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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Scottish Highland Break, Part1 - 23rd to 25th May, 2014

It's a long story but, because leaving our 19 year old cat on his own for more than a day or two would probably be a death-sentence to him, my wife and I have been taking separate holidays for the past year. This was to be my sixth visit to the Grant Arms at Grantown-on-Spey in four years, but it was to be very different to all my previous visits! In the past we've taken a holiday with a strong birding influence - this was to be a totally unfettered (except by my own stamina or lack thereof) birding break without the constraints of tourism and stops for cups of tea!

Grantown-on-Spey is about 450 miles (720 km) from my home and as I didn't want to arrive late, I arranged an overnight stop en-route. We usually slum it at a Travelodge, but when you're paying for the room, this works out to be quite an expensive option for the single traveller. This time, via TripAdvisor, I found Tweed View House at Berwick-upon-Tweed. 

Friday 23rd May

My journey to Berwick was not the most relaxing as it was the start of the Late Spring Bank Holiday and school half-term holidays and so the roads were bogged down with slow-moving caravans and campervans. The rain didn't help either.

I could write a whole chapter about Tweed View House but I will just say that it was probably my most enjoyable Bed & Breakfast experience ever, and it was very reasonably priced. I was a bit too tired to go out and do any birding that evening, so just wandered through the town, had a meal in a pub, and then took a gentle stroll beside the River Tweed. I was keen to have a closer look at the iconic Royal Border Bridge - a railway bridge that spans the Tweed and was built between 1847 and 1850 and opened by Queen Victoria.

Royal Border Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed - from the north-east side
From the bridge it's only about 300 yards (metres), uphill, to Tweed View House, which is by the railway station. I decided to have an early night that night, and was asleep  before 22:00!

Saturday 24th May

After an excellent breakfast which was served in my large bedroom, I set off northwards in dull grey rainy weather. I took our usual route via Perth and Braemar, but was on a bit of a mission to arrive early at Grantown. I did make a comfort stop at the Macmillan Cancer Support charity's tea rooms and shop at Quarrymill, just north of Perth, where I enjoyed a cup of tea, found a card that I'd been seeking for Titus's birthday, and left with a sandwich that they'd kindly made up for me to take away. The sun was shining by now so, whilst there, I took a stroll through the glen and was disappointed that, for the first time ever, I didn't see Dipper here - I've seen up to five here before!

I didn't stop at the Dalmore Inn, just south of Blairgowrie (probably our favourite lunch stop anywhere on this planet), as I'd already got my lunch with me and was too early anyway.

A quick comfort stop at the Glenshee Ski Centre and a check for Ring Ouzel revealed nothing, and I had my picnic lunch on the single track Military Road, south of Braemar, overlooking the river that is Clunie Water, accompanied by Meadow Pipits (no photos taken). 

Before Braemar I found a small group of  male Red Deer (technically the same species as the American 'Elk') by the road (antlers still covered in velvet, and still with vestiges of their winter coat), which were prevented from fleeing further by a deer fence. A wildlife photo at last!

Red Deer - near Braemar
I didn't stop at the Lecht Ski Centre, which has yielded me some good sightings in the past, as some sort of construction work was going on there, and found myself in Grantown almost on the dot of 14:00 - earliest check-in time.

Having checked in and sorted myself out, I headed northwards to Lochindorb. This place is a great favourite of my wife and I and it's been a long while since we've spent a day based at Grantown, and not visited Lochindorb at least once in any day!

On the approach road to Lochindorb the Common Gull were starting to nest on the moorland beside the road. Further up the road I spotted a female Red Grouse, and then noticed what looked like little balls of fluff in the road. These turned out to be Red Grouse chicks and could not have been more than a few days old. 

Red Grouse (female) - near Lochindorb
Red Grouse (chicks) - near Lochindorb
I'll warn you here and now that this post will contain some images that I'm quite happy with. However there will also be a few (such as that last one) that are there for the 'cute' factor and there will also be some that just about make it as 'record shots'.

In order to put myself where I was not shooting into the sun I parked in one of the passing spots on this single-track road (so little used that there's virtually no danger of causing an obstruction) and left the car. The chicks showed a reassuring sense of self preservation by rushing into the roadside vegetation and then freezing. This allowed me to take the following image before beating a retreat to leave them to it.

Red Grouse (chick) - near Lochindorb
Lochindorb is good for breeding Black-throated Diver, Red-throated Diver, Golden Plover, Osprey, and a number of other more common birds. That afternoon I was to get a very distant sighting of a single B-t D (presumably the female was sitting on eggs somewhere), but no R-t D (although later I'd get several sightings elsewhere), no Golden Plover (none seen all holiday), and no Osprey (only seen much later in the holiday).

The Meadow Pipits were enjoying the sunshine and were sitting out in full song.

Meadow Pipit - Lochindorb
Oystercatchers were starting to nest. I noticed that one of them had a foot missing!

Oystercatcher - Lochindorb
Lapwing were also showing signs of nesting.

Lapwing - Lochindorb
I was able to spend quite a lot of time beside a piece of conifer woodland at Lochindorb - something I'd never done before as my wife would have been bored to death! On this occasion I saw Spotted Flycatcher and Great Spotted Woodpecker (no photos), but better was to come from this location at another time.

This time last year we had been seeing a couple of black rabbits beside Lochindorb and assumed that someone had released pets into the wild. This time it seems that they'd been doing what rabbits do and there were rather a lot of them. At one point I counted a dozen of them and there must have been many more. I thought I'd do a bit of research and it seems that these are not escaped/released rabbits, but a naturally melanistic deviation. Sadly, I didn't find one close to the road.

Rabbit (black variant) - Lochindorb
Friends Roger and Lynne Doble and Jim Almond (the Shropshire Birder) were booked in at The Grant Arms at the same time as me (Jim was giving a couple of talks during his week there). I got back to the hotel to find that, in discussion with the others, it had been agreed to put us all on the same table for dinner. Unfortunately Lynne was feeling a little under the weather and was not able to join us that night.

After an excellent meal, we three 'lads' headed north 8 miles (13 km) to a place which I'd introduced the others to the previous year and where we'd had sightings of Short-eared Owl, Black Grouse, and Hen Harrier. Jim had volunteered to take a group from the hotel there the following evening and wanted to check it out. We did see Black Grouse and Short-eared Owl, but only at a very great distance - far too far for photography. Curlew, Buzzard and Meadow Pipit also put in an appearance.

Sunday 25th May

I was up early and ready for breakfast when it started at 07:00. Disappointingly the day started rather wet and, wanting to stay close to base and have a break from driving, I headed back to Lochindorb. This image of a Common Gull beside the approach to Lochindorb shows the raindrops.

Common Gull - near Lochindorb
I spent quite a long time beside the aforementioned woodland that surrounds Lochindorb Lodge. This is the best that I could do of the Spotted Flycatcher that was hunting here in the rain - and I didn't get a better shot of this species all holiday.

Spotted Flycatcher - Lochindorb Lodge
Lesser Redpoll was a good sighting, but I only got a record shot and there's a better one to follow! I did, however, manage (just) a couple of shots of Red Squirrel, although the light was terrible.

Red Squirrel - Lochindorb Lodge
I did shoot these two birds in a distant tree. I think that they're Siskin, but the breast markings (or lack of them) on the left hand one worries me - a juvenile perhaps? Any suggestions?

Siskin? - Lochindorb Lodge
This Red-legged Partridge might have gone unnoticed if it hadn't made such a racket!

Red-legged Partridge - Lochindorb Lodge
Whilst here I also saw the Black-throated Diver and Great Spotted Woodpecker again, plus a Common Sandpiper (in the woodland!)

After a brief diversion to Dulnain Bridge (usually good for Dipper, but none seen) I took a road that I've not been on before, which is the back road from Dulnain Bridge to Carrbridge, and was glad I did. Not far down the road I saw a Red Deer which came thundering towards me and then got checked by the deer fence and saw me at the same time. It stood for a while, bewildered.

Red Deer (male) - near Dulnain Bridge
During this run I saw Spotted Flycatcher, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Lapwing and (of course) Meadow Pipits. I was getting towards the end of the road when I saw a couple of very small birds on the roadside fence ahead of me - Redpoll. Fortunately the weather had brightened and I stopped and watched them as one of them made its way towards me. I'm quite pleased with the following image.

Lesser Redpoll - near Carrbridge
My next destination was Avielochan, just north of Aviemore. This is on private land with no access to the general public. However, The Grant Arms has built a hide overlooking the lochan and access is only by permit issued by The Grant Arms - and there is a very vigilant person on site checking permits. The attraction here is the Slavonian Grebes which breed here each year. There are reckoned to be only 30 pairs breeding in UK, and Avielochan has at least two of them!

Almost immediately after my arrival a pair appeared in front of the  hide - albeit at a great distance. Sadly the weather had reverted to being rather dull.

Slavonian Grebe - Avielochan
I sat and consumed my picnic lunch, little knowing at the time that it was to deal me a hard blow later. A couple of female Goldeneye passed in front of the hide.

Goldeneye (female) - Avielochan
During my lunch a young Rabbit stopped in front of the hide and examined a plant in front of it. When I showed the following image to Jim later, his reaction was "that's not a Rabbit, it's a bunny"!

Rabbit (or bunny!) (juvenile) - Avielochan
Over the next hour or so I was to get a few slightly better images of the Slavonian Grebes, but the light tends to be very difficult here with either the birds in 'white' water, or very distant when their surrounds are darker. They were having no difficulty in finding fish, as shown in the last image below.

Slavonian Grebe - Avielochan
There are also the smaller Little Grebes here - a very common species in UK.

Little Grebe - Avielochan
On my way back from the hide I stopped briefly near the fishing huts. Here I saw a Pied Wagtail having a bath and a Common Sandpiper doing its excercises.

Pied Wagtail - Avielochan
Common Sandpiper - Avielochan
From Avielochan I returned to Dulnain Bridge and was pleased to see my first (and only!) Dipper of the holiday, but too far away for meaningful photography. I did take a shot of a Grey Wagtail on a rock in the fast-flowing river.

Grey Wagtail - Dulnain Bridge
I couldn't resist the gravitational pull to Lochindorb, but wasn't particularly rewarded. I did, however, take some shots of this Oystercatcher that had inadvisedly decided to nest right beside the road when the area would be full of fishermen the following day. The second image reminds me of something that I've noticed before and that is that an Oystercatcher's eye pupil is not round.

Oystercatcher - Lochindorb
That night we all four dined together, and another splendid meal it was too!

After dinner I accompanied Jim to the location above Grantown (just below Dava), for the Owl and Raptor Watch that had been offered under Jim's guidance. Due to the weather it was just us two, plus Karl and his wife Jack, who Jim knew and we kept bumping into, and who were staying in Nethybridge. We'd spotted a Cuckoo, and two Short-eared Owl at a very great distance (one of which is shown below) before I was taken suddenly and explosively ill. By analysis, I can only blame it on the Crayfish and Rocket sandwich that I'd had for lunch. I guess the crayfish was the warhead and the rocket was the delivery system!!! My thanks to Karl and Jack for helping me out in my emergency.

Cuckoo (male) - below Dava
Short-eared Owl (I told you it was distant!) - below Dava
I had planned to recount my travels in two posts, but I think I've gone on for quite long enough for now so will spread things out over three posts. For those of you that are waiting for the owls, I promise that the next post will be more owly, and the final post will be even more owly still!!

Thank you for dropping by.


  1. What a great travelogue, Richard. It's a wonderful account of your trip and at times I felt that I was right there with you. I am very much looking forward to the next installments.

    1. Thank you for your very kind words, David. I'm glad that you weren't there on the Sunday night, however! The next installment will probably be on Friday or Saturday.

  2. Fantastic set of image's Richard. I really like the lesser redpoll and can see why you are quite chuffed with that one. I also looked the image with bridge and it's reflection. It's quite funny as I have seen a few black rabbits round my way of late and thought they were unloved pets never knew it was a colour morph etc
    The Oystercatcher eye is a bit like wood pigeons eyes however with oystercatcher there is a reason
    Apparently in the USA they have been studying their Oystercatchersite apparently with some accuracy (80%) it denotes that if it has the fleck it is a female bird .

    1. Thank you, Doug, for your kind words and that interesting bit of information about the Oystercatchers' eyes. You've got me looking more closely at Woodpigeons' eyes now!

    2. P.S. Im not sure if the black rabbit information relates to black rabbits in these parts too. I was looking specifically for information relating to black rabbits in remote parts of Scotland - it seems that, historically, they've been prized for use in the making of sporrans!

  3. Congratulations on achieving sixty-eight years of wisdom and sophistication! Now I need to know - are we going to see a Crested Tit on the next instalment - or is that asking too much before publication?

    1. Sorry, David, I was a bit too focussed on owls, grebes and divers in the latter part of my stay (although there will be more than that featuring in my next two posts). However, my friends managed to see cresties, and Jim Almond got some images. Keep your eye on the link to his blog on the RH side of my blog and you might find his cresties one day. However, he was off to Mull after leaving Grantown and, as he reckons to shoot about 32 Gb a day(!!!) when out on location, it might be a while before he posts on his blog!!

  4. What an amazing trip report,full of interesting facts,first class History lessen,much enjoyed.
    Followed by your outstanding captures,really enjoyed this post,hope our trip next month turns out as good as yours.
    We will have our work cut out.

    1. Thank you, John. I'm sure, with your skills, you'll have an excellent trip, and you'll have the benefit of more butterflies and dragonflies around too! Just arm yourself against the midges!

  5. Hi Richard! Fantastic place with many interesting animals. Amazing Meeting with the nature. These pictures are brilliant. Oystercatcher is a beautiful bird. This little Rabbit is so cute... Well done!
    Best regards/ Michał and Piotr

    1. Thank you, Michał and Piotr. I had a wonderful time in Scotland!

  6. Your little bird looks like to me a female Siskin. Juveniles are more streaky than the females. Some lovely images, must confess I like your 'bunny' picture:-) Interesting about the black rabits, you can also get black squirrels.

    1. Thank you for your confirmation re the Siskin, Linda. I knew about the black squirrels - seems they're getting quite common in the Greater London area and are set to overtake the grey ones! At the rate those black rabbits are expanding their population in the area I saw them, it might happen with them too!!!

  7. Hi Richard!
    My goodness, again one of your impressive post!!
    What a pleasure to doscover all these guys through you lens!
    The squirrel and bunny are soooo cute, lucky you!!
    But the Oystercatcher pics are tremendous!
    Wonderful nature there!
    Thanks for sharing all this! :)

    1. Thank you, Noushka, for those very kind words.

  8. HAHAHA!!!
    Just read your comment on my blog!!
    A rat in your garden was the only mamal you saw in the past few weeks........ except..... No, I won't repeat it here! LOL!!!!

    1. I hoped that it would put a smile on your face!

  9. Such a lovely set of photos that it's hard to pick a winner. So I will content myself with saying that more than a few are truly exceptional. Scotland is certainly a special place for bird photography as you prove. I'm sure it's a juvenile Siskin.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Phil, and also for the Siskin confirmation.

  10. Oh yes, a plentiful of natures own, in Scotland. Very well taken Richard.

  11. Fabulous photos! The chicks are so cute.

  12. Superb wildlife photos!

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Pat.


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