Trip reports

Spring Birding on Speyside, May 2015

Loch Ruthven RSPB reserve

Friday, 9 October 2015

Spring Birding on Speyside 15 - 19 May 2015

David Atkins reports on the Group holiday to Speyside

The Scottish Highlands, particularly Speyside and the Cairngorms, have long been a favourite birding destination for Group members. On this holiday, ideally timed for late spring, 23 of us made our way to the charming small town of Grantown-on-Spey, via a variety of routes from York (and elsewhere). Some added on extra days before and/or after the main Group holiday.

We were based in the Grant Arms Hotel, a classic Highland hotel in the centre of Grantown. For some of us, this was the latest of several stays here, but for others it was a first visit to the hotel and the area. The hotel is not only a relaxing place to stay, but embedded within it is the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club (BWWC), available to all guests. The club provides comprehensive information about where to go and what to look for, along with latest sightings, etc. It even produces its own 'newspaper', The Daily Chirp, which appears on the breakfast table each morning.

The weather forecast for the weekend was not great. However, we duly gathered in the hotel lounge on the Friday evening for meeting and greeting, and an introductory word from our leader Chris Lloyd. This was followed by a convivial dinner in the dining room, in high anticipation of the three days of birding ahead of us.

Saturday 16 May. Today, we stayed within the Cairngorms National Park itself. In the morning, we explored Loch Garten, starting off at the world-famous RSPB Osprey Centre. We were soon rewarded with our first osprey of the weekend, flying overhead and around the ancient nest atop an even more ancient Scots pine. The feeding station next to the visitor centre gave us great views of siskin, coal tit, great spotted woodpecker and red squirrel, among other species. We had good views of two treecreepers by the path. But no crested tit! Red Squirrel Image: Chris Lloyd

We then moved on to a second car park alongside Loch Garten, quickly finding common sandpiper and goldeneye. Everyone managed to see a fine male redstart as it burst regularly into song. We then split into two groups for the 2-mile circular walk to Loch Mallachie. Here there were more goldeneye, along with tufted duck, grey heron, and various woodland birds such as coal tit and goldcrest. But still no crested tit! It was warm enough to sit outside the cars for our picnic lunch.

We spent the afternoon at Loch Morlich, including a productive walk along the southern edge of the loch. Another redstart and a spotted flycatcher were seen, but the highlight here was a splendid red-throated diver gliding majestically to and fro on the loch, in good light and quite close to where we were standing. We were lucky with the weather today, but the forecast for the next day was not at all promising!

Sunday 17 May. The weather forecast was correct! It was decidedly chilly, and we spent the first half of the day trying to dodge squally showers. We ventured further afield today, heading up beautiful Strathdearn, otherwise known as the Findhorn Valley, west off the A9 on the way to Inverness. This is a bit of a birding Mecca in the area, renowned for its birds of prey and other mountain species. At our first stop along the 12-mile single-track road we looked down on the river below us. There were curlew and golden plover in a field, and sand martins, house martins and swallows wheeled all about us. There were common sandpipers along the river's edge, and another spotted flycatcher was... well... spotted! By the time we reached the car park at the end of the road, we had added kestrel, buzzard, wheatear, ring ouzel, dipper, goosander and common tern to the list.

We thoroughly scanned the ridge tops, finding more buzzards, a couple of raven, and a herd of red deer. One large raptor, flying away, provoked lively debate, but there was not enough consensus to allow it to be recorded as an eagle sighting. Lunch at the car park had to be taken indoors today! After lunch, we set off on foot to walk further up the valley. Just as we tried to locate a calling ring ouzel, the rain hit us hard and we had to scamper quickly back to the shelter of our cars.

By the time we reached our next stop, the RSPB reserve at Loch Ruthven, the weather had improved, and we walked along the lochside path to the bird hide. Loch Ruthven has long been known for its breeding Slavonian grebes (above), although numbers have fallen steadily in recent years. We counted three birds, albeit at a distance on the other side of the loch. On much closer view was a splendid little grebe, and we also added some warblers to the group list - willow warbler, chiffchaff and whitethroat. Some of us were lucky enough to see an osprey (below) drop out of the sky, pluck a fish from the loch and fly off with it, presumably to a hungry family nearby. We also saw a distant red kite and a very obliging whinchat by the car park.

Our final stop of the day was back down the A9 and along a minor road to the tiny community of Ruthven (no relation to Loch Ruthven!). The layby overlooking the River Findhorn, well downstream from this morning, gave great 360 degree coverage. On the river itself were common gull, goosander, redshank, ringed plover and common sandpiper. We watched as, across the river, a stoat was being harassed by some of the gulls. Considering the weather, it was a good day's birding.

Monday 18 May. We began our final full day's birding with a gentle stroll in Anagach Wood, on the edge of Grantown. Plenty of coal tits, blue tits and great tits were on the feeding station, but again no crested tit! The wood was fairly quiet, although we did find another spotted flycatcher, and heard overflying bullfinches. We then headed north to the Moray Firth, starting off with a grand view across Findhorn Bay, next to the now-closed RAF Kinloss airbase. On view were goosanders, red-breasted mergansers, mute swans and shelduck. Linnets and goldfinches flew overhead, yellowhammers sang from nearby bushes, and common terns fished in the bay.

We then moved on to the dunes and shoreline of Burghead Bay, just beyond Findhorn village. We picnicked on the foreshore, from where we had good leisurely birding. A fulmar was soon spotted, and we were able to compare and contrast cormorants and shags. An unexpected great northern diver drifted slowly past where we were having lunch, affording good views for everyone. Moving on to the town of Burghead itself, the rocks around the headland provided superb close views of a variety of waders - ringed plover, dunlin, redshank, turnstone and oystercatcher. On the sea were eider, red-breasted merganser, velvet scoter and a distant gannet. Just below us on the rocks, a couple of rock pipits flitted around. Before leaving this interesting little town, several of us enjoyed a cup of tea in The Bothy café, its outside tastefully painted in duck-egg blue!

On the way back to Grantown, we called into the remote Lochindorb. But the squally rain found us again! One or two people saw a hen harrier flying away, another osprey flew overhead, and a few folk managed to see the resident black-throated diver before it disappeared behind the ruined castle on an island in the loch. At this point, we gave up on birding for the day! Back at our hotel, before another convivial dinner, we had the final call-over. The Group total for the weekend was 95 species, so Ken Searstone collected the prize for guessing the correct number.

Tuesday 19 May. On the final morning of the holiday, people set off in all directions - north, west and south into other parts of Scotland, or heading straight back to York. A few of us went to Cairngorm mountain. At the main car park, a male ring ouzel showed well, and ravens flew overhead. It felt distinctly cold, and a snowy Cairngorm summit was hidden by cloud. Never mind the weather, we took the funicular railway to the upper Ptarmigan station anyway! It was bitterly cold out on the viewing platform and it actually started to snow. Appropriately, we briefly heard a ptarmigan call, but we couldn't see the bird... tantalising!

In spite of one or two periods of challenging weather, the weekend was a great success. There were plenty of good birds around for us to enjoy, although we did miss out on some of the local specialities such as crested tit (right), Scottish crossbill and capercaillie. We must try harder next time! On the plus side, we saw osprey, spotted flycatcher and common sandpiper every day, and all three diver species. We stayed in a very nice place, and there was good camaraderie within the group all weekend. Holidays like this don't just happen by magic. A lot of hard work goes into the planning, and the management of events on the ground.

So a big thank-you to Chris and Anne Lloyd, who bore the brunt of the planning and leading. They were ably assisted by Ken and Helen Searstone, so thanks to them too. I'm sure another venture north of the border cannot be ruled out at some point in the future...