NEW! Sutherland & Caithness - May
On this three-centre holiday we explore the extreme north of the island of Great Britain, visiting key birding destinations including Handa Island, Dunnet Head and the Flow Country. This holiday will be of especial interest to those who enjoy breeding seabird watching, with skuas, divers, Black Guillemot and perhaps a passing Manx Shearwater to add to the spectacle of Puffin, Guilliemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Kittiwake and Shag in considerable number. We also include some little visited inland locations on a relaxed and rewarding tour of the far north. The holiday is timed to coincide with peak migration time, and this underwatched area and can turn up excellent rare birds. A lovely and relaxing holiday in mainland Britain's northernmost and remotest counties.
DAY 1: Sat 25 May East Sutherland and South East Caithness
The tour begins at Nethy Bridge, and we depart from Mountview Hotel before 9am. Our route north takes in beautiful country as we take a scenic and wildlife-rich route through coastal, moorland and woodland habitats. Our first few stops will be to look for moorland birds, including Hen Harrier. Dropping down to the coast, we shall take in Loch Fleet NNR where we should find a good assemblage of waders and wildfowl, with Common Seals and fishing Osprey also likely. Heading north we visit several quaint fishing villages and their harbours, keeping an eye open for lingering winter visitors such as seaduck, gulls and waders. After visiting Latheron Wheel, we head inland, and start our search for breeding waders. En route to Thurso we take in several freshwater lochs where we should add several more duck species to our already large list. We arrive in Thurso late afternoon, and settle into our comfortable hotel, which will be our base for the next three nights.
DAY 2: Sun 26 May North East Caithness
For those who know little of this part of the country, today will be a real eye-opener. Visiting bustling wetlands and spectacular sea-cliffs that are full of birds with far reaching views taking in at least 50 miles of scenery, today is truly special. Starting at St John’s Pool, we will enjoy superb views of Arctic and Sandwich Terns, waders and wildfowl. The newly recognised “rarity hotspot of Caithness” always offers something different, and repeats of the 2011 Grey Phalarope, Greater Yellowlegs or Bonaparte’s Gull here would be appreciated! Moving up to Dunnet Head (Britain’s most northerly point), we will take in our first of three seabird colonies. Here we get our first looks at the imposing Great Skua, and hope to get our first Twite. Stopping briefly in John O’Groats we head up to the real attraction here, Duncansby Head. We will find a stunning view, a bustling seabird colony and a superb cetacean watching spot (including Orca in 2011!). If time allows we finish the day at Loch of Mey to add to our wader and passerine list. Overnight in Thurso.
DAY 3: Mon 27 May North West Caithness
Most people’s image of Caithness is dominated by the vast peatland images of RSPB Forsinard, while most of it is actually fertile and even arable. We shall visit more of this rich agricultural land today, excellent wetland sites that will contain numerous breeding species including Snipe, Redshank, Lapwing and Curlew. Rarities also occasionally breed in these remote places, and we may be lucky to catch up with a Wood Sandpiper or Spotted Crake. Once we have taken in RSPB’s Broubster Leans, we shall head back up to the coast to visit stunning villages and beaches such as Fresgoe and Portskerra. A walk up to Strathy Point, which projects far out from the north coast should give us another chance of cetaceans, and for the botanists, may include the extremely rare Scottish Primrose. Overnight in Thurso.
DAY 4: Tues 28 May The Flow Country
Checking out Scrabster Harbour for any late staying winter gulls, we head west and then south out onto the Flows. Today will be a driving tour of the Flows, hoping to connect with most of the breeding species including Greenshank, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Hen Harrier and with luck, Short-eared Owl. We make frequent stops and take a short walk at the RSPB Forsinard Reserve. Roadside lochs en route often hold Red and Black-throated Divers, whilst the woodlands are good for Common Crossbill, Lesser Redpoll and Siskin. Depending on our success in the morning, we will either continue to explore the Flows for the afternoon, or will explore woodlands at Borgie and in Strathnaver. Either way, we end up in Tongue, where we shall stay the night. Depending on the tide and weather, we shall look for Otters on the Kyle of Tongue in the evening or morning.
DAY 5: Wed 29 May North West Sutherland
Today we cover the relatively short distance from Tongue to Rhiconich at a very slow pace. We start by going around the Kyle of Tongue, a spectacular setting offering excellent birding. We also take a detour down the side of Loch Hope looking for ducks and divers, and with luck our first Golden Eagles of the trip. Deciduous woodlands here often hold Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher, and finding Cuckoo should not be difficult, with us touring at the best time for seeing them. Heading back to the coast, we scan out over Loch Eriboll, an excellent spot for all three species of Diver in breeding plumage. Moving on to Durness, we listen out for Corncrake in the specially managed crops before heading down to the stunning beach and dunes of Balnakeil Bay. If time and weather allow, we will walk out on to Faraid Head, a great area for botanists, birders and sea mammal spotters. Our day ends at Rhiconich, where we will stay for the next two nights.
DAY 6: Thurs 30 May Handa Island
Always a summer favourite, Handa is essentially a mini-Shetland with 100,000 seabirds, including Great and Arctic Skua at close quarters. Other birds on Handa are equally approachable, and we can hope for close-up Red Grouse, Wheatear, Rock Dove, Rock Pipit and Twite views. Being one of Europe’s largest Razorbill and Guilliemot colonies, we will spend plenty of time examining the fascinating ecology of these remarkable birds, many of whom will have just laid eggs. With 114m cliffs facing out into the plankton rich Minch, cetaceans are also quite common and we hope for calm seas to maximise chances. Handa is also a good rarity outpost, and we will check the cover, beaches and bays for any scarce vagrants. When we are finished on the island, our adventure is not over, as our boat will take us on a cruise around the island giving a rare and privileged view of the cliffs and their teeming birdlife. We return to Rhiconich for our last night on the West.
DAY 7: Fri 31 May Assynt and the Northwest Highlands
Today we slowly work our way back to Nethy Bridge, taking in all the remote corners of the northwest Highlands as we go. Our main focus is on Assynt, a rugged and spectacular landscape, and a GeoPark in its own right in recognition of the fabulous geology here. This is an area where birders seldom visit, yet it holds all of the iconic breeding species of the region amid stunning scenery; who could ask for more? We will visit places such as Stoer Point, Lochinver, Inverkirkaig and Knockan Crag checking the numerous sea lochs, freshwater lochs and wetlands for breeding and migratory birds, and keep an eye skyward for Merlin, Golden and White-tailed Eagles. After checking the river and harbour at Ullapool we head back east. The holiday ends on our arrival back at Nethy, around 5.30pm.
Expect a wide variation in weather conditions. Blazing sunshine, rain and strong winds are all possible, and you will probably experience a bit of everything. Biting insects not expected. Please bring walking boots or shoes, weatherproof clothing and a small rucksack.
What's included in your Sutherland and Caithness holiday price
•Six nights comfortable en-suite hotel accommodation. We choose hotels from our personally inspected shortlist, where birders are welcome and the hospitality is special. Guests are never expected to share. Full details with your joining pack.
•Full Scottish breakfast and dinner from Saturday evening til Friday morning, packed lunch daily.
•All transfers by comfortable minibus. All ferries and other boat trips including Handa Island boat. •Drivers can leave vehicles safely parked at The Mountview Hotel.
•Guidance from a professional Group Leader.
What's not included in your Sutherland and Caithness holiday price
•Extra night in Nethybridge area at beginning and end of holiday. This can be arranged for you if requested at time of holiday booking. Price £45 per person B&B.
•Insurance, drinks and other items of a personal nature.
•Transfers from/to transport links in Aviemore.
‘HEATHERLEA EXTRA’ – ask for more details