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A Haggis Hunt in the Highlands!

Last month we were back up in The Highlands of Scotland on holiday, based as usual in Nethy Bridge. Our first half-day was spent locally at a few sites just to get the holiday list started! First we went to Anagach Woods in Grantown and had a few common species, best of which was Siskin. Then onto Avielochan where one of the well-publicised Slavonian Grebes showed really well. Also here a Common Sandpiper was my first of 2019! Breeding Goldeneye frequented the lochan as in so many places up here. Next we popped along to Loch Insh and scoped the female Osprey of the resident pair here, the best bet locally for the species seeing as how there are none at Loch Garten this year. Finally we stopped in deciduous woodland near Loch an Eilean and added Blackcap to the trip list. A good start to our trip and after a cracking meal out and great beer we were ready for the next day, our first full day of the holiday up here.

On our first full day we headed west as that was where the better weather would be. Our usual route started at Loch Maree, where a distant Black-throated Diver was scoped. Then next we drove up to the headland of Red Point. En route on Loch Shieldaig was a Greenshank and some smart Hooded Crows, with a Cuckoo calling close by. From the watchpoint we saw a very close stunning summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, as well as a summer Red-throated Diver. Also at sea were Guillemots, Razorbills, a Black Guillemot and Shags. On the shore we picked up 2 superb Twite, a Rock Pipit, a Wheatear and a drumming Snipe. At Gairloch we added Red-breasted Merganser to the seabird tally.

Then a 3.5ml detour from our usual route took us to Mellon Charles where we soon found the long-staying stunning drake Blue-winged Teal. Just offshore was a big colony of Common Terns, great to watch. Rock Doves were also seen here. Next at Mellon Udrigle we watched Dunlin and Ringed Plovers and I found 2 summer plumaged Sanderling in the flock too. Gruinard Bay was next where we saw 6 Black-throated and 5 Great Northern Divers. Three Ravens flew over.

With the better weather in the east today's holiday destination from Nethy was Aberdeenshire. Amazingly overnight there had been a fall of Bluethroats, how lucky were we? But seeing one may be a different thing!

We first tried Collieston as a bird had been there but the sea mist was so thick that we gave up. Next we went to Bullers of Buchan where the mist was whispier. Here we watched the fantastic seabird colony with Shags, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills all in big numbers. A short search revealed 3 Puffins on the sea. In a garden as we walked back a strangled croaking proved to be a trapped Razorbill in a rose bush. Risking fingers to that scalpel-sharp beak I managed to free it without damage to the bird or me!! We released it on the cliff edge be it flew unharmed, strongly out to sea.

We next went to Longhaven Cliffs SWT Reserve where a short way in we came to a group of stunted sycamores. This was a location of another earlier Bluethroat sighting. After a short search a brief view was had but another patient wait paid off when the bird showed for long periods out in the open. It was an immaculate summer plumaged male Red-spotted Bluethroat, what a bird!! Also in the same area we had a Spotted Flycatcher, a Yellowhammer and a Whitethroat.

Our next location was the Ythan Estuary and here a short watch added Eider, Arctic Tern, Sandwich Tern and Little Tern to our lists. Then the final port of call was Blackdog. Offshore our final new birds of the day were Common Scoters and a lone Gannet. Another cracking day with a totally unexpected rarity!

The next day was a much wetter day, drizzle, heavy rain and dull, but most of the time we managed to bird in the drier spells. We started at Lochindorb where we caught up with all the usual species there, including Black-throated Diver, Red Grouse, Curlew, Common Sandpiper and even a breeding Snipe stood on a post! Next we headed up to Nairn and its harbour. We joined a few birders, two of whom were acquaintances from back in Cheshire, amazing! Offshore only Eider and Common Scoters were noted, so we moved on.

Next stop was the Black Isle, to the Udale Bay area. At the hide several late Pink-footed Geese were seen as well as Red-breasted Mergansers, Ringed Plovers, Dunlin and Curlew. Moving to the other side of the bay we watched lots of Eiders offshore but most surprising find was a Red Kite on a fence post eating a dead rabbit.

The next day was spent local, first port of call being Loch Morlich area to search for Crested Tits where we had often seen them in the past. But to no avail, but we did have a calling, flyover Red-throated Diver! So we gave up and headed for a new reserve for us - Craigellachie, near Aviemore . This proved to be a cracking little spot and we caught up with Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and a nice family of 4 Treecreepers. From here we travelled the short distance to Loch an Eilein, where we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon. We had still managed to avoid most of the forecast rain and even had some sunshine and so head off on the long trail. The best birds were seen well away from the 'crowds' as expected. We had fabulous views of Scottish Crossbill, the intermediate sized beak showing really well. I still believe this to be a species and so will still record it! Also on the walk was a female Common Crossbill for comparison, with a more ‘normal’ sized beak. Next we saw a stunning male Redstart, always great to see. To round it all off we had a flyover Crested Tit, the bird calling as it flew low over us and even being answered by another individual close by. Tree Pipits were common along the route too. A drake Goldeneye was on the Loch too. As a final stop we halted en route home to see a Dipper at the nest, not something we have ever seen as well before. So a great day and the weather was never as bad as forecast.

The next day with rain forecast again today we bit the bullet and planned a day on the north coast starting at Spey Bay. On arrival the weather, again, wasn't as bad as forecast so we headed out from the Whale & Dolphin Centre over the shingle ridge to view the River Spey mouth. Immediately we picked up a small, mostly white bird diving continuously. Even without a scope I had inklings of what it was, and using the scope I confirmed that it was a Long-tailed Duck, and a smart drake at that. I managed several digiscoped shots, it even sat on the shingle for a while too. Also 3 Osprey visits were logged by us, two of which saw a successful catch of a fish. Offshore 3 Gannets flew past but little else. Lots of Arctic Terns were in the river mouth plus several Dunlin, lots of Ringed Plover and 40 Goosander. A Whimbrel flew over and I picked out 2 Sanderlings and 6+Turnstones as well. Two Sedge Warblers showed well behind the Dolphin Centre. We then drove westwards popping in at a few harbours to check the sea. The best of these was Lossiemouth where we had a flypast of 4 drake Velvet Scoters. Also seen here were 2 Gannets. Again we had managed a good days birding and avoided getting wet!

Checking the weather forecast on the following day, we decided that going to the east of the Cairngorms was the best idea. So we headed to the Glenshee Ski Centre, on the highest A-road in the U.K. Here conditions were bright & dry but pretty windy. Stopping on the road before the ski centre and scanning the slopes we managed to add Ring Ouzel to the holiday list in the shape of a singing male. We took the 'easy' option of the ski lift, even though the operators were unsure whether to open it in the strong winds. Despite this we got to the top of Cairnwell and started to explore. It was soon apparent that conditions were deteriorating, the winds (later we were told it was gusting to 70mph!!) nearly sweeping us off our feet. Not a nice feeling given we were close to drops down the slopes of over 930m! But we ploughed on and first heard and then saw a Ptarmigan, our target species. Mountain Hares were also seen. It was soon after that, that a ranger appeared to tell us that they were evacuating the tops due to the conditions being extremely dangerous. We, being the fittest, were last to be taken down the long track to the ski base in a fab all-terrain buggy. That was an experience in itself! After a complimentary cuppa in the base station cafe we headed off, agreeing that this was a great adventure and one of the highlights of the holiday so far.

On Friday at last a good forecast so we headed to the Findhorn Valley for a raptor watch. On arriving in the car park at the end of the strath we met up with old friend Gordon Hamlett, who wrote the Best Birdwatching Sites in The Highlands book. Together we all started scanning the skies and as usual Carys picked up the first eagle. It was a Golden Eagle at mid-distance which later became 2ad Golden Eagles which ranged over a large area. Later Sue found an interesting raptor which looked different and which she suspected was a White-tailed Eagle. As we all got on it the 'barn door' wings and short tail confirmed her ID. Otherwise just Buzzards and Ravens in the sky and a Ring Ouzel on the deck. What a great start. Next stop was Slochd Summit from layby 151 on the A9. From here we had a Peregrine showing extremely well. As it flew over it flushed a Ring Ouzel. We then headed up Station Road, Carrbridge, where we saw 3 Cuckoos, one very close and lots of commoner species like Greylag Goose, Lapwing, Song and Mistle Thrushes. A great last day and a fab end to a brilliant holiday.

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