Bird Watching reader holiday Autumn 2021 trip report

Matt Merritt and Mike Weedon were among the leaders of the Bird Watching Magazine readers’ holiday in the Scottish Highlands in late October and early November 2021, based at the Grant Arms, Grantown-on-Spey. Here’s how their half of the trip went…

by Mark Cureton |


Our first full day saw a continuation of the heavy rain that had washed out the previous afternoon’s walk in the woods for early arrivers, so we took a chance that things would be a bit better at the coast.

They were – just. We started at Hopeman, looking for Purple Sandpiper on the harbour walls, and although none were present, there were several on rocks out in the bay. Despite very challenging conditions, with strong winds and regular heavy showers, we also saw the likes of Turnstone, Razorbill, Gannet, Guillemot, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Diver and Long-tailed Duck, but although a large Eider flock was offshore, the troughs and swells hid the King Eider that had been reported from us.

We made a quick stop at Lossiemouth, where the estuary was full of Wigeon and Teal, plus the likes of Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit, then it was on to nearby Loch Spynie RSPB, where three Snow Geese had been reported.

Sure enough, there they were, in a field next to the entrance track, part of a large mixed flock of Greylags, Pinkfeet, and a handful of Barnacles. We got excellent views of what was a lifer for many. A single Whooper Swan was in the same field, while on the loch itself there was a Slavonian Grebe and a group of six male Goosanders fishing as a team – we were all astounded at how quickly they moved across the water, occasionally all diving at exactly the same moment. A Peregrine went over, while the car-park feeders added Tree Sparrow and Red Squirrel to our lists.

After a drying-out stop at Spey Bay, we made our way back to Burghead, where the wind was even stronger than in the morning. Nonetheless, we got great close-up views of a Red-throated Diver in the harbour, and just as the light was fading, a Black Redstart popped up just below the Pictish fort.


We headed west, aiming for Gruinart Bay, with the weather, unfortunately, still not playing ball.

From a number of vantage points overlooking the bay, we were able to see plenty of Great Northern Divers, two of them in almost perfect summer plumage despite the lateness of the season. There was a brief glimpse of a Black-throated Diver, but sadly the weather kept the White-tailed Eagles, and most other raptors, under cover.

From Gruinart, we spent the rest of the day dodging showers, calling in at Inverewe Gardens (where we saw several Red-breasted Mergansers just offshore), and briefly mistaking a Common Scoter for a Red-necked Grebe.

As we made our way homewards, we stopped at a viewpoint near Beinn Eighe, and got our first eagle of the trip, a Goldie, briefly above the ridge. A probably Goshawk was a bonus for a few of us.


At last, the worst of the rain had stopped, so we headed to Loch Garten RSPB, where the Coal Tits were as reliably confiding as ever, and a single Crested Tit showed well on the feeders.

Low cloud and construction work in the car-park meant that a brief visit to Cairn Gorm was fruitless, so we headed north to Strathdearn (the Findhorn Valley). From the bridge close to the top end, we got excellent views of at least three Golden Eagles (an adult and two immatures), plus plenty of Ravens, Buzzards and a Red Kite or two. The eagles were close, by eagle standards, and we were able to see plenty of detail on them.


The day started, for some, with a visit to a Black Grouse lek. They were probably itching to get a dry morning like this, because there were immediately 11 males showing well, getting involved in some very vocal scuffles and confrontations.

Then it was up to Udale Bay RSPB, on the Black Isle, where Dr Weedon showed immense patience and skill to finally pick an American Wigeon out of a huge flock of Wigeon. There were lots of Slavonian Grebes out in the Cromarty Firth, with even more visible from just along the road at Jemimaville, where of course the regular Scaup flock was showing well. A couple of Red-necked Grebes were unexpected, but welcome.

Chanonry Point didn’t produce any dolphins, and only a few flypast auks, so most of the party went back to Strathdearn, adding White-tailed Eagle to their list, while a small party went to the very flooded Insh Marshes RSPB, where the undoubted highlight was a male Hen Harrier that flew past the hide at eye level.


Most were heading home early, but there was time to return to the Black Grouse lek for a repeat performance, and yet another trip to Strathdearn, where again both eagles showed. A nice surprise was a Woodcock, which flew right through our party after being inadvertently flushed.

We all headed home amazed at just how much we had seen in the course of a week when the weather was, at best, unco-operative. That’s how good birding in the Scottish Highlands is – nothing puts a damper on it.

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