We begin day one in the field, in snowfall at Dava Moor, where first bird of the day is a handsome male Red Grouse, sitting amid the heather and looking just like the one on the Famous Grouse whisky bottle.
From here we head north to the Loch Spynie RSPB reserve where the feeders beside the car park are alive with hundreds of Chaffinches, plus Great, Blue, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Tree Sparrows and a spritely Red Squirrel. Moving on to the nearby hide, a Kingfisher flashes across the loch and we soon find a drake American Wigeon among all the Eurasian Wigeon, Goldeneye, Teal and Tufted Duck, as well as a single female Scaup. During the watch here, several hundred Pink-footed Geese noisily drop in to the farmland beyond the loch, while over a dozen land on the loch. Back at the access track to this lovely little reserve, a Woodcock flies by at speed to land in the adjacent woods, and we also find Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting here.

Next, we visit the nearby Lossie Estuary where the brilliant sunshine and blue sky enhance super views of a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, as well as hundreds of Wigeon, Teal and a range of waders including Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Dunlin and Sanderling.

Moving on to Lossiemouth West Beach, we find our first Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks bobbing on a moderate swell, while the tranquillity of nearby Hopeman Harbour offers shelter to a Rock Pipit and a mixed roost of Redshanks, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers, sitting out the high tide on the harbour wall.
Last stop of the day is at Burghead Harbour, where two Hooded Crows tussle for scraps with the Herring Gulls, and two large Grey Seals loiter in the harbour entrance, while a seawatch from the harbour wall produces a pair of Fulmar prospecting for nesting ledges on the nearby cliff, as well as more Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks and two or three Red-throated Divers, bringing the tally for the day to 59 different birds!
This morning, we set off at first light, on a pre-breakfast outing, hoping to see some action at a nearby Black Grouse lek, where we arrive around 7.10am to find just two males standing around in the stiff cold breeze as if waiting for the rest of the party to arrive. During the next half hour or so, four other birds turn up whereupon ‘warmed up’ pairs proceed to square up to each other with puffed up breasts and frilly white fanned out tails, while the others look on, although there is no sign of any black hens, while another Red Grouse also shows here.
After breakfast back at the hotel, we visit the famous Loch Garten RSPB reserve in the heart of the fabulous Abernethy Forest, where the beautiful Caledonian Pine forest is home to specialities like Scottish Crossbill, Crested Tit and the iconic Capercaillie. Arriving at the Osprey Centre car park a sign announces that all feeders have been removed due to an outbreak of Avian Pox and so we head off along the Big Pines trail, followed by the Two Lochs trail. During two hours along the tranquil trails, we find little more than close views of Treecreepers. Meanwhile, back at the car park a short stroll to where the feeders usually are, leads to a close encounter with dozens of Coal Tits, waiting expectantly and so used to being fed that they readily come to outstretched but empty hands in the hope of a meal! During the frenzy, Rita picks out a single Crested Tit, which after numerous moves is eventually seen by all, phew!

After a very nice lunch in The Boat at Garten, we head for the Cairngorm ski resort, where a flock of at least sixty Snow Buntings are easy ‘car park’ birds, showing themselves really well at very close range, while a pair of Ravens circle the car park. Meanwhile a thorough scan of the snowy slopes draws a blank for both Ptarmigan and Mountain Hare.

We begin the new day with a scenic drive along the Spey Valley, with several Buzzards along the way, ending up on the Moray coast at Spey Bay where the Spey meets the sea. In the river mouth, a couple of female Long-tailed Ducks show very well, while a scan of the smooth sea from the shingle ridge produces more Long-tails as well as Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Eider, Common Scoters, close enough to see the pale cheeks of the ducks and the yellow bills of the drakes, and both Red-throated and Great Northern Divers. At one stage, one Red-throat actually surfaces straight out from us just five yards from the shore, close enough to show the fine detail of its white-speckled back! What a fabulous sighting. From here we head west along the coast to Roseisle Forest, where the ‘star prize’ offshore is a drake Velvet Scoter among a group of Commons. So, that’s today’s main target in the bag. Further west at Findhorn, another seawatch produces more of the ‘usual suspects’, as well as a nice Black-throated Diver, which is new for the trip, making three different divers today, which doesn’t happen very often. Further out, and too far for a definite ID, a small raft of Auks bobbing on the swell remain a mystery.
It’s 29th February and we spend the morning on a lovely stroll through the tranquil Anagach Woods, within walking distance of The Grantown Arms Hotel. Passing several signs proclaiming “Major Caper Area”, we find no sign of this now almost mythical beast, despite the prime habitat here in this ancient Caledonian Pine forest, and not a sniff of any Crossbills or Red Squirrels either. While numerous Coal Tits are singing, we find one ‘Cresty’, as well as a Treecreeper foraging on the ground!
After lunch back in the hotel bar, we decide to cash in on the cloudless sky with a visit to the Strathdearn valley in search of raptors flying high amid the spectacular landscape of the Monadhliath Mountains, made even more dramatic by an incoming blizzard just as we arrive! Along the river, Gay spots a Dipper and despite the harsh conditions, we also find a Raven, two Red Kites, two or three Buzzards and a Kestrel at the end of a rainbow! Ironically, on the way back to our hotel, we spot a White-tailed Eagle near Carrbridge, flying low over the trees on its way to the mountains we had just left!
It’s our last day in the field with a clear blue sky and a sparkling frost as we drive north to Chanonry Point, hoping to see the famous Bottle-nosed Dolphins on the rising tide. On arrival at this often exposed point, the calm sea is very smooth and ideal for seawatching, but with no sign of the dolphins, we make do with close views of Long-tailed Duck and Guillemots still in winter plumage. From here, we cross to Alturlie Point on the opposite side of the Moray Firth hoping to find a recently reported Green-winged Teal. There is no sign of the vagrant teal, but we do find a couple of Barnacle Geese among a flock of at least 400 Pink-feet, as well as two Snipe and a Magpie which are also new for the trip! By now it’s time for lunch, so we enjoy a nice picnic on the sunny shore looking out across the flat calm firth while spotting rafts of Eiders, plenty more Long-tailed Ducks, a Red-throated Diver in breeding plumage and one or two Slavonian Grebes which are also new for the trip.
Next, I suggest we take advantage of the clear blue sky for another visit to Strathdearn, hoping for more raptor action. After yesterday’s snow, still lying fresh on the mountain slopes, we find a beautiful setting for watching Red Kite, Buzzard, Kestrel and Raven against a clear blue sky, and finally, two female Hen Harriers soaring above the nearby ridge, making a creditable total of 87 different birds during the trip.

After an early dinner back in the hotel bar, we set off in fading light on a short drive south into the forest to visit a hide, hoping to see Badgers and Pine Martens. Within 15 minutes of taking our seats in the hide, a munching sound picked up by the outdoor microphone shows that the Badgers are nearby, and we soon have two of these stocky Mustelids foraging within a few feet of the hide windows. Less than five minutes later, a sleeker Pine Marten with a long bushy tail descends from the trees to feed on peanuts barely six feet from the windows at eye level! With Badgers to the left and the Pine Marten to the right, we watch these two members of the’ Weasel family’ for twenty minutes until the Marten disappears into the night, leaving the Badgers munching away for another fifty minutes! What a fantastic finale to our trip to the Cairngorms and beyond.