As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the Cairngorms, Paul Bloomfield goes in search of the rare and diverse animals and plants of the Cairngorms on a guided wildlife tour.
Never work with children or animals – so goes the old actors’ credo. Wildlife guides must sometimes feel the same way. Because the thing about wildlife is that it’s so… wild – you can never guarantee a sighting, and indeed when you’re trying hardest to find something specific, that’ll be the day on which that particular animal decides to lie in.
I get a little sense of that from Roy Atkins, one of Speyside Wildlife’s expert guides, who is scouring hilltops with his spotting scope. “This valley used to be called ‘Eagle Alley’,” he avers, somewhat apologetically. “A few years ago there were no resident birds, so lots of young goldies would come here to hunt. Now there are two pairs nesting in different parts of the valley, so the others are mostly deterred.” Sadly, none of those four residents feel like making a show today.
Roy needn’t have worried. I was already buzzing from watching feral goats hopping between rocks high on the hillside, spotting a conglomeration of perhaps 40 or 50 big red deer stags high on the horizon, following the white scuts of mountain hares lolloping up the slopes and watching oystercatchers hoiking worms from the meadows around us. And though eagles evaded us, a buzzard and an osprey had soared above.
That was just the first hour of a July wildlife-watching day in and around the Cairngorms National Park – we had plenty more habitats to explore, all within easy touching distance. Ancient Caledonian forests harbour red squirrels, crossbills and capercaillies; wildfowl bob on lochs where otters fish; and high moorland and mountain slopes host roe and red deer, black and red grouse, ptarmigan and those mountain hares.
With many years’ experience leading wildlife tours, Roy knows that there’s much joy to be had in admiring the small species, too. We stroll into the woods at Skye of Curr for a quick botany lesson. “There are lots of species in this region, especially Speyside, that are found nowhere else in Britain,” he tells me. “You’d have to head to Scandinavia to find similar habitats.” That means we have the chance to enjoy the sight of a mossy bank confettied with rare twinflowers, their tiny, white, bell-shaped blooms sprouting in – yes – pairs. We stop to delight at yellow-flowered tormentil, chickweed wintergreen and the wonderfully monickered creeping ladies’ tresses, unusual hairy flowers growing in curiously straight lines.
Again, Roy is keen to show me a specific bird: the crested tit, a rarity elsewhere in Britain but relatively common in the Cairngorms’ forests, its quirky spiked headdress quite distinctive. But though we hear plenty of coal tits, the cresteds remain aloof.
After stopping at a small, boggy pool covered with unusual floating sphagnum moss to spot the equally rare white-faced darter dragonfly hovering above the carnivorous sundews, we delve into the RSPB’s reserve on the shores of Loch Garten in Abernethy Forest. The loch is famed for its nesting ospreys, but we’re on a scout for… well, whatever we see. Our walk is rewarded with goldeneye paddling on the loch and the chance to watch a pied flycatcher’s brood begging for dinner, parents frequently flitting in with bugs to plug those gaping bills. No crested tits, though. And again, no complaints from me – the sight of gnarly ‘grandmother trees’, venerable old Scots pines that formed the ancestors of this living, growing forest, add to the fairytale atmosphere of this woodland that hosts many hundreds of fungi, spiders, birds and other animals.
Given that wildlife can give even the best guides a runaround, it pays such a tour leader to have a trick up their sleeve. And Roy’s is pretty magical. Our final stop is, somewhat incongruously, alongside Loch Insh graveyard, but the reason soon becomes clear: an osprey eyrie atop a pine on an island, occupied by a female and her three chicks. Intermittently tearing at the remnants of a fish dropped into a nest by the male (who’s taking a rest in a nearby branch), the youngsters take it in turns to stretch and flap their wings – they’ll fledge any time now. As a final flourish to a day of watching the Cairngorms’ charismatic animals, it takes some beating.
Plan your trip Speyside Wildlife runs a wide range of tours in Scotland and farther afield. The programme features numerous trips taking in the Cairngorms, including some specialising in particular areas of interest – spring birds, mammals, insects and flowers, autumn wildlife and a dedicated birdwatching for beginners itinerary.
You can also arrange for a day of private guiding, tailored to your interests and according to what’s best to see at any particular time. The guides – for private days and on the holidays – are extremely knowledgable about the species to spot and the best places and times to do so. Current prices are £140/175 for a normal/extended day, including transport for up to seven guests but excluding lunch.
Speyside Wildlife also offers dusk watches at a comfortable woodland hide where you have a good chance of seeing badgers, red deer and even pine martens feeding alongside the large windows of the hide. The sessions, which start just before sunset and usually last up to three hours (depending on what animals turn up when!), currently cost £20/£10 for adults/under-15s (£25/£15 from 2014), with discounts for online booking.