Jump to content

A Week in the Scottish Highlands, beavers, birds and much more


Recommended Posts

It's been a while, over two years, since I last went overseas on a wildlife trip. This also means it's been a couple of years since I last wrote a trip report. I have however managed a couple of trips in the UK to see and photograph wildlife and this report will recount my experience of a week at Aigas Field Centre near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands in September this year. During the week of typically mixed weather I searched for distant eagles, had closer encounters with a number of seabirds and eventually sighted one of the beavers resident in Aigas loch. These were a fraction of the encounters I had in a busy week...









Link to comment
Share on other sites



Like many contributors and readers of Safaritalk the Covid pandemic left my plans for wildlife themed travel in disarray. In the autumn of 2020 I managed to escape to the Scottish Highlands for a few days between lockdowns and stayed at Aigas Field Centre,  https://www.aigas.co.uk I enjoyed my brief visit and booked on to one of their organised wildlife weeks scheduled for late April 2021. In the end further lockdowns and the demands of swapping retirement for giving Covid vaccines meant that the trip had to be delayed until mid-September. I decided to drive up and booked a stop over both up and down in a small village called Lochmaben on the edge of the Scottish borders. In between I had 7 nights at Aigas.


Aigas is a small estate in the Beauly valley about 15 miles (25km) north west of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. The main house is a Victorian sporting lodge purchased in the 1970s by Sir John Lister-Kaye, a well known naturalist and author and he proceeded to transform the estate into a field centre for education and conservation. To support this work, and to provide the student rangers with clients to practice on, Aigas runs a variety of wildlife themed weeks throughout spring, summer and autumn.  The estate has a small loch, remnants of Caledonian pine forest and a number of photographic hides some of which are equipped with lighting to allow photography of some of the nocturnal species on the estate. Guests are guided by a ranger team made up of natural science graduates who train at Aigas and are then employed for a minimum of a year, additionally there are three undergraduates from Exeter University on placement for a year. As well as learning to manage guests the students are gaining experience of a number of conservation projects (the headlines here are wildcats and beavers) as well as monitoring and recording a huge range of flora and fauna.


Accommodation is either in the main house or in spacious log cabins set up to allow two couples or small families to occupy them or alternatively a single large family with shared living areas but separate 'wings' with two bedrooms, bathroom and open plan kitchen in each. The accommodation is warm and comfortable. Breakfast and dinner are prepared by Lady Lucy Lister-Kaye and taken around a huge table in the man house. Lunch is provided in the form of a cold packed lunch to be taken with you on the days expedition. Pre-dinner drinks and wine are available on a non-profit basis - you make a donation to the education trust.



Edited by pomkiwi
Link to comment
Share on other sites



A quick note here abut options for visiting Aigas as I made a bit of an error here. It is possible to book on to a number of themed weeks at Aigas. These include the wildlife week that I booked on and which runs repeatedly through the time Aigas is open, but also a number of more specialised weeks including guided photography, hiking and wildlife, birding and even a week devoted to finding and identifying fungi (150 plus species around Aigas!) - many of these weeks are guided by experts in the field.  Alternatively one can visit Aigas on a tailor made basis when you get accommodation, meals and use of the hides and can join in with activities from whatever week is going on for extra payment and if space is available, rangers may also be available to guide you on a private basis.


When I visited in 2020 there were no organised weeks and I had the run of the estate with a couple of excursions with rangers to search for otters and visit the west coast. In 2021 I enrolled on to the wildlife week. This didn't work for me as the group were less active than I wanted to be and the focus was on birding and building a long list of brief sightings (many through scopes at considerable distance) . My primary interest was in photography and was I very happy to spend several hours waiting for iconic species such as eagles, ospreys or dolphins. Once I'd identified this it was no problem at all to switch to a tailor made approach and do my own thing during the day, meeting up for meals and some evening hide visits.


My suggestion is that it is well worth talking to the team to fully understand what the organised week involves before choosing it over a tailor made stay. This also makes it easy to spend as long as you want on the estate and using the hides during the day - there is a huge variety of wildlife around without getting into your car.

Edited by pomkiwi
Link to comment
Share on other sites

A Satisfying Stopover


To drive from my home to Aigas would take about 10 hours if all went well. Those of you familiar with British roads will know that often all does not go well and as such I decided to break my journey. A bit of research identified a comfortable looking pub with rooms in a tiny village called Lochmaben on the edge of the Scottish borders north of Dumfries. Lochmaben sits between two small lochs called Castle Loch and Kirk Loch both named after buildings associated with the Bruce family (as in Robert the Bruce) although the castle is now a ruin.  What attracted me to this spot however was that Castle Loch is run as a community nature reserve with a well maintained path running for 4 miles (6km) around it and a good bird hide at the end. As someone who spends tme helping with one of our tiny local nature reserves I approve of this approach! Although too early in the autumn for any major migration I did spend a peaceful afternoon photographing some early Canada geese, the resident swans and flocks of lapwing.










The following morning I got up early in the vain hope of seeing an otter but instead spent 20 minutes watching the house martins drinking from the loch before they headed south. I enjoyed the photographic challenge but I'm sure I need more practice! I then headed north.




Link to comment
Share on other sites

The Estate


The estate at Aigas climbs a gentle hill above the house (which has some impressive gardens itself). The guest lodges are situated between large old pine trees of various species planted  by the Victorians. Amongst them are some Sequoias which provide winter homes for the tree-creepers that burrow into the soft bark.



As you move up the hill you pass through areas of Caledonian Pine forest and a small patch partially cleared mature commercial plantation. This has been done deliberately to emphasise the difference between the two habitats with the commercial plantation extremely restricted in species variability. The dawn light through the trees during my autumn visit was spectacular:




Both the native and commercial woodland had a diversity of fungi during my visit




Above the forest there is open hillside with visits from small groups of red deer coming down from the higher hills




There is a small loch, home to beavers (of which more later) but also a lovely place to be in the pre-dawn light:




Further up again the ground changes to open hills with evidence of iron age forts and a number of variably distinct footpaths. The estate has a number of hides available for general use during the day although any time spent sitting quietly is usually rewarded by a visit from a variety of birds and even red squirrels.





There are two basic hides devoted to smaller birds and squirrels with feeders. There is a large and comfortable hide overlooking the loch, a large tower hide giving commanding views over the surrounding hills and a hide for raptors - probably the least successful as these birds are so sensitive to people coming.


The squirrels know where the hazelnuts are stored and often joined me in the hide:




It was perfectly possible to spend a whole day wandering between hides and very rewarding to slow down a little to observe what was around.  There are alos two specialist nocturnal hides set up for photographers that I will discuss next.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Nighttime Hides


Aigas has 2 hides set up for use at night. Both of these require guests to be accompanied by one of the ranger staff or students with one on site and one in a disused quarry a few minutes drive away. Both hides are comfortable and well set up for photography with constant light sources (no flashes are allowed). The light is good but white balance needs correcting in post-processing and even using an f/2.8 lens my ISO values were somewhere between 4000 and 7200. Target species are badgers and pine martens although you see lots of moths and bats with the occasional fly past of a tawny owl. Nuts and a small amount of honey are left in selected locations for the martens and badgers.

Unfortunately we didn't see anything at the quarry hide - possibly due to the unnerving sound of a rifle being used by deer poachers very close by. At the hide on the estate badgers would come in first followed by pine martens.





We often saw two badgers but they tended to come at different times. Interaction between the two was minimal and there didn't seem to be any competition between them.




The visits from pine martens were shorter and more sporadic than when I went in 2020 although the badgers stayed longer and at least one seemed to be adapting to climbing in search of food:




I'm not sure if this explains the reduced visits from the martens who did seem to get quite vocal at times:



In 2020 there were visits from a female and two kits, the youngsters made use of a bird feeder:




Unfortunately no kits appeared when I was in the hide this year (although the other group saw some one evening). The bird feeder has also been removed which is probably for the best!

Edited by pomkiwi
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Lovely pictures of the badgers and pine martens.  Interesting to hear your thoughts about Aigas, I have looked at it myself a number of times.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Interesting information about Aigas and great photos of badgers and martens! Also your dawn photo of the forest is quite spectacular

Link to comment
Share on other sites

@PeterHGThank-you. I will carry on updating this report soon with the various trips I made outside of the estate. I’m currently in Norfolk on a break from vaccination and busy with newborn seals and short-eared owls!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Exploring the Valleys


On the first couple of days we went out for a day and a half exploring the local valleys of Strathconnan and Strathfarrar. Both glens wind their way into the highland areas from the valleys below following rivers up to lakes and reservoirs nestled between the high tops. Target species were osprey, golden eagle and red deer. We were successful in seeing all three. We saw at least two osprey that were hunting up and down the reservoirs and rivers. 





Views were mainly distant and the weather was poor. I would have liked to have found a vantage point and waited longer for a chance to get better views but we kept moving on. This was even more frustrating then the staff in the front seats of the minibus would point out wildlife they saw that were impossible to see from a middle seat in the back!


At the top of one of the glens we found a red deer stag that seemed unusually relaxed and tolerant - it was possible it was ill or injured but there were no visible signs:



We also had distant sightings of a pair of whooper swans:



As well as an obliging dipper:



We were lucky enough to see a young golden eagle that was still hanging around its parents eyrie. A long way away and ore difficult by the very effective camouflage that allowed the large bird to blend in with the rocky hillside:







Lovely to see both the eagle and osprey - but I needed a longer lens!

Link to comment
Share on other sites


I have often wondered about staying there so enjoying your report even more. And strathconon was where I saw my first ever Golden Eagles a lovely place @pomkiwi

Link to comment
Share on other sites

what a great place it sounds! Really enjoying this TR and your images. 


Thanks for sharing 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...

The Black Isle


The second and last day I spent in the minibus was devoted to exploring some locations on the Black isle. The Isle is not a true Island but is the name given to the piece of land between the Cromarty Firth to the north and the Moray and Beauly Firth to the south. An early start to look for otters was not successful but one of thev many herons was active:



After breakfast we went back ot to Chanonry Point. The stated intention was to try and see the dolphins which come close to shore hunting salmon. Unfortunately this tends to happen at particular tide times and we arrived about an hour too late. The opportunity to photograph gannets, comorants and starlings in good light provided some consolation:








We headed east to a lovely spot on the cliffs at the opening to the Cromarty Firth. I had hoped we might follow the path along the cliffs but instead 45 minutes was devoted to peering through the scope and debating whether the harrier on the opposite cliff over a mile away was of the Marsh or Hen persuasion. We did move on to a great RSPB hide at Udale Bay where the first of the winter migrant geese were coming in:




A variety of gulls flew through:




The afternoon finished with more distant views of an osprey hunting, this one would perch on a rock in the bay only a few inches above the water which was not something I'd seen before.




After this I took the decision to use Aigas as my base and head off on my own during the days to search out some slower paced encounters on my own.

Edited by pomkiwi
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Aigas Beavers


The loch at Aigas is the site for one of Scotlands beaver reintroduction projects. The loch is enclosed and in 2006 beavers were relocated to a purpose built lodge on the loch. They promptly set about creating their own improved version and have bred successfully since then. The youngsters are themselves relocated to other projects when they are a year or so old. The gradual effects on the landscape surrounding the loch is impressive with large areas of mixed wetland created from what had previously been woodland lacking biodiversity.


On my first visit I did not manage to see them but this year I saw them on several mornings.  This involved geting up before dawn and walking up to the loch in the dark - often listening to tawny owls close by but never seeing them.


I first saw one of the adults from the hide:



On subsequent mornings I was able to see both a youngster and an adult from much closer quarters standing on the dipping platform and then on the bank above one of the entrances to the loch. Being in place before dawn and standing motionless (despite the attention of early rising midges) gave me some wonderful encounters with the beavers themselves appearing unaware of my presence.








The image quality is not great but it was essentially dark and all were taken at ISO 12800 - then requiring a lot of post-processing! Here’s  an original for comparison:




Still lovely moments and a rewarding wildlife watching experience.

Edited by pomkiwi
Link to comment
Share on other sites





Aigas set up a wildcat breeding programme in 2011 and is part of a network of centres breeding the cats and planning reintroduction to the wild - hopefully in 2022.


The wildcat enclosures are in a secluded part of the estate and guests are asked not to look around - this is an attempt to prevent the animals habituating to human presence. The is an older pair now past breeding age that it is possible to view from a hide when accompanied by rangers. We were able to go up one morning although the weather and light were not particularly coperative!




The cats are similar to large domestic cats in appearance although their are differences particularly in marking and in the size of the tail. Somehow being close to the cats emphasized how wild they were, even more than with some domestic cats they seemed to look stright through you and not care about you at all!






When mature the young cats are moved to other member sites of the programme, with new youngsters coming into Aigas, all part of the effort to ensure as wide a genetic stock as possible. It will be interesting to see how the reintroduction goes wth one of the major concerns being to find locations remote enough to minimise the risk of interbreeding with domestic cats.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chanonry Point


One of the things I hoped to witness during my time at Aigas was the spectacle of the bottlenose dolphins hunting salmon and performing acrobatics. To that end I returned on three further occasions in an effort to photograph them.


On the first day the weather was ideal - calm and bright. I saw a number of birds flying close by:








With a confiding seal:



Unfortunately no dolphins.


On the second day it started to rain hard shortly after I arrived and I went back to Aigas to photograph squirrels from a dry hide!


On the third day it was grey and drizzly but not windy. The dolphins did show but not for long and were not jumping.




One noteworthy sighting was of a dolphin and calf. The dolphin had been named Spirtle and a few years ago was rescued after being stranded on a sandbank for several hours. She was severely sunburnt and although she recovered was left with severe scarring that is still visible. It was encouraging to see that she had bred successfully.



The highlight of the day however came as I sat on a bench eating  my lunch. A raft of gulls and terns drifted close by and then began feeding which proved lots of opportunity to photograph them in flight and quarrelling:








Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 11/14/2021 at 4:46 AM, pomkiwi said:

The dawn light through the trees during my autumn visit was spectacular:

Fairy tale!  Love the yin and yang effect of the 2 consecutive black and white bird flock photos!  The badgers and martins are fabulous. Beautiful highlight with gulls and terns.  You managed the wildlife week well with the group activities.  It was indeed a wildlife week!  Thanks for letting us know about this spot.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

To the North


I made a couple of trips to the north during my stay at Aigas. The first followed an encounter between one of the students and a short-eared owl in the coastal meadows at Alness. After an unsuccessful trip to Chanonry I headed up there on a lovely sunny afternoon. The owl was onwhere to be seen but I had fun with my macro lens and watching some of the waders moving around the shallows.










My final excursion was further north into Sutherland an Loch Fleet. The weather was pretty grim but I got watch curlews, ospreys and terns hunting well as seals enjoying a lazy morning.














Edited by pomkiwi
Link to comment
Share on other sites



After lunch I headed south back to Lochmaben arriving just in time to see the swans floating lazily as the light faded.




I'd enjoyed my time at Aigas and the opportunities it provided in terms of expertise, environment and the photographic hides. Just as much though I had appreciated the opportunity to explore more widely and to exerience some of the stunning variety of wildlife this corner of Scotland can provide. I would highly recommend using Aigas as a base for anyone wanting to spend time with the wildlife of northern and Highland Scotland.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 5 months later...

I Have just bumped into this report having missed it when hot off the press. You cover some interesting topics in both your trips. I can relate to the forest of tripods and scopes and the 'see it, call it and move on brigade '. Each to their own I suppose but I thought that bird watching was about actually watching and learning of their habits and activities.

Thanks for sharing yourtrips and experiences.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

Safaritalk uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By using Safaritalk you agree to our use of cookies. If you wish to refuse the setting of cookies you can change settings on your browser to clear and block cookies. However, by doing so, Safaritalk may not work properly and you may not be able to access all areas. If you are happy to accept cookies and haven't adjusted browser settings to refuse cookies, Safaritalk will issue cookies when you log on to our site. Please also take a moment to read the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy: Terms of Use l Privacy Policy