Friday, 10 October 2014

Having a high old time

One of the first things they teach you in the Army, apparently, is never volunteer. Same applies normally in business, but when I learnt that my company was hosting a conference in Scotland my cogs started to turn. My year-list is empty of all the Scottish specialities so what if i could do a talk and combine it with a few days in Speyside!!! Plan hatched.
So, Sunday  29th Sep, the last day of the Ryder Cup, had me driving up to Speyside to stay for 3 days in Boat of Garten. I did actually pass Gleneagles on the way up, but fortunately whilst they were playing so no traffic problems. The drive was long, about 8 ½ hours, but by 4.30 I was parked up by Rothiemurchus estate. Boots on, ‘scope and bins out, coat on and straight into it.
This was the same track where we had good views of capercaillie and crested tits last year so I was hoping I could get the trip off to a good start. Sometimes luck smiles on you and within about 10 minutes I was onto a flock of crossbills feeding high up in the conifers. There were I guess about 20 or 30 in 2 or 3 groups, and over the next 90 minutes they were constantly present though mainly flying over. Mixed in with them were siskins and coal tits, ever presents in the speyside woods. About half a mile in I heard a loud crashing in the wood on my right. No people around. I stopped and ventured a short way in. Suddenly from about 20 yards away two large birds flapped off a tree about 10 feet in the air and crashed through the understorey. One kept going but one stopped briefly in another tree low down. Not great views but tick number 2 – capercaillie. They were within a few hundred yards of where we saw them last year, and I think where there is a spring lek so a reliable spot. As a slight caveat to this, I did go back twice more and saw nothing though.
Finally, walking back to the car a bit tired but pretty pleased I came across another small flock of birds. Mainly siskins and a few coal tits but then I saw another shape high up. I got my bins on it an saw the unmistakable shape of a crest! Got 3 of my targets within 90 minutes of getting to Scotland and on a day when I thought I would just be travelling. I watched the crestie for about 5 minutes but the light was going and I was a bit tired so back to the hotel.
Next day I was out fairly early. It was a superb morning, light cloud, chilly first thing but soon warmed up to a light jumper day. First stop was Loch Garten. The ospreys have long gone, but the car park is normally good for cresties and the woods hold more capers. No one else was around so I had the place to myself. By the hide is a large bird feeder, but this had a lovely red squirrel feeding on the nuts. It seemed totally unperturbed by me.

The woods around were quiet and no sign of capers. The car park though, or at least the woods by the side of the Loch, had a nice mixed flock of coal tits, treecreepers and 2 or 3 cresties. Mainly they were very mobile and stayed high but this one did come down for long enough for me to grab a half-decent photo.

Next I thought I ought to go high as the weather was so good, so I carried on up the road to Cairngorm. Things have changed here over the years. You used to be able to get the chair-lift up to the ptarmigan restaurant and then walk the tops. This was the best way to get ptarmigan and dotterel. About 10 years ago though they decided too many people were doing this and the mountain was being degraded. So, now, you can go to the restaurant but can't go outside. Still, I bought a ticket for the funicular railway and went on up. You can get ptarmigan from the trip up, but not today. There were a few red grouse around but nothing else. The only other option was to sign up for the guided walk, which lets you out for 90 minutes on a fixed route to the top. I signed up and we had a very pleasant stroll in warm sunshine with superb views but no birds - literally - were spotted. It does make it hard as the only way up now is from the car park, but more of that later.

My second day, with more fine weather, was a trip to the Findhorn Valley. This is one of the premier spots for eagles. The long valley holds a number of pairs and with the high concentration of prey species you are not exactly guaranteed golden eagles but it's a good shout. In the spring it is raptor central and you can, on a good day, pick of 6 or 7 species in one walk. Combine that with a day in late September where the temperatures were in the mid-teens and sunny giving good thermals then you start off in an optimistic frame of mind.
If you've not been, it is about 30 minutes from Aviemore with a lovely drive along the river valley. You get to the head of the valley and park up near some cottages then walk off between the mountains either side of you following the river. Immediately I saw ravens on the ridges near the car park and there were buzzards and kestrels in the air. This is also a good place for the red deer rut. There are good numbers on the hills. I was a bit early though and a few males were starting to bellow a bit but I think another week or so, or even a bit of cold weather, might have got them going. I was a bit surprised in some ways that I was the only person there all morning, at least as far as birders were concerned.
The walk is pretty much straight out and back, with one turn-off. I kept going straight for about 45 minutes. As I was almost at another small group of cottages, I presume for shooting or fishing parties, a large raptor flapped off a tree and over the ridge. It looked bloody big but it was gone. I felt in need of coffee though so I got my flask out and sat on a rock for a rest. Within a minute the bird came back over the ridge. Long, straight wings, very "fingered" at end, white tail feathers and enormous. No doubt about it, a juvenile goldie. I was desperately getting my camera out it was followed by one then two other birds. I had three in the air all at once. They gained height rapidly and moved off down the valley. I grabbed a couple of rubbish photos but the top one is a good id photo. Note the square wings with almost flat leading edge and the white tail, marking it out as a juvenile. You can just about make out the head with massive bill.
 This was clearly a second bird, probably an adult as it has no white in the tail. The wings are bent back in a dive so don't just just look for a straight edge!!

After the eagles I set off on one of our favourite drives, the drive across the moors to Farr. This is a small road, crossing open heather and moorland and is normally good for red grouse. What it does afford is the opportunity for using the car a a photo hide as the grouse are often close by the road which itself is slightly higher than you. Unfortunately it sounded like a shoot was in the neighborhood so I didn't get great chances  this time but a few did come close enough to test out my new 500mm lens.

 I do like this one, with it cocking it's head to one side in a very inquisitive way.

Apart from the grouse the only other birds of note were lots of mipits. I continued on to the coast after this towards Lossiemouth but whereas the nice weather helped with eagles it killed the sea. A few waders were around but nothing on the sea apart one lone eider, which was a year tick albeit a very late one.

For my last day I decided to head back to the mountains after black grouse adn ptarmigan. One my guided walk the guide said that going up towards BenMacdui from the car park could be a good bet so that was the plan. On the way I stopped at the Coire na Ciste car park which is good for black grouse in the lek. I had tried it twice already with no luck. This time it seemed someone smiled on me. I didn't see any black grouse in the heather but as I drove out one flopped up from the side of the road and stopped on the crash barrier for a few seconds!! A good omen??
I got to the Cairngorm car park about 8.30. The weather was still pretty good, but I was starting at 2000 ft and planning on going above 3000 so I got my full kit on but travelled light. No 'scope, no 500mm lens, just my bins and 100-400mm lens.
The path up is clearly marked and mostly good going. You just keep going up and up. On the lower slopes were lots of mipits and a few red grouse sitting around.

As I got higher and higher the birds thinned out. No sign of ptarmigan though, which is what I was after. Another walker knew the area and told me to keep walking up. Eventually, just as I was getting really knackered, I got to the plateau. This is a relatively flat area leading off towards the lower slopes of Ben Macdui. It looked really good ptarmigan country - boulders, heather, not much cover, but no birds in sight. The weather was starting to get a bit lively as well. The wind was getting up and cloud was moving in. I was sorely tempted to keep going as there was a snowy owl on the Ben, but that was another couple of hours and I wasn't kitted out for that. So, with rain/ low cloud setting in I turned round. Just as I got to the start of the path down though I heard a distinctive call. Then I saw a flock of about 30 or birds burst out Of the heather and fly away from me. They behaved in a very grouse-like manner but they were almost all white. Ptarmigan???

The calls carried on and I spotted a bird hopping onto a rock. Grouse-like in shape, but showing a lot of white and a very grey back. No doubt about it.

 Over the next 20 minutes or so I stalked around in the heather and the scree-slope. I saw two more flocks of birds fly off, probably a hundred or so ptarmigan in all, amazing numbers. I got close to a few of them. They weren’t particularly skittish just they were much better than I was moving around on steep slopes. Lovely birds, the relatively still valley echoing their calls as they flew around. A great end to my short trip with all of my targets in the bag, some superb weather and great walks in the hills and mountains.