I visited Scotland in May 2007 with Helen with the intention of seeing a few target species of my own and to show Helen some of the species we had missed the previous year.
My target bird species were Capercaillie, which I hadn’t seen for several years, Corncrake, only previously heard and to obtain good views of White Tailed Sea Eagle. My target mammal was Otter, which I had not seen in the UK before, although I have had good sightings on the continent.
The Itinerary included the Spey Valley for 4 days, the Ardnamurchan Peninsula for 5 days and the Island of Mull for the remainder of the holiday. The latter two I had never visited before.
We camped at the Coylum Bridge campsite just outside Aviemore where I have been on many previous occasions. This provides an excellent central base for the area and is a fantastic campsite, situated in a great setting with an excellent toilet and shower block .
During our stay in May the site was virtually empty which made it very peaceful unlike the previous year when plenty of noisy kids and picnic table stealing campers slightly marred the experience.
Day 1 – 12th May Loch Garten Osprey Hide, Tulloch Moor and Abernethy Forest
We set off early in the morning around 5:30 with my brother Ian and his partner Lorena, to arrive at the RSPB Osprey hide for their Capercaillie watch. The car park was fairly busy but on reaching the hide we were pleasantly surprised in that it was not full. They had already got a Capper on the CCTV displaying in the heather some way off from the hide and a group had gone over to the smaller front hide to get a better view of the bird.
After some time we were grateful to a fellow birdwatcher who managed to spot the bird through a scope from the main hide. We all took turns down the scope and managed fairly decent views of the head and upper body through the heather. The people in the forward hide couldn’t see the bird from their position.
The usual suspects were present at the hide including Osprey, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Siskin and Red Squirrel.
We left after getting reasonable views of the male Capercaillie, a life bird for Helen, not for the rest of us especially Lorena who was attacked by a Capper when she was younger, lucky blighter some might say, others may just have been scarred for life by the experience.
The next port of call was the Black Grouse Lek area at Tulloch Moor just down the road. We arrived fairly late at around 7-30 to 8 o clock. However, on getting out of the car at the site where the RSPB have cut the heather to form a path, we heard the unmistakable strange cooing and screeching calls of male Black Grouse at the Lek. Good scope views were obtained of five birds displaying and in flight. Later in the day we had close views of a female bird on the roadside in front of the car. The rest of the day was spent in Abernethy Forest and a trip to Lochindorb.
Lochindorb provided reasonable scope views of the resident Black Throated Divers plus a few common wader species, whilst commoner woodland bird species were seen in Abernethy Forest plus Red Deer and Roe Deer.
Day 2 – 13th May Forest Lodge
The weather had improved a little so we decided to have a walk around the ancient Caledonian pinewoods at the RSPB’s Forest Lodge.
I visited Forest Lodge for the first time in 2006 but my brother hadn’t been before. I followed a route found on a trip report on the net. We parked at the car park close to the lodge and walked down to the river. Crossed the river at the bridge and followed the track uphill taking the first right hand turn up a wide stony track. This runs parallel to the river getting higher as you walk along. The track eventually comes to a junction like a three-pronged fork. Take the middle prong heading straight on. Either left or right will bring you to a ford, which may not be passable on foot dependant on the weather.
On taking the middle track it winds uphill through the woods and several open areas. On one such area to the left of the track we had excellent views of male Black Grouse flying into the woods.
The last bit of woodland before you come out onto the open moors is supposed to be a good area for Capercaillie. Last year we saw none and this year up to this point we had only seen droppings on the path. However as the track dips down just before the last outcrop of woodland my brother yelled f******g h**l male capper. No need for binoculars at this point as the bird flew across in front of us about 10 feet away. We had a possible female flying in the wood a little further up the hill.
As we were recovering a bird of prey appeared over the woods and on closer inspection we could see a golden nape patch as a Golden eagle soared above us. After a while a second eagle appeared and the two soared higher into the distance displaying to each other with great swoops in the air.
Other birds seen in the woods were Redstart, Crested Tit, Tree Pipit and Whinchat at the edge of the woods on the moorland.
Day 3 – 14th May Abernethy Forest, Anagach Community Woodland, Loch Morlich and Tulloch Moor
A second visit to the Osprey centre provided very poor views of a male Capper in the distance. On this occasion there was great excitement in the centre. The male Osprey had arrived late and kicked all the eggs out of the nest that had been laid from a mating with another male. However, the female had laid one egg with this male (Henry I think) and on the morning of 14th May a second egg was spotted in the nest. Apparently this was the first time in over 25 years that this nest had produced a second clutch.
A visit to Tulloch Moor provided more distant views of Black Grouse, which could be heard lekking all around us as the mist lifted. A pair of Redpolls flew over as we were watching the grouse. Other common species such as Stonechat, Goldfinch and Tree Pipit were seen.
Day 4 – 15th May Forest Lodge, Loch Garten, Loch an Eilein and Tulloch Moor
Loch Garten, Tulloch Moor and Forest Lodge produced similar common species to our previous visits and the presence of a team of RSPB volunteers in a four wheel drive at Forest Lodge ploughing past us frightened off a Capper as we were later informed by one of them. We did have good views of Redstarts singing in the treetops and as we were walking back down the track a lovely male Goshawk flew over our heads. A lifer for Helen.
We ended the day with a trip to Loch an Eilein where we were due to meet with the Speyside Wildlife People as we had booked to go to their wildlife hide. The only bird of note was a Red Breasted Merganser on the loch. Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail were evident around the car park end of the loch.
We met with the guide at around 8 o clock who walked us back to the loch for a talk on the estate and a toilet break as there are no toilets in the hide. We eventually reached the hide just after 9 o clock and settled down. The evening was actually a bit disappointing compared to out visit the previous year.
This year the badgers did not stay for very long, no Pine Martens were seen and I couldn’t video anything as this years guide insisted on keeping the lights very dim. The previous year we were lucky with our Pine Marten sighting and we had three badgers, which stayed around for ages. All were captured on video as the lights were turned up to allow some video to be taken. Other than Badger this year as with last year we saw Bank Vole, Wood Mouse and Red Deer.
I suppose we were just spoilt last time.
Day 5 – 16th May Aviemore to Ardnamurchan
We headed west towards the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and the rain. Around Aviemore, the weather although not brilliant did allow us to get out for a walk in between showers. However, Ardnamurchan was a different story.
We arrived at the campsite at Ormsaigbeg where I had booked a caravan, expecting bad weather. There was no one at the site and the rain was coming down in buckets. A sign on the site gate gave a home and mobile number for the owner Trevor Potts with whom I’d booked on the Internet.
I tried both numbers with no reply and eventually sent a text to him. Be aware that not all networks are available on the peninsula. My phone on Virgin had no coverage but luckily Helens phone on Orange was ok. A while later after sitting in the rain wondering if we were going to get a bed for the night the phone rang. It was Trevor, the poor bloke had been taken into hospital. We were told where the key was hidden and after checking found it, in the door. We later met Mike who stays regularly on the site and was taking the money for Trevor.
I paid Mike for a couple of nights (£20 per night) initially as the caravan was very old but for £20 a night it was about what I was expecting. We unpacked the car in the rain and settled in to the sound of bleating under the van. A local farmer had chased the seashore sheep out of his children’s veggie patch and a lamb had taken refuge under the caravan. We had tea to the sound of bleating and watched the Sound of Mull in the rain to the sound of bleating. On the Sound were some Common Seals, a pair of Red Throated Divers, a Black Guillemot and a Great Northern Diver (Helens third life bird).
I was beginning to warm to the caravan now. It had a heater and it was 50 or so yards from the sea. Location, location, location is the all-important factor when choosing a holiday home.
Other commoner sea birds were watched from the caravan amongst sporadic wiping of the rain from the windows and a Ring Ouzel flew by plus a couple of pairs of Twite.
Due to the comfort factor (heater), the location and the removal of the lamb by its mother we decided to stay for 5 days, as was the original plan.
Day 6 – 17th May Ardnamurchan Point and Lighthouse plus Ardery Hide
We awoke to the sound of the rain on the metal roof and the non stop calling of our local Cuckoo who even called at 3 o clock in the morning.
The rain soon cleared and we decided to visit Ardnamurchan point the most westerly point of mainland Britain.
I checked out the pools near the car park as I had noted from a trip report that Palmate Newts could be seen here. Sure enough I eventually found the right pool and saw at least four of the newts.
The weather remained dry so we decided to take the coastal walk to Portuairk. Park by the roadside where the footpath is signposted and follow the path.
We passed through a fairly deserted caravan park where good views of another Great Northern Diver were obtained in the bay, plus Stonechat and Twite around the caravans. After leaving the caravans behind we had good views of Raven and Hooded Crow just before the rain started up again. We had our waterproofs so decided to keep going. As the rain got worse we did an about turn and marched quickly back to the car.
Due to the weather conditions we drove to the Ardnamurchan Visitor Centre. I picked up some information on how to get to the Ardery Hide and checked the CCTV camera for live footage of eagles at the nearby feeding site. They were playing some pre-recorded footage of Buzzard, Golden Eagle and White Tailed Sea Eagle but there was no live footage so we headed off to the Ardery hide in the hope that we may find something to watch in the rain under the shelter of the hide.
The hide is situated overlooking Loch Sunart, which does have Otters and Dolphins present. Not on this day though. The best views we had were of a Rock Pipit sheltering on the rocks below the hide and a pair of Red Breasted Merganser out on the loch. One of the islands in front of the hide contains a heronry where surprise, surprise were a few Herons and the odd seal loitered around the edges of the loch.
Day 7 – 18th May Campsite, Glenborrodale and Sanna Bay
Well yet another surprise. It was raining again. We spent some time in the caravan, took a car trip to Sanna Bay on the north coast of the peninsula and managed a walk in the Oak woods of the RSPB reserve at Glenborrodale.
The morning rain was intermittent with sunny spells so we headed for Glenborrodale RSPB reserve by the shore of loch Sunart. We managed to dodge most of the showers and walked the length of the reserve through the Oak woods.
Close to the car park we had excellent views of Wood Warbler (Helens fifth life bird). Tree Pipit and Spotted Flycatcher were also found in the woods. We stopped at the top of the hill in the grassland to view the surrounding scenery. A pair of Buzzards were observed and we found a Ravens nest in the crags above us. A few fritillary butterflies ventured out between the showers but did not stop to be identified and a big hairy Drinker Moth Caterpillar had to be rescued from a puddle. There were plenty of puddles. Walking boots are a good idea here.
Walking back along the road to the car park saw the rain clouds closing in again so we walked quickly back to the car for hot soup and bread just avoiding the rain.
We warmed up and headed to the Sanna Bay area on the north coast of the peninsula. The road takes you over an ancient volcanic region, which may be great to explore in better weather conditions. On reaching Sanna Bay you must park away from the village in a large car park and walk to the bay. The car park was empty, not surprising in the rain, so we turned round and headed back to the relative warmth of the caravan. During the days travels we managed to see a Merlin amongst the commoner moorland species.
The weather was now extremely squally over the Sound of Mull and the wind was whipping the sea up. Great conditions for diverting seabirds up the Sound according to Mike in the other caravan. We therefore decided to have a spot of tea and sit and watch the water from the caravan. The birds came thick and fast up the Sound. Most were Manx Shearwater but I did manage to pick out one darker similar sized shearwater, which I identified as a Balearic Shearwater. Helen missed this one but a single Arctic Skua picked out amongst the squalls was her sixth lifer. So ended another rainy day.
Day 8 – 19th May Ardnamurchan Point and the North Coast
The wind did not let up all night and despite the banging of metal panels and being rocked by the wind the caravan stood its ground.
As the weather was again quite squally we decided to try sea watching at the point from the top car park near the lighthouse. What a stroke of genius. I positioned the car to allow a window to be opened so we could watch the sea. There were loads of Manxies wheeling about over the sea plus Fulmar and Auk species. All of a sudden a group of darkish long winged birds appeared over the sea, Skuas. They were also very long in the tail. In total we saw 14 Long Tailed Skuas, an unexpected lifer for both of us. I managed to identify a couple of distant Arctic Skuas and my second ever Pomarine Skua (lifer for Helen). The next Skua to head past was much closer in and was easily identified as a Bonxie. Great the full series.
Whilst watching the sea I noticed a largish dark bird heading towards the car along the edge of the cliffs. Without taking much notice I assumed it was a juvenile gull. As it came closer I shouted out Skua, then as it flew past the windscreen of the car I mouthed bloody hell it’s a pom. We both watched as a beautiful adult Pomarine Skua glided past feet away from the car showing its spoon shaped central tail feathers and all.
Day 9 – 20th May Ardnamurchan Point, Glenborrodale and the campsite
The lighthouse proved less attractive this day with no real surprises, just a Great Northern Diver and common sea birds to be seen.
Glenborrodale was a washout in the rain so we didn’t walk far but did see Treecreeper around the car park and Garden Warbler from the roadside. Along the shores of Loch Sunart we saw our first Eider of the holiday plus Red Breasted Merganser and Shelduck. Ringed Plover, Redshank, Buzzard, Kestrel, Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Wood Warbler, Wheatear, Whinchat, Stonechat, Redstart and Rock Pipit to mention a few were seen on our travels also. We stopped on the higher ground in the centre of the peninsula near Loch Mudle for a snack and saw Redpoll, Twite and Linnet.
Back at the caravan a third Pomarine Skua winged its way up the Sound of Mull along with a Sandwich Tern. Rock Dove was also seen.
We decided to head down to the Iris beds close to the petrol station in the village where Mike had heard a corncrake and photographed it earlier in the week before we arrived. I had tried this on several occasions at different times of the day but had neither heard nor seen the bird.
As I was intently checking out the Iris beds Helen mentioned she was certain she had seen a tail. As I looked in the direction she pointed out a beautiful dog Otter popped up on a rock and then quickly slipped back into the water. He was heading back round the bay past the village. We eventually relocated him a way away along the bay so we moved the car to a better position and watched and videoed him fishing in the small pools around the bay. Just as he was approaching the position where we had parked two locals wandered down the road and he slunk back into the water and headed further out into the bay. Our final views were of him catching crabs in the sunset lit water. What a way to end our few days on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
Day 10 – 21st May Kilchoan Ferry to Mull – Dervaig, Aros Glen and Grasspoint
We had a fairly lazy start to the day having packed most of our gear the previous night so we didn’t get the ferry until around 10 o clock. Whilst waiting for the ferry our only Black Throated Diver of Ardnamurchan flew over. The ferry was pretty uneventful with nothing much to be seen at all and it was bitterly cold. A point noted for our pre-booked whale watch a few days later.
Nothing was visible except for a few seals lounging on the islands in the bay so we headed further up the road and parked close to a sailing club entrance. Whilst watching and filming a Herring Gull I noticed a movement in the water amongst the Kelp. Low and behold a female Otter with a mature cub were catching crabs and fish in the Kelp beds. I managed to grab some video before the local Mull Wildlife Safari team arrived with several noisy onlookers plus a family who didn’t see the otters but went down to the waters edge to take pictures of the seals.
As expected the Otters moved further out into the bay and eventually disappeared behind one of the rocky islands.
This was to be a daily problem on Mull. Everyone wants to see Otters understandably, but not everyone is quiet and careful when watching Otters and more often than not they are frightened away. This was the case with most wildlife we stopped to watch on Mull. If you stop to look at something, everyone else stops to have a look too. The only time you have it all to yourself is early in the morning when everyone else is still in bed.
After watching the Otters we headed for our campsite, The Shielings at Craignure.
Whilst on Ardnamurchan we had decided not to use our tent on Mull but to hire a pre-erected tent (a Shieling) due to the intensity of the wind. Therefore, for £27 per night we had a huge white tent with electric light, gas heater, cooker and six beds to ourselves for the next few nights. The tent was great but when the light and the heater were on the local midges must have thought it was their lucky night and they’d found a giant sheep to nibble on. One night we had several thousand midges in the tent. Luckily most of them still thought the white tent was a sheep and headed for the walls of the tent leaving us alone. What was once a white wall became completely black with midges so beware if you intend to visit Mull.
We unpacked the car and headed for Grasspoint and Lochdon to look for the Sea Eagle nest there. This was a popular nest to visit as the well watched nest near Loch Frisa had been damaged in high winds and the chicks had unfortunately been blown out of the nest and perished.
The road to Grasspoint has only two places to park one before the eagles nest and one after. The nest is monitored by CCTV and by a vigilant force of locals and police, as are all the other nests on the island. It is not possible to get close to any of the eagle nests on Mull, which is in my opinion a good thing.
We headed back to the tent for another camp meal and to reflect on the fact that I had seen White Tailed Sea Eagle but not close enough to video, I had already videoed Otter and Capercaillie but what about the elusive Corncrake.
Day 11 – 22nd May South Mull and Iona
The day consisted of a drive down to Fionphort to catch the ferry to Iona. As long as was necessary on Iona to see and video Corncrake if possible, followed by a leisurely drive back via Loch Scridain and Loch Na Keal.
We missed our intended ferry due to the road being busy with many stops in passing places. However after a short wait of 10 minutes we boarded the ferry and headed off to Iona.
We walked towards the Abbey with the herd of other tourists looking for prime Corncrake sites. A few were noted but no birds were heard. We then decided to head for the Fire Station where I had been told was a good spot. Hopes were high as the sun was out but the wind was pretty fierce. On reaching the Fire Station the rasping call of a Corncrake could be heard but after about an hour of searching no Corncrake could be seen. I walked a little way down the road and the call seemed to follow me. It dawned on me that the bird was calling from further up the hillside and the sound was being carried directly down the hill to the Fire Station.
We headed along the path round the hillside where I was sure the bird was calling from. As we passed a large white house with a grassy garden the call started up again, this time much louder. We walked around the wall of the garden to a point where the call was so loud we were almost deafened. Although the bird must have been within 5 feet of us we could not see it. We gave up after a while for fear of upsetting the occupants of the house who were watching us from an upstairs window.
After walking around a good proportion of the Island and asking locals where the Corncrakes were, we had heard up to 7 or 8 birds but not seen any. We arrived at the Iris beds just below the Abbey to be told by a group of birders we had just missed a glimpse of a Corncrake.
We left Iona via the 4 o clock ferry and set off north to check out the south and north shores of Loch Scridain and the south shore of Loch Na Keal. Birds such as Eider, Shelduck, Teal and other common species were noted around the lochs.
On turning off the main road along the north shore of Loch Scridain we stopped in a passing place near a wildlife Safari group to find out that they were watching a dog Otter asleep on the rocks. We had great views of the animal as it rolled around in the seaweed, cleaned itself then sprainted a couple of times before slipping into the water and disappearing.
Along the south shore of Loch Na Keal we picked up bathing Golden Plover and Dunlin before heading back to the tent for tea, a bottle of wine and a game of cards.
Day 12 – 23rd May East Mull including Loch Spelve, Loch Buie and Lochdon
The weather was again appalling and dictated wildlife watching from the car. We first visited Loch Spelve passing through some Oak woods along the way. In the woods Wood Warblers were heard singing from the roadside.
Yet again we watched the raindrops for a while before heading back to the campsite.
Day 13 – 24th May Whale Watching Trip
We headed out into the open sea watching intently for hurries of birds feeding at the surface. These normally indicate the presence of good feeding for Whales. The previous day both Minke Whale and Basking Shark had been seen.
The birds were a little few and far between although we had good views of Gannets and Manx Shearwaters on the sea close to the boat. Other species included four Auk species, Kittiwake, Bonxie and Arctic Skua.
The boat was turned around and the area circled a couple of times but no further sightings of the whale were obtained. I reckon everyone else thought I was imagining it after around eight hours of looking and seeing none.
On nearing the Harbour we saw a few more Porpoise to round off the trip. We purchased a DVD from Sealife Surveys to have a look at what we could have seen.
After the disappointment of the trip we headed for our local boozer, the Craignure Inn for a seat near the fire, some excellent food and a couple of pints of the local real ale.
That night we heard a male and female Tawny Owl around the campsite.
Day 14 – 25th May Lochs Beg, Scridain, Na Keal and Tuath
We awoke to find a great rarity in the sky above us, the sun. Typical, I would have traded today’s weather for yesterdays. The sky was bright and the wind had dropped. Ideal whale watching conditions.
We decided to have a look for eagles as the weather was looking up. We headed for a known Sea Eagle nest between Loch Scridain and Loch Na Keal and parked up in a passing place to scope the nest. A lady was filming the birds and allowed us to have a look down the eyepiece of her video camera as it magnified many more times than my scope. A female bird was on the nest feeding a single youngster. After a while I cheekily asked if I could use her video camera with my mini DV tape to record some footage. She very kindly obliged. I never asked her name but was very grateful for this and other information the video lady gave us regarding a Golden Eagles nest around Loch Na Keal.
As we sat in the car watching a curlew and a Heron, Helen noticed something swimming in the water. It appeared to be a small Otter but as it emerged out of the water it was soon identified as the dreaded Mink.
We left the Mink about its business and headed for the Golden Eagle nest site. On reaching the site a couple of extremely annoyed Ravens were calling like mad. The reason for their calls was a pair of Golden Eagles soaring along the crags. One bird soared upwards and disappeared into the sky whilst the other landed somewhere on the face of the crags. I lost the bird when it landed. However, it took off several minutes later and I watched it carefully noting where it landed. Out came the scope and I found the adult eagle on the edge of the crags at the nest site. We watched the bird for a while pointing it out to a few passing birders before heading back to the tent. The day’s weather had been good with only a couple of showers and two Golden Eagles and four Sea Eagles to boot.
Day 15 – 26th May Loch Na Keal, Loch Scridain, Loch Beg and the journey home
We arose early in the morning and the weather was again at its best with the sun shining. We headed directly for Loch Na Keal and Loch Scridain to look for White Tailed Sea Eagles. There were none around Loch Na Keal so we moved on to Loch Scridain. As the road neared the loch side a couple of immense brown blobs could be seen on the rocks close to the water’s edge. Bino’s out, yep two Sea Eagles sat close to the road. Action stations, video camera attached to the car window we drove slowly towards the birds and stopped just past a hillock to video the birds. The shots of a female and juvenile male in the sunshine were just fantastic. The birds eventually moved to a small rocky islet in the loch where I continued to video them.
It was at this time that the comedy moment presented itself. Two eagles screwing their heads round to watch an Otter come up and sniff at them before choosing the sensible option of slipping back into the water to carry on fishing. I then waited for over an hour to get some flight shots of the birds. No matter how much coughing and spluttering I did with my rain-induced cold the birds would not budge. Even the attentions of mobbing Herring Gulls and Hooded Crows could not dislodge them from their rock. After just over an hour the birds performed a talon grappling exercise and some wing flapping on the rock before one and then the other took to the air and carried their huge frames off and out of sight.
All in all even though the weather was not at it’s best (understatement of the year) we enjoyed the entire holiday and I managed to video my four target species; Capercaillie, White Tailed Sea Eagle, Corncrake and Otter, all at close range. Can’t complain.
To view the full Trip List click here