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TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Scottish Highlands



Saturday 2 - Saturday 9 October 2004


Leaders:
Robin Noble

Trip Report


Sunday 3rd October
Black Isle
Guide: Brona Doyle

Objective: To explore the Black Isle travelling along the Beauly Firth, visiting Chanonry Point and finally Udale Bay, whilst delving into local folklore.

Weather: A breezy day with some showers but mostly dry and sunny.

We headed off to the peninsula that is the Black Isle. There are a number of reasons why it’s called the Black Isle; choose the one you like the best:

  • The patron saint of the Black Isle is St Dubhtac; Dubh is the Gaelic word for Black.
  • In the winter the Black Isle is lower lying and so all around the landscape is covered in snow so it looks darker.
  • They used to cut the peats on the ridge in the middle, so from afar it would look dark, hence Black Isle.
  • In 1064 the Viking Earl Thorfinn handed over the Black Isle to the Danish – the Dubh-gall (dark strangers). This is now the surname Dougal in Scotland or Doyle in Ireland.

It is not an Island but a peninsula of low-lying fertile agricultural landscape; this is due to the underlying geology of Old Red Sandstone. This sedimentary rock was laid down in Lake Orcadia 350 million years ago and can be great for fossils such as ammonites and belemnites. There are also areas of rock dating from the Devonian period 150 million years ago, where fish fossils have been found.


We headed through Beauly (means beautiful place), which was set up by the Valliscaulian monks in 1230, who came over from France to set up the priory. Heading to the shores of the Beauly Firth we soon stopped on the shore, it was low tide and the mudflats spread far out in front of us. We had distant views of curlew, mallard, oystercatcher and black headed gulls, the sky was clear and the air crisp, in the trees surrounding us long tailed tits flitted around. Carrying on our way past the Iron Age crannog (artificial island) we soon pulled over and hauled up on the sand bars were common seals, on the near shore were wigeon, goldeneye, red-breasted merganser and redshank.

Heading onwards we passed the Clootie Well, this is where people tie pieces of cloth, after dipping it in the water or drinking the water, to the trees to pass a disease or ailment of a loved one to it. The drawback is if you touch any cloth you will get the disease or ailment it was put there to get rid of! As we climbed towards Avoch a red-legged partridge gave us stunning views sitting on top of hay bales, we were soon out again as skylark sang around us with meadow pipits joining in. On the wires were many young linnets and we were treated our first views of red kites, whom were introduced onto the Black Isle in 1989.

We carried on towards the site of Ormond Castle. English troops were in the Highlands in the late 13th century and Andrew du Morvia (Moray) garrisoned Ormond Castle against them, he later joined William Wallace at the battle of Stirling during the Wars of Independence in 1297. He died from his wounds after the battle and the castle then passed to the Douglas family, then the Earls of Ross, until it passed into the hands of the crown until its demise in the 17th Century.

Chanonry Point was our next port of call. At the head of this terminal moraine we walked to the end to give ourselves the best chance of spotting bottle-nosed dolphins. There were hundreds of juvenile gannets spearing the water, with common guillemots and the odd grey seal around. We spotted a harbour porpoise and had great close views of common terns. It was time for a well-earned lunch. We delved into the Brahan Seer story before departing. The Brahan Seer or Coinnaich Mhor (Dun-coloured Kenneth) was a prophet to the Seaforth MacKenzie clan and many of his predictions have come true, he foretold the battle of Culloden, the clearances to name a few. But most famously was his prediction of the fall and end of the Seaforth MacKenzie clan. It was his last prophecy before he died, after being condemned to death by the clan chief’s wife. It came true word for word. The last clan chief was Francis Humberstone Mackenzie and is buried in the South Aisle of Fortrose Cathedral.

With exploratory oilrigs in the background we pulled into the town of Cromarty (which means Crooked Harbour), the sea was calm and the air warm. We were welcomed with views of greater black-backed gulls perched on the anchor ropes of the oilrigs and eider ducks far out towards the North Sea. The town has been described as the jewel in the crown of Scottish vernacular architecture. It is a beautiful town, which boasts the first factories in Scotland, which were built by George Ross in 1774. He and William Forsyth saw the potential and built in up at this time to be an important industrial centre. Famed for its harbour, fishing and factories people came from all over Scotland to work.

Driving alongside the Cromarty Firth towards Udale Bay, an RSPB reserve we saw the distinctive scaup and wigeon near the shore. The tide was high giving us peak conditions for Udale Bay. Udale Bay is a RSPB reserve and comprises of shallow waters overlying extensive mudflats, an important area for wintering geese and wildfowl. We made our way into the hide and set about searching. There were hundreds of oystercatchers, curlew, redshank, mallard, wigeon and the odd godwit, flocks of lapwing took to the air every now and then and mute swans were swimming regally past. Grey herons patrolled the shore keeping their eyes peeled for anything moving in the ebbing waters.

With the sun still shining we headed back to the buses and the drive home, we caught a few more glimpses of red kite on the way, before arriving back to Aigas for afternoon tea.



Species List

Gannet
Cormorant
Shag
Grey Heron
Mute Swan
Mallard
Wigeon
Scaup
Eider
Goldeneye
Red Breasted Merganser
Buzzard
Red Kite
Pheasant
Red Legged Partridge
Oystercatcher
Lapwing
Black-Tailed Godwit
Bar-Tailed Godwit
Curlew
Redshank
Black-Headed Gull
Common Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black Backed Gull
Great Black Backed Gull
Common Tern
Guillemot
Collared Dove
Wood Pigeon
Skylark
Swallow
House Martin
Meadow Pipit
Pied Wagtail
Fieldfare
Long Tailed Tit
Great Tit
Jackdaw
Rook
Hooded Crow
Carrion Crow
Starling
House Sparrow
Chaffinch
Linnet

Common Seal
Grey Seal
Harbour Porpoise



Aigas House and Nature Trails
Monday 4th October
Guide: Julie Sievewright

Objective: To hear more about the fascinating history of the Highlands and Aigas house and to explore the grounds around Aigas.

Weather: Overcast with showers in the afternoon

The day started with a talk by Sir John Lister-Kaye all about the history and wildlife of the highlands and the many things he has seen and been involved in during his thirty years in the Highlands. The talk started back in the days of the Celts and the different tribes that were spread throughout Europe, one of these tribes were the Gaels who went on to form the Gaedhealtachd (land of the Gaels) which is now known as the highlands. He also talked a little about Dalriada, which is known as the kingdom of the Scots, the Scots being a tribe called the Scotii who came over form Ireland. We then moved forward in time to the battle of Culloden in 1746, which led to huge changes in Scottish culture after the defeat of the Jacobites, this in turn led to the mass movement of people to the new world due to eviction by landlords, a process known as the clearances. The reign of Queen Victoria has a huge effect on the highlands in a time known as the ‘Balmorality Epoch’, where everybody from high society wanted to be part of the romantic highland dream. It also had a dramatic effect on the landscape as sporting estates became fashionable, large sections of heather moorland were burned in order to generate young growth for red grouse and deer. Sir John finished by talking about some of the issues that are relevant to today and he showed the group slides of birds of prey that had been poisoned or trapped by gamekeepers and poachers.

After a quick coffee break Sir John led the group on a tour of Aigas house. The oldest part of the house dates back to 1760, it was rebuilt after being burnt down by Hanoverian troops after the battle of Culloden. It was originally the home of a Tacsman who would have been a close relative and associate of the clan chief of the time. A family known as the Gordon-Oswald’s created much of what exists today, they were lowlanders who wanted to used Aigas in the summer months as a hunting lodge for their family. Many of the external features such as the turrets and gables are very typical of the Balmorality era. They were then taken into the west wing, the section of the house that was built by Sir John in 1989, where they were given a talk by Lady Lucy about her Aga which she uses for a lot of the cooking she does for guests. After a tour around the upstairs of the main house we headed back down to the dining room for lunch.

After lunch we headed off to explore some of the 850 acres that the Aigas estate covers. We took a gentle walk up through the plantation woodland looking at coppicing and pollarding along the way, we eventually reached Loch Cul Na Cuillich (the Loch of the old woman) which is said to be the hiding place of a woman who escaped the massacre after Culloden and went mad, previous members of staff have seen her ghost wandering the grounds. We continued our walk around the Loch where we talked about a wide variety of topics such as Deer Culling, secondary woodland, the destruction of heather by the heather beetle, the formation of peat and the importance of Sphagnum moss. We headed for high ground to an area we know as the flat rock, which is a great example of the local rock type known as Moine Schist. Moine Schist is a metamorphic rock, which has been formed by heating and cooling and we could clearly see the folding in the rock as well as the many different minerals it contains such as Feldspar, Quartz and Mica. At this point we were also standing in the Archaeological heart of Aigas, we could clearly see the outline of the largest Bronze Age hut circle we have at Aigas. It was thought that the largest of the three present would have been used as a pen for cattle due to its size, the other two would have been used as dwelling houses. High on the hill above us was the site of an Iron Age fort, as with the hut circles they have not been excavated so it is difficult to describe exactly what it would have looked like. As with many Iron Age structures it was probably built for defence as the poor climate meant that food was scarce as there was a lot of fighting between neighbouring communities for suitable land. As the years progressed the fighting stopped and an important family in the community used many structures simply for prestige. Soon it was beginning to rain quite heavily so we decided to head down to the house for afternoon tea to warm us up. After tea the group were given a lecture by Robin all about prehistoric Scotland.

Species List

Swallow
Common Lizard
Wren
Common Hawker Dragonfly
Rook
Buzzard
Ling Heather
Bell Heather
Cross Leaved Heath
Bog Myrtle
Bramble

Strathspey
Tuesday 5th October
Guide : Julie Sievewright

Objective: To travel around Strathspey looking for birds and learning a little about the local history.

Weather
: Rainy with sunny intervals.

We headed down the A9 towards Inverness passing over the Kessock Bridge, the only bridge in Britain built to withstand the earth tremors that Inverness experiences due to its position on the Great Glen fault. Inverness was given city status in 2000 and since then it has become one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, and with a population of over 70,000 it holds over a fifth of the highlands total population.

As we carried on down the A9 we passed an area known as Moy, which has strong links to Aigas and the battle of Culloden. Moy house was the home of the chief of the clan Mackintosh (to which Lady Lucy belongs) and his wife was an active supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s, much to the disgust of the chief who was a Hanoverian supporter. It is said that Colonel Anne (as she was known to many) entertained Charlie and a few of his most loyal men in the lead up to the battle, unfortunately the Hanoverian troops found out and planned to ambush the party and arrest Charlie. However, the prince’s men became aware of their presence and were able to fool the Hanoverians into believing that the house was filled with hundreds of Jacobites and they soon turned and ran. It is said that when the chief of the clan Mackintosh was captured by the Jacobites they believed that returning him to his wife was a far greater punishment than anything they could do to him!

Soon we were exiting the main road and heading towards the heart of Strathspey, the U-shaped valley through which the longest river in Scotland flows. The now empty shell of Ruthven Barracks stands on the site of a much earlier castle; the Barracks themselves were built after the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 in order for the government to keep a much closer eye on the unsettled highlanders. It was an important rallying place for the clans after the battle of Culloden and it was sabotaged to prevent its use by the avenging Hanoverian troops. It is also said that the notorious Wolf of Badenoch met a grizzly end at the barracks after a game of chess with the devil. After the devil said checkmate a terrible storm occurred and the Wolf’s men were found burnt outside the Barracks the following morning. The wolf himself was found in the dining hall, although his body had not been burned like the others the nails in his boots had disintegrated. At his funeral his coffin was carried at the front of a procession as another terrible storm occurred; only when the coffin was moved to the back did the storm stop.

We reached Insh Marshes, one of the most important areas of floodplain wetland in Britain. It is now owned and run by the RSPB who try to monitor and protect the many hundreds of wetland birds that breed and spend the winter there. The hides provided excellent views of the marshes and protected us from the occasional shower; unfortunately the birds were proving to be very elusive although we did get some good sightings of roe deer and teal.

After lunch we took a gentle drive through the glen following the river down the valley until we reached Abernethy forest. We passed Loch Garten which was the first nest site of the Osprey when it returned to Scotland in the 1950’s, ironically due to the acidity of the Loch very little lives in it and the Ospreys travel elsewhere to find food. The forest itself is renowned as being one of the largest remaining fragments of Caledonian Pinewood left in Britain and is home to some of the rarest bird species in the country. Our aim was to take a walk through a section of the woodland and find some of these birds such as crossbill, crested tit and the mighty capercaillie; there was much excitement as we met a group of people who had seen two capercaillie about a mile up the track. Unfortunately it was not to be our day as there were very few birds around, there was the distant call of a goldcrest and Brona heard a crossbill in the distance.

As we headed home we could just about see the mighty Cairngorm Mountains through the mist, the name comes from the Gaelic An Carn Gorm, which means the blue hill. A large area of Strathspey is now part of Scotland’s second, and the UK’s largest national park which was opened in September 2003. The Cairngorm National Park cover a total of 3800 square kilometres (1400 square miles) and is home to a quarter of Scotland’s native woodland with the biggest continuous stretches of near-natural vegetation in Britain, it also includes 25% of the UK’s threatened plant and animal species. The main aims of the national park are:
  • To conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area.
  • To promote the sustainable use of the natural resources of the area.
  • To promote understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area by the public.
  • To promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.
At the moment many people feel that some of these aims are being ignored as the local community has suffered as it has driven house prices up which is forcing many local people to move away. There are also environmental implications as more people are visiting the area which is putting more pressure on the land and the wildlife, at the moment there is nothing in place to regulate the people that can use the forest, people are free to ride bikes through the forest or walk their dog without a leash – none of which can be good for such a fragile habitat or its occupants. At the moment the park is still in the early stages and it seems at the moment that they haven’t got the management quite right, hopefully in a few years with the right advice there will be a strategy in place that means we can enjoy areas like these without doing anymore damage than we have already.

We arrived back at Aigas and had a warming cup of tea as we discussed the day’s sightings, although we had not seen as many birds as we would have hoped everybody enjoyed the fantastic scenery of such a beautiful and interesting part of the highlands.

Species List

Buzzard
Mallard
Teal
Grey Heron
Pheasant
Red Grouse
Carrion Crow
Hooded Crow
Rook
Jackdaw
Magpie
Herring Gull
Common Gull
Siskin
House Sparrow
Chaffinch
Goldcrest (H)
Wood Pigeon
Collared Dove
Wigeon
Greater Spotted
Swallow
Robin
Woodpecker
Red Squirrel
Roe Deer

Strathconon
Wednesday 6th October
Guide: Glen Campbell

Objective: To explore and discover the wildlife of this superb Highland Glen.

Weather: Deliciously damp.

After a hefty breakfast we departed Aigas at approximately 9:15 a.m. and headed for Strathconon.
Unfortunately the weather was definitely not on our side, as it was wet virtually all day long. However there was nothing we could do about that so we just had to make the best of it.

Our route took us through Beauly, Muir of Ord then Marybank and on through the hills to Strathconon. We followed the river Conon right up the Glen, past some impressive Hydro Electric dams all the time scanning for wildlife.

October in the Highlands can be a very noisy place with the Red Deer stags bellowing their deep roars throughout the day and night together with the Honk honking of wild skeins of geese flying over head.
It didn’t take us long before we spotted a small harem of hinds with one dominant stag on the edge of the road, well camouflaged in the natural woodlands. Throughout the day we continued to spot many Red deer on the hillsides and skylines.

We also paused briefly to view a large nest construction made by breeding Ospreys earlier in the year, however the nest is now abandoned for the year as the birds have already migrated back to Gambia. Hopefully the nest will get full use again next year.

Our next main stop was the well-known Golden Eagle Eyrie three quarters of the way up the Glen. We stopped and scanned here as long as time could permit in the hope of a gliding wonder of nature. However the rain showers were heavy and constant so any eagle with a bit of sense would more than likely be sheltering. We did set the telescope up on the Eyrie, which was used earlier in the year but the vision was also quite blurred by the mist and rain.

We continued on up to the head of Glen and stopped at Loch Beannacharain and as the public road does not go any further we turned and slowly drove back along to our well-deserved lunch stop. We all ate and digested our packed lunches in the vehicles hoping all the time for the clouds to lift. Robin had planned a walk up one of the hillsides however it would have been wasted by the weather and the chances of seeing anything were slim. So we ventured on past Loch Achilty and headed for Rogie Falls.

This is where we all took a short walk down to the spectacular waterfalls. Rogie was at its best because of the rainfall, superb.

Approximately 4 p.m. all back to the vehicles and headed for Aigas

Species List

Buzzard
Stonechat
Hooded Crow
Mallard
Collared Dove
Robin
Bell Heather
Ling Heather
Cross - Leaved Heath
Tormentil
Devil's Bit Scabious
Foxglove
Harebell
Yarrow
Red Deer

Wester Ross
Thursday 7th October
Guide: Glen Campbell

Objective: To explore Scotland’s rugged West Coast and discovering its wildlife.

Weather
: Relatively clear with dry spells.

We departed Aigas at approximately 9:15 a.m. and headed for the dramatic West Coast. Our journey took us on the road towards Ullapool and Loch Broom. The first stop being at Corrieshalloch gorge and toilets. Because of the previous day’s rainfall the gorge was very impressive together with the great view down the U shaped valley to the West.

We continued on the road towards Little Loch Broom and were greeted with a superb view over to the Summer Isles. The road winded down the loch side past a very active Salmon fish farm. We paused here as the sea pens were actually being stocked with fresh young fish from a boat. They pumped many fish into that pen and it was easy to see why they have problems with disease because of a high density of fish kept in the one area. All around were ever hopeful Shags waited for a meal ticket.

Our next stop was directly across from Gruinard Island. The island is well known for its breeding White tailed Eagles and thankfully within a few minutes of arriving we spotted a solitary eagle perched on a steep hillside near the skyline of the island.

Everyone got very excited and we quickly got the telescopes set up for all to get a good view. We also settled here for lunch whist watching the largest avian predator the UK has to offer. To our delight another eagle came onto the scene and we watched the convocation of eagles until we had our fill and they disappeared over the skyline.

We continued on past the famous Inverewe Gardens and down past the Highland village of Gairloch. Along the way we paused many times looking and scanning for wildlife. Our species list for the day was starting to look good with species such as Ringed Plover and Redshank to name a few.

Robin then took us all to a very nice secluded spot and we all ventured out for a short walk to work our lunch off. We spotted many nice wildlife species here to add to our list. (See species list).

Next port of call was back in Gairloch and Afternoon tea at the Mountain Café. After consuming some very large cakes we all carried on our homeward journey. We drove right down the banks of Loch Maree and past Beinn Eighe NNR then continued on our way back to Aigas.

Species List

White tailed Eagle
Buzzard
Kestrel
Red Breasted Merganser
Guillemot
Shag
Redshank
Ringed Plover
Oystercatcher
Gtr B B Gull
Herring Gull
Common Gull
Eider Duck
Turnstone
Hooded Crow
Meadow Pipit
Robin
Grey Heron
Little Grebe
Curlew
Mistle Thrush
Pied Wagtail
Chaffinch
Common Seal
Red Deer

Glen Affric and Glen Cannich
Friday, 8th October, 2004
Guide: Jennifer Kocjan-Briggs

Objective:
To experience wildlife in the beautiful glens of the Highlands.
Weather:
A cold, but brilliant autumnal day.

It was indeed the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ as the long veils of cloud along Strath Glass valley mysteriously unravelled this glaciated valley’s charms. Journeying alongside the River Beauly leading into the river glass we saw the meandering river which had left a series of oxbow lakes. A small herd of hinds was to be seen some with their darker brown/grey winter colouring others brighter rufous red.

At Corrimony Cairns we learned about the Neolithic burial practises of people 5,000 years ago had much in common with Native Americans and the peoples of Tibet in the sacred scavenging of the body by animals, recycling nutrients back into the biomass of the earth before disarticulating the bleached bones and placing them within a chamber. Appropriately (for our sightings of the day before) these creatures included the white tailed sea eagle where in Orkney they were honoured for their part in this cycle. This cairn was built at a time of climactic optimum when the foods of the season were in abundance and their crops could ripen. This led to healthy people who led lives at this time, it is suggested, within an egalitarian society and as such buried its dead communally. A time of plenty allowed time to construct burial chambers many of which align with the particular direction of the sun at times of day or year.
It was here that we saw tree creepers, and a mixed group of tits; heard a snipe and saw a woodpecker fly over.

Moving on to Glen Affric a National Nature Reserve and one of the few remaining remnants of the Caledonian Pine forest. It’s history of human use and exploitation belies an older and more sustainable form of forestry where oaks were coppiced and cattle grazed, disturbing the soils and allowing regeneration. Saving the seed source, putting up deer fencing to protect against overgrazing has led to the preservation of one of the last bastions of the crested tit, the Scottish crossbill, the pine marten, the red squirrel and the otter. One day the black grouse and capercaillie may return. On arriving we had lunch followed by a walk. Loch Affric was stunning and we had fleeting glimpses of crested tits flying over with trees signalling by their alarm calls a group of mixed tits including long tailed. We saw pine marten spraints rich in rowan berries. On our return we stopped at the bridge and had the most delightful experience watching three dippers swimming underwater using it’s nictitating transparent membrane to see underwater and hunt for it’s prey then dipping on the rocks and flying to different parts of the fast flowing water. Entirely memorable.

The chance to see golden eagles was tantalising enough and thus we went to Glen Cannich. Waiting in the atmospheric mountains with their penetrating sunbeams and hints of rain we scanned the skies for the soaring 6ft wings in vain. Those eagles of the mountains proved to be elusive. However, we did see a hind followed by male stag roaring on a ridge to give us a view of the animal making the sounds which have been echoing around our cabins at night.

The journey back gave us a chance to see some mistle thrush, buzzard and a small group of hinds, which included young stags not fully mature with antlers less branched. This was possibly the last year they would spend with their mother before joining a bachelor herd of stags and waiting for its turn to compete for rights to a harem of hinds.

Returning to Aigas for afternoon tea and a candle lit supper by a roaring fire was a wonderful way to round off a highland odyssey.

Species List

Birds:

Crested tit
Long tailed tit
Coal tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Tree creeper
Great spotted woodpecker
Hooded crow
Carrion crow
Buzzard
Snipe
Dipper
Chaffinch
Gold crest
Mallard
Goosander
Little Grebe
Mammals:
Red deer


© The Travelling Naturalist 2004