Monday, 1 May 2017

Cairngorms National Park

I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland and, this April, we made it to the Cairngorms. We stayed in Aviemore and travelled out for days to different areas and reserves to try to see as much wildlife as we could. Here’s a summary of what we did, where we went and what we saw.

Monday 10th April

Our first day in the Cairngorm National Park took us to Glenmore Forest Park for a lovely walk thought the pine forest and to the summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille. It was a beautiful day, sunshine breaking through the cloud and trees, with a few showers. Coming from Norfolk, the landscape was so different; it was almost hard to believe we were still in the UK. Snow-capped mountains in every direction and a green loch before walking along a narrow pass through the forest. The pine forest seemed the perfect habitat for coal tits and chaffinches, who were very confiding. So many coal tits, we almost missed the crested tit that alighted in branches close to the path.

That evening, I had booked us into a hide for a dusk watch on the Rothiemurchus Estate through Speyside Wildlife to try to see pine martins and badgers. Unfortunately, the pine martins didn’t come out to play, but a group of four badgers did – we got lovely views of them as they came right up to the windows. The wood mice stealing peanuts were really charming too, sneaking out, freezing as they picked up a morsel of food, the disappearing under the rocks just as fast as they appeared.

Tuesday 11th April

Watching gorgeous ospreys from the Osprey Visitor Centre at RSPB Loch Garten is how our day began. The massive nesting platform, drenched in sunlight, stark against the hazy mountains behind. Male and female change overs were frequent, with one egg in the nest so far. There were reports of another intruding male the day before where the egg had been jolted, but not damaged. Siskins and chaffinches, as well as wood mice and voles, frequented the feeders close to the centre. A great spotted woodpecker flashed its colours in the surrounding trees. From here, we took the ‘Big Pines’ and ‘Two Lochs trail’, in the hope of seeing crested tits and red squirrels. The latter we had only seen so far darting across roads. Although we didn’t see either of these species, coal tits seemed to be a lot more common here than in Norfolk and we seemed to be followed by flocks of siskins prizing open pine cones and calling ‘finching’ contacts to each other. Reaching the viewpoint at Loch Mallachie, gazing out to the small island offshore, we saw a large, red, finch-like bird: a male crossbill perusing the surroundings from a bare tree branch. The bird life through the forest was constant – treecreepers, goldcrests, redpoll, coal tits, robins, chaffinches, siskins… wherever we were, there were birds calling, courting, combating and mostly rather confiding.

Wednesday 12th April

Another RSPB reserve was on the cards today: RSPB Insh Marshes. Curlews have become and rarer and rarer sight at home for me, but here, they were present in abundance. Their long slender curved bills and desolate calls, reminiscent of cold winter days at the beach, identifying them despite their well camouflaged plumage. Huge flocks of greylag geese swarmed over the mound that can be seen from the circular lookout hide. We walked the Invertromie and the Tromie Meadow trails, spotting lapwings, a mistle thrush, buzzards, siskins and many grey herons, some of which were mobbed by lapwings and gulls. One of the most amazing sights was the abundance of hair-like lichens hanging like cobwebs from trees, drenching them from top to bottom. A very quiet reserve in terms of human traffic, but with a sense of calm and undisturbed habitats.

As we still hadn’t ‘properly’ seen a red squirrel, our lovely hosts in our guest house suggested we visit a café called the ‘The Potting Shed’ where they feed them. The café was small, set in a huge well managed garden, and was partly set up like a hide with a bench and huge windows to look out over the feeding stations. There were plenty of birds to look at, but there were shouts of excitement when a red squirrel came down to feed. A great way to watch wildlife – in a warm café with good cake and hot chocolate!

Thursday 13th April

We couldn’t come to the Cairngorms National Park without visiting Cairngorm. We’d also had tips from various sources that the Cairngorm car park was a great place for spotting mountain hares, ptarmigan and red grouse. Within minute of us being there, we saw a white / brown streak scale the side of a slope: our first mountain hare! A beautiful creature, similar but distinct from our other lagomorphs. Despite being such a distance away, it seemed larger and more robust than the brown hare. It was somewhere between its summer and winter coat; mainly brown with a white nose, ears, underside and legs. It still had those irresistible black ear tips though. Our next sighting, completely by chance (and when bumping into others from the RSPB Norwich Group!), was of ring ouzel. We then took to the walk to Ptarmigan station, coming across some confiding snow buntings near the path. The ptarmigan were not in evidence, so we decided to walk to the summit, and were pelted by horizontal snow. When we began the descent and were just past Ptarmigan station, one of the birds in question flew overhead, and we spent the rest of the walk inspecting bird-shaped rocks for more of them.

The Sottish highlands were a magical experience and I would love to return to look for more wildlife! Here are some more details about where we stayed and visited:

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