NARVOS 40th Anniversary trip to Scotland.
14 intrepid members signed up for this trip using road, rail and air to make the journey to Granton on Spey. We met up for dinner on the Monday evening with only one member missing who was last reported at Inverness airport looking for her taxi driver and vice versa.
Happily, the whole team assembled successfully the following morning for a 5.00am start. Sitting in the back of the minibus I was convinced by the series of bumpy single track roads that we were irrevocably lost. However, as the dawn began to break we miraculously pulled into a small clearing in the woods which turned out to be the car park of the RSPB osprey centre at Loch Garten
Thus began the capercaillie experience.
We found our way to the forward observation area already crowded with birders eagerly scanning the viewing area. The ospreys, which were showing on remote cameras with one perched on a camera pole near the nest, were given a quick look but we were here for bigger game. After several false starts and shadows the resident RSPB warden announced that he had it. We all strained our eyes for a glimpse only to be told that he had the only viewable position. The early birders closed up and a queue formed behind the warden for a turn at his scope. An enterprising American couple had set up shop in the back of the hide but with a view over his shoulder and they were kindly sharing their scope. We were given a running commentary of ‘he just moved his head, I can see his beak, he just jumped up etc.’ I took advantage of our American friends and eventually saw the Black Blob on offer just in the v as described.
One of the team thought it would help the situation with a little organisation to prevent people at the back with a bit of a view from being constantly blocked by people moving in front of them. However, after a few minutes of his best efforts he decided to return to his previously more rewarding hobby of herding cats.
Less ambitious, read sensible, birders discovered nearby feeders with very close views of siskin, chaffinch and great spotted woodpecker with a roe buck in the background at times for variety.
Not fully satisfied with this I duly joined the queue, out the door at times. The lass in front of me took her time but could not see it. The warden, with the patience of Jobe, kept checking and assuring her that it was indeed right in the middle of the scope. She eventually gave up. A quick check by the warden and it was my turn. Oh dear its moved I cannae see it noo. OK back to the siskin and very nice too.
Despite assurances that it could come back at any time some members drifted outside and searched the trees for the apparently abundant small birds. Blue, great and coal tits were recorded as well as a tree pipit. And then a crested tit appeared on a feeder very close to us. Urgent whispers brought more of the group to view this spectacle. A lifer for several in the party and excellent views as it levered out a peanut and took it to a nearby tree to eat.
What a start to the holiday.
A quick check of the hide but no further signs of the Black Blob. The chairman, who had left his scope trained on the osprey pole, took a quick last squint only to find that the sun had now risen behind it and got the kind of squint he was not expecting. This may have had a bearing on what happened a little later.
Most of us were very happy with the visit with osprey and a crestie seen before breakfast. A few more competitively minded scanned the loch from the car park and added golden eye and other wild fowl to their lists. A red squirrel was sighted in the forest on the way back for breakfast. Unfortunately, on the wrong side of the bus for me and ‘on that branch in the tree’ did not enable me and others to see it. We were still in a forest.
We made the trip back to the hotel in high spirits where we bumped into another birder, who was also staying at the hotel. Having exchanged details, and cleared the debris from the road, we discovered he had a Norfolk Wildlife sticker in his windscreen. It subsequently emerged that he was not only from Norfolk he lived less than a mile from me. Small world. (We bumped into him, not literally as he had learnt to give us a wide berth, on each of the subsequent days of our holiday).
A full Scottish (breakfast) restored us both physically and mentally and we set off again. I think we went to the Boat of Garten, not sure as I was sitting in the back. We scanned the loch with a wonderful backdrop of snow covered mountains. More golden eye, dabchick, a grey heron, oystercatchers and sand martins were added to the list together with song thrush and redwing and other more common birds. A late spot was a pair of crossbills in a distant larch tree. We moved on a bit and added more species to the list including a pair of grey wagtails appropriately enough.
Onward for the Cairngorm experience.
We parked in the lower car park and were put on to a ring ouzel by another birding couple perched on a pylon (the ouzel not the couple). Tree and meadow pipits were duly logged and we scoured the slopes for a red grouse. A herd of reindeer were on the opposite slope and we were entertained by a group heading on foot towards them led by a man in a red jacket carrying a large sack. I kid you not.
A hooded crow was spotted but regrettably it moved into a gully before it could be confirmed. I did see one honestly.
We were about to move on having dipped on the red grouse when one was spotted. Initially it was a view not dissimilar to that of the capercaillie in that just its head was visible. However, over the next 10 minutes it slid seductively, a bit at a time, into view and then sat sunning itself on a rock unconcernedly, chuckling to itself. Meanwhile the ring ouzel was working around the car park and we were treated to stunning views at close quarters.
We moved to the upper car park for a quick lunch in lovely sunny conditions with skiers and snowboarders in the background. Now that we had cracked the grouse we saw the wretched things everywhere.
A ride on the funicular railway was on the agenda and we all took the trip to the top accompanied by lots of skiers who assured us there lots of ptarmigan about. Mountain hares were spotted on the way up along with the now ubiquitous red grouse.
We scanned the slopes desperately for some time before our intrepid treasurer announced that he had two ptarmigan in his scope. There followed protracted descriptions of where they were before I too managed to pick them out in the snowy background. Tick!
On the way back to the hotel buzzards, grey heron, yes red grouse and lots of curlew and oyster catchers were noted.
We had an early dinner, the food throughout our stay was excellent with lots of choice and prompt service.
Quite a day but we were not finished yet. We walked with the hotel guide (and our new found friend from my village) to do a bit more birding before dark. The aim was to see roding woodcock but we picked up a song thrush having a tussle with a huge worm, wrens and robins and a pair of redwings, which were said to be breeding in the area, while we waited. The guide predicted that the first woodcock would appear at 2040. Amazingly the first one did just that. We were then treated to half an hour of woodcock flying around the area with sometimes a couple sparing with each other. Another wonderful experience marred only slightly by the sound of a nearby stream covering up their squeaking.
And this was just the first day!
As an aside the group consisted of birders with varying degrees of experience. Despite this a pattern emerged during the day, reinforced as the trip went on, that one member stood out from the rest. He was keen and had his ’bucket list’, perhaps more of this later, but he seemed to just miss out on some of the sightings. He was on the wrong side of the bus for the red squirrel, for example, and he desperately wanted to see one. He was not quick enough for some of the more fleeting sightings or was looking the wrong way. He began to consider listing the birds he had not seen as opposed to those he had. He assured us he was having a wonderful time and that the detour on the journey here via a local distillery was not a factor in his luck. You will have to wait for a full report, possibly from the horse’s mouth.
Incidentally, should anyone have a use for a near pristine official bird tick list please contact Ian Pilcher
It is planned for other members of the group to reflect on their views of the subsequent days in future newsletters.
For those statistically challenged the official list contained 88 species for the trip. Full details on the website? This did not include capercaillie for the reasons explained above.
NarVOS 40th Anniversary Trip to Scotland – Day 2
By Day 2, the pace had already eased as, instead of the 5 am start of yesterday, we left the hotel at 6.30 to travel up the old Military Road, north from Grantown. You will see, in a separate article, that a combination of factors had made finding Black Grouse even more difficult than it normally might be. Our pre-breakfast sortie, therefore, was to ‘have another go’. Did we find our quarry? You’ll need to refer to the President’s report to find out.
Breakfast on holiday is always a delight and the Grant Arms’ breakfast fare is no exception. The ready excuse for possible over-indulgence was always, “Well, this has got to see us through to dinner time”, though few of our travellers ever left Grantown without a sandwich, a sausage roll or a date slice for lunch on the hoof. Today’s trip was to travel further west than the other two days and to take in some really remarkable scenery. Travelling north on the A9, over Slochd Summit (1315ft if you’re on a train; 1328ft on the road), towards Inverness, we overshot the first exit to our planned destination but this gave us the perfect chance to view from above the magnificent Findhorn railway viaduct and stretching far below, Strathdearn, known also as the Findhorn Valley – our first goal for the day. Dropping into the valley and veering off at Findhorn Bridge, the road became one track with passing places for several miles. Where road and river come close, we spotted Curlew, Oystercatcher and the occasional Common Sandpiper. Some stretches of the river run in shallow cascades and it was here we hoped for another target species for the valley but this was to appear later.
The end of the road, as far as public vehicles are concerned, is Coignafearn Lodge which is set up as a hunting lodge with accommodation and kennels for the hunt dogs. From here on in, we were on foot. Once we’d left the lodge behind, there was only the glorious vista of the great glacial valley ahead of us. The valley walls, green with short-cropped turf were dotted with wind-stunted trees, providing shelter for the occasional Ring Ouzel, Meadow Pipit and Northern Wheatear. Rocky outcrops reach high up the valley towards the smooth, undulating ridges over which, throughout our walk, appeared the occasional surprise. An early sighting was of a raptor which, as it held a steady hover, was identified as a Kestrel. Over the same stretch, appeared another raptor which, as it gained height on the thermals was our first view of a Golden Eagle. As it dropped from sight, a flock of close-on 100 Greylag Geese soared along the ridge and then, as if having changed their minds, they swung around and flew back again. All the time we were accompanied by the calls of Oystercatcher flying down the river and grazing the turf.
The turning point, a small bridge over a tributary to the River Findhorn, saw several in the group break out their K-rations and rest for a while. Glancing to the top of the southern ridge of the valley we noticed a herd of Red Deer grazing the tops, oblivious to our presence down below. As we gathered together for the return leg of our walk, the cry went up that a raptor had broken the skyline and was drifting immediately above us. With many lying flat on their backs, we were once again being treated to a Golden Eagle fly-past. As we arrived back at the bus, one of our number
who had returned earlier, reported a sighting of Peregrine just above the car park – not all of us could claim this one for our trip list.
With guidance from other birders, we had to try for at least one other target species for the valley. A couple of nimble-footed Mountain Goats dropped into step with the vehicle for a few metres before we stopped at the bridge described by our informants. We were soon watching Common Sandpiper bobbing on the pebbles. And then it appeared, with one of those typical rapid flights downstream, a Dipper. The group dispersed over fences and walls and under bridges, to get a better view – it’s a good job that Scotland has Open Access laws! As is common for Dipper, they will (and this one did) keep popping up on to the same few rocks so everyone had opportunities for good views. As we returned to the bus, the Dipper returned to its nest under the bridge we’d been standing on. Another target ticked. While extracting the bus from a ‘soft’ parking spot, a Willow Warbler was heard calling from nearby shrubs.
Veering north-west off the Findhorn Valley and passing through a number of gates, we climbed high over the valley ledge, onto the moorland above and along the Farr Road. Necks were craned as a Red Kite was called high above the bus. At the high point of the road, we called a halt to view the scenery, looking towards Loch Ness. Here seemed a good opportunity for a team photograph – you know how it is trying to get a picture using the camera’s timer and hoping everyone’s ‘in view’ – a bit like herding cats – well this one was no different! The stop was worthwhile, however, as we had more views of Northern Wheatear, Meadow Pipits were all about us and Common Buzzard slipped slowly into the next valley, Strathnairn.
We followed, probably a little less gracefully and the new valley led us to Loch Ruthven, an RSPB site, which lies just over the hill from the Great Glen and Loch Ness. The loch is noted for one species in particular and we weren’t to be disappointed. At least six Slavonian Grebes were spotted along the length of the loch and, in the late afternoon sunshine, they presented a wonderful picture. Skimming low over the water were small groups of Sand Martin and, partly concealed near the path, we spotted a Little Grebe’s nest while, way out across the water, its owners dived alongside their Slavonian cousins.
Our day was almost at an end, we had only (an hour’s drive) to head back up through Farr, along Strathnairn to the A9 and then south-east, via Carrbridge, to Grantown-on-Spey. The evening sunshine beautifully illuminated the River Spey and its valley and the distant, snow-capped Cairngorms looked glorious as we returned to the hotel. A shower and a short rest and we were in for another memorable dinner, a great deal more banter, a wee dram and then early to bed in preparation for another early-ish start to our final day’s birding.
My sincere thanks go to my fellow travellers for making this such an exceptional NarVOS trip. It is very difficult to convey ‘group humour’ to anyone outside that group but I hope that you will accept that it played a massive part in making this anniversary event the success it unquestionably was. The maxim that “What goes on tour, stays on tour” must definitely be applied to this trip!
NarVOS in Scotland – Day 3
At breakfast time the early morning walk in the Anagach woods behind the Grant Arms Hotel was discussed with enthusiasm. A Scots Pine wood of almost 1,000 acres including some ancient broad-leaved trees proved to be home to the Great Spotted Woodpecker, Robin, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Wren, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, and later the Goldcrest. Also the delightful Red Squirrels were not shy today; one was seen on the feeding box and some in the trees.
(This early episode must go on my personal list of “Things I missed” (apologies to Ian Pilcher). This was due to my ill health and not lack of interest).
A mid- morning minibus drive in overcast weather took us to Lochindorb where the eye-watering cold was rewarded with the sight of a diver. As it flapped its wings and rose out of the water, stretching its neck conveniently as the sun made an appearance, Kevin confirmed the Red-throated Diver. Two more divers were spotted on the far side of the loch so we drove around for closer views. Parking by the edge of a pine copse we had brilliant views of a Red Squirrel dodging between the tree trunks on the ground, burying nuts and hunting for more, like they were going out of fashion, quite unconcerned at the close proximity of its audience. Meanwhile the two divers were confirmed as Black-throated Divers, now looking brilliant in the improving light. Stunning birds, or as Ian Black said down the scope, “WOW!”
Here we were treated to the spectacular flight of the Osprey, searching, hesitating and diving into the water with a powerful splash and emerging empty-clawed. A second dive with much flapping at shore level produced a metre-long piece of dripping weed which, as it drained, allowed the Osprey to gain height. It was an incongruous sight as it flew away across the loch in front of us, presumably to the nest, and left us wondering what the mate would make of the gift! While this drama played out a Raven was heard behind us but I was not taking my bins off the Osprey for fear of missing anything.
We also had close ups of Red Grouse here and 3 Wheatear flying through paused to pose on a rocky outcrop amongst the heather, only feet away across the road. They get a “10 out of 10” from me. Added to the list were Tufted Duck, Common Sandpiper and Common Gull.
Moving North to the Black Isle a Hooded Crow was spotted feeding on the freshly cultivated soil. Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull, Lapwing, Jackdaw and Rook all accompanied the agricultural activity here. We arrived at lunchtime at Chanonry Point , a promontory on the Moray Firth at a latitude of 57 degrees 34” 28’ North. There was a great view of a Yellowhammer on the gorse bushes around the golf course.... just after someone said “You’d think there’d be Yellowhammer here.” Spooky.
By now the sun was shining warm and bright at the coast. Lots of Guillemot were sitting on the sea and a Grey Seal showed its head briefly. There was a Dunlin on the shore line and a Turnstone reported. Lots of Oystercatchers again today, 2 Shelduck, 5 Wigeon in flight and a Cormorant flying straight on with purpose. Linnets played in the garden bushes and Meadow Pipits sunned themselves on the grass by the lighthouse. House Martin, Skylarks, Grey Wagtail and White Wagtail also made an appearance.
Time was running out here and we were preparing to leave when a fin broke the surface of the sea. Over the next 10 minutes 2 Bottlenose Dolphins provided a great spectacle of spraying blowholes and graceful shiny grey arcs above the sea surface. They drew in closer and joined a third dolphin where they circled for a while until they were only 20 yards from the beach. Another fantastic chance encounter!!
There was a dash now to Tollies farm to catch the Red Kite feed. A couple of wrong turns and twice up the same street led us to the lady bearing the rhubarb (don’t ask!). There is an old Scottish proverb: “She will lead you in her car to the right road but will never part with her rhubarb, for she loves her rhubarb.” (You had to be there...)
Arriving at Tollies Farm a little late, our leader negotiated a second feed just for us. The RSPB warden welcomed us with a short talk on the birds and the centre then asked for a volunteer assistant. The group had intimated that a sacrifice might be needed to attract the Red Kite. Ha. Ha. The volunteer became particularly anxious when she caught sight of the high platform, looking very altar-like. However, raw chopped lamb (phew) was laid on the table which soon attracted a few gulls. As the warden slowly retreated the gulls were kept at bay and 6 Red Kite moved in. There was an excellent aerial show as they swooped and grasped the meat accurately in their talons and transferred it to their beak in flight. As an added extra an Osprey appeared and circled among the Red Kite. Amazing.
A short drive around to Beauly Firth gave good sunlit, almost balmy views of the shore. The rocks and pools held a few Grey Heron, Curlew and Redshank. Swimming close to the shore was a female Goosander, confirmed and explained by Malcolm. Brilliant. Also recorded were a couple of Mute Swans on the far side of the Firth, Goldeneye and Razorbill.
This long and perfect day ended at the hotel dinner table with great company and food and a recalling of the whole trip and its many experiences.... and not a little laughter.
P.S. It was very intriguing to note that in all the mileage and terrain covered in the 3 days NO Magpies were seen. The latest bird report for the area was checked in the hotel library and revealed only 2 had been counted!
Finally, MANY THANKS to the whole group for their participation, consideration and generosity in pointing subjects out and sharing their knowledge and the selfless use of scopes. The entertaining and good-hearted banter will ne’er be forgot.
NarVOS 40th Anniversary trip to Scotland
Black Grouse Lyrurus tetrix
Towards the end of a very successful first Anniversary day of birding in the Cairngorms, when a number of quality target birds had already been found, it was decided that on our way back to the hotel we would stop at Davar Moor and search
for Black Grouse. Having enjoyed good views of Red Grouse on Cairngorm, we didn’t anticipate any difficulty in distinguishing the two Grouse. That was not the case. From a distance, the little dark head peering over heather doesn’t show many of the expected distinguishing marks, particularly when the head disappears almost immediately, and the bird scuttles away unseen. Many false alarms were given. One not quite so experienced birder thought he had spotted a rare black plastic bucket, and was most upset when it turned out to be a Red Grouse! From a distance even buckets can cause identification difficulties, as was the case throughout the trip.
John, the noted guide at The Grantown Hotel, had given us the location of an obvious green field where he assured us the Black Grouse could be regularly seen. He failed to say, but not by the occupants of the NarVOS charabanc!!
We returned to the hotel a little dis-heartened on the first day, but determined to return the next morning.
6.45am the following day we were out searching the said green field and surrounding area for the elusive Black Grouse, again unsuccessfully, but finding numerous Red, and I am pleased to say very few buckets! I was beginning to think it was a lost cause, when there was a sudden shout of “I’ve got them!” I turned around and saw Malcolm looking back across the road the way we had just travelled - this was away from the supposed green field site. He appeared to be in shock, but was grinning all over his face. He had indeed found four, possibly five, male Black Grouse on their displaying-ground on a sloping grassy part of the moor. They were facing each other, with their tail spread wide fan-wise, and showing their brilliant white under-tail coverts. The wings were slightly open and drooping. We watched captivated as they strutted about and tilted towards each other. What a sight to behold.
We eventually dragged ourselves away from the display and returned to the Hotel for a well-earned fried breakfast. Later, the day became even more interesting, but that is for somebody else to report….
As for Malcolm, after this great spot he could do no wrong for the rest of the holiday. He was our hero. And was even commended by the bucket specialist!
It is interesting to note that though polygamous, male Black Grouse will occasionally cross with female Capercailzie, Red Grouse, and more rarely Pheasant.