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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

Day 1 (20th April): The tour began with pickups in Inverness. As check-in at the Grant Arms isn’t until early afternoon, we did some birding en route. We arrived at Loch Spynie RSPB reserve at 10:45 and spent a relaxing couple of hours checking birds on the feeders in the car park area and spent time in the hide scanning the open water. The feeders gave some excellent views of common, yet new birds for all the group. A few migrant passerines had arrived and were in full song – Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap. We were especially pleased to see Yellowhammers in full breeding plumage.

We arrived at the hotel by 3pm and took a few hours to rest and freshen up before meeting at 5pm for an introduction to the week.

Day 2 (21st April): We had an early breakfast (7am) so we could get out to the coast in good time, the weather forecast and tide times being ideal. The first stop was Tarbat Ness lighthouse where we would get our first taste of seabirds and it is also a migrant hotspot. Unfortunately, the prevailing winds for much of the previous week had been from the north and passerine migration was yet to really get underway, although we had our first views of hirundines (Barn Swallow and House Martins). We had excellent views of some common species, which were all new for the group, such as Reed Bunting, Linnet and Meadow Pipit. We took a short walk out to the point to scan for seabirds, although there was little movement off-shore, but we did get good views of Shag and Cormorant allowing for comparisons of these similar species. A few Re-throated Divers were distant, and we did get to observe Gannets feeding.

We took a short drive back to the village of Pothmahamock for a comfort break as well as to check the bay for flocks of wintering sea-duck. There were small numbers of Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Common Scoter, as well as our first Ruddy Turnstones – a species the group were familiar with.

Our next stop destination was the RSPB reserve at Udale Bay, which can provide close views of a wide range of species on a high tide. Our arrival was perfectly timed with the tide almost at its highest as we arrived. Wintering Pink-footed Geese were still around in good numbers as were Eurasian Wigeon. Eurasian Oystercatcher was the most numerous shorebird. We drove a short distance to the viewing area east of Jemmimaville to scan for the wintering flock of Greater Scaup which were close to the shoreline.

We returned to the hotel by 17:30 for an early dinner. Most of the participants met at 20:30 to take a short walk from the hotel to the Old Railway Bridge to watch Eurasian Woodcock emerge at dusk. Three individuals were observed doing short roding displays. On the way back to the hotel a Tawny Owl could be heard hooting in the distance, and a Common Snipe was drumming over a small patch of wetland. An excellent end to the first full day.

Day 3 (22nd April): An early pre-breakfast start (5:30am) for lekking Black Grouse was the first target of the day. At the first lek we got good views of at least 5 males and a very brief view of a female, and we spent about 25 minutes watching this group. There was a cold wind from the east which kept the temperatures in single figures, so decided to carry on to Lochindorb. Here we got fabulous views of several Red Grouse close to the vehicle which were also calling. All the group got brief views of a Greenshank in breeding plumage, a local rarity, before it flew off north. The main target here was a breeding pair of Black-throated Diver which we got good views, albeit distant. In the moorland surrounding the loch we got our first views of Roe Deer, as well as a Mountain Hare that was still transitioning from its white winter coat. The biting wind kept us on the move, and we headed back to the hotel via another Black Grouse lek where we observed another 8 males, the bubbling calls also audible. We then headed back to the hotel for a well-earned breakfast and plenty of hot coffee!

The weather forecast suggested that today was going to be the best (although still not ideal) conditions for raptor watching up the Findhorn Valley. A stop several miles before the valley head was productive with good views of Osprey, as well as our first Buzzards and Common Kestrels. Other typical species of this riverine habitat included Common Sandpiper, Grey Wagtail and a pair of Goosander. Continuing to the car park at the head of the valley, we parked up and took a short walk along the access track. The strong wind from the east kept the temperature down and made listening for singing passerines in the adjacent woodland virtually impossible. However, we did get really nice views of two pairs of Bullfinch. Only one distant Golden Eagle was seen. Good numbers of Red Deer, including some impressive stags, were on the valley slopes.

With the morning’s early start we decided to head back to the hotel to get some rest. Two of the group were keen to have another evening of Woodcock watching so we headed back to the Old Railway Bridge after dinner, and two birds were observed roding, and the Tawny Owl was again calling.

Day 4 (23rd April): The forecast was for light rain for much of the day with the best weather likely to be inland. The first stop of the day was the Two Lochs Trail at Loch Garten, this is usually a good place for Crested Tit, but we were unable to track one down. Light drizzle accompanied us for much of the stay, but we did get to hear a singing Common Redstart although it remained out of view. Plenty of Sand Martins were foraging low over Loch Mallachie, and a pair of Goldeneye were close by. A single Crossbill was heard ‘churping’ overhead but it wasn’t seen.

We then drove a short distance to Nethybridge to walk along the wooded river which provided some shelter from the constant drizzle. Lots of common birds were seen and the highlight was fabulous views of Dipper feeding intensively near a footbridge.

Most of the group were cold and wet so we decided to head back to the hotel to eat our packed lunches and get some hot drinks. With the forecast improving we then headed out to Loch Ruthven in the afternoon for one of our other target birds – the Slavonian Grebe. Loch Ruthven is one of the best places to look for these stunning birds and there are fewer than 50 pairs in the UK, all breeding in Scotland. There were at least seven birds present and we didn’t even have to take the short walk to the viewing hide as they were all showing well in a sheltered bay. The biggest surprise of the day was two Common Cranes flying low directly in front of us. I quickly put the news out on the local WhatsApp group and the birds were tracked heading east at various locations over the next 24-hours.

Despite the cold wind we agreed to drive up onto the nearby moorland and farmland to search for raptors, which unfortunately weren’t located, but most of the group did manage to get views of a small flock of c15 wintering Fieldfare. The majority of Fieldfares have migrated north by now, so this was a good sighting. We got back to the hotel at about 18:30 for a well-earned dinner and an early night.

Day 5 (24th April): The weather forecast was poor for all parts of the Highlands today. Heavy rain was forecast inland and strong winds for the coast. We decided to head for Spey Bay on the beautiful Moray coast and were greeted with a turbulent sea and winds that were difficult to stand up in, but at least it was dry! Despite the conditions the birding wasn’t too bad, with good views of Great Black-backed Gull and Common Tern. A walk along the river gave us good views of Grey Wagtail, Treecreeper and Robins – one of the most common birds in the UK, but greatly appreciated by the group. The rain set in and the cold winds led to us hitting the café for hot chocolates all round.

Although some of the group had already visited the nearby Loch Spynie we agreed to make a second visit there as we could take advantage of using the bird hide and viewing from the car if the rain continued. However, en route the skies cleared and we spent a good hour and a half watching a nice variety of waterbirds, including Little Grebe, Moorhen, Gadwall and Tufted Duck. On the feeders we were treated to nice views of Red Squirrel as well as Tree Sparrows.

After an early dinner we headed out for our pre-booked evening of mammal watching at the Speyside Wildlife near Aviemore. We got prolonged views of a group of at least seven badgers and several woodmice. Just as we were about to depart the hide, a Pine Marten appeared and spent about 35 minutes sat on the viewing platform – typically views last about 5 minutes so this was a particularly special evening. We didn’t get back to the hotel until after midnight so breakfast was pushed back until 8am.

Day 6 (25th April): With a long drive ahead of us tomorrow, today’s itinerary was to check local sites for some of the missing target species. Crested Tit was a must see and I had an early start before breakfast doing some reconnaissance at Loch Garten where a nesting pair had recently been observed – bird located, I headed back to the hotel for breakfast with the group.

The first location of the day was the Anagach Woodlands (another place for Crested Tit) and a short walk along the River Spey. Nice, albeit brief, views of Crested Tit were had by all the group. A pair of Great-spotted Woodpeckers were seen copulating.  Along the river we got more excellent views of Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper and Goldeneye. Two Red Squirrel were observed on the way back to the hotel. After a quick lunch and coffee break at the hotel we headed out to the Two Lochs Trail at Loch Garten to get further views of Crested Tit I’d located earlier in the morning – and they didn’t disappoint as we had prolonged views of them gathering nest material and returning to a location just a few metres from the track – everyone got excellent and prolonged views.

One species that was missing from our list of target species was Ring Ouzel, so we headed to the Cairngorm funicular railway car park. Late afternoons aren’t usually a good time to visit the car park area as disturbance has usually moved any birds on. However, with the funicular railway closed for repairs the number of visitors was much less than usual. Bingo!! – one of the group spotted a thrush-like bird perched on a fence post, and this turned out to be a female Ring Ouzel. A male Wheatear was also observed, and I heard and saw a Snow Bunting fly overhead and land a few hundred metres up the mountain-side. Despite spending time trying to relocate the Snow Bunting further views weren’t had. A good final day in the Cairngorms and Speyside area.

Day 7 (26th April): After an early breakfast we checked out of the Grant Arms and headed west to the Isle of Mull. The aim was to break up the long journey where possible and the first stop was at a roadside resting place to view an area of exposed sand/mud at the eastern end of Loch Laggan. On the mud were several Ringed Plover and Dunlin, and perched in some pine trees were several Crossbills which most of the group managed to see well. Just a short distance along the road was the Creag Meagidh NNR, a stunning location, with a variety of habitats from lowland scrub, mature woodland, heather moorland and high mountains. Getting up on to the mountain tops is a serious walk so we focused on the lower ground which is home to several birds we had yet to see. Tree Pipit were seen well, and we had brief views of Lesser Redpoll, lots of common birds such as Willow Warbler gave excellent views. We were constrained by time so left this wonderful place sooner than we would have wished.

The Corran ferry was closed for repairs and so our journey by road took us around the north edge of Loch Eil – a long but scenically stunning drive.

As we left the lochside road we headed over Clounlaid moorland which is a good location for raptors, especially eagles, so we had several stops along the road to scan for birds. We got our first view of a Common Cuckoo perched on a fence post and then blasting out its characteristic song. Good views of a sub-adult Golden Eagle were had by all the group as the bird drifted over the moorland. A couple of Golden Plover in full breeding plumage were foraging amongst a herd of cattle.

The short ferry journey from Lochaline to Mull didn’t yield anything of interest but the scenery more than compensated for this. Everyone was tired after the long journey so we decided to head straight for the hotel and an early dinner.

Day 8 (27th April): The boat trip with was initially booked for today but due to the weather conditions this was cancelled and moved to the following day when the weather was forecast to be dry, calm and sunny.

The forecast for much of the day was rain and more rain – not unusual for western Scotland! From the village of Salen we headed west to Loch na Keil which provides sheltered conditions for wintering sea ducks and divers. The best birds here were the numerous Great-northern Divers, many of which were in full breeding plumage and were often close to shore. We also managed to catch up with a few Rock Pipit which was a bird we’d missed on the east coast. A highlight was watching a pair of Northern Lapwing with four newly hatched chicks.

We continued over the moorland of Ben More, Mull’s highest peak, but the heavy rain and low cloud limited birding opportunities. We descended to Loch Scridian and headed to the post office for hot drinks and an opportunity to view the estuary as the poor weather improved. As we drank our hot teas and coffees we had good views of various shorebirds, including Ruddy Turnstone, Ringed and Golden Plover, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Dunlin. The rain stopped and we were able to spend more time scanning for birds as we retraced our steps back to the hotel. With the improving conditions came several excellent sightings. A white-tailed Eagle drifted low over our heads giving prolonged views before it disappeared over the hillside – high fives all round! Several Twite were heard overhead which most of the group picked up. As we drove back over the moorland a female Hen Harrier was seen foraging over the heather before dropping into a patch of forestry out of view.

Despite the poor weather for much of the day, the birding was excellent with many good views of birds that were new for the trip.

Day 9 (28th April): Our last full day on Mull was spent on the boat trip out of Tobermory to Staffa Island and Lunga, the largest of the Treshnish Isles. What a day, the weather was excellent, the sea was flat calm and the sun shone! As we headed out to our first stop, Staffa Island, the seawatching was superb. Black Guillemot’s were common and seen close to the boat. Common Guillemots and Razorbills were also seen on the sea, and numerous Gannets cruised by, often really close. Several Kittiwakes were seen amongst the more common Gull species. As we moved further away from the land Manx Shearwaters became increasingly common and gave superb views as they drifted effortlessly by the boat, approximately 500 individuals were seen. As we got closer to Staffa Island several Puffins were seen on the water. The boat made several stops to get good views of Minke Whales as they broke the surface before showing their tail flukes as they took deep dives.

On the island of Staffa we disembarked for about forty minutes. The island is of geological interest with impressive examples of basalt columns, but we headed out to an area that is used by Puffins to breed. Puffins were not checking out the nesting burrows but about 200 were seen loafing offshore. A Twite was singing and showing well which improved on the brief views we had the previous day. A single Brent Goose was another new species for the trip.

Near the landing area somebody (not from our group!!) had fallen and broken their ankle and needed a helicopter rescue. We were treated to the amazing skills of the coastguard as they maneuvered the helicopter into position next to the cliffs, then and winched the unfortunate visitor into the cabin and away to the mainland.

Our next stop was the island of Lunga where breeding Puffins were checking out their nesting burrows at the start of the breeding season. The Puffins are quite tolerant of people and would often be just a few metres away. Excellent views of Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars and Shags were had as many were back on their nesting ledges. Many participants mentioned this was one of the main highlights of the tour.

En route back to Tobermory we stopped at a rocky island where several hundred Grey Seals were loafing.

Back at the harbour town at Tobermory we had an hour’s free time to check out the local craft shops, before reconvening at the hugely popular fish and chip stand. After a hearty meal of traditional fish and chips we decide to head back to the hotel for an early night ahead of our long drive back to Inverness the following day.

Day 10 (29th April): Packed and on our way by 8:15am, our first stop was at Fishnish terminal waiting for the ferry. Here we got amazing views of two White-tailed Eagles in flight, one of them with a fish, then dropping into a patch of mature trees, presumably a nest site.

Back on the mainland we stopped at the Rahoy Hills Nature Reserve, a small area of Atlantic Oak Forest. Here we got more views of Tree Pipit, this time perched up in full song; our first Whinchat; several calling Cuckoos and a singing Wood Warbler, albeit briefly. We made several short stops en route until we reached the ferry crossing point at Ardgour. Here we had lunch from the roadside café.

Again, we stopped at Creag Meagidh, and this time with fewer time constraints, we were able to spend more time searching the lowland habitats. Although we didn’t add any new species to our trip list, we did get better views of Lesser Redpoll, and a very accommodating Roe Deer was taking advantage of peanuts at the feeding station. Finally, we headed for the hotel at Inverness airport. With most people having early morning flights the next day, the tour concluded that evening after we reviewed the final checklist.

                                                                                                                                                                           -          Rob Sheldon

Created: 26 June 2023