Sunday 17 November 2013

Searching for grouse in Scotland

Three years ago I had a great short break looking for Scottish speciality birds in the Cairngorm Mountains with Heatherlea, a birdwatching company, but I failed to see capercaillie, and so I decided that this year I would have another attempt.

Arriving by train in Aviemore on November 9th after a 2 night stay in Edinburgh and I had a few hours to kill before being picked up by the Heatherlea guide so I jumped on the bus to the Cairngorm funicular railway. Unfortunately there were no left luggage facilities at Aviemore railway station so I had to drag my suitcase with me but as I got on the funicular railway for the ascent a kindly attendant noticed my luggage and let me store it with her which made things much easier for me.

It was a Saturday, the sun was shining and it was the first day that the ski slopes were open following some good snowfalls and as a result it was incredibly busy. I had heard of birders seeing ptarmigan from the railway or from the cafe at the top of the mountain but on arriving at the top it was totally white and covered with skiers and so after admiring the views I headed back down to the base station.

I took a walk up the mountain from the base station towards the middle station, seeing a few red grouse flying over the heather on the hillside or across the valley. A pair of ravens then appeared along the ridge line with the lead bird dipping down at times towards this ground which resulted in red grouse being flushed from the vegetation. I casually watched the ravens progress when a grouse was flushed and as I got my binoculars on to it as it flew high up above the white skyline I saw it was all white - a ptarmigan, a lifer for me and my second grouse species of the trip! It was joined by a second bird also flushed by the ravens and both birds flew off low over the snow to be joined by a further 10+ birds before they all flew off in a line and out of sight - an amazing sight with the birds being virtually white except for a few patches of brown, mostly on the back, and a good start to my trip.

Red Grouse

The following day we had a before breakfast search for capercaillie but lucked out, seeing a calling flock of 18 whooper swans flying over and 2 redhead goosanders diving for fish in a river as compensation. Heading back for breakfast we stopped at a black grouse lek and saw around 8 males amongst the grass before they were spooked by a female sparrowhawk and flew off. The views were a little distant but they were very handsome birds and my third grouse species of the trip.

After breakfast we headed off again but still dipped out on capercaillie. Highlights of the day were  crested tit in a feeding tit flock, dippers, red and roe deer, brown and mountain hare and a red squirrel but the best sighting were 3 golden eagles together soaring over a snow covered mountain top against a blue sky with a large moon behind them - an amazing sight of a large female, 2nd year bird and a 1st year bird, all showing a golden glow around the head and neck feathers in the strong sunlight and dwarfing nearby ravens before they drifted off out of sight.

The next day and we again dipped out on capercaillie.Good views were had of 2 crested tits coming to feed on seed with coal tits at Loch Garten and as we headed back to the minibus I caught flight views of 2 birds flying down to drink at a large puddle. I managed to get on to one of the birds before it flew off to the top of some pine trees with the second bird flying off out of sight and I was pleased to see it was a juvenile crossbill. However on getting a good look at it sat on the top of the trees and hearing its slightly odd sounding crossbill-like call the guides realised it was in fact a juvenile parrot crossbill with a large head and neck and bill, my second lifer of the trip. One of the guides managed to get some good photos of the bird as well before it flew off.

Crested Tit at Loch Garten - the best photo I could get

The afternoon was spent on The Black Isle where highlights were 4 red kites, around 2000 pink footed geese, scaup, eider, long tailed duck, black tailed godwit and red breasted merganser. A motley collection of hooded crows were seen with the carrion crows but a few birds were very good candidates for pure hooded crows.

The last day of the trip and another capercaillie search drew a blank and the mood on the bus was a little downcast. I had resigned myself to not seeing capercaillie but I wasn't unduly upset as I had decided I would just have to come on the trip again at some point in the future. However as we slowly drove along a road running through a swathe of old Scots pine forest on a lookout for them one of the guides yelled out "Male caper on the right!" and there it was, grouse species number 4 and my 3rd lifer of the trip! It was standing stock still amongst the trees about 20 metres from the (fairly busy) road and we had excellent prolonged views as it carefully watched us watching it. It had a beautiful green sheen to its feathers across its belly and a brown sheen to its back and a smart ivory coloured bill. Some of the group also saw a second male bird nearby which I missed but after turning around and driving back along the road both birds had disappeared from sight. The mood on the bus became very cheerful after finally seeing our target bird and I was very pleased to see it but also a little disappointed as I now haven't got a good excuse to come and do the trip again!

Male Capercaillie

The afternoon was spent along the coast near Burghead where we had excellent views of both velvet and common scoters close to shore and in bright sunlight (beautiful birds) along with eider, long tailed duck, Slavonian grebe, red throated diver, goldeneye, red breasted merganser and gannets. A search among the small groups of eiders eventually yielded a beautiful male king eider, presumably the bird that I saw here 3 years ago. It was coming out of its moult and was a little tatty looking but better than when I saw it in moult 3 years ago, and to finish off a fantastic day as we watched the king eider a pod of bottle nosed dolphins passed by close inshore behind it - an amazing sight against the grey skies and rough surf and totally unexpected.

 Male Eider
Male King Eider

Heading back to Plymouth by train on the 13th November and I enjoyed the scenery of the Highlands as I ate my cooked breakfast, seeing red and roe deer, pink footed goose, whooper swan, red grouse and ravens but best birds were 3 male black grouse flying off amongst the trees as they were disturbed by the train and a great farewell to my Scottish trip - I am sure I will go again as it is such a good trip with excellent birds and other wildlife, excellent scenery, excellent food, excellent guides and good company. And 4 grouse species and 3 lifers in 4 days is pretty good going!

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