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Monday, 17 October 2011

Scotland in October, Part.1 - 1st to 4th October, 2011

My wife and I are really hooked on the Grant Arms in Grantown-on-Spey - it's our favourite hotel by far! We were there in July last year, and then again in January this year. We just couldn't resist the temptation to visit again in early autumn.

We're getting a bit long in the tooth for driving to this part of Scotland in one day, so took an overnight break on the way at Glenrothes, staying at the Premier Inn there (a budget hotel which is perfectly adequate for an overnight stop). It was bright sunshine all the way to Glenrothes, with the outside temperature a totally unseasonal 26 C (79 F) all the way!

Saturday 1st October

We woke to find that the weather had changed from hot and sunny to dull, wet, and cooler. The temperature was 16 C (61 F) and dropping.  We set the controls for the heart of the sun (in reality, the SatNav for the shortest (rather than quickest) route to Grantown-on-Spey, we tend to see more countryside that way, rather than motorways and dual-carriageways) and were on our way after a light breakfast.

Within a few miles, near Falkland, we came across a 'black' Pheasant at the side of the road, which slipped into a field as we approached. We stopped, and found that there were quite a few Pheasant in the field, and approximately half of them were black. I've only seen black Pheasant a couple of time before - both times in the north of England. The light was very poor but I did manage a couple of distant images which show that these birds are mainly a very dark greeny-blue, rather than black. I suspect that these are an oddball strain of  Pheasant from a breeding programme for 'game birds'.

Pheasant - Nr. Falkland
As we continued our journey, the rain just got more heavy. A comfort stop at the Glenshee Ski Centre (cafe closed, but much-needed loos open) got us drenched in the 10 metres between car and entrance to loos. We guessed that Glenshee would have been beautiful if we could have seen it through the rain!

Further along, about 3 miles (5 km) from Braemar, Gismo (our SatNav!) took us off on a single track road which ran on the west bank of Clunie Water - the river that approaches Braemar from the south. There was Grey Heron and a Goosander in the river.

Goosander - Clunie Water, Nr. Braemar
We stopped for lunch in Braemar, and had a look round the town, before returning to the car to dry out and continue our journey. The rain continued all the way to Grantown, and we could see that the scenery would have been wonderful if visibility had been better.

Having checked in at the Grant Arms there was time for a quick wander around the town before attending the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club (BWWC) briefing in the club's lecture theatre in the hotel at 6 p.m. The BWWC is a facility at the Grant Arms. As well as the lecture theatre, it has an extensive library, and an information room. At the daily briefings, guests and club officers exchange information on what has been seen where, and where the best places to visit are. There are also organised events each day that guests can attend, free of charge.

After the briefing we headed into the dining room for an excellent three-course dinner - another feature of the Grant Arms is the superb food! Having taken coffee and a tipple in the bar, we decided on an early night.

Sunday 2nd October

The weather forecast for the day was not good, and was expected to get far worse as the week progressed. We decided that we'd start by visiting our favourite local beauty spot - Lochindorb, just to the north of Grantown. The weather was not too bad as we approached Lochindorb, but still very dull and grey. Little was seen as we rook the single track road between the A939 and the loch, but as we reached the loch, an eagle flew up from the loch, probably about half a mile (0.7 km) away. By it's huge size, strong head, and really heavy bill, I thought that it might have been a White-tailed Sea Eagle. It was far too far away for even a record shot with the camera. I later found out from a local expert that, although juvenile WTSEs have occasionally been reported from this location, it was almost certainly a Golden Eagle, as one had been seen several times recently around Lochindorb. This was to be the only eagle that we saw during this visit to Scotland.

Only a few yards further up the road a Red Grouse flew across in front of the car and landed at the road side next to us, where the water is only a yard (metre) or two from the road - hence the lack of backdrop to the following image.

Red Grouse - Lochindorb
Shortly after this, the heavens opened. Two Tufted Duck were doing their best to kid us that they were Scaup. Further on, at the south end of the loch, we found more Red Grouse, and managed a few more images, in spite of the weather. The colours of the wet vegetation added something to the images.

Red Grouse - Lochindorb
From Lochindorb we set off for Loch an Eilean. This place has the reputation for being one of the most beautiful in this part of Scotland, and we had not been there on previous visits. We had our picnic in the car park (nothing interesting on the feeders - they get Crested Tit here in the winter), and then set off round the loch in an anti-clockwise direction, thankful that it had stopped raining.

Loch an Eilean - north end
It was certainly a beautiful place, but there seemed to be a distinct lack of small birds. On the castle ruins in the lake there were Jackdaws, but after two hours of walking we'd only seen birds in two places, and they were Coal and Blue Tits, and Chaffinches.

Loch an Eilean Castle
We were more than two and a half hours into our walk (and only half an hour from getting back to our car) when we happened on another small flock of birds and, as well as the usual suspects already seen, there were two Crested Tits amongst them. For about ten minutes I tried to get an image, but they were constantly moving high up in the foliage and I just couldn't get a bead on them - and then they were gone!

The walk had nearly finished off my wife, who suffers badly from asthma since she had a bad chest infection earlier in the year, so no further walking was on the cards for the rest of the day (or the following day, for that matter!).

We decided to return by the scenic route, calling back at Lochindorb to see if we could find any Short-eared Owls as dusk approached. We had no luck, but did disturb a Goosander that had decided to roost on the narrow strip between the road and the water.

Goosander - Lochindorb
That night, after dinner, I had arranged to take a small group to Anagach Woods, behind the hotel, to see if we could find one of the Tawny Owls that reside there. Unfortunately the wind had got up strongly during the late afternoon, so I was not surprised when we had no luck.

Monday 3rd October

We purposely avoided any significant amount of walking this day. After breakfast we set off for the Findhorn Valley. This place is known locally as 'The Valley of the Raptors', and we have seen Golden Eagle here previously. We looked for Dipper in the river, but none were seen. A couple of Buzzards were seen as we headed up the valley, and when we arrived at the top car park, we soon had two sightings of Peregrine. It was extremely windy up here, and not pleasant to be out of the car for too long. We were told that there were two Red Deer stags further up the track from the top car park, and these, each with their group of 'ladies' were bellowing at each other from either side of the valley. However, in deference to my wife's wishes, we did not venture up there! Instead, we headed back down the valley and then turned off on the very scenic road to Farr. We managed to find a nice spot for our picnic, but didn't see anything interesting in the way of wildlife - it was still extremely windy here.

Turning left at the end of the road we headed for the RSPB's reserve at Loch Ruthven in the vain hope that there might still be a Slavonian Grebe or two here. Just before the road to the reserve, we spotted two Red Kite flying low over the adjacent field. I tried (unsuccessfully) to get some images.

It started raining hard soon after we arrived at Loch Ruthven, and as we could only find a few Mallard from the hide, we did not stop long. Having never seen Loch Ness, we made a diversion to travel along its south-east shore - I was only impressed by its size - and then headed back towards Grantown, taking a route past our beloved Lochindorb. It was nearly an imageless day but, as we reached the end of the Lochindorb road a low-flying Kestrel caught our eye and settled on a rock beside the main road (A939), trying to keep out of the wind. I managed a few images, but it was difficult as I was shooting through a wire-mesh fence, and parked at the side of a road with heavy traffic!

Common Kestrel - Dava

Tuesday 4th October 

My wife was keen to see Dolphins, and Chanonry Point on the Black Isle, north of Inverness, is famed for giving good views. We were advised that the best time to see them is just after low tide. Having checked the tide table, we set off after breakfast for a leisurely run northwards. A stop for coffee had us arriving just before mid-day and low tide. Getting out of the car at the car park, we immediately saw Dolphins over the other side of the channel by Ardersier. The distance was so great, however, that I only managed some record shots, one of which is below.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Ardersier, from Chanonry Point
The Dolphins soon disappeared out to sea, and for the next twenty minutes we amused ourselves by watching some of the other wildlife, which included Grey Seal and Guillemot messing about just off the point.

Guillemot (winter plumage) - Chanonry Point

Grey Seal - Chanonry Point

Herring Gull (1st winter?) - Chanonry Point
Suddenly I spotted two or more Dolphins in the bay off Rosemarkie, outside the confines of the point. However, although these put on a show briefly, they remained very distant.

Bottlenose Dolphins - off Rosemarkie, from Chanonry Point
My wife was determined to stick it out, in the hope of better views of Dolphins, and for the next three hours and twenty minutes, we endured the strong winds and occasional rain - and did I say that the temperature had dropped to 8 C (46 F) when it had been 26 C (79 F) only four days earlier! We were frozen, but kept ourselves amused once more with the wildlife as follows:

Turnstone - Chanonry Point
Oystercatcher - Chanonry Point
Herring Gull (winter plumage) - Chanonry Point

Herring Gull (1st winter?) - Chanonry Point
There were other diversions too, including a couple of fishing boats that decided to leave harbour and brave the open seas, a magnificent rainbow, and views of the Kessock bridge which connects Inverness to the Black Isle, inland from the point.

Fishing Boats - about to pass Chanonry Point

Rainbow - from Chanonry Point

Kessock Bridge - from Chanonry Point
By this time we had got so cold, and were aching from so much standing around, that we decided to leave. We had literally taken the first steps of departure when we spotted Dolphins approaching from the seaward side. I grabbed a few distant shots, and it was only when I looked at the images later that I saw that I had one with a 'baby' in it, swimming beside an adult!

Bottlenose Dolphin (with youngster) - Chanonry Point
Suddenly we had a pair of dolphins in close - so close that I had difficulty tracking them with the camera! This close encounter was all too brief as they reached deep water after the shallows of the point. Regrettably, I only managed images of backs and tails - none of their heads - during these moments. You can see enough detail in the fins in the images below to see that these are two different Dolphins.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point
They were gone as quickly as they arrived, but a few minutes later we saw Dolphins over by Ardersier again. This time there was one that, very briefly, was fully breaching (coming out of the water) ahead of us. The only shot I managed of this spectacular behaviour was a very distant, head-on, record shot.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Ardersier, from Chanonry Point
It seemed like no time at all before they were gone again. Was it worth the wait? - you bet! Would I do it again? - I can't wait to get back here again!

As we returned to the car I noticed a small brown bird near the pier by the car park. It turned out to be a Rock Pipit.

Rock Pipit - Chanonry Point
After this we headed to the RSPB reserve at Udale Bay. The weather had got brighter but, unfortunately, the tide was fully in and so all that was visible was a strip of grass which was overcrowded with gulls and ducks of various species, none of which I found photographically inspiring.  The bay was dominated by a huge oil platform which, judging by the boats around it, was being worked on.

Oil Platform - Udale Bay
Our final call of the day was at Cromarty, at the north-east end of the Black Isle, for a much needed cup of tea. Whilst my wife was finishing off the pot (she's a tea addict!), I went for a walk by the water, unusually for me, omitting to take the camera. Just my luck to find a sheltering Wheatear and a couple of Twite! I hurried back to get the camera but, by the time I returned, they'd gone.

This ends this post on the first part of our Scottish holiday. The second part will follow in a few days, when I've processed more images, including some of the Dowitcher!


  1. Splendid post Richard, must have taken an age to write!

  2. Thank you Paul. Took a bit longer to write than it did to read! It helps having had many years of producing illustrated newsletters for my travel business before I retired.

  3. Richard, thanks very much for sharing. There are some great images. We have 'black/blue' pheasants in this part of North Yorkshire (up towards Whitby N Y Moors). I especialy like as these are areas we love to travel too. Must confess I will be back to read in full.

  4. Thank you Mike. Your part of the world is very attractive, and I must admit that, when looking for a UK holiday, my wife and I are torn between Scotland and the North Yorkshire/Co.Durham/Northumberland area. Just lately Scotland has won but I sense a change coming on!

  5. Hi Richard - I set aside some time this morning to read this fantastic account! I love the Kestrel shots with the complimentary, soft, warm background. What a treat to see the dolphons too - I've never seen any in the wild.

    I enjoyed reading.

  6. Thank you Christian for the encouragement. I sometimes wonder if I go over-the-top with my writings and whether I should just stick to photos with brief notes.

  7. Hi Richard

    I really enjoy reading the accounts - I'm a Primary School Teacher, so how could I not!

    The language is an enriching accompliment to the lovely photographs.

    I'll make an appointment to read your next installment this evening! Looks like a cracker.

  8. Thank you again Christian. I used to write an illustrated monthly newsletter as part of my business (for which I charged a subscription, guaranteeing an average of at least 4 sides of A4). I usually got carried away, and it was frequently 10 pages or more - which was much appreciated by my subscribers! I was hoping that I was not overdoing it with some of my postings on this blog.


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