Average Birding

East of Inverness

Time to switch coasts; we've got a night in Lossiemouth before a flight back from Aberdeen.

Pronoun guidance: AB1 prefers this side of Scotland in the Winter. This post covers the events of December 1-2, 2018.

Getting there

The drive back is just as good as the one out - we notice that a few hills have a dusting of snow on them that didn't before. We make our traditional stop at the large Tesco on the way out of Inverness (which I think is our strongest repeat destination, coming in at over one visit per Scotland trip across multiple years; well done to the proprietors) and head out for Nairn, or, more specifically, for Culbin Sands.

Culbin Sands

Nairn is a most pleasant town. We have underestimated its loveliness before, having only driven through it under a bit of a cloud last time. It turns out that with a bit of sun and a bit more of an explore, our impression quickly improves. We park up next to the marina, and it's turned into a terrific afternoon, blue skies, calm sea, gorgeous views over the sands.

The birding, within a few seconds of getting out of the car, is also excellent - loads of seaducks, a nice raft of scoters, some waders along the water's edge. The best is probably a flock of fifteen or so Long-tailed Duck, in much better light and at much better distance than the single Broadford Bay bird. The difference in size and posture between the male and the female is surprising - or perhaps it's just the starkness of the plumage that gives that impression. A fabulous duck in any case.

Tens of pixels in this image represent the distant duck rafts with great clarity.
Tens of pixels in this image represent the distant duck rafts with great clarity.

We embark on a walk along the beach, as advised by Gordon. This is a bit more like it; lots of low level activity, some nice greenery (a forest off to the right), a bit of sun, the concept of being able to get back to the car and not have to drive for another two hours to get home. Bliss. We even manage to turn it into a circular walk, crossing a bit of bog in order to come back along the forest's edge. The trees tempt us in with occasional birdsong clamour, but it's getting dark, and we're sceptical enough after a year to know what we can hear is Siskin, Treecreeper and Goldcrest, and not the Crossbills or Firecrest that would add to our list.

Culbin sands.
Culbin sands.

Back to the car, and it's a short drive to Lossiemouth, where some seriously cosy accommodation awaits. We're somewhat disappointed to only be staying for a night!

Loch Spynie

We wake the next morning to continued calm weather. We go for a quick tour of Lossiemouth; it's got a decent Co-op and a lovely seafront. It also has good enough waves to tempt out surfers in early December (in double wetsuits, we guess). As you'd expect, the River Lossie meets the North Sea here, but it has a good kilometre or two of running parallel to it, and it's full to the brim with wildfowl.

We have places to go, however; to the South, a hard-to-find reserve at Loch Spynie offers a possibility of Red-necked Grebe, and maybe a Glaucous Gull. Gordon's directions and a few actual road signs get us to the reserve - the car park thankfully has an interpretive panel, or you might think you had just arrived at a farm. It's a short walk from there to the single hide, which is flanked on both sides by feeders, and offers excellent views of a good three quarters of the lake.

The lake is full of lake ducks, i.e Tufted Duck. There are hundreds. A few Goldeneye lurk here and there. A gentle trumpeting tells us there are some Whooper Swans here too - a pair of them and at least one juvenile. Of RNG there is no sign, however. There are many Great-crested Grebes, which are a confusion species for basically everything at this time of year. Each grebe is examined for signs of once having a red neck, but all prove innocent. We probably miss some, but they're differently shaped birds, and the scope gives us a good enough view that we think we'd be able to spot RNG.

A local birder arrives, bringing with him the knowledge that our pronunciation of both Lossiemouth and Spynie is hilariously inaccurate. He can't find RNG either - apparently it has been towards the areas of the Loch the hide doesn't overlook so well when it was last seen. Typical. Some of the grebe-shaped blobs towards the far left and right of the hide's field of view are brought back in for questioning, but still, no joy. We bid our companion farewell and go for a quick walk in the woods, but on discovering we're going to be unable to circuit the Loch easily, we head back to the car sooner rather than later.


Our next stop is Fochabers. A large gang of Waxwings has been sighted here, and the description of their location is very precise. We stop on the designated road and stride out of the car, expected to be greeted by the gentle trills of Waxwings. We are disappointed. We're also, ridiculously, at 2pm, already starting to run out of daylight - it's become overcast; the light is bad enough that we spend ages discerning that the treetop birds nearby are all Redwings (we should really have guessed from the behaviour - flitting to the next tree further away as we approach is classic Winter thrush behaviour).

We take a stroll along the Burn of Fochabers, thinking that if we were Waxwings, that's the sort of place we might hang out. This is, of course, foolish - Waxwings love a supermarket car park more than they do a wood - they'll go wherever they can find berries. We're somewhat short of them here, the last we saw were in gardens nearer the car. First though, a covert wee is urgently sought (and found), and some much needed patience is restored. The path along the burn then links us back up with the road on which we parked. We've probably spent forty minutes walking one and a half kilometres. Ridiculous, really.

Fifty Waxwings have vanished, then. No-one else has found them elsewhere. We make a guess that perhaps they're still in Fochabers, but not exactly where they've been for the last two or three days; earlier sightings have them elsewhere around the boundary of a school lurking behind the treeline opposite where we've parked. A slow drive around Fochabers follows - Waxwings don't tend to be shy, and there are fifty of them; if we confine ourselves to the border of the school, how hard can it be?

Well, if they aren't there, impossible. Our initial exploration around the West side is fruitless - we see a single Blackbird and nothing else, even the Redwings desert us. We circuit back round via our original parking spot and try the East side. This is perhaps the safest residential driving that has ever occurred in Fochabers - we are doing all of 8mph. It pays off - we find a solitary Waxwing perched in a tree on Woodside place. We try briefly to observe from the car, but this isn't really a place we should park, so AB2 sneaks out of the non-Waxwing side door and I glide the car away at a gentle 2 or 3mph. The Waxwing is unmoved. Phew.

I park up round the corner, and get back to the Waxwing to enjoy all of twenty seconds view before it ups sticks, flying high over the house of the garden it had perched in. Not the greatest Waxwing encounter ever. I'm still rather spoilt by them turning up on some bushes near work a few years back, where an area that previously had only ever held starlings had ten or so Waxwings in for a couple of days. We review the photos of this bird (universally awful) before starting to make tracks to our final location of the week - the mouth of the River Spey.

This turns out to be underwhelming - the Scottish Dolphin Centre isn't open, and the light levels are so bad that even the brightness of a few nearby Goosander aren't enough to tempt us out of the car (and into the cold) for very long. We eat some sandwiches in a huff and decide that this trip's birding is done, and the slightly arduous journey home should now be started.