Fife, Aberdeen and Speyside, Scotland: 18th-21st November 2018   Leave a comment

Previous posts have detailed our stops at Martin Mere in Lancashire and the Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian that we took on the way to visit Margaret’s brother Duncan in Aberdeen.

This post covers our time in Fife along the north coast of the Forth Estuary, our visit to Aberdeen and our stay in Aviemore in Speyside.


We left Roslin and skirted Edinburg on the ring road and crossed the Firth of Forth on the new Queensferry Crossing. Only opened this August at a cost of £1bn it is already (as of early December) undergoing closures for resurfacing. Of course it was Margaret who took this photo and not the driver.


The weather improved as we drove along the north shore of the Forth estuary. In the distance is the now uninhabited island of Inchkeith.


We skirted the large bay between Leven and Earlsferry on the lookout for flocks of seaduck.


A few Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Redshank were seen on the rocky shores ….


…. and we encountered a number of distant flocks of Long-tailed Ducks, Eider and Common Scoter. Velvet Scoter showed well and I was able to capture this passing flock. However we didn’t find seaducks in the numbers I encountered on a visit to the same area in April 2000, where a single flock contained 2000 Common Scoter and 500 Eiders.


We drove to Elie Ness lighthouse and looked back towards the pretty town of Elie.


We stopped in Anstruther ….


…. had lunch in this cafe ….


…. and in spite of the bitter wind that had sprung up, went for a walk around the harbour.


This proved to very worthwhile with stonking views of a Grey Seal ….


…. and a few hundred (Common) Eider.


We had great close up views of the dapper males ….


…. the well camouflaged females (female Eiders of course pluck their breast feathers to line and insulate their nests, the original eiderdown) ….


…. and the variable and somewhat scruffy first-winter males.


We continued on to the easternmost point of Fife, Fife Ness. From here you could look northwards to Arbroath and Montrose or south to East Lothian. We continued northwards through St Andrews and Dundee but arrived at Aberdeen at rush hour on a Friday. In a set of extensive and very poorly signed road works to the south of the city we took the wrong turn and ended up in the city centre. Frustratingly it took an hour before we emerged and carried on to our destination.


Margaret’s brother Duncan and his wife Wendy moved from South Africa to the UK about 10 years ago, first to Edinburgh and then to Aberdeen. The climate must be a bit of a shock after living in Durban. We haven’t seen them since 2012 so it was good to meet up. This photo was taken in 2008 when their sons Darren and Sean were still living at home. L-R Darren, Margaret, Sean, Wendy, Duncan.


Early in the morning I popped down to Blackdog a coastal site to the north of Aberdeen and close to where Duncan and Wendy live. Offshore were many anchored ships from the oil industry. Whether they are moored up because of the downturn in the oil business or due to a lull in the need to supply the rigs is anyone’s guess. Blackdog is famous for its huge flocks of summering scoters and eiders, with several rare species often being present. I enjoyed this spectacle in 2012 but found out on this trip that this gathering doesn’t occur in the winter.


A little bit to the north of Blackdog lies the Trump Golf Course. The Scottish Government let his empire destroy a nationally valuable, wild and totally protected stretch of unspoilt coastal dunes when he promised a multi-million pound investment, thousands of jobs and a huge leisure complex. He has reneged on all of this except for the building of the course, which now operates at a loss. So now we have the destruction of a precious ecosystem, hardly any new jobs and just a bit of manicured grass.


We hoped to pick up one or two rare birds during our stay so having heard of a Snow Goose at Loch of Skeen a few miles east of Aberdeen, we headed out there one afternoon. It’s not that difficult to see Snow Geese in the UK but most are feral or direct escapes. Seeing one in the company of wild Barnacle or Pink-footed Geese or Whooper Swans greatly increases the chance that the bird has really come from Arctic Canada. We arrived at the lake before dark and carefully scanned the few hundred Pink-feet on the loch without sucess. As darkness fell thousands, well probably tens of thousands, of Pink-feet flew in a long skeins until the entire surface of the lake looked black. It was too dark to see when we left yet still you could hear them flying in. We never saw a white one though.


After a final morning with Duncan and Wendy we headed inland for Speyside. It was a lovely day, if rather cold and the sun lit up the autumn colours a treat. The route from Aberdeen to Aviemore is not straightforward but we negotiated the many changes of highway with ease ….


…. and arrived at the quaint village of Carrbridge just as it was getting dark (hence the lacklustre look of the photo). We continued onto Aviemore where we had booked an apartment (it was actually bigger than our house) for the next three nights.


The Aviemore/Cairngorms area (or Speyside as it sits on the banks of the river Spey) is one of the most outstanding areas for birding in the UK and one that all British birders should visit at some time. Most notable are the stands of ancient Caledonian forest, which has in places remained unchanged since the end of the Ice Age. Mature forest is made up of Scots Pine with birch and oak in places with an understory of juniper, rowan, blaeberry and heather.


Birdwise this area is famous for both Red and Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Ptarmigan, three species of crossbill, Crested Tit, and in summer Dotterel. Other goodies (in season) include Snow Bunting, Long-eared Owl, Osprey, Golden Eagle, Dipper and a multitude of other more widespread birds. We first headed to the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten but the visitor centre is shut at this time of year. This lady was feeding birds in the car park and they were tame enough to feed from her hand. They were mainly Coal Tits but we did also see ….


…. a few Crested Tits. These forests are the only place in the UK where this species can be found. I have made many excuses for not using my own photographs in the past but this time it was a good one, I’d left my camera behind in the apartment! So here is a photo of Crested Tit from


It had rained all morning but suddenly the skies cleared, I glanced up from the car and saw this bizarre upside down rainbow directly above us. By the time I had got my pocket camera out the 3/4 full circle had shrunk to a crescent but it still looked remarkable. This phenomenon is known as a circumzenithal arc or an upper tangent arc (‘upper’ as it is above the sun) and is caused by light refraction through ice crystals.


It was perfectly still and nearby Loch Garten was like a mirror.


Summer visits have revealed lots of breeding Goldeneye on this lake but today it was birdless.


We also took a drive to the Cairngorm Mountains 13 miles south of Aviemore. The road goes straight to the ski centre car park and the funicular railway which takes you up to 3600ft asl.


You pass through beautiful areas of heathland studded with areas of natural Caledonian Forest and modern plantations.


Way in the distance to tops of the 4000ft (1200m) high Cairngorms peek through the clouds. Whilst not very high by the standards of the Alps, Rockies or Andes, at the latitude of Scotland the Cairngorm plateau is a true alpine-arctic wilderness home to many species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the UK. The Cairngorm National Park is the largest wilderness area in the UK and the largest National Park.


By the time we reached the car park cloud had descended and we saw no point in going up the funicular railway to the Ptarmigan Restaurant. To prevent those unprepared for hiking in arctic conditions from wandering about the plateau and getting lost you are not allowed to leave the restaurant at the top and if you want to explore you need to walk up. I did hike to the neighbouring peak of Cain Lochan (left in the photo) in June 2012 and saw Ptarmigan (see below) and Dotterel but I have never seen breeding plumaged Snow Bunting in the UK.


In spite of the weather we saw other good birds during our stay, a flock of crossbills, most likely the endemic Scottish Crossbill, plus Dipper and genuinely wild Greylag Geese, but pride of place goes to this distant male Black Grouse seen on the climb up to the Cairngorm car park. It might have distant but it looked really good in the scope.


At least the Red Grouse (a endemic British subspecies of the Holarctic Willow Ptarmigan or Willow Grouse, which doesn’t change to white in winter) showed well. This is a female ….


…. and here a male.


As we returned to Aviemore we stopped at Loch Morlich where the mountains formed a perfect reflection on the water ….


I have camped by this lake a number of times in past; in the early 70s with two friends (I well remember having to walk back from Aviemore at dawn after a very memorable night on the town) and in the late 70s with Janet when we tried to go sailing and I realised far to late that I couldn’t remember what I learnt on sailing holidays ten or more years earlier!


All in all I’ve made about 18 trips to Scotland and most of them have brought me here. These days I just enjoy the magnificent scenery and wildlife and avoid adventure activities and all-night parties!


So that was it for Speyside and we drove from the rich autumn colours around Loch an Eilein ….


…. straight into winter. We had heard that heavy snow was on its way and it was time to leave anyway, so we planned an early departure and only met a small amount of snow on route. We drove south over the eastern Cairngorms and onto Braemar on Royal Deeside, favoured by the royal family since 1852.


We then climbed another pass at Glenshee in the hope of seeing the Ptarmigan that we missed on Cairngorm. I had seen Ptarmigan at Glenshee in April 2000 but had to climb quite a bit to see them. It was cold and windy and I didn’t fancy the climb so we scanned the slopes from the car park. Initial attempts drew a blank but after warming up in the cafe we had another go and found a flock of 11 white winter plumaged birds high above us. Yes, the six white blobs in the photo are Ptarmigan, its a dreadful photo but they were a considerable distance away and it was starting to snow.


Here’s a lot closer pic of a pair of Ptarmigan in grey and white summer plumage taken in Cairngorm in 2012. Remember they are ‘P’tarmigan, a bird with a silent P (like in ‘swimming pool’).


From Glenshee we headed south and then west via Loch Tay on the long drive to the west coast. We arrived at our hotel at Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula just before dark. On route we passed these falls and paused briefly for photos.


…. but I’ll conclude the post with another couple of views of Loch Morlich.


By leaving Speyside when we did we managed to avoid the worst of the snow but there was plenty more wintry weather waiting for us at our next destination, the west coast islands of Islay, Jura and Arran, which will be the subject of the next post.



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