Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A weekend birding around Scotland and, erm, Suffolk - early May 2013

Icebow over Loch Garten, Abernethy, Highland, Scotland - Saturday 4th May 2013

It's May, and so it's time for my annual Spring birding trip to Scotland. I started on the afternoon of Thursday 2nd May, with some birding from the train between Leeds and Stirling. 24 species seen in all, including Red Kite between Leeds and York and nesting Kittiwakes on the Tyne Bridge. Not too shabby, but I reckon I can beat that next time.

5am on Friday morning and we’re already watching three male Black Grouse lekking. Not a bad start. We made our way to Loch of the Lowes nature reserve, picking up Raven, Common Sandpiper, Red Kite, Red Grouse and a pair of showy Yellowhammer on route. From the reserve tower hide, I could just make out the head of the Osprey sitting in the nest – we’d get some much better views. The highlight here was the gorgeous male Wood Warbler singing away by the car park. I could never tire of hearing that song.

We were picking up more birds as we went through the Cairngorms and up to Portsoy on the north coast of Aberdeenshire. We sea-watched from the harbour, soon picking up an adult summer-plumaged WHITE-BILLED DIVER, a lifer for me. A really dramatic looking bird, the plumage closely resembles the Great Northern Diver, but the huge bone-coloured bill, held at an angle resembling the smaller, slimmer Red-throated Diver, was a dead giveaway. Nearby was an adult Great Northern Diver, allowing for a nice comparison. Also present (at least, what I saw) out at sea were Puffin, Guillemot, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Gannet, Common Scoter, Cormorant, Shag, Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull, while three Sandwich Terns flew east. A few Bottle-nosed Dolphins were close in. The rocks below the harbour had Rock Pipit and Eider. Further west at Sandend we got great views of an adult male Long-tailed Duck.

We headed for Grantown-on-Spey for the night, first calling in a Avielochan for views of breeding Slavonian Grebe. The most talked about bird here was my House Martin among the Sand Martin flock, which no one else got on to and which led to me being branded a stringer! We returned the following evening, allowing me to pick out the HM again and make sure everyone saw it. Jeez.

 Slavonian Grebe, Aviemore - Friday 3rd May 2013

After a disastrous attempt at having a meal in the local Chinese (only about half the food we ordered actually arrived, meanwhile we got ever more drunk…), it was suddenly 5am Saturday morning, and we out birding again.

We trailed around Abernethy forest and the Loch Garten area getting some lovely views of the Crested Tit (and Red Squirrel) on feeders. Apparently, they don’t usually come to feeders during the breeding season, but the cold spring has meant their usual diet of seeds and nuts is in short supply. This explains why we could find any Crossbills (of any flavour), due the poor cone crop.

But, none of this matters when you come across views of Capercaillie like this…

 Capercaillie, Abernethy Forest, - Saturday 4th May 2013

 This male was seen from the roadside, about 50 metres away. When we drove by later, it was around 10 metres from the road!

While we were at Loch Garten, looking at a fantastic Osprey stood by its nest, none other than Mr Osprey himself, Roy Dennis, pointed out an icebow right over my head (picture at top).

One of the highlights of the trip was seeing two summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver on Loch Morlich – awesome. They have just the most beautiful plumage. No hanging around though - we were soon halfway up Ben Macdui watching cracking summer-plumged Ptarmigan at close range. Well, I was watching them – someone who will remain nameless flushed them over the ridge before the rest of our lot got to the site. No sure he should ever have bought a camera…

A lovely pair of Ring Ouzel in the car park and a male Snow Bunting and we were off. The day ended with another Osprey, many more Crested Tits and Slavonian Grebes, and a cracking male Redstart. Birding around here is a dream…

Someone’s got a beef with Heatherlea...

Sunday 5th May started at the more reasonable hour of 06:00. A female Capercaillie by the roadside on route to Tulloch Moor was nice. Tree Pipit, more distant Black Grouse, and my first Cuckoo of the year was a good haul before breakfast.

We parked up at the top end of Findhorn Valley and soon picked out a Merlin chasing a Kestrel low over the ground high up the hillside. Another Ring Ouzel was here too. The weather here was lovely and sunny, but very windy. Surprisingly there were some raptors up, though distant: three Golden Eagles, a Buzzard, and half a dozen Kestrels, plus a few Ravens.

Travelling through Nairn I got my only Hooded Crow of the trip – we didn’t travel far enough west to get lots of these. We headed for the east coast to get the much sought after male King Eider at Ythan Estuary. After starting at the bridge (too far upstream) and getting some good views of Whimbrel, Red-breasted Merganser and Long-tailed Duck, we headed down to the seal colony. And there is was, the stunning drake sat with the Common Eiders – my best views of this bird.

King Eider, Ythan Estuary, Newburgh, Aberdeenshire - Sunday 5th May 2013

We ended the night much further south at Mussleburgh, after calling in on the drake Blue-winged Teal in Clyde – again, my best views ever of this bird.

Monday morning we started early with Surf Scoter out among the Velvets on the Forth. Distant, but relatively easy to pick out the ID features. We all needed to end the day further south to get home, so we were soon heading to Northumberland where some good birds had been reported. Most of them had gone to ground when we got there, but watching Arctic Terns on Coquet Island and a nice drake Green-winged Teal at Ashlington were worth it.

We carried on south (actually, a bit too far south for me!), and spent some time watching seven Dotterel through the heat haze in Nottinghamshire. A Red-footed Falcon and Purple Heron were at Lakenheath Fen, so we decided to end our trip there. As you’d expect if you’ve ever visited this reserve, the Purple Heron was going to be very difficult to pick out from the deep, dense reed beds - and so it was. We concentrated on the Red-foot, which put on a great show in the end – a real stunner, but impossible to digiscope.

 Lakenheath Fen RSPB, Suffolk - Monday 6th May 2013

So, another slightly mad trip. Here’s to the next one … at the end of the month.


  1. Sounds like a cracking trip Nick, might have to join you on that one next time!

  2. Just come across Heatherlea in my latest RSPB magazine, its a Scottish Wildlife tour group!

  3. I think the sign was intended to warn them off from entering the woods (or at least telling them to stick to the paths). No need to go wandering off-piste in those woods when you can watch Capercaillies at Loch Garten RSPB, or from the roadside nearby.