Winter birding

Published: 19th November 2010

Have been 'enjoying' some typical winter weather here in Lochaber over the last week or so – driving rain, wind, sleet and snow, with a smidgeon of sunshine thrown in for good measure. On one of the rare days when the sun shone and the reflections of the hills bounced back off the surface of the Caledonian Canal we we put our bird atlasing hats on and went to see if we could plug some local gaps in the species list.The morning started promisingly with Siskins on the garden feeders and Crossbills up in the tree-tops. Beech mast has been released in quantity on and below the canal towpath. and amongst the numerous Chaffinches, Bramblings foraged for their share. Behind us, by the water's edge, Goldfinch were still rooting out thistle and willowherb seeds. As we admired these pretty little birds a Kingfisher flew past in its usual direct line, peeping as it went, its turqoise and orange plumage glowingly reflected below it. Continuing along the towpath to Gairlochy we picked up winter thrshes foraging in the fields by the river and added Jay, Great Sotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper and Sparrowhawk from the adjacent treeline. A detour to the River Lochy found at least four Dippers feeding in the swollen water, actively swimming under the surface to find caddis and other larvae. A flock of around 8 Goldeneye maintained a respectful distance from us, the whistling whirr of their wings keeping them at binocular length. In the village a small flock of Yellowhammer foraged under the generous array of feeders. A further diversion to the end of this section of the canal at Loch Lochy produced flocks of geese in the fields along with Mistle Thrush and a pair of Buzzards that would just not be left alone by cross Hoodies. The loch itself contained Goosander, Mallard, a Tufted Duck and, unusually, a Diver, more often seen on the coast at this time of year. The walk back was less productive, but in total we counted 45 species, not bad for a cold winter morning in the Highlands!
Explored a site new to us near Spean Bridge at the weekend Killichonate Woods contain a lovely chunk of remnant oakwood, surrounded by largely mixed conifers to the north. There was a good range of woodland birds, including a pair of Bullfinch and a flock of Crossbill. The woods themselves deserve a spring and summer walk to look for flowers and warblers. The Spean is a lovely rver in this area and the road up to the Grey Corries would reward further exploration also.
In the afternoon we decided to look for the Waxwing that have been reported around Corpach for the last couple of weeks. Remarkably we came across a small flock of half a dozen, which obligingly posed for photos. There has been a huge crop of Holly berries this year, and there seems to be plenty of food around to hold the Waxwings. We were pleased to be able to point them out to a local resident, a non-bird-watcher, who had not noticed them before. These attractive birds with their exotic crests and painted wings would turn anyone's head.
A change of scenery over the last couple of days, as we went across to Speyside for the Wild Scotalnd annual conference. En route we had a wander around the pinewoods at Glen More and later at Abernethy, ostensibly looking for Capercaillie. We didn't see any, but the day was wet and windy, and we weren't too surprised. In fact we were delighted to have seen anything. A small flock of Crested Tits gave away their presence with trilling calls, and we were able to admire these plucky little birds foraging amonngst dense pine. We stopped off at the Mountain Cafe in Glenmore to warm up and were treated to a fabulous show from the local Red Squirrels. These handsome little chaps spent their time alternatively sitting in peanut feeding stations gorging themselves, and scurrying down the trees to cache the nuts on the ground below. There was a definite heirarchy of which animal was allowed to stay in a given feeder at any one time. Angela got some good pictures.
We were pleased to take up the conference offer of an overnight stay ion the Grant Arms Hotel, home of the Bird-watching and Wildlife Club. The hotel has really gone to town on provinding information for the visiting wildlife enthusiast, and we were very impressed by their efforts, as well as enjoying a comfortable night. It will be interesting to see if the substantial investment they have made pays off in these cash-strapped times. Definitely worth considering for anyone visiting the Cairngorms, although we would recommned a visit to Glenloy and the West Highlands first, of course!
The conference itself provided plenty of food for thought, not all of it immediately digestible. A worthwhile trip nonetheless.