Birdwatching in the Cairngorms

Pieter and I were desperate for a holiday so, with a 10-day window in early June and aiming for a low carbon break, we settled on the Scottish Highlands. It would be my first trip to the area since 1995 and Pieter’s first ever visit.

We had heard about a new innovation: a bird watching hotel. The Grant Arms, in Grantown-on-Spey, has its own Bird Watching and Wildlife Club (BWWC). It promised to supply the local knowledge that can make all the difference to watching birds and other wildlife, without having to go on an all-inclusive wildlife tour. We prefer finding our own birds so we decided to give it a try.

BWWC has a suite of rooms in the hotel, including a well-stocked library, a lecture theatre for evening talks, and an information centre from which Kirsty Sharratt and her assistants dispense the latest information. There is a recent sightings board, and daily and monthly newsletters for guests. Before we reached the hotel we managed a late afternoon visit to the RSPB’s Loch Garten Osprey Camp, where we were treated to scope views of the female Osprey on the nest and CCTV views of three chicks. After a short wait the male flew in with a 40cm fish. We were very fortunate as the male usually only makes four or five food passes a day, with up to four hours in between. The feeders and bushes around the Visitor Centre offered good opportunities to photograph Red Squirrel and Siskin, plus other common birds such as Coal Tit and Chaffinch. Although the Osprey nest is easily viewable from the Centre, to photograph the birds you’ll need to digiscope or employ a 400mm lens.

The following day we were particularly keen to see Otter, so, armed with info from Kirsty, including tide times, we set off for North Kessock and found two Otters swimming across the mouth of the Beauly Firth under the A9 bridge. We continued on the advised route taking in the Findhorn Valley where we found a gaggle of birders waiting for Golden Eagle to appear. Through the day we had great views of ‘goodies’ like Mountain Hare, hunting Peregrine, displaying Tree Pipits, croaking Ravens, a Dipper carrying food, Ring Ouzels, stonking male Redstarts, ‘bubbling’ Red Grouse, non wing-tagged Red Kite, and breeding Slavonian Grebe. And all the while there was amazing scenery and (mostly) very few people. Saturday morning we set off for Lodge. We soon found fresh Capercaillie droppings and an obliging flock of Scottish Crossbills giving their diagnostic call (verified by a quick listen to my Collins Bird eGuide). A good bout of pishing brought in various tits including Crested. Then Pieter turned a corner and flushed a female Caper feeding on the needles of a young Scots Pine.

We headed back to Loch Garten, to see the male Osprey return twice with fish and a pair of Redstarts performing in front of the hide. Loch Garten, in the last few years, has been the place to see lekking Capercaillie in April and part of May. We’d been told by BWWC that a male Caper had been seen from the visitor centre recently, so I continually scanned the area, while waiting for the male Osprey to put in another appearance. I was rewarded when a male Caper poked its head above the heather, showing off its massive pale yellow bill and red eye wattle. A Goldeneye with chicks creating ripples on the loch in the late afternoon light made for a wonderful scene. All brilliant stuff.



Over the next few days, following advice from Kirsty, fellow guests, and prompted by Gordon Hamlett’s guide, Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands, we got to grips with most of the specialities including Parrot Crossbills at Loch Garten (wow – what a conk!), Black Grouse at Tulloch Moor, breeding Golden Plover and Black and Red-throated Divers at Lochindorb and, oh yes, Golden Eagle on the way back down the A9. You don’t even have to drive from the hotel to see iconic Scottish wildlife. Anagach Woods is a short walk away and is home to Red Squirrels, Crested Tit and Capercaillie. We didn’t have time for Ptarmigan and White-tailed Eagle, which are a long drive away, but it’s always good to leave something for next time.

Next time wasn’t long in coming. We were so enthralled with the Highlands we decided to spend a proper white Christmas at the Grant Arms. Little did we know it was going to be one of the harshest winters in living memory. We set off from Norfolk on 23 December, our vehicle ‘expedition ready’ with flasks of hot coffee, food, plenty of de-icer, blankets and a shovel. We encountered heavy blizzards around York, spent the night at Scotch Corner and arrived at Speyside before dark the next day, past very heavy snow drifts but on clear roads. Scotland is certainly better equipped for snow than southern England! We did wonder what kind of birding we would have with all the snow. Christmas Day dawned crisp and sunny and after clearing 20cm of snow off our vehicle we set off for Loch Garten. On route we came across flocks of Redwings, Fieldfares and Blackbirds feasting on frozen Hawthorn berries. Loch Garten’s visitor centre is closed in winter but the feeders are kept full. We were the first visitors and the paths were covered in fresh snow that was calf deep! The feeders were very busy with Coal Tits, Chaffinches, Robins and Red Squirrel. A trip to Burghead Bay gave us Long-tailed Duck, Common and Velvet Scoters, which were present in spectacular numbers. Off Burghead itself we found the regular King Eider with a small flock of Common Eider and a flock of confiding Purple Sandpipers.

On our last day we headed back towards Cairngorm, but in a futile attempt to see Black Grouse that had been reported feeding in Larch trees on a little used side road, we got stuck in a snow drift. It took the help of a nearby crofter to get ourselves out. The days were very short and driving conditions treacherous but the Scottish Highlands in winter are a magical place. Birding was difficult but seeing them in these conditions is exhilarating. We enjoyed ourselves so much we’re going back to the Grant Arms this Christmas!

DUNCAN MACDONALD