Highland Winter Birding

I have visited the Scottish Highlands many times but always in the summer months. I have never visited the area in winter. In early March I had the opportunity to do so – here are the highlights.

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We were based in Nethy Bridge, on the edge of the Abernethy forest. First morning before breakfast we set off round the forest roads to look for capercaillie. We weren’t successful that first morning but later in the week we had a magnificent male specimen sitting in a tree on the edge of a forest glade. This fulfilled one of my main ambitions –I had never seen a male capercaillie in Scotland. On that first morning we then headed up to the moors above Nethy Bridge and soon had a dozen or so black grouse gathered at a lek. Although distant, their white tails were clearly visible as they postured for the best position. All too soon they disappeared and several were seen flying past into the forest. We also had several red grouse literally by the side of the road for really close views. Finally, on the way back for breakfast we stopped at some garden feeders in the village to see siskins and lesser redpolls.

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After breakfast we visited the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten. The main hide is closed for winter but there was a lot of activity in the car park as visitors continue to feed the birds. There were many chaffinch, coal tit, great tit, and blue tit. We also attracted in a crested tit that circled round the car park. Crossbills were heard calling overhead. Down in the Spey valley we had goldeneye, tufted duck, wigeon, golden plover, whooper swans and buzzard.

For the afternoon we headed north to Strathdearn (aka Findhorn Valley). This area is renowned for its golden eagles and we were not disappointed. We enjoyed multiple sightings of these magnificent birds as they soared over the mountain tops and along the ridges. There were buzzards and ravens present also, so this was a good opportunity to compare the relative shapes and sizes of the birds. We also had a pair of peregrines dive-bombing anything that entered their territory. The snow was confined to the mountain tops, which made the many mountain hares present on the lower slopes, respendent in their white winter fur, stand out rather obviously. They were amazingly approachable, unlike their brown cousins which were also present but much less visible. Several herds of wild goats were grazing by the roadside and red deer on the mountain tops. On the valley floor were large flocks of golden plover and fieldfares, while dippers were seen on the river.

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As part of the holiday we spent a day birding up the north-eastern coast as we travelled to Thurso for an overnight stay. Just outside Inverness we had several eurasian white-fronted geese in with a flock of greylags, and there were enormous flocks of common gulls, several hundred strong, on the fields. Here we started seeing our first hooded crows and we had several tree sparrows on a garden feeder. Red Kites were seen in the air as we passed through the Black Isle. A stop at Tain on the Dornoch Firth produced really prodigious numbers of wildfowl and waders with slavonian grebe, red-breasted merganser, pintail, wigeon, goldeneye, shelduck, teal, curlew redshank, and oystercatcher. There were redwings in the park.

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Our next stops further north at Embo and Golspie gave us what we were really after- large rafts of long-tailed ducks, common scoter and eider on the sea. They were quite close in, giving really good views. The male long-tailed ducks were magnificent in their black and white plumage and the long tail streamers really stood out. There were also guillemot, razorbills and shags on the sea while ringed plover, turnstones, purple sandpiper, curlew and bar-tailed godwit were on the shore. At Latheronwheel harbour we had fulmar on the cliffs and our first black guillemots on the sea. It was starting to get a little bit dark by the time we arrived in Thurso but we managed to get a great northern diver in Thurso Bay. A passing shower produced a nice rainbow over the sea then we were treated to a magnificent red sunset as the light faded.

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Next morning we were down at Scrabster harbour looking for white winged gulls. We learned to look for their translucent wings as they flew overhead and soon had bagged several Iceland Gulls. Later when they settled on the sea we had nice views of a pure white juvenile and a slightly greyer adult so we could compare their lack of black-wing tips with the many herring gulls. Also in Scrabster harbour we had a great northern diver. It’s only a small harbour so this diver was only 50 feet away at times giving really superb views. Just a pity it was in its drab winter plumage. Later on at another small harbour at Castletown we had another great northern diver even closer still. There were also many black-throated and red-throated divers here as well but further out in the bay. We spent the rest of the day birding around the John O’Groats area, finding a nice flock of Greenland white-fronted geese, before the long drive back to Nethy Bridge.

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One part of the holiday that I was really looking forward to was a visit to the ski slopes on Cairngorm and it didn’t disappoint. The snow cover extended to just below the main car park for the Mountain Railway and ski lifts, and at some places on the road up the snow drifts towered over the top of the minibus. We first positioned ourselves on the balcony behind the station to scan the mountain sides and had some distant views of ptarmigan flying up the slope. Some of us decided to go a bit higher up so we followed a path beside the ski runs. It was tricky going because of the snow but well worth it. First sightings were of several red grouse. Some were wandering over the ski runs forcing the skiers to swerve to avoid them! Mountain hares were present here also, looking a bit more at home than those previously seen in Strathdearn.

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By now the guttural calls of ptarmigan could be heard and we soon found several groups of the birds by the side of the path only a few hundred yards beyond the station. Because it was in a valley this area couldn’t be seen from the station balcony. Seeing ptarmigans in their white winter plumage on the snow has been an ambition of mine for a long time. The ptarmigan were quite close to the path but when I decided to go off-path to get closer I was soon knee deep in the snow and soon gave that up as a bad idea. A flock of a dozen or so snow buntings were flying around the car park. They could be lured in with some seed allowing really close views. We also managed to find some reindeer on the slopes.

We spent some time touring the Spey valley. At several places we had large finch flocks of chaffinches and bramblings on the stubble fields. There were also a large number of greylag and pink-footed geese. Golden plover were seen frequently and occasional roe deer and red deer. Goldcrest and crested tit were seen again in the forest and we had further golden eagle sightings near Carrbridge.

We also spent a days out along the Moray Firth primarily looking for seabirds and waders. We found pale-bellied brent geese near Nairn, as well as further black-throated diver, common scoter and red-breasted merganser. At Findhorn we also found our first velvet scoter and many more long-tailed duck. A juvenile long-tailed duck was in the harbour at Burghead giving really close views while we found more snow buntings on the shore at Lossiemouth. Razorbill, guillemot, red-throated diver, goldeneye, eider, scaup, wigeon, cormorant, ringed plover, dunlin, curlew, redshanks, knot and bar-tailed godwits were seen. Inland there were flocks of fieldfare and redwings and we even managed a jay! Finally to end the day, we had a female smew on Loch-na-bo.

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The guides were well aware of the rarities in the area so we did a bit of twitching as well. We had American coot on Loch Flemington, American wigeon at Udale Bay, and lesser scaup on Loch Watten while up in Caithness. The one we missed was ring-billed gull. Despite throwing about a loaf of bread into the pond in Dingwall and seemingly attracting in most of the other gulls for miles around, it didn’t show. However 3 out of 4 “Yanks” wasn’t bad.

We even picked up wildlife at the hotel. A red squirrel would come in to feed on the peanuts in the garden feeder at the hotel and it was a pleasure to watch it get its breakfast while we had ours. One guest even saw a pine marten in the garden early one morning. And for those who fancied an early morning pre-breakfast stroll there were usually dippers on the river just down the road.

The group total was 122 bird species and 12 mammal species for the week. I won’t be making the mistake of neglecting the Scottish Highlands in winter again.

If you would like to see more photos from this holiday then please click here to visit my gallery.

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