THURSDAY 18 MARCH
At 0600 hours in Aviemore, the thermometer was reading 6 degrees C. It was also very windy with a dark, angry sky. Today was to be another attempt in the Northwest. Fortunately, as we cleared Inverness, the weather improved and gave way to bright, sunny conditions. In fact, excellent eagle weather.
(0700-0800) A regular Golden Eagle site and one where I have rarely failed, particularly in such good weather conditions. The 15 mile drive down this magnificently picturesque valley always puts me off visiting but with my failure yesterday to find any birds, this was a last resort. We gave it our best shot but despite exhaustive scanning of suitable ledges, not one bird was located. The eyrie appeared to be abandoned.
Two DIPPERS showed very well on the Conon river (at the former watchpoint site) and the only other birds of note were 2 SISKINS and 2 Song Thrushes. A few Red Deer were in the hills.
GARVE LOCH (HIGHLAND)
Returning north along the A835 towards Braemore Junction, a single Hooded Crow was seen.
GRUINARD ISLAND AND BAY (HIGHLAND)
The weather was miles better today and the sea had calmed down from yesterday. Conditions were superb for soaring eagles. I scanned and scanned and scanned......
A migrant flock of 97 BARNACLE GEESE was in the rolling green fields just north of the usual layby, along with at least 8 Icelandic Greylag Geese.
On Gruinard Island, the star performer was a fabulous adult male HEN HARRIER which, after hunting, sat on top of the bracken in full view. A pair of Common Buzzards also visited the island but once again, despite the calm conditions, not a single White-tailed Sea Eagle was present. Drat! Two COMMON RAVENS and a Hooded Crow also paid the island a brief visit before departing for the mainland.
The bay itself to the east of the island held at least 25 GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS and 1-2 BLACK-THROATED DIVERS, as well as several BLACK GUILLEMOTS and 6 Common Eider.
Eventually, after an awful lot of scanning the snow-covered peaks, I located a sky-dancing pair of GOLDEN EAGLES. The birds were in full display, with high-speed swooping from a great height. Incredible to see birds of such size adjust to such speed. Numerous Common Buzzards were also displaying. Golden Eagle was my 210th species of the year.
LAIDE AND ACHGARVE VILLAGES, GRUINARD BAY (HIGHLAND)
After 4 ROCK DOVES and a female Reed Bunting were seen in Laide (in An Teallach garden), I located a further 20 ROCK DOVES on the rocky beach below Achgarve (211). The beach also held 10 Ringed Plovers, numerous Oystercatchers and a Common Redshank, with 15 ATLANTIC GREY SEALS resting nearby on rocks.
We made a concerted effort with White-tailed Sea Eagle but after several hours, we had to admit defeat. We spoke to locals who all said that they had been shot for attacking lambs !
ULLAPOOL HARBOUR (HIGHLAND)
A concerted search for the juvenile Iceland Gull that had wintered in Ullapool drew a blank - the bird had departed. About 45 Argenteus Herring Gulls were present in the harbour and at the river mouth, along with 3 Great Black-backed Gulls. There were also 20 Eurasian Wigeon, numerous Turnstones and some very splendid and very confiding BLACK GUILLEMOTS - 9 in total. Alan managed some excellent images of a breeding-plumaged adult that was feeding just 30 yards offshore.
KNOCKAN CRAGS NNR (SUTHERLAND)
Driving across the backbone of the Highlands east towards the opposite coast, we were stunned by the number of road bridges being repaired after this winter's devastating floods and weather. At the roadside in the Crags Reserve, two COMMON RAVEN showed well, along with two Common Buzzard.
LOCH EVELIX (SUTHERLAND)
A drake Ring-necked Duck had been present here during the freeze but had presumably long since departed. The only wildfowl on the loch were 2 Mute Swans, a few Mallard and 5 Common Goldeneye. On the opposite side of the A9, at least 500 Pink-footed Geese were feeding.
NIGG BAY RSPB (HIGHLAND)
Although some 2,000 or more Pink-footed Geese were present on the mudflats and adjoining fields, there was no sign of the three Snow Geese with them. There were two BARNACLE GEESE and an impressive 70 NORTHERN PINTAILS, along with large numbers of Common Shelduck, Lapwing, Curlew and Common Redshank. A single RED KITE was overhead.
ROSEISLE CAR PARK, BURGHEAD BAY (MORAY)
Whilst in the hide, I was informed that the Burghead Bay KING EIDER was on show, so after dipping yesterday, we were determined to score this time. We covered the 60 miles in just little over an hour, despite the Inverness, Forres and Nairn rush hours, and after a long scan, I eventually located the drake with 4 Common Eiders at 1730 hours. Unfortunately, it had swam out on the tide and was rather distant, but did allow all of the salient features to be noted and after half an hour of viewing and just before dusk, all five birds flew up and went strongly east towards Burghead. It was my 212th species of the year.
On this visit, VELVET SCOTERS numbered 36, with just 18 LONG-TAILED DUCKS on the sea and the 6 WHOOPER SWANS still nearby on the flooded field.