22 March 2015
Before we headed north I had hoped we'd be able to see Ptarmigan, a species I have only seen once before, and maybe a Golden Eagle, but this would mean driving into the Cairngorms and having a lot of luck with the weather and the birds. Gary had been unsure, suggesting we stick to the coast. However our luck had stuck on Saturday and after a fabulous day we were sat overlooking Portsoy and seven brilliant White-billed Divers in the late evening sunshine with just one decision to make - where to spend the night.
We discussed the options; Brora for the other Harlequin, stay near Portsoy or Aviemore and the Cairngorms. When Gary suggested Aviemore I immediately agreed and set off towards the car before he had time to change his mind. We packed up and began the drive south into the mountains. An hour and a half later we were driving through Aviemore with the most stunning scenic backdrop across the high snowy tops, lit by a beautiful sunset. We found a smart, new Motel at the far end of the town and checked in for the night. We found an excellent Indian restaurant a short walk along the road where we enjoyed a hearty evening meal.
We were up early after a clear and very cold night. First stop was Tulloch Moor where a screen usually affords views of a Black Grouse lek. The screen was there but unfortunately the Grouse were not - not the ideal start - had our luck run out. We did enjoy three Goldeneye zooming around with their whistling wings very audible overhead in the still, quiet air and a Redpoll flew over.
|Tulloch Moor - from the screen|
|A much redder Red Squirrel|
We wandered back to the car park and were about to give up when some photographers arrived. They asked if we'd seen Crested Tit on the feeders and as I said 'No' a small bird flicked in from the left - a Crested Tit! We moved closer and grabbed a couple of images, then settled down awaiting its return.
With time moving on we decided to push on to Cairngorm. We made our way to the car park and then set off walking the path to the right, up into the Col to find some snow and hopefully a Ptarmigan. As we climbed higher we found several boisterous Red Grouse which were starting to be territorial.
|Panoramic view of Cairngorm from the car park|
|Looking up to the Col|
|The path to the Col|
Snow was in patches, and there was no obvious snow line. This suggested any Ptarmigan might be too high up and a passing birder gave negative news on his way back down, reporting too much disturbance. He did tell us that someone had seen birds at the top, having taken the funicular railway up to the cafe. We briefly discussed our options, and considered joining him on the train up to the top. However as I stared across the Col at some larger snow patches I just couldn't believe there wasn't a chance, so I set off across the mountain towards the crag above. Having crossed two streams and a large area of frozen snow I looked down to find a white feather at my feet - a Ptarmigan feather! Motivated I pushed on across the next area of snow and further up the increasingly steep slope. Half way across I noticed a snow ball looking back at me near some rocks - result! Over the next 45 minutes we enjoyed fantastic views of a brilliant pair of Ptarmigan feeding around our feet - what cracking birds.
|Female still in winter plumage|
|Male with his red eyebrows and mottled spring shades|
|Panoramic view of the path to the col, Cairngorm|
|Stunning adult male Red Grouse|
|The only way to shoot our only endemic (sub) species|
|A very tame and well camouflaged female in the low heather|
We stopped briefly at Lake Morlich, mainly to retrieve a map from the car boot. As I pulled up beside the lake a Diver disappeared under the water just offshore - as it surfaced I was delighted to see a stunning pair of Red-throated Divers resplendent in their summer dress. Across the lake we found four Tufted Duck, 3 Whooper Swan, 6 Teal and a pair of Goosander.
|Panoramic view of Loch Morlich|
|Looking up the Findhorn Valley from the car park|
|Looking back up the road|
As I found more Ravens and with just ten minutes before we had to leave Gary called another large bird of prey down the valley. It was very distant and initially we tried to convince ourselves it was a Buzzard, until it turned towards us to reveal hugely upturned 'hands'. As I called Golden Eagle it turned to reveal distinctive white underwing stripes and a white tail base. After a few minutes it landed on top of the hill, so we quickly packed up and drove back down the valley in the vain hope it might get up again. Just after setting up scopes it miraculously took flight, gave two circles and went over the hill and out of view. We were both delighted with the day, hardly believing our luck.
Some more Mountain Hares were feeding in a large grassy slope - however these had all moulted from their winter coats to summer brown, leaving us to wonder whether the snow melting causes the hares to moult, or whether the moulted hares find the brown grass areas while the white ones seek out pale rocky slopes?
|Panoramic view of the Findhorn Valley|
As we left the Findhorn Valley Lenticular clouds, looking like myriad flying saucers, filled the air and as we arrived in Aberdeen the sunset through them was truly spectacular, but unfortunately we could not stop on the dual carriageway to photograph it.