Guest Blog by Andy Beevers - THE CAIRNGORMS WINTER WILDLIFE EXPEDITION MON 6TH – FRI 10TH FEB 2023
The group of 7 guests – Russ, Suzanne, Don, Gill, Julie, Simon and Andy – met up with leaders Ewan and John Miles in the foyer of the Grant Arms Hotel, Grantown on Spey, at 5pm on the Monday. We enjoyed a fabulous 3 course dinner before moving on to the lecture theatre (the Osprey Suite) for a talk by Ewan on the Minke Whale.
Following an excellent breakfast we left the hotel at 9.00am heading for our first destination Cairngorm Mountain. Due to predicted high wind speeds this was the best day to visit this iconic location. The car park was pretty full on arrival with lots of winter sports enthusiasts and kids parties enjoying what little snow was remaining. From the car park Ewan spotted a Mountain Hare, in its winter finery, on the hillside along with a couple of Ravens before we started our walk up the right hand side of the mountain. Before long we spotted a herd of semi-wild Reindeer about 400m away. Further up Red Grouse were seen and Ptarmigan heard. Back at the car park a couple of Snow Buntings were seen feeding on seeds left out by photographers whilst we ate our packed lunches.
Snow Bunting. Photo by Simon Dunn
A brief, but unfortunately fruitless, stop at Loch Morlich for the Ring-necked Duck completed the daytime viewing before a return to the hotel for high tea. It was generally agreed that the macaroni cheese served up was the best that we’d eaten. Gill managed to prise the recipe off the chef and apparently it was the Lockerbie Cheddar that made this dish so special.
We left the hotel at 5.45pm for our evening visit to the Speyside Mammal Hide. Before entering the hide we all stopped to look at the wonderful night sky full of stars and planets – a truly wonderful experience unfortunately denied to most of us through light pollution where we live. In the hide Harris explained to us what would happen and he went outside to liberally distribute peanuts and sultanas whilst smearing peanut butter at strategically placed locations. We sat down for the evening’s visitors. Four Badgers visited along with one or two Wood Mice whilst Harris told us about the family dynamics of this badger clan. After filling up with cakes (brought with us from our high tea so we could make the allotted rendezvous time) – slices, brownies, lemon drizzle cake, scones & pancakes, we were ready to exit the hide when a male Pine Marten made an appearance at 9.29pm! This arrival made the evening for everyone and after about thirty minutes the female Marten came in too. It should be said at this time that Andy’s repeated rubbing of his lucky Māori charm had worked its magic. Two trips to the hide and both times two Martens have shown up. There’s a reason to visit New Zealand to buy your very own talisman! We left the hide around 10.30pm seeing Brown Hare and Roe Deer on the return to the hotel. What a fantastic evening.
Pine Marten - Photo by Simon Dunn
After breakfast, day three saw us drive over to Loch Spynie near the Moray coast. This is a small RSPB reserve with a big reputation. Red Squirrel was seen immediately on the feeders. There was a host of small passerines here too – Long- tailed, Coal, Blue & Great Tits, Treecreeper, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Yellowhammer together with Great Spotted Woodpecker. We walked down to the hide and spent a great hour and a half there. First up John spotted the adult Green- winged Teal (the American version of the Eurasian Teal), There were big numbers of Teal and Wigeon here. Also seen were up to 10 Goosander, Mallards, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye and a single Gadwall. A brown bird of prey put up the wildfowl a couple of times and after much discussion it was generally agreed to be a female Sparrowhawk. Ewan and John both saw the electric blue flash of a distant Kingfisher. A large flock of c100 Curlews were put up from a distant field.
Returning to the car park a lone female Crossbill was seen – excellent views for a notoriously difficult bird to see as they normally feed high up in the Scots Pines. Loch Spynie is a fine location to spend a couple of hours. Lunch was taken at Hopeman harbour where it was blowing a gale before we moved on to Burghead for a sea watch. We were slightly more sheltered here and managed to see Red-throated Diver, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Red-breasted Merganser. We drove back to the hotel having had an excellent day’s nature viewing.
Long-tailed Ducks. photo by Simon Dunn
Day four saw us stop not far from the hotel at a layby where we viewed at least five displaying Black Grouse in the distance. Taking the single track to Lochindorb there were two female and a single male Red Grouse close to the minibus. The male looked splendid with the white eye ring, red comb and white leg feathers. We then drove on to Strathdearn in the Findhorn Valley. Leaving the van to look for Mountain Hares the weather suddenly changed and we got caught in a wintery squall. Whilst sheltering under the pines we saw a wild goat with a kid. A short walk up the estate track failed to produce any hares. We had lunch before moving on to a pull in where Ewan spotted two Golden Eagles with one definitely doing a display flight. Red Deer were seen on the hillside bringing our mammal count to nine species.
Female Crossbill. Photo by Simon Dunn
After dinner John gave us a talk on the breeding record of Bee-eaters in the UK. Our final day saw us take the short drive to the Grantown Community Woodland where the feeder produced two Crested Tits, Coal, Blue and Great Tits. A single Treecreeper was also seen often feeding on the floor – a first example of this behaviour for many. We moved on to the RSPB reserve at Insh Marshes – sightings here included a family group of Whooper Swans.
Crested Tit - Photo by Simon Dunn
Upon return to the hotel everyone said their goodbyes. This has been an excellent expedition run by Nature Scotland led by Ewan Miles and his father John. The guests all bonded well and the five days were full of laughs and nature highs. The Grant Arms Hotel is an excellent location to base yourself in the Scottish Highlands – the food was excellent, the staff professional and courteous and the bedrooms comfortable.