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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Being based at the splendid Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on Spey made for an excellent base to explore the varied habitats the Scottish Highlands has to offer. The weather forecast was mixed and the week’s itinerary was partly designed to maximise birdwatching opportunities. The arrival of spring migrants was slightly later than usual but the group managed to get most of the target bird species. Nocturnal mammal watching from a wildlife hide was a major highlight of the tour.


Day 1: The small group chose to arrive in the late afternoon and to meet in the early evening to discuss the itinerary and agree target species.

Day 2: The first full day of the tour was spent on the east coast primarily looking for seabirds and migrant passerines. The iconic lighthouse at Tarbat Ness provided the backdrop for the first part of the day. Several Black Guillemot were seen close to the coast and there was a small movement of a range of seabirds offshore. Gorse scrub and bushes are an important habitat here and the site was a good introduction to some common passerines including Stonechat, Linnet, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, House Martin and Swallow. The group were very keen to see a range of seaduck and the next stop was a short 10-minute drive to the coastal village of Porthmahomack. The flat calm sea gave excellent views of Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Eider and a Great Northern Diver in cracking breeding plumage. After a short comfort break we headed to the nearby RSPB reserve at Udale Bay to look for shorebirds on the rising tide. The birding was unusually quiet with some late wintering Pink-footed Geese the highlight along with a feeding Osprey. Shorebird diversity was poor but we spent time looking at the Northern Lapwings and Oystercatcher which were foraging very close to the viewing area. Our final location for the day was Alturlie Pools near Inverness airport. The strong wind made birding tricky but we did get good views of Whimbrel as well as a wide variety of typical common species.

Day 3:  One of the highlights of any tour to Scotland is watching a Black Grouse lek, and to maximise our chance of good display we made a pre-breakfast visit to a nearby site. As the mist cleared we were treated to excellent views of 7 lekking males with their bubbling calls also clearly audible. We returned to the hotel for a well-earned breakfast, before making a short walk to the River Spey via the edge of Anagach Wood. We got excellent views of Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Common Sandpiper, as well as spending several minutes watching adult Treecreepers repeatedly flying to a nest. Goldeneyes were also observed returning to a nest box, and we had good views of other common species such as Siskin, Blackcap, Bullfinch and Goldcrest.

Weather conditions were ideal for the early afternoon raptor watching visit to the Findhorn Valley. We did get excellent views of a Golden Eagle being mobbed by a Peregrine from the car park area. Despite the conditions we also added Buzzard, Red Kite, and Kestrel to the list of raptors seen. A walk along the valley resulted in a brief burst of song from a recently returned Ring Ouzel song and a brief display flight of a Tree Pipit. After a long day in the field our evening meal back at the hotel was well deserved!

Day 4: After the long day yesterday we took a later breakfast before heading to the nearby Caledonian Pine Forest areas around Loch Garten and Mallachie. Here we heard Crossbills flying overhead and got brief views of Redstart and Tree Pipit, as well as singing birds in the distance. Sticking to main forest trails we explored the surrounding pine forest but we didn’t get any views of the increasingly rare Capercaillie, although we did get excellent views of several Crossbills perched on top of lone Scots Pines.

In the afternoon we drove to Loch Ruthven, eating our packed lunches en route. Here we had stunning views of at least 3 Slavonian (Horned) Grebes and a Little Grebe, as well as good views of a pair of Red-throated Divers in full breeding plumage. We returned to the hotel for an early evening meal before taking a short walk where we observed roding Woodcock and heard several Tawny Owls hooting nearby.

Day 5: We made another early start this time to secure good views of Ring Ouzel at Cairngorm Mountain Railway car park, where a male and female were very obliging and gave excellent views, with several bursts of song. Ravens ‘cronked’ overhead. We then took a short drive to Craigellachie NNR woodland (in Aviemore) to look for woodland passerines. Migration has been late this year but we did get brief (and good) views of Wood Warbler and Tree Pipit. We returned to the hotel for a relaxing late breakfast. After a short break we headed out to Loch Spynie with the target species being a range of the more common passerines. Here we got great views of a range of passerines on the feeders, including Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer. Two Red Squirrel were also seen on the feeders. On the Loch we got good views of Great-crested Grebe and Common Tern. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a location where Black-throated Diver had been recently seen. Here we were rewarded with views of an individual in full breeding plumage at a distance of less than 40m from the side of the road.

We returned to the hotel by mid-afternoon for a rest and an early evening meal prior to heading out to a local wildlife watching hide for nocturnal mammals. The viewing was outstanding with prolonged views of a single Pine Marten and up to 7 Eurasian Badgers. A fantastic end to a long but rewarding day.

Day 6: After the previous late night we took a leisurely breakfast and influenced by the early morning poor weather conditions inland we decided to head out to the coast. Some seawatching at Burghead Bay resulted in good views of both Great-northern and Black-throated Divers. We then drove a short distance to Spey Bay to look for more shorebirds and seabirds. Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Turnstone were all recorded, and there were Kittiwake, Gannet and auks moving off shore. As the weather began to clear we moved back inland to search for our final target species of the trip – Crested Tit. At Loch Mallachie we were rewarded with good views of a pair visiting a probable nesting site. This rounded off an excellent trip searching for the wonderful wildlife of the Scottish Highlands.

Day 7: A post-breakfast departure. Overall, we recorded 110 different bird species as well as fabulous views of several terrestrial mammal species.

                                                                                                                                                                           -          Rob Sheldon

Created: 03 October 2022