Findhorn 18th July 2015
Findhorn is a small village situated next to Findhorn Bay which flows into the Moray Firth. It’s a brilliant place to go on holiday, even just for a couple days, or to stop off at on the way to somewhere further north. Grab a pub lunch at the Kimberly or the Crown & Anchor; have a nice stroll around the bay to where it empties into the picturesque Moray Firth, with views across to the Black Isle; visit the Findhorn Foundation, a nice little self-sustaining community just outside the village; or do what I did and seek out all the best birding spots in the area!
My Aunt and Uncle rent out a house in the village each year, and I’ve been going for 5 years. Last year I sort of tried bird watching in the bay but I really hadn’t much idea about where to look or what to look for and I also didn’t have a scope (highly recommended for birding in the bay, even when high tide pushes waders closer). The time of year that I head up isn’t ideal, spring or autumn would be better for waders, sea watching, and sea ducks, but I made the most of it and managed to notch up 7 lifers and 1 heard only, plus a couple mammal ticks and my first reptile of the year!
Before I do start, please don’t be offended by the lack of photos here. All my photos from the trip will be uploaded (at some point) to my Flickr page.
I guess I’ll start with the first day of the holiday, which of course means starting with the trip up…
Amongst the many Buzzards, few Kestrels, single Sparrowhawk and the two White Doves at the side of the A9, trying their best to look like Ptarmigans, my first lifer appeared just as we had passed Argaty. And everyone knows what’s at Argaty… Red Kites! I got my first Red Kite at the side of the motorway flying up from a field, not completely unexpected but quite a surprise nonetheless. The long tail, dark underwing and greyer head all stood out well and I was just disappointed that I never got a picture, but you can’t blame me. Dad was speeding so it would’ve been very blurry.
Also on the way up we visited the Fortingall Yew, a tree which has parts of it that have been alive for up to 3000 years. What a life to live. And also down this wee valley bit near Aberfeldy, I had my first mammal tick. A herd of Red Deer up one of the hills. Nice and easy.
Once we’d arrived and I’d said hello to cousins, aunty and uncle, I headed up to my room which had a nice big window which I could open and scan the bay from. My first scan of the holidays pretty much reflected the general birdlife that was seen every day: some Great Black-backed Gulls, lots of Herring Gulls, a few Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, Curlews, Oystercatchers, and 3 Grey Herons. A pretty average haul.
Over dinner I had a probable sighting of an Osprey over Culbin Forest (on the other side of the bay to Findhorn), which was not a particularly notable sighting as I found out over the course of the week.
I decided to go on a nice late evening walk at 22:35. The easiest mammal to see around Findhorn Bay has got to be the Grey Seals which live out in the firth but drift into the bay with high tide, occasionally popping their heads above the water and having a good look around. However, if you’re out late enough then they are much easier to hear as they wail from the exposed sand at low tide in the late evening. Quite an eerie sound but also quite nice just to sit and listen to. Anyway, on my walk round the bay I flushed a Grey Heron up from the water’s edge by the Marina, a good place to head for some grub or to get sailing lessons! A few Herring Gulls were heading into the bay to roost and some had landed on the beach along with Oystercatchers to get a quick pre-bedtime snack.
As I walked out the mouth of the bay I was greeted to the sight of lots of Grey Seals hauled out on the sand, wailing away in the near-darkness. Joining these blubbery beasts were a good assortment of Gulls and Curlews & Oycs on the sand. Too dark to have a scan through for any rarer birds unfortunately.
This time of day is probably the best time for getting really close encounters with the Seals as they feed in the inlet into Findhorn Bay and pop up quite frequently to give you a good stare before returning to business as usual. I had views of some large adult Grey Seals down to 15m from me.
My walk back to house had me write down “Unknown call, like Heron, probably Heron”. And with that, I returned to the house and went to bed. But as a teenager, going to bed doesn’t mean going to sleep. It means being in bed and browsing the internet. This actually paid off as I heard a call whilst watching some rubbish on YouTube. I paused the video to hear the call and noted down: In bed; call: thoe-thoe-thoe, descending each note, pos. Greenshank? Not sure, sounded like wader though-though-though. Having done a bit of listening on Xeno Canto I decided that is what it was, my first Greenshank! Unfortunately never saw any for the trip but they are starting to show up a lot at Musselburgh so hopefully I’ll get one there soon. The other highlight of the night was a Whimbrel calling over the house at 00:09.
Findhorn 19th July 2015
I woke up the next morning to the sound of the House Martins which nest on the house next door as they bombed about outside my window. After a quick shower I stuck my head out the window before breakfast to see a couple of Goldfinches on the beach in front of the house. There appeared to be quite an abundance of Goldfinches around Findhorn.
After breakfast I had a scan across the bay. From the window I could see the entire bay that was nearest the outlet into the firth, and most of the rest of the bay, although some of it very distant as the bay is huge. The only section I couldn’t see was the far WSW corner where the River Findhorn empties into Findhorn Bay. My scan produced: Black-headed Gulls, some flyover Meadow Pipits, 2 Arctic Terns fishing, loads of those House Martins, a small group of Redshanks, Linnets on the beach again, a Curlew and 6 Red-breasted Mergansers fishing in the deeper channels. Also seen around the bay quite often are Hoodie-type Crows. The majority of them I suspect are hybrids but there are some pretty smart looking birds that really look like the real Hooded Crow, however I couldn’t be bothered asking the Crows who their parents were in case they took offence. I returned to the internet to find the www.birdsinmorayandnairn.org site, which has a recent sightings section. Very useful!
It wasn’t long before I’d returned to scoping the bay from the window. A female Pied Wagtail on the beach was the first of the trip, there were a few Grey Seals coming into the bay as the tide came in, the Redshanks were on the other side of the bay again, and a single juvenile Starling replaced the usual Linnets on the beach. Whilst I was having my scan I was constantly aware of the sound of finches calling, and it didn’t take me too long to work out that a large number of Siskin were in Culbin Forest across the bay. I also got some nice digiscoped shots of a Herring Gull absolutely destroying a shore crab just in front of the house.
After lunch I decided to head into the bay to see what waders were hiding further in. I timed it pretty well with the high tide which (ideally) would push the waders up closer to where I’d be with my scope, ready to spot the rarities amongst them. Unfortunately my statement earlier about it not being the best time of year for waders was all too true in this case. My notes read: “Not much: Black-headed Gulls, Meadow Pipits, Shrews, Oycs, Curlew, haze problematic.” Usually I wouldn’t complain about the heat but when you’re trying to scan a big bay for small waders it isn’t particularly helpful.
Whilst wondering about aimlessly on the saltmarsh, with the calls of Linnets and Yellowhammers ringing from the gorse, I came across another birder who was also having the same problem with the haze. We talked about the Spoonbills which have been hanging around Findhorn and where to see them (I never did see them so don’t hold your breath), and general birding in the area. We then both went different ways as I went back to Findhorn and he went back to his car.
The day wasn’t a total failure though; I saw plenty butterflies. On the saltmarsh I got my first Common Blue, a nice number of Meadow Browns and one that looked like a Small Heath but I don’t think you would get those in that sort of habitat… The walk back also gave me my first Speckled Wood by Cullerne Gardens, a part of the Findhorn Foundation. This butterfly didn’t want to cooperate though so no pictures.
The walk back also gave me an unexpected Magpie, my first Monterey Cypress, and some dust-bathing House Sparrows. Bit of a disappointing trip to be honest, but that didn’t matter because as I was explaining the haze problem to my dad, a very small tern-like bird flew straight over the house. I went straight to Xeno Canto to confirm my suspicion… it was indeed a Little Tern! My first! All the common tern species breed fairly nearby but I never found out where the ternery was. Who cares! I had one of them fly right over the house.
On some drive back from somewhere at 15:59, I spied a male Sparrowhawk flying over the bay with something small in it’s talons. This was a sight I got used to as he appeared to have a nest across the bay in Culbin Forest, and he’d pop over to the village to grab an unlucky House Sparrow or Meadow Pipit to take back across.
A short walk with dad through the dunes and round the periphery of Findhorn gave a couple flocks of Oycs flying into the bay and a big 2nd summer Great Black-backed Gull with an injured wing on the pier. Once back from the walk I returned to my window: 3 Mute Swans, lots of Oycs, Sandwich Tern, a large flock of Greylag Geese, and lots of Cormorants & Goosanders fishing in the deeper bits.
Again at dinner I was treated to views of an Osprey hovering over the bay as it watched for fish at 20:00. It’s probably to do with the depth of the water as I always saw the Ospreys over the bay around about the same time each day. And at 20:25 I heard a Tawny owl calling from Culbin Forest.
At 20:50 I went for a spot of seawatching out into the Moray Firth from next to the windsock which is in the dunes near Findhorn. Here are my totals:
Oyc: 42W – 5E
Common Gull: 1W
Great Black-backed Gull: 9W – 1E – 3N
Herring Gull: 12W – 7E
Sandwich Tern: 3W – 7E
Redshank: 8W – the same 8 back E
Not terribly fruitful but there isn’t much to see at sea at this time of year.
Whilst watching the sea I had Sand Martins along the shoreline (they nest further east along the beach) joined by a single Swallow, loads of Leopard Slugs on the path, Grey Seals with the usual birds out on the sand again, Oycs and Ringed Plover on the spit by the outlet of the bay, some Sandwich Terns and a Grey Heron by the Marina again. I also checked a sign for North58 dolphin watching tours… *hint*hint*
Findhorn 20th July 2015
On Monday I’d asked dad if he could take me down the coast to Hopeman, a small fishing village just east of Burghead. From here I was hoping for more seabirds and had somehow mixed up this area with another area and was expecting Black Guillemots, of which I got none.
Before leaving, at about 10:00, I got a spectacular view of 4 Ospreys all fishing pretty close to the house, hovering over the bay and then gliding a few metres and hovering again. I suspect that 2 were parents and the other 2 were the young, but I’m not sure.
The journey to Hopeman was much longer than it should’ve been because dad though it was much further away than it actually was, and I assumed I was wrong so didn’t question him when he drove past Lossiemouth. 2 Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk later, I was on the beach at Hopeman looking at my 4th lifer of the trip: a lovely breeding plumage Sanderling, 2 in fact, with 5 Ringed Plovers for company. I had read the night before that wader passage had started further north with Knot, Sanderling, Turnstone and Purple Sandpipers all passing through. Nice to see a sign of that myself, and get a lifer at the same time. Sanderling is no longer a glaring omission from my life list.
Along with these small birds, there were Great Black-backs and Cormorants on the rocks off-shore and Herring Gulls were constantly about. I knew that there were cliffs near Hopeman but couldn’t see any from where I was so I plodded along the coastal trail in the direction I thought they’d most likely be. On my travels I came across many Linnets and Yellowhammers in the gorse and a couple pairs of Stonechat by Hopeman Golf Course. A few Gannets were seen far out at sea. Military Jets are an almost constant background noise in this part of Scotland as RAF Lossiemouth is nearby and they do a lot of practice in these skies, but they don’t appear to disturb the birds all that much.
I finally made it to a point where, once around it, I could see the cliffs laid out in front of me down the coastline, alive with the movement and calls of various seabirds. I decided to take a seat on a bench which was dedicated to the memory of John M. MacPherson, and do a bit of scanning of the cliffs (which are actually called Primrose Bay) and do a little seawatching from 11:20 until 11:27 as this was the first time I was seeing proper seabirds. Totals were as follows:
Herring Gull: 5
Kittiwake: 2 + flock of 20 1st winters
Great Black-back: 1
A far better seabird selection than I’d had from Findhorn, i.e. not just Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls and Gannets. Nesting on the cliffs were Cormorants, Shags, Kittiwakes, and Herring Gulls plus a few Fulmars. An Eider in eclipse plumage had me thinking I’d found my Tystie until I looked through my bins and was quite disappointed.
I continued my walk along the path, passing a 6-spot Burnet and a couple of Sandwich Terns over the sea. I passed Hopeman Quarry where Sand Martins zipped past me to their nest holes, and spotted a small raft of Eiders, which helped me spot another raft of sea ducks. These weren’t Eiders though, these were definitely Scoters of some sort. After a bit of waiting, one of the male ducks (with his yellow blob on his beak) reared up in the water and had a little flap, showing his clean black wings and demonstrating just how black a Common Scoter is. Another lifer, 2 in a day! Although I’ve probably seen Common Scoter off Musselburgh I never really paid attention to what sort of Scoters I was looking at so have never been able to tick Common Scoter, until I saw them there off Primrose Bay.
My next lifer wasn’t a bird. It was, or rather they were, mammals. I’d spotted a few Gannets all diving at the same spot in the sea and something made me set up my scope and have a look. A large, dark shape appeared out of the water where the large, white birds were plunging into the sea and then dived back under again. It was a Dolphin! I set up my digiscoping stuff and got a few alright shots of them as they passed by. There must have been at least 20 of them as they kept appearing in different places. When I got home I checked the pics and confirmed them as my first Bottlenose Dolphins. Brilliant.
This all happened about 10 minutes after a nice couple asked me if I was looking for dolphins, to which my answer was, “I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing dolphins!”
“We’ve been coming here for 8 years and still haven’t seen dolphins so I wouldn’t hold your breath,” I was told. Boy, were they wrong! I suppose it’s all about luck really. The Bottlenose Dolphins in the Moray Firth are 1 of two resident populations in Scotland, and the largest Bottlenose Dolphins in the world, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hard to find as the Moray Firth is huge. I guess I was just one of the lucky ones!
To add to the mammal day list, a Grey Seal poked its head up through the waves for a brief second before returning to it’s underwater world. All of these Dolphins appeared not only to have attracted the Gannets, but also one of those North58 boats. I scoped the boat to see what it was like as I was hoping to go on a wee trip myself. It was a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) with enough seats for about 12 people. Scoping the boat had another benefit. A Puffin was also within my field of view as I looked through my scope; always a fairly easy auk to ID with its big beak.
I ended up walking all the way back to Hopeman along the main road, coming across 2 Kestrels and a Buzzard who’d met his/her unfortunate end on the road. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called from the pine forest by the road and lots of Coal Tits were making a racket in a Sitka Spruce plantation. The best sighting from this walk came when I hopped on to the verge to get out the way of an oncoming car (always walk on the right if there’s no pavement. It amazes me how many people don’t know this, check the Highway Code) and as my feet landed on the grass, a Common Lizard gave me a quick look before sliding away into the grass under the fence. The only place I’ve seen any Lizard before this one was on rocks by the beach at Findhorn. Quite a nice surprise though, not something I expected to tick by the side of the B9040.
I was also taken, mistakenly, for a local by a couple of lost tourists who were asking where Duffus was. I confidently told them it was down the road then left, not really sure of myself though. Turns out I right after all.
Once back in Hopeman I had my packed lunch, some doorstep sandwiches, and scanned the gulls at a pig farm. Nothing there, and also they all flew up when they saw me with my tripod. They never flew up when other people passed by, so I can only speculate that they thought my tripod was a gun?
I then made my way to Hopeman Harbour for a quick seawatch. Again, totals are as follows:
Common Tern: 1
Sandwich Tern: 3
Herring Gull: 32
Great Black-backed Gull: 1
Scoter sp.: 2
Quite a good wee session, and dad came to pick me up afterwards which was far better than trekking the 8 or so miles back to Findhorn. On the way back I had my second sighting of the male Sparrowhawk flying back over the bay.
The rest of the day was fairly productive without leaving the house. 2 Arctic Terns passed over at 15:50, the male Sparrowhawk made another appearance closely followed by what looked like the entire local House Martin population, and I had another scan from the window. 1 Arctic Tern; a bit of gull aging, spotted a 2nd summer Herring Gull without using my book with a nice adult next to it for comparison; and a couple of 1st summer Great Black-backed Gulls passed outside my window.
I took some time in the afternoon to sketch a Fulmar, which I have decided is my favourite seabird for no particular reason.
Ospreys featured for the hour from 19:00 to 20:00, performing well by failing a few dives so I could see the technique well. And a Hoodie-type Crow demonstrated the technique of dropping several mussels on to rocks only for a Great Black-back to come and steal them off him.
A late night YouTube session had me hearing the Grey Seals wailing and a Roe Deer barking from Culbin Forest, with a dog replying from the village.
Findhorn 21st July 2015
Woke up on Tuesday morning to the seaside sound of Herring Gulls on the roof and after a shower I saw a Herring Gull making off with a nice big crab in it’s beak.
Today was the day I was off to see a real Scottish speciality, a bird I’ve always wanted to see after noticing it’s little splodge of green on the distribution map in my field guide. Dad gave me a lift 4 ½ miles down the coast to Roseisle Forest which is owned by the Forestry Commission. As soon as I got out the car and before I’d got my scope off the back seat I was already treated to a Spotted Flycatcher almost bouncing from ground to perch to ground to perch, I think it was picking up ants amongst the pine needles. Once dad had left I tried taking photos of the Flycatcher, or in fact any of them as there were about 4 of them zipping about through the pines, but my camera didn’t like the light levels so most of the pics weren’t terribly good. Some Goldcrests pierced the sound of kids playing on the swings, and Coal Tits called from high up in the Scots Pines.
Then… I’d found my target bird amongst the Coal Tits, pretty much 10 minutes after dad had driven off. The book I’d read (Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands by Gordon Hamlett, would recommend) had said this site, Roseisle Car Park, was reliable but I was expecting a bit of a challenge! And I got my challenge when it came to trying to photograph these birds. As with most pine forest specialists, e.g. Goldcrest, Coal Tit, Siskin, this bird was equally hard to get in the viewfinder, if not more so. Eventually I gave up and spammed the button before scrolling through to see if I’d got any decent shots. Not really… So I looked for the wee birds again. Once I found them, they were scared off by someone dropping a barbeque! You couldn’t make this stuff up. No more chances of boosting my photographic reputation. So there it was, a badly lit, blurry, unsharp shot of my first Crested Tit. There was actually 2 of them there but I couldn’t tell when I was photographing a different bird because they’d both disappear behind a tree and both come out from behind completely different trees.
I decided to head further into the woods to see what I might come across, perhaps more Cresties, and therefore more photo opportunities. Walking through the car park I was aware of the constant calls of Coal Tits and Goldcrests above me and a couple of Goldfinches joined in at the toilet block.
I headed along a nice path through the mature Scots Pine woodland, spotted a Treecreeper in one of the trees and heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker calling from further away. Wrens, as always, made me aware of their presence and a tail-less Robin made a brief show before I started to hear a strange call that I’d never heard before.
It was like the sort of creaky door call of a Goldfinch but higher pitched and quieter. Eventually my eye was drawn to a small yellow dot on the end of a dead branch. A stunning male Siskin in all his finery, who flew off just as my camera turned on. Quite a large flock of Siskins then passed over my head through the needle-y canopy and I trudged on. Another more familiar bird, a Blackbird, darted across the path behind me and another Treecreeper peeped from behind a pine. Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers called from some younger trees and a juvenile Robin followed me for a bit before quickly disappearing into the undergrowth as a small flock of Crossbills bounced over. I did try relocating them but couldn’t find them.
Looping back to the car park I passed a tree and out the corner of my eye I spotted something in the sunlight, and just as I did so it scarpered off down a hole by the base of the tree. It was another Common Lizard! Plenty of them about in Moray then I suppose. I decided to have a little stakeout to see if it emerged from its hole and also to take advantage of the sun. Made myself comfortable with my back against a nice big pine and waited. I had both finch flocks pass over again, Crossbills and Siskins, but couldn’t get up as I’d been drawn in to the amazing smell that was coming from the pine cones as the sun warmed them, probably my favourite smell.
The Lizard never did show again so I wandered on along the path. A Buzzard mewed overhead and flew over, quite low. A large twig blew across the path despite there being no wind, and I realised it was actually my first Dragonfly; a Northern Hawker (IDed by Sciadopitys on Flickr). Beautiful creature.
As I passed back through the car park I could hear the distant calls of Cresties and Coalies but knew I had to head back home as I had a boat trip to be getting on at 17:00. Dad had booked it the day before, so I was looking forward to it. But what I wasn’t looking forward to was the 4 ½ mile walk back to Findhorn on the pebble beach wearing wellies (I had no other suitable footwear and I like my wellies), not to mention the fact that I’d brought my scope with me! Why? I have no idea. But I found a way of carrying it by putting the tripod between the two shoulder straps, leaving my hands free, but also leaving a nice bruise on my back.
Anyway, the walk back gave me Gannets, gulls, 2 families of Ringed Plovers on the beach, and I passed the Sand Martin colonies. One thing I noticed was that a Common Gull followed me for at least a mile, calling all the way. Again I’m guessing it thought I was carrying a gun. No need to worry though Mr. Gull, I’m not one of those cull-happy Tories who have no respect for nature.
I did a little beach clean up too as I felt that maybe doing something good will make me feel a little better about the long walk. Over the whole walk, all I picked up was a milk bottle, a beer bottle, a shoe, a plastic plant pot, several small bits of rope, a couple small bits of plastic and a sweetie bag. Not that bad, a very nice stretch of coast, I’d imagine it’s even nicer when you don’t find out towards the end that your boat trip has been postponed to Thursday due to high winds!
So I spent that evening in a huff in my room, looking out the window as per usual. A Buzzard over Culbin Forest, the male Sparrowhawk with his supporting cast of House Martins, a single Goosander just in front of the house, a Grey Heron by the water, a Herring Gull in the shallower waters… There must be a pretty good food supply to sustain all these birds. And sure enough a Herring Gull soon flew past the window with a crab just as the Goosander threw back its head in an attempt to swallow a fair sized fish.
One species I see every year around Findhorn Bay is the Ringed Plover which usually nests on the spit just by the outlet from the bay. I didn’t notice any breeding pairs there this year though. A single Ringed Plover on the exposed sand in the middle of the bay at low tide drew my attention to a much smaller bird, a Common Sandpiper also on the sand. A nice wee bird to end that day of birding.
Findhorn 22nd July 2015
This morning gave me the wee flock of Redshanks on the other side of the bay, but they were joined by a pair of Pink-footed Geese who were snoozing away whilst a Common Tern gave great views as it fished and landed on buoys.
Somehow, the night before, I’d managed to scrounge a lift from my aunt and uncle who were going to Aviemore to see friends. They just so happened to be passing sort of close to Findhorn Valley, and that’s where I was headed that morning in hopes of raptors and mammals!
I asked them if they would kindly drop me off as far into the valley as they could, which was just past the Farr Road (you’ll have to look at a map). Not terribly far into the valley, but the good spots were within walking distance. These good spots were either walking along the Farr Road and getting lucky, or walking as far into the valley itself as possible, and getting lucky. I opted for the Valley itself, as I’d read that one spot down there was the most reliable.
My walk started well, with loads of Crossbills, possibly Scottish or Parrot but I never thought to check, landing in the trees of a large garden which had a good variety of conifers for them to choose from. They opted for Larch, a fine choice indeed as the foliage of that tree wasn’t too thick so I could pick them out as dark shapes against the sky. A Curlew called from the farmland nearby.
I soon found Findhorn Valley’s infamous suicidal Rabbits, although I only found the unfortunate ones who’d really lived up to their name. I also soon realised that there were Crossbills all over the place. I’m starting to regret not checking them as that could have potentially been two ticks! Well, unlikely that I could have confirmed Scottish Crossbill without getting the bird in hand with a Common for comparison.
The worst thing about Findhorn Valley has to be the shooting which echoes around. Nevertheless, I managed to hear a Common Sandpiper on one of the tributary streams into the River Findhorn. Goldcrests calls shree-ed from the pine trees and about 6 Spotted Flycatchers were catching flies from a fence by the side of the road.
My first stroke of luck came when a very nice couple pulled over at the side of the road to ask if I knew what I was looking for. I showed them the map in my book which points towards one spot in the valley which is particularly good, and they offered to give me a lift down the next mile to the car park. Very nice of them indeed! (Thank you, in case you happen to be reading)
The drive along the valley gave us 3 unidentified birds which were probably 2 Ravens and 1 Buzzard, a Common Tern flying up the valley, and my first Feral Goats, 2 of them. These, I think, are the most feral goats you’re going to get without going across to St. Kilda.
Once at the car park which is just before a big estate which you can walk further into, I was soon aware that the most abundant birds were Meadow Pipits and hirundines, all three of them: Sand Martin, House Martin, Swallow. The first thing I saw that got me excited turned out to be 3 Woodpigeons up on the hillside, soon followed by 5 more unidentified birds further into the valley which were most likely Ravens.
It wasn’t just this couple and I in the car park. There was another man there with his scope out who’d already scanned the cliffs in front of us to no avail, and there was a nice big campervan, the owners of which soon emerged from the valley to say that they’d had 3 Golden Eagles about a mile further into the valley that morning. It was so tempting to walk further in but I wasn’t guaranteed a lift back so had to leave time to trek back to the Farr Road to be picked up. The couple I’d met on the way in, to be honest it was only the husband who was really into his birds and he felt he couldn’t leave her in the car park whilst he went off to look for eagles. So there we were, stuck, waiting, wishing that a large bird would make a show.
After a few Siskins tinkled over, I spotted a bird floating over the valley from south to north. I had it in my bins no problem but that really wasn’t enough to see any defining features. So I eventually managed to find this dark shape in the pale sky through my scope which was blowing about. I couldn’t really guide anyone else on to it as it was in the middle of a completely white sky. Anyway, what I saw on this bird was a white patch on the upperwing, wings slightly upswept in a V shape, and a long-ish tail. All point towards Golden Eagle but they were all a bit iffy. The wings were only very slightly upswept, the white patches I only managed to see once when the bird circled round and the tail wasn’t especially long as far as I could tell. I did let someone else have a look through my scope but he only got a brief look before my scope was blown off the target by the wind which was picking up. Not really a particularly confirmable view. But I didn’t really want my first Golden Eagle to be a view of a speck on the horizon disappearing behind a hillside about a mile away. Maybe I’ll just have to go to Mull some day…
Ravens featured heavily throughout my stay in the valley, with up to 14 birds noted. 5 of which definitely looked like a family group and one of those Ravens looked absolutely massive, perhaps even bigger than a Buzzard. The couple that gave me the lift into the valley left to go and look at Slavonian Grebes on Loch Ruthven, and the guys in the campervan also left to go to the pub. So it was me and a guy called Alan, who’d offered to give me a lift back to the Farr Road (thank you J) for 16:00.
We stood about, scanning the hills and mountain tops, hoping for more than just Ravens, as great as they are, especially when they kronk right over your head and really demonstrate why they aren’t Carrion Crows. Oycs flew up and down the river, piping all the time. A Dipper appeared on the river as I’d expected one would, and the only other large bird we saw was a Grey Heron. A small raptor on the hill next to us (we’d moved a bit further back up the valley to a bridge) had us thinking maybe Merlin, but probably Sparrowhawk. The next raptor was definitely a Sparrowhawk. He appeared low over the ground in front of us, and they proceeded to pluck a Meadow Pipit out of the air across the river and then fly into a small Willow where he was sheltered from the harsh voices of the Common Gulls who showed their disgust at his antics.
A Common Sandpiper called from one of the wee tributary streams, just low enough behind the back for us not to be able to see him/her, and a Pied Wagtail wagged about on the rocks. Alan then gave me a lift back to the Farr Road and then proceeded back to his hotel, and a Lapwing called from across the river which was quite wide at this point, and a Mallard flew over.
How tempting it was to “get lost” in the valley and go up the Farr Road to try my luck for eagles up there…
Later on in the day, skimming stones in Findhorn Bay with my cousins, a Ringed Plover flew into the bay. And a night walk produced nothing but 1 bat, and some noisy Oycs. Not an especially good bird day. But we went to the Kimberly Inn for a good pub dinner, and I ate more at that meal than I have even eaten at a meal before. Ended up having my fish and chips (which was the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, not exaggerating), some of my auntie’s fish and chips, some of my cousin’s steak pie, some of my dads scampi, 1 ½ Mars Bar Cheesecakes, and ½ a Sticky Toffee pudding. Plus 3 bottles of Peroni! A good way to finish up a bad day.
Findhorn 23rd July 2015
The whole morning was taken up by quad biking at The Loft which is just outside Kinloss and offers quite a lot of activities, plus a nice big burger for lunch!
I then asked dad for a lift out to Netherton, which is on the south side of Findhorn Bay, where I was hoping I might see the Spoonbills, or some nice waders. Long story short… It was pretty rubbish. I think I was in the wrong place or something. Oycs, Curlews, BHGs, Common Gulls, 2 Greylags, and 3 Ospreys were all I really saw. The Ospreys gave really good close views of them fishing and even landed on a wee pole quite close by so I phone-scoped it and left. Not a very good day.
For some reason I thought that a bit of seawatching might cheer me up, even though I’d had next to no success with seawatching from just outside Findhorn Bay the past couple of times. But I didn’t have anything else to do as the boat trip had been cancelled again due to high winds.
So from the spit I scoped out across the Moray Firth from 21:15 until 21:42 and here’s how it went:
Comic Tern: 21
Great Black-back: 3
Sandwich Tern: 10
Common Gull: 7
Herring Gull: 4
Quite a good haul compared to previous attempts. Perhaps due to the higher winds, so the birds were finding it easier to soar about over the sea. So after that I decided to do some More-ay seawatching from a bit further along, looking towards the Cromarty Firth. There was the outside chance that I’d get a lifer here as on BirdTrack someone had seen Manxies and Bonxies from Cromarty. There was hope. From 21:48 until 22:09 (yes, it was still light!) I had:
Great Black-back: 6
Comic Tern: 3
What I mean by Fulwater is, at the time I wasn’t sure whether they were just Fulmars flying in a way I’d never seen before and they were slightly obscured due to the distance and the darkness, therefore making the body look a bit smaller and the wings longer; or whether they were Manx Shearwaters. My notes read: “Pos. Shearwaters. No flapping, smaller bodied than Fulmar, looping over sea.” I drew a wee sketch of their flight, make of it what you want but I’m not counting it. I’d rather get some nice, confirmable views, just like the Golden Eagles.
After that I had a nice moonlit walk home around Findhorn Bay with the sunset still tailing off over the horizon, listening to Blackbird by Martyn Bennet.
Findhorn 24th July 2015
2 House Sparrows feeding in the Ivy and Honeysuckle by the gate, a Curlew flushed from the waterside by a dog, a Herring Gull bobbing about feeding, the House Martins going about feeding the few young still in the nest… An average morning in Findhorn Bay. Although it was 8:40, a time that I, a teenager, am rarely awake at. The reason? Going for another bit of seawatching, this time at Burghead as it is a headland so I was hopeful. Also, an Arctic Skua was recently seen off there so…
It was raining in Findhorn so I presumed it’d be raining in Burghead. And it was, briefly. But before arriving in Burghead, I had a possible lifer on the power lines between Findhorn and Burghead; a Corn Bunting. But we were going past at 50mph so I had no chance of IDing it. My book says this is one of the best areas in the whole of Moray and Nairn to see Corn Buntings, so it quite possibly was but I don’t want to count a “quite possible Corn Bunting. Anyway, once dad dropped me off at the end of Grant Street I headed towards the Pictish Fort which is now the Burghead visitor centre. I perched myself just below the Fort, looking out into the Firth facing pretty much straight across. Here’s how it went from 9:36 to 10:18:
Herring Gull: 4
Common Gull: 10
Auk (probably Razorbill): 3
Sandwich Tern: 5
Comic Tern: 1
And on the rocks below my perch on the cliff:
Great Black-back: 5
Herring Gull: 17
And then I repositioned myself to face further up the bay in hopes of seeing something good… 10:22 to 11:19…:
Sandwich Tern: 9
Herring Gull: 11
Comic Tern: 2
Great Black-back: 1
And in the harbour were loads of Herring Gulls, a few Great Black-backed Gulls, several Feral Pigeons, a small flock of Linnets that tinkled about and 2 House Martins which were joined by a Swallow.
Not a very successful seawatch once again. Oh well, nice bit of fresh air I suppose. Fortunately my some of the family happened to be coming to Burghead for lunch to I joined them and went home.
This, this was the day, it had finally come, that I was going out on the North 58 adventure into the Moray Firth (would recommend!) at 4:30. So let’s get straight to it.
Once in the boat we headed into the bay to see if anything was about; a couple Grey Seals and a very distant Osprey. So we headed out the bay and passed the sand where the seals usually chill when the tide is out, but the tide was in so there were only 3 seals on the sand, all Harbour Seals, a nice trip tick. Grey Seals bobbed up constantly checking out the boat and a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls joined them on the surface of the water.
Further out into the bay some distant auks turned out to be Razorbills and we soon came across my first lifer of the trip, a pod of Harbour Porpoises were brought to our attention by the guides. Described as the dolphins’ “smaller, more socially awkward cousin”. Probably not the kindest way to put it but it was true. They only really showed their dorsal fins briefly before disappearing below the surface again. Still nice little creatures.
We continued on towards Burghead, constantly looking out to sea to check if anything was about; Minke Whales, Bottlenose Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, and even Orcas, Common Dolphin, Long-finned Pilot Whales, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Risso’s Dolphins, White-sided and White-beaked Dolphins were all possibilities.
Me being me though, I was looking at birds a lot. Small groups of Guillemots drifted about not far from the boat, Cormorants kept their distance, and as we were approaching a couple of Cormorants, I realised these weren’t Cormorants so brought my bins up to my face to see 2 stunning, breeding plumage Black-throated Divers. Looking somewhat unsure as our boat skimmed past them, they were quickly too distant to get any pics of, but what an unexpected tick.
We passed Burghead, where I had just been that morning, passing the gulls in the harbour, some moulting, some very fine looking adults. We then passed Hopeman, where I had been a few days ago, and we had our first Fulmar of the trip pass close by the boat as we came up to Rosemary Bay where the areas local seabird colony was being very noisy. Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Cormorants, Shags, Fulmars, all nesting here. One thing I noticed on the beach but decided not to point out was a large Great-black Backed Gull consuming a young Kittiwake. With all that stupid hype in the news I decided not to spark another headline…
This was the area in which I’d had Dolphins those few days ago, but they weren’t here now. We departed from the bay after nice close-up views of the seabirds and headed further off shore where we were given juice and biscuits whilst we waited for something to show up. One of the guides explained that they haven’t had many Minke Whale this year and they suspect it’s because there’s a large barge dredging just outside Burghead Harbour to make the channel deeper. But then they were going and dumping all the silt in the middle of the bay which they think is disturbing the Whales. So not much chance of any of them showing up. In fact nothing did show other than more Guillemots and Cormorants. So we headed back to Findhorn Bay.
With no dolphins showing, I could feel that some of the other people on the trip were a bit disappointed but you really can’t expect the guides to find the dolphins ever time they go out. I was very happy; a mammal lifer in the form of the Harbour Porpoises and 1 bird lifer in the form of those 2 Black-throated Divers. But more was to come…
As we whizzed along the coastline towards the bay, a small bird popped up from under the water and immediately flew away from our boat, clearly showing it’s all black body, white patches on it’s wings, and bright red feet. A Black Guillemot! A bird I was definitely not expecting to see on the boat trip, but I was more than happy to tick it off my life list. A very successful trip in my opinion.
More Grey Seals were present on the way into the bay and a Common Tern joined the gulls on a post in the middle of the water. All in all, a great trip. Knowledgeable guides, a smooth boat ride, a good chance of seeing something good, and juice and biscuits are always good.
The evening gave me my last view of the male Sparrowhawk who was being chased by the House Martins and Swallows again. I went outside to get a good look at this predator. A pair of Pied Wagtails flew up from the beach in front of the house, a Hoodie-type Crow was in the pines by the house, and then the Sprawk flew over the house and past the neighbour’s house with a Swallow close behind him. I checked the House Martin nest for the last time, as we were leaving the next morning at 10:00. A few sleepy-looking heads poked out and stared at me for a moment.
My last note from Findhorn is of a Grey Heron calling across the bay, echoing eerily across the still water to my window and through the trees in Culbin Forest at midnight.
Findhorn 24th July 2015
After saying my goodbyes to aunt, uncle and cousins, we left Findhorn and headed south to Aviemore where we’d stop off for something to eat.
On the way down, by the side of the A939 I saw what looked like a particularly large-bodied Swift, but it may have just been because it was so close to the car and I’d never had the opportunity to see one so close. I dunno…
Once in Aviemore we grabbed sandwiches, ate them, I noted a big female Sparrowhawk flying over the high street and later on had a Buzzard over Tesco. As I waited for people to return from the toilet I peered into the Dell of Spey where I’ve always seen Brown Trout, and that day was no exception. A steam train went past as I looked out towards to Cairngorms and then dad and I went into Mountain Warehouse to have a look about.
After a good look about in the shop, and a some good chats with very friendly staff, I came out with a big 65L rucksack with a detachable 15L rucksack, a new waterproof which actually fits me, and new walking boots. A very good late birthday present!
A Kestrel by the A9 just past Dalwhinnie and a Buzzard over the same road past Blair Atholl finished up what had been a brilliant trip. It was really my first trip outside Lothian where I was really trying to see birds of the area which I wouldn’t necessarily get so easily back home.
Findhorn Bay is a great place which I’m sure I’ll be visiting at other times of the year to see what else the area can produce, and also to perhaps see those 2 Spoonbills which have evaded me for 2 years now.
Once home, I had a quick dinner and went out in the evening to test my new boots and waterproof. They worked well! Just a wee walk around Edgelaw and Roseberry Reservoirs. Nothing much at Edglaw, but the water level at Roseberry was very low, so I had a wee walk around one side and managed to count at least 6 Common Sandpipers and there was no doubt something better there as well but I needed to get home as it was getting dark and my bins weren’t working so well in the fading light.
A brilliant week.