Bird Watching editor Matt Merritt tried one of Heatherlea’s Caper Breaks, and got much more than he bargained for…
Maybe 200 yards away, there’s a large, dark brown bundle in the middle of the frosty forestry track. We whisper to each other about it, as much in a sort of excited awe as an attempt to avoid scaring it away.
That’s because the bundle is a hen Capercaillie. We’re barely past breakfast on the first day of our November Caper Break, and we’ve already found the species that most of us are desperate to see, here in the Abernethy Forest just a couple of miles from Heatherlea’s Nethy Bridge hotel.
The bird is far enough away not to be panicked by us, but close enough that she’s still wary, so we’re able to watch for fully 15 minutes, taking in the orange-brown chest and white-flecked flanks. Is it just my imagination, or does she edge away towards cover almost imperceptibly?
When, finally, we do drive on, it’s for a walk in the forest that brings Crested Tits, a few Waxwings, Common Crossbills and Goldcrests, plus Red Squirrels. There are more Cresties around the feeders at Loch Garten RSPB, too, and we enjoy watching them while Coal Tits feed from our hands. Bank Vole is another good mammal tick, feeding on oatmeal near the main hide. Afternoon takes us up Strathdearn (also sometimes called the Findhorn Valley) in search of eagles. This time, our target eludes us, but there are still plenty of raptors, as well as Red Deer stags roaring at each other on the higher slopes. Buzzard, Kestrel and a Peregrine show, and just before we leave, a Goshawk tilts at a pair of the many Ravens that soar around the valley.
Our superb guide, Ian Ford, has already made the point that watching the Ravens is often a great way of telling if large raptors are around. It’s not the last time he’ll be proved right. That evening, over an excellent dinner, we discuss the day’s sightings amongst the six of us. We recount the Caper sighting again and again, but first thing the next morning, a visit to moorland near the hotel provides a grouse encounter that’s very nearly a match for it. A Red Grouse cock sits just above the road, calling, while in the opposite direction, seven Blackcocks strut around in full view, their white undertails and red wattles standing out a mile in the just-past-dawn light. The sound’s as thrilling as the sight – bubbling calls and a noise like squealing train brakes.
Talking of calls, we twice hear what sounds like the bugling of Cranes, but if they’re passing overhead, the low cloud hides them well.
We stop off at Loch Garten again, to enjoy the Cresties and Coal Tits, with the latter refusing to take anything but black sunflower seeds, and our journey to the coast is broken by a stop for some close-range viewing of Red Grouse near Lochindorb.
Findhorn Bay produces a flyover flock of Waxwings plus Golden Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwits, while some seawatching at a very windy Findhorn itself produces Black and Red-throated Divers, Common and Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and singles of Slavonian Grebe and immature Gannet. A Hen Harrier coming in off the sea is a thrill, too. Burghead boasts a Grey Seal in the harbour, plus Eider flocks and scoters offshore.
Rain the following morning can’t dampen our spirits – Dipper, Whooper Swans and Goosanders see to that, and although Capercaillie remains hidden at the private estate to which Heatherlea has access, a Peregrine piques our interest before Ian spots a Woodcock well camouflaged among dead wood just 10 yards from our minibus.
Perhaps the cryptically-patterned, usually-secretive wader has just dropped in from Scandinavia, because never before have I been able to watch this beautiful bird at such length, bouncing up and down as it walks, probing the soft ground with its long bill as it feeds hungrily. Even when it turns its back on us, we can see the dark eyes watching our every camera click (and there are a lot of them in half an hour).
We head back up Strathdearn, feeling lucky, and although we only get Buzzards near the top end, as we return we stop by the roadside, and I find myself watching a pair of Ravens above a wooded ridge.
Suddenly, there’s something huge up there too, ducking out of sight, and when we drive round the next bend, we can see it’s a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, hanging on the wind and carrying a stick.
We watch while the Ravens attempt to goad it into chasing them, and once or twice it obliges, but mainly it concerns itself with dropping then catching the stick, all the time showing superb mastery of the gale with its great, barn-door wings. It’s my first UK White-tailed, and it’s just that little bit sweeter for being self-found.
We just have time to find a few female Scaup, plus a close-range Red Kite, along the Moray Firth, before we head back to the hotel, each picking out a different highlight from three packed days.
And, it’s worth saying, that’s a highlight in itself. The expertise of our guide ensures an incredible amount gets packed into the short autumn days, while the small groups make for a friendly birdwatching experience with individual expertise passing back and forth freely.
If you’ve never tried a birding holiday before, you couldn’t do better as a place to start. It’s friendly and far from daunting, but you’ll enjoy some of the UK’s most iconic birds.