This trip was another last minute decision. A friend emailed me in the morning for some info on the Cairngorms. He was leaving that evening, and had room in the car so I tagged along! I left home around 10pm, getting to his place for midnight, and we drove through the night. Our first stop was Aberdeen, and by the time we arrived it was light. We were looking for the Harlequin Duck that had been on the River Don for quite some time. Thankfully a couple of birders were just leaving as we arrived, and directed us straight to the bird. Dipper, Kingfisher and Bullfinch were seen along the way, along with plenty Mallards. The Harlequin seemed to favour stretches of river that were faster flowing, and was mostly on the opposite side to us, though it did occasionally drift much closer, and occasionally associated with the larger Mallards. It soon took flight and flew upriver so we headed back to the car to move upriver ourselves. We were met at the car by an extremely tame Carrion Crow, which I assume someone must have been feeding. A short drive and we reached some rapids, and found the Harlequin negotiating those, giving some more interesting photo opportunities.
Next stop was Lossiemouth and Burghead, for White-billed Diver and King Eider. Despite extensive searches, neither were located, but we did see Long-tailed and Eider Ducks. We headed to Carrbridge later in the day, and a Red Grouse was the last bird to be photographed that day.
The next morning as we left Nethybridge, we spotted an Iceland Gull near the road and stopped to take photos. Then we went on to the Findhorn Valley. Whilst photographing a Mountain Hare in ermine at fairly close range, I noticed something move out of my other eye, and immediately switched my focus to that. It was a Weasel, and with the encouragement of a few squeeks, it was inquisitive enough to stop and pose for a few photos. The Feral Goats were located next – a number of individuals, some with kids. Both Sika and Red Deer were also seen. We climbed one of the slopes to the snowline and waited for some Mountain Hares to come to us rather than stalking them. It was a successful tactic, and gave me time to shoot a timelapse of the clouds rolling through the valley. A few raptors also seen, including a Merlin flying just feet over the top of the car as we worked our way back along the valley.
We started the next morning at Loch Garten, photographing the usual woodland birds whilst waiting for Crested Tits to appear. Our attention was frequently diverted by a Short-tailed Field Vole, scampering at speed from one tussock of grass to the next. With enough observation we figured out its route and were able to take some photos. The Crested Tits also made a few appearances.
Next morning we headed to the Moray Firth, timing our visit to coincide with the right phase of tide, in order to watch Bottlenose Dolphins. They were already visible as soon as we stepped on to the shingle, and came incredibly close to the shore. Only once did one individual fully breach, and I unfortunately missed the opportunity to shoot it, but it was impressive to see at such close range.
Grantown-on-Spey was our next stop, to a place that always seems to deliver views of Red Squirrels. After spending time photographing them and grabbing a snack, we headed back to Loch Garten briefly to see what was happening there. It was much the same as the previous day and we didn’t stay long, before heading to Lochindorb. When we arrived much of the landscape was shrouded in smoke thanks to the burning of the moors, designed to keep this landscape to ‘special’. We had distant views of Black-throated Divers on the loch, and very close views of Red Grouse nearby. Overhead we saw Common Buzzards, and my first ever Rough-legged Buzzard, albeit very distant.
The next morning I spent some time photographing Dippers in the river outside the hotel. They were busy collecting nesting material and constructing a nest beneath the road bridge. We headed to Cairngorm Mountain and parked in the ski centre car park, before setting off up the Northern Corries. Red Grouse were seen at the lower levels, but as we got higher we started to see Ptarmigan, all in a state of semi-ermine getting ready for spring. We were able to get very close shots of both male and female birds. Never satisfied, I had my eye on a bird I’d spotted through the binoculars, high on a steep slope, which looked to be still in full ermine. Leaving sense behind, I decided to climb up there. I wasn’t too far away from the bird, but had reached a point where I had a sheer ice drop below me, and only a few inches of snow level enough to walk on. The views were amazing, but I was in no position to use a camera safely. Common sense got the better of me, and I was forced to turn around and descend.
Loch Morlich was next and along with 13 Whooper Swans, we spotted a pair of Black-throated Divers. The water was a little choppy but we still managed some record shots at least.
The next day we headed to Blairgowrie and spent dusk onwards looking for Beavers. Eventually, in pitch darkness, thanks to night-vision scopes, we managed to find one swimming in the middle of the river. We weren’t able to observe it for long before we lost it, but it was another first for me.
We had one more stop to make in England on the way home. We drove to Bedfordshire, with the intention of seeing the last remaining Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. We found the location easily enough, but after hours of waiting, all we got was to hear it repeatedly, from a frustratingly close distance, but never visible. Normally I require a photograph for a species to make it on to my life list. Sometimes I’ll settle for a sighting. This is the one and only species that has made it on to the list by virtue of just hearing it. The bird is over 20 years old, but maybe I’ll have another go one day before it’s too late.