Sunday 17 April 2011

Highland Spring Day Two - Where Eagles Dare!

I was awoken at around 5.00am from a long, deep, satisfying sleep. It was so tempting just to whack the alarm on 'snooze' and grab an extra few hours of slumber time but the lure of those ancient pine woods of Grantown were just too tempting. As the sun peaked through the trees we connected with our first (and only) Red Squirrels of the trip. They are so much more delicate, refined and prettier than those brash American imports most Brits are more familiar with. Our early morning stroll then got even better when a female Capercaillie was flushed from amongst a damp patch of bilberry. As we headed deeper into the forest the silence was broken by the 'champagne cork popping' of a distant male. As we made our way carefully towards the origins of the strange sound we then picked up another two male Capercaillie as they stood motionless in the distance. As we absorbed the atmosphere one of the birds then took flight providing us with evidence of just how substantially large these birds are.

This is me in Anagach Woods looking all pleased with myself after another successful 'Caper Hunt'.

We then concentrated our efforts in locating another Scottish speciality. During our trip last year we only managed to grab a brief glimpse of a single Crested Tit at the cafe feeding area over at Glenmore Forest. Within about thirty minutes this morning though, we managed to see a minimum of four birds all of which were feeding in their usual flitting fashion pretty high up in the canopy. Around six probable Scottish Crossbill were also seen and heard in the area as well as a single Tree Pipit, a Willow Warbler and 10 Siskin. As we made our way back to the car yet another male Capercaillie flew low over the path in front of us, amazing luck. It was then back to the comfort of Kinross House to sink a celebratory breakfast. As I munched my way through a bowl of fresh fruit and delicious homemade muesli I got chatting to another birder who had just been on a week long Heatherlea 'Scottish Highlands' trip. They had managed to strike it lucky with most of the specialities with the exception of Rock Ptarmigan. Despite extensive searching at a number of reliable sites up in the mountains they too had drawn a blank. It made us feel slightly better about failing ourselves the day before.

We then made the short journey north and onto the eerie Lochindorb. After a quick scan I managed to locate a pair of stunning summer plumaged Black-throated Divers as the swam, snorkelled and dived around the southern end of the loch. At this point we bumped into our Belgian birding friend again. The previous day whilst on Cairngorm I had recommended that he visit Loch Garten RSPB if he wanted to see Capercaillie rather than traipse around the forests in hope. It was great to see him beam away as he proudly announced that he had seen two males and three females earlier that morning. His next targets were Black Guillemot and Atlantic Puffin so I suggested he give Burghead a try. Other species in the Lochindorb area included a few pairs of Icelandic Greylag Goose, many Red Grouse and Curlew as well as a single Raven.

Lochindorb - you can just about see the ruined castle in the loch that dates back to around 1250, a former stronghold of the Clan Comryn.

With the sun shining brightly, the afternoon looked pretty good for soaring birds of prey and so we made our way down to the Findhorn Valley. The omens looked good too as a Red Kite was spotted from the car as we made our way up the A9. As we pulled up into the car park we were told that a distant eagle had been spotted about ten minutes earlier. Within a few minutes we were watching a pair of Ring Ouzel, recently arrived from their wintering grounds in North Africa or the Middle East. These birds were then spooked as a male Merlin passed through. With no sign of any large raptors we decided to take a stroll deeper into the valley to see if we could relocate the lost eagle. There was once a fine, old Highland based ornithologist and author called Desmond Nethersole-Thompson who famously said that birdwatchers come in two different varieties, 'arsers or a leggers'. In other words you can either sit and wait for the birds to come to you or you can go off in search of them. I am pleased to confirm that there would be plenty of 'legging' on this trip and hardly any 'arsing'.

Two views of the spectacular Findhorn Valley in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

During our hike we encountered at least 10 Northern Wheatear as well as numerous Meadow Pipits and yet another singing male Ring Ouzel. Out on the river around a dozen Oystercatcher were present along with a small colony of breeding Common Gull. We also spotted a pair of Wild Goat with a couple of kids in tow. Eventually our hard work was rewarded when a majestic immature Golden Eagle suddenly appeared and showed well for a while. We celebrated our good fortune with a quick nap along the riverbank before making our way back to the car park. No further eagles were spotted on the return leg but a couple of Common Buzzard and a Kestrel did show near the lodges.

With not enough time or energy to make another assault on Cairngorm we decided instead to make our way to Glenmore Forest in search of crossbills. Our first stop was Loch Morlich for a quick scan of the water. Unfortunately there was no sign of any Red-throated Diver but a couple of pairs of Common Goldeneye were present along with a noisy flock of Black-headed Gulls.

The tranquil setting of Loch Morlich with the daunting Cairgorm Mountain Range in the background.

The next stop was another picnic site that looked promising for a bit of Loxia action. As we retrieved our kit from the car a lovely middle-aged couple from Nairn approached us to say that they had seen their first ever Capercaillie whilst out on a bike ride a fortnight ago. Before we knew it they had collected their laptop from their camper van and we were then subjected to a series of the most crippling 'Caper' shots ever. They had been lucky enough to stumble upon every birders Highland dream, a 'rogue male' Capercaillie. The photographs of the bird were stunning as it showed just inches away from the lens. We just had to see this bird! Within minutes the trusty OS map had been consulted and full directions were quickly obtained. We just could not wait until the next day. We quickly decided to cancel the crossbills and hunt down 'Henry' (as the locals call him) before the day was out.

Unfortunately in all of the excitement we eventually realised that we had taken completely the wrong track through the forest. After nearly a hour of hiking we began to feel lost and as the sun was falling low in the sky a touch of concern crept in. Remarkably we encountered a further two Capercaillie that evening but not one brave enough to take on a human like 'Henry' does. As we regained our bearings we eventually made it back to the car safe and sound albeit hot and exhausted. We knew where we had gone wrong and we agreed that we would search the correct area of the Rothiemurchus Estate after breakfast in the morning.

The sun sets over the Rothiemurchus Estate as we eventually make it back to safety!

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