numerous bird feeders scattered throughout the grounds and gardens. In addition there is a special hide further down the road, only accessible by vehicle, specifically for pine martens and badgers. A ranger would escort a group of 6-7 there every evening. The Centre is part of the Scottish wildcat breeding programme and has some animals in a pen in a secluded part of the forest away from human disturbance. This area is not normally accessible for guests but a hide has been built nearby where guests can watch the animals being fed.

So, we arrived and were settled in our cabin, just in time for afternoon tea and the first chance to meet our fellow guests. They were of a wide age range, 20’s to 80’s from all over the UK, and a group had even come from USA. Then it was time for a quick look round the grounds. A spotted flycatcher was nesting in a box on the cabin next to ours and would perch on the fence on the way in and out. The great spotted woodpeckers had bred successfully; the young birds were learning how to hang from the feeders. Another feeder was covered in siskins, as well as chaffinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, coal tit, blue tit and great tit. Baby robins were hopping round under the bushes.


First morning we had a welcome meeting hosted by Sir John in the Magnus Lodge (named in memory of Magnus Magnusson) where he gave an interesting talk and slideshow on the history and aims of the Aigas Centre then the rangers took us for a guided tour round the estate so we could see the lay of the land. After a buffet lunch at the Centre our first field trip was a drive down the local glen of Strath Farrar. This is quite a small glen containing a river and quite well wooded with birch and pine. We soon had redstart, siskin, treecreeper, common sandpiper, oystercatcher, mute swan, house martin, sand martin, barn swallow and roe deer. A bit further up the glen is a bit more open and here we had meadow pipit, stonechat, wheatear, raven, kestrel, red deer, and wild goat. But the star of the day was a golden eagle that drifted briefly over the hill and over our heads. It was close enough to appreciate the sheer size and spread of the wings and the white wing patches clearly visible indicated that this was a young bird. Although it didn’t stay for long it was one of the best golden eagle sightings I’ve had for many years.

That evening after dinner we visited the beaver hide at the Aigas Loch. It is situated towards the shallow end of the loch where there are extensive reed beds and bracken cover on the bank and directly opposite the beaver lodge. This looks like a large untidy pile of sticks on the far bank. After 45 minutes nothing had appeared and I was scanning the bank on the far left of the hide when something moved. I did a quick double-check and yes! – there were 2 beavers on the bank, an adult and a kit. The kit soon disappeared but for the next hour or so the adult was in view as it swam about in the loch and occasionally emerged again to nibble on some vegetation. They are big animals but almost nothing shows when they are in the water and very silent. I expected a “plop” when it dived in the water.

Our field trip on Monday took us across the Black Isle to Chanonry Point for a sea watch. Kittiwake, fulmar, guillemot, razorbill, cormorant, common tern and red-throated diver were seen and an inquisitive common seal popped up occasionally to keep an eye on us. Like on the previous Saturday dolphins could be seen far out to sea but didn’t come into the bay by the time we had to leave to walk along the beach to Rosemarkie where we had lunch sitting on the sea wall.

Our treat for the afternoon was a boat trip, courtesy of Ecoventures at Cromarty. Getting changed into the protective overalls was a struggle for some but eventually we were heading down to the harbour. The boat was unlike any I have ever been on before. Rather than sit on bench seats around the sides we all sat down the middle on high seats, rather like riding a horse. It was very comfortable and gave excellent all-round visibility. First of all we headed into the middle of Cromarty Bay and before long the dolphins were swimming alongside the boat giving really tremendous views. In fact they were too close to get photos with my fixed 300mm lens! After 10-15 minutes with the dolphins we now headed towards North Sutor, a small cliff on the headland opposite Cromarty where there is a seabird colony. The boat was allowed to drift giving excellent views of the birds on the sea and on the cliffs. There were guillemots, razorbills, shags, cormorants, kittiwakes, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and just one or two black guillemots. A common buzzard flew across the cliff-face and common and arctic terns, many carrying sand eels, flew past over the sea. Some harbour porpoises were seen here as well. Eider were seen on the approach back to Cromarty harbour.


On the way back to the Centre we stopped briefly at Udale Bay, a large expanse of sand and salt marsh on the Cromarty Firth where the RSPB has a reserve and hide. We had grey heron, wigeon, shelduck (with ducklings), curlew, and common gulls. Both in the morning and in the afternoon we had several sightings of red kite while driving across the Black Isle.

Next day we were off to visit another of the local glens, this time Strath Conon. At the first stop a red-breasted merganser with ducklings were seen on the river and a common buzzard soaring over the hills. Red deer are a speciality of the area, as most of the estates are hunting estates, so it was amazing to see so many of them in the fields by the side of the road like herds of cows. Difficult to believe that they were fully wild animals. Apparently the estates now feed the deer in wintertime, which is great for the deer but not so good for the local golden eagles since that means fewer carcases to scavenge on when times are hard. Further up the glen we stopped near the site of a golden eagle eyrie, where we had coffee while waiting. Before long we had spotted a golden eagle as it drifted along the ridge on the other side of the glen. It was being intermittently mobbed by a pair of ravens, which was useful since they provided a sense of scale. Although we saw no activity at the eyrie, other groups had seen eagles there in previous weeks.

Lunch was taken in the car park at the end of the road then we had a walk along the path by a loch. We had meadow pipit, pied wagtail, wood pigeon, sand martin, common sandpiper and oystercatcher. A lucky few managed to find a cuckoo. On the drive back down the glen we saw pheasant and a red-legged partridge that tried to commit suicide by flinging itself in front of the bus. These are not native locally but are bred and released on the estates for shooting. We stopped near Strathpeffer then went for a walk round a small loch known to hold slavonian grebes. There were 5 or 6 out on the loch and an enormous raft of male tufted ducks as well as little grebe and mute swan. While on the walk we had common buzzard, spotted flycatcher and some nice views of yellowhammer.


Wednesday was a free day. In the morning we took an optional ranger-guided walk down to the River Glass for some lessons on field craft. We visited an abandoned badger set and looked for signs of otter by the river, finding a few spraints. Later in the morning we had an opportunity to see the wild cats. One of the pairs had a kitten that gave the ranger a hard time, hissing and snarling. Focussing through the chicken wire of the enclosure was a photographer’s nightmare. We later spent some time in the forest bird hides. Jays were seen in the forest beyond but never came in to the feeders. The same was not true of the great spotted woodpeckers, which came really close in.

That evening was our opportunity to visit the quarry hide, the best one for pine martens. Earlier in the week other groups had been successful within minutes, having views of several martens including a female and young. On arrival the ranger baited the viewing area with a disgusting-looking mixture of peanuts in strawberry jam and we sat back and waited… and waited. By the end of our allotted time at 10pm all we had seen were a couple of chaffinches. The ranger suggested we give it another 10 minutes. At exactly 10.12pm (according to the time stamp on the first photo) a pine marten ran across in front of the hide and took the bait. Unfortunately for me the light was fading fast by now so I struggled to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Flash was not an option since we were behind glass windows. The pine marten searched around the branches and under the boulders where the bait was hidden for 10 minutes or so before disappearing off into the gloom. Not as good as I had hoped for but still good to see a pine marten for the first time. Badgers visit this hide as well but camera traps showed that they never appeared before midnight. An otter was caught on camera there one night.


Thursday was our long day out to the west coast at Wester Ross. First there was a brief stop at Rogie Falls where we witnessed some salmon leaping and a grey wagtail by the falls. We then stopped at Dundonnel to scan over the salt marsh and Little Loch Broom. We found ringed plover and oystercatcher on the marsh and red-throated diver on the loch. Further round at Gruinard bay were red-breasted merganser, eider, shag, black guillemot, and common sandpiper. Many common seals had hauled themselves out of the water and were balanced precariously on rocks. After lunch we walked along the lovely sandy beach at Mellon Udrigle; the sea here is a beautiful turquoise colour typical of many areas of the west coast. We had dunlin, redshank, curlew, ringed plover, rock pipit, meadow pipit, wheatear, stonechat, starling, and hooded crow. Gannets could be seen flying past out at sea. On the return journey we stopped by the shore of Loch Maree for afternoon tea, a lovely peaceful spot.

The last full day at Aigas was the only one when we were up early, out at 5am for an optional pre-breakfast otter hunt. We started off below the dam at the hydroelectric power station on the River Glass but without success. So we drove up to the Black Isle and stopped below the Kessock Bridge. Immediately we found a large dog otter foraging just a few yards offshore. On the return journey we followed the Beauly Firth north shore and found several whimbrel on the mudflats and a truly enormous gaggle (several hundred) of Canada geese.

The day’s field trip was spent on the coast of Easter Ross and Sutherland. First stop was at the hide at RSPB Nigg Bay reserve. Being mid-summer it was fairly quiet but we did see lapwing, oystercatcher, shelduck, grey heron, skylark, meadow pipit and hooded crow. On the way back to the bus we enjoyed excellent views of a common buzzard sat in a tree. We then drove north over the Dornoch Firth to Golspie to visit Loch Fleet where we had a pleasant walk though the forest to the hide on the northern side. This was a convenient spot for lunch as we watched the birds – oystercatcher, cormorant, curlew, herring gull, great black-backed gull, eider, hooded crow and swifts. Harbour seals could be seen hauled out on a sandbar in the distance.

Retracing our journey round Loch Fleet we stopped at an area known as The Mound, where there is a fresh water pool on one side of the road and sea loch on the other. We could see an osprey eyrie in the distance but unfortunately no bird. The freshwater pool held a lot of birds, including red-breasted merganser with ducklings and lots of waders such as curlew, godwits and greenshank. As we carried on to the south side of Loch Fleet we now had much better views of eider and red-breasted merganser, and the seals on the sandbar.

Speaking to the other guests revealed that they had been successful finding a lot more wildlife during the week. Brown hares had been seen hopping round the grounds in the morning, red squirrels were occasionally seen raiding the feeders, crossbills and crested tits were seen in the forest, and blackcaps in the garden. One guest claimed to have seen a green woodpecker. Some guests had seen pine martins at the forest hide and the other group had a brief sighting of white-tailed eagle on their west coast trip. As usual with birdwatching it was a case of having some luck and being in the right place at the right time. On Saturday morning we had breakfast, said our goodbyes and set off on the long drive home.

I have added a short gallery of photos below. Click on the first photo to activate the slideshow.

For a more comprehensive set of photos from the holiday go to http://picasaweb.google.com/rgdmac


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