Lazy Sunday afternoon we set off on our marathon with a gentle journey north up the East coast and crossing the Pennines via the A66 setting down at the Premier Inn, Carlisle J45 M6.
After a hearty breakfast, we continued north while we can still use pounds sterling. A wrong turn took us past Celtic Park and later, back on track, we passed St Johnstone FC (Perth) before we stopped off at Crubermore Lodge. This quiet little road has proved rewarding on a previous holiday and today was no different. Red Grouse at close quarters at various points got our target list moving and Dipper was under the same bridge as last year with Goosander seen earlier up river.
Heading east we acquired our first Hooded Crow at Kinloss and we moved on in search of Burghead Harbour. When we opened the car door on arrival we realised in seconds we were nearer the North Pole! Fresh or what! Eider duck were everywhere and just outside the Harbour mouth were several Long Tailed Ducks. We walked over the headland to look at the open sea and there were birds all over the water; Eiders featured heavily again and I have never seen so many Long Tailed Ducks, good numbers of Red Breasted Mergansers were supported by a flock of Common Scoter. Shags and Gulls completed the interest and before we left a Peregrine gave a demonstration on clearing Feral Pigeons before we left.
We then headed towards our base in Inverness and popped in to the nearby Loch Flemington to add American Coot to our list. If I’m not mistaken I have seen 50% of all British records, having seen my first in Stodmarsh long before digital photography. This proved to be the first of two American lifers for Dan.
While light prevailed we took a short drive along the Beauly Firth on the South side. More Red Breasted Mergansers were evident and large numbers of Pink footed Geese adorned the shoreline fields and at one pull in, we found a small group of Yellowhammers and added Marsh Harrier not a raptor we had anticipated.
The day started on the Black Isle with local guide, Andy Howard. Andy had directed us to Ptarmigan the previous year and Dan wanted to get some memorable Scottish wildlife photos. Andy delivered. We found a quiet woodland opening with Red Squirrels and some great birds. Siskin made fleeting appearances and Coal Tits were so confiding that I thought they would eat from our hands. A Raven flew over but the prize bird was undoubtedly the Crested Tit. We both had this bird on our British Lists but you can’t help but enjoy every moment they choose to share with you.
When we left a Red Kite was circling over open farmland and we went down to the North side of Beauly Firth. The light reflected off the water but we did have Bottle Nosed Dolphin close to the shore. From here we headed off in search of Mountain Hare.
Driving over Andy gave Dan some coaching on what you can and can’t do to get as close as possible for the benefit of the camera. The results were impressive even though the weather closed in.
With good weather we headed off ever earlier to Cairngorm National Park where we had some useful info on a possible Capercaillie. We found the location and walked the track searching the woodland for this elusive member of the Grouse family. The birding Gods were smiling, the male bird exploded from above us out of a pine with all the noise associated with a Woodpigeon and some. It flew down the bridleway reminiscent of a scene from Jurassic Park but provided great views as we composed ourselves and took in the experience.
With the sun shining and tomorrow not so clever we opted to run over to Ben Rinnes, the highest mountain in Morayshire, to find Ptarmigan and possibly more Mountain Hare. Half way up I sent Dan on ahead, we were running out of time. The wind was approaching 60mph from the North and I could not motivate myself to pursue hypothermia. Dan completed the task and even from my sheltered position I managed to pick out some winter plumaged Ptarmigan. Hat’s off to the intrepid explorer.
From here we moved on to Troup Head. Absolutely stunning to watch the Gannets fly around your head until the sun set. The only bad news was the 80 mile journey back to base camp.
Up at very silly O’Clock to visit a Black Grouse lek. The rain was tipping down and the Grouse had more sense than us. The first disappointment of the trip. Not wishing to see the day lost we headed back to Burghead, sea ducks shouldn’t be put off by the wet.
The Eiders were calling to each other in their resplendent plumage and the Harbour also held a Long Tailed Duck and Red Throated Diver. Driving back to Inverness we saw several groups of Whooper Swans. The largest flock in Ardersier totalled 31. We also found a Hooded Crow and Pink footed Geese provided a fly by.
As the weather was breaking we decided to head north and visit Dingwall. Unknown to us this proved to be the home of Ross County FC, a very nice ground. The sun emerged between showers but we managed to walk the Firth footpath without a soaking. We found the Ring Billed Gull that had been found a week earlier and hadn’t been reported since so that was a real (American) bonus. We located a flock of Tree Sparrows suggesting their demise in Kent may not be replicated everywhere. A flock of 21 Scaup made an unexpected addition to our list and a Grey Wagtail was clinging to a railway bridge over the river. Sadly the day was drawing to a close and tomorrow was going to be long day back to Kent.
I opened the curtains was mightily relieved. The late news forecast snow overnight and there was no sign and Dan offered to share the driving. I thought first stint in a different car where the traffic was not so heavy was a good idea. The minute we left Inverness the snow started and there were plenty of clues in the fields to suggest this was not the first. Before long it was a blizzard and it took nearly 100 miles to clear the weather. Once we left Scotland we started to catch up on our timetable but it all went wrong at Wigan when the M6 was closed by a pile up. Three hours later we started to move on again until we met the next accident at Stoke.
We sailed down the M1 but had more problems on the M25 with a broken down lorry in the middle lane. Eventually we made Kent only to find the M2 closed at Faversham. Fourteen hours and 635 miles after leaving Inverness we finally made Greenhill.