My wife and I recently had a winter break at the excellent Grant Arms Hotel at Grantown on Spey. This was our fourth stay here in 18 months, so you might conclude that we are rather fond of the place!! I should point out that this was a holiday, rather than a serious bird-watching trip!
Wednesday 25th January
It's about 500 miles (800km) from home to Grantown, so we break the journey with an overnight stop. This allows us to take some scenic diversions en-route. On this occasion we pulled off the A1 near Bedale and had a picnic near Thorpe Perrow. Having finished our picnic we decided to try and see some scenery by setting the SatNav to 'shortest' route to Barnard Castle. This was nearly our undoing as we found ourselves on a road which degenerated into a farm track with no places to turn round, so we kept going. For about a mile the track was so badly rutted (the ruts being filled with muddy water), that the underside of the car was scraping on the centre ridge! Eventually we made it, and kept to the main roads for the rest of our journey to the outskirts of Newcastle.
Thursday 26th January
Still determined to take a scenic route, rather than the quickest route, we headed off on the second leg of our journey. We stopped for a coffee at the Dalmore Inn, just before Blairgowrie, and ended up having an excellent lunch there.
We next stopped at the Glenshee ski area in the hope of seeing Snow Bunting, but were not successful. However, we did find a a group of mountain ponies nearby in their white winter coats.
|Ponies - Glenshee area|
This was followed by a brief stop at Braemar (comfort and shop). As we approached the ski area of Lecht, I noticed a flock of small birds rise up from beside the road. It turned out to be about 50 Snow Buntings. I tried some photos but the snow was blowing at ground level so my photos of them on the ground came to nothing, but I did manage an image of some of the flock in flight.
|Snow Bunting - Lecht|
Everywhere were Red Grouse, but distant. I didn't bother trying to get images of them on this break, but here's a token image of one taken on this day!
|Red Grouse - Lecht|
We arrived at The Grant Arms to be greeted with the news that I'd won one of the two runner-up prizes in the hotel's Bird Watching and Wildlife Club's (BWWC) annual photographic competition - not for a bird image but one of a Red Squirrel! Now that's a good start to the break!! An excellent dinner that night sealed the feeling of well being, and so fortified we set off for Lochindorb, being an open area with virtually no light pollution. Our target was to see the Northern Lights and although it was probably 80% cloudy we were successful - a lifetime first for both of us! .
Friday 27th January
Since our last visit, the BWWC have put up feeders in Anagach Wood, behind the hotel. We started the day, after a good breakfast, by visiting these. I've seen Crested Tit on Speyside before, but this morning I was to get my first ever image.
|Crested Tit - Anagach Wood, Grantown on Spey|
I guess no visit to Speyside would be complete without seeing a Red Squirrel. I didn't really bother with them on this visit, but here's one that I took that morning whilst waiting for the Cresties.
|Red Squirrel - Anagach Wood, Grantown on Spey|
After this we set of for Cairngorm in the hope of seeing Snow Bunting, and maybe something more exotic. We arrived to find that there was little snow, but had a look round and couldn't see anything, so called in at the Ranger's office. He seemed quite upset as he told us that this winter was the first for fifteen years that he'd not seen Snow Bunting there, and everything else was only at a higher level. We gave up and set off on a scenic route back to Lecht.
We arrived to find that no Snow Buntings were visible, but we only had to wait a few minutes before eight of them landed on the apex of the ski centre roof. I made sure that they were watching as I laced the top of a wall with seed. I'd only been back in my car for a minute or two before they were down. I'd really not thought things through as, although I took well over a hundred shots, most of them clearly show 'the bait' - something that I don't like to see in images - the distant background of the ski centre was not as 'lost' as I'd expected it to be, and for virtually all images the focus was soft (I don't know why). Here are some of the better ones, although not good. The plumage of these birds at this time is very variable and to a novice like me it is difficult to tell males from females. I am pretty sure that the first is a female, and the second (with the white wing bar) is a male I'm less sure about the 3rd and 4th images.
|Snow Bunting - Lecht|
That night, after another excellent dinner, we went to Lochindorb again, where there was a star-filled sky, and somewhat better views of the Northern Lights - fabulous!!
Saturday 28th January
Our destination today was the Moray Coast. I was particularly keen to try and catch up with Long-tailed Duck, as I'd only got some relatively poor images of them from our previous January visit in 2011. We arrived at Burghead to find a group of Eider and a female Long-tailed in the harbour. Game on !!
|Long-tailed Duck (female) - Burghead|
On the wall on the opposite side of the harbour mouth was a group of Cormorants, sunning themselves (it was a beautiful still and sunny day).
|Cormorant - Burghead|
I thought that the lighting on the drake Eider in the harbour was interesting.
|Eider (male) - Burghead|
We then walked round the harbour and had a walk up the steps that lead to the head. I then noticed a pair of Long-tails just outside the harbour and set off back on the side of the harbour that the Cormorants had been on, taking a few shots of them as I passed. I always describe myself as a novice birder, and I can now reinforce this claim by admitting that I'd not noticed that the Cormorants had been joined by a Shag (third from left below) until I got home!!
|Cormorants, plus Shag - Burghead|
As I passed by, they all took flight except one, which was very confiding, so I took some close-up photos of this - and still the penny didn't drop!!
|Shag (juvenile) - Burghead|
The rest of the visit was a bit more sane, and some images that I'm quite pleased with (particularly the stretching drake Long-tailed) were obtained.
|Long-tailed Duck (juvenile male) - Burghead|
|Long-tailed Duck - (male)|
The last image is there because it illustrates the very flat nature of the head of the Long-tailed Duck!
|Eider (juvenile male) - Burghead|
|Eider (female) - Burghead|
Having refreshed ourselves with a pot of Earl Grey at the Bothy Tearooms we visited the other side of the head, where we found the usual assortment of waders, including Redshank, Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Curlew.
|Redshank - Burghead|
|Curlew - Burghead|
The next place to visit was Lossiemouth East Beach, where we'd seen Long-billed Dowitcher last October. Here we found Snow Bunting on the beach, a couple of hardy souls surfing in the sea - in January!!!, and as we returned over the footbridge a Shag was fishing in the river - no I didn't miss it this time!
|Snow Bunting - Lossiemouth East Beach|
|Shag - Lossiemouth East Beach|
We had to set off back to the hotel fairly early as we were booked to visit the Speyside Wildlife hide that evening. We had to do some soul searching before booking this as it would mean missing dinner at the hotel. We needn't have worried however, as the hotel provided us with a picnic to end all picnics. We had a huge flask of carrot and coriander soup, and a large hamper containing a round of generously filled beef and horseradish sandwiches, a round of prawn sandwiches, a plate of smoked venison, a plate of smoked salmon, a cheese platter (3 cheeses and all the trimmings), pots of relish, oatcakes, crisps, yoghurts, and fruit!
The session was due to start at 18.00, but we were the only two people booked and the ranger arrived at the meeting place 20 minutes early - just as we were tucking into the sandwiches. We quickly packed it away for later and set off to the hide.
I knew almost immediately that I was in trouble. I'd been expecting to see things at a distance and so only taken my 150-500 lens with me - BIG MISTAKE!!! The ground outside the hide had been baited less than a metre from the windows.
Having settled in and the lighting sorted out, the first thing to appear was a Wood Mouse. I just about managed to get this in frame! - Please note that, due to the low light levels, all the following images are taken at ISO 6400.
|Wood Mouse - near Loch an Eilean|
When the next creatures appeared I didn't stand a chance - three Red Deer! If I stood as far back as possible in the hide and shot at a very oblique angle I could just get the head of the young stag in frame - the zoom was permanently wound down to 150mm.
|Red Deer (stag) - near Loch an Eilean|
It was virtually impossible to take photos without the bait included in the image, but the deer did their best to 'hoover up' all that was there. John, the Ranger, kept having to pop outside to replenish the food.
Next to appear were the badgers. These were, for me, even more difficult to photograph as the light levels were lower on that side of the hide, and the ground was lower too. If I stood back to get the distance, they were below the level of the windowsill. This is the best image that I could manage.
|Badger - near Loch an Eilean|
John was an absolutely excellent host, and gave us a detailed account of the Pine Marten - the prime objective of the visit to the hide. We'd been there for about two and a half hours before one appeared. It was a very large male, and John was delighted as this was the first time that John had seen him from the hide since November. The Marten was much bigger than I expected, and I was lucky enough to get a vaguely usable image of him when he was at a distance and away from the lights. The last image was the best that I could do at 150mm when the Marten was feeding.
|Pine Marten (male) - near Loch an Eilean|
This was an absolutely magical evening, for which John gets a great big thank you! We shall certainly come back here when next we stay at The Grant Arms, but with a more suitable lens - I suspect my 17-70 f2.8 would be most appropriate! Back at the hotel at 22.00 we finished off our hamper in the Capercaillie Bar.
Sunday 29th January
Our objective this day was Chanonry Point (on The Black Isle), and the Dolphins. It was another amazingly good day weatherwise, with sun and no wind. We arrived at low tide, and I was immediately taken with a flock of about 150 Dunlin at the water's edge. I was subsequently told that there was a lone Knot amongst them, but I didn't see it! My wife, meantime, had gone off to look for the Dolphins.
|Dunlin - Chanonry Point, Black Isle|
When I rejoined my wife she asked for my tally - I'd seen the birds and she'd seen five Dolphins! We then stood out and waited for the Dolphins to appear again. I kept myself amused by looking at the birds that were around - nothing amazing, but Razorbill, Guillemot, Red-breasted Merganser, all passed by either on the water or in the air.
|Red-breasted Merganser (male) - Chanonry Point, Black Isle|
|Razorbill - Chanonry Point, Black Isle|
Needing a comfort stop and some refreshment we headed across the golf course into Fortrose for a pot of Earl Grey and a delicious cake at the excellent Eileandubh Restaurant. Soon after our return to the point the Dolphins put in an appearance. I understand that Bottlenose Dolphins (which are what are seen here) do not breach (leap out of the water) as much as most other sorts of dolphin. Most of the time, what you see is the arched back with dorsal fin briefly protruding from the water. Predicting when they will next show on the surface is not that easy. Most of my shots are of backs with fins sliding back into the water. On this occasion we did not see a dolphin breach (although we did a couple of times in October). However, I did manage some images, including some with a head out of water (known as 'spyhopping'). A selection follows.
|Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point, Black Isle|
Time was running away with us - we'd spent virtually a full day on the beach (!) - but before we set off back to Grantown I managed an image of a passing Long-tailed Duck.
|Long-tailed Duck (male) - Chanonry Point, Black Isle|
Monday 30th January
This was our day for setting off homeward. A brief stop at Lecht revealed a largish flock of Snow Bunting, but nothing more exciting was seen. Another brief stop, at Aberlady Bay, gave us little more than Redshank, and so we continued to North Berwick. I'd never seen Bass Rock before, and when we arrived at the end of the afternoon the light on it was fantastic. We had a brief walk about here and I took a few photos. I'd never seen a Turnstone looking so upright and slim! I'm also quite pleased with the Redshank image.
|Bass Rock - from North Berwick|
|Turnstone - North Berwick|
|Redshank - North Berwick|
That night we slummed it in the Travelodge at Berwick upon Tweed with dinner at The Scottish Restaurant, and the next day it was straight home for a late lunch.
Our thanks to everyone who made our break so enjoyable - one of the best ever! Our particular thanks, however, are to all the staff at the Grant Arms Hotel - all things being equal, we'll be back soon!!