Eleven members met at Slackbuie on a balmy April morning – no Culloden weather today with hailstones stinging our faces, thankfully sunshine! After organisation of cars and parking (sorry folks) we set off up the Essich Brae and turned on to the Bunachton road that leads to Dunlichity through the western part of Leys estate, moorland, bogs, heathland and Caledonian forest, the remains of the Clack Fold of Leys. Curlew, Red Kite, a Red Grouse, Stonechat and Meadow Pipits were showing and an Osprey was mobbed by a Buzzard and then flew over towards Loch Bunachton, where Song Thrush, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler showed.
After a quick stop at Dunlichity kirk, picking up Treecreepers, Mistle Thrushes and Kestrel, it was on to Brin rock where Raven and Peregrine tiercel obliged, and Carol got the falcon perched on a crag for everyone to enjoy, lit up in her scope. Round to Loch Ruthven, past local Greylag Geese, there were Black-headed and Common Gulls, and Anne pointed out 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the field. At the bay area by Ray’s seat, Red-throated Divers were showing in summer plumage as were Slavonian Grebes.
At one point I was looking at two Red-throated Divers and 3 grebes when a Common Sandpiper flew in front of the scope. It pitched into the bottle sedge where Pied Wagtails, Teal and Dabchick were feeding. It became elusive but Craig and Sue saw it bobbing about. Craig also picked up several drake Red-breasted Mergansers displaying on the loch. No Osprey materialized, but a whole day can be spent in the hide here, and patience can be rewarded by Osprey fishing and Slavonian Grebes displaying in front of the hide, flyby Hen Harrier or Black Grouse on the hillside. I have also seen Grasshopper Warbler in the bog myrtle, and a few years back a summer plumage Bonaparte’s Gull was frequenting the bay.
Leaving Loch Ruthven and driving to Loch Farr through Drumlea we picked up common birds – Blackbirds, Blue and Great Tit and Yellowhammers. Heading up from Gaick to Kyllachy with David skilfully driving, spotting Red Grouse (male and female together), showing you can’t buy experience! I called several pairs of Wheatears that everyone thankfully saw well, and at 2066ft around Carnglac an Eich a surprise wee group of wagtails flying into the gorge, one obligingly perched on crash barrier – a migrating White Wagtail.
At the old stone bridge where the Kyllachy burn enters the Findhorn river, my good friend and companion birder, Blair Whyte was waiting for us at the pull-in and birding picked up a pace, despite clouding over and rain threatening. The fields were full of waders, displaying Lapwings, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Golden Plover, drumming Snipe and Curlews. Overhead, Sand Martins, Kestrel, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks were enjoyed whilst the group had lunch. A nice mix of folk, young Josh Allan reminding me of YOC days, and how the years fly by!
Looking towards Carn Phris Mhoir I picked up a distant White-tailed Eagle that unfortunately disappeared behind the carn, but Blair also got it in the scope and we agreed a juvenile, no white showing. More raptors and Ravens came over, Red-legged Partridge showed, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was in the Scots pines with Greenfinch and Siskins, then the sun came back out!
Heading up the strath to the bridge at Glen Mazeran, a Swallow was perched on a wire after its long flight. We searched in vain for Dipper, but Grey Wagtail, Peregrine, Red Kites, female Sparrowhawk put on a show and Dave called a pair of Goosander moving up the river. Carol and I got on to a small raptor and a little further upriver it reappeared hunting the heather scree slopes at Carn Caol. Merlin! At the top carpark it was pleasantly warm for a change. Buzzard, number 30+, appeared and Ravens flew into their nest, feeding fully grown chicks.
We decided to walk up towards Coignascallan and check out the southern facing moss and scree slopes and boulders, so much favoured by Ring Ouzel, but none showed. Previous success I’ve had here included a pair with 3 juveniles in late July, and adult male feeding on the lawns at the stalker’s cottage! To be honest, you can spend a day just searching these hillsides for mountain blackbirds. And for many years I have done … but gone are the days in the 70s and 80s when they were all about Inverness straths at Brin, Dunlichity, Duntelchaig and Farr with SOC trips led by Roy Dennis.
Walking back to the carpark a pair of Peregrine Falcons put on a show, then a distant Goldie over the plateau at Carn Caol got closer and did skydancing with golden ball dives, putting on a brilliant show for everyone. As it came even closer, the underwing and tail showing white, the golden head visible, we concluded that it was probably a 2/3 calendar year bird, as is often the case in this range. Excellent finish – the cherry on the cake – we said our goodbyes and heading home via Garbole road to Inverarnie, a Grey Heron flew over the Nairn river. Back through the Leys moor (3200 acres) and grateful thanks to all, Dave dropped me at Balvonie of Leys, where in the evening twilight I felt joy to have shared a wonderful spring day with fellow birders; and as I watched a Kestrel hovering over the old byre, a badger sauntered into the garden for his oatmeal, long-eared and pipistrele bats hawking the hedges, I felt privileged to live in one of the best areas in the UK.
C65+ species including 9 raptors and 8 spring migrants. Also seen - common frog, common toad, red deer, brown hare and mountain hare.
Alan Macaskill et al