The epic Highland adventure started sometime around Friday night. The purpose of the trip was to locate most of the speciality bird species during a relaxing three days based around the Abernethy Forest. I was determined not to be tempted away from the area by the lure of White-billed Divers, a drake King Eider and a young Bonaparte's Gull which had all appeared in the north of Scotland recently. This long journey north would be based around appreciating the resident wildlife that this unique region of Scotland had to offer us. We nearly failed at the first hurdle though when a female Red Deer suddenly appeared out of the darkness standing astride the white line on the A9 near Pitlochry. Thankfully I managed to swerve a little and miss the suicidal beast by a few centimetres. The rest of the journey was made at a cautionary snail's pace!
We finally rolled into an empty car park at Loch Garten RSPB at around 4.00am and promptly settled down for a quick power nap. Unfortunately my sojourn into slumberland went far too deep and the sleeping session continued way past first light. We awoke to a scene reminiscent of an overcast Bank Holiday Monday at Alton Towers. The car park was pretty full which meant that a whole load of 'Caperphiles' had jumped the queue in front of us. As we arrived at the famous hide we were faced with the usual tourists scurrying around in an attempt to see a distant giant grouse or two. Luckily a kindly RSPB fellow spotted us arrive and beckoned us over to his scope where a couple of female Capercaillie could be seen perched up in a twisted pine tree. This was way too easy!
As the crowds dispersed we at last managed to find a window to peer through. Another three male Capercaillie were quickly located but as usual they were all pretty distant and largely obscured. I then turned my attentions to the more entertaining support act of the Osprey pair called 'EJ and Odin'. 'EJ' had laid her first egg just 48 hours before so she tended to sit tight on the nest whilst her partner made the occasional appearance nearby. Hungry for more Tetraoninae action we then made our way out of the forest and out onto a nearby area of moorland.
Tulloch Moor, Highlands
In order to curb disturbance at this site a few of the local conservation organisations have combined to build a bit of a viewing screen at this well known site. As we approached we could just about hear the distinctive bubbling and crackling of a male Black Grouse breaking through the early morning drizzle. Almost immediately I picked up a minimum of three males at the lek and promptly did my bit for European relations by putting a tall Dutch guy onto the birds. If the male Capercaillie is the heavyweight Mike Tyson of the Grouse world then the Black Grouse has to be the flamboyant Freddie Mercury. It is puzzling to imagine why female Black Grouse would be turned on by the camp display of the limp wing tips and the protruding white arse of the male. Other than a pair of Goldeneye, a calling Red Grouse, the odd Curlew and a plethora of Meadow Pipits the bleak habitat failed to provide much more so we decided to take shelter from the rain and switch locations.
The first stop was at the old picnic site along the Coylumbridge to Ski Centre road. This site used to be great for locating Crested Tit along the River Luineag but all I got was a brief glimpse of a single bird high up in the canopy. Other species included Blue Tit, Coat Tit, and Goldcrest as well as a single displaying Tree Pipit. The huge highlight for me though was locating my first Scottish Wood Ant nest.
A Scottish Wood Ant nest in Glenmore Forest Park
The pine forests of the Highlands are the only place in Great Britain where the Scottish Wood Ant occurs. The nest above can contain around 100,000 individuals consisting mainly of non-egg laying female workers and the much less abundant males and egg laying queens. The worker ants all have specific roles to perform with some being responsible for maintaining the nest, others being food gatherers and the last type taking care of the eggs, pupae and larvae. It is amazing to think that this bundle of twigs and pine needles contains thousands of tunnels and chambers that even extend below the ground. As well as living accommodation, nursery chambers and food stores there are even cemetery sections where dead ants are kept.
After a quick brew we then decided to take on the challenge of the Cairngorm Mountain Range. With a couple of ski runs still open we decided to take the less disturbed track to the south-west of the ski centre that climbs up to Coire an t-Sneachda. Red Grouse were by far the most abundant bird species that we encountered along with good numbers of Meadow Pipit. We also connected with a small herd of Reindeer, the only place in Britain where this introduced species occurs.
Red Grouse (male) - Cairngorm Mountain Range, Highlands
As we reached the end of the track we stumbled upon a trio of high altitude Northern Wheatear but after an extensive search of the area we failed to locate a single Rock Ptarmigan. We would need to break through the pain barrier yet again if we were to connect with this high montane specialist. Whilst making our journey back we bumped into another foreign birder, this time a young Belgian chap, who despite climbing higher than we did, also managed to draw a blank. As we continued our descent a Peregrine was spotted passing over the car park but apart from a few Black-headed Gulls no other bird species was noted.
Looking down to a distant Loch Morlich from Coire an t-Sneachda
With exhaustion setting in we then made the decision to head back to our accommodation in Grantown-on-Spey. On the way there though we could not resist the lure of another scarce Highland breeding bird and so we made a brief detour to scour a few of the smaller lochs for Slavonian Grebe. A couple of different locations produced three splendiferous summer plumaged birds, one of which showed down to just a few metres away.
I must admit to feeling slightly disappointed at failing on our quest of seeing all four British grouse species in a single day but then again I have always been a little greedy. Overall it had been a wonderful yet tiring day amongst glorious surroundings. Bring on day two!