The Cairngorms is quite rightly beloved of birdwatchers in search of Capercaillie, Scottish Crossbill and Crested Tit amongst others, but on a recent birding trip in search of these ‘Speyside specialities’ I was blown away by the sheer diversity of the other avian life on offer. You could quite easily fill a long weekend – or even a week - with a lovely combination of large scale and intimate bird watching - especially when armed with a bit of inside information!
The capital of Speyside - Grantown-on-Spey - is as good a base as any to be at the centre of the action, and I chose well in staying at the new home of the Birdwatching and Wildlife Club, the Grant Arms Hotel, where the helpful resident team offered me maps, walks, talks, the latest wildlife news and even rare bird alerts, as well as suggestions for day trips and great tips on birding hotspots.
Access: Accessed easily from the A9 or via the B970 from Inverdruie next to Aviemore.
Starting at the main visitor centre of RSPB Insh Marshes (NN 775998) – the largest unspoilt floodplain in Scotland - I was surprised to have a hide all to myself for about an hour in the morning. Initially the scale of the marshes can be overwhelming and they can seem a little quiet, but once I got my eye in I managed to get rewarding sightings of Goldeneye, Goosander, and, best of all, a pair of Marsh Harriers.
Butterflies were in abundance, too, with a Pearl-bordered Fritillary and a Northern Brown Argus near to the hide.
I then continued north and recharged the batteries with a cup of tea and home-made cream cake (in the Observer’s Top Ten Tea Rooms in Britain!) at the charming Inshriach Nursery (NH 877073), with its large bird feeding area where Siskin and Great Spotted Woodpecker happily fed a few feet in front of me. But don’t get back into the car straight away – cross the road and try out Inshriach Forest where I first heard then finally saw a family of Crested Tits on the forest fringe.
Anagach Wood, Grantown-on-Spey 7/6/08
Access Anagach Wood (NJ 035273) is a five minute walk from the main High Street, well signposted from The Square, in Grantown-on-Spey. The wood itself is deceptively large, about 1000 acres altogether, so I’d advise you to stick to one of the main three way-marked trails which still take you into the heart of the old plantation and have huge potential for birdwatching.
On the dawn walk offered by the BWWC Team at the Grant Arms Hotel, we took the long Red Trail (5.5 miles) and saw nothing of note for the first hour. Then a flurry of activity – a mixed flock of Scottish Crossbills in the high canopy overhead at what I guess to be the Poorhouse Wood (NJ 047283) area followed by Bullfinches and a Redstart. Good views for maybe two minutes. A few minutes further on, an explosion as a definite cock Capercaillie, perhaps 80 yards distant, got up and flew quickly away towards a dense young plantation – not the lekking Caper of my dreams, and only a brief sighting, but a sighting nevertheless. No wonder the locals call it ‘Capercaillie Way.’ The remaining hour or so saw us rewarded with other worthwhile bird sightings such as Cuckoo, Woodcock and a passing Common Tern, presumably on its way to the River Spey at the other side of the wood, and not forgetting the mammals we encountered – Roe Deer, Red Squirrels and even a Stoat. All in all, an amazing half-morning’s birding, oh, and we didn’t get lost!
Access Lochindorb (NH 970360) is a large body of water approximately 20 minute’s drive north from Grantown-on-Spey on the A939.
Surrounded on all sides by wild moorland, the setting of Lochindorb is as impressive as the birdlife. The many pull-ins on the way there should offer good birding – I saw Curlew, Buzzard, Golden Plover, Wheatear a Long-eared Owl, and Red Grouse in the space of twenty minutes. The loch itself held a pair of Black-throated Divers who gave good views, and at one point three Osprey were fishing (very successfully, I might add). However, my highlight of the day was on the way north on the A939 skirting Lochindorb where I spotted a very tame Wood Sandpiper foraging in the fringes of a reed bed.
Abernethy Forest and Boat of Garten 8/6/08
Access Abernethy Forest can be accessed from many points but I simply parked at the RSPB Loch Garten Osprey Centre car park. (NH 982184)
After a quick visit to the Osprey Centre where I saw Spotted Flycatcher and Tree Pipit (yes, and Osprey), I walked down to Loch Garten itself and saw Pochard. Following the public road a few hundred yards around to the car park for Loch Mallachie (NH 972185) I saw Crested Tits and Goldcrest yards away from the car park and Goldeneye (with 7 chicks!) on Loch Mallachie.
Another couple of good birding spots:
The loch at the edge of Boat of Garten (NH 944194) has a heronry with about five active Grey Heron nests.
The bird feeding area at the eastern fringe of Boat of Garten (NH 933192). Park up your car and walk quietly to the bird feeders you may see Crested Tits and even Crossbills. Across the road there is also a seasonal pool where Slavonian Grebe are often spotted.
Cairngorm Mountain 8/6/08
Access: easily accessed by the Ski Road which takes you past Rothiemurchus Visitor Centre, Glenmore Lodge and ultimately up to the Cairngorm Visitor Centre itself. (NH 989063).
The birder has a number of options on how to make the most of this must-visit site during a ‘Speyside’ stay...
- For those, unwilling – or unable - to undertake a big walk, you could simply stay around the Coire Cas car park scanning for birds and breathing in the amazing views.
- For the price of £9.25 per adult (July 2008 prices) you could take the Funicular Railway to nearly the summit of Cairn Gorm, and scan from the outdoor Viewing Platform with the convenience of the Ptarmigan restaurant at hand.
- Finally, either take a hike up the Windy Ridge path to the Cairngorm Summit (2-3hrs) or join in a Ranger-led guided walk around the range. Remember – if you have walked to the summit you are entitled to get the train down!
I chose the self-guided walk and was rewarded with views of Red Grouse, Ptarmigan and, ultimately a female Dotterel on the top plateau, making the trek all the more worthwhile and rounding off an amazing two days.
It would be an unlucky birder indeed who went away from Speyside and the Cairngorms disappointed. Just a glance at the birds I have listed should tempt even the hardened twitcher to make a first (or repeat) visit to this amazing area. I am also grateful for the hospitality and information provided by the Birdwatching and Wildlife Club (www.bwwc.co.uk) and everyone else at the Grant Arms Hotel at Grantown-on-Spey. I can’t think of a better base for a birdwatching trip and I heartily recommend them.