|Ultimate Scotland 2008 Tour Report 21st May- 1st June|
A small but select band met and were picked up in our well spec'd people carrier and set out north on the first of our 12 days in Scotland, covering the central Highlands, out to the west coast and beyond to the Hebrides and up to the very NW tip of Scotland. The weather was fine as we drove N up the A1. Calling of in County Durham we started our tour in fine style with Black Grouse at a stronghold, 17 of which showed very well. Moving into Scotland Black-headed Gulls became common in the fields, although Buzzard were few, just 20 on the way up. Typically we had plenty of Oystercatcher. The journey N also produced 12 Shelduck, lots of Curlew, and Redshank. Our accommodation base for the first few nights was Aviemore, an excellent centre from which to explore the surrounding Caledonian Woodlands, moorland, valleys and mountains. Arriving at our B+B, we grabbed our optics and made a dash to a local loch for our first taste of highland birding. This produced Red-throated Diver, Goosander, many Teal & Wigeon. We returned to the accommodation, refreshed we headed into downtown Aviemore for a meal.
An early morning pre-breakfast venture to Loch Garten included a diversion into the woods. We heard 3 Crested Tit, but many were still on eggs, so not a great deal of activity, except by the Mosquito's. Redstart were fairly common and gave good views, with Common Sandpiper and Goldeneye on the loch itself. After our Scottish breakfast, given the fine weather we headed into the hills looking for the special species in these areas. We began the long but gentle climb up Carn Ban Moor, the woodland held Blackcap, Wood Warbler and 4 Buzzard went over with Cuckoo flying through with Stonechat & Wheatear near the car park. Two thirds the way up we rested on a saddle, where a boulder strewn area looked ideal for Dotterel, despite the strengthening wind we weren't disappointed. We saw an adult in the distance running towards us, that lead to a male sat on an unseen nest. This allowed excellent views. We quickly moved off following the male Dotterel's distraction display. There were no Ptarmigan, which must have moved higher up. Our tiring party decided to climb no further. After our long climb we took it easy for the rest of the day, visiting sites not too far from the vehicle. These yielded close views of Slavonian Grebe, Little Grebe and lots of Sand Martin, plus unusually Red-breasted Merganser on a small loch. Returning for our evening meal we went to a smashing pub by the Spey, which as a bonus, as well as good food, had Osprey flying up and down the river!
Another early morning, as we headed deep into Abernethy before breakfast. This produced a myriad of Siskin and Chaffinch and a modest view of Crested Tit, as well as Scottish Crossbill, Goosander over as well as Tree Pipit singing away and 100's of Willow Warbler. After another filling breakfast, given the fine weather, we headed for the Findhorn Valley, which is an excellent spot for raptors. This didn't disappoint- here we had 8 Buzzard, 100's of Common Gull, 7 Common Sandpiper, Golden Plover, and our star bird and ad. Golden Eagle on the ground & being mobbed by Raven. W also had single Peregrine over, several times. Disappointingly we only saw a single Ring Ouzel- again maybe there were on eggs. We made our way over the moors, which produced many Red Grouse. Our evening meal, again by the river produced more Osprey's, although an attempt to see them close up resulted us being turfed out of the Fish Farm by the BBC as they were filming for Springwatch- cheek! We did manage Sedge Warbler here.
Our last morning in Speyside was not wasted, before we headed west for an overnight halt on the Isle of Skye. Our final early morning in Garten Woods produced more Crested Tit as well as the usual 1000 Chaffinch & Siskin, were Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher with Common Sandpiper and Sand Martin over Loch Mallachie. Returning via Boat of Garten, we saw Little Grebe and Wigeon. After our final hearty Aviemore breakfast we headed for the Loch Garten Osprey centre- where timely, the first Osprey chick had hatched that morning. We proceeded west via Inverness that included a well known Black-throated Diver site, which dutifully produced a pair fairly close in. We stopped for our sumptuous picnic lunch on the SW side of Inverness by the Caledonian Canal, which made a pleasant picnic site. Moving on the sun shone and made for a breathtaking journey down Glen Shiel. Several stops produced typically lots of Buzzard. Continuing west we left the mainland behind and headed over the bridge to Skye. Our overnight stop was in Portree in a comfortable b+b that overlooked the pretty harbour. After our journey we walked around the harbour to stretch our legs and booked on a boat trip for the following morning and found an Indian restaurant, which was a welcome sight.
A day of boats today as we head eventually further west to the Outer Hebrides and North Uist, our base for 3 days. After checking out of our b+b a short return trip up the west coast saw us back at Portree harbour to catch a small boat in the hope of seeing a spectacular raptor. As we made our way out of the harbour, towards the headland Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls were in evidence, as were Black Guillemot, although our quarry was sat way up high on a cliff. Despite the choppy seas our 'first mate' promptly threw a whole fish over the side- our quarry saw this, and off the cliff flew a stunning adult White-tailed Eagle. At about 100m away he plucked the fish from the surface before returning to the rocks to eat his breakfast, much to the appreciation of all on board. The trip was cut short due to the very choppy & windy conditions, but we did have pretty good views of an adult White-tailed Eagle. Returning to harbour we briskly drove the 15 miles to Uig in time to catch a ferry which would take us to N Uist. Boarding, the 2 hour ferry journey was passed on deck scanning for seabirds. This produced Arctic Tern, Fulmar, Guillemot, Manx Shearwater, Black Guillemot, Gannet and Kittiwake, all new for the tour. Arriving at Lochmaddy, N . Uist in the afternoon we settled into our guest house and drove down the coast a few miles to Langass Lodge, a site with an ancient stone circle, but also good for birds. Here the highlight were 3 Common Crossbill. A stroll around Lochmaddy before and after our evening meal produced Common Sandpiper, Red-breasted Merganser and Red-throated Diver, all within a minutes walk of our accommodation. Another excellent day utilising several forms of transport!
A pleasant pre-breakfast drive to Balranald this morning in search of Corncrake, which, typically & tantalisingly called from cover, kicked off our first full day on N. Uist. However persistent and patience paid off with excellent, prolonged views of several Calling Corncrake. The journey there was highlighted by a quartering Short-eared Owl. Although a highlight for all was the morning chorus of waders, Dunlin, Snipe, Lapwing, Redshank & Oystercatcher, a real dawn chorus. After breakfast we headed back to Balranald and beyond to the headland. Balranald produced more Corncrake (some seen) and Corn Bunting plus a pair of Otter and Whooper Swan on a small loch. Walking around the headland produced several Arctic Skua, lots of Arctic & Common Terns. Along the beach were 20+ Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Whimbrel and in the dunes, Twite. Offshore were plenty of Fulmar and Gannet. After our picnic lunch at Grenitote, which was somewhat windy (not uncommon here!). We circled the top side of N. Uist ending on the E side. Here we had Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser and Shelduck. Returning to Lochmaddy in the late afternoon to our b+b, we dressed smartly for a meal at Langass Lodge, where views over the grounds produced little, but a nice place to be and eat, with a nice view.
Another early start and before breakfast we headed straight out to Aird an Runair, to try and catch any passage. There were lots of Arctic Terns, Common Terns, 100's of Herring Gull and Gannet. With a Great Northern Diver and Red-throated Diver close inshore and a single Great Skua past. A quick call at Balranald produced Corncrake, genuine Rock Dove & Shoveler. After breakfast we headed south onto Benbecula over the link road which produced Little Tern. At the top end of Benbecula a large loch held 407 Mute Swan! Birds were everywhere, many were Oystercatcher and Lapwing. A visit to a small loch, which had all but dried up, did eventually reveal a pair of Red-necked Phalarope, much to the joy of all, plus the usual myriad of Redshank, Snipe etc... . Further down Benbecula, by Loch Skipport, a small sea loch- we had excellent views of Merlin, Red-breasted Merganser, Twite. Whimbrel and a Golden Eagle. The final part of the day was spent along the Mountain Road, which produced a Golden Eagle and 3 Hen Harrier, all of which put on an excellent show in the warm spring sunshine. Returning to Lochmaddy we spent a pleasant evening in a local hotel with good food and beer!
Our final day on N. Uist, as a lunchtime sailing would take us back to Skye. Checking out of the b+b we went to the NE side of N. Uist, here we had tremendous views of an imm White-tailed Eagle as it drifted over the car at low level. Driving the back lanes we also had Common Sandpiper, Eider, Curlew, Red Grouse, Redshank, Red-throated Diver, Snipe & Wigeon. Boarding the ferry we sat topside, in the lea of the wind! The two hour ferry ride produced a wealth of seabirds; lots more Common & Arctic Tern, Fulmar, 35 Guillemot, 100's of Gannet, a few Manx Shearwater, a stunning summer plumaged Great Northern Diver not far from the ferry, Great Skua, loads of Puffin and several Red-breasted Merganser. Back on Skye we called at an inlet, which had held Golden Eagle in the past, just 6 Raven today. A wander around the harbour and we booked on another Eagle trip for the following morning as in the afternoon we were to leave the Hebrides behind and head further north to the very NW of Scotland, stopping on the way.
A fine day greeted us in Portree as we made our way to the harbour after our breakfast. Here we caught small small boat for another go at the White-tailed Eagle. We saw Black Guillemot, Eider and lots of Arctic Terns in and around the harbour, plus Curlew and Common Sandpiper. Rounding the headland we saw the massive White-tailed Eagle nest in trees on crag side with at least 2 juv. birds and an adult on the nest. Another adult flew in which was then mobbed by Hooded Crows. Our guide threw in several large fish to tempt down the off duty bird. Sure enough the free meal proved irresistible and with little effort he was soon overhead, and effortlessly grasped the fish, and proceeded to a nearby rock to eat his breakfast- offering stunning views of this majestic bird in the process- worth the effort of another boat trip! Other birds in the area included lots of Gannet, not surprisingly Great Black-backed Gull and Kittiwake. Elated after our phenomenal encounter with the White-tailed Eagle we set off on the 3 hour drive up the stunning west coast to Scourie, and our final base of the tour. We stopped several times, including Applecross, where it was decidedly cool, windy and wet due to the altitude! However we did find Golden Plover, 4 Raven and Wheatear. After a pleasant drive on very quiet roads we arrived at Badcall on the outskirts of Scourie in the very NW of Scotland and our excellent hotel. Around the grounds were Stonechat, and Buzzard. After a refreshing beer and shower we enjoyed an excellent meal in the hotel restaurant.
A pre-breakfast walk around the hotel grounds and down to the bay wasdelightful and yielded 3 Cuckoo, Curlew, Common Tern, Redpoll, Sedge Warbler and 4 Black Guillemot. Our goal today was the spectacular seabird colony on theisland of Handa. After breakfast we collected our packed lunches and drove the short distance to Tarbet to catch the first boat over to the island. Here we had Stonechat & lots of genuine Greylag Geese. The weather couldn't have been better. It was warm and very sunny- not like Scotland at all! From the ferry we saw Red-throated Diver and Great Skua (more of those to come) and Black Guillemot. Arriving on the beach we were given an introductory talk by the warden and let loose. Climbing to the north of the island we passed deserted crofts, a reminder this was a turbulent area. Although the ruins and old fields held Snipe, Wheatear and a pair of Red Grouse. Nearing the highest part of the island we passed a fresh water pond, alive with Great Skua, bathing in the fresh water, with a few pale and dark phase Arctic Skua at the nest. All day there was a continuous back and forth of the more numerous Great Skua. From the top of the island we stopped, rested and admired the first of the seabird cliffs before heading west along the spectacular cliffs, home to 1000's of seabirds. The cliffs like seabird tower blocks. Along the top were Fulmars arguing amongst themselves, with Puffins on the grassy ridges. Lower down were row upon row of 1000's of Kittiwake, Guillemots and Razorbills. Here we had our picnic lunch and basked in the atmosphere of the smell, sight and sound of the seabirds and sun! Continuing further west and to the furthest westerly corner we dropped to sea level and the familiar calls of Oystercatchers. On the beaches were Ringed Plover. Out to sea were Red-throated Diver and Red-breasted Merganser. We returned to the beach and caught the ferry back to Tarbet. After an excellent day on the island we called at Scourie and the bay there. This produced our only Reed Bunting! as well as more Ringed Plover and Sedge Warbler. We returned to our comfortable hotel an another excellent meal in the restaurant, reflecting on the spectacular seabird colony at Handa.
Our final full day in this stunning part of Britain. A quick walk around the grounds of the hotel produced Common Crossbill and Redpoll. Our aim today, to make our way to the very north and follow the coastline, stopping whenever we saw anything. A misty start didn't help, but did eventually burn off. Our first stop, Scourie Bay where we saw Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Snipe, plus Twite in the fields. Making our way north a roadside loch held both Black-throated and Red-throated Diver. Driving along the coast road we stopped as the tide was out, revealing a Greenshank, and several Curlew. Arriving in Durness the weather was still very misty, so we waited. An early lunch left more time for birding when the sun did eventually burn through. Just to NW of Durness the bay held at least 4 Great Northern Diver, some adults and some imm's. Red-throated Diver, lots of Eider and Guillemot. Moving along the coast and down Loch Eriboll the sea gave way to mountain & moor, here we had lots of Cuckoo, and an ice cream! At the neck of the loch Stonechat, Peregrine and Goosander were seen, plus loads of Wheatear. We returned to Durness and Sango Bay, here we set up our scopes for an hour, seabird passage was not bad, with Common Scoter and at least 5 more Great Northern Diver in the bay- but the highlight were 25+ Common or Bottle-nosed Dolphin zooming west, as well as loads of Gannet, a few Manx Shearwater >W. and Sandwich Tern. Another excellent day as sea gave way to mountains and some wonderful scenery and good birds.
The final day of the tour and the long drive back to Sheffield. A day of mostly driving, but through some spectacular scenery and the odd birding break. After a hearty breakfast we checked out of our friendly hotel and began the long drive south. Beginning on single track roads, we progressed to two lane roads, dual carriageways, then towns, cities and eventually motorways! We stopped in Aviemore for lunch where our tour started almost 2 weeks previously. The sun was still shinning and made for a pleasant journey. By early afternoon we had reached Stirling and a regular GB stop at the Red Kite feeding station. Again we were not disappointed. From the car park we had 2 Red Kite circling. Here also were Blackcap, 3 Common Buzzard and Raven overhead and a Little Grebe on roadside pool. The journey down produced it's fair share of birds including lots of Curlew, Wheatear, Hooded Crow, Mute Swan, Lapwing and of course 100's of Oystercatcher, although as we left Stirling the heavens opened producing the first real rain of the trip. By early evening we had reached Sheffield, and dropping everyone off we said our goodbyes and reflected on what had been an excellent inaugural Ultimate Scotland tour, and thus establishing it as a regular destination for GB tours in the future
all images © Andy Hirst