This is the second time that I have done a lecture at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown on Spey and did I enjoy coming back to an area where I was the 'Osprey' Warden for the RSPB at Loch Garten. This was way back in 1980 with a few months before the birds arrived and a few afterwards working with Stuart Taylor who managed the reserve which comprised of just the Loch Garten area not Abernethy which came later. The area is well known in the birding circles as a 'mega' spot for several species including Crested Tit, Capercaillie and 'Scottish' Crossbill. This Crossbill is now thought to be the only bird found in Britain and no where else in the world! But the American birders have 34 varieties of Common Crossbill in their country and non are split into local full species.
One of the problems seems to be Common, 'Scottish' and Parrot Crossbill all can breed with one another. Egg size and shape and even vocal notes have given the British bird this title but finding it in the wild is something even I have not done. Even the bill size of this bird can be different with some very large like Parrot and some small like Common Crossbill. So one of the walks I carried out in Abernathy was to find this elusive bird. I never want to miss things on a journey so traveled not straight up the A9 but took a side road via Crieff and Aberfeldy. This way we were seeing different country than last year's A9 trip. This paid dividends when I spotted a full summer plumaged Black throated Diver on a small loch by the side of the road. These divers are different than Red throated Diver in the way they breed needing a large freshwater loch to breed with all its food in that one loch where as Red throats can breed in very small lochs but fly to the sea to find its food. The diver just added to the day as we actually were aiming for the 'Birks of Aberfeldy' to do a walk for my 'Go Birding' features in Bird Watching magazine. The left side of the water is the most dramatic with plenty of steps and amazing views into what becomes a gorge with plenty of woodland to keep the birds happy. The second goal was what is supposed to be the oldest tree in Britain at Fortingall. This is a Yew tree which has a dramatic diameter [if you can imagine it!] as sadly fires and Victorian collectors have reduced the tree as well as old age of course. The tree is found in a church yard with the church being built there as Yew trees were classed as sacred to pagans and early Christians as trees live longer than we do! All goals achieved we finally motored up the A9 and across to the hotel for a 4 night stay. We being Thelma, my wife and 2 Border Terriers - Susie and Woody. Thelma has many friends and even relatives in the area so we try and choose areas where we can see them and also view wildlife areas. This first day was the south coast of the Moray Firth via Lochindorb to spot moorland birds and water birds. Red Grouse was easy with Stonechat and plenty of Meadow Pipits. A Red Kite was a great find feeding on road kills. Nairn was our first stop with Common Guillemot and Long tailed Duck in glorious summer plumage and a few roads we were looking at the RSPB's reserve of Culbin Sands https://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/reserves/guide/c/culbinsands/ Large numbers of Sandwich Terns were gathering on a sandy spit along with mixed gulls. There was a general movement of Swallows and Sand Martins moving east while Shelduck and Mallard were enjoying the sun with a cold east wind. Culbin Forest is next door and has a few special birds like Crested Tit and Osprey along with some great flowers like Twin Flower and single flowered Wintergreen as part of the 550 species found there. Lunch was at a sunny Findhorn Bay with a full tide so waders were less obvious but there were a number of terns feeding and we had a chat with a local birder telling us what we had missed! Then it was on Burg Head which is a great place to get out into the Moray Firth but keeping dry as the head is well into the estuary. A White billed Diver had been seen here but I was looking at the head and not around the corner where it was feeding. I did get a Great Northern and a Red throated Diver, Guillemots and better still 16 Bottle nosed Dolphins performing close to the harbour wall. The small visitor centre is a great place to sea watch if the weather is bad and we slowly returned via Elgin to see a friend. last year while leaving here we were hit by a snow storm but this year the snow stayed on the Cairngorms to please the skiers! I gave a talk that Friday night on Egypt where I have spent a lot of time but sadly the country is not at its best at the moment with my title 'Death on the Nile' being part of that. Saturday morning saw me out in Abernethy with a guided group. Well John and his wife! What a miss for everybody else. First it was 2 female Capercaillie, then Crested Tit and Crossbills calling and finally 4 crossbills in a pine feeding which I felt were Parrot due to their monster bills. Even the trees are favored by the size of these bills stating with Two barred Crossbill prefers Larch due to the soft cones. next Common Crossbill favors Larch, Spruce and at a push Pine. Scottish is supposed to be favoring Spruce and Pine while the Parrot is there for the pine which Abernethy is full of. There are even 'Eruption' years for all the crossbills moving from Europe to Britain and back again. There is an estimate of 60 pairs of Parrot Crossbill breeding in Britain mainly in Caledonean Pine. The afternoon was spent at several locations with Thelma and the dogs mainly Avilochan and back to Lochidorb by another road. the best birds were Slavonian Grebes, Goldeneye and poor Sand Martins hunting in the cold conditions. Sunday was a trip and a half with the famous Eagle alley and Loch Ruthven folloed by the north coast of the Black Isle with a visit to Thelma's Cousin as well. Came off one road and was amazed to see Loch ness not expecting to see it and the birds were good as well with Whimbrel, Pink footed Geese, Wheatear, Long tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebes. Monday was heading south in snowy conditions so it was straight back instead of getting stuck some where. can't wait for next year's trip!!