A rainbow formed across the river, as we approached Grantown – on – Spey, and after the first of several good dinners in the Grant Arms Hotel, we headed south for the Speyside Wildlife hide on the Rothiemurchus estate. As the daylight faded and the floodlights came on, several Red Deer, a Pine Marten and eventually two Badgers, all came to forage bold as brass right outside the hide windows, giving face to face views. In fact, the Badgers stayed for so long that we were marooned inside the hide until they wandered off into the darkness around 11.30pm.
Next morning we drove west to Loch Ruthven, and on a roadside pool came across a pair of Teal with ten tiny ‘clockwork’ ducklings. On the loch, we enjoyed lovely views of several Slavonian Grebes with their bright red eyes and gleaming golden ‘horns’. On the narrow moorland road across to the Findhorn Valley, we found Wheatears and Red Grouse and then an unexpected Red Kite floated past. Down in the valley we had lunch by the river and watched adult and juvenile Dippers bobbing on the stones. Further up the valley, lined on both sides by herds of Red Deer and a few very shaggy-looking Mountain Goats, a Golden Eagle soared across from one side to the other. The songs of rival Ring Ouzels echoed across the glen, and eventually we located one of these songsters up on a thinly wooded slope, along with a smart male Redstart.
The RSPB Caper-watch at Loch Garten demands an early start, but as we watched the cotton grass heads, the Capercaillie failed to show, and we learned that we should have been here yesterday. However the feeders attracted handsome male Siskins and several cute Red Squirrels with fluffy creamy tails. After breakfast back at the hotel, we were off to Lochindorb, where plenty of wild Greylag Geese were sailing with their flotillas of goslings, and after a little searching, we got spectacular views of a pair of Black-throated Divers. One was on the shoreline, sitting on a nest, while its mate was preening on the loch. Meanwhile an Osprey perched on a post above the far shore as if waiting for the wind to drop before take off. In the afternoon a walk through a lovely example of ancient Caledonian Pine forest in Anagach Woods, produced excellent views of a Tree Pipit, showing the faint flank streaks, and even the shorter hind claws, compared to Meadow Pipit.
So far the cloud layer had been below the top of the mountains every day, but as we ascended the lower slope of Cairn Gorm via the Coire Cas trail, the mist lifted and we had a clear run along the top of the ridge toward Ben Macdui, where a small herd of Reindeer grazed the tundra. Further along the path, we stumbled upon a male Ptarmigan with bright red eye brows and deep brown eyes peeping at us over a rock. We clustered around the scope scrutinizing the bird’s perfect camouflage at close range, hoping he might emerge from behind the rock but he stood his ground and then suddenly we realized why, as we had almost sat on his partner sitting motionless on her nest under a slightly overhanging rock, and despite us only being a few feet away, she never flinched and sat tight on her clutch. These amazing birds really are the masters of disguise, whatever the weather throws at them. With Ptarmigan safely in the bag we continued along the ridge and soon found a pair of Dotterel walking just a few yards ahead of us. Unlike most birds, the female is the brighter one with a brilliant white supercilium and a deep rufous belly. Wherever she went, the male followed close by, and so we watched them both for some time. With both of these top birds well and truly ticked, Terry decided to chuck away the script and challenged the group to go all the way up to the summit of Cairn Gorm, just for the hell of it. After lots of moaning on the ascent, Geoff was the first to reach the top, and is probably the only guy ever to do so carrying a Waitrose shopping bag! By the time we were well down the slope again, the clouds had regrouped around the mountain top and so we had been very lucky with the weather that day.
This morning required a 4am departure in order to meet our guide on the Glenlivet estate, with a view to seeing Black Grouse, which are notoriously early risers. By 5am we had found one particularly feisty cock which, having been so aggressive, had chased the other males onto adjacent hillsides. It seemed as though they were waiting in the wings for the ‘top cock’ to burn himself out. Even with no competition he still put on a good show by puffing himself up and flapping his wings as he cackled and hissed across the hillside.
After breakfast back in Grantown, we returned to Abernethy Forest for a walk from Forest Lodge, seeing singing Tree Pipit and then a Cuckoo obligingly perching on several posts along a fence line. Further on, a Crested Tit called and we eventually all enjoyed wonderful views of this perky little bird perched on the very tops of two Pine trees before coming to the tree right in front of us almost at eye level. Our good fortune continued with the “chip-chip” of crossbills, before we spotted one perched in a tree top long enough for everyone to see through the scope that it had the substantial bill of a Scot, rather than having a bill as massive as that of a Parrot.
So far we had seen thirteen different mammals including Reindeer, Red Squirrel, Badger and Pine Marten, and today we added Bottle-nosed Dolphin to the list at Chanonry Point, where dozens of these lively cetaceans were porpoising very close inshore on the rising tide. Some even leapt clear of the water, making a big splash with the small crowd of onlookers. Further exploration of the Black Isle coastline produced drake Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers, plus Guillemots, Kittiwakes and a rock covered with Shags.
On the last morning, with fresh snow on the mountain tops, a walk in the lovely Anagach Woods produced Spotted Flycatcher, plus Dipper and Grey Wagtail down by the river, but still no sign of a Capercaillie, despite the prime location. This mythical beast seems as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster, so we shall just have to come back and try again.