Sunday, 15 April 2018

A trip to the Cairngorms: Day 3 Wildlife Safari

To try to spot as many Cairngorm specialities as possible, we decided to book a full day with Highland Wildlife Safaris, and it was well worth it! By the end of an 11 hour day, we had seen at least 50 bird and 8 mammal species. We visited a variety of habitats, so many that I couldn’t even begin to describe where we were, nor would I be able to as, quite rightly, our guide didn’t wish to publicise the locations to protect the landscape and wildlife from too many visitors.
We had an early start, 5:00 am, to visit a black grouse lek up on a misty moor side. We watched as four male birds displayed their white bloomers to each other and inflated their red eye crests in aggression. Red grouse joined the scene, calling and landing all around. The eerie sound of a curlew calling across the landscape was accompanied by the ghostly shape of a short eared owl gliding over us.

Red and roe deer, rabbits and brown hares watched our vehicle from neighbouring fields. Woodcock took flight from the verges, white forms in the headlights disappearing into the gloom. Our next stop was a large loch looking for divers, but on the mirror-like loch were goldeneye and mallard iridescent in the morning light.

Moving on to Cairngorm, a pair of whooper swan on another loch caught our eye, their reflections perfect in the placid water. A red grouse greeted us in Cairngorm car park astride a picnic bench. Here, we listened and looked for ring ouzel and it didn’t take long for them to find us. The males were calling and tussling from the Cairngorm welcome sign. They had a song thrush and many meadow pipits for company, all giving their best at a little after dawn.

Our next stop was a very close view of the nest of a beautiful pair of osprey, and, as luck would have it, the male was present for a few minutes before heading off for his breakfast at a local fishery. As he left, a grey heron glided in on huge dark wings and we noticed a pair of great tits nesting in a signal post.

From one loch to another, we went in search of a newly arrived Slavonian grebe. A species I have never seen before, it’s glowing golden eyebrows were amazing above a startling blood red eye. Defending its food source, it chased away a pair of little grebes and continually dived under the surface to fish.

Driving from this loch to an upland glen, we encountered a small herd of sika deer and an unusually brazen woodcock sitting in the sunshine in a driveway. As we stopped, it slowly moved, bobbing its way into the long grass. A grey wagtail wagged on rocks in the river and a dipper nesting under a bridge foraged, dipping on rocks and diving in the river. There were so many birds of prey in this glen, buzzards and kestrels came into view and the impressively hefty form of a goshawk, another first for us. Well camouflaged against the lichen and moss encrusted boulders, male wheatears lined the road that we had to try to and avoid more migrating toads on. Reaching our destination, we soon spotted a number of patchy mountain hares chasing each other up and down the slopes, their disproportionately long and strong back legs giving them a great deal of speed.

On our journey to our next stop we came across a whole herd of red deer stags, the first time we had seen impressive antlered males. They stared us out as we approached and a couple decided to put on a show and have a short boxing match. An upland moor was where we heading where we had lovely views of red grouse, their beautiful colours standing out in the afternoon sunlight in the crispy heather. Unsuccessfully we searched for divers in the loch, but we were not disappointed by the huge variety of species we had already seen. Instead, a confident red shank dabbled at the edge or the loch right next to us. For a final flourish on our way back to our accommodation, we happened across a group of ravens mobbing a red kite and a buzzard. Ravens were another first for us and I was impressed by their size and heavy duty beaks.

We had an amazing time and saw so much, I would thoroughly recommend this for anyone visiting the area and wanting to see as much wildlife as possible in a diverse range of habitats.

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