First time birding the ancient woodlands and lochs of Speyside that form the north-west border of the Cairngorms, and it didn't disappoint. Essentially a 3 day twitch of Capercaillie, Scottish Crossbill, Ptarmigan and Crested Tit.
First up the Capercaillie silent in the pines, indeed most locales were deadly silent, and a chance encounter after a couple of hours traipsing the forest tracks in when the umpteenth dark shadow finally turned out not to be another tree stump. I was lucky to share the spectacle with a couple of local walkers. After a couple of minutes it melted away into the primeval forest.
Scottish Crossbill, well this one is tricky. Walking down a track a few miles to the south of Loch an Eilein a "Crossbill" flew over, calling. This was an unfamiliar call. I have fair experience of Common Crossbill calls over the years and the Parrot Crossbills different "jeep" calls in irruption years. It may be cliché but it was intermediate of the two, still drawn out like the Parrot Crossbill call but with perhaps a third syllable giving it a distinctive sound. It perched up, a female, allowing scope views. The bill was deep based reasonably big with a Parrot like curve to the upper mandible and both mandibles crossed. The head appeared big but not flat crowned or bull-necked of Parrot Crossbill. It joined 3 others but I could not get a good look at those and soon they were off. I hear that the Crossbill situation in this area is, to put it politely, "complex". In the absence of DNA and/or sonograms I guess claiming to species type is down to the conscience of the head scratching observer. Makes silent Empidonax Flycatcher id look easy!
Whilst Crested Tits melt into the pines in the summer months they were reasonably showy in late December. Not as numerous as Coal Tits with which most associated and were quickly picked up on their trill call, a sound I've heard previously in Sweden, France and Germany. Difficult to photograph as they were constantly on the move. Seen at several sites from near Loch Insh all the way up to Loch Garten.
Ptarmigan. On the way up a look from the ski lift car park at Glenshee, south of Braemar, produced only Red Grouse, Red Deer and Mountain Hare whilst a Buzzard flew across the valley. No sign of the master of disguise, Ptarmigan. Where they absent, not enough snow to force them down from the mountain tops? A return visit was pencilled in on the way home, but with weather forecast to close in here on the Monday I made back for this site Sunday afternoon. This was a 2 hours drive from Speyside firstly heading east from Pitlochry, with Red Kite and Red Squirrel (GB tick) seen from the car a few miles before heading north towards Glenshee. Back at the ski lift car park The Cairnwell was cloaked in cloud, but it cleared on occasions has the clouds moved east to reveal its peak. One such clearance saw walkers coming down the mountain side. I scoped a couple of Red Grouse in their path a few 100 feet below, they were ready to take flight. Just up from them another "Mountain Hare" appeared to be on top of a snow covered crag? On zooming in this was no hare. It had no ears and was pure white, turned out to be cracking views of Ptarmigan. As the walkers descended 4 other Ptarmigan appeared from out of the snow walking with ease on this terrain in their snow boots. They then took flight before coming to ground by the boulders shown in the following photo. Can just about make two of them out, honest!
Other birds of note in Speyside/Cairngorms included 4 fly by Snow Buntings just beyond the Cairngorm car park with about a dozen distant in flight about the lower slopes of The Cairnwell, Glenshee. Carrion Crows were widespread and Ravens plentiful on the approach to Glenshee ski lift, with flyovers along the A9 in Speyside. The woods were deadly silent unless a Title flock came by. A Golden Eagle was a welcome sighting hunting a Cairngorm mountain side.
The North East
On the way up to Speyside I stopped off at Prestwick Carr near Newcastle airport where the 1st winter Eastern Yellow Wagtail showed well, yet silent, mid morning on Friday 20 December. Another chance on the way back a week or so later after twitching the Goswick Black Scoter saw the rare visitor more distant feeding around a group of horses. However, it called several times giving a distinctive "wizzit" call. On the first visit it didn't look monochrome in the field, but did so in the video and photos. The light on the return visit made it look particularly monochrome in the afternoon.
Of the Black Scoter it showed fairly well from the dunes bordering the Goswick golf course but at mid distance in a flock of several hundred Common Scoters. This was at lunchtime on Saturday 28 December. Clear enough to see the distinctive orange blob on the bill and bill shape as well as the box like shape of the head. Such subtle differences between it and drake Common Scoters could be noted as it moved through the Common Scoter flock. A Velvet Scoter's presence was betrayed by its white wing panels when the flock took flight and in the area were double figures of Red-throated Divers, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers. Moving south were a couple of small skeins of Pink-footed Geese overhead in off, and 10 or so pale-bellied Brent Geese skimming the sea heading towards Lindisfarne. Cracking scenery and with the atmospheric low winter light against pale grey skies.
The amazing run of Eastern Yellow Wagtails in GB and elsewhere in western Europe continued with the striking male frequenting a dung heap by the minor road leading north of Sedgeford, Norfolk. It showed well mid afternoon on Monday 30 December and, to my ears, gave the same "wizzit" call as the Northumberland bird when it was spooked by a Pied Wagtail. Skeins of Pink-footed Geese overhead typical of winter birding in north Norfolk, and driving up to Wells-next-the-Sea saw Marsh Harrier, Red Kite and Barn Owl in flight. The Rough-legged Buzzard was seen briefly over the pines heading to roost just before 4pm, and on driving towards and past Fakenham 3 different Woodcocks took their dusk flight.
Earlier in the day the Eastern Stonechat took a bit of finding at RSPB Hollesley Marshes where a "yapping" flock of about 25 White-fronted Geese were over the flash. The Stonechat was a cold looking bird, let's see what the DNA says over its identity (...apparently not conclusive at the time of writing).
Back home and the South Yorkshire Moors were as stunning as ever, but quiet. Common Buzzards present, one buzzed by a Peregrine, and Ravens started to 'tumble'. Up to 6 Common Crossbills were present at one site and a bit of movement of Lapwings and Golden Plovers noted over the tops. Fieldfares and Redwings moved along the moorland edge where a Mistle Thrush started its haunting song.
Whilst the upland Moors were without a wintering Rough-legged Buzzard, the juvenile frequenting farmland in South Yorkshire west of the M18/M180 junction showed nicely. The grey skies and distance on the two visits were not brilliant for photography. Not a million miles away a ringtail Hen Harrier ghosted over birch covered scrubland and quickly out of sight. Several hundred Pink-footed Geese rested on farmland by the South Yorkshire / Lincolnshire border.
Eastern Stonechat on Boxing Day at Ashton's Flash, Northwich, Cheshire in the rain showed eventually. One more for the DNA experts. A Cetti's Warbler scolded and a male Peregrine flew over as the front edged its way through.
For more photos from this period please click on the 'Latest UK Bird Photos' tab at the top of the page.
For a birding video compilation of this period upload to my YouTube channel, please click here.