What does FSC Scotland’s newest tutor do when she’s not teaching? She explores of course! When you’re at a field site with a group you miss lots of things (especially peace and quiet), so what better to do in your down time than get back to nature in your own way? Last month I was lucky enough to have two weekends to myself at Kindrogan, and I set out on a mission to meet as many of our wild stars as possible.
On my first weekend I felt the call of the mountains, so on a tip from Rachel, I headed out in search of a highland bird that had eluded me on two previous trips to the Cairngorms; the elusive ptargiman. Ptarmigan are amazing little birds – tough as old boots. They live on high mountain slopes, well above the snowline, eating leaves, berries and insects. In winter they have pure white plumage to camouflage themselves in the snowdrifts, moulting to a mottled brown in summer. I was so happy to find somewhere where I could get great views of this fantastic species, as well as climbing two munros (mountains over 3000ft) in the process. An adventure double whammy!
During the car journey to the site (at 7 am!), I was also chuffed to spot beautiful black grouse, which are currently red listed due to habitat loss, and tough red-legged partridge. The sky was clear and blue and I couldn’t wait to get started on the hills. As the road climbed toward the car park I could see red deer, males with impressive sets of antlers, grazing on the hillside.
I’ll spare you the wheezy details of my slog up my munros, but in places the snow had melted and refrozen to form sheet ice. I was forced to take wide detours to avoid the worst of the skating rinks, and my progress from the valley would have looked erratic. Whilst scoping for the elusive ptarmigan I glanced at a promising white rock shape, which turned out to be a mountain hare, crouched low amongst the heather. We watched each other for a while before I felt the chill of the wind and was forced to get moving again. As I neared a scree slope I was distracted by little birds going overhead. I stopped to see where they had gone but suddenly there was movement to my left. A pair of ptarmigan, almost under my feet! I bought the camera up and began snapping away frantically.
I practically skipped the way to my second summit then, cheerfully forgetting the weight of my camera and lens. The views were fantastic, clear all the way across the national park. I only saw 3 other people throughout the walk. The low level of disturbance meant that nothing was being driven off the hill and I passed the ptarmigan again of the way back down, getting another few close up snaps. By this time my mind was on the pictures I had taken and I was keen to get back. I set a good pace heading down the hill, and when I arrived back at the car I was greeted by my own red faced reflection in the driver’s side window. I looked a mess! Quickly I downed the last of my water and push the air conditioning to full. I took a moment to look back up at the route I had taken, now lit up by midday sunshine, before buckling up and heading for home, sweaty but victorious!
On my second weekend off I wanted to get to grips with our woodland neighbours, so I started with a Friday night shift in the pine marten hide. It was wild and windy and I was glad of the cover as I settled into the hide. It was hard to tell what was animal and what was whipping leaves in the low light, and I was constantly peering into the moving branches. Then, form my right, a roe deer came into view, intent on scavenging peanuts. He moved away after a few moments and was replace quickly by a small bushy tailed pine marten, its creamy front glowing in the dark. It must have been lurking at the far side of the wood pile. However, as soon as it had arrived, it was gone again, vanishing into the night. I called it a win and headed back home.
In the morning I decided that I’d head to Glen Clunie, just beyond Glen Shee, to visit a promising patch of conifer plantation. Parking just off the Old Military Road, I followed Baddoch Burn for three kilometres up the valley getting amazing views of a pair of displaying peregrine falcons and a golden eagle skimming the mountainside. A pair of dipper were displaying beside the salmon run – put in place by Marine Scotland Science to monitor returning salmon numbers (I must go back in autumn) – and grey wagtails flew up and down the banks. In the plantation there were dozens of calling chaffinch, siskin and coal tits. In a clearing I found a derelict cottage. The opening in the canopy was timed to allow me to see a kestrel pass over, before being distracted by a male bullfinch feeding in a Scots pine.
Suddenly a bulky finch flew over my head – a crossbill! Crossbills feed on pinecones and have the perfect bill for the job, like a set of pliers. The pine forests of the Cairngorms are one of the few areas that you can be guaranteed to see these amazing finches. Lucky individuals may also spot Scottish Crossbills, our only endemic bird. Still I am happy to see their slightly more slender billed cousins and decided that it’s high time I retreated to Kirkmichael to pick up a victory pie.
Returning home I was treated to marvelous views of our red squirrels as well as a visit from the roe deer below the bird feeders. He was the first light coated fallow I have seen on the site, a sure sign that spring is advancing, and I made sure to grab a record shot or two. In two weekends I’ve seen pine marten, red squirrel, three species of deer, and 45 species of bird, climbed two mountains and explored a beautiful hidden valley – all within 30 minutes of work. It’s clear that I’ve moved to a very special place.
All pictures and text by Natalie Welden