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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

Scotland: Aberdeenshire and Highland (Aviemore area)

22 May to 25 May 2019

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction

This is a short trip report, covering a few days birding on Speyside and about half a day on the Aberdeenshire coast in May 2019, following a business trip to Aberdeen. My main aim was to try for Osprey photos at the Rothiemurchus Fishery hides that I had heard good reports of in advance of this trip. However while in that area I was also interested in connecting with and photographing where possible some of the special birds in the area.

Prior to my flight back on my last day, I returned to the Aberdeenshire coast north of Aberdeen which is somewhere I've had some nice birding, and a few photos, in the past.

The photographs shown below were taken with my Canon EOS 7D mk II camera and either my 500f4 lens or the 100-400f5.6 lens.

Weather

The weather was regrettably quite poor, with rain every day, heavy at times. The leaden skies and almost total lack of sun did nothing for my photographic aspirations. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck with the weather in my last few visits to this splendid part of the world.

Rothiemurchus Fishery

I liked the sound of this place for Osprey diving photos, with its low hides and raised pool, which I thought would give me my preferred low camera angle. There are multiple hides (now 5) arranged with different viewing directions to get the best angles. For the early morning sessions, there is even a "spotter" elsewhere on-site who warns you by radio when an Osprey is around, then overhead and finally about to dive! Also as the pool is quite small, and the hides very near to the edge, the birds are very close. I used a focal length of about 200-250mm to get my photos using my 100-400 f5.6 lens with my x1.6 crop camera. Any more and I wouldn't have stood much chance of getting the birds in the field of view! 
Four of the hides. The new 5th hide is to the left. Note the low viewing angles and multiple viewing directions to cater for most wind directions!

May is however the low season for Osprey dives, as in April and May only the males fish, and there aren't that many dives since there are no young to feed. High season, when there are said to be many more dives, is June to mid August, when the eggs have hatched, and both adults are busy satisfying their growing youngsters.

In the event, the weather proved to be quite problematic for my early morning session. I had two possible mornings, and decided at the last minute to delay from the first morning to the second. The forecast for the first morning was pretty accurate - heavy rain for most of the time, so I had no regrets that morning about my decision.

So the next morning, for which the forecast was for dry but overcast conditions, I had set my alarm for the challenging time of 03:30, in order to reach the site in good time for the 04:25 start. There were 2 other photographers for this session and initially it was very dull but dry. With virtually no wind it wasn't easy to predict the arrival direction of any Ospreys and I probably chose the wrong hide. There were then two dives in the first half hour after dawn (which was at about 04:45), but the light level was so low I was forced to use a crazy ISO setting of about 50,000 to get a reasonable shutter speed. Using NeatImage and Photoshop I was able to clean them up to a certain extent, but they do not stand enlargement beyond those shown below!

Unfortunately, and despite the forecast the previous evening for dry conditions, it then started raining and continued that way, being heavy at times, until the session end time of 09:00. From about 05:25 onwards, there were no further photographable Osprey dives. So a disappointing session.
Osprey - early morning photos taken using the H2 ISO setting (ISO 51,200)! 

Following this disappointing early morning, I resolved to try again with a lower cost, unguided afternoon session the following day if the weather turned out to be better. I was aware that the prospect was for a very limited number of dives (typically 2 at best as far as I could tell at this time of year), but that would double my total so far and the light should be much better!

As it turned out, the weather that day was better, with even the odd hint of sun. So I phoned around midday to confirm that I would arrive shortly after 15:00. For this second session, I was the only photographer and without a spotter it was necessary to keep alert the whole time. This was pretty nerve-wracking as there was generally no warning of a dive, which was very fast - all over in only a few seconds. They made the White-tailed Eagles off Mull seem almost snail-like in comparison!

This afternoon, there was an appreciable breeze from the NW, and the new hide was recommended, so that is where I went. After about 2 and a half hours there had been no action and my attention began to wander. Then completely out of the blue a bird hit the water right in front of me, with an almighty splash, and then proceeded to fly towards me! It was gone within a second or two, but I just managed to get onto it in time to fire off a few frames. Surprisingly, this bird turned out to be unringed, but unfortunately it missed its fish. However I was satisfied by the sharpness of most of the images I got in the fraction of second the bird was in frame.
   
   
Osprey - the first dive of the afternoon/evening session (click all but top-right to enlarge)

Thereafter I was more alert, and a mere 45mins later, at about 18:30, I had my second and last dive. This time it was a different, ringed bird, that caught a fish. Only a couple of frames of the few I managed to get for this dive were adequately sharp, but it was still a memorable encounter!
   
Osprey - second and last dive in the late afternoon - with fish! Click left to enlarge
 
This Grey Heron was clearly after the Osprey's fish!  

At around 19:45, with the light beginning fade, I decided to call it a day and let myself out of a deserted fishery. Overall, I had spent around 9hrs in the hides, over two days, but I felt I had been rewarded to some reasonable photos considering this was my first attempt at Osprey dive photography. Perhaps a session in high season would see more action, but they are substantially more expensive!

The setup here seems very good with the multiple, low level hides combined with the spotter for the early morning sessions. The only reservation I had was with the background from the new hide which can, depending on the bird's flight path, contain wires, telegraph poles and other un-natural objects. A fair amount of Photoshopping was needed to suppress these features in some of the above images...

Lochindorb

Lochindorb, to the north of the area around Aviemore. is somewhere I've visited with some success before for both birding and photography. I visited this site twice during this trip, and, as previously, found a few waders close to the road along the shore of the loch - Common Sandpiper, Redshank (very wary as ever) and Oystercatcher. Further out, on the first visit, there was a nice but distant pair of Black-throated Divers near to the island [there are signs about these birds all along the shore, so I can't believe there is a problem mentioning there presence here]. No sign of these on my second visit though. Also at the western end of the loch, where the road crosses the outflow stream, I encountered two Cuckoos on the open moorland, but they weren't confiding, unlike another Cuckoo I know!

I managed to get photos of some rather more obliging Red Grouse close to the road towards the SW end of the loch (this species is pretty reliable around the western end of this loch). Also, on the minor road to the NE of the loch, I was surprised to come across a substantial breeding colony of Common Gulls.

Female (left) and male (right) Red Grouse (click to enlarge)
 
Common Gull at breeding colony (click to enlarge) Oystercatcher (click to enlarge)

Loch an Eilein

This picturesque loch is quite nostalgic for me, as I first visited it in 1965 and have been returning, at intervals, ever since! It seems little changed in recent years at least, apart from the car park which is now more developed. Also I'm sure the visitor centre wasn't there on my first visit! It is a pleasant place for a walk, with the chance of seeing some nice birds as well. This time I didn't take the camera - just went for an un-encumbered walk! By the car park there are some feeders and I saw a Red Squirrel on one of them (there was also another further on, on feeders by the cottage). Along the western loch-side, I came across the unmistakable sound of a Pied Flycatcher which took some spotting, relatively high up in the trees. Further on I encountered some birders who had just spotted a Crested Tit but it had gone by the time I reached them. There was however a Spotted Flycatcher in the same area.

On this walk, I like taking the extra detour along a narrow path to a further small loch called Loch Gamhna. This is always much quieter than the main track, which tends to very popular in spring/summer with joggers, walkers, cyclists etc. In a visit in the 1960's I think I remember seeing a Crested Tit at the far end of this small loch, and amazingly there was one in what must have been a very similar location this time as well! Surprisingly it wasn't calling much and I was fortunate to see it silently on the branch of a tree when I had stopped to admire a Siskin.  As the return path around the far side of the main loch tends to be rather quiet, I decided to return instead the way I had come. This was a good choice as I was rewarded with better views of both the Spotted Flycatcher and the Pied Flycatcher. Also I heard a distant Tree Pipit but it was too far off to see. So a pleasant walk once again!

Craigellachie NNR

Following up some promising info on Facebook, I visited these pleasant woods, just outside Aviemore, on the early afternoon before my second Osprey session. I parked by the Youth Hostel and immediately heard a Wood Warbler in the trees between here and the main road. It showed fairly easily, but wasn't particularly obliging for photos. Walking up the path under the A9 and into the reserve I soon heard another Pied Flycatcher but this one was being even more elusive than the one at Loch an Eilein. Further on where a track goes up hill off to the left, there was another Wood Warbler singing away. This seemed more promising as it was staying in one small area, and by going part the way up the slope, it was possible to get level with it at times. So I spent a fair time here trying to get photos with the 100-400 lens, although it never really came close enough for my liking. Later on I bumped into the same birders that I had come across the day before at  Loch an Eilein. Small world!

 
Wood Warbler (click to enlarge)  

Loch Ruthven RSPB

Loch Ruthven is one of a cluster of lochs south of Inverness - about a 45min drive from Aviemore. Having never been there before, I thought it would be worth a try for its most famous bird - Slavonian Grebe. From the small car park (that was full, to my surprise, when I arrived - I had to park by the road just outside the car park), a 500m long path leads down to the loch and then along to an elevated hide. This looks steeply down onto a small bay of this large loch. When  I arrived, apparently a couple of Slavonian Grebes had been fairly close minutes earlier but all I saw during a relatively brief visit was one very distant bird over the far side. No use whatsoever for photography. So rather a disappointment given that I had lugged the 500f4 lens in. Somewhat ironically though an Osprey put in a typically brief appearance. Out of the blue (or rather grey), it plunged into the water more or less in front of the hide, but it missed its fish and departed almost as quickly as it had arrived. That was about it, apart from a few Little Grebes, Wigeon and a couple of Teal.

Even the Slavonians had been close in, this hide is so elevated that any photos wouldn't have been up to much, in my opinion. So not somewhere I will be hurrying back to, despite its rare and attractive summer visitors.

Other sites in Aviemore area

In my wanderings around the area over the 3 days I was present, I tried the river side path in Nethy Bridge. This starts opposite the visitor centre and is a known site for Dipper, that Old Caley had helpfully mentioned in one of his recent blogs. I found one about 5mins up the path on one visit, but didn't manage to get any worthwhile photos, and it wasn't present when I tried again another day. However I drew a blank for SEOs along the road to Dorback Lodge that he also mentioned.

Elsewhere I managed to get these photos of a couple of the special summer visitors to this region.

   
Black-throated Diver (click to enlarge) Slavonian Grebe (click to enlarge)
   

Aberdeenshire coast

On my final day of this trip, I tried the Aberdeenshire coast north of Aberdeen, prior to my flight back to Heathrow. The main objective was to try for the Iberian Chiffchaff that was being reported from an obscure site called Mill of Tarty, which was quite close to the Ythan Estuary. Using Google Maps, I found the site quite easily but it was immediately apparent that the stated grid reference wasn't very accurate. Having located the correct spot, even from the roadside I could here the bird singing in an adjacent Christmas tree plantation. It was very fortunate that there was a small path that led down from the layby, across a stream (that had a Dipper), over a very tall deer fence, and into the plantation where it seemed one was free to wander. I then spent a remarkably frustrating half hour or more trying to see the Iberian Chiffchaff. Eventually I managed to get a few glimpses of it, but it never stayed still for more than a second or two and I never got my camera on to it.

Reassuringly it sounded exactly like the recording on the Collins Bird Guide App. Hence it was unlike the dubious bird that turned up in Oxfordshire last year, and never reverted to a normal Chiffchaff song. Speaking with a local who turned up shortly after I did, he said there were no doubts as to the identity of this one. I even have a poor recording of it, taken on my phone, if anyone is interested!

Next stop was the Ythan Estuary to try for the King Eider that had been reported on and off this year. The Early Birder had got some great photos of this bird recently. It was low tide which perhaps didn't help, but I could find no sign of it. Speaking to a local, he said this bird only appeared quite infrequently, and may well roam well beyond the estuary, down to Black Dog and maybe elsewhere as well.

Further up the Ythan Estuary, a group of Cranes had been reported from the Waukmill hide, but of these there was no sign.

My final port of call was Collieston, where there is convenient car park near a small harbour and a nearby mound that gives a good view along the coast and out to sea. I've been here before and it was again a pleasant spot, with passing auks (Guillemot, Razorbill), Fulmar, Kittiwake, terns and this time even a Peregrine. There were also some Eider that flew past from time to time, and this one came quite close:

Eider (click to enlarge) Kittiwake (click to enlarge)

 


All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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