Please note this holiday starts and ends in Dumfries
Day 1: Thursday 23 January - Arrival and local birding in Dumfries and Galloway
Our holiday starts at Dumfries at lunchtime where we meet at our hotel or pickup from the rail station depending on individual travel arrangements. With the group assembled, after lunch we head straight out locally to the excellent RSPB Mersehead reserve. We shouldn’t have to wait long before we see (and hear) our first Barnacle Geese – hundreds of them winter at this internationally important part of the Solway Firth. Plenty of other wintering wildfowl and waders will be on show here too whilst feeding stations, hedgerows and sensitively farmed fields can hold a plethora of winter passerines such as thrushes, finches, Tree Sparrow and buntings. Twite can also occur, particularly out on the saltmarsh where there is also the chance of a passing Merlin, Peregrine, Hen or Marsh Harrier. As light fades, we hope to see the impressive Starling murmuration and subsequent roost, just as Barn Owls will be coming out to hunt.
Day 2: Friday 24 January - West to Loch Ryan and Luce Bay
Loch Ryan and Luce Bay are large coastal bays within touching distance of Stranraer, and both are simply superb for wintering seabirds. A number of excellent viewpoints can provide good views at both sites and a big range of species is likely. On the water we should see large flocks of seaduck such as Scaup, Common Scoter and Eider, with smaller numbers of Red-breasted Merganser, Long-tailed Duck and Black Guillemot. All three divers are possible but Red-throated along with Great Crested and Slavonian Grebes are especially numerous while the wintering flock of Pale-bellied (Siberian) Brent Geese has increased in number in recent winters. Common waders will be well represented and may well include scarcer Purple Sandpiper or Greenshank, and we should also see Little Egret here as they continue their northward expansion. Mediterranean, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls might be encountered and there is always the chance of a rarity in this area. We search Goose flocks, a large wintering group of Greenland White-fronted Geese being the primary target, and endeavour to finish overlooking a large grassland area where Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owls roost.
Day 3: Saturday - Galloway Forest and Hills
Today we venture inland for a day based around the Galloway Forest and Loch Ken. Ken Dee Marshes RSPB is an excellent wintering site, with a regular flock of Greenland White-fronted Geese a big draw. A series of trails, hides and feeding stations offer a varied outlook on the reserve and a target here will be Willow Tit. We will no doubt have seen a few Red Kites before we head for the hills and open clearings of the Forest to search for raptors. Hen Harrier, Merlin and Peregrine are regularly seen in open moorland with Raven and small numbers of Red and Black Grouse also present in this habitat. Golden Eagle is also possible though scarce, with a re-introduction programme currently in place to help boost numbers. It’s the time of year when Goshawks start to display over the dense forest and we'll hope to pick up Common Crossbill, Siskin and Redpoll too or possibly a Dipper. Early-afternoon and we’ll witness the spectacular Red Kite feed at a local station, with unrivalled close views of this gregarious raptor. A varied and enjoyable day for sure!
Day 4: Sunday - Caerlaverock and the Solway Coast
World famous and the most northerly of WWT reserves, many thousands of Barnacle Geese winter here post-breeding in Svalbard. There’s a vast range of things to do, with four towers and in excess of twenty hides to choose from without the distraction of a wildfowl collection – a true wild bird reserve! We scour the flocks for rare Red-breasted Goose, Snow Goose or one or other of the ‘real’ Canada Geese. Other wildfowl should include Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and Shoveler with Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon rarer possibilities - both have been regularly recorded. We will attend the daily Whooper Swan feed, a spectacle worth seeing and hearing and a great chance to involve ourselves in the important work of the WWT. Waders out on the flats or on the pools will likely include Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlew, Lapwing, Golden and Grey Plover, Dunlin and a few Ruff and Snipe. Such a volume of birds attracts raptors and hunting Hen Harrier, Peregrine or Merlin may be encountered. We will likely visit the River Nith in the heart of Dumfries itself, where Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Goosander show well. There’s also the outside chance of Otter here too while further down towards Glencapel, wildfowl and waders are abundant, including large numbers of Pintail. A local woodland has also been good for Willow Tit in recent years so if time allows we might try our luck and hope to see Nuthatch and other affiliated species too.
Day 5: Monday - Transfer to the Lothian Coast with birding en route
Lots of options today, but we start by targeting any rarities in the Dumfries area or Solway specialities we might have missed. This could include a visit to inland lochs such as Milton, Auchenreoch or Carlingwark, each having attracted rarities in recent years such as Ring-necked Duck, Smew, Bittern and Ring-billed Gull. Sites on the Solway coast such as Southerness or Caresthorn might be an option too.
After four nights in the southwest we head north-east, and make a special effort to find the regular Clyde/Forth flock of Taiga Bean Geese, elevated to full species status in 2018. This area holds up to 90% of the UK wintering population. Skinflats RSPB is an internationally important area on the Forth estuary, and large numbers of Pink-footed Geese congregate here (recently bringing two Snow Geese with them) and there are usually good numbers of other wintering birds. If we arrive in Lothian in time to do some birding we’ll head straight for the coast, there’s a vast range of sites to choose from. We stay in Lothian for three nights.
Day 6: Tuesday - Lothian coast
Birding on the southern side of the Firth of Forth, we visit the Lothian coast, where a number of top birding sites are available. We will follow tips from our local birding network, though Musselburgh will likely be our first port of call. Often highlighted as one of Scotland’s premier birding sites, a number of lagoons can be checked for wildfowl and waders while offshore can offer great views of sea duck such as Common and Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and Eider. At the mouth of the River Esk, Surf Scoter and King Eider regularly occur, divers and grebes may feature, and this stretch of coastline is perhaps the best place in Scotland for Red-necked Grebe. Farmland holds buntings, Skylark and Tree Sparrow, and there’s a good chance we’ll add Grey Partridge here while cold conditions can force Water Rail, Woodcock and even Jack Snipe out into the open. A walk out on to the saltmarsh will hopefully bring us Twite and we’ll also look out for coastal nivalis Snow Bunting, Water Pipit, Black Redstart and if we’re lucky, rare Shorelark. In the afternoon we’ll perhaps visit Aberlady Bay, another fantastic site with excellent potential. We’ll check goose flocks which might yield Tundra Bean or Eurasian White-fronted, both more likely here in Lothian than on the west coast. White-winged Gulls are likely and with so much potential prey, raptors such as Merlin, Peregrine and Short-eared Owls will be active in the area.
Day 7: Wednesday - Lothian or Borders
There are plenty of sites available on the Lothian coast; Tyninghame, John Muir Country Park, Dunbar, Barns Ness, Skateraw, Torness and Thorntonloch to name a few. We’ll choose depending on success with our target species so far and if we’ve done well for wetland and coastal birds, might opt to travel farther south and into Borders. Sea-watching for Little Auks is an option at St Abbs or Eyemouth if conditions are favourable, and White-billed Divers have wintered off here recently. Birding inland is also an option, and we might search for a wintering Great Grey Shrike at a known location. If rarities are available we’ll go for them, while Waxwing and Hawfinch irruptions have grabbed the attention of local birders in recent years. Another distinct possibility is Black-necked Grebe, rare in Scotland but becoming regular on Lothian lochs of late. Whatever we do, it’ll be an enjoyable final day on new ground for Heatherlea groups.
Day 8: Thursday - Return travel
We drive back to Dumfries in the morning to connect with southbound trains and to return vehicle owners to their cars. Choosing to make the return train journey from the Lothian area is a possibility but please check with the Heatherlea office before making arrangements.