Late winter and early spring is a glorious time to enjoy the wildlife of the Scottish Highlands. We visit at a time when many of the resident species are beginning their breeding routines and the earliest summer migrants are starting to arrive. In particular, our tour is timed to coincide with the lekking of the forest grouse and aerial acrobatics of displaying raptors. This is also a time when coastal bays are thronged with extensive flocks of migrating wildfowl and secluded bays and lochs resound to the haunting calls of displaying divers. Add to this the magical atmosphere of the tracts of native Caledonian forests, dramatic mountain vistas and wide open skies and the gushing waters of the mighty River Spey and its many tributaries for an unforgettable experience. In addition to the Scottish element of the tour, we are able to include a unique opportunity to visit the ancient woodlands of Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean and the vast marshes of the Somerset Levels, an area recently benefitting by increased habitat preservation and management which has really put it on the birding map as a top destination. Its network of relatively new reserves will hopefully safeguard large tracts of this important wetland habitat for many generations to come. Numbers of wildfowl here are impressive, and with regular over-wintering Great White and Cattle Egrets and even occasional Glossy Ibis and Eurasian Spoonbills, it is certainly an area worthy of exploration. During March and early April, Great Bitterns are booming everywhere and the reeds hold shouting Cetti’s Warblers, ‘pinging’ Bearded Tits and quartering Marsh Harriers. Freshwater drains support Otter families and at dusk the skies are transformed by swarming Common Starlings coming into roost. Raptors unsurprisingly feature in this watery landscape, and include Peregrine, Hen Harrier and both Barn and Short-eared Owls. Chew Valley Lake in neighbouring Avon is also visited, adding the chance of rarities such as Lesser Scaup or Ring-necked Duck, as well as the first spring migrants that could include Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Green and Common Sandpipers, Garganey, Common Chiffchaff and Blackcap. The Forest of Dean will precede this wetland wilderness, and here in pristine woodland we look for Hawfinch, Common Crossbill, Northern Goshawk, Willow Tit, Mandarin Duck, Eurasian Siskin, Brambling and Lesser Redpoll, while Great Grey Shrike and Firecrest could also be available. The terrain is mostly easy, though you can expect to walk up to five miles per day. The pace is relaxed and the accommodation charming, cosy and traditional rather than large hotels. Owing to the nature of some of the species involved, there will be some early starts, though these are purely optional. However, we recommend that you try to participate fully for maximum enjoyment of the tour. Your tour leader will be Paul Roberts and you can expect to see approximately 150 species. We may also visit sites not mentioned in the main itinerary.
Photo: Bearded Tit, by F. Davis