Highland Birding in May

Having been working from home and locked-down for over a year I took the first opportunity of relaxed restrictions to book on a Heatherlea “Birding the Highlands in May” holiday. It was good to get out enjoying Scotland’s wildlife with fellow birders and a couple of experienced guides. As a bonus it also gave my birding year-list a much needed boost from 134 to 158 (bird species spotted in Scotland in 2021).

The first bird of the holiday proper was the Snow Bunting (pictured above) which was great to see along with several Ring Ouzel viewed following a short walk from the heart of the Cairngorm National Park which was my base for the week.

In this post I will share some of the many highlights from the week, but out of respect for the birds (particularly the sensitive breeders), and Heatherlea’s guides (who have spent years building up a strong knowledge of where to go) I won’t reveal specific locations.

Scottish Bird’s of Prey

Over the week we saw 9, possibly 10, birds of prey and the density of such wonderful birds in stunning Scottish scenery was my first highlight of the week.

I saw my first bird of prey before I arrived at the hotel in Nethy Bridge seeing a Red Kite (1) from the car after I left the A9. The Black Isle was one of the early release sites in Scotland for Kites and it is good to see they have spread this far south. We saw two others during the week as well, including one around Braemar which may have travelled from the more recent Aberdeen release site.

On three occasions the guides took us to first-class raptor watching locations. At the first we saw a distant White-Tailed (2) and Golden Eagle (3), this was on the first day, and you just know you have arrived in the Highlands when you see your first eagles. At our second location we were really spoilt seeing two White-Tailed Eagles, two Peregrine Falcons (4), several Buzzards (5) and the highlight for me a Kestrel (6) chasing a Merlin (7) up close and offering sustained views. To me the drama of this moment surrounded by the beautiful Scottish mountains was a real highlight along with seeing the elusive Merlin close enough to make out the plumage details through my scope. Later the same day at another spot we watched for hawks and saw sustained and close views of a Sparrowhawk (8) chasing linnets and distant views of a probable Goshawk pair displaying. It was impossible to be certain of ID and these may also have been Sparrowhawks so the wait goes on to add Goshawk to my year, and indeed life, list.

Last, but certainly not least, was getting my first views of the year of Western Osprey (9). We found flying and fishing osprey on five separate occasions and also had scope views (respectful distance always maintained) of two separate Osprey nests.

The Osprey is a wonderful bird, full of character, and it was great to see it fishing, resting on a perch and nesting. The come-back of this once persecuted bird is a good-news story for Scotland and one to be celebrated. The fact that we encountered so many, at least seven different birds, at different locations, speaks to the quality of Scottish habitat.

All Four Scottish Grouse

During the week we saw all four species of Grouse found in Scotland – Red, Black, Ptarmigan and Capercaillie.

We had several close views of Red Grouse from the van driving across upland habitat and also had scoped views of a Black Grouse Lek with 9 males displaying.

Red Grouse

We had to work much harder for the Ptarmigan walking a couple of miles from the road to get distant scope views. Upon returning to the van we found a pair close by – typical of the characterful Ptarmigan! Being a hillwalker I see this bird frequently often only seeing them at the last minute but this was a real highlight of the trip for several English birdwatchers in the group.

We were delighted to get close views of a both a female and male Capercaillie. This is a rare bird in Scotland, as there is not enough quality and undisturbed Caledonian pine forrest in this country. It is therefore a very hard bird to see without the help of professional guides and cannot be guaranteed even then. I was delighted to see this iconic bird and add it to my life list.

Female Capercaillie crossing the road

Spring Migrants

With so much quality habitat in Scotland it is no wonder we had some good views of various recently-arrived spring migrants.

Top of the list for me was hearing and getting close-up views of a male Pied Flycatcher. For me seeing and hearing a bird really helps me to learn its song which in term massively increases the chances of me noticing them again. This is a lovely bird and over the last few years it has been making the most of schemes to install nest boxes in highland woods.

We also had good views of Wood Warbler, which looks a bit like Willow Warbler but with striking black eye-stripe and additional lemony yellow tones. It also has a lovely distinctive “spinning coin” song which is the main way you know one is around. This seems to be a good year for Wood Warbler although perhaps this is temporary due to them being held up by a cold snap and maybe they will shortly continue north but hopefully many will stay put.

Wood Warbler
Wood Warbler “Spinning Coin” song

It was also great to see and hear Cuckoo which is of course a spring migrant having returned from wintering in Africa. We heard several males singing “cuckoo, cuckoo” during the week but I was pleased to also see my first Cuckoo of the year sitting on a wire. I will try to get closer views in the next month or so nearer to home.


We saw several Northern Wheatear too in a mix of habitats – farmland, marsh and high moorland. This is a striking bird with a dark eyestripe, especially strong on the male – somewhat like a bank robber’s mask. Some of these birds will be here to breed but others are just travelling through and were of the larger Greenland subspecies.

We also spent time by lots of rivers and would frequently hear the sound of Common Sandpiper flying past. We had one very close view on a wet morning of a soggy Common Sandpiper from the car too.

Common Sandpiper song
Soggy Common Sandpiper

At the other extreme from Spring Migrants was seeing one of the winter thrushes -Redwing – staying put for the summer, a potential rare breeder in Scotland. Similarly we also saw a pair of Slavonian Grebe a very rare breeder in Scotland.

Boat Trip to Troup Head

We had a boat trip to RSPB’s Troup Head. It was a great morning surrounded by huge numbers of Gannets and Common Guillemots but also Eider Duck, Razorbills, Puffins, Black Guillemots, Cormorants, Shags, Kittiwakes and other Gulls, Fulmar, Grey Seals and several Great Skuas.

Very annoyingly I made the rookie mistake of not selecting a faster shutter speed for my camera so didn’t get any good photos from the day but I share a few of the less blurry ones here. Fortunately I have a trip planned to Isle of May shortly so will hopefully make up for this mistake then.

The sights, sounds and smells of our sea cliff bird colonies is a wildlife spectacular which I would thoroughly recommend anyone experience.

Other Highlights

I was delighted to get a second life tick during the week with Corn Bunting. This is a bird I have looked for before but never spotted and is in worrying decline across the country. It has a lovely “jangling bunch of keys” song which used to be widely heard throughout our countryside but due to agriculture intensification is now a real rarity.

Corn Bunting’s “Jangling Keys”
Corn Bunting on wire

We also saw several mammals including Red and Roe Deer most days along with Brown Hares which appeared more common in the Strathspey than Rabbits.

Brown Hares

Last but not least was spending a week surrounded by some wonderful Scottish scenery.

Views from Bealach na Bà, Applecross

All in all it was a great week, I saw 123 species of birds and heard three more. If you are a keen birder wanting to have a packed week seeing the best of Scottish birdlife I would happily recommend Heatherlea.

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