Day 1: Saturday 16 May - Nethy Bridge to Caithness
We meet early at the Mountview Hotel in Nethy Bridge before heading north across the Black Isle, Easter Ross and into Sutherland perhaps seeing Red Kite on the way. It will be prime time for migrants, and up to date bird news will dictate our birding stops with flexibility being very important! At Loch Fleet we hope to see Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Common Seal and perhaps an Osprey or Kingfisher. Other possible stops could include Brora, Golspie, Embo or Dornoch, and your guide will be selective to ensure good birdwatching. Crossing into Caithness, checks of the quiet harbours at Helmsdale or Dunbeath may yield a lingering Iceland or Glaucous Gull. Latheronwheel is another possibility and should give us nice views of our first Fulmar, Black Guillemot, ‘real’ Rock Dove, Rock Pipit, Grey Wagtail and if lucky Dipper. Later in the afternoon, we plan to track inland entering the ‘The Flow Country’ where breeding waders such as Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe and Redshank are abundant. At RSPB Broubster Leans hunting Short-eared Owl, Merlin and Hen Harrier may be seen before we head to Thurso for a two night stay.
Day 2: Sunday 17 May – Dunnet and Duncansby Head
A full day to explore Caithness, which at the very north eastern tip of Mainland Scotland is well placed for great birding. Visits to the seabird colonies at Dunnet Head and Duncansby Head should give close views of nesting Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake and Fulmar in good numbers. A few Shag and Puffin will be present, and we should see Wheatear, Rock Pipit and Twite on the headlands. With stunning views across to Orkney, time scanning the Pentland Firth for cetaceans and seals may prove worthwhile. Harbour Porpoise, Common, Bottle-nosed and Risso’s Dolphin are all possible, along with Minke Whale while these waters have a strong reputation for Orca with regular sightings at this time! Among the other sites we may visit are St Johns Loch and Pool, a superb local nature reserve, where over 200 species have been recorded in a short space of time. Noisy gull and tern colonies will be hard to ignore and passage waders, such as Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit or Wood Sandpiper may feature. Dunnet and Sinclair’s Bays are both large and are both good for divers, waders and any lingering sea-duck such as scoters or Long-tailed Duck. We will look in the dunes here for Small Blue butterfly, weather permitting. If conditions are promising for passerine arrival we may spend time checking sparse cover at Skirza, Keiss or Noss Head Lighthouse, where the birding can be exciting and if lucky produce a rarity. Our circuit will likely see us loop back via Loch Watten, where late to depart wildfowl or an Otter are possibilities to bring a great day to a close.
Day 3: Monday 18 May – West via Forsinard, Strathy Point, Kyle of Tongue and more
Today we head west along the north coast, first detouring inland to enjoy Forsinard RSPB and the Flow Country in all its glory. An excellent reserve, with new trails and an observation tower giving superb views over what at first can seem a desolate peat bog. In truth this will be very different, waders call and display continuously and there can be a constant chorus of birdsong from Skylark, Meadow Pipit and others. We will make stops in open areas to scan the bogs and heath hoping to pick up raptors, and nesting waders can include Greenshank. Returning to the coast, we go to Strathy Point next, a headland extending out into the Pentland Firth and another good place to look for cetaceans. On a short walk of just under a mile we look for diminutive Scottish Primrose, which will hopefully still be in its first bloom. From Strathy, we progress westwards to Tongue where options include scanning from the Kyle causeway for coastal species or moving inland targeting Golden Eagles at known territories. By now, time will likely be getting away from us, so we will need to push on west past Loch Eribol to Rhiconich where we stay for the next three nights.
Day 4: Tuesday 19 May – Durness and Balnakeil
After much time on the road the previous day, we enjoy a more leisurely exploration of a rarely visited area. The Durness peninsula, overlooking Cape Wrath to the west is a real birding hotspot where migrant passerines may be found around the village or church, and breeders on territory can include Spotted Flycatcher, Redstart, Willow and Sedge Warbler, Wheatear and Whinchat. At Balnakeil Bay and the adjacent wetland we have two more great sites. Rich machair and croftland is attractive to waders and passage migrants and if lucky, Corncrake may be heard giving their grating call from wet meadows though they are likely to remain unseen. The area is rarely visited by birders, but with rarities including Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Stone Curlew, Iberian Chiffchaff, Citrine Wagtail and Rose-coloured Starling recorded in recent springs, its reputation is growing fast. If weather allows then a walk out to Faraid Head is worthwhile, where Puffins nest on the cliffs. Alternatively, we may choose to take the quiet road out to Kinlochbervie and beyond, where sheltered bays and lochans can yield surprises and offer great views of summer-plumaged divers and perhaps Otters.
Day 5: Wednesday 20 May – Handa Island
Handa Island, a true Scottish gem with over 150,000 seabirds, will be our focus today. A slow walk around the whole Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve allows enough time to enjoy the flora and fauna of the maritime heath and steep cliffs. The island holds breeding Great and Arctic Skua and both usually show well, announcing their presence by dive-bombing as we stroll along the boardwalk paths. Our walk takes us to stunning viewpoints of seabird cliffs bustling with Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, Shag, Fulmar and a few Puffin and Black Guillemot. We should see Arctic Tern, Red Grouse and Raven too and all in unique surroundings. The geology here is stunning, sheer 110m Torridonian Sandstone cliffs covered with birds. A wonderful day out.
Day 6: Thursday 21 May – Assynt
Leaving Rhiconich, we follow the road southwards, making planned or impromptu wildlife stops as we pass Loch Laxford, Scourie and the Kylesku causeway at Loch Glendhu. The landscape of Assynt is recognised as a geopark for its diverse geology and we pass through several National Scenic Areas. Incorporated within are rich croftland, rough grazing and stunning sandy beaches which support a diverse range of wildlife. Exploring the winding roads at a leisurely pace, we may choose to stop for a seawatch off Stoer Point, before reaching the flower-rich meadows of the machair further down the coast. Moving inland past Loch Assynt we will push on to Ullapool, and once there, what time we have left will dictate exactly which route we take to Gairloch, where we stay for two nights. Most likely, we will head inland on better roads, where selected stops at roadside lochs may give us nice views of breeding Red-throated and Black-throated Diver, raptors including Golden and White-tailed Eagle, Buzzard, Osprey, Peregrine or Merlin or perhaps even Black Grouse or Redwing.
Day 7 – Friday 22 May - Wester Ross
Today we take a full day to explore the varied coastline of Wester Ross, in a relatively small area of landscape full of crags, bays and islands. Taking in Little Loch Broom, Gruinard Bay, Mellon Udrigle, Mellon Charles, Aultbea and Poolewe we have excellent opportunities for Otter, eagles, divers, seabirds and Twite. A smart drake Blue-winged Teal through spring 2019 demonstrates the area has credentials for rare birds too. The views here incorporate stunning beaches right up to mountain top, with picture-postcard views at our frequent stops for wildlife.
Day 8: Saturday 23 May - Applecross and return to Nethy
We leave our hotel and the Gairloch area after breakfast, passing Loch Maree and working our way through the stunning Torridon range back out to the coast. As usual, we will be on the lookout for raptors, pausing at Sheildaig, a quaint little village where Otter and White-tailed Eagle often show well. Taking the remote single-track road, we continue along the coast to Applecross to take in fabulous views across to the island of Raasay and beyond to Skye. We check the bay for summering Great Northern Diver before heading up the winding track to the Bealach na Ba, the highest road climb in the UK, peaking at 626m. If the weather is kind, the view will be stunning, incorporating all of Skye, the Small Isles and even the Outer Hebrides. Once at the top we are free to explore the Arctic-Alpine environment, home to Alpine plants and mountain top birds, including Dunlin, Golden Plover, Wheatear, Ring Ouzel and Ptarmigan. We descend on the south side, returning east via Loch Kishorn and Loch Carron perhaps adding a few final species to our lists, expecting to arrive back in Nethy Bridge at around 5:30pm.
This holiday can be combined with:
Birding the Highlands in May, Highlands & Corncrake.
Outer Hebrides in Spring.