The trip started off bizarrely, with an African Spoonbill while we were still in Gloucester. It was an obvious escape, but now living wild, at least for the time being, so we paid a quick visit to Coombe Hill Meadows to see it before the big drive up to Scotland. It was on the far side of the field beyond the flashes, with Greylag, Canada Geese and Shelduck also present. By the time we arrived in the Cairngorms, it was dark and we headed to the hotel in Nethybridge for a drink.
An early start at Loch Garten in pursuit of Crested Tits. Siskins were the first to arrive, shortly followed by a couple of Crested Tits. No sooner than they appeared, my camera stopped functioning, and emergency repairs were required – fortunately a set of tiny screwdrivers were to hand! After a while, I was back in action, but the Crested Tits had gone. The rest of the day was spent setting up four camera traps around an area where I’d been tipped off that a Scottish Wildcat had been active (or at least, a suspected Scottish Wildcat – you never quite know what you’re dealing with in the Cairngorms – hybridisation is a huge problem and by far the biggest threat to the species).
An early morning hike through the forest rewarded us with a male Capercaillie flying from a tree at fairly close range, giving brief but excellent views. A very distant female was also seen crossing a large area of clearfell. Roe Deer were seen between a firebreak in the trees, and a pair of Crested Tits were busy amongst some saplings. A trip back to Loch Garten to see the Ospreys, and EJ had just laid her first egg! Views were very distant from the hide as always, but close up live images were available on monitors via the nest camera. Next we headed to Grantown-On-Spey in search of Red Squirrels
We left headed north out of the national park to the Findhorn Valley, a spectacular landscape which usually affords views of a variety of mammals and raptors. Working our way slowly down the valley we encountered Red Grouse in superb light, Brown Hare, then a group of around 5 Feral Goats. These are always great to see – the herd at Findhorn are magnificent creatures, really scruffy looking individuals with huge horns. No raptors of note to be seen, so we headed to Lochindorb. Black-throated Divers were seen but incredibly distantly, and Red Grouse were present in artificially high numbers. Perhaps predictably, no raptors were seen. As much as I love visiting the Cairngorms, my heart often sinks when I see the intensively managed grouse moors, deserts of biodiversity. Loch Insh gave spectacular views of the Osprey pair however, and repeated outings were made to catch fish for the female on the nest. Crows repeatedly hassled the pair, while Goldeneye drifted on the loch below. Mountain Hare and Bank Vole were the last species seen of the day.
The usual birds were either seen or heard, but nothing out of the ordinary. By the afternoon, we heard a sound that we didn’t expect to hear. It was the unmistakably unique sound of a male Capercailie. We froze, unsure where the bird was, and also unsure what to do next. Disturbance of this species is a significant factor in their success or failure in breeding, and it was after all, the beginning of the breeding season. We didn’t get long to consider our next move, for crashing through the vegetation straight towards us, lurched a fired up Capercaillie. I immediately dropped to the birds eye level, grabbed a couple of photos and turned to run away. Unbeknown to me, my friend was stood immediately behind me, and my forehead connected with his lens hood. It was like a bad comedy – blood streaming from my head, while we both clumsily tried to get away from the psyched up bird. No sooner had we created some distance between us and the Caper, than it calmed right down and began picking at the blaeberry. We both took some more shots then left it in peace, however by this point it seemed to have completely forgotten about our presence. It was an experience neither of us are likely to forget!
This day was spent revisiting the Ospreys at Loch Insh, and finally getting some half-decent Crested Tit and Red Squirrel photos. Badger and Pine marten were both seen at night.
Throughout the trip, we’d done a number of night drives, during which Red Deer, Mountain Hare and Tawny Owls were seen, but no cats. We did discover some rabbit skeletons, stripped completely bare except for the hind legs – characteristic of Wildcat kills – in an area which now forms part of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (an SNH initiative). The camera traps yielded nothing but Badgers. Lots and lots of Badgers!