Scotland, 15th-19th March 2014



On this short trip to Scotland with Dave Norgate we hoped for some of the Scottish specialities and some good Scottish coastal birding, as well as the odd rarity.


SATURDAY 15th: Successful twitching

I drove overnight to the Mull of Kintyre where an American Herring Gull had been seen for a while, usually at dawn and dusk. We hoped to arrive at dawn but there were plenty of other birds in the area that we could see first if not. Once it became clear that arriving for dawn was not feasible we decided to head up to the Black Duck at Strontian, a species I had seen twice in 2000 but not since. I had heard that it sometimes frequented a small pond in someone's front garden so we looked out for such ponds as we drove up the road. Despite the lashing rain we soon found it and it really was a small pond, but big enough to house the Black Duck and its Mallard partner.

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Black Duck, Strontian, 15th March - at some angles it shows a hint of green on the head, which according to some people is within range of pure Black Duck and according to other people it makes it a hybrid; the tertials look a bit pale to me too, which is often quoted as a feature of hybrids; either way it's a vagrant from North America - an F1 hybrid would never look this good so it's at worst a hybrid backcrossed with Black Duck, and so very unlikely to have been hatched on this side of the Atlantic

As we waited for the Corran ferry we were treated to a fine display from at least 3 pairs of Black Guillemots at the pier. On the way to the gull we stopped and birded several sites but didn't see anything better than the 2 Snow Geese at Tayinloan and a total of roughly 600 Greenland White-fronted Geese at various places between there and Campbeltown. Other highlights included both large divers and of course lots of Hooded Crows (plus several hybrids) - and a plant tick, the naturalised American Skunk-cabbage.

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Black Guillemots, Corran Pier, 15th March


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Castle Stalker, 15th March


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Black-throated Diver, Loch Gilp, 15th March


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Hooded Crows, Portnacroish (left) and West Tarbert (right), 15th March


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Hooded Crow x Carrion Crow hybrid, West Tarbert, 15th March


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American Skunk-Cabbage, West Tarbert, 15th March


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Snow Geese, Tayinloan, 15th March


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Greenland White-fronted Geese, Tayinloan, 15th March

As we approached Campbeltown we noticed a sign to the airfield and Dave recalled that the American Herring Gull had been seen there before, though not recently. We still had plenty of time before dusk so decided to head up there first. A large flock of gulls was located and on first scan we didn't see anything among them. We noticed some more birders further down so decided to join them, only to find them looking at the American Herring Gull! Sounds like they hadn't had it for long and before I could get my digiscoping camera set up it flew, disappearing over the brow of a hill. It reappeared once or twice during which time we managed to see enough on it to convince us that it was indeed the correct bird, but the only photos obtained were some ropey flight shots. After more searching without any views the remnants of the flock moved off so we headed down to the harbour to see if it came in to roost there. Sadly, especially for those not fortunate enough to have been at the airfield earlier, it didn't. In fact it wasn't seen again the next day or subsequently - so it seems that the five of us at the airfield were the last people to see it. Here are the shots:

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American Herring Gull, Campbeltown, 15th March

Two of the birders at the airfield before us had spent most of the day there without seeing the American Herring Gull, so our arrival shortly after they had located it was very fortunate! They had seen a total of 5 Iceland Gulls, all but one of which had moved off before we got there - we saw a single Iceland Gull there.


SUNDAY 16th: A change of fortune

We drove overnight to Speyside, pausing for some kip in the car every now and then. Just east of Spean Bridge I noticed a mammal cross the road in front of us. It paused at the verge just long enough for us to confirm my initial suspicions, that it was a Pine Marten. This is a mammal I have consistently failed to find in numerous trips to Scotland previously so I was very pleased to see one at long last.

We turned up at a site where a rogue Capercaillie had been seen recently, with some outstanding photos having been taken of it. These rogue birds that turn up from time to time are supposed to be easy to find - from what I gather they find you rather than you having to find them! Well this bird didn't find us, or if it did it didn't do a good job of announcing that fact to us. We tried a couple of other sites too but with no success.

Eventually we gave up and headed up to Cairngorm where we looked for Ptarmigan from the car park. As I scoped the mountainside I glimpsed a white thing that could only have been a Ptarmigan flying across, disappearing among the rocks when it landed. There were lots of patches of snow breaking up the rocky mountain side but they and the rocky patches in between all looked the same so directing Dave to where I'd seen it land was difficult. There were two tiny spots of snow where the bird had landed and after what seemed like ages Dave managed to follow my directions to these spots of snow. Only then did the spots of 'snow' start to move and we realised they were in fact Ptarmigans! They were so far off though that you couldn't see any detail at all - they were just tiny white spots that moved, and not like Hares!

We headed up to the Findhorn Valley where I kipped in the car while Dave looked for Golden Eagles. It was so windy he could barely stand up but eventually he and another pair of birders picked one up. He woke me up to see it but I was fairly unimpressed with the Golden Eagle that must have been further off than the Ptarmigans had been earlier! Good to see it displaying though, and it landed on the snow briefly (you could just about make out that it was an eagle-shaped dark spot).

After this we headed up to the coast, taking in the American Coot at Loch Flemmington on the way. A Red Kite and a brief Slavonian Grebe were the best we could find between Arderseir and Inverness, so we quickly nipped up to Dingwall to dip on the Ring-billed Gull.

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American Coot, Loch Flemington, 16th March


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Pied Wagtail (left) and Cormorant (race carbo, right), Loch Flemington, 16th March


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Rainbows, Alturlie, 16th March - we couldn't find any treasure at the end of the rainbow, not even the Lesser Scaup that's been in the area

We found some accommodation in Aviemore so we could be up early to have another go at the Capercaillies in the morning.


MONDAY 17th: Still no Caper

I'd seen some moths in the headlights in some sheltered spots as we were arriving at the Capercaillie site yesterday so we arrived a bit earlier today to give me a chance of catching some of them. This we did and subsequently I identified them as species I had not previously seen. One of them, Early Flat-body Semioscopis avellenella, is fairly widespread across the UK (not in Norfolk) but the other, Marbled Button Acleris maccana, is only found in the Scottish Highlands.

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Early Flat-body Semioscopis avellenella (left) and Marbled Button Acleris maccana (right), Tulloch - Nethy Bridge, 17th March

While we failed to see any Capercaillies again two single Crossbills flew over which, from their calls, were not the same species. We suspect Scottish Crossbill for the second, but can't be completely sure of that as we didn't manage to sound-record it.

After another failed attempt to see Ptarmigan we headed up to the coast again, via Lochindorb. Here we enjoyed watching and photographing scores of Red Grouse, but we didn't see much else.

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Red Grouse, Lochindorb, 17th March - a lot of variation in how dark the males were but the one bottom left was the most extreme; with its pale shoulder patch (which I didn't notice in the field) I suppose I should have considered Black Grouse hybrid but with no other structural or plumage anomalies I assume it wasn't


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Lochindorb, 17th March

At Burghead we spent a considerable time studying an interesting first-year male Common Scoter that had an exceptionally extensive amount of yellow on the bill, especially for a first-year. At times it was looking like a really promising candidate for Black Scoter but eventually it (presumably - we can't be completely certain it wasn't a different bird) flew much closer and with better views we were able to determine the extent of yellow more precisely. Now I felt that neither the extent of the yellow nor the shape of the bill were sufficient to rule out Common Scoter. It still might have been a Black Scoter, but if we couldn't nail it at this distance we weren't going to nail it at all, and it certainly wasn't looking as exciting as it did from further away! Mind you, if it turns into a more obvious Black Scoter as it matures and someone else finds it, then we're having it!

Birding numerous sites along the north coast was enjoyable with loads of Long-tailed Ducks everywhere, but it wasn't as good as we'd hoped. The strong winds didn't help - it was difficult to see anything on the sea! Dave found the best thing in a toilet block at Findochty - another new moth, though this time one that does occur in Norfolk, just scarcely enough that I've not seen one before: Mottled Grey.

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Eider, Buckie, 17th March


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Mottled Grey, Findochty (left) and Red-throated Diver, Portknockie (right), 17th March


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rainbow, Cullen, 17th March

We were as successful at finding accommodation in Fraserburgh as we were at finding Capercaillies, so another night was spent sleeping in the car - something I'm definitely getting too old for.


TUESDAY 18th: More Long-tailed Ducks, more Long-tailed Ducks, more Long-tailed Ducks and a Queen

I've had some amazing birding at Fraserburgh before, with Ross's Gull, numerous white-winged gulls, loads of duck and all sorts. This morning was not so exciting, unfortunately, so we headed off to the Loch of Strathbeg. We didn't give it a very thorough look, apart from anything because we were too early to get in to the centre. I briefly saw a distant large grey bird with long straight wings drop out of sight, but only saw the upperwing, the pattern of which could have matched Grey Heron. I'm 99% sure it wasn't a heron though - it looked just like a Crane in the few nanoseconds that I watched it. I know they've had a few Crane records here but not sure if they're still around? This area also produced our only Tree Sparrows and Corn Buntings of the trip.

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Shags, Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, 18th March

We found the Glaucous Gull at Peterhead but as we worked our way we struggled to find much more than Long-tailed Ducks. OK, there were a few other bits and pieces, but it was harder work than we'd hoped. Still, I love seeing lots of Long-tailed Ducks, so it was pleasant enough - and I especially enjoyed the close drake in Boddam Harbour.

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Glaucous Gull, Peterhead, 18th March


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Purple Sandpiper, Peterhead (left) and Long-tailed Duck, Boddam (right), 18th March


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Canada Goose x domestic goose hybrid, Ythan Estuary, 18th March - the extent of the black on the bill is atypical for standard Canada x Greylag so presumably domestic Swan Goose is involved, however the pink on the bill probably indicates that the domestic goose had both Swan Goose and Greylag Goose ancestry; the leg colour was also consistent with this ID

We wanted to spend tomorrow birding the Lothian coast but we didn't want to miss out Fife, so we shot down to Largo Bay to get there with enough daylight left to be worthwhile. Foolishly we decided to stop en route to look for the Newburgh Ring-billed Gull, but it was high tide and it was not there.

We found Ruddons Point and sheltering as much as we could from the wind we looked through the Eiders and Scoters hoping to find King Eider and Surf Scoter, both of which had been reported off here during the last week or so. Lots of birds, which was very enjoyable, but at first no sign of our targets. A big surprise among the Curlew was a Whimbrel! In 24 years of birding in Norfolk the earliest I've ever seen a Whimbrel is 13th April, though I have seen birds earlier than that on the south coast (only earlier in April though). A Whimbrel in Scotland in mid March was very unexpected! I wondered if it was wintering there, and indeed that does seem to be the case as a bit of research has uncovered another report of it on 1st March - in fact there seem to be a few odd reports of wintering Whimbrels in Scotland in recent years.

There were lots of Eider close in but it was further out beyond the main flock that Dave picked out the King Eider (or rather Queen Eider as it was a female). He did well as it was hard to see, spending more time hidden behind the waves than it was in view. I spent quite a bit of time watching it as I wanted to pick out all the salient ID features but the distance and wind prevented me from seeing all of them. The head/bill shape was pretty obvious - more so than I expected to be honest. I think the dark bill made it more obvious - I'd not realised the colour of the bill was an ID feature before. I could just about make out the smiling gape line, but discerning the flank markings was beyond the capabilities of my eyes+scope.

It is over 20 years since I visited Ruddons Point, though I've watched Largo Bay from elsewhere more recently. I had a vague recollection of there being some kind of access issue with the caravan site through which Ruddons Point is accessed, but we found it ok and weren't troubled for being there. On driving out I remembered what the issue was - they lock the gate! Fortunately there was someone else there ahead of us who seemed to know the site owners, and they managed to drag someone out to open up for us. After checking from Lower Largo we headed off to Lothian, staying in a tatty and dirty Travelodge (but at £33 per room it was quite sufficient for our needs!).


WEDNESDAY 19th: Surf and home

A drake Surf Scoter had been seen from various sites in Lothian over the winter, mainly off Musselburgh or Portobello. We started at Portobello at first light, finding plenty of Velvet Scoters and a Slavonian Grebe, but no Surf. Most of the Velvets seemed to be gathering further east so we decided to head off towards Musselburgh. We stopped at Joppa and had a quick look from here. The Velvets were close in here but we still couldn't find the Surf. Then I picked up a Scoter flying in from the east heading straight towards us. A hotchpotch of black, white and orange - surely this was the boy! It was indeed and in no time the handsome drake Surf Scoter had plonked itself down in front of where we were sitting.

Surf Scoter, Joppa, 19th March


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Velvet Scoters, Joppa, 19th March

The other sites I was looking forward to birding were hard work as the ever-strengthening wind was rendering anything on the sea almost impossible to see. Almost everywhere there was evidence of viz mig - not big numbers but the odd Meadow Pipit here and the odd Pied Wagtail there, birds trickling through constantly. We had been hoping to walk out to where the King Eider near Gullane had been reported but the wind was so strong we decided there was no point.

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Gannets, Bass Rock, 19th March


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Herring Gull (left) and Great Black-backed Gull (right), Dunbar, 19th March

We birded a few more sites on the east coast down to Northumberland, picking up things like Red Kites and Dipper but not much in the way of birds on the sea. Then as time was getting on and we had to be in work the next morning we headed off home.

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Grey Wagtails, Pease Bay, 19th March


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Rook, Bamburgh, 19th March


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Eiders, Amble, 19th March


Systematic list

The following species were seen:

  1. Mute Swan Cygnus olor
  2. Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus - 20+ Arderseir 16th and 30+ Loch of Strathbeg 19th
  3. Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus - large numbers seen in NE Scotland between Inverness and Borders
  4. Greenland White-fronted Goose Anser (albifrons) flavirostris - about 600 Mull of Kintyre 15th in several flocks between Tayinloan and Campbeltown
  5. Greylag Goose Anser anser - at least some seen were wild birds
  6. Snow Goose Anser caerulescens (or Chen caerulescens) - 2 adults (white and intermediate phases) with Greenland White-fronts at Tayinloan 15th
  7. Canada Goose Branta canadensis
  8. Barnacle Goose Branta bernicla - 100+ Loch of Strathbeg 19th
  9. Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
  10. Wigeon Anas penelope
  11. Gadwall Anas strepera
  12. Teal Anas crecca
  13. Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
  14. Black Duck Anas rubripes - 1 male paired to a female Mallard Strontian 15th
  15. Pintail Anas acuta - 1 female on Loch Oire 17th; also at least 1 Ythan Estuary 18th
  16. Shoveler Anas clypeata
  17. Pochard Aythya ferina
  18. Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula - large numbers near Kampen - several flocks along the river
  19. Eider Somateria mollissimma - small numbers at many coastal sites; the largest numbers were on the east coast with 100 Peterhead, 300 Ythan Estuary and 200 Largo Bay all on 18th; elsewhere max was 60 Buckie 17th
  20. King Eider Somateria spectabilis - 1 female off Ruddons Point, Largo Bay
  21. Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis - although nowhere near as numerous as I have found this species along the same coastlines previously, seeing lots of these is always a highlight of visiting Scotland in winter; seen at 17 sites totalling 141 birds, the best being 40 off Portgordon 17th
  22. Common Scoter Melanitta nigra - 1 Campbeltown 15th was the only west coast record; generally small numbers on the north and east coasts with 100 Largo Bay 18th far and away the best count
  23. Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata - 1 drake Joppa 19th
  24. Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca - seen in larger numbers than Common Scoter but with a different distribution: only seen in Fife (60 Largo Bay) and Lothian (160 at 4 sites)
  25. Goldeneye Bucephala clangula - at least 127 at 19 sites
  26. Goosander Mergus merganser - 1 Loch Morlich 16th was, surprisingly, the only inland record; otherwise 3 west over the sea at Lossiemouth and 2 Banff rivermouth 17th and 2 Newburgh and 2 Largo Bay 18th
  27. Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator - small numbers all round the coast: 96 at 15 locations
  28. Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa - 1 in plantation at Lochindorb Lodge - the only partridge seen all trip!
  29. Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus - Dave had one between Loch Lomond and Corran; otherwise 4 Caingorm 16th & 17th and 50+ Lochindorb 17th
  30. Ptarmigan Lagopus muta - 2 very distant birds seen from the car park at Cairngorm
  31. Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
  32. Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata - over half of the divers seen were this species, but divers in general were much thinner on the ground that I had expected
  33. Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica - 2 Loch Gilp (Dave had a third) 15th
  34. Great Northern Diver Gavia immer - 1 Loch Linnhe and 1 southern Mull of Kintyre 15th, 1 Peterhead and 1 Largo Bay 18th - a much poorer showing than I had expected
  35. Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis
  36. Gannet Morus bassanus
  37. Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
  38. Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis
  39. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
  40. Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
  41. Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
  42. Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus - 1 Longman (Inverness) 16th, 1 Portobello 19th; Dave saw 1 Largo Bay 18th.
  43. Red Kite Milvus milvus - 1 Arderseir 16th, 1 Coldingham Moor and 1 Arkendale (Northumberland) 19th
  44. Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus - 1 Cairngorm 16th
  45. Buzzard Buteo buteo
  46. Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos - 1 Findhorn Valley 16th
  47. Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
  48. Coot Fulica atra
  49. American Coot Fulica americana - 1 Loch Flemington 16th
  50. Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
  51. Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria - 150 Loch of Strathbeg 18th
  52. Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
  53. Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
  54. Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus - 1 with Curlews Ruddons Point 18th
  55. Curlew Numenius arquata
  56. Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
  57. Turnstone Arenaria interpres
  58. Sanderling Calidris alba - 115 Ruddons Point 18th
  59. Dunlin Calidris alpina
  60. Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima - 1 Peterhead and about 30 Boddam 18th - we were surprised to see so few
  61. Greenshank Tringa nebularia - 1 Loch Feochan 15th, 2 Lossiemouth 17th and 1 John Muir CP 19th
  62. Redshank Tringa totanus
  63. Woodcock Scolopax rusticola - 1 Nethy Bridge 16th and 1 heard Tulloch 17th
  64. Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle - at least 3 pairs displaying at Corran pier, 1 Loch Gilp and 5+ Campbeltown 15th, 2 Burghead and 1 Buckie 17th; the vast majority were in full breeding plumage but at least 2 were still looking wintry, presumably first-year birds
  65. Razorbill Alca torda - small numbers on the Moray and Grampian coasts; 20 in breeding plumage at St Abbs 19th
  66. Guillemot Uria aalge - small numbers (but more than Razorbill except at St Abbs) at most coastal locations
  67. Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
  68. Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
  69. Common Gull Larus canus
  70. Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
  71. Herring Gull Larus argentatus
  72. American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus - 1 first-winter Campbeltown 15th
  73. Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides - 1 second-winter Campbeltown 15th
  74. Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus - 1 first-winter Peterhead rivermouth 18th
  75. Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
  76. Feral Pigeon Columbus livia
  77. Woodpigeon Columbus palumba
  78. Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
  79. Green Woodpecker Dryocopus martius - 1 heard Tulloch 16th
  80. Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
  81. Peregrine Falco peregrinus - 1 Findhorn Valley 16th and 1 St Abbs 19th
  82. Magpie Pica pica
  83. Jay Garrulus glandarius
  84. Jackdaw Corvus monedula
  85. Rook Corvus frugilegus
  86. Carrion Crow Corvus corone - in the range of Hooded Crow 3 west of Tarbet and 3 Campbeltown 15th (also see hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow)
  87. Hooded Crow Corvus cornix - Easily the commonest corvid in the west (Loch Lomond, Stontian, Mull of Kintyre, etc.) with at least 187 seen; also several Hooded Crow x Carrion Crow hybrids seen - at least 13 in the west plus in the east at least 2 Arderseir
  88. Raven Corvus corax - 1 heard Cairngorm and 15 Lochindorb 17th
  89. Goldcrest Regulus regulus
  90. Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus
  91. Great Tit Parus major
  92. Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus - we thought we heard some as we were driving between Loch Garten and Nethy Bridge on 16th, but not giving the call I'm most familiar with; I had some doubts but Dave was more confident!
  93. Coal Tit Periparus ater
  94. Skylark Alauda arvensis
  95. Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus - seen at Lettele
  96. Treecreeper Certhia familiaris - 1 Loch Garten 16th
  97. Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
  98. Starling Sturnus vulgaris s
  99. Dipper Cinclus cinclus - 2 Pease Bay 19th
  100. Blackbird Turdus merula
  101. Fieldfare Turdus pilaris
  102. Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
  103. Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
  104. Robin Erithacus rubecula - several seen at various locations
  105. Stonechat Saxicola rubicola - 2 Lochindorb 17th, surprisingly the only birds seen
  106. Dunnock Prunella modularis
  107. House Sparrow Passer domesticus
  108. Tree Sparrow Passer montanus - at least 6 Loch of Strathbeg 18th
  109. Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea - 1 Mull of Kintyre 15th, 1 Aberlady Bay and 2 Pease Bay 19th
  110. Pied Wagtail Motacilla (alba) yarrellii
  111. Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
  112. Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus
  113. Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
  114. Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula - 1 Carrbrridge 16th
  115. Greenfinch Chloris chloris
  116. Linnet Linnaria cannabina
  117. Crossbill Loxia curvirostra - 1 near Loch Garten 16th, 1 near Nethy Bridge 17th
  118. Scottish Crossbill Loxia scottica - a probable flew over near Nethy Bridge 17th - the call was distinctly deeper than the Common Crossbill that flew over shortly before, but did not seem right for Parrot Crossbill
  119. Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
  120. Siskin Spinus spinus - 4+ Loch Garten 16th; also heard at Sound of Shuna 15th and Loch Vaa 16th
  121. Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis - 6 over the carpark at Cairngorm 17th
  122. Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
  123. Reed Bunting Emberize schoeniclus
  124. Corn Bunting Embeiza calandra - 6 Loch of Strathbeg 18th