Monday 27 May 2024

The Best of Scotland; June 9-17 2023

As we prepare to embark on another trip to the Cairngorms region of Scotland, I thought that I'd finally complete my review of last years holiday. Hopefully we will reunite with all of the special birds of the area this year.

Friday 9th June; Cumbria & Northumberland!

This day was blogged and you can read it here. Coquet Island and its Roseate Terns starring amongst many other good birds, and dolphins.

Roseate Tern

Year List additions;

237) Common Rosefinch, 238) Puffin, 239) Guillemot, 240) Fulmar, 241) Roseate Tern

 Saturday 10th June; Northumberland

As was this one! Hurray! Read it here. This one featuring the fabulous American Black Tern at Long Nanny.

American Black Tern

Year List additions;

242) Little Tern, 243) American Black Tern, 244) Quail

Sunday 11th June; Aberdeenshire & Moray Coasts

This one detailing a wild thunderstorm, Ospreys, and some smart Wading Birds is here.


Year List addition;

245) Little Stint

Monday 12th June; Dunnet

The last day that I actually kept up to date, apart from a few selected excursions later in the year. A frustrating day which ended with a lifer in the bag! Read it here.

Red-throated Diver

Year List additions;

246) Razorbill, 247) Hooded Crow, 248) Rock Dove, 249) White-billed Diver***

Tuesday 13th June; Lochindorb & The Ythan Estuary

day that began slowly with a saunter around Lochindorb in the morning. Lochindorb is slowly being ruined by the hordes of "other" tourists that are attracted by the free overnight parking and the unlicensed canoe access to the loch. There is a famous rare breeding bird on Lochindorb that somehow manages to raise chicks successfully in most years. On this day the parents were escorting their two chicks on the serene waters, the adult female keeping check while the male caught small fish for the fluffy youngsters to eat.

Black-throated Diver

The Black-throats were joined on the loch by an adult Red-throated Diver which didn't quite play ball and certainly wasn't curious like the young one at Dunnet Bay the day before.

Red-throated Diver

Using a car as a mobile hide allows for close views of some of the breeding wading birds too. The Common Sandpipers make good use of rocks, both natural and man-made piles of them, from which to scold anyone or anything that threatens their space. My photo below of the bird on the pile of rocks was printed by Birdwatching magazine later in the year. The oyster shaped rock is a favoured perch and has featured in many a shot of birds on Lochindorb.

Common Sandpiper

Redshanks stand atop fence posts and noisily scream insults at you as you drive past. The chick shown at the top of this piece was taken at Lochindorb on the Sunday before. The parents keep their chicks well marshalled and deter any predators that get too close.


The day's proceeding accelerated somewhat when a King Eider was reported at the traditional hotspot for them, the Ythan Estuary on the Aberdeenshire coast. It was absent on Sunday when we'd travelled over to the coast, so on another warm and sunny day it was a rather tedious drive back there again. But at least we were able to catch up with the "Son of Elvis" this time, and very dandy he looked too. The Eiders, and the King Eider, feed on a falling tide, and give excellent views as they swim in the channel close to shore.

We also had the opportunity to see Eiders up close and to watch a few terns, mostly Arctics, fishing. The only disappointment was that we didn't see any Little Terns on this visit.

Eider (female)

Eider (male)

Goosander (female)

Arctic Tern

Year List additions;

250) Black-throated Diver, 251) King Eider

Wednesday 14th June; Cairngorm Mountain

No holiday to the Cairngorm Mountains would be complete without a walk up Cairngorm Mountain. Or a similar peak in the area. With just a week for the trip this time we headed up the Windy Ridge path to the summit for as quick a fix as we could get of the special birds that thrive where very little else can. Birds are few and far between up on the tops and there isn't much to see on the way up either, bar Meadow Pipits and the odd Wheatear or Red Grouse. In June you have to get almost to the summit to find Ptarmigan, the mountain chickens, that spend their whole lives up on the mountain, only traversing onto the lower slopes during the harshest winter weather. They are masters of camouflage too, and can take some spotting if not moving. Luckily Mrs Caley found one, a female, and I added a male that was surprisingly just feet away but I didn't "find" it for another ten minutes such was its skill at blending in.


The only sighting of a Dotterel we had was of a female flying over. Thankfully it was calling and thus alerted me to its presence. Unfortunately this time I didn't even have a chance to photograph it. Dotterel are my favourite species of wading bird and I love seeing them. Sadly numbers seem to be declining and this was our only opportunity on this shorter than usual trip to go up a mountain in search of them.

Snow Buntings breed amongst the rocks of the cairn and the weather station right on the top of Cairngorm, over four thousand feet above sea level. They are incredibly hardy little birds, sticking it out in the sparsest of habitats and a far cry from the coastal beaches and clifftops that they frequent in winter. They are happy to pick up picnic crumbs left by walkers and even happier to share sandwiches with excited birders.

Snow Bunting

We only encountered nine species on the mountain walk, and that's about par. I think our best was a heady thirteen when I found a pair of Purple Sandpipers up there as well as a Golden Eagle that soared overhead. But we still look forward to dragging ourselves up the hill every summer. The day will come when we won't be able to. We'll certainly miss it then.

Luckily the funicular railway was actually up and running (down in our case) so we were able to spare our aching limbs and my dodgy knees and let the train take the strain. It meant that we could relax and drink a beverage or two in the Ptarmigan restaurant bar before descending, refreshed for a change.

Year List additions;

252) Ptarmigan, 253) Dotterel

Thursday 15th June; Isle of Skye

We know of a place where the ultra rare Slavonian Grebes breed. We are sworn to secrecy about the site and keep the location to ourselves and to the other small group of people who are in the know. There are other more publicised sites where you can see these fabulous birds. The site is observed from a public path so there is no concerns about intruding or of breaking the law. We even sit on a bench that overlooks the small lake and admire the Grebes as they go about their business. This time one of the pairs had two humbug striped youngsters in tow. The chicks often hitched a ride on the back of the adult female, something I'd never seen before.

Slavonian Grebe

We stayed for a while, soaking up the early morning sun and enjoying the birds that live on the loch. Tufted Ducks were cavorting while Swallows swept in to take a drink. There were three pairs of Slavonian Grebes in total and a Little Grebe too. It was bliss.

Little Grebe

Mute Swan

Tufted Duck

Our ultimate destination for the day was the Isle of Skye. We had two objectives, one to see White-tailed Eagles up close by taking a trip aboard one of the "Eagle" boats, and secondly to look for Great Skuas since we'd missed out on them at Dunnet earlier in the week. Skye is a tourist magnet and the road to Staffin where I knew there was a loch where Bonxies go to bathe, was predictably packed with camper vans, cars, and motorcycles. Luckily most of the visitors were headed to the Quirang, the weird jumble of jagged peaks that have found themselves the location for many films and dramas as well as jigsaw puzzles. We walked it when we holidayed on Skye in 2016 but have never yearned to revisit. To my eyes, if you've seen one funny shaped rock then you've seen them all. As we pulled up to Loch Mealt I was delighted to see a couple of Great Skuas exactly where I expected to see them. There were two more loafing in the tranquil waters of the bay in the lee of Staffin Island.

Great Skua

We were booked on a boat at four o'clock from Portree harbour. As usual we were early so after a coffee we sat by the harbour and watched a fine looking Hooded Crow scavenging chips from outside a local takeaway. The Crow bossed the local Gulls around, which I found slightly surprising.

Hooded Crow

The boat trip was fantastic with two pairs of the White-tailed Eagles seen in different parts of the bay. I could have taken thousands of photos, but I would have just messed more up than I managed too anyway. Stupidly, I forgot to pan out a little when the Eagles dropped down to take the fish offered so I ended up only capturing parts of the birds because they are so big! I'll learn though and hopefully do better next time.

White-tailed Eagle

In between bouts of hunting and opportunistic fishing, and in keeping with most large birds of prey, Eagles like to perch on trees or rocks and conserve energy. They appear to have a charmed lifestyle but of course, nothing is that easy when meals are often hard to come by. That's where the tourist boats are more than just useful. The free offerings help the Eagles to survive and also provide food for hungry chicks.

The White-tailed Eagles were also prone to soar above the boats while checking out the offerings. They attracted the attention of many Gulls that buzzed around. The size difference was immense. When we stayed on Skye in 2016, we used to sit outside the Stein pub on the Waternish peninsula with a drink and watch a White-tailed Eagle fly past. It always passed the pub at four-thirty in the afternoon, or thereabouts, and always had a Hooded Crow for an escort. Large birds always fire up the ire in smaller birds.

There were other creatures in and around the bay. Seals and Dolphins in the water, Herons and Deer on the islands (the latter swim across the bay to reach the lush grasses on them). But it was the Eagles that brought us to Portree and as we sailed back into port, I was already looking forward to a return next year.

Bottlenose Dolphins

Common Seal

We ended our time on Skye with a superb curry at Kyle of Lochalsh.

Year List additions;

254) Slavonian Grebe, 255) Great Skua, 256) White-tailed Eagle

Friday 16th June; North Coast & Forsinard

Our last scheduled day on this holiday and we were fairly clueless as to what to do. We spent the first few hours deliberating where to go. We had planned to stay over somewhere on our way home the following day but I realised that considering this holiday was for just a week that we may as well stay in the Highlands for another day and then drive home on Sunday. I quickly checked the availability of the cottage, it was free, so called the owners and five minutes later we had our extra day arranged. Now we could exert ourselves once more and go and see something good. Of course, my plans were already formulated, all I had to do now was convince Mrs Caley that another drive to the north coast was a good idea! We had done one trip north, to Dunnet, already earlier in the week. Now I wanted to do another because just a mile away from where we ate an ice-cream on Monday, an Icterine Warbler had been found just a day later. Why these birds don't get flagged up when I'm in the area or why I can't find them is annoying but at least we had another chance to see one.

We didn't arrive at Strathy until three o'clock in the afternoon. It was another blistering hot day as well but the drive north had been mostly on empty roads despite a large section of it being on part of the ridiculous and largely unwanted NC500 route. There were as expected no other birders around, you very rarely meet anyone else with the sane designs as us in such remote parts of Scotland. We found the right area to view from and listened. It didn't take long before we heard the excited jumble of notes that make up an Icterine Warbler song, emanating from a small black of rowan trees about thirty metres away from where we stood. Seeing the bird took a bit longer but it did briefly perch out on a restraining hawser to a telegraph pole. Otherwise the warbler was extremely elusive and we only had a couple of brief flight views over the next hour or so. It was only the third Icterine Warbler that we'd seen, all of them in the north of Scotland.

Icterine Warbler

We drove back south by taking the Forsinard route, hoping for a repeat of the amazing Hen Harrier encounter we had some years ago. We didn't see any harriers but did have the privilege of watching a couple of Golden Eagles as they drifted high away over the hills. A huge herd of Red Deer crossing the road ahead provided some fun entertainment especially as they had to hurdle a fence first. Jumping a clear four feet is effortless for the sprightly animals.

Red Deer

Year List additions;

257) Icterine Warbler, 258) Golden Eagle

Saturday 17th June; Pine Forest & Strathdearn

Having added the extra day to our holiday, I spent the first part of my birthday by visiting an area of pine forest where we have had success with the special birds of that habitat before. Not all of them though, despite finding many Capercaillie droppings on the paths, we once again failed to find any of the actual birds. It's a long time since we had the thrill of watching a Capercaillie and with numbers of them now very low, it may be a while longer yet until we do.

We still needed to see a Crested Tit for our trip and year lists and it didn't take long to find a family group foraging in the canopy. Even though it was another lovely fine day, I struggled to gain any decent photos of them since they were just too active. 

Crested Tit

We saw Crossbills as well, including a couple of good candidates for Parrot Crossbills, the deeper calls fitting well for that species, as well as the obvious field-marks such as larger bill and head, and more bullish looking structure. It was only the Common variety that posed at the top of trees though. Other woodland birds were available of course.

Common Crossbill


Tree Pipit


The afternoon was spent, firstly taking a fine cake and coffee experience at Tomatin, and then by taking a drive up the Findhorn Valley, known locally as Strathdearn. We were just winding down really, preparing for the long drive home the next day.

As soon as we'd parked at the head of the valley, we saw a pair of Peregrines. We were alerted to the male calling loudly high above the northern ridge. He flew purposefully across the valley towards where we know there's a traditional nest site. The male was met by the female and they met high above us for the male to pass on some prey intended for the chick. The size disparity between the sexes was very noticeable, the female being much larger. Once she had the prey item, she flew back to the eyrie and fed her chick, a big white fluffy ball just about visible from the half mile distance that we were at.

Peregrine Falcon

We drove back slowly, scanning both sides of the valley as we went. Around a bend we spotted an Osprey perched in a tree just metres from the road. As they always do, as soon as we stopped to admire, it took off and flew across the valley. Luckily though it doubled back and flew alongside us as it headed back up the valley. A fitting finale to a decent weeks birding.

The following day we'd drive home. For a well earned rest!

Year List additions;

259) Crested Tit, 260) Parrot Crossbill

No comments:

Post a Comment