Heatherlea - WHAT OUR GUESTS ARE SAYING!
Hundreds and hundreds of wildlife lovers join us here in Scotland every year, and it is their positive feedback which keeps us going. Here are just some of the comments made at the end-of-week roundup.
Isn't this how YOU want to feel at the end of your Scottish wildlife holiday?
The comments in blue come from our guides.
“This is the first time I have been on a wildlife holiday of this kind and it has been a great experience. My favourite bird was the Merlin - so quick and agile. The Capercaillie were so close and it’s the first time I have seen Puffin too. I enjoyed watching the Red Kite eating on the wing, dropping the prey and then catching it again.” J.H.
“My special birds were the cock Capercaillie in the early morning, followed by Red throated Diver, which I managed to identify myself when on Handa. There were so many highlights, but one that will stay with me was being with so many cheerful, helpful and patient folk, who got me onto birds, shared scopes, and got me over rough ground. Thank-you all very much. And special thanks to the guides.” J.M.
“Thanks to our guides Ian and Jonny for another excellent week and for your patience. I don’t think I have very much to say, but my highlight was the puddle, where the Crested Tit was bathing, most especially when the Goldcrest came for a bathe and fluffed up his gold crest! The Parrot Crossbills today, and the walk for the Ptarmigan - oh, and the Minke Whales!” K.M.
HIGHLAND WINTER BIRDING, MARCH
‘We arrived at another small, Highland fishing harbour to the sight of hundreds of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, a few Common Gulls and the odd Kittiwake, all just standing around, avoiding the outstretched drying wings of the Shags and Cormorants and relaxing in the watery winter light. However, it only took half a left over sandwich before the promised Iceland Gull arrived, confusing us all by gliding in from the rear to snatch the crusts before the Herring Gulls realised what was going on. The Iceland Gull landed on a rock, and unbelievably stood next to it was a 1st winter and a 2nd winter Iceland Gull - giving us a great example of the various plumages that occur as the birds grow older. Twenty-four hours later, the old sandwich trick worked again at another harbour with the larger, bolder, yet equally as white-winged Glaucous Gull, but alas only the 1st winter came to grab something to eat, so there was no variation of plumage to enjoy.’
“With Mike and Ian leading, it seemed destined to be a winner as soon as we set off on the first day! The Pine Marten on the shore was unbelievable; the Otters in such a lovely setting, the Ospreys fishing, the Crossbills…every day and every stop was amazing!” M.J.
“Seeing Crested Tits in the puddle beside the patch on Wednesday morning - the best views we have ever had of this very elusive species. Seeing and identifying Parrot Crossbills in the pinewoods on Friday morning - again very good views and a "lifer" for both of us. We have both seen Common Crossbill and are not sure about the Scottish variety!!” P.S.
HIGHLAND WINTER BIRDING, MARCH
‘A local day to get views of the 3 Cs – Capercaillie, Crestie and Crossbill. If Roy of the Rovers were a birder, the story couldn’t have been more unbelievable, as wandering down a nearby snow-covered forest track, one of the guests saw some movement, and through the slightest gap in the trees picked out a male Caper in full view, sitting in a tree, not more than 100 yards away and offering each guest as long as they wanted through a telescope. After 15 minutes, we walked back to the buses leaving the bird still perched! With most of the forest tracks being covered in snow and impassable to our vehicles, we resorted to plan B to find Crested Tit, which also paid off handsomely. No sooner had we called out, “Hello, Crestie!” in reference to one of the guest’s previous visits to Heatherlea (a tactic which seemingly worked!), than down fluttered a Crestie, and alighted directly in front of the group offering some unbeatable views! To complete the set of Cs, we rounded off by having a relaxed afternoon cuppa, and strolling into another part of the forest, to be stunned when out of the birdless void came three rounds of ‘chip chip chip’, and three Common Crossbills sat atop a nearby pine tree to let us examine their bills and fine colouration. Unfortunately, we were unable to catch up with any large-billed Crossbills, but our mission was complete, and we all returned back to the roaring fire of the hotel with smiles on our faces.’
“My highlights were the perched Golden Eagles. I never thought I would get such good views, where I could study all the details of the bird. I thought I was going to have to content myself with a picture post card of an eagle.” G.S.
“I have been coming to Scotland for the past 35 years and these are first Capercaillie I have seen in Scotland. I will certainly be coming again.” R.C.
“I most appreciated seeing the Scottish/Parrot Crossbill, Ptarmigan and the Capercaillie. My best place was the Moray Firth with the scoters and divers.” K.A.
HIGHLAND WINTER BIRDING, MARCH
‘The first White tailed Eagle was only seen by half the group. A rather tense half hour was spent, hoping the bird would reappear, our patience was rewarded, and everyone got excellent views of the bird in flight. However, we need not have worried, because at our next stop, there was an immature White tailed Eagle perched on a skerry barely 250 yards away! Then two pairs of Golden Eagle were seen wheeling in the distance. We drove on with one of the buses noticing at least another pair of White-tails flying just overhead, so we stopped. Whilst the first bus waited ahead, to their complete amazement they realised they had parked underneath a whole flock of eagles. Between them, the guides counted up to ten eagles, more than either of them had ever seen up in the air all at the same time! One guest said she had counted eleven eagles, which would make sense, as it would appear that five of the birds were White-tailed, which eventually bunched together and were shepherded away by the Goldies, perhaps pairs guarding their territories from intruders. At lunch time, we continued to be entertained, with Golden Eagles flying above us, and two birds perched, so that guests could study the birds on the ground. At least 25 eagles were seen during the day, at least ten of which were the mighty sea eagle!’
“First of all I want to say thank-you very much to our guides, and to all the hotel staff for giving us such a great time. We don’t have so much opportunity to go out bird watching, so it was a great privilege to be on this holiday. I saw 103 bird species, although I know that the group as a whole saw more. I know that it may seem strange to some here, but my highlight was the field of Golden Plovers, where we also saw the American Golden Plovers on Lewis. They were magnificent!” K.C.
“I so much appreciated the privileged opportunity to go bird watching every day, which is not something we can sustain normally. My highlight birds were Crested Tit, the Hen Harrier so close overhead and the motionless Treecreeper we were able to study. The food at the hotel, and the guides have been excellent, as has each day’s birding.” R.M.
“I really appreciated the walks in the Scots Pine woodland, and not just looking at birds, but learning the names of various fungi, and how many of them which are edible.” M.A.
HIGHLANDS AND THE FAR WEST COAST, MARCH
‘An overnight covering of snow could have scuppered our plans for Ptarmigan, but as we arrived at the ski area we realised the snow ploughs had done their job, and the paths and roads of the hill were virtually clear. We photographed the friendly flock of Snow Buntings scavenging for food in the car park, and set off for a slow walk up the hill. The climb wasn’t as slow as it was short, for after a couple of minutes, a white, winter Ptarmigan was spotted on the distant ridge, followed by another. We watched them for some time through the telescopes when another little group was discovered much closer behind us, and as the gazes changed to the newly discovered birds, we realised that they were walking about in front of a stationary Mountain Hare!’
“My key bird was the Leach’s Petrel, followed by the fishing Osprey. Seeing the Red breasted Mergansers roosting out of the water was also a beautiful sight. I much appreciated being shown what true Tree Sparrows look like.” D.R.
“I went on the ''Eagles, Divers & Dotterel'' holiday last week (24/6 to 1/7/06) & just wanted to say how impressed I was with Heatherlea staff. The guides (Jonny & Ian) were absolutely amazing - what really struck me was that they really cared whether we saw the birds we had come to see, & made every effort for us, right up until the last few minutes on the last day. Please pass on my thanks to them! And thanks to Heatherlea for such a great holiday! P.s. I’m happy for you to quote me in your brochure if it helps!” A.F.
“I really liked the Iceland Gull and seeing the Grey Seals so close up in the harbour. The funniest highlight of the week was watching fully grown men and women on their hands and knees trying to catch a field vole that had run under the bus! Amusing incidences can be expected on Heatherlea Holidays!” P.R.
ISLAY AND JURA, MARCH
‘We spent some time driving round the island, enjoying the experience, but not adding too much in the way of bird or animal life - another pair of Golden Eagles was spotted in the distance, but having seen them at ridiculously close quarters already, we gave them but a cursory glance. We continued on to a small, seaweed covered bay. Some ripples in the water and some eager-looking Herring Gulls alerted our attention to the presence of our quarry. Then it was spied disappearing below the shallow water. We watched the Otter fishing for a considerable time - catching crabs, taking a bite and leaving the rest for the very grateful Herring Gulls to pick at, before catching another one. After a while, off swam the Otter, and we returned to Islay. It was agreed that the day not only added an extra dimension to the trip, but added the best Otter many of the guests had ever seen!’
“The tour proved to be an exhilarating experience with beautifully rugged scenery, many exciting bird and mammal sightings, a very pleasant hotel with great food, two excellent and enthusiastic leaders, a keen and cheerful group, some extremely ‘interesting weather’, and to top things off, a major twitch.” J.G.
“The best bird sighting just had to be an Osprey flying level with the minibus! My best day was when we went up into the Cairngorms, because it combined a superb, energetic walk with fabulous, long-distance views, as well as seeing Ptarmigan, Snow Bunting and Dotterel. Can I have as P.S.? Close ups of Red Squirrel and Dolphins!” J.G.
“My best bird was the White tailed Eagle, most especially when it was flying, closely followed by Osprey, closely followed by Crested Tit. My best day was Sunday with Osprey, Black Grouse and Crestie all being lifers, plus Golden Eagle and Merlin sightings. We went to some really nice places, and plenty of time out of the buses. This was closely followed by the mountain day, because we saw great birds, plus it was spectacular on the Cairngorm Plateau. Guides were excellent and very enthusiastic, plus the hotel and food were excellent too. Thanks!!” A.F.
ISLAY AND JURA, MARCH
‘Things started off very well with an adult Iceland Gull enjoying the weather along the coastline, shortly followed by a male Hen Harrier quartering some rough ground just above the bus. After adding Pintail, Shelduck and Teal in a quick check for unusual ducks, we took a swing around the typical single-track lanes of the semi-farmed countryside. Amidst the vast flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese scattered as far as the eye could see, we put up a raptor, sending the Ravens, Hooded Crows, ‘real’ Rock Doves and Skylarks into a panic. We were soon in a panic too, as expecting a Buzzard, we were more than surprised when coming to halt level with a gap in the roadside bushes, we realised it was a Golden Eagle! We watched it hunting for Rabbit and the ubiquitous Brown Hare along the field edge not 100 yards away, before moving on to clear the road block we had inadvertently created. We returned a minute or so later to see two eagles wheeling around in the sky, until one landed on a fence post, and the other resorted to looking for more small mammals!’
“Capercaillie – it was my first one!” E.P.
“The hill was the best day out, the dolphins were superb, the Golden Eagle too, and the Slavonian Grebe in the sunshine feeding its chick.” P.S.
“My first Osprey, my first Golden Eagle, and when we saw Red Deer stags and Golden Eagles together – well, that summed up Scotland! It was very, very good all-in-all!” A.F.
“I was looking forward to Lewis and Harris and it didn’t disappoint! The best views of Golden Eagle I’ve ever had – that was particularly memorable.” J.R.
HIGHLANDS AND THE FAR WEST COAST, MARCH
‘After the White-tailed Eagles had vanished over the ridge behind us, we decided to have a relaxing lunch stop overlooking a nearby bay. Lunch was served, and immediately birds started to appear. Great Northern and Red-throated Divers in a range of plumages, whole groups of Black-throated Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Eiders, and a few Redpolls on the fence next to us vied for our attention with a sudden emergence of dragonflies and some early butterfly species when the sun popped out from behind the clouds above.’
“My highlight was finding the Crested Tit bathing in the puddle on the track so unexpectedly. Also the Parrot Crossbills that we saw today.” H.C.
“The boat trip to the Outer Hebrides was really special with the three Minke Whale sightings. All the effort to find the Ptarmigan eventually paid off, and today finding the Little Auk was a great excitement.” S.S.
“I had 5 new ticks on this holiday, which were Crested Tit, American Golden Plover, Little Auk, Parrot Crossbill and Surf Scoter. I could not really pick a highlight. They were all so good.” D.S.
“Red and Black throated Divers have had to tie for first place. Close views of both male and female Capercaillie and the cock Snow Bunting in summer plumage on Cairngorm.” A.T.
SPRING INTO SCOTLAND, APRIL
‘ “Don’t worry”, the group was assured, “considering they’re so big, they can sometimes be a little elusive!” The bus continued to wend its way round the Private Estate, a few Wrens and Redstarts flitted about in the pines along the track, Meadow Pipits zipped to and fro above the heather, and a lone, mewing Buzzard circled overhead. “Nothing to worry about…keep your eyes peeled…they always do this…they don’t make life easy!” continued the noises from the front. Nobody believed a word of it. Then, as if planted, as if nailed to the bank beside us, a male Capercaillie stood proudly, about ten feet away - the various colourful shades of black showing perfectly, the beady look in the eye, the gigantic ivory beak….. it was close enough to touch. We were all touched. “There, told you!” the relieved voice up front said, “Now, who wants a female to go with it?!” ‘
“The walk across the mountaintop tundra, to see reindeer walking there, even though it was in summer was totally special to someone like myself living in tropical climes. The sighting of the Dotterel took my breath away. These exquisite arctic dwellers were so, so special.” P.R.
“The highlight for me were the fishing Ospreys, because it was somewhat unplanned, a surprise,- it was seeing birds that were behaving naturally, oblivious of our presence.” S.E.
“My views of Capercaillie and Crested Tit were the best ever. It was great seeing the Lesser Yellowlegs and the trip to Aberdeenshire was my best day.” M.T.
“It started off looking like a rock, then it stuck its head up, then it stood up to show us the white boots, then it moved its eyebrow, and then it moved to become the total Ptarmigan experience!” D.C.
SPRING INTO SCOTLAND, APRIL
‘One bus had seen good views of Crested Tit earlier in the week, but the little blighters were proving too tricky to get everybody onto them, then we stopped in the Private Estate to check out a potential Capercaillie sighting. Having already seen both male and female Caper in the twenty minutes or so prior to this impromptu stop, the trill of a nearby Crestie took precedence for the second bus. A few frustrating moments as the wee fellow hopped about behind a birch trunk became total disbelief and hysteria as the spiky-haired little chap almost came into the bus, and perched so close to the open window that nobody could focus their cameras on him!’
“There was a lot of bird watching I really appreciated on this holiday. I had my best views of Crested Tit, and for the first time I was really able to sort out all the waders in detail. The roost of 50+ Pied Wagtails was another special sight.” L.R.
“On my Heatherlea holidays bird list, I have had two new birds; Little Egret and Pomarine Skua. You also took me on a new uphill walk for Ptarmigan. Another highlight for me was Mike’s jokes!” D.B.
“The superb light which we’ve had on everything all through the week, giving us such great views of everything, but those Snow Buntings were magical!” E.H.
“The Capercaillie, one of six new birds for me this week.” A.B.
HIGH SEASON IN THE HIGHLANDS, MAY
‘Having enjoyed prolonged views of sitting, eating, flying, wheeling and drifting Red Kites, we moved onto something different. A woodland lane stop led us to help a struggling Mole across the road, and then we heard our quarry – like coins spinning on a metal work surface. So they say. Moments later we were enjoying telescope full views of a bright yellow and brilliant white male Wood Warbler, shaking vigorously as it trilled and sang its heart out. Unlikely to ever see a Wood Warbler so clearly again, we left him alone, with the ladies in the bus commenting on how much effort he was putting into finding a mate!’
“For me seeing three Golden Eagles in the scope at the same time had to be my highlight. We had excellent views of Surf Scoter. On Thursday as we drove up the mountain on our way to the west, the views back down were awe inspiring.” P.B.
“My first birds were the Black throated Divers and their two chicks, followed by female Caper, Snow Bunting, Merlin and Red Kite. Both the journey through the North West of Scotland and Handa were really special.” S.P.
“Two Golden Eagles displaying on Mull, against what I believe was a blue sky!” R.O.
“I had two firsts, the Iceland Gull and the White-fronted Goose, and those Waxwings we started off with on Sunday morning were fantastic, and so was the White-tailed Eagle in flight, I’ve never seen one flying before.” B.E.
OUTER HEBRIDES ULTIMATE TOUR, MAY
‘We ventured to a nearby Atlantic bay where we were greeted by a singing Corn Bunting in the morning light. We saw a few Arctic Skuas, a close-in summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver, more flocks of waders on the sand and in the seaweed, and Arctic Terns and Fulmars skirting the beach edge at eye-level. Driving back through the machair grasslands there was some movement in the field next to the bus. We stopped, and within seconds a Corncrake head popped up, had a look around and jumped up onto an old stone wall. This shy, retiring, very rare breeding bird was in full view atop a pile of rocks only a few metres away! Suddenly another one appeared! We had two!’
“Seeing the Snow Buntings like that in those conditions was special.” G.D.
“The Waxwings and all the eagles on Mull – I can’t decide!” D.B.
“Turning round and seeing the ghostly white Iceland Gull in the sky.” H.S.
“The raft of 500 or so Long-tailed Ducks, I’ve never seen such numbers in one place before!” B.B.
HIGH SEASON IN THE HIGHLANDS, JUNE
‘The boat journey to Handa was productive enough, with Black and Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Gannet, Arctic Tern, Fulmar, Shag and Kittiwake all putting in an appearance, so by the time we had seen Ringed Plover, ‘real’ Rock Dove, Rock Pipit and White Wagtail well on the seaweed covered beach, the view over the seas below was time for a rest. The birds were not as relenting as the topography though, and in the narrow bay below we had a summer-plumaged Red-throated Diver, more auks, and then a summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver popped out of the water. When we had all watched the divers sufficiently, we ambled off for a few yards before stopping to view some perched Redpoll, then a singing Sedge Warbler, and all this activity was continuing with Great and Arctic Skuas flying noisily about overhead. To cap it all, a huge bird with slow wing-beats then flew in from the west over the waves – an adult Golden Eagle.’
“Purple Sandpiper is one of my favourite birds, so to see so many was great, and probably the best views I’ve ever had of Crestie!” R.S.
“I thought, ‘Mmm, it’s not doing much is it?’- then it suddenly jumped up and turned into a White-tailed Sea Eagle! The other thing was the millions of Snow Buntings today.” J.D.
“Long-tailed Ducks in the raft, and the Snow Buntings as well.” B.D.
“Velvet Scoters and Purple Sandpipers on the first day were superb, and when the White-tailed Eagle fell out of the tree, totally amazing!” R.J.
EAGLES, DIVERS AND DOTTEREL, JUNE
‘After a picturesque drive, with Greenshank and Red-breasted Mergansers on one of the lochs we passed en route, we rounded a mountain bend to see two birds wheeling above us. Once safely parked, we watched these Golden Eagles for some time until they disappeared behind a hill, and we continued on our way. Within the hour, we were walking through some low cloud, which soon cleared to reveal a rocky terrain covered in Golden Plover, and a little further on a family group of Ptarmigan were picking at the lichen covered rocks on the path ahead of us.’
“Just the sheer numbers of Long tailed Duck, and the drake’s plumage.” H.K.
“Mike and Ian’s sense of humour, the hotel, the food, the staff, and the Long-tailed Ducks and scoter.” S.D.
“Bramblings and Crested Tit before breakfast on the first morning, Snow Buntings, and the weather - that was really well organised!” S.M.
“I have never seen an Iceland Gull before. The full adult was a fabulous bird.” D.F.
EAGLES, DIVERS AND DOTTEREL, JUNE
‘In a madcap few moments, the tranquil scene of a group of respectable birdwatchers looking out over a calm mountain loch was disturbed beyond repair, as one after the other more and more birds were being sighted, and folk were dashing from scope to scope to see what was on offer. There was a family of Red Grouse, a Red-throated Diver, a fast-approaching Black-throated Diver, a Hen Harrier, two Ospreys, a summering Whooper Swan and two summering Pink-footed Geese, a posing Common Sandpiper and a constantly disappearing falcon that eventually revealed itself as a Kestrel! By the time everybody had caught up with the wide selection of birds on show, it was definitely time for lunch!’
“A great week and full of laughs, particularly when the guides were trying to take photos of the Canada Goose!” G.H.
“I came, not just for the birds, but for the scenery as well. I much appreciated the Long-tailed Ducks. I really enjoyed my holiday.” A.H.
“The adult Iceland Gull I really enjoyed seeing in such close proximity. When you threw the bread you could really notice how beautiful they were and their mastery of the elements.” D.K.
“The lovely colours of the female Capercaillie!” C.H.
EAGLES, DIVERS AND DOTTEREL, JULY
‘We were on our way back to the ferry, with no sign of eagles, or Otter, when the guides stopped the minibuses alongside the road by a farmhouse. There seemed to be no reason to stop, but guests were told to be patient. Within a minute, somebody spotted some distant Golden Eagles, within five minutes, people were spotting Golden Eagles everywhere, and within ten minutes everybody had seen Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier and a White-tailed Eagle cruising close-by, showing its’ immense size and white tail. It was raptor madness!’
“My highlight was being hit on the head by a cone dropped by a Parrot Crossbill!” P.D.
“The Red-backed Shrike…and the superb close views of Little Stint and Ruff in the sun.” M.W.
“Lunch! Lunch was great…..and the Basking Sharks! Especially as the skipper of the boat said that they haven’t been seen much recently.” K.D.
“I came for the mammals and I haven’t been disappointed – the Pine Martens and the Badgers were the best species. It’s been a really, really good week!” R.B.
THE TOP THIRTY, AUGUST
‘ We were entertained by a Badger for some time, before we left them to it to get some sleep. On the way home, we had a short stop at a nearby loch to see and hear Daubenton’s Bat. Armed with a spotlight and a bat detector, we heard the clicking and saw the pale underwings flitting and gliding across the calm waters, when, as an extra special crescendo, four bats came over the minibus at low level, and with deafening levels of noise, and ferocious levels of activity so close to us gave us a light and sound spectacular. Applause rang out in the minibus for what was a really unforgettable wildlife experience. There was still time after that to see and hear Pipistrelles at close range before bedtime, but the show had already been stolen.‘
“The herd of Red Deer silhouetted on the hillside - Scotland as I imagine it!” A.S.
“The weather and colours on Mull and all those eagles in the air, and being able to watch perched birds through the scope.” J.F.
“I think you guides have worked incredibly hard for us this week. Thanks to you both.” A.M.
“I have never had such a wonderful week in such gorgeous weather in Britain, ever! I will recommend Heatherlea to everybody I know, and can’t wait to come back again myself.” G.F
THE TOP THIRTY, AUGUST
‘The journey back to the mainland was full of expectation, but apart from the odd Great Skua, there was little to add to our growing list, until the skipper took a slight detour towards a couple of fishing vessels. The numbers of Manx Shearwaters gliding past our boat was impressive, and with Storm Petrel and Gannets joining the various gulls in the wake of the fishermen, it was a true wildlife spectacle, but suddenly there was a cry of “Basking Shark!” and there, just off the portside of our boat was the unmistakeable rounded dorsal fin of the largest fish to be found in British coastal waters. The shark spent some time around us, and all on board had great views as it fed.’
“I have never seen so many eagles in the air at one time before.” L.M.
“I wanted to see “Itchy” and “Scratchy” (imm. White tailed Eagles) and I think I might have! I have never been to Scotland before, and it has been great to see so much of it.” S.P.
“My highlight has been the whole week - I have no complaints.” A.L.
“I have had 13 lifers this week, but my highlight was the flock of Snow Buntings around the cattle feeder. I will certainly be coming again.” D.W.
THE TOP THIRTY, AUGUST
‘The morning was spent attempting to obtain better views of Golden Eagle on the west, before we headed back to the centre of the country for the remainder of the week. The hunt wasn’t going overly well, although the stiff breeze and relatively warm temperatures gave us some optimism, so when we decided time was pressing and we should turn around and set off back to Nethybridge, the last thing we expected was what actually happened. Driving along a typical upland road, suddenly a bird appeared at eye level on the right of the minibus – a Golden Eagle! The vehicles emptied in record time, as the eagle swept through the sky over our heads, circled a couple of times on a thermal, and drifted away and out of sight. It was the most incredible view of our most loved raptor, and we all felt remarkably privileged to have been presented with such an opportunity.’
“I have never seen Iceland Gull that close before.” D.T.
“Thank-you to everyone for being so helpful and understanding.” B.S.
“I have only seen Waxwings once before. I went down to the river and watched Dippers and studied their behaviour for quite some time.” M.L.
“Mull’s scenery was very special, and I have never seen American Wigeon before.” D.T.
HIGHLANDS AND HEBRIDES, AUGUST
Some guests think that we won’t be able to maintain our high standards of sightings right till the end of the last day. How wrong they can be!
This Friday morning started with a short forest walk when we saw 5 Capercaillie - not a bad start!
Dolphins were the main target of the day - they are fickle creatures and hard to predict, but we arrived at the coast in bright sunshine and could see fins close by as we got out of the buses. There was a group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins passing just offshore when they started showing off by leaping right out of the water! Sometimes there were several in the air at once, and at other times only one dolphin leapt but some were swimming about only 20 yards away.
Some of the leaps would have scored very highly for artistic impression with great height, graceful re-entry or exquisite synchronicity. Others would not have impressed human judges with side slaps into the water or backward leaps landing with an almighty splash, but it was an incredible display to their human observers and a perfect opportunity for photographers. With digital cameras it didn’t matter how many shots of water or a splash you took because you could always delete them!
We watched this mesmerising display for 45 minutes and we all knew how privileged we were to witness such a sight, but our day was not done yet.
Before we left the coast, we visited a sheltered bay and saw not one, not two, but three Ospreys come in, one after the other, and each bird caught a fish with its first dive right in front of us! An unbelievable end to another unbelievable Heatherlea week.
“Peregrine looking at us, Crossbills and Cresties better than ever before, and the Wren sitting there singing – beautifully marked – it really was super.” T.S.
“Cheerful chappies the Snow Buntings, they came down and disappeared in peoples’ footsteps – absolutely beautiful!” A.H.
“I like the Yellowhammer, the Snow Buntings and the Brambling, which I’d never seen before.” B.H.
“Walking into the lounge with the log fire! And, the Snow Buntings to within 25 feet and seeing them in their glory.” J.O.
HIGHLANDS AND HEBRIDES, AUGUST
‘The season had been highly successful for Dotterel, and most, if not all had started their migration back south towards the Atlas Mountains, but the weather was stable, and the group were willing to give it one last shot for the year, having acquainted themselves with Ptarmigan fairly quickly on the ascent of the Cairngorms. The group split into two, and as one rounded the hills slowly, the others took a more direct route up to the very tops, skirting round more groups of Ptarmigan, and inadvertently flushing the odd Wheatear. The tops were barren, bleak and uninviting, and neither group had seen anything special, when almost simultaneously the calls came through; both groups had discovered their own secretive little ‘trip’ of Dotterel. One male and a few large chicks, all having their last meal on their nesting grounds before heading off to warmer climes, allowing photographic opportunities and a bit of respite before the long descent to tea and cake at the minibus!’
“Golden Eagle and Buzzard together – to see the size of the eagle was my highlight” V.O.
“Red Kite, and the Snipe amazed me, displaying and flying are not something I’d associated with that bird before – fascinating!” A.S.
“Long-tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebe on the water and daily sightings of Brambling from the bedroom window!” M.P.
“I love the divers, seeing and identifying them – marvellous!” G.P.
HIGHLANDS AND HEBRIDES, AUGUST
‘The crossing from Harris was beautiful - flat calm with pastel blues of sea and sky. As we steamed out of the port, two very distant White tailed Eagles circled over the mountains. Porpoises constantly broke the surface of the water at all points of the compass. As we followed the darting flight of a Storm Petrel, a Minke Whale broke the surface of the water in front of the Petrel’s path. A Basking Shark was also spotted patrolling the surface. Not far from the Skye coast, a large flock of Manx Shearwaters wheeled around and settled on a patch of sea. Suddenly, the surface of the water broke, as another huge Minke Whale slapped down on the water just after the ferry had passed directly through the languishing shearwaters.’
“The Snow Buntings and the hares were spectacular.” N.P.
“Thrilled to see all three divers, and the Cresties were lovely.” J.M.
“The first Golden Eagle, the dolphins, and Mike’s awful jokes! Overall though, the dolphins were the best thing – I’ve never seen so many – brilliant!” C.C.
“I wanted to see the Great Northern Diver in particular, but the Black-throated Diver stole the show!” J.H.
HIGHLANDS AND HEBRIDES, AUGUST
Often when we set out searching for Crossbills, I tell all the guests to close their eyes and I throw a pine cone up in the air. It often lands on the path with a soft thud and that sound, when heard naturally, indicates Crossbills above.
That`s what I did that morning. We were walking in mature Scots pine forest and had found some freshly nibbled green cones so were checking treetops near us for Crossbill activity. Then we heard some deep Chup chup calls and located a group of Crossbills feeding in trees above the track. This group of birds all had massive bills and along with the characteristic deep calls, we were able to identify them as Parrot Crossbills.
All the guests were in different positions on the track admiring these large brightly coloured birds when Phil fell to the ground clutching his head. He was quite shaken and blood was coming from a dent in his forehead. A Crossbill had dropped a large cone and it had struck Phil on the head!
He didn`t require First Aid but it was a reminder of the dangers of birdwatching in the Highlands!
“This year’s fashion statement by the Black Guillemot – Dinner suit worn backwards with red welly boots!” A.H.
“I don’t have a specific highlight, but all the birds in their settings – I just enjoy birds, and enjoy what I see.” P.M.
“This week has produced five new birds for me, the unexpected Red Kite I appreciated, but my star performers were the Purple Sandpipers.” J.M.
“Crested Tit and Red Grouse I’d never seen before, so I really wanted to see those two species, and they were impressive!” K.F.
SCOTTISH SPECIALITIES AND AUTUMN MIGRATION, SEPTEMBER
‘A typical Highland autumn morning – crisp, cool, lingering mist beneath the blue skies, and only the faintest breath of wind - the scene was set for a quick detour on our way north. We alighted amongst the birch trees adorned with dewy spider-webs, quietly crept up a disused Land Rover track cutting through the faded purple heather, and scanned the landscape before us. We heard them first - bubbling from the middle distance, with the occasional harsh, guttural rasp. Then they appeared – wings down, neck straight, red comb over the eye fully extended, and white rear-ends prominent as they jousted, hopped and cut a dashing battle line in an attempt to woo the on-looking Greyhens. We spent some time enjoying the most intimate and personal of displays, before marking down Black Grouse as very much seen by all.’
“My highlight was the Crested Tit – that’s what I came up here to see, and I did!” H.F.
“My highlight was spotting the Dotterel, because they were so elusive. And my high day was seeing Caper and Dotterel on the same day!” S.M.
“The Caper day was my favourite with lots of different places that we went to, great weather, two different kinds of hare and a fishing Osprey.” A.S.
“I really appreciated the Slavonian Grebes, their beautiful colours and more prolonged views than usual. My best day was on Handa with the fun of the boat trip over there. The whole holiday had so much variety.” T.H.
SCOTTISH SPECIALITIES AND AUTUMN MIGRATION, SEPTEMBER
‘We drove around the corner, and were confronted by a huge dark cloud - of geese. Having parked up alongside a sheltered farmland loch, we watched the swirling, gyrating flock wiffle down and down – with thousands more in skeins following on behind. Mainly Pink-footed Geese newly arrived from Iceland, but with a few Barnacles and Greylags tagging along on this immense goose train. This incredible sight coupled with their delightful sound was the highlight of the day – regardless of the rarities that would follow. It was nature at its overwhelming best.’
“The Dotterel was my special bird, but the best day was on Handa, with the thrill of the Great Skuas flying above our heads.” R.P.
“The Osprey just is! The Caper/Dotterel day - 15th June - all day, fantastic!” S.P.
“I just had to tie Red throated and Black throated Divers in first place. The day we saw the Dotterel on the mountain was glorious.” A.P.
“I have wanted to see Dotterel all my life, and it was so unique to observe them in that very special habitat.” T.B.
NORTH RONALDSAY, SEPTEMBER
‘The weather was on our side, and at the end of the day, so were the birds. A juvenile Barred Warbler feeding on thistle heads set the ball rolling, and moments later we were watching the most conspicuous Marsh Warbler imaginable, pretending to be hidden away in some nettle stalks and stems. With the wind blowing in from a good direction, and evening approaching, we decided to have one last look at the northeastern part of the island. A bunting flew overhead and landed ten feet away behind a small bank, so we repositioned ourselves to get the sun behind us, just as the mystery bird crept out from behind the bank. We all stood amazed as the perfect Little Bunting pottered about on the path within feet of where we stood, allowing sensational views for 15 minutes, before it took to the air and vanished behind the lighthouse.’
“The Dotterel and the Cairngorms re-visited.” G.M.
“It was very satisfying to see Ptarmigan. Handa was really special, but I enjoyed every day.” A.L.
“My favourite bird was the Osprey, followed closely by Crested Tit. I really enjoyed the rest of the day after seeing the Capers in the estate, with flat, easy walking in varied woodland settings.” P.D.
“Birds of prey were our favourites with Golden Eagle in particular. And the best day was Handa Island.” B.S. and L.E.
SCOTTISH SPECIALS AND AUTUMN MIGRATION, SEPTEMBER
‘The sea state was calm, and although we had seen the odd petrel and shearwater, we had only really accumulated a string of Gannets, Kittiwakes and Great Skuas well enough to get the group onto. Then, literally out-of-the-blue, came a flock of Manx Shearwaters, then some more, and within a few seconds, they were surrounding the boat in their hundreds, if not thousands, and amongst them the occasional larger, darker Sooty Shearwater began to appear, and the more came past, the more we noticed the larger, greyer birds with dark caps and dirty, blotchy bellies – Great Shearwater. An incredible collection of seabirds.’
“My bird was the Caper, and the best day was today on Handa. The best night we had was last night, when we celebrated Roy and Sheila’s 49th wedding anniversary. And the best part of the holiday has been the excellent company that I have been sharing this week in a first rate hotel and expert guides.” J.M.
“So many really, very difficult to pick out one thing! I could go on all day!” D.L.
“I managed to get two lifers in five minutes! One was just a relief (White-tailed Eagle), the other was just a surprise (White-fronted Goose)! But, I agree with others, the Long-tailed Duck was my favourite bird, and I did like the Hen Harrier too.” J.S.
“Loads of excellent birds, but the White-fronted Goose (was my favourite).” D.R.
SCOTTISH SPECIALITIES AND AUTUMN MIGRATION, SEPTEMBER
‘No sooner had we left the hotel we had a close Roe Deer buck, and then a male Capercaillie by the road – our second in three days – and both unexpected. Not a bad start! Next we stopped in the perfect place for a Red Kite to come sailing over our heads, and then made our way to the ferry. Shearwaters took time to appear, but eventually we saw not only Manx, but all got good views of the differences between Manx and the larger Sooty Shearwater. The surprises were thin on the ground, but one small grey bird flew past at speed – Grey Phalarope! Almost at the end of the journey, following and feeding around a fishing boat alongside the gulls, Gannets and skuas were some Storm Petrels and a few Leach’s Petrels. There weren’t many birds, but there were all the species we had hoped to see! Despite the waves, some managed to get onto some of the Harbour Porpoises occasionally breaking the surface, but the overall highlight of the trip was a pod of about 100 Common Dolphins jumping out of the water at high speed next to the boat. Truly amazing, and not a common sight at all in The Minch!’
“Osprey catching a fish, very good views of Curlew with young, and a Peregrine with young on the nest. So, my best day was up the glen, and I found the female Ring Ouzel up there! Great views of the dolphins.” J.B.
“My best bird was Ptarmigan. It was good to see both male and female and they were a first for me. That was also my best day over on the west, what with the superb scenery as well. Also great to find new wild places.” S.P.
“I expected to see the birds, but all the mammals on top was a stunning bonus – the Red Squirrels are great, and so tame, but the highlight was seeing the dolphins.” J.P.
“Ptarmigan was also my best bird, because I had to work a bit to see it! And then, the difficulty locating it due to its beautiful, camouflaged plumage, which concealed its location. My special day was when we saw the dolphins. The number of them seen exceeded expectation, and the length of time they were visible.” P.P.
SCOTTISH SPECIALITIES AND AUTUMN MIGRATION, OCTOBER
We timed our arrival at the coast to coincide with high tide, when the scoter flock would be at its closest. We chose a day when there was no wind and the sun was shining onto the ducks so viewing conditions would be perfect.
All the guests had done their homework on Common, Velvet and Surf Scoters, so there we were looking out at a seemingly empty sea! However, within minutes we had found 2 drake Surf Scoters in among hundreds of the other 2 Scoter species. I wanted everyone to see the drake Surfs really well because they are such rare vagrants from the US and today’s light let us see the clear white nape and head patches as well as the unique bill pattern to perfection. This clarity of light allowed stunning views of the Common and Velvet Scoters and today the ducks were well behaved - not diving, not sleeping with their head under their wing, and not even looking the wrong way!
One of the drake Surf Scoters was joined by a female, even more rarely seen than the males in Europe, and we could see her pale nape patch and Eider-shaped bill. For a long time guests could see drakes of all 3 Scoter species in the same scope view and briefly they could see drakes and ducks of all 3 in what must be a unique experience in Britain.
Not surprisingly, at the end of the week several people chose the views of the 3 species of Scoters as their most magical moment of the week with Trevor adding that it was “just as our guide had promised us. We just got out of the van and there they were.”
“Red Kites so close to the minibus and the dolphins at our feet!” S.G.
“The Greyhen (female Black Grouse) with her chicks and the dolphins.” B.G.
“The Peregrine family was my favourite memory, and the fishing Osprey.” J.T.
“My best bird was the White tailed Eagle, but my best day was looking for Ptarmigan and Dotterel in the Cairngorms.” J.P.
“The Osprey sighting, when the bird was at eye level, flying along beside us, and the best day was the climb up the Cairngorms, which was challenging, but worth it for Dotterel, Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting. Beautiful! Excellent veggie food!” A.B.
“The Osprey flying over the river. Up that valley was the most memorable day, as the beauty of the scenery combined with the wonder of the birds seen.” A.S.
“The Osprey flying and diving for fish, the Peregrine feeding young in the nest, the cock Yellowhammer singing at the top of the telegraph pole, and the Dolphins.” A.S.
With the wind coming from the wrong direction for the rarities we were hoping for, we had worked hard to see Pectoral Sandpiper, unusual for the north of Scotland, Green Sandpiper, a white morph Snow Goose and a handful of Little Stints migrating south. Six Risso’s Dolphins and about a dozen Bottle-nosed Dolphins brought some great mammal viewing, and then on a triumphant end to the trip we had close views of a drake King Eider, and just as the sun was setting on our homeward journey, a stunning drake Surf Scoter just offshore with Velvet and Common Scoters - enabling us to differentiate between the three species in one ‘scope view.’
“My best birds were the Grey hen (Black Grouse) and babies, Ospreys and today the Dolphins, plus Marsh Harrier and Yellowhammer. Every day was good. Thank-you Ian, Jonny and all the staff for being so considerate.” L.O.
“My most memorable bird sighting was of the Black throated Diver in summer plumage. Sunday was my best day, because of such a wide variety of birds we saw, - two otters at the end off it all!” J.S.
“It was special watching the Red Kite eating its prey in flight. My favourite day was the Handa Island trip, just for the sheer number of different birds.” N.S.
“Close up views of Skuas on Handa, and the otters in the Beauly Firth.” B.F.
“I had my first good views of Black throated Divers on this holiday. I had no favourite day - I enjoyed them all!” P.R.
“I’ve always wanted to see Puffins, so Handa Island was special for me.” D.H.
“Capercaillie! Stunning views of males in trees, plus the “game drive” in the forest, when the hen was seen. Handa was a fantastic experience with so many good birds and fantastic scenery.” D.P.
THE TOP TWENTY , OCTOBER
Up a steep, single-track road, through a dank Spruce forest to a remote spot where we looked over a tumbling Highland burn onto an open grassy area.
Within a few minutes, all our guests were watching a Pine Marten in the open in full daylight. He was a big male with a beautiful apricot-coloured throat patch and a thick dark brown winter coat with long guard hairs. His round ears were edged by pale silky borders, his dark eyes glinted as he looked around warily and his white teeth flashed as he fed.
He would stay a few minutes then lope off up the bank with a sinuous movement - his bottle-brush tail held off the wet ground. He was not alone. Over the next hour, as dusk approached, we saw 3 other smaller Pine Martens come and share the feast. We had fantastic views of all of them and could see slight differences in the extent of the throat patches and reckoned that they were a female and her two kits. At one point, the two kits rolled around in a play-fight chittering loudly above the noise of the burn.
By the time we reluctantly had to leave, everyone was delighted to have experienced this rare insight into Pine Marten life.
“Handa Island was a very special challenge, with great views and really close up Skuas. Our favourite birds were the Oystercatchers with three chicks just outside the Mountview Hotel! Thank-you for making our first birding holiday so memorable and enjoyable.” J.F.
“The Osprey fishing, and then one minute later the Red-throated Diver in breeding plumage – that combination was very special!” P.D.
“The Osprey catching the fish was lovely!” J.M.
“The Ptarmigan with chicks up the Cairngorms - and then getting down the Cairngorms! The Badger was good as well!” S.D.
“The wonderful views of the Crossbills, and the Black-throated Diver – that was so atmospheric, and so still.” C.D.
“The Dotterels were my favourite bird of the week, and I liked the Isle of Muck, despite the weather!” G.C.
“The eagles, the Otters, and the Black-throated Diver, but so many highlights…so many.” J.P.
“The divers were great, and to hear them was special.” H.G.
THE TOP TWENTY , OCTOBER
Today dawned bright and clear with a blustery breeze from the Northwest. Before breakfast, we’d been treated to an early-rising adult Golden Eagle which Linda had spotted riding a ridge towards us. As it reached us, it opened its wings slightly and let the wind lift it to 1000 feet, hanging there, framed perfectly in the telescope. After several awesome minutes it floated away to the west.
By the end of breakfast, both guides but only one guest got superb views of an immature White-tailed Eagle as it slowly gained height over the loch in the morning sun. All the other guests saw was a minute speck, so we needed a better one!
The first two hours of searching produced several very distant Golden Eagles then both the guides saw 2 distant Eagles way down the glen and gave chase in the buses. We seemed to drive for miles before we caught up with a 1st winter Golden Eagle in blue sky close to us. Even better, we were out of the wind and through the telescope the Persil- white wing and tail patches were stunningly clear as the bird soared slowly round and round low above us. I always scan before I get on the bus and this time it was worth it. I shouted White-tailed Eagle and there was an adult low in the sky ahead of us. It performed well showing off its white tail and it’s massive wings-a good comparison with the Golden Eagle moments before. We drove round the corner and found it again even closer against the sunlit trees. That white tail was magnificent as it floated around serenely in the strong winds that we could hardly stand in.
“All the eagles, especially the close-up of the Golden Eagle, and the Basking Shark.” J.W.
We could all enjoy the individual variation in the plumage as they changed into their winter whites.
“The raptors and the shark were my favourite moments, but the whole thing has been above my expectations!” D.W.
“Well, it was the Golden Eagle, until the Black-throated Diver - that was amazing. The boat trip was pretty memorable too!” C.W.
“Being attacked by the Golden Eagle over the bush! No, each day by itself was a highlight.” P.B.
“Of my four visits to Heatherlea, today I had my best views of dolphins. They were magical. My second highlight was the Ospreys. This is the only time I have seen them fishing. The journey back through the West Highlands brought back nostalgic memories for me.” B.N.
“The walk up the Cairngorms, Ospreys fishing and the Dolphins.” M.W.
THE TOP TWENTY, NOVEMBER
With a dusting of fresh snow on the tops of the Cairngorms and a promise of more on the way with a windchill temperature of –14`C, our group set off into the corrie. Three of the group were unable to join us so we left them at the Day Lodge with a walkie-talkie and scopes saying we`d let them know when we found Ptarmigan and direct them onto the birds. I don`t think they believed us!
The main group split into two as we reached the snowline and within 10 minutes we could all hear the distant croaks of 2 groups of Ptarmigan.
John decided to stop for lunch and locate the birds near him and my group kept looking. Suddenly, Joe spotted 2 Ptarmigan no more than 20 yards away. I put the scope on them and we could see there were at least 5 males chasing each other around on the snow. I told John, and most of his group headed over the snowy landscape towards us. Karen had done enough walking to get this high so I gave precise directions to John and soon he had the Ptarmigan in his scope 400 yards away. Karen and Graham were delighted.
Meanwhile Peter (a mile below us) was searching for the birds and soon he got them clearly and helped Alan and Lorraine get them in their scopes. On full zoom, the three guests at the bottom of the hill were delighted with their views and informed us that there were 7 birds in the covey!
When we had watched the birds for long enough, we realised how cold we’d got and headed back down for a hot drink and Heatherlea cake and shortbread (some decadent folk thought hot chocolate with brandy and cream more appropriate!)
“My joint first highlight just had to be the fishing Ospreys and those beautiful Black- throated Divers. My social highlight was the teamwork that went into finding the Dotterel.” G.S.
“My highlight was to see both species of eagle on Skye. Coming a close second was watching the Ospreys catching fish on the Beauly Firth. As for mammals, it had to be the Bottle-nosed Dolphins displaying.” D.H.
“Hunting Ospreys!! Bottle nosed Dolphins. On the social side, we really enjoyed mixing with the pleasant company and learning from ‘more informed’ people.” R.S. & G.S.
“The teamwork finding the Dotterel - and the Butt of Lewis.” T.P.
“Fishing Ospreys. Good company, good food, fair weather.” R.K.
“Fishing Ospreys and performing Bottle-nosed Dolphins.” B.F. & M.R.
“My most inspiring highlight was the sky and sea between Skye and Harris. It was like Pink Floyd in a landscape! The top of the Cairngorms was wild and free; it was a challenge with nature and the reward was hard won - man and nature combining. I thought the guides were the excellent ‘glue’ that kept it all together.” S.H.
“The whole setting here. The hotel… the village… the scenery…Scotland!” M.P.
THE TOP TWENTY, NOVEMBER
The last venue on the last day of the week was a private loch, and we still needed to find an Otter.
A shower of heavy rain had made it nearly dark when we arrived but blue sky to the south spread more and more and the light improved.
We found two Slavonian Grebes and several uncommon Pochard among the large flock of Goldeneye and soon flocks of Starlings were gathering to roost in the reeds. A male Sparrowhawk flew up boldly and was mobbed by the Starlings. However, when it doubled back, the Starlings were rather vulnerable and several were lucky to escape the hawk’s clutches. This aerial game continued for 10 minutes until the Sparrowhawk decided Starling was not on the menu tonight. More flocks were arriving all the time and it was amazing watching them cascade into the reeds like mercury. We could see why Bill Oddie says this is his favourite wildlife spectacle.
A family of Whooper Swans started whooping and beyond them I saw the fluid shape of a large dog Otter glide along the bright water and dive with a wiggle of his tail. I shouted Otter rather too loudly but got everyone’s instant attention. We were all able to watch this elusive mammal for a few brief minutes as he swam and dived repeatedly in the brightest part of the loch then he headed into the bay out of sight as fluidly as he came.
A Water Rail had been squealing regularly from our left and just before we left the hide, it came out onto the cut reeds for us to see.
As we walked back to the minibus in the last of the day’s light, the first squadrons of Pink-footed Geese were clamouring in from every direction to roost on the water behind us. Magic moments!
“The leaping dolphins! I’ve never seen them so close. Also, the scenery of the Western Isles, including the Gannets at the Butt of Lewis.” P.R.
“The Otter! My life’s ambition finally achieved! That, and spotting the Dotterel.” J.A.
“I’ve enjoyed all of it, but the Ptarmigan, the Dotterel and the dolphins were the most wonderful.” M.W.
“The Western Isles experience, seven rainbows in one day – I’d like to go back again for longer – white, sandy beaches, mountains, and, of course, the standing stones with the eagles!” J.C.
“I loved the dolphins, and the chirpy little Crested Tit fellow! I’d never seen anything like that before!” D.C.
“The quality of the light and the beauty of the colours, as well as watching the dolphins and skuas at the same time!” K.T.
“The dance of the dolphins was an incredible privilege, the day on the hill, the Gannets on the Butt of Lewis, and the connection with the past at Callanish.” J.C.
“I had no real highlights. It was overall a very good holiday. I had three lifers, which were Jack Snipe, Surf Scoter and Little Auk.” J.S.
“This has been my third trip with Heatherlea, and this group has been the best company ever! The effort to see the Ptarmigan was really worth it. The Little Auk turning up was really brilliant.” J.T.
“I am not a birder, so I was a little apprehensive before I came, but it has been an amazing experience, and I think I could get into this a lot more. The Bottle-nosed Dolphins today was my highlight.” J.C
THE TOP TWENTY, NOVEMBER
It augured well from the start. As we drove to a secluded forest car park less than 10 minutes from our hotel, a cock Capercaillie that had been perched 15 feet above the bus, took off and flew straight down the road ahead of us.
We got out of the buses quietly and told everyone to check the trees carefully for more Capers but we flushed another 2 cocks and 2 hens in the next 5 minutes without seeing any before they saw us.
However, all this was to change when I spied a cock Caper sitting at the very top of a mature Scots pine fully 300 yards away across a clearing. We remained in good cover although the bird was aware of us and our group set up scopes quietly. This cock was standing with his back to us in the open on the treetop and the sun was shining on his glossy feathers with blue sky beyond. He was magnificent with his massive ivory, hooked beak, red comb above the eye, bluish green head and neck, and bronze back. We were very quiet and he seemed relaxed again. Everyone in the group had stunning views of him and then came back for more. Terry admitted he hadn`t believed me when I said that Capercaillies can be at the tops of trees! We tried taking photos through the scope and some of the results were pretty good.
Could it get any better than this? Hard to imagine, but we still planned to go around the Estate that we have exclusive access to!
Within 10 minutes, Jonny said on the walkie-talkie that he had 2 cock Capers on the ground in front of his bus - we were right behind and could see nothing! However, the birds flew up into nearby trees and we could see them both perfectly within 50 yards of the buses. Jonny then said they also had a hen Caper in another treetop but in a flash one of the cocks flew into the same tree and nearly landed on top of her. She flew off but we could now see there was yet another cock in this same tree so we had 3 cock Capers in the same view!
The setting was superb, with these turkey-sized birds high in the pines and a backdrop of grouse moorland and the Cairngorms. We could look closely at every detail of their feathering from the bottle green chests and glossy blue necks to the white shoulder patches on the bronze backs, white spots on the tail and stout black legs. One of the birds was deeper in the tree and we could watch this large bird disappear entirely from view in apparently scant foliage or at other times just see the red comb and ivory bill as it fed on pine needles. These birds were very relaxed and after half an hour of breathtaking views, we drove on and left them to their unappetising meal.
Around the next corner, we found yet another cock Caper in full view on top of a smaller pine 20 yards from the buses. It was standing on a branch seemingly far too thin for its weight, and although we were looking into the sun, we could still see all the colours and detail very well. On any other day, this would have been a superb sighting of this near-mythical bird.
So, ten Capercaillies in one day and truly unbeatable views of the cocks.
“It has been a great experience. I was really moved by the Ptarmigan on the ‘Easy Walking’ option; that here they were, living in this cold and hostile environment. The scenery has been stunning.” G.C.
“Thank you everyone, including the guides, and all those people who shared their scopes with us, and for all your knowledge. I think the highlight for me were the Golden Eagles on the west.” M.W.
“I think this holiday has really highlighted to us how important it is to have really good optics. When you have a good scope, you don’t just see the bird, you are able to study it in detail, just as you can see it in the field guide. It was great to see so many of the Scottish specialities, and for me I really enjoyed searching out ‘The Lost World of the Ptarmigan’! J.W.
“My highlights were the five Golden Eagles and the Ptarmigan on the west coast. I have had three lifers on this trip.” B.P.
“Like Ken, my best highlight was the field of Golden Plover - the American Golden Plovers were a bonus. Another highlight was seeing the Ptarmigan, and then the spectacular drive along the west coast.” P.L.
“Watching ‘Crestie’ bathing in the puddle, the Sound of Taransay on the Isle of Harris with Great Northern Divers and sea ducks, the walks, the scenery, the Parrot Crossbills feeding in the sunshine was all heavenly.” S.D.
“Like John, I like a good stretch of the legs from time to time, so I really appreciated the walk up for the Ptarmigan. I was also very impressed with seeing the size of the sea duck flocks. It was as good as going to the tropics!” P.D.
THE TOP TWENTY, NOVEMBER
The North wind doth blow - well it had been as we set off to the Moray Firth coast for seabirds to round off another superb week.
The sight of hundreds of Common and Velvet Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks would have been a great start even without the addition of 4 drake Surf Scoters close inshore and in superb light. It wasn’t even lunchtime as we drove on to a north-facing shore and scanned again. We could see a few ant-sized birds flying past far out and tried to convince our guests that these were Little Auks - they were not impressed! Soon, another tiny bird flew past much closer and this time at least people could see it and yes it was small, and it did look like an auk! Another few minutes and another, closer still, flew past but it didn’t stop. We decided to look in the small harbour round the corner and there in the harbour was a smart winter-plumaged Black Guillemot. As I tried to explain that this Black Guillemot was less black than all the Common Guillemots we’d seen, John casually said “There’s a Little Auk!” - it was in the harbour just 10 yards away!
This tiny black and white bird was diving non-stop but stayed up just long enough for us to see its short, stubby beak, white lines down its back and a short, cocked tail. Everyone was delighted to have such a privileged and prolonged view of this charismatic species.
We had our lunch at the harbour and throughout this time, the Little Auk dived and dived again without a break. We could see it flying underwater really fast after small fish and we watched anxiously as a Great Black-backed Gull eyed it up as a tasty snack.
In the afternoon, we drove to another sheltered harbour and as we got out, we could see another Little Auk and a Slavonian Grebe in the harbour mouth. As we watched, the Little Auk took off and, doing its flying ant impression, it scrambled up the harbour wall and ran around manically like a clockwork bath toy for a few seconds before flying off. This would have been a good close view if we hadn’t already been utterly spoiled by our earlier encounter!
The Slavonian Grebe though wasn’t in such a hurry to leave us, and stayed at the harbour mouth while we admired it down to 10 yards away. It was actively diving but stayed up long enough for us all to see its lobed feet and its red eye as well as the flat crown and distinctive head pattern. We rarely see this Highland speciality so close in winter but, of course, see it well every week in its splendid breeding plumage.
“The boat trip to Stornoway was my best day. My key bird was the Lesser Yellowlegs. I also have to say, that I have been among an excellent group of birders, and the guides have been absolutely brilliant.” C.P.
“I also have greatly enjoyed being part of this group with good leaders. It has been a great week, with the fishing Osprey and the Pomarine Skuas being my highlights.” T.H.
“I enjoyed the boat trip the most. Seawatching poses a real challenge.” R.T.
“I have seen my first Ptarmigan, Scottish Crossbill and Golden Eagle on this holiday, so it’s no secret that Friday, today had to be my best day!” T.T.
“Great to have that sustained view of the cock Caper in the estate.” F.S.
“Excellent close up views of Crestie and of the fishing Osprey. I really enjoyed the boat trip.” S.M.
“The sunlight on the bills of the crossbills in the forest!” C.P.
“27 new life birds!” S.E.
“It was my first trip to Scotland, so I had so many great moments, and so many lifers!” S.P.
“Seeing the markings on the Common Dolphins, and the moment the Bonxies bringing down the Gannet!” J.R.