This year my wife and I achieved our fortieth wedding anniversary, and what better place to spend it than at the Grant Arms, in Grantown-on-Spey. Because of the occasion, this wasn't going to be a particularly 'birdy' holiday - or so I thought! However, I achieved a few lifetime 'firsts', and the truth will unfold in the following posts on this blog!
Monday 18th June
Ashby de la Zouch to Grantown-on-Spey is a journey of about 450 miles (725 km), and so we like to break the journey with an overnight stop en-route. This time we chose to stay at the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry, on the banks of the Firth of Forth.
We stuck to arterial roads on the way up, only briefly diverting into Morpeth (Northumberland) for a lunch stop, and arrived at the Hawes Inn in the late afternoon. The Hawes Inn nestles in the lee of the famous Forth Bridge and the view from our room was iconic!
|View from our room (No.9) at the Hawes Inn, South Queeensferry|
The Hawes Inn boasts that it was frequented by Robert Louis Stevenson, and 'Kidnapped' has several mentions of the inn (his pioneering locomotive 'Rocket' was also involved in the bridge's inauguration run!). If you stepped back from the window, having picked yourself up from falling over the bed as you did so, the view became far more in keeping with 'Kidnapped'.
|the 'Kidnapped' view from Room 9 of the Hawes Inn!|
A walk after dinner showed very little in the way of bird life, except for a few Eider, and some gulls. However, on return to our room I was alerted by a racket from the gulls. I looked out in time to see a Great Skua zoom past just below our window, persued by irate Gulls!
We were a bit concerned by the frequent loud rumble as trains crossed the bridge, but after a few drinks and a good meal (topped off with a free Eton Mess for dessert, for which we'd got vouchers) we slept like logs!
Tuesday 19th June
We'd broken the back of the journey the previous day, leaving us with only about 150 miles (240 km) to get to Grantown. After a relatively early start to the day, and a good breakfast, we decided to take the scenic route, and avoid the infamous A9 (reputed to be the most dangerous road in Scotland with the most speed traps).
We called in at the RSPB's Loch Leven (still signposted as 'Vane Farm') intending to have a comfort break with a cup of Earl Grey. We achieved the 'comfort' but not the Earl Grey as the place didn't open until an hour later! We didn't hang around but set off northwards again, stopping briefly a short while later for a roadside Wheatear.
|Wheatear (male) - just north of Kinross|
Our next stop was just north of Perth on the A93, near Scone Palace, where there is a superb café run by volunteers for the Macmillan Cancer Support charity. The food is good, the people lovely, and the prices extremely reasonable. There are some beautiful way-marked walks behind the establishment and, after Early Grey and a meringue, we went for a walk and saw Dipper in the river. If ever you're travelling in these parts, this establishment comes with our full recommendation - but it's closed in the winter months!
Our lunch stop was on the southern outskirts of Blairgowrie at the Dalmore (as in whisky) Inn & Restaurant. We'd purposly timed our journey to achieve this as the food here is amazing. When travelling we don't like to eat heavy meals as these make us even dozier than we usually are! The Dalmore does a 'Light Lunch' menu for £9.95. This includes a choice of main course, a dessert, and tea or coffee. I chose Grilled Goats Cheese Crottin, served on a fennel, orange and walnut salad with pickled walnut dressing, followed by Dalmore Whisky Creme Brulee. It all looked fabulous, and tasted even better!
OK, so what about 'birds and nature' I hear you say? Well, we're just about to come to that!
The scenery gets dramatic as one climbs towards the Glenshee Ski area, where we stopped for another comfort break. My wife, bless her, said "there's a black and white bird by the fence behind the toilets". I went to have a look and nearly dismissed her statement when I saw a Pied Wagtail - but then I saw the Ring Ouzel!! This was only the third time I'd seen these, the previous twice being passage birds in Leicestershire, and here they were in their breeding grounds (one of my holiday 'targets') . There were four adult birds and two juveniles. One of the adult males was ringed (silver lower, orange/red upper - markings not readable). I only got very distant shots - as is the norm with these birds (they shouldn't be approached), but here are a few heavily cropped images.
|Ring Ouzel - Glenshee ski area|
|Ring Ouzel (juvenile) - Glenshee ski area|
We had another stop at the Lecht ski area (nothing of interest seen) and again near Tomintoul, where I took some shots of Lapwing and Curlew that were flying around in an agitated fashion, as their nests were marauded by gulls.
On arrival at the Grant Arms it felt like we had come home again - we really love this place. Our room made us feel even more at home as there was a large framed photo of a Little Owl on the wall (a bird that Scotland is not known for!).
The hotel hosts the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club (BWWC), and we attended the daily briefing at 18:00, where like-minded people gather together to exchange information on their sightings for that day. The briefing was followed by a superb dinner in the hotel's restaurant, and it was pointed out to me by the Head Waiter that the cover of their new 'Wine by the Glass' menu was adorned by one of my images of a Red Squirrel, taken in 2011.
That evening the BWWC were hosting a talk by Ruth Miller and Alan Davies (of 'The Biggest Twitch' fame) on 'How to get the most out of Wildlife Watching'. This was very entertaining, and prompted me to buy their book on The Biggest Twitch.
Wednesday 20th June
With the news that this was going to be a day of reasonably good weather, followed by it going downhill from then on in, we set off for Cairngorm. I was set to do the Ranger-led 'Walk at The Top' whilst Lindsay stayed in the top restaurant drinking coffee and seeing all the important birds that I was going to miss whilst on my walk.
We took the funicular up and then, as there were twelve of us for the walk, we were asked to split ourselves into two groups. I ended up as one of a group of four, and one group went one way and we went the other. Our group went on the direct (read 'steepest') route, and I was soon panting for breath!
By god it was worth it, however. On the way up we saw Ptarmigan - a 'lifer' for me, and another of my 'target' birds for the holiday .
|Ptarmigan - Cairngorm|
We had plenty of time at the top to recover from our exertions and take in sights that are totally impossible to see without travelling on foot as, to the east of Cairngorm, there are no roads for many miles.
We'd not been descending for long before I had another 'lifer' - Dotterel. There was some arguement between me and the other birder in our small group as to whether this was a male or a female bird. We both acknowledged that it was the male that incubates the eggs and has the biggest role in raising the chicks, but he claimed that this bird was too bright to be a female, whereas I understood the brighter bird to be the female in this species. I still claim that this was a female - and another 'target' bird achieved. Please excuse the over-enthusiasm with the images - I suspect I'll never see another of these in my lifetime.
|Dotterel (female) - Cairngorm|
Further down the track I achieved another 'target' bird - Snow Bunting in summer plumage. A male bird was close-by the track, gathering food. It was getting to the point that I was starting to wonder what I was going to do for the rest of the holiday!
|Snow Bunting (male) - Cairngorm|
Another Ptarmigan flew in noisily as we neared the top funicular station, where I reclaimed my wife who'd, for a change, seen nothing!
It was now time to leave Cairngorm and head for the Glenmore Cafe for one of their bacon butties, and a slice of their apple strudle for lunch. The feeders outside the cafe were well-visited by birds and Red Squirrel, but there was little of real interest.
Next on the agenda was Avielochan, where there is a hide for exclusive use of BWWC members. We arrived to see a trio of Common Sandpiper sitting on posts, but I'll not include images here as better ones are to follow.
From the hide I managed yet another 'target' and 'lifer' - Slavonian Grebe. I only managed distant views and poor images, but here are the 'record shots'
|Slavonian Grebe - Avielochan|
Our next stop was in a lay-by just outside Dulnain Bridge. Here we found Dipper, Grey Wagtail, and Common Sandpiper.
|Dipper - near Dulnain Bridge|
We then continued to our favourite location in the area - Lochindorb. Here we found Red Grouse, distant Black-throated Diver (too far for photography), Redshank, and Common Sandpiper.
|Redshank - Lochindorb|
|Common Sandpiper - Lochindorb|
After the BWWC briefing and another excellent dinner, we headed out to Lochindorb again for a late evening visit. This turned out to be inspired as, from the approach road, we saw a male Hen Harrier, and there was a visiting Red-throated Diver on the loch - yet another 'target' and 'lifer' ticked in the box!
|Red-throated Diver - Lochindorb|
Thursday 21st June
Today we decided to follow one of Gordon Hamlett's routes (route 19) in his 'The Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands' book. On the north side of the Cromarty Firth we stopped in a lay-by on the A9 to view the distant Seals (species not identified) hauled out on the mud .
|Seals - Cromarty Firth|
We soon turned left onto the B817 (Gordon misnames it the A836), stopping to have a look round beside the bridge over the River Rory. I just found Common Sandpiper and Meadow Pipit here, but think I may have seen (and heard) distant Crossbill.
|Common Sandpiper - River Rory Bridge|
|Meadow Pipit - River Rory Bridge|
On reaching the A386 (which Gordon has as the A9!) we carried on to Ardgay and then took the very long dead-end road to Croick Church. This church has poignant connections with the Highland Clearances. The local population were forcibly evicted from the land by the landowners, and many gathered at Croick Church in protest. The populace were excluded from the church, and many of them scratched their names and messages into the glass of the windows. These are still (just!) visible today.
On the way to the church we saw a wealth of bird species including Spotted Flycatcher and Merlin.
|Oystercatcher - road to Croick Church|
|Spotted Flycatcher - road to Croick Church|
On the return journey we saw Merlin and Red Deer.
|Red Deer (female suckling young) - road to Croick Church|
|Red Deer (female) road to Croick Church|
After lunch in Bonar Bridge, overlooking the Dornoch Firth, we headed north on the minor road to Loch Buidhe. The weather had turned wet and windy by now, but we still saw a bit.
Our first stop was where there were several small birds flying around, plus some juvenile Mistle Thrushes. I only managed a few images, and the best of them was of a Meadow Pipit.
|Meadow Pipit - road to Loch Buidhe|
A stop a little further on for a Grouse beside the road suddenly had me thinking "that's a Black Grouse?". The white markings on 'black' wings when if flew (second image - 'record shot' only) confirmed this as a male.
|Black Grouse (male) - road to Loch Buidhe|
A bit further on we found a lone Fallow Deer. These aren't that common in the Highlands, with the usual species being Red or Roe Deer.
|Fallow Deer (female) - road to Loch Buidhe|
It was absolutely throwing it down when we got to Loch Buidhe, and we didn't even bother to stop. A couple of miles beyond, I noticed something very small moving in the middle of the road ahead of us. I stopped the car well short of it and looked. It was a tiny duckling! I went over and took a photo before trying to move it out of the road but it kept returning to the road.
|Duckling (possible Goldeneye) - road to Loch Buidhe|
I could hear squeaking calls coming from up in the trees but couldn't identify where they were coming from. I then headed back towards Lindsay with the intention of asking her to drive the car past the duckling whilst I kept it out of harm's way. As I crossed a cattle grid I realised where the noise was coming from - there were two more ducklings trapped about eight inches (20cm) down in the bottom of the cattle grid, and their calls were projecting upwards into the trees. I rolled up my trousers and got down on my knees to catch them and lift them out. Lindsay and I then tried to get them to the side of the road, but they kept following me! In the end we picked them up and took them over the cattle grid to a point behind the car and made a run for it. We could see them in the middle of the road behind us as we left. I hope that they made it!
|Ducklings (possible Goldeneye) - road to Loch Buidhe|
Now dogged by foul weather we gave up on the route and headed towards Dunrobin Castle. We didn't go in as it was getting late, but marked it down as somewhere to visit at another time. We made brief stops at Golspie where the juvenile Starlings confused me. They were much darker than the birds at home (almost black) and had much paler bellies with strongly contrasting darker flecks.
The weather was also pretty grim at Littleferry, and so we decided that it was time to head back to base for a relaxing evening as we were going to have a long day the next day.
I'll probably be posting the second part of my account in the next couple of days or so.