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Autumn in the Highlands 2018

Mark Finn
September 8th-15th

Our annual September birding tour of the Highlands once again provided the clients with exceptional views of some iconic Scottish species. Probably the rarest bird observed was the long-staying Eurasian Hoopoe which showed well on the links at Cromarty. Birds of prey were much in evidence with close encounters of Golden and White-tailed Eagles and the first returning Merlins of the winter. An Iceland Gull at Loch Ewe was unexpected as were a flock of Pale-bellied Brent geese at the same point. The woodland gave us brief views of a Eurasian Capercaillie and a group of Crested Tits which can be hard to locate at times, plus Common and Scottish Crossbills near Dingwall. A good range of waders were observed with a few migrants which included Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear and Garden Warbler. I am sure the following trip report will bring back many happy memories of an excellent all ladies group with much fun and banter.

September 8th-9th: Cromarty Firth, Udale Bay, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Tain, Embo, Loch Fleet, Novar Estate
Daily 79 New 79 Running 79
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and showers on a SW wind 15C

The 8th was basically a pick-up day with various flights arriving at Inverness airport. After our initial dinner and first night the first birding took place at Udale Bay on our doorstep. High tide was upon us and the high tide roost was starting to take place. Careful scanning revealed Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Oystercatcher, several juvenile Common Shelduck, Great Black-backed, Herring, Common and Black-headed Gulls. The first Eurasian Wigeon of the winter were present with smaller numbers of Eurasian Teal and Northern Lapwing. Further down the road towards Cromarty deeper waters attracted Greater Scaup and in nearby scrub a Common Chiffchaff. It was time to move on and visit the 'arty' village of Portmahomack. The sheep fields held a few finches notably Eurasian Linnet, European Goldfinch and Meadow Pipits. Offshore the group located Red-throated Diver, Black Guillemot and a distant flock of c2000 Common Scoters. Tarbatness is close by a noted migrant spot. A walk towards the conifer plantation revealed little of note apart from a Goldcrest, Dunnock and a Eurasian Wren singing from a gorse bush. Offshore a steady passage of Northern Gannets and Sandwich Terns. Lunch was taken at Tain and then onto the caravan site at Embo with its rocky foreshore and sheltered bays. This proved to be a productive area with Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Manx Shearwater and Common Guillemot using the maritime habitats. On the rocks Ruddy Turnstone, Common Knot and Ringed Plover. Further stops at Loch Fleet and The Mound produced the commoner birds and hunting Red Kites. Our last stop was the Novar Estate where a walk around the old pines was productive for Common and Scottish Crossbills, Coal Tit and calling Eurasian Siskins. Back to base after a great days birding.

September 10th: Nairn, Findhorn Bay, Roseisle, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Loch Spynie
Daily 73 New 19 Running 98
Weather: A day of sun and showers on a SW wind 13C

A change of scene today as I headed east into Moray with the first birding stop at Nairn. Walking along the east jetty revealed the usual gull and wader species which included several Sandwich Terns and Black-legged Kittiwakes. On the River Nairn a pair of Grey Wagtails, Goosander, Mute Swan and a Ruddy Turnstone. Findhorn Bay is further east where a scan of the bay added flocks of Common Teal and Eurasian Wigeon and groups of feeding Dunlin. The forest at Roseisle is nearby where the sea held Common Scoter and in the woods Song Thrush and Coal Tit. It was lunch time at Burghead with the tide being very high on this visit. Just offshore sightings of Red-throated Diver, Northern Fulmar, Common Guillemot, Great Cormorant, European Shag and migrant Arctic Terns. The beach at Lossiemouth held the commoner ducks and gulls. Inland from the town is Loch Spynie which has recently been taken over by the RSPB in a management plan. The open water had Little Grebe, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck, a pair of Greater Scaup, Common Moorhen, Lesser Black-backed Gull and best of all an Osprey which caught a fish and flew off with it. Low cloud had pushed down a flock of hirundines of which Sand and House Martins were common with a late Common Swift. Walked back to the van where a Eurasian Treecreeper was seen running up a pine.

September 11th: Brora, Wick, Loch Watten, Dunnet Bay, St John's Loch, Dunnet Head, Scrabster Harbour, Broubster Leans, Forsinard
Daily 66 New 5 Running 103
Weather: Sunny with a cool W wind 12C

Today I headed north into the depopulating area of Caithness and Sutherland. The brisk westerly wind was not in our favour when arriving at Brora. Familiar birds were on the shore and in the sea including a marked passage of Northern Gannets and Black-legged Kittiwakes. I decided to cut our losses and time and head to the sheltered waters of the River Wick at Wick. The muddy edges had a couple of surprises in Greenshank and a juvenile Ruff and high numbers of Goosander and Eurasian Wigeon. A stop at Tesco for supplies and then onto Loch Watten where the wind was whipping up the loch waters. This made it hard to find birds and eventually Northern Shoveler and more Wigeon were located. The road winds its way north to Dunnet Bay an exceptional place for birds sheltering from the elements. Today Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern Divers, Common Scoter, Arctic and Sandwich Terns and Northern Fulmars took advantage of the bay. Waders on the shore comprise of Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone. Further birding stops at St John's Loch and Dunnet Head added nothing of note so I headed to Broubster Leans near Thurso. This was also quiet for birds with Common Ravens and European Goldfinch in good numbers. Our way home was through the flow country of Forsinard. The birds had simply disappeared or the day for some reason so heading home was a good option.

September 12th: Corrimony, Feshiebridge, Nethybridge, Findhorn Valley, Farr Road
Daily 45 New 5 Running 108
Weather: Sunny with a brisk W wind 13C

This was our only early start of the week as we left at 0500 hours to meet up with Simon at Corrimony. On arrival we headed up towards the lek (the first of two) allowed us to view Black Grouse at very close range, with the second leg it totalled 36 birds the highest for a few years. Common Stonechats were using the bracken and migrant Meadow Pipits were also about. Breakfast was appreciated by all and taken in Inverness. Our plans were dashed as the railway was closed due to technical problems (also on Saturday when we tried again). A walk in Feshiebridge was the outcome and on arrival a male Merlin flew past at high speed (missed by many). The pine woods have a low density of birdlife so a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Goldcrest in the first yards were most welcome. In a remote part of the wood a Eurasian Jay flew over and a female Eurasian Capercaillie was observed in flight. On the return walk a mixed flock of tits included five Crested Tits. In the afternoon a trip into the Findhorn Valley where we caught up with a covey of Red-legged Partridges and White-throated Dippers on the river. Birds of prey included several Red Kites, Merlin, Common Buzzard and a Eurasian Kestrel. Back to base a tired but happy group of birders.

September 13th: Achanalt, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Melvich, Loch Ewe, Laide, Gruinard Bay
Daily 62 New 8 Running 116
Weather: Lots of rain showers on a cold NW wind 11C

It was now or never to visit the west coast regarding to weather. I decided to take the plunge and go with the first stop at Achanalt. The loch was devoid of birds which is unusual so a stop in the small woodland of Kinlochewe was made. This proved to be a good move as the shelter from the wind provided us with sightings of Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler. Goldcrest, Dunnock, various tits and a Common Buzzard. My usual stop at Gairloch was affected by rain so I diverted to Melvich which had a surprise bird in a first year White-tailed Eagle. Scrub and stone walls provided cover for migrants and views of Black Redstart, Lesser Redpoll, White Wagtail and Common Stonechat. Loch Ewe was the place for lunch and on arrival a flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew overhead. A walk to the beach and a large rock meant we could shelter from the wind. Looking into the loch revealed a flock of Black-throated Divers (14). On the beach Sanderling, Ringed Plover and a real surprise in a first winter Iceland Gull. The route took us to Laide another sheltered spot where Black Guillemot and a lingering Whimbrel were noted. In the distance an adult White-tailed Eagle on Gruinard Island.

September 14th: Strathconon, Avoch, Chanonry Point, Cromarty, Cromarty Firth, Udale Bay
Daily 68 New 5 Running 121
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 12C

A nice sunny day so a good one to try and find Golden Eagles near Dingwall. The road runs through stands of silver birch and eventually enters a long glen with cliffs and moorland. We were lucky today as up to three Golden Eagles showed at low levels for everybody involved - fantastic views. On the river a White-throated Dipper and on adjacent fields a Northern Wheatear. A return to the Black Isle and the village of Avoch (pronounced OC). A few Goosanders on the beach among the numerous gulls and commoner wildfowl. A diversion to Chanonry Point had a few birds including Red-throated Diver and Arctic Terns. Time to visit Cromarty where the Eurasian Hoopoe was showing well to a host of birders, it seemed out of place in this old and historical village. Overhead a skein of Pink-footed Geese the first I had seen this autumn. Back towards Udale Bay and a stop south of Jemimaville where the look-out point had Slavonian Grebes, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Eider. A final stop at the hide was memorable for an Osprey gorging on a fish a fitting finale to the day.

September 15th: Black Isle, Cairngorm
Daily n/r New 2 Final 123
Weather: Sunny with cool winds from the N 10C

Another try at the Cairngorms with the railway still being under technical issues. Finally caught up with Red Grouse in the lower car park after giving us the no-go on the Farr Road. A pair of Eurasian Skylarks were also noted which brought our total for the week to 123 species. Not bad considering the weather was not in our favour. Everybody caught flights southwards after a very enjoyable week in the Highlands.

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