Getting to Scotland is an effort though, and I opted to get up at 4am on the Saturday to head north, and actually had a really good run, so was at the RSPB Loch Garten reserve in good time. It was here, with a brief shower of rain through the canopy that I realised that after proofing my raincoat, I'd left it on the end of the stairs. D'oh!
A walk to the osprey centre yielded views of the pair, with the male bringing back a fish for lunch, then departing shortly thereafter, which is what I did, as the place was very busy with visitors and groups of school children. Armed with invaluable info from a friend (cheers Mark!) I drove over to Lochindorb, a remote heathland around a loch with what was supposed to be a castle on an island, but looked more like an old wall! Anyway, it proved to be a good spot to meet up with Ian and it wasn't long before we'd clocked a red grouse, a new one for me.
Once we'd seen one, it became clear that the heath was alive with them, pairs pottering around, the males calling proudly out, and the females following along behind, and around her, maybe as many as 10 chicks. When the wind picked up, the female would sit down, and one by one, the chicks would make their way over and after snuggling next to her, disappear beneath her camouflaged feathers.
On the loch itself were common sandpipers, redshank and curlew, with meadow pipits and calling cuckoos nearby. We even got a brief view of a distant black throated diver, though it was a mere speck in the scope of a birder who showed it us.
4am again. Not exactly everyone's idea of a vacation, but we needed to be at the fishery early, and it was a cold one too. Soon we were sat in the hide, waiting expectantly for the ospreys to show. Didn't have to wait long, and what a sight. Circling and diving. It was a case of hoping, as you needed the bird to catch a fish, be pointed in the right direction for you, be visible (there are spots on the lake obscured from the hides) and of course you need to be able to restrain yourself to only move the lens when the bird is in the water, something Rob failed to do for virtually the entire time!
Fortunately, we got lucky and managed to focus on the bird as it heaved itself out of the water with a decent sized trout. It took a few seconds to get airbourne again, so allowed us to lock on and bag the precise shots we'd been after. Superb.
It didn't all go to plan though, as we saw birds take fish from areas we couldn't see, or were surprised at the skills of some, one which barely made a splash as it plucked a fish out and flew off. I did get a lovely shot of it as it flew away, shaking its feathers dry, which I'm most pleased with. And at 9am the fishermen arrived, so it was time to head elsewhere.
Loch Insh proved to be a good spot as ospreys nested nearby too, and we had more views as they flew in and out, hassled by crows. Kindly allowing us to return to the fishery at 5pm, gave us more chances of shots, and an even earlier start the next day (3:30am) should have yielded better results, but the weather was against us and it was rather gloomy for shots, even if the birds had dropped where we could see them.
The final evening session should have given me another set of great shots like Ian, except I managed to focus on the bank behind the bird and only bagged a couple of shots of it flying away. With the light fading, the others headed back to the cars, and I stood and watched 3 ospreys circling the pools. A truely amazing place, and arguably worth the cost.
Dotterel and ptarmigan were targets at the Cairngorms, but it soon became clear that the walk to reach the snow-covered area would be too far with all the gear (though I did see a ring ouzel), and descending again, I happened to chat to a couple about what they'd seen around the area. This was a huge slice of luck as they informed me of a crested tit site, and it wasn't long before we were racing over to the location. Another new species for me, and right beside a public footpath in the woods near Loch Garten. We'd already tried another couple of sites for them, but only managed to see siskin, a female cuckoo and a spotted flycatcher, not that they're disappointing of course!
The light wasn't great but we made the best of it, and soon spotted one returning with a huge beakful of grubs for the nest nearby. Perching on a broken branch, allowed us a moment to photo it, before it moved on. Then, seconds later, it'd zip off back into the woods again.
Detouring over to Loch Ness, Ian and I took in some more fabulous scenery, and stumbled upon a road with golden plover and curlews, plus mipits. This made up for the lack of results at the RSPB Loch Ruthven, where the Slavonian grebe stayed on the far side of the lake.
Hoping to see some eagles, we aimed for Findhorn Valley, an immense expanse of wilderness, picturesque (enough for me to dig out the scening lens!) and full of promise. The valley slopes held herds of deer and a few beardy-looking goats, and the air was filled with bird song from pipits and skylarks.
Looking at the river as we drove along, we all pretty much thought (and said via the CBs) that there should be dippers around, and within seconds of saying so, Ian spotted a juvenile on a stream, and we quickly parked up for a closer view. Sitting beneath a large boulder, we took some shots before heading to the end of the valley, in hope of an eagle. One showed up, though it was miles up and I never had time to consider a shot before it had disappeared from view. Still, a view of a golden eagle isn't to be sniffed at.
Wheatears and more pipits entertained on the way back, and another stop off at the dipper site gave us views of a couple of juveniles and also the parents, who were more difficult to photo, keeping to the shadows.
Before leaving the area, we had already met up with a local professional photographer (Neil McIntyre) who gave us info about Slavonian grebes (never coming as close as the one at Grimley, sadly), and also offered us the chance to photo wild red squirrels on his land. So we followed him back to his place in the woods, and set up on a slope in line with some random logs, into which Neil placed hazelnuts. The red squirrels descended very quickly and posed for some fabulous shots.
We had a good couple of hours here, and took a large number of shots which should sort me out for greetings cards for the next five years! Neil also gets crested tits on his land in the winter months, so I may need to find an excuse to head north again, for that experience. Should be good, if this red squirrel one is anything to go by!