Think bird watching is something only hardened twitchers enjoy? So did our sceptical writer – so we sent him to Scotland to see how it can enhance your travel experience
Deep in the woods, I silently spied on the unsuspecting birds, hoping to see some tits. It was the sort of behaviour that would normally land you in a lot of bother but here and now it was deemed perfectly acceptable. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of birdwatching.
Up until now, I had never really given creatures of the feathered variety much attention. Sure, I had, at times, appreciated their beauty and ingenuity: I’d watched robins in my nan’s garden as a boy; marvelled at a pied kingfisher frenziedly beating its wings while staying perfectly still in Kenya; got close to a frigatebird’s inflatable scarlet throat pouch in the Galápagos Islands. Lovely to see – but that’s as far as it ever went.
The trouble is, I had acquired a somewhat narrow view of birdwatching and those who did it; an opinion blighted by an encounter with an over-zealous birder in Patagonia some years ago. All she spoke of was plumages, preening and pishing; she almost conversed in chirps. In fact, at times, she did. “I often talk to birds,” she’d told me, “I lean out of my window for a chat. ‘Huitt! Huitt!’ That’s the call of the willow warbler!”
Her entire repertoire followed. I rolled my eyes. “You know, I’m not bad at that myself. Can you identify this?” I said, rapidly knocking on the table. “It’s a woodpecker.”
Despite all this, having seen a range of these multitudinous creatures on my travels, there was part of me that wanted to understand more about them and their complex worlds. It surely had to enhance my experience of a place – but it felt like people were either hardened bird aficionados or they weren’t – so how could I go from novice to learner without turning up to a hide and committing a terrible faux pas?
Luckily the answer came in the form of John Picton, a lifelong birder and naturalist guide. Based in Speyside, an area of mountains, moors and valleys sandwiched between Scotland’s Cairngorm and Monadhliath ranges, he was giving me a beginners introduction to the activity. This patch of the Highlands is home to hundreds of species, many endemic and endangered, from majestic birds of prey to common but overlooked finches.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about birding,” said John, as we skirted around Inverness and crossed the murky Moray Firth. “People think it’s just for geeks but birders come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve guided women in their 80s and a bloke in his 30s covered in tattoos,” added John, himself a strapping mountain of a man, with ear piercings, a long ponytail and hands that could rip a phone directory in half. Inspired by his father’s passion, John, who once worked for the RSPB, has been birding since he was a child. He got his first set of binoculars aged eight.
The first target on our hit-list was a biggie: the majestic golden eagle – one of the stars of the Highlands. But with the average golden eagle covering a territory of 50-150 sq km, spotting them can be tricky. Luckily, John knew just the place.
The narrow road ventured deep into the Strathconon Valley. We stopped in a small clearing beside a river. Across the water, craggy mountains soared high. Up there, hidden just out of view in a small crevice on the dark cliff face, was an eagle’s nest.
We weren’t alone. Already in position, his binoculars at the ready, was
a fellow birder and his wife. The skies, however, were void of winged silhouettes. Not even a common crow to be seen against the darkening clouds. “It’s not great weather for eagles. They avoid flying in the rain. But I have hope – I’ve never been here and not seen one,” said John, as drizzle descended.
Minutes turned to hours and the wait continued. I soon realised that birding requires a lot of patience. To pass the time I flicked through John’s comprehensive guide to the birds of Britain. The pages were filled with thousands of species and their confusing visual identifications: the differences in plumage between juveniles and adults; males and females; wintertime and summertime. It was a little overwhelming.
With the eagles failing to co-operate we took a stroll down to the river’s edge to watch the common sandpipers swoop along, dipping their wings into the water. John pointed out their jerky flying style, another technique used to identify species.
“There’s a lot to learn but no need to get bogged down with all that,” reassured John. “The most important thing is to enjoy the birds for the wonderful creatures that they are. The best place to start is in your garden,” he continued, before being distracted by a passing merlin (the UK’s smallest raptor), which vanished into the moors beyond.
My gaze drifted to the high ridges. I ached to see the wide wingspan of a golden eagle circling above. Supremely efficient hunters, it’s thought they can spot a mouse on the ground from a mile up.
I did see an eagle that day but not as hoped. Stuffed, it resided in a glass cabinet on the stairs of Aviemore’s Cairngorm Hotel.
The next morning, on the lookout for another bird of prey, we headed to Loch Insh. Ospreys are a real Scottish success story. Heavily persecuted by egg collectors in the early 20th century, the birds were virtually wiped out here. In the 1950s a single pair managed to breed; the population has since recovered and the fish-hunting birds have spread as far south as North Wales.
At the very top of a tree, in a cemetery overlooking a loch, sat an unruly nest of twigs. “Looks like somebody’s home,” said John, raising his binoculars. I followed suit and instantly spotted a white head with a thick black band around its eyes. Suddenly, another head appeared: a chick, barely a month old, cosied up to mum.
I got an even better look using John’s Swarovski telescope – a serious piece of kit – which he mounted on a tripod.
There are, John explained, many different ways to birdwatch, depending on the habitat and the species you’re hoping to see. We spent time scouring the canopy of ancient Caledonian forest – a hushed wilderness of dense Scots pines, standing deadwood and bright juniper bushes.
Later, we scanned a patchwork of open heather moorland, spying on families of grouse. Later still, we sat inconspicuously by small lochans as hungry red-throated divers dipped their heads beneath the choppy surface, a hunting technique known as ‘snorkelling’.
Next, though, came my kind of birdwatching. In the cosy Potting Shed café, I sipped a cup of tea, nibbled a slice of homemade plum-and-apple sponge and gazed out of the large viewing windows. Darting in every direction were dozens of delicate birds, picking at the feeders that dangled from the large cypress tree. Many were handsome LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) – birds that should not be overlooked, insisted John. He was right. The Cairngorms may be home to big, rare and powerful birds but the smaller and more common species are no less pleasing.
Striking siskins flew by in flashes of black and yellow. A blue tit pecked at the peanuts and fed its fluffy young chick. Suddenly the smaller birds vanished and a much larger one swooped in. For the briefest of moments we thought it was some sort of predator, but it turned out to be merely a pigeon. It’s difficult to get excited about a pigeon. Well, for most people. “It’s not a feral pigeon,” argued John, defensively. “It’s a lovely wood pigeon.”
John’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. He regaled me with the tale of his first sighting of a ptarmigan, arguably the hardiest bird in Britain. Residing on high mountain ridges, they turn white in winter to blend in with the surroundings and are notoriously difficult to spot. “It took lots of effort so I was ecstatic to finally see one. That’s the thing with birding; you can do it all your life and still not see everything. It’s a lifelong passion.”
Full up with cake, and after a crash course on crows, we left the café and drove along a country lane, passing Highland cows and vocal sheep. The hillsides were dotted with red deer; the stags, with their large velvety antlers, stared our way.
Suddenly, John hit the brakes. Grabbing his binoculars from the dashboard, he pointed to a slate-grey bird perched on a fence. It was a bird whose call is instantly recognisable but one that is rarely seen: the cuckoo.
Cuckoos are in decline across Britain due to loss of habitat, but the Highlands are one of their last strongholds. A parasitic breed, cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds – usually those belonging to oblivious meadow pipits – and then bugger off, leaving them to rear their young. Talk about brazen.
While undoubtedly one of the cheekiest birds around, they’re far from the Highlands’ only fascinating breed. For instance, birders flock here to see the endangered capercaillie – Gaelic for ‘horse of the woods’ – famed for its ‘clip-clop’ sounding call.
Wildlife watching in the Cairngorms is not just about feathered finds. As darkness fell, I entered a high-tech hide in the woods (which was complete with infrared CCTV cameras) in the hope of seeing some other notable residents.
Before long there was a rustle in the bushes and a tiny figure appeared, standing upright like a meerkat. The pint-sized pine marten – one of the country’s rarest mammals – sprinted over to nibble on a buffet of peanuts and sultanas laid out by John.
Our thrilling evening continued with red deer venturing close and a family of adorable badgers stopping by, rolling in the grass like giant mint humbugs.
Things had changed by my final day in the Highlands. I found myself naturally scanning the skies to study the silhouettes and flight styles of birds overhead. I still couldn’t tell a fulvous babbler from a Temminck’s stint but there were definite signs of improvement. Stood in the gusty Findhorn Valley – another spot favoured by golden eagles – I clocked a fishing osprey, noting the distinctive kink in its wing, and successfully identified an oystercatcher.
A newfound respect for these extraordinary creatures had been planted but, more importantly, birding had taught me to slow down, appreciate the smaller details of my surroundings and simply savour the moment. And, surely, whether you’re a birder or not, that’s what travel is all about.
When to go:
Scotland offers good birdwatching year round, though many species are migratory – what you see varies greatly by season. Spring (May-June) is rewarding: resident birds are breeding and many overwintering birds haven’t yet left for the summer. Winter is generally best avoided due to cold temperatures and troublesome conditions.
Inverness, the gateway to the Highlands, is served by easyJet (www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Luton and Bristol. Flights from Manchester and Birmingham are available with FlyBe (0871 700 2000, www.flybe.com).
Further reading & info
Collins Bird Guide (Collins, 2010), a comprehensive guide to the birds of Britain and Europe
RSPB Birdwatching For Beginners (Dorling Kindersley, 2013), practical advice and digestible tips for novices
www.rspb.org.uk – Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
www.visitscotland.com/Natural – Scotland’s National Tourism Organisation
- Buy a good bird guide to help you identify the different species.
- Be patient! It’s not uncommon to spend hours in one spot but use the time to really take in your surrounds.
- Binoculars are the single most important piece of kit for wannabe birders – there are many different kinds around, obviously the more you pay, the better the lens’ quality will be.
- Never confuse birders and twitchers – the latter applies to individuals that specifically chase rare species to tick off their ‘life lists'.