WEDNESDAY 17 MARCH
Daylight in Aviemore dawned shortly after 0600 hours. It had been just 5 degrees C overnight and today was calm, bright and clear to start with. Although the majority of the snow had melted and cleared in the past 10 days (and remember places like Grantown-on-Spey had up to seven feet of snow lying from 18 December 2009), there was still vast tracts of permafrost and glazen snow on the Cairngorms and other mountain ranges. There was still odd pockets at low levels too, particularly in parts of the Caledonian Forest sheltered from the sun rays.
Alan and I were out in the field not long after dawn, the first target bird being BLACK GROUSE........
TULLOCH MOOR (SPEYSIDE)
At 0645 hours, the eerie sound of lekking BLACK GROUSE echoed across the moor, and although I failed to locate the single bird displaying close to the screen, I did locate four more lekking distantly behind Forest Lodge (207). Two Roe Deer were also seen.
FOREST LODGE TRACK (SPEYSIDE)
(0700 hours) No early morning Capercaillies on the track I am afraid and virtually nothing in this part of Abernethy Forest other than singing Chaffinches and a few calling Coal Tits. No feeders to be seen by the Lodge buildings. It soon became apparent that the weeks and weeks of deep snow had really taken their toll on the forests, with tracks littered with fallen trees and broken limbs. There was also a lot of lying snow around.
At nearby Achlean Burn, there was much evidence of Capercaillie activity on the main tracks but none was seen. Two SCOTTISH PARROT CROSSBILLS were heard but not seen, and other spartan activity was shown by Robin, Coal Tit and Mallard.
ANAGACH WOODS, GRANTOWN-ON-SPEY (SPEYSIDE)
The woods themselves were very quiet, with Goldcrest and a singing male Mistle Thrush the only birds of note. Whilst checking out the low-lying bog, I came across a male CAPERCAILLIE feeding on the ground just at the edge, its beak green with the fresh pine shoots it was eating. As I relocated closer, the bird stood its ground, and eventually allowed approach down to a few yards. Alan rushed back to the car to get his camera and ten minutes later, returned and was able to get some incredible pictures. I took several too. The bird was very reminiscent of a rogue male I had most recently seen at Forest Lodge and seemed totally unconcerned at our presence. Views were totally out of this world and Alan could hardly believe his eyes. Due to the deep snow, Anagach had been devoid of human life for the best part of three months and this may well have had a bearing on this males boldness. It represented my 208th species of the year.
On the outskirts of Grantown itself, 2 RED SQUIRRELS were seen, and Greenfinches.
Once again, there was no sign of any Crested Tits.
On the River Spey, two GOOSANDER were seen, and whilst driving back towards Aviemore, two COMMON RAVENS flew across the road. Common Gulls were in very short supply, with just one adult in the Boat of Garten area. A further drake GOOSANDER was seen on the Spey by Glencairn House.
At the Aviemore Highland Resort, a further RED SQUIRREL was encountered.
LOCH AN EILEAN (SPEYSIDE)
Loch an Eilean is a traditional Crested Tit site and although three different feeding stations were in operation, a 2-hour vigil failed to record any. Richard Millington had seen one only days before but despite walking the entire circumference of the loch, the pine woodlands failed to yield any.
The nut feeders were alive with Coal, Blue and Great Tits, as well as Chaffinch, with the odd couple of SISKINS occasionally dropping by. A few Goldcrest were encountered in the woodlands.
BOAT OF GARTEN (SPEYSIDE)
By now, I was beginning to run out of potential winter CRESTED TIT sites. I decided to try an old once reliable site just west of Boat of Garten village and within minutes of getting out of the car, one responded to my pishing and showed well at the top of a pine literally yards from the car park (the one opposite the 'Phalarope Pools'). The bird remained on view for about a minute and then disappeared deep into the wood (209).
BURGHEAD BAY (MORAY)
After securing some of the main Speyside specialities, Alan and I decided to move north, and opted to check Burghead for the wintering King Eiders. We parked up in Roseisle Beach car park within the woodland coastal belt and walked the short distance to the beach but frustratingly the wind had increased and the sea state was quite choppy.
At least 50 Common Eiders were offshore but I could not locate any King Eiders. LONG-TAILED DUCKS were certainly plentiful (at least 50 being counted) and VELVET SCOTERS numbered at least 13. A drake Common Goldeneye was also seen, as well as a single Red-throated Diver.
A skein of 38 Pink-footed Geese flew high west, with 6 WHOOPER SWANS on a flooded field pool half a mile west of the car park access track.
It was then time to drive north of Inverness and as we traversed the A9 and A835, several RED KITES were seen, including singles at Tore, Norton Cross Farm and near Conon Bridge. A quick look at Dingwall Academy drew a blank on the long-staying adult Ring-billed Gull and the sight of binoculars soon brought out the head teacher and his concerns. We made a swift exit.
My first British HOODED CROW of the year concerned a bird on the A835 not far from the Braemore Junction. At the Dundonnell Cliffs, COMMON RAVENS were in aerial display.
Gruinard Island was hugely disappointing with no sign whatsoever of any wintering eagles of either species. The sea was also very rough preventing any sensible census of Gruinard Bay.
In the Gairloch area, HOODED CROWS were typically abundant, with 9 together in one field close to Gairloch itself.
Following a report of an adult White-billed Diver off Peterburn, 5 miles west of Gairloch (on the Melvaig road), we spent over an hour there 'scoping the sea offshore. There was certainly no shortage of deep sea-feeding divers, at least 27 GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS being seen just offshore.
There were also good numbers of BLACK GUILLEMOTS offshore (at least 10, several of which were in full breeding plumage) (another first for Britain for the year), along with Common Guillemots, Northern Fulmars and Eurasian Shags. Another COMMON RAVEN was seen but alas no WBD.
The weather in this exposed northwest coast of Scotland had seriously deterioated during the course of the day and was now very windy and inclement. Dusk soon befell us (at 1832) and we made our way back south to Aviemore.