In 2016 I struggled to rally much enthusiasm to take part mainly due to other birders I knew having work, holiday or family commitments etc. However Peter Stronach and I decided to give it a bash and despite very little preparation and some pretty awful weather on the day we managed a respectable 118 species.
Our bench mark was now set but even more importantly our appetites were wetted. We had really enjoyed the day but knew with a bit more hard work and preparation plus some luck we could improve on that score.
And so over the last few months we have been recce-ing sites and planning routes in an attempt to streamline and fine tune our attempts on the day. We had laid down a few ground rules last year and we stuck to these being that we were sticking only to the Highland recording area and also that at least two people had to record each species by either seeing or hearing it.
We recruited another couple of members to the car, Sandy Davidson from RSPB Insh Marshes and my wife Kate, who had run a competing bird race team last year with her family but at a more sedate pace including coffee and cake stops, meeting friends for lunch and a leisurely start time but still achieving a substantial 80 plus species.
The weekend dawned and all the essential preparations were made, ensuring cars were in good order and filled up, optics polished and most importantly preparing piles of food! Only one issue, the weather forecast for the planned date, Saturday 27th May included a weather warning for rain across much of Scotland during the afternoon. So we took the decision to postpone to the following day Sunday 28th. The night before the big day the team assembled at Peter's house near Grantown, a few last minute preparations and tweaks to the itinerary and it was off to bed. One final check of the weather forecast revealed to our dismay that the rain which had yet to arrive had now been pushed back to overnight and the early hours of the next morning...
Alarms were set for 02:45 AM and at 03:15 bird number 1 was added to the list, a woodcock roading over Peter's house. We set off and went to a black grouse lek which could be seen from a road, it was just beginning to get light when we arrived, as the light improved we tried turning dark lumps into black grouse but alas these all turned into clumps of juncus or pheasants. The amount of sheep across the lek site were thought to have put them off. In the half light we still managed to add a number of wader species such as lapwing, curlew and snipe plus, greylag, common gull, cuckoo and a song thrush belting out and a surprise dipper.
An emergency change of plan and we were off to a different lek site, with a brief pause to add a redshank feeding on a roadside pool. Common species including house sparrow, blackbird, robin, woodpigeon and mistle thrush were also ticked off en-route plus the common corvides and a slow drive across Broomhill bridge yielded grey heron, sand martin and goldeneye. The backup lek site didn't let us down and we added some very welcome black grouse as well as red-legged partridge. Nearby we clocked up a good number of species in quick succession near to Nethy Bridge at a variety of habitats, highlights here included crested tit, wigeon, teal, little grebe, crested tit, plus some common finch species. A buzzard near Grantown was our first raptor of the day at about 6:20am and this was shortly followed by tree pipit and starling.
Along the river Spey near Grantown a common tern and a flyby merganser were something of a surprise but swallow and common sandpiper were more predictable. Next a couple of minutes at Dulnain bridge notched up swift, blue tit and long-tailed tit.
Redstart, common crossbill and treecreeper were amongst a few other birds found in another local woodland before we moved onto a well known loch for slavonian grebe, as well as this target species we also managed to add reed bunting and moorhen here.
Then it was off to Craigellachie nature reserve at Aviemore, as we turned into the car park at least three ospreys were seen circling over the fish farm. In the nature reserve plenty of spotted flycatchers showed well as well as a pied flycatcher, wood warbler and more common species. The local peregrine also flew in carrying prey.
Next to scope out Loch Insh where distant tufted ducks, goosanders, mute swans and others were added while a sedge warbler and whitethroat were much closer additions. We continued further up the spey valley via a quick stop in Kingussie to grab coffees to top up our caffeine levels as we had been on the go about seven hours by this point. Next stop was supposed to be a guaranteed site for kingfisher as Peter had found a nest site and had seen the adults bringing food in regularly just two days prior. Despite spending about an hour here we had no luck, it appeared they had successfully fledged at some point during the previous day and a half...great news for the kingfishers, not so great for us!
We began heading back north again, pausing for a brief stop at Insh marshes to tick off Canada goose and a bonus great spotted woodpecker flew over the car park. Alas there was no sign of the reported shoveler. Our next stop was due to be Cairngorm car park to head up the funicular and try and scope out some montane specials plus ring ouzel en route. Unfortunately the low cloud meant that visibility would be appalling from the cafe so this was scrapped from the agenda, saving us some time certainly but with it several species which we wouldn't be able to get elsewhere.
The risky part of the plan came next by travelling up the A9 from Speyside to the coast in two cars, the lead car had a Jay fly over it and later what was almost certainly a ring ouzel at Slochd. A detour was made to try and bag golden eagle but with no joy, however a few other species were added including ring ouzel seen by all, red kite and stonechat before continuing in convoy to Alturlie.
Here we all got back into one car with Kate now behind the wheel, just as she was pulling off she pointed to a falcon flying overhead saying what's that? A hobby was the answer, it circled around over the firth before heading in land towards Inverness, against the sun but a hobby none the less.
A kestrel on a telegraph post was a drive by tick near Castle Stuart and the summering whooper swan was scoped out on the sea distantly from Ardersier. At Fort George the high tide roost held bar-tiled godwits and knot plus linnet and guillemot also fell here but the resident magpies wouldn't reveal themselves.
Next stop was Whiteness, would the time spent on the long walk there and back be worth it for number of species added? It was 1600hrs already so time was slipping away from us but waders here added dunlin, sanderling and a surprise grey plover whilst other species included sparrowhawk, wheatear, coot and Great-black backed gull at last. Sea watching was unproductive other than a distant flock of kittiwakes.
The farmland species were next, always tricky but we had to give them a try, tree sparrow was straight forward enough but corn bunting, grey partridge and stock dove eluded us although Peter scoped a stock dove which flew before any of the rest of us could get onto it.
We then tried a site on the river Nairn for mandarin which had been very reliable in previous weeks but it wasn't to be on this occasion, to rub salt into our wounds Sandy had a magpie which didn't hang about for anyone else to see.
After really struggling to find our targets over the last couple of hours and morale starting to drop we desperately needed some new species. A bit of a trek to the far tip of the Black Isle, South Sutor produced the goods, scoping out the seabird cliffs at North Sutor didn't let us down with fulmar, razorbill, shag being added in quick succession as were some pelagic gannets.
Despite the tide now being way out and the light beginning to fade a group of pink-footed geese were still hanging about in front of the hide at Udale bay. A visit to the tern colony near Alness added arctic tern plus a more authentic barnacle goose amongst the moulting Canada goose flock meaning we didn't need to feel guilty about the earlier resident birds on our list. Then it was a dash to Merkinch in Inverness to try for a reported gadwall, by this time it was about 2300 and virtually dark and unsurprisingly the gadwall didn't show so with an hour left it was into night mode we went. Young long-eared owls giving their squeaky gate calls were very welcome and would have been a great way to finish at 23:30 but after coming this far we weren't going to give up with half an hour still to go. Back to Alturlie and at four minutes to midnight a water rail made its presence known calling in the moonlight.
As always with bird races we had some very frustrating misses throughout the day and wasted a lot of time on species which just didn't co-operate on the day but I guess it's the unpredictability of birding that helps make it so much fun. We had a number of birds which we just simply ran out of time for and couldn't afford to go to the sites we had for them. These included obviously the montane species on Cairngorm, plus black-throated diver, short-eared owl and whinchat. The biggest dips of the day were as already mentioned mandarin, magpie, kingfisher both eagles and some of the farmland species. Other birds which we just assumed we would pick up along the way but didn't connect with included sandwich tern, grasshopper warbler, raven, lesser-black-backed gull and bullfinch!
However on the flip side 21 hours birding produced a grand total of 124 species recorded by at least two members of our team. It was a super day and great fun but goes without saying we were all absolutely knackered by the end of it! There were lots of highlights throughout the day but hobby certainly took the prize of best bird. Already thinking about next year's attempt, you never know we may even have some competition...do get in touch if you fancy it!
Written by Jon Clarke