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Scottish Highlands in Early Spring

Wonderful birding in Scotland as winter turns to spring

The first few weeks of spring are a great time to go birding in the Scottish Highlands. A unique period of the year when two seasons overlap, there is plenty of variety on offer with winter birds still in situ just as the harbingers of spring arrive. And on this flexible tour, we explore the Strathspey forests and moors, the Cairngorm plateau and take day trips out to the Moray Firth, Black Isle and the rugged West Coast in our quest for a large bird-list.

On local days we search for Crested Tit, Scottish and Common Crossbill in the forests, territorial Dipper, Goosander and Goldeneye on the rivers and Red and Black Grouse on the moors, The latter can be particularly active at this time of year, males popping and cooing at the lek in their attempts to attract females. Waders too will be busy displaying, and likely are Golden Plover, Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew and Snipe while Slavonian Grebe, Red-throated and Black-throated Diver will be freshly returned to their breeding lochs and perhaps in summer-plumage. A good time of year for raptors, we investigate several great sites for Golden and White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk, Hen Harrier, Merlin and Peregrine including on the Glenlivet Estate where Heatherlea have exclusive vehicle access. On the Cairngorm plateau we look for Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting, with chances of early returning Ring Ouzel and Wheatear.

Around the Moray and Black Isle coasts we will see a large variety of birds, with seaduck, waders and gulls around the estuaries, bays and harbours, and geese and farmland species in the fields. Possible are Scaup, Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Common and Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Great Northern Diver, Purple Sandpiper, Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Black and Bar-tailed Godwit and perhaps a Glaucous or Iceland Gull. A good time of year for rarities, past sightings have included Snow Goose, King Eider, Surf Scoter, White-billed Diver and Ross’s Gull – anything can be possible as newly arrived migrants complement remaining winter visitors. A day touring the west coast will be another highlight, with divers, auks including Black Guillemot, passerines including Twite and Rock Pipit, plus Otter, seals and maybe cetaceans among the featuring wildlife.

An absorbing week of spring wildlife experience in Scotland, and based entirely out of the Mountview Hotel we are perfectly placed to take full advantage!

KEY MOMENTS at our Friday round-up - which will be yours?

  • White-tailed and Golden Eagle on the west coast
  • Winter and spring birds combining on the Moray Coast
  • Black Grouse in full flow on the lek
  • Birds in summer plumage such as divers and stunning Slavonian Grebe.

Day 1: Saturday - Arrival
Arrival, welcome, dinner and briefing. Don’t forget our courtesy collection service from Aviemore.

Day 2: Sunday - Local birding
We begin with a local day, and our award-winning hotel is right in the middle of the best birding habitats. After breakfast we head to nearby Abernethy Forest, to look for Crested Tit, other local breeding birds and Red Squirrel. Scottish Crossbill are found in the pine forests and with both Common and Parrot Crossbill also present, separation of these three species can pose a real identification challenge! Later we seek out secluded locations with Golden Eagle, Peregrine, Merlin, Red Kite and Slavonian Grebe as our targets, and may visit a number of moorland spots on this lovely day, including a drive which may give views of Red Grouse and Black-throated Diver in breeding finery.

Day 3: Monday - Wild West Coast
Rugged Wester Ross offers iconic scenery and heading westwards we check remote sealochs, bays and beaches as we travel. We watch out for both Golden and White-tailed Eagle, and Raven and Hooded Crow are likely. We have chances of Otter, and many of the sites here are among the best in the UK to see divers. Sometimes large numbers, Great Northern, Black-throated and Red-throated Diver are all likely, and we also look for Black Guillemot, Slavonian Grebe, Common Scoter and Red-breasted Merganser offshore. Flocks of passage waders and gulls can often include Purple Sandpiper or Iceland and Glaucous Gull, while the first Great Skua and Wheatear of the season are possible too.

Day 4: Tuesday - Coastal birding
Today we take our first look at the Inner Moray Firth. This is an exciting time to be birding with the majority of wintering birds still present and numbers swelled by northbound migrants. We time our visit to maximise numbers of waterbirds, with a close look at the tide times for sites such as Udale Bay, the Beauly Firth, the Cromarty Firth and Munlochy Bay. All should be busy with large numbers of waders, wildfowl and gulls to scan through. The Black Isle is good arable ground and we should see Linnet, Yellowhammer, Red Kite and other raptors. The stubble fields will be getting ploughed at this time of year, concentrating the winter flocks of finches and especially geese. We might see hundreds of Pink-footed Geese today, just a few weeks away from returning north. The flocks can sometimes hold rarer species such as White-fronted, Tundra Bean or Snow Geese and there could also be a lingering winter rarity on offer too, such as American Wigeon or Green-winged Teal.

Day 5: Wednesday - Crown Estates at Glenlivet
We make an early start after breakfast to seek Black Grouse popping and cooing at the lek. Red Grouse are present here too and on the Crown Estates at Glenlivet we have exclusive access to quiet spots where you won’t see many other birders. Raptors are likely to feature, with Golden Eagle, Goshawk, Merlin and perhaps the first returning Osprey among the possibilities. The stunning surrounding scenery, less known among birders, with Raven and other moorland species all contribute to a truly special day. We may end on the Moray coast, especially if we are aware of any rarities in more easterly locations.

Day 6: Thursday - Ptarmigan in the hills
Another full day exploring the Cairngorm National Park, and this time we seek Ptarmigan in the high hills. The mountains support few other species, though we watch for Snow Bunting, early Ring Ouzel, Raven and passing raptors. We may also see Red-throated Diver, Goldeneye, Peregrine and Crested Tit as we descend, plus Redpoll and Siskin flocks in local birch woods. Osprey, Slavonian Grebe, Whooper Swan and recently returned breeding waders are also likely later as we enjoy the best of local birding.

Day 7: Friday - Moray Coast
Spring birding along the Moray Coast is particularly enjoyable, as newly arriving migrants complement remaining winter visitors. This day can easily include Osprey fishing, rafts of Common Eider, Goosander, Merganser, Common and Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Great Northern and Red-throated Diver, Glaucous and Iceland Gull. Lots of spring waders including Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Dunlin and Ringed Plover may be in bright summer plumage. We watch out also for farmland specialities including Corn Bunting, Yellowhammer and Grey Partridge which are all still found on this fertile northern coastline. Sandwich Tern have arrived, Gannet, Fulmar, auks and gulls are likely and we search for any rarities or unusual sightings within reach. In recent years we have seen White-billed Diver, King Eider, Surf Scoter, Blue-winged Teal and a well-documented Belted Kingfisher.

Day 8:  Saturday - Departure
Breakfast and departure. Don’t forget our courtesy return service to Aviemore.

This holiday can be combined with:

Highlands and Ardnamurchan, Highlands and East Coast Birding, Spring into Scotland including Mull, Highlands and Skye in Spring

Please note: all itineraries are given as a guide only. Actual holiday content may vary according to the judgement of your guide, and elements beyond our control (eg weather).

What's included in your holiday price

  • Seven nights comfortable accommodation at The Mountview Hotel, VisitScotland rated 3 Star. All rooms are en-suite, with TV and hospitality tray. There is no single supplement, and guests are never expected to share. Single guests may be upgraded to double room accommodation at no extra charge.
  • Full Scottish breakfast, a substantial packed lunch, and a delicious dinner.
  • Six full days wildlife watching.
  • Guidance from a professional Group Leader.
  • All transport by comfortable minibus.
  • All estate access 
  • A checklist specifically prepared for your holiday to record your sightings and notes.
  • Courtesy bus service to and from transport in Aviemore.

What's not included in your holiday price

  • Insurance, drinks and other items of a personal nature.

More Holiday Information

Accommodation at our 3* Mountview Hotel in Nethy Bridge. All accommodation is en-suite.
Food There is a choice of evening meal, and vegetarian, vegan and other diets are welcome. Breakfast may be chosen from a full Scottish menu. You don't need flasks for hot drinks.
Walking will be light, although mountain walking for Ptarmigan is strenuous as birds generally start moving back up the hill with the spring melt, though April can still see a good snow covering up the hill!
Weather Expect a wide variation in weather conditions. Blazing sunshine, snow and rain are equally likely, and you will probably experience a bit of everything. Bring waterproofs, walking boots or shoes and warm clothing.
Biting insects are unlikely to be encountered.
Group size maximum 7 clients per guide.
Optics Telescopes will be useful, and you should bring binoculars. A camera would be useful too!

Getting here is easy!

BY CAR Travel north to Perth. Take A9 signposted Inverness to the exit north of Aviemore for the A95. Follow signs northeast through Boat of Garten to Nethy Bridge (ten miles). In Nethy Bridge, drive through the village, over the River Nethy, and you will see our sign 200 metres ahead on the right.

BY RAIL Don't forget our courtesy collection service from Aviemore on Saturdays at 16:30 and 19:30, but please let us know at least 48 hours in advance! The best train to Aviemore is the ‘Highland Chieftain’ on the East Coast Line. This leaves London Kings Cross at 11:00, arriving Aviemore at 19:22. We recommend you connect with this service if possible. Our pickup also works well with the 16:26 arrival from Edinburgh. In general, rail travel via Edinburgh is easier than via Glasgow, where a trip across the city between stations is needed, often followed by a change at Perth. Return trains leave Aviemore at 08:32 (fast train to London – recommended), 09:26. 10:31 and 11:30. However we can only make 2 journeys to Aviemore on Saturday morning, so you may be taken to Aviemore a little earlier.  Rail enquiries: 0845 7484950, www.nationalrail.co.uk

BY AIR Flights to Inverness are becoming available all the time, for latest info call our office. Currently direct flights to Inverness are available from: Belfast, Dublin, Birmingham, Manchester (all Loganair), London Gatwick, London Luton, Bristol (all easyJet) and London Heathrow (British Airways). Guests arriving in Inverness airport can then take a taxi to Nethy Bridge, or take the Airport Flyer bus to Inverness, from there they can take the train to Aviemore where we can collect you. Our courtesy collection service is on Saturdays at 16:30 and 19:30, but please let us know at least 48 hours in advance if you wish to be collected! We will be able to meet the 15:44 and 18:53 trains departing from Inverness that arrive at 16:25 and 19:26 respectively.

Other birdwatching holidays in Highlands

Why choose Heatherlea for your Scottish birding holiday?

Heatherlea is THE place for top quality birding holidays in Scotland, chosen by more and more birders each year. Stay in our own three star Small Hotel, and enjoy first-rate birding with Scotland’s best guiding team. Relax and enjoy yourself, as we do all the planning! Above all, we make it our business to show key wildlife to you. Our fully inclusive guided holidays concentrate on the real experience, and we take time to ensure that each of our guests enjoys everything we do.

  • We have been organising birding and wildlife holidays for 30 seasons, and have a highly experienced and capable office team. We also offer a telephone and email service outside normal office hours.
  • Our ‘Mainland Scotland’ holidays based at Mountview Hotel have a maximum ratio of 7 clients per guide, putting the emphasis on personal service, and helping you get the best possible experience.
  • We are a small company, run BY birders FOR birders. Come and see!
  • Heatherlea are Mainland Scotland’s FIRST ‘5-Star Wildlife Experience!’ This is the highest available grading, classified as ‘exceptional’ by visitScotland.
  • There is no single supplement. Single guests are never expected or invited to share.
  • Our holidays often include things which others might invite you to pay yourself, for instance loan of Swarovski binoculars, packed lunch and tips to hotels.
  • We offer a courtesy transfer between our Hotel and Aviemore rail/bus links on Saturdays.
  • Heatherlea hold full Tour Operator Insurance for your added protection.
  • Heatherlea is a limited company, registered in Scotland. We are also registered to pay VAT, which is included in your holiday price as quoted on this page.
  • Once your holiday is confirmed in writing by us, we promise not to surcharge the price for any reason.

Enjoy an excellent birding and wildlife holiday with Heatherlea.
Mainland Scotland’s FIRST ‘5-Star Wildlife Experience!’

Visit Scotland - 5 star wildlife experience

Visit Scotland

Tour Details

About Heatherlea Holidays

Contact Information

The Mountview Hotel, Nethybridge,
PH25 3EB Scotland

T: +44(0)1479 821248