After several more celebratory beers, plenty of birding banter and a very sound night’s sleep on the ferry back to Aberdeen, it was time to hit Speyside for the day. The road to the Cairngorms was an excellent drive, culminating in a steep ascent to the Lecht ski centre near Tomintoul – a site I’d never visited before. I’d read that Ptarmigan were possible from the road here, but the habitat on the slopes looked heathery rather than scree-covered as far as the eye could see… which meant that we weren’t short of Red Grouse again! A handful of Snow Buntings were loitering around the buildings, but not coming down low enough for photos, so we headed on towards Grantown-on-Spey, and then south towards Boat of Garten.
I’d previously had good views of Crested Tit at a small feeding station by the side of the road in to the village from the A95, so reckoned it was worth a quick stop. Good call! We heard Cresties calling almost immediately, and soon one or two birds were coming right in to the feeders, along with Coal Tits and a very pale floor-feeding Treecreeper.
We headed over past the Loch Garten reserve and on towards Tulloch Moor, where the road is now closed. You can still access the grouse lek viewpoint on foot, but the road through at the west end has been breached by floodwater or a small stream. Lovely sunny weather for us, but (probably unsurprisingly, at mid-morning) no grouse. We decided to switch grouse species, and head up to the Cairngorm ski centre.
Here, the carpark was apparently full, with a park-and-ride service operating from half way down the road. As all birders surely would, we ignored that completely and went up to the top ‘to have a look’ - and immediately found a space with a view. A rather expansive view, stretching about 3km across to Cairn Lochan above Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain… surely some Ptarmigan must be visible somewhere? Indeed there were, thanks to John’s keen eyesight – though certainly the worst views I’ve ever had of this species! If Bob had been with us (another London birder and 500+ lister who still needs the species!), we would’ve been doing our best to claim UTVs, though confusion species for an entirely white grouse at 800m + in the UK are few and far between.
After a much-needed cup of coffee, we descended back into the ancient pine forest, and spent a memorable afternoon wandering a variety of trails. Amongst the highlights were a pair of Golden Eagles and more nice views of Crested Tit, and then a pretty awesome sunset over Loch Insh before we headed a couple of hours south down to the ancestral home of Clan McLethbridge, where an authentic Scottish spread of Chinese take-away and French wine was devoured. At least the after dinner drinks were (relatively) local – a part-bottle of Bruichladdich Octomore stood absolutely no chance of survival.
Next morning, a short drive took us to Ruddons Point, overlooking Largo Bay – another new site for me. With continuing clear skies, sunshine and still conditions, the sea was like a millpond so viewing the seaduck, divers and grebes was a pleasure. In particular, drake Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Duck showed excellently, while a Red-breasted Merganser provided entertainment trying to down a particularly large flatfish. “Why the hell did we evolve to have this stupid thin sawbill?” Eventually, Jono picked up the drake Surf Scoter way off in the distance, just west of Lower Largo village, and we were able to point it out to fellow returning grosbeak-twitchers Nick, Claire and Tony while exchanging notes on our respective trips.
After about an hour or so’s bay-watching (definitely no swimsuit-clad lifeguards anywhere to be seen), the weather clouded up rather suddenly, and we took our cue to head on south, via a very tidy Morrison’s breakfast in Glenrothes. I was keen to break the journey somewhere to get a bit of a rest from driving, and the North Pennines seemed perfectly placed. By the time we’d got there, it was mid-afternoon, and we were back in full glorious sunshine – awesome! Even more awesome, we immediately found 24 Black Grouse in exactly the fields I was hoping for at Langdon Beck, showing really well to give some of the best views I’ve ever had of this species. And with scenery like this to enjoy them in, it was pretty hard to beat…
After one more immature male Black Grouse in roadside fields down in the valley, we’d finally reached the end of our birding, four and a half days after setting off on the trip. Just a few hours later, we were back in London – but still talking about one of the best twitches any of us have ever enjoyed, in fact more like a short holiday which will live long in the memory. Cheers guys!