Cairngorms 2017

I’m afraid I’ve had a bit of a time off writing blog posts. That’s because in the last week of the Easter Holidays I revisited the Cairngorms, and I have spent a good deal of this week sorting through the photos (all 1500 of them!)
But I’ve finally managed it, and here’s a blog post long enough to make up for the lost ones! I won’t lie – it would be a real achievement if you manage to read the whole thing, but do let me know if you enjoy it.

Well, let’s do it in chronological order, shall we?
It was a long drive up; an exhausting 9 hours journey. We stopped at various points on the journey, including Dunkeld, where we saw a grey wagtail and a carrion crow bathing. It was an optimistic start – as you can see, the sun was shining!
We then headed deep into the Cairngorms themselves to stay with some friends who had kindly let us share their cottage for a few days. The rain then decided to close in, but, as we found throughout our week, it was over pretty quickly, and the combination of sun and rain produced a rainbow. This seemed to be the normal weather pattern; we saw 5 rainbows in 5 days!

When we did finally reach our accommodation, I left my parents to chat and went out on a late walk. As the sun had already set I didn’t expect to see much, only to have a look at the surrounding countryside.
However, the fields were full of bird life; in just ten minutes I saw oystercatchers, lapwing, rooks, pigeons and pheasants, as well as hearing the eerie, bubbling call of the curlew.

This somewhat set the scene as I passed the most stereotypical haunted house I have ever seen. I wish I had taken a photo now, but let me describe it to you. It was a square, faded, pale Georgian house with an old, gnarled oak in front. The gates at the front were the best part though – one was literally hanging off the hinges at an angle, and they were bound together with a chain. The whole place seemed derelict. What’s more, it was situated right next to the village graveyard!

Anyway, I digress. I continued in the direction that I had been told the river was in, and after a few minutes I was there. I stopped on the bridge and looked out onto the water, considering whether it would be right for dippers or not. I quickly reached the conclusion that no, it would not be – the water was pretty deep.
However, no sooner had I thought this than I was corrected by a small brown-white-and-chestnut bird  that flew onto a rock beneath where I was standing. It stood there, curtsying (or ‘dipping’) and politely waiting  for me to take a photo, but unfortunately it was too dark to get a good one. Here’s the best I got.
Also, by slotting my camera into a handy nook in the struts of the bridge, I had a makeshift tripod to film with – the film is of a slightly better quality than the photo.

I returned, with a massive beam on my face apparently, and pretty much already compensated for the horrendously long journey. The dipper was in fact the bird I had most wanted to see, so I was pretty pleased to have such good views within half an hour of arriving.

The next morning I tried to awake surreptitiously at 5:30 so I wouldn’t disturb all of the others who were still sleeping (I don’t blame them). I dressed and headed out to photograph the dipper again, with reasonable results. The only problems were that it only rested quite far away, and as it kept ‘dipping’ it often ended up blurred.

And if those photos weren’t enough, here’s a video of one actually swimming underwater….

This is the cool thing about dippers – they can swim. Of course, many seabirds can too, but I think there is something intrinsically awesome about a tiny songbird that can paddle about underwater with its wings. They can also simply walk at the bottom, just like walking on land, and keep stable in strong currents – incredible!
I have heard that this is because their wings are made out of lead   🙂

And here’s one singing…

They have a piercing song which very much resembles that of a wren (they are quite closely related) and is able to cut above the constant roar of rivers and streams.

And one visiting its nest…

Dipper nests are pretty impressive structures, like over-sized wren’s nests. They are pretty much always located under the struts of bridges, so I didn’t have any trouble finding this one. However, I did have to wade out into the middle of the river to take the footage.

 

I then returned for breakfast (don’t worry, that’s it in terms of Dipper – for the moment, at least…) and then we set out again as a family to Loch Garten RSPB reserve.
Because we had other places we wanted to visit, we only stayed for half an hour, but we still managed to see quite a lot in that time.
Of course, there were the Ospreys, the most famous attraction. Since the live cameras started a lot more people have become interested in the somewhat dramatic lives of Ospreys, and these are no exception. From the visitor centre you could get good views, as they had some scopes set up to view through.

I believe the pair to have just laid their eggs, and the female was incubating them at that moment. We also saw the male fly in and tend to the nest, neatening it all up a bit.
I had rather hoped to see them fishing, but when we arrived I learnt they in fact tend not to hunt over Loch Garten, as it is to murky/deep to see the fish, and they prefer some of the local fisheries!

I have to admit, I got somewhat distracted by another story on the bird feeders.
At first pair of bank voles were scampering about under the bird feeders, hoovering up fallen seeds.

In addition, a brambling turned up on the feeders! I had never seen one before, so I was very pleased, especially as I spotted it myself. Although they weren’t as exciting as the Ospreys, they were a lot closer, and that made it an equal contender for my attention.
 A volunteer at the osprey centre described it as being like a chaffinch with war paint, which I think is a very accurate description.
Loch Garten is a great reserve and I really want to spend some more time there when I get the chance.

But at that moment we had to rush off to our next destination, Loch Uaine, or ‘The Green Loch’. This is probably one of the prettiest lochs you could find in Scotland, because of its wonderful turquoise tinge. Legend has it that pixies wash their clothes in it, and that is what gives it its colour.
It was a reasonable walk there and back through the mountains, but it was definitely worth it. Look at its turquoiseness!

It looked nearly tropical! I’ve heard swimming isn’t the best idea there because of leeches. And the fact that your limbs will be frozen off.

On the return journey we decided to take the mountain route for the scenic views. This involved an ascent up a pretty awesome flight of steps, which involved thousands of rocks that had been layed all the way up the side of the mountain. It was certainly worth a photo.
And when you did finally get to the top, there was a bench with a spectacular view!

What’s more, there was this strange raised concrete pool at the top that was swamped with algae and rocks. I leant over to get a better look, and where my shadow fell I caught a flash of orange…

It was a newt! A palmate newt to be precise (I think – correct me if I am wrong). I was certainly very surprised to find a cold blooded creature in a lone concrete pond that was raised 3 foot off the ground on the top of a mountain! I wonder how it got there?

It soon disappeared under a rock, and we continued our descent to the bottom of the mountain to find some frogspawn in a ditch. These had just reached the comma stage of growth, I think a little behind a lot of the English frogs in warmer climes.   
Similarly, I noticed that the daffodils were only just coming out in Scotland, whereas they had been out for at least two weeks in England! .

With a little time left to fill of the day, we took a short drive to Loch an Eilein, another very pretty loch, though its easy accessibility made it much more popular than Loch Uaine. This one is famous for its fort on the island in the centre of the loch – indeed, Loch an Eilein translates from Gaelic as ‘loch of the island’.

Here’s a closer view of the castle. Its origins are unknown, but it was constructed some time in the 13th century in a naturally defensive position. It was originally connected to the land by a causeway, but when a sluice gate was installed in the river way in 1770 it raised the level of the water, flooding the path.

On our way back we saw our second washing bird of the trip – a chaffinch!

It let us approach to a metre away – very trusting considering how vulnerable it would be in this position.

On our return journey we stopped off at The Potting Shed, a cafe/garden famed for its cake… and red squirrels! While feasting on a wonderful apple and cream cake, I watched on as the red squirrels had an equivalent feast in the form of peanuts.
I had only ever seen two brief glimpses of red squirrels beforehand, and so this close up view was a real treat (although it did feel like cheating).

When we returned to the house, I went for a final walk, and was treated to a pair of lapwing displaying. I love the calls they make as they turn and swoop and dive. They seemed completely preoccupied with this task, so much so that they swept right above our heads.

I was also given a very nice, close up view of a curlew as it flew overhead.

Upon returning, as it grew dark, I was looking out of the window when I saw a wren land on the pebble dashed wall. It looked around, then slowly made its way towards the window. I walked closer and looked up, and just saw it nip into the swallow’s nest in the corner.
I had seen this behaviour before on Springwatch, I think, and it is not uncommon. As I was pondering this, a second flew in and did the same.
In particularly cold weather, such as is the norm in the Cairngorms, wrens will roost together in groups for warmth, using readily available spots such as swallow nests. The highest record for wrens in a single nest box is 63!

The next morning I wandered out to the Anargach woods, which were just within walking distance for my tired, early-morning legs. After a 5 am start, we saw only a hare that we spooked in the woods, as well as a handful of pinecones nibbled at by red squirrels.
However, on the way back I stopped off to see the dipper once more, and took these three final photos…

All the best to that pair of dippers, I’m sure they will do a great job of raising their young with the amount of insects they caught when I was watching!

We returned for breakfast, and then a few hours later (nobody else was anywhere near getting up) we set out for ‘Raptor Valley’, a.k.a the Findhorn.
It was a pretty long drive down a single track road (about 10 miles), with passing spots every few hundred metres. However there was beautiful scenery, and a lot of wildlife, so we enjoyed the journey.

On the way we saw an actual non-tame wild red squirrel (whoopeee).

However, was it? Have a look beneath; it had a regular red head and tail, but also a grey body?

I know that red squirrels moult and wear a greyer coat in winter, but I didn’t expect the difference to be so extreme, nor for the process of moulting to happen from one end of the body to the other. As you can see there is a clear dividing line between the red and the grey.

Any answers? Please comment at the bottom of the page.

This was one of the highlights of my trip, it was amazing to get such close up views of a red squirrel for such a long time, and actually be able to take a decent photo!

Next up was a flock of mountain goats. I’ve seen them before in the Trossachs, but these ones were slightly less tame, (I guess they don’t see as many walkers) and started to move away when we parked up. One mother had two kids.


Feral Goats are descendants of domestic Goats (who would have been descendants of wild Goats) that were abandoned in the Scottish Highlands during the ‘Highland Clearances’, where the aristocracy and landowners evicted many people from their land, to use the land for new farming techniques.

However there was one goat that didn’t mind us at all, and just remained right next to the road. He seemed to be trying to scratch his back with his immense horns, which must have been quite difficult and uncomfortable for him.
When we reached the end of the valley, the scenery was amazing. 
I took a wander from the car park down to the river to take the above photo, but I found something else interesting…

This rock was right next to the bank by the river.
From its position, I thought immediately that it could be an otter, but it had no scent whatsoever. Spraints have a very distinctive and famous scent, lauded by naturalists everywhere, but this faeces had absolutely nothing.
However, this doesn’t prove anything, because it was clearly made by a predator, and so it should have a scent.
Perhaps this one was just so old that it no longer had any scent.

Indeed I checked with some experts on the internet, and they confirmed that it was indeed an otter spraint!

It may not quite be an actual live otter, and it may not have smelled much, but it was about as close to an otter as I have ever got. I will revisit that location some other time to try and have a look at the creatures themselves!

However, in ‘raptor valley’ we did also see a few raptors, including a few kestrels, a buzzard (below) and a potential distant Golden Eagle.

But then came one of my highlights, something totally unexpected… a pair of Wheatear perching on some rocks!

Travelling back along the river, we saw yet another pair of the ubiquitous Oystercatchers, and this time they let me close enough to take a reasonable photo of them. I noticed that up close there is quite a pretty gradient from red to orange on the bill, which you don’t see from far away.

Next up, something we nearly missed, a pair of Goosander in a stream! Below you can see the elegant female, and then immediately beneath that the male, perhaps even more stunning with the deep green head colouration.

Final wildlife sighting in the Findhorn Valley, another red squirrel! And this time, an actual red squirrel! Wonderful.

We still had some time to kill, and so we payed a visit to Dulnaihatnach (I think that’s how you spell it).
It’s a quiet area that is exceedingly difficult to find on the internet or a map, but we were taken there last year as part of our holiday, and so we had a rough idea of where to go.
We did have a little wander about, and found a nice river. But, possibly the most impressive fact: the sun shone.
My mum even felt the need to put on some sunglasses (although there was still a cool breeze so coats stayed on).

Scotland, the land where the sun always shines… it’s just usually behind cloud. (Or on the other side of the planet!)
The still water among the pebbles created some nice reflections.

We then returned, via Carrbridge, and it was nice to see the amazing old bridge again. I had forgotten just how big it was – to be honest, photos don’t really do it justice. You may be able to make out a photographer on the bottom left who handily positioned himself for a sense of scale.

Finally we drove to the Grant Arms, a wonderful wildlife-watcher-welcoming hotel in Grantown. It was amazing.
Not only did it still have the cool old-fashioned lifts with the two sliding doors, but it also had a library of wildlife books, a lecture theater with regular wildlife talks, and regular guided walks – all for FREE!

So I grabbed the opportunity to go on one of these guided walks, to look for woodcock.
And we were successful! Just a short walk from the hotel, we must have seen about 5 woodcock ‘roding’ – the display flight that they perform in the breeding season. They flew circuits of the field as we were standing by. It was great, I have never seen woodcock before.
Our guide noticed that you could tell when one male had seen another because its wing beat rhythm changed, with perhaps a slight increase in speed.
When it reached the second male, it chased it off over the hill.

The next day was probably the best of the whole trip. We met up with Stuart Benn of the RSPB, whom I had met last year on my trip, and he kindly took us around to see some wildlife.
We went up into the highlands, to some estate whose name I have actually forgotten (although I wouldn’t reveal it even if I could remember). For although this was a driven grouse shooting moor, this was run by a friendly and honest gamekeeper, who doesn’t persecute birds of prey.
He had several pairs of Golden Eagles nesting on his estate, and we had some good views of one adult. 
And, despite having a good few large raptors on site, the grouse populations were still booming – we must have seen over 50 in our short visit.

Here’s some shots, because I have never had good views of red grouse before, and it was interesting to see some of the variations between individuals.
Specifically the ‘inflatable eyebrow’ (non-scientific term) which they pump full of blood in the breeding season had quite a range of sizes.
Some males had quite small ones, and they probably won’t be so successful in finding a mate, whereas the males with larger eyebrows will be more attractive to females.

Here’s a particularly fortunate male, gifted with eyebrows that protrude above his head!  You can also see a bold white moustache – this grouse is in with the fashion.

But this poor fellow beneath doesn’t have as much of a chance, having no moustache and a poor excuse of an eyebrow…

And this is a female below, who doesn’t have either, but makes up for it with an beautiful mottled plumage.

Speaking of beautiful plumage, we also bumped into this Golden Plover, which was absolutely stunning (it’s quite difficult to think of a variety of complementary descriptions). I am planning a watercolour of it which I think could work quite well.  We bumped into 5 or 6 Golden Plover actually, they’re obviously doing quite well here.


You can see the contrasting black stripe down the belly of the above male.

We also saw Mountain Hares for the first time ever! I didn’t really get any good photos, but it was still a start to spot them – their camouflage is pretty extraordinary. This one was just turning back to its brown summer coat, and the combination of white and brown blended in very well with the melting snow.


But as well as all of that amazing wildlife, the landscape was quite pretty too. It is a matter of opinion as to the aesthetic quality of a grouse moor, and how much of the Scottish landscape grouse moors should cover.
They do benefit a few species, such as red grouse (obviously), some ground nesting birds like Golden Plover, and this one is pretty good for mountain hare – although this isn’t the case in every moor, as mountain hare persecution is quite high due to the fear that they spread the ‘louping ill’ to grouse. Moorland can be very badly managed in other ways too, with the ground being burnt and drained and all predators being removed from the area – this is the main cause of Hen Harrier decline in Britain. I think, despite enjoying my visit to this moor, that overall driven grouse shooting is not a good thing, and the land use in Scotland should change a little. I have recently read Mark Avery’s book on the matter – Inglorious, and it is definitely worth a read if you want to learn more about present day conservation issues.

Forest benefits other creatures that are in trouble at the moment, such as red squirrels, capercaillie, crested tits and suchlike.
The question is: what is the right balance of woodland to moorland? Seeing as the whole country was pretty much covered in forest before human interference, is this what we should strive towards?
However, since then, animals have adapted to our land use changes, and by changing them too quickly now they could suffer. Personally, I believe that the reforestation of Scotland would be good, but that a good few areas of moorland should also be kept and managed for wildlife too.

But whether we agree or disagree with the reforestation of Scottish moorland, here are some nice landscape shots of the moor which I think, despite being less wildlife friendly, can be as beautiful as coniferous woodland.

As I mentioned before, one thing we particularly noticed in the Cairngorms was the extreme changeability of the weather – one minute dark rain clouds, the next sun!     

I particularly liked this view of the U-shaped glacial valley, with a house just beneath a small tree plantation – perhaps to protect it from avalanches?

And the same valley 10 minutes later.

At the end of this valley was a very pretty loch as well, although I’m sure it would have looked even nicer had the sun been out!

Stuart then took us around some lochs to look for Grebes and Divers. We saw a Red Necked Diver from a distance, and a few Little Grebes.
But the real treat came at the last loch we visited, owned by the RSPB and a stronghold for one bird in particular… the Slavonian Grebe.
It was a real difficulty reaching this one, with some  rather scary hairpin bends with very steep verges winding up a tall hill on a tiny single track road. It would have been horrific if we’d met another car halfway up and had to reverse down them backwards!
But it was all worth it in the end, because look what we saw…

3 pairs of Slavonian Grebes! (This one that came close was all by itself at that moment)


A beauty! It doesn’t get much prettier than that. I love their orange plumes with their striking fiery eyes!  
To round of the day, and the incredible trip (many thanks to Stuart) we saw two Brown Hares, another first for me as they are not common down in this part of Surrey.
Wonderful!

Well, if you managed to read all of that, thank you very much and well done, you have proved yourself to have a concentration span above that of the majority of the human race, and so I guess you are probably a wildlife watcher!

More blog posts soon; spiders, parasitic wasps and bees, bluebells and of course badgers all lined up!

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8 thoughts on “Cairngorms 2017

  1. A lovely piece of writing highlighting the wonderful nature of Scotland. Also highlighting the debate about how our moors should look for future generations.
    Well done James.

    1. Thanks Neil. I was wondering about partial leucism or something similar but I have been told be several people that it is, as you say, just a winter red squirrel!

  2. Hi James,

    What a wonderful post; you should be incredibly proud of what you are achieving at a young age. Superb write up and excellent information. I’m quite envious of this trip and your clear passion!

    Look forward to reading more.

    Jonathon

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