We left Southampton on a dreary afternoon, as the plane flew north towards Edinburgh, holes began to appear in the cloud, and as we made the final approach into the airport, it was a lovely evening with a golden sun, and blue skies. As we taxied to the stand I noticed sitting on one of the runway marker lights a Short-eared Owl, a sign maybe of some more special sightings over the long weekend.
From the airport we set off north to our hotel in Pitlochry, which was about a one hour and twenty minute drive. As we crossed the Forth road bridge the sun was sinking to the west, and it was producing a lovely scene across the water, but unfortunately we were not able to stop!
After breakfast on the Saturday we set off up the A9 towards Aviemore, it was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and lovely sunshine. The early morning sun on the Loch in front of the hotel created some lovely patterns in the still water, which was being gently broken by this pair of Tufted Duck.
It took just over an hour to get to Aviemore, and then we took a B road to a parking spot at a hamlet called Auchlean. From there a path runs east up to Carn Ban Mor, part of the Cairngorm peaks. As we changed our shoes in the car park Willow Warblers could be heard singing from the trees and bushes close by.
As we set off down the main track you could see the snow on the hills in front of us and every so often a plane would come over leaving a vapour trail in the deep blue sky.
The angle of the sun was also making the young willow and birch trees stand out. The leaves were only just emerging, and the sun was highlighting the very pale greens of the new leaves.
As it was in the car park so it was along most of the path, Willow Warblers could be heard singing, and seen fly catching from the branches. They were quite unconcerned by us, and if we stood still they would come quite close.
One thing that did surprise me though was the absence of calling Cuckoos, I would have expected to have heard them here. As we walked through the small pine wood we could hear tits calling, but was not able to see them at all. Coming out of the wood we came into the heather and we were able to see the path all the way to the top. The last third was snow covered. Apparently Thursday and Friday had seen some significant snow fall, the peak we were looking at was around 1100 to 1200 metres, so it must have been cold!
The path was awkward, and there was very little life around us. Tortoiseshell butterflies would sometimes fly past, and in amongst the heather were small moths these were Common Heath Moths, and were seen almost everywhere. The air though was very clear, and looking back from where we had come you could see for a very long way.
We came across a Kestrel, that moved along the ridge, hovering over the heather. I also saw very briefly a Red Grouse burst from the heather and fly low across the moor to disappear quickly from view in the gully. Small pockets of snow would feed streams as the sun melted the snow, but as we walked higher the snow became more widespread and deeper. The common heath moths were drawn the brightness of it, and would flutter over it, pausing but quickly flying off again, not liking the cold sensation on their feet.
Looking along the ridges the snow was gathered in the gullies, and scattered across the open areas, creating a dappled effect on the sides of the hills.
This particular shot reminds me of a snow tiger.
We reached a point where we had to take a decision, there had been very little in the way of wildlife, and in order to find some we were going to have to spend quite a it of time up here, the going was quite tough and there were other places to visit, so we decided to cut our losses and make our way back down to the car. Before we did we sat and took in the wonderful view away to the west and on towards Ben Nevis.
Understandably it was a lot easier heading down hill, than it was coming up, and we made good time. As we approached the pine wood a herd of Red Deer came from behind the hill, and headed down into the pine trees.
It was quiet walking back to the car, even the Willow Warblers were taking a rest in the glorious sunshine. From the car park we headed off towards Loch Garten and the Abertheny Forest. We should have stopped for a drink on the way, but I foolishly thought there would be refreshments at the Loch!
We declined the opportunity to see the ospreys, and decided to walk around the loch. The weather hadn't changed, and the blue sky brought out the beauty of the location. Away in the distance the snowy peaks of the Cairngorms could be seen.
The water in the loch was very red, from the peat and pine needles. This created quite a strange sensation as the sun shown through it in the shallow water.
Just like Cairngorm, the loch and forest were quiet. We would hear the odd wren sing, and every so often a Chaffinch call would throw me into thinking it was something else but that was it. There was nothing on the water either except for a single lone drake Mallard. White butterflies would collect around the sunny areas, and there were also a few Damselflies, but they were not staying around to be photographed.
At the south westerly end of Loch Garten you can look out over Loch Mallachie, which is a smaller piece of water, but was still devoid of any wild life. However the dead trees in the water provided quite a nice scene.
We made our way back round the forest path to the car park, not once seeing the famed Crested Tit, or any sign of Red Squirrel.
Now I made a bad decision, I considered it would be possible to make it to Loch Ruthven, but I totally under estimated the journey time, and once I had set off and made the decision it was difficult to recover.
Nevertheless we pulled into the car park, and were greeted with signs that said only boat fishing was allowed and on no account should there be bank fishing. As i made my way to the only hide on the reserve I passed a family fishing from both the shore and rocks.
The reason for coming here was the nesting Slavonian Grebes. In their summer plumage that are extremely beautiful birds, and I wanted to get a good photo opportunity. As I entered the hide, I realised that my quest was going to be hampered, by of all things,the sun!
I immediately found a pair, but they were to the west, looking straight at the sun and despite taking many pictures, and trying to play with the exposure at the time, and when I got home this was the best I could get. You can see the golden crown, and the red in the neck and body plumage, but I am afraid you are going to have to believe me when I say they are really lovely birds.
Leaving the grebes and the fishermen, we headed back down the A9 to Pitlochry. We eventually found a very nice restaurant in town that served a lovely Halibut.
The next morning was not as wonderful as the day before, it was overcast, but it was also dry. We decided to drive up to the Moray Firth, we were hoping to see the Bottlenose Dolphins that come into the Firth, the tide times were perfect, so we were hopeful we could get some good views as the dolphins come up close to the beach. WE turned up in the car park at Chanonry Point, and joined quite a few others who had gathered on the beach. The tide was quite high already, and we scanned out to sea. A group of Common Terns flew out to sea, low over the water, their whites and silvery greys contrasting with dark greys of the water.
In talking with somebody from the conservation group, we found out that a pair of Dolphins had been present early morning, but had headed off along the easterly shore. More worrying was that he informed us that the numbers coming in close this year was very low, and that they suspected the amount of Salmon coming up the river had reduced over the last 12 months, and hence the dolphins weren't following them to feed.
Unrelenting we watched the sea, and away in the distance, maybe anything up to 4 or 5 miles away we could see through binoculars the dorsal fins of a pair of dolphins by the east shore. These were probably the pair that had been about in the morning, and they were fishing around one of the tour boats.
In consolation a small group of Sandwich Terns flew past.
And I picked up this diver that came in off the sea, headed over our heads and turned out to be a Black-throated Diver. At first I thought Red-throated, but as you can see the bill shows no sign of an upturn. Great Northern is discounted because of the shape of the forehead, leaving this to be probably a first year Black-throated Diver.
The dolphins showed no sign of returning, and it seemed unlikely any others were going to turn up, so once again we cut our losses and headed off to the Findhorn Valley, however this time we did stop for a coffee in a very remote, but extremely busy garden centre.
The Findhorn Valley is reached by coming off the A9 and heading along a single track road for about 10 miles At the furthest point you can drive there is a car park, and from there you can walk alongside the river. The valley itself is a huge glacial valley with gentle sloping sides, but sides that go up extremely high. Smaller valleys cut but water run into the valley, feeding the river. The Valley itself is known as the "Valley of raptors" because you can see up to 10 different species of bird of prey here. As we turned off the A9 we saw a Red Kite, one down, nine to go.
As we set off the sun was shining, and there were pockets of blue sky above the valley. As with the Cairngorms we could also see little patches of snow. There were quite a few Common Gulls around the car park, and as we walked along the path you could see them nesting on the river bed in amongst the rocks and boulders. Up on the valley slopes you could see moving sticks that turned out to be a huge herd of Red Deer. Looking back as we walked into a stiff breeze the valley looked a picture.
We came across two birders who announced that they had seen a single Golden Eagle in the morning, and just recently a Peregrine. They also pointed out a female Ring Ouzel amongst the rocks at the base of the trees. It was a long way off to photograph, but nice to watch. We left them and walked on. What we found next should have told us that we were not going to see eagle this afternoon. In front of us were two brown lumps.
As I walked closer I could see that they were Mountain Hare, and as I continued to approach, one got up and scampered away, showing the odd bit of white in its fur.
It headed off into the woods, and I turned my attention to the other that was still lying low on the ground. It let me get quite close and stayed completely still but continued to watch me with its large brown eyes.
Mountain Hares are a considerable part of the Golden Eagles diet, and these seemed to be unconcerned with the threat.
As we walked on a Buzzard set he heart going as it glided across the valley, and a male Wheatear flew around us perching on the exposed rocks and old buildings.
I continued to scan the valley ridges in the hope of seeing a soaring raptor, but all I managed to find were Red Deer. The antlers are just beginning to show, and the stags were standing in prominent positions such as this, unfortunately they do not look as regal with little stumps as they will do at the time of the rut in the Autumn.
The amount of sunshine was now declining, and the clouds were building up, and beginning to look quite ominous over the valley.
We stopped for a while by a waterfall, it wasn't that big, just a part of the river where the rocks force the water through tight gaps increasing the flow of the river. It was though quite sheltered from the wind, and it was nice just to sit and watch the waters, while listening to the totally natural sounds
A Little further on I found what I was hoping for on the river, a Dipper. It wasn't the most confiding of birds, but it did rest in places that allowed me to get the classic dipper pictures.
We walked on further and came across an estate house that appeared empty. The dark greys of the granite stone making it look a dark and cold building set in the windy rugged moorland. I wonder what it would be like to stay here during the winter storms that must hit here, with a roaring fire burning it must be quite magical.
If we had gone on further there was a path that crosses the river and then winds around the other side of the valley to the car park. Unfortunately we didn't have time so we turned around and with the wind on our backs walked back slowly to the car.
Every so often the sun would peak out and brighten the valley sides. As a boy learning geography at school I was fascinated by the image of "U" shaped valley created by ice, and this and other geomorphological events took me to geography at University. This valley is a wonderful example, I wish I could have seen it then, it brings all the theory to life.
Once again the journey back was quicker, so we paused in a sheltered hollow to watch the ridges. Our only other raptor had been a single Kestrel, so surely we could find something else. As we sat down to watch Helen pointed out that I had someone sitting next to me.
In the grass next to me was this Frog, it just sat there keeping it's eye on me.
After a short while it became obvious we were not going to see anything, and it was getting dark, with the possible threat of rain. We decided to call it a day there and went back to the car. On the way we saw the Hares in the middle of the valley again, if we could see them they must have been comfortable in the open.
So the "Valley of the Raptors" had produced three species, I see more around Four Marks!
That evening we sat outside looking out across the loch using the bat detector. Once again could identify Pipistrelle but that was all.
The following day disaster stuck in more than one way. The day started with heavy rain, and we decided to get away from it we would have to head north. But as I walked up to the car I saw the front passenger tyre was flat! The problem was that being a bank holiday there was no mobile support, so after three hours waiting we were finally loaded on to a breakdown truck, and taken to Kwik-Fit in Perth. When we got there we had to wait, so we spent the time wondering around Perth, which didn't take that long.
By 15.00 we were on our way, but it was still raining, so we decided just to drive around the area, and headed off to Loch Rannoch. As we reached the loch after driving through some beautiful, but wet and damp areas, the sun decided to come out which lit up the water looking west.
The sunshine didn't last too long, so we decided to make our way back to Pitlochry by taking some single track roads across the moors. As we drove along I said to Helen, I would be satisfied if she could find me a Short-eared Owl, but then a male hen Harrier would be really nice. As we came around a bend, and down into a valley she pointed out a pale bird flying along the valley. We stopped, it was a Male Hen Harrier, and out came the camera. The moral of the story here though was have the camera ready at all times. When we stopped it was relatively close, but as I scrambled to get the camera ready it began to move away. Still it was a joy to watch as it glided and hovered over the bog and heather, and after the trials of the day provided a little chink of sunshine.
It finally disppeared from view, and we set off back to the hotel.
In the morning it was dry, but still overcast, we were packed and checked out. As we headed for Edinburgh we realised that we had some time before the flight so decided to take a detour to Loch of Lowes, where the Scottish Wildlife Trust had a reserve, and where a pair of Ospreys were nesting. They have two very nice hide there with CCTV on the nests, and plenty of telescopes to let you see both the nest, and the birds on the loch. The loch was covered with Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins hunting low over the water. You could jsu make out the female Osprey on the nest, but there was no sign of the mate. There were signs though of Beaver around the hides, with tree stumps where they had cut down the trees. The River Tay that flows close to here is now quite heavily populated with these animals, and it is suspected that there is a lodge on the reserve
The reserve also has Red Squirrels and as we walked back to the visitor centre one was sitting on a feeding station. It isn't natural, but there are extremely photogenic animals
insdie the visitoor centre you can watch the bird feeders and the squirrels regulary put in an appearance. This one was busy taking the nuts and hiding them all over the area.
So we managed to see one of the iconic Sottish animals, but missed out on the majority. I t was atrip taht had some highs, and some lows. It was made even more frustrating when we arrived to return the hire car, and then while we waited for the airport ground staff to sort out an unexpected bag. But it was an enjoyable break in a beautiful part of the world, we will be back, to try again.