|Ultimate Scotland 2012 Tour Report 29th May- 7th June|
After a collecting the group participants from Dinnington, Rotherham & Sheffield we headed north via the M1, A1 and onto Scotch Corner where we had our first break. Welcome were the tea, coffee and hot chocolate. On the way north we had several stops. We ate a late lunch by the River Tay, this produced 2 Dipper, Common Sandpiper, several Goosander At other stops we recorded Blackcap, lots of Buzzard, Chiffchaff, lots of Common Gull, quite a few House Martin, Sand Martin, Tufted Duck, Whitethroat and Willow Warbler as well as the ever present Oystercatcher. Arriving in Aviemore and our b+b, our accommodation for the duration of the tour, we dropped off our bags, grabbed our optics and headed off to a nearby area to get some birding in before dusk and our evening meal. At a nearby lochen we found a pair of Slavonian Grebe, these one of the target species of the tour, looking resplendent with their shiny red eyes and golden feathering. Also present were a pair of Goldeneye as well as were Little Grebe and an obliging Yellow Wagtail. We returned to the b+b, wash and brush up and off to the Winking Owl for a drink and some hot food, with an early night for an early start tomorrow. Needless to say the Slavonian Grebe was Bird Of The Day and a great way to kick off our tour.
An early start to our first full day in the Highlands saw the group head into Abernethy Forest in search of special birds. A road side flash near Boat of Garten produced Little Grebe, 3 Redshank, Teal, 10 Tufted Duck, 3 Wheatear and 3 Wigeon. The woods were alive with sound of birds. Chaffinches were everywhere with odd Curlew punctuating the air with it's bubbling song. We saw 2 Crossbills, given the size they looked like Parrot Crossbill, apparently these are the commonest species here, commoner than Scottish Crossbill. Further into the woods 3 Redstart were seen and heard, a real treat, as were 4 Spotted Flycatcher. We returned via a minor road which went past some great moorland. Here we had Cuckoo & Whinchat. After breakfast we went to RSPB Loch Garten before we headed north. This produced the real star birds of the morning; 4 ad and a juv. Crested Tit. We'd had brief views that morning, but these were right next to us! Of course the other star attraction were the pair of Osprey here which performed admirably. We moved north to large upland loch. Here we found just a single Black-throated Diver. We guessed the other bird was incubating. Usually there are several birds here. Being the uplands we also had Golden Plover, Oystercatcher, lots of Red Grouse and a Short-eared Owl. After lunch we headed west traveling through Inverness, over the Caledonian Canal, down past Loch Ness and through Glen Shiel. The scenery here is absolutely spectacular! Nothing spectacular bird wise apart from Raven and Buzzard, but to be honest the scenery was more than enough to take in. We arrived at the Kyle of Lochalsh where we had 3 Red-throated Diver, then made our way over the Skye Bridge on to Skye and onward to Portree, our base for the night. Here we had Hooded Crow and lots of Gulls. We checked into our hotel and eventually found a nice place to eat and reflect on what a spectacular day it had been, both bird and scenery wise. With great views, Short-eared Owl was voted Bird Of The Day.
A leisurely morning saw the the group take a wander around Portree Harbour. Typical Scottish birds were seen including Eider and Shag. However after breakfast things picked up as we headed out from Portree on one of the scheduled Eagle trips. The boatman knew exactly where to go and within 200m of us was an adult White-tailed Eagle was sat, his mate a short distance further away. He lured one of the birds in with a fish which he threw into the sea in front of the boat. Luckily it was left by the gulls as the huge White-tailed Eagle launched into the air from the cliff face. It flew straight towards us, circled, adjusted its approach then plummeted and grabbed the fish from the surface, flying away low to nearby rock, the fish in it's talons as the crowd on the boat "Ooohed" and "Ahhhed" in appreciation at the excellent views and the performance the White-tailed Eagle. After a few hours sailing around the sound picking up lots more seabirds we returned to port, reflecting on a great morning and admiring our photos of the White-tailed Eagle. It was a thirty minute journey over Skye to Uig and our ferry to North Uist. We had lunch whilst waiting for the ferry, scanning the area for Black Guillemot and Golden Eagle. Seeing the former, not the latter.
We found a sheltered spot on deck out of the wind and looked out over the sea for the two hour journey. Commonest bird by far was Guillemot with hundreds seen. Also plentiful were Gannet, Kittiwake and Arctic Tern. We had a single Arctic Skua, 4 Manx Shearwater, 2 Great Northern Diver and 12 Black Guillemot from the ferry and by the harbour wall at Uig. Arriving on the island we quickly checked into our b+b, our base for the next three days. Scanning the ridge of mountains south of the harbour we had 2 Golden Eagle, which was an excellent start to our island adventure. Around us were Willow Warbler, Greylag Goose, Mute Swan and Redshank- unusual garden birds! With news of the Snowy Owl present we headed to the north of the island. Despite several hours of searching we couldn't find it which was hugely disappointing. A Red-breasted Merganser here didn't really compensate. Other birds in the area included Little Tern, which are always nice to see, over 30 Raven which was awesome, loads of Ringed Plover and a really close Short-eared Owl. We returned to the b+b and a short walk brought us to the Lochmaddy Hotel where we had a great meal and a few pints as we reflected on another great Scottish day. It was no surprise that White-tailed Eagle was voted Bird Of The Day.
Today we concentrated on the north of North Uist. It was an early start as we headed to the RSPB Balranald reserve. During the 30 minute journey we had good views of Short-eared Owl quartering the peat cuttings. Even before we stopped we heard the distinctive rake of Corncrake, with several birds heard at Balranald. We maneuvered our van slightly away from where a close bird was, near some shorter vegetation in the hope it would make it's way towards us. Good or bad, a group of photographers in a car decided they wanted to get closer and pushed the bird towards us. Needless to say our plan to park ahead, and sit and wait paid off as the bird came out and walked right past our van, giving all on board excellent views as we craned our necks to look out. Sit and wait- a lesson the photographers could do with adopting. We moved round the corner where we scanned a small bay- this revealed 3 Great Northern Diver as well as lots of Eider, with a crèche of young. We returned for breakfast and tucked into cereal, toast, yogurt and lots of other healthy stuff! After breakfast we returned to the north of the island. At Balranald the familiar jingle of Corn Bunting was heard, with a bird sat on ruin singing away. The area was alive with waders. The air full of Lapwing, Snipe, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew and Ringed Plover- all singing, a chorus of waders- amazing, something everyone should experience. A Peregrine went overhead putting all the waders up. This was quite a spectacle. In the fields we picked out Bar-tailed Godwit and 25 Black-tailed Godwit. We continued to the headland of Aird an Runair. The tern colony bustling with adult Arctic Terns, to and fro feeding young birds. Along the beach were several dozen Dunlin, Out to sea were more Gannet & Kittiwake. It was a glorious day with the cliffs of St. Kilda visible in the distance. In the bay was a Great Northern Diver. The Machair (sand colonised by grasses and plants) held lots of Ringed Plover and the air was full of Skylark. In the car park 3 Twite were seen, We drove around the top of the island. The wild, romantic and utterly gorgeous scenery appreciated by all. A total of 8 Short-eared Owl were recorded today plus species such as Sand Martin, 16 Raven, 2 Black-throated Diver and a White-tailed Eagle seen from the b+b! From a viewpoint at the top end of the island we pitched camp and viewed over the surrounding moorland. Here we had Arctic Skua, 2 Golden Eagle, 2 different male Hen Harrier which showed really well as they quartered and 3 Whooper Swan. A great stop with great birds while we had hot coffee, chocolate and tea! The group ended up in the early evening looking for Otter at usually favourable location. However we didn't connect but did see more Red-breasted Merganser and Shelduck. We held the log after our meal and Corncrake was voted Bird Of The Day- we had at least 12 birds today, some showing very well.
Today our plan was to go south onto Benbecula and South Uist. A quick stroll around Lochmaddy produced a Merlin over. Driving south we passed over several road bridges linking Benbecula to North & South Uist. Stopping produced quite a few Ringed Plover as well as Arctic Skua and hundreds of Arctic Tern. Stopping on Benbecula we stopped in the north of the island and even by mid-morning we recorded 4 Corncrake rasping away in various iris beds. Being close to the coast we spent a while seawatching. This produced Fulmar & 5 Gannet. Along the beach were a small party of Sanderling in summer plumage. The shallow loch just inland here here held a multitude of birds. Gadwall, Little Grebe, Shovelor & 3 pairs of Wigeon. The commonest bird here was Redshank with a day total of over 200. Passing Loch Bee on S.Uist there were hundreds of Mute Swan, what appeared to be non-breeding birds.
Around Loch Drudibeg we recorded 5 Buzzard. Probably the most common bird of the day was Oystercatcher with at least 500 recorded today. c150 Greylag Geese made their presence felt with lots of honking.
Moving across the island we followed a sea loch to the coast. At the end we came to a quiet little bay which offered a sheltered spot for lunch, with binoculars at the ready of course. The familiar call of Cuckoo was heard plus species such as Common Sandpiper, The highlight were 2 Golden Eagle over head, with a White-tailed Eagle in view at the same time, even in the same binocular view! In the sea we had Red-breasted Merganser,
We heard that the Snowy Owl had returned to the island so we decided to go for it. Cutting short our day down south it was a tense hour plus drive to the north of N. Uist from S.Uist! At Sollas we had 4 Little Tern over plus a 100 Dunlin amongst the Ringed Plover spread over the Machair with small parties of Snipe flying over. More groups of Raven were recorded with 20 counted. We tried several tracks down to the Machair, near the cemetery at Sollas. We scanned and scanned- surely a large white bird would stand out like a sore thumb. It was getting late and despite being June, it was quite cold and we were hungry. We jumped in the van and were about to head off when one last scan towards a wooden barricade revealed a large white blob. This blob turned its head to reveal two eyes and beak! We had found it. I've never seen a group disembark a vehicle so quickly. Scopes were quickly erected and focused on the Snowy Owl. The bird was just sat on the ground, turning it's head. There was a track which would bring us 100m nearer so we set off. From here we had amazing views of this stunning male bird. Through the scope the white plumage standing out against the green Machair, it's yellow eyes and black beak contrasting with the white plumage. It was awesome to finally catch up with this bird. And on the way back were 4 Short-eared Owl which finished the day off nicely. Not surprisingly Snowy Owl was Bird Of The Day.
Most of the group woke early to go and have a final view of the Snowy Owl before we departed N/. Uist. Leaving early we were at Sollas for 06:00. The first bird we saw was Cuckoo. On the Machair were at least 100 Dunlin actively feeding with some 75 Lapwing, 15 Ringed Plover, c20 Snipe and c50 Redshank (lots of waders!). Although the Snowy Owl was still the star attraction. It was sheltering from the wind by a wooden crate structure. A track allowed us to get closer, within 100m, luckily a mound hid our approach, and kept the wind off us. The bird showed exceptionally well, taking occasionally short flights. After returning for breakfast some folk went for a stroll around the harbour area in Lochmaddy. Here were lots of Arctic Tern plus a close Arctic Skua, Red-throated Diver and Black-throated Diver. Overhead was a single Golden Eagle drifting >S, plus several Raven. Sedge Warbler were singing from several scrubby patches. Although 2 male Hen Harrier were the highlight of the morning (apart fro the Snowy Owl!). We had a couple of hours before the ferry so we headed to the NE area of N Uist, which is rarely visited. Typically lots of Greylag Geese here on the many small lochens with 6+ Heron is 2 mile stretch as well as Golden Eagle, Red-breasted Merganser, Short-eared Owl & breeding Shelduck.
We boarded the ferry and looked out on the 2.5 hour journey back to Uig. This produced a few Eider and Fulmar, lots of Gannet, Kittiwake, Guillemot, some Razorbill as well as hundreds of Puffin. Alas just a single Great Northern Diver and 2 Black Guillemot were recorded. We called off at a small sea loch on our way back to Portree. Around the tideline were Common Sandpiper, Grey Wagtail, 4 Curlew bubbling away & Rock Pipit, Overhead were 2 Buzzard, several Sand Martin, the highlight were several Twite. Time was marching on so it was back to Portree and checked into our hotel. We went for nice meal and back to the hotel for an early-ish breakfast before the drive all the way to the very NW tip of Scotland tomorrow. Needless to say Snowy Owl was Bird Of The Day again!
Today we headed north to the NW tip of Scotland, stopping along the way. Leaving Portree we saw Black-throated Diver in the bay. Our first main stop was around Loch Carron- having to drive right round it, gave a good opportunity to what was around. Overhead we had a descent views of Golden Eagle & Osprey with Eider and Red-throated Diver on the water, alas no Otter as we had in previous years. Our second stop was the summit near Applecross. (The highest road in the UK?) The weather was fine, with a slight breeze, but that change up here. The views in all directions were spectacular. Walking up the track to the summit, (about half a mile) we heard Ptarmigan. But tracking down the far carrying call was tricky. Then about to drop over a ridge we saw an adult- briefly. We then circled around to where we last saw the it- it had vanished! We continued looking and had distant views of 2 further birds but where had the closer bird gone? Making our way back to the track & back down, under an edge we saw a female Ptarmigan sat on a nest with a male in close attendance! wow, they were only 20 feet away, giving awesome views! We moved back to safe distance so we didn't disturb them and watched them go about their business- corking views! Other birds here included the obligatory Raven,with 3 seen & several Wheatear.
After several hours of driving through spectacular and remote countryside we arrived at our hotel just outside Scourie, dropping off folk at their various b&b's as we couldn't all fit in one! Highlight here was a Greenshank with lots of Siskin in the grounds of the hotel. Meeting up for a meal we had to shuffle folk around as one of the b&b's wasn't suitable- all in days work for a tour guide. A Late night but the prospect of an enjoyable day on Handa tomorrow. Ptarmigan was Bird Of The Day.
A pre breakfast jaunt around the bay near the hotel was rewarded with Black-throated Diver, Common Sandpiper, lots of Lesser Redpoll and Red-breasted Merganser. After breakfast we all gathered for the short drive to Tarbet and the ferry to Handa. We had a bit of time waiting for the ferry. This was enlivened by a small party of Twite twanging around! From the pier we had several Black Guillemot, plus several from the ferry.
The short boat ride across the sound produced several really close and stunningly red throated Red-throated Diver, as well as Guillemot & Razorbill, plus Eider. Landing on the sandy beach (mini- D-Day!) we made our way to the small centre for an introductory talk. In the bay and below the centre were noisy Arctic Terns, busy fishing back & forth. Following this we began the steady climb to the seabird cliffs. Around one of the old derelict crofts was a family party of Red Grouse, with chicks, which showed very well and seemed unconcerned at our presence. The other side of the path produced a quite confiding Snipe. In the distance we could see lots of Great Skua and a few Arctic Skua. About half way up we came across an Arctic Skua nesting, not far from the path- this gave great views. Several together allowed us to compare pale & dark phase. A fresh water pool at the top produced c30 Great Skua washing and preening, offering great views as they flew over.
Arriving at the first cliff we looked over and saw thousands of birds- the noise was amazing. Thousands of Kittiwakes all calling. Razorbill and Guillemot also, with several hundred Fulmar, some quite close to the top of cliff. Great Black-backed Gulls & Great Skua patrolling the cliff tops in search of an easy meal. We spent a fair bit of time here scanning the cliffs, but also admiring the view and taking in the sight, sound and smell of a seabird city.
Walking anti-clockwise on the recommended route we followed the cliffs. Many Great Skua patrolling at head height! Out at sea were hundreds of Gannet, fishing and making their way to and from their nesting sites. The towering cliffs were alive with birds, further along were small colonies of Puffins- leaping off the cliffs and eventually flapping fast enough to lift them up and flying off to feed. Meadow pipits & Skylark filled the air on the grassy tops of the island. We began to drop down towards sea level and the return path. The flatter rocks held very noisy Oystercatchers. Although a highlight was a Peregrine over, no doubt after an easy meal. The walk back produced lots of Wheatear, as well as Arctic Skua & Great Skua, all sat incubating. Interesting that the Arctic Skua population seems to be gradually declining. We had a bit of a wait on the beach for the ferry back, but it was warm and sunny so it was a pleasant end to a great day. Back, all in the same hotel we enjoyed a great meal and some sampled several whiskey's. The stunningly close Red-throated Divers were voted Bird Of The Day.
Our final full day in the NW. A bit of a split decision today. Some of the group wanted to track down Dotterel, so it was decided to drop them off with a map, compass, GPS, first aid kit and waterproofs at the base of Ben Hope. Those that didn't want to go on the yomp followed the valley bottom and coastal strip in search of birds. Alas the weather wasn't great with misty showers. A pre-breakfast stroll around the bay by the hotel produced Arctic Tern, Tawny Owl, Snipe, 2 Red-breasted Merganser although the highlight was a reeling Grasshopper Warbler by the hotel. After breakfast we made the journey north to Durness and down to Ben Hope. We dropped off most of the party, togged up in their waterproofs and watched them head off up the hill.
The remainder followed the valley bottom stopping and birding as we went. We managed 12 Dunlin, Curlews, Golden Plovers with Eider on the water, 2 Whimbrel, lots of Ringed Plover and several Cuckoo. We went as far as Tongue and picked up some lunch on the way.
We returned later in the day to Ben Hope and picked up a beleaguered group who had traipsed over the hill. Unfortunately the weather wasn't great and curtailed their jaunt. However they did manage 4 Greenshank, several Golden Plover, Raven, Red Grouse- alas no Dotterel. Together by Loch hope we ticked off Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Sand Martin & Merlin. However the highlight were Corncrake rasping in rough ground on the outskirts of Scourie. Back at the hotel we all had hot showers and warming drinks following our long day. The hot evening meal was very welcome. That evening we packed as tomorrow was the long drive back home. Merlin was voted Bird Of The Day.
An early start for some as they made a final pre-breakfast jaunt around the hotel bay. This highlights were Arctic Tern & Sedge Warbler, After breakfast we packed the minibus began our journey south. Outside Doune we stopped off at the Red Kite feeding station at Argaty. We were a bit early for feeding time, but we had 6 Red Kite in the air at once, mewing away and giving superb views. We also had Little Grebe here. The remaining journey down was uneventful. From the minibus and at several comfort breaks we had lots of Buzzard, Cuckoo, lots of Common Gull in fields, Goosander, Hooded Crow and the usual Curlew and Oystercatcher.
We eventually arrived in South Yorkshire in the early evening and dropped everyone off. Thanking everyone for their company as we reflected on the birds and sites we had visited. Did we really fit all that in in just 11 days! Red Kite was voted Bird Of The Day.
All images ©Andy Hirst & Mick Clay