Scotland and Ireland: Caledonian Highlands, The Hebrides and the Emerald Isle

Scotland is an ancient land filled with thick Caledonian pine forests, towering mountains, deep black lochs, great whiskey, and castles straight out of Braveheart. This tour takes us to all of these and more with a route that includes the scenic western Isle of Skye and the beautiful Hebridean islands of North and South Uist, as we make our way across this historic country in search of its best birds.

The British Isles aren’t famed for their abundance of birds, but Scotland is often wrongly swept up in that assumption. In fact, Scotland has its very own set of specialties that draw the Brits north of the border almost constantly, but has until now remained a secret to many foreign birders. We’ll search the Caledonian Pine forests and picturesque lochs around Grantown-on-Spey for Western Capercaillie, Crested Tit, Scottish and Parrot Crossbills, and Black Grouse, before climbing the Cairngorms to find Rock Ptarmigan, Snow Bunting, Mountain Hare, and maybe too Eurasian Dotterel. We then head out to the scenic islands of Skye and the Uists, off the west coast of Scotland, to find White-tailed and Golden Eagles, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, breeding shorebirds, and Parasitic Jaeger, Eurasian Otter, the stunning Red-necked Phalarope, and fields of rasping Corncrakes. If luck is on our side, we may even find one of the Snowy Owls that occasionally breed on these outlying islands. On our way to the coast we’ll search a remote valley for Golden Eagle and hundreds of Red Deer, and a small loch for superb breeding Horned Grebes. An evening spent just inches from a family of Pine Martens will also surely be a highlight.

A big part of Scotland’s charm is its history and culture, and we’ll make every effort to enjoy both on this tour. We’ll see some of the best medieval castles, drive the shores of Loch Ness, Loch Lomond, and the Great Glen, see Neolithic stone circles and standing stones, and of course no visit to Scotland would be complete without a visit to a good whiskey distillery that is also included! As the tour starts in Scotland’s cultural heartland, Edinburgh, a day or two extra can be added to visit one of the many attractions of this city, such as Holyrood Palace (the official Scottish residence of Her Majesty The Queen), a scenic lookout over the city, or to browse one of the many specialist whisky stores that pepper Edinburgh’s streets.

The Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh is the official residence of Her Majesty The Queen in Scotland
The Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh is the official residence of Her Majesty The Queen in Scotland (Keith Barnes)

A short add-on to the “Emerald Isle”, Ireland, is also offered to, for it is another Celtic land steeped in rich history, with the allure of dramatic geology at Giant’s Causeway, a fascinating tour around the famous Guinness distillery in Dublin, and the rolling, emerald-tinted Wicklow Mountains, offering not only further absorbing historical, cultural and scenic highlights, but also yet more British birds to enjoy too!

Cute Crested Tits inhabit the Caledonian Pine Forests
Cute Crested Tits inhabit the Caledonian Pine Forests (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 1: Edinburgh to Grantown-on-Spey (Scotland). After a morning meet in Edinburgh, we’ll our way through rolling lowlands and up into the Cairngorm Mountains that form the very heart of the scenically spectacular Scottish Highlands. We will stop several times on the way to our historic but very comfortable castle-hotel in Grantown-on-Spey, seeing plentiful Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse), breeding shorebirds, and (with luck) perhaps even Rock Ptarmigan or Golden Eagle on the way. This evening we will scour local Caledonian pine forests for the elusive Western Capercaillie, the enigmatic Crested Tit, and undeniably cute Red Squirrel. The night will be spent in Grantown-on-Spey.

Our grand hotel in Grantown-on-Spey
Our grand hotel in Grantown-on-Spey (Keith Barnes)

Day 2: The Cairngorms.The whole of today will be spent in the core of the Highlands. This morning we plan to search again for Capercaillie and also for ‘bubbling’ Black Grouse, all the time keeping an eye and an ear out for flocks of Crossbills that may contain Common, Parrot and Scottish Crossbills within their midsts.

After admiring gorgeous breeding-plumaged Horned Grebes and Common Goldeneye on a glassy, tranquil loch, and a spot of lunch, we will ascend the Cairngorms to look for snow-line breeders such as Snow Bunting, Rock Ptarmigan, Mountain Hare, and, if lucky, Eurasian Dotterel too, which can be remarkably confiding at times. A final night will be spent within the same, beautiful castle come hotel, in Grantown-on-Spey.

One of the main targets on Cairngorm is the handsome Eurasian Dotterel
One of the main targets on Cairngorm is the handsome Eurasian Dotterel (Charley Hesse)

Day 3: Grantown-on-Spey to The Hebrides. Though today involves a fair amount of travel, it is through some of the most scenic parts of Scotland, with several great stops to include both photos of the pretty panoramas available, and birds besides. We will visit a small, scenic loch for Horned Grebe if we missed them previously, search for Golden Eagle, enjoy hundreds of Red Deer in a hidden valley, and skirt the shores of Loch Ness.

Urquhart Castle sits beside Loch Ness
Urquhart Castle sits beside Loch Ness (Keith Barnes)

Along the way we’ll stop for photos of recognisable and fairy tale-esque loch castles before making our way onto the fabled Isle of Skye, stopping for White-tailed Eagles and our first try for Eurasian Otter along the way. We’ll spend this afternoon exploring Skye, having our first look at breeding Parasitic Jaegers and a plethora of breeding shorebirds, and if there’s time, a wee dram of whiskey at a local distillery, famous for its slightly salty kick. In the evening, we’ll take the short but scenic ferry ride to the island of North Uist, hopefully encountering Manx Shearwater, Parasitic, Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers, Great Skua (a.k.a. “Bonxie” in these lands), Gray and Harbour Seals, and a chance of Harbour Porpoise, Common, Risso’s and Bottlenose Dolphins, Orca and Minke Whale. We’ll spend the next two nights on North Uist, and one night on the island of South Uist.

Tranquil Scottish lochs host colorful Horned Grebes
Tranquil Scottish lochs host colorful Horned Grebes (Keith Barnes)

Days 4 – 5: The Hebrides.The Uists, part of the remote Outer Hebrides island chain, off the west coast of Scotland, are a paradise unlike any other in the UK, offering arguably the finest landscapes in all of the British Isles. We’ll spend two full days on the islands, exploring the unique machair habitat that is dotted with wonderful crofters cottages, flanked by idyllic beaches, and steeped in Celtic history. As well as plenty of birding, we’ll take time to look at some of the rich history of the islands, including Neolithic stone circles and standing stones, Iron Age roundhouses, and the burial site of mummies as old as Tutankhamun.

A classic scene from the Uists of the Outer Hebrides
A classic scene from the Uists of the Outer Hebrides (Keith Barnes)

We’ll make our way slowly around the islands, stopping for breeding loons, jaegers and shorebirds, fly-over Golden and White-tailed Eagles and low-flying Short-eared Owls and spectral Northern Harriers. Our first morning will be spent at the quaint RSPB reserve of Balranald where Corncrakes rasp from deep cover in typical fashion, but atypically here, also often show extraordinarily well. This site can also be superb for jaeger passage at this time of year, with favourable onshore winds. We’ll also search small pools and lochs for gorgeous breeding Red-necked Phalaropes and stunning breeding-plumaged Arctic shorebirds. Aside from the common British birds, including an assortment of tits, finches, thrushes and migrants, this frontier of Scotland continually produces surprises, and we may be lucky enough to see any of a number of scarce migrants and vagrants. The night of day 5 will be on North Uist, and we’ll switch to South Uist for our final night on the Hebrides. In some years, a pair of Snowy Owls breed on these outlying islands. When they do, the island on which they breed is kept a closely-guarded secret, so it will take some focused searching and a fair deal of luck, but we may be lucky enough to see these high-Arctic icons.

A Scottish specialty: Red-necked Phalarope
A Scottish specialty: Red-necked Phalarope (Cameron Cox)

Day 6: The Hebrides to Fort William. This morning we’ll take the long ferry to Oban and back to mainland Scotland. The ride is around six hours, but provides some superb scenery and great wildlife watching and serves as a mini pelagic of sorts. We’ll leave the Outer Hebrides early and pass the isle of Coll and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and finally skirt the inner shore of the Isle of Mull all the way to Oban. The birding can be great and varied, and may include all three jaegers and Great Skua, Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, European Storm Petrel, 3 species of loon, fishing White-tailed Eagles, and Golden Eagles soaring over the mountains of Mull. Marine life is also rich here and we should encounter cetaceans, possibly including Risso’s, Bottlenose and Common Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Long-finned Pilot Whale, Orca, and Minke Whale. Even Humpback and Sei Whales are sometimes seen. We could also see the second largest fish on Earth, the colossal Basking Shark, and the strange Sunfish.

The iconic Orca is a real possibility on our ferry crossings
The iconic Orca is a real possibility on our ferry crossings (Lisle Gwynn)

Arriving in Oban by mid-afternoon we’ll make our way up the coast toward Fort William. We’ll have time to explore the local lochs, streams and forests for birds like “Goosander” (Common Merganser), Wood Warbler, Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher, and of course see Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the British Isles. Our lodgings for tonight also boast a resident population of Pine Marten, which come to the garden each evening and often offer phenomenal views. The night will be spent in Fort William, a Scottish settlement located on the side of scenic Loch Linnhe, within the rolling Caledonian highlands.

Golden Eagles occur in this scenic valley
Golden Eagles occur in this scenic valley (Keith Barnes)

Day 7: Fort William to Glasgow for departure (OR to Ireland). We will have time this morning for a last search of the local area for any additional birds, and a quick stop for a local celebrity – the extremely rare Chequered Skipper butterfly – before making our way gradually south, along the shores of Loch Lomond, to the modern city of Glasgow, in order to connect with departing flights out, or to Ireland for the Emerald Isle Extension.

Common Chaffinch is an abundant and colorful British bird
Common Chaffinch is an abundant and colorful British bird (Keith Barnes)

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Emerald Isle Extension (Ireland) 5 days.

Ireland isn’t especially famous for its birding opportunities, as the species count is fairly low (relative to Scotland), but it does hold some fantastic scenery, culture, history and “extracurricular” activities to complement the birds it does have. What better way to celebrate good times spent in Celtic lands than with a cold Guinness brewed less than 20 yards away?! Ireland has an entirely different feel from Scotland. While the scenery can often feel similar, the people and culture make for a very different experience indeed.

This extension gives the perfect introduction to all things Emerald Isle (as Ireland if often referred to), taking in the key highlights on a whistle-stop tour from the impressive hexagonal geology of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, to the truly-emerald Wicklow Mountains, enormous cliffs (and associated seabirds) of Moher, and limestone scenery of the Burren National Park in southern Ireland. We’ll also take in the sights and scenery of the cities, including the birthplace of the Titanic, sites of the Irish struggle in Belfast, the Guinness brewery in Dublin, and a hefty dose of lively live Irish music and the unique Irish pub culture.

A British Pub, all part of the cultural experience!
A British Pub, all part of the cultural experience! (Keith Barnes)

Day 1: Scotland to Belfast and Giants Causeway. Beginning straight off the back of the main tour in Scotland, we’ll take a short flight to the city of Belfast (in Northern Ireland). We’ll take time this afternoon to visit the Belfast city sites including Belfast Castle and the Titanic Quarter (where that famed cruise liner was built), and make our way out for our first night of tasting Irish beers and whiskies, live traditional Irish music and tremendous craic. The night will be spent in Belfast.

Day 2: Belfast to Dublin. In the morning we shall take a short drive north to one of the most spectacular geological sites in the British Isles – the magnificent Giant’s Causeway. This ancient formation and UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, more or less hexagonal in shape, and solidified lava 12 metres thick spreading not only along the Irish coast, but even across the Irish Sea to southwest Scotland. This site is popular with visitors from across the globe, and for good reason. Once the hordes arrive, we’ll make a leisurely departure south, heading to the east coast of Ireland and entering the noticeably different Republic of Ireland as we do so. We’ll drive to our base for the next two nights, the famous city of Dublin within the Irish province of Leinster.

One of the most striking British birds: Eurasian Bullfinch
One of the most striking British birds: Eurasian Bullfinch (Keith Barnes)

After settling into our Dublin accommodation, we’ll make our first ‘cultural’ stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College, and the superb Guinness brewery in the center of historic Dublin. We’ll take a tour of the premises and enjoy an ice-cold pint of the honey-consistency brew on the rooftop as we soak in views of Ireland’s most famous city. Once we’re relaxed and refreshed, we’ll take our bins in hand once more, and visit a local venue to try and track down some of the local pallid Roseate and sublime Black Terns, while the mournful cries of Mediterranean Gulls rain down from all around. This evening we’ll indulge in some fantastic pub grub, more live music, Celtic poetry and general good “craic” (a popular Irish term for fun and entertainment)!

Common Redstart, a stunning migrant
Common Redstart, a stunning migrant (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 3: Wicklow Mountains and Dublin. We’ll make our way out of Dublin today on a birding trip to the beautiful Wicklow Mountains and along the east coast. Here we’ll find fantastic scenery as well as a good list of targets, including Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse), Northern (Hen) Harrier, Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Merlin, Gray Partridge, European Golden-Plover, Common Snipe, Common and “European” Herring Gulls, Common Cuckoo, Common Kingfisher, Common Redstart, Eurasian Stonechat, Whinchat, Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper, Sedge, Garden and Wood Warblers, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, four species of tit, Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Jay, Common Raven and the spectacular Eurasian Bullfinch. If we’re lucky we may see one of the area’s Golden Eagles, though they’re no longer common. Offshore, Harbour Porpoise and Manx Shearwater are sometimes positively abundant, and Minke Whale often seem to be uncommonly common. Humpback Whale is sometimes also often seen in this part of the Irish Sea. Tonight we’ll overnight again in Dublin.

Day 4: Dublin to County Clare. Today we’ll rise early and make our way from the Irish Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, crossing from the Irish east coast to the calm, quiet, and quaint town of Lisdoonvarna in western Ireland’s County Clare. We’ll take the opportunity to explore the striking karst limestone scenery of the Burren National Park. We’ll need to be lucky to find a day-roosting Long-eared Owl, but we’ll be sure to find Northern Wheatears running amongst a spectacular and diverse flora, while Common Redpoll and Yellowhammer sing from every available song post. The mammal population of Burren is surprisingly rich; we could encounter Red Squirrel, Irish Hare and Irish Stoat, while we’ll need good luck to find the ordinarily crepuscular European Badger and Hedgehog.

The Atlantic Puffin is a prize bird on this tour
The Atlantic Puffin is a prize bird on this tour (Lisle Gwynn)

We’ll finish the day at the truly spectacular Cliffs of Moher, where thousands of alcids (auks), including the comical clown-like Atlantic Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwakes, European Shags and Great Cormorants breed. Peregrines will likely patrol the cliffs, along with Eurasian Kestrel, Red-billed Chough and Northern Fulmar. We’ll make our way back to Lisdoonvarna this evening for our final night on the Emerald Isle. This is Ireland as the Irish know it, an authentic and genuine gem in the epicentre of Irish culture, where even the traditional language holds on. After dark, Long-eared Owls can often be seen and heard on the outskirts of the town, famed for its authentic Irish music and local festivals.

Day 5: Galway and departure from Shannon. We’ll have time for a survey of the Galway coast this morning before taking flights from Shannon Airport. Galway is known as one of the gull capitals of the UK, and in winter white-winged arctic gulls are positively abundant here. Few linger into the summer, but there is often an Iceland or Glaucous Gull to be found in the harbour, or a handful of stunning breeding-plumaged Little Gulls along the coast. Eurasian Otter is always an unpredictable possibility along Celtic coasts too, while Atlantic Grey and Harbour Seals are sure to be evident, before we depart these Celtic lands once and for all.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since the sun rises early in summer (around 4:40am) and birding is almost always best early in the morning. Birding in the Highlands is done mostly on foot, while elsewhere it is a mix of birding by foot and from the vehicle. Driving between bases involves several long drives (3 hours each Edinburgh to Grantown-on-Spey, Giant’s Causeway to Dublin and Dublin to Lisdoonvarna, and 3.5 hours Grantown to Uig, Skye), though they are broken with plentiful birding and cultural stops where appropriate. Once at our bases, the driving distances between sites are much shorter. Most breakfasts and at least four lunches are likely to be in the field.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks and you can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. One afternoon is spent birding higher in the Cairngorm mountains no higher than about 4,100 ft (1250 m). The walk here is over uneven but relatively unchallenging terrain, some of which will be on a well-worn hiking trail; however getting good views of ptarmigans will likely require going off-trail and slowly ascending a wide and gently inclining valley. The rest of the tour is spent at or close to sea level; it is suitable for anybody with a decent level of fitness.

CLIMATE: Scotland sits at a temperate latitude; even in summer, temperatures can be on the cooler side, especially in the morning and at night. Throughout the tour the temperature is likely to sit between 47°-61°F, 8.5°-16°C, however the weather in the British Isles is notoriously fickle and we can expect periods of warm sunshine, cold rain, and maybe even light snow in the Cairngorms.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will find worthwhile opportunities to photograph birds and other wildlife. The scenery and cultural aspect of this tour also lends itself to more general photography.

WHEN TO GO: We usually offer this tour in summer to make the most of birds being at the height of their breeding cycle and to see the return of the migrants, with many still singing and several easier to find. Summer also avoids potentially-disruptive snowfall in the mountains. However, Scotland can be fantastic at almost any time of year, and custom tours in spring and winter are also possible, with some tweaks to the itinerary.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of a large number of countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Australia and all EU European countries. Visas are currently required of a number of nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 6, and to the night of day 4 of the extension if taking the extensin; meals from dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 7, and to lunch on day 5 of the extension if taking the extension; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages during meals; safe drinking water only between meals (tap water is potable so you will be expected to fill your bottles where possible); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 7, and to the afternoon of day 5 of the extension if taking the extension; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; one way flight Glasgow-Belfast (only if taking the extension); excess baggage charges; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); flights apart from the one included on the extension; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.