Highlights – January, 2016

Published: 24th January 2016

We started the year off well with trip up Glen Loy to look for golden eagle, and were rewarded with the sight of a male hunting. The folk at the end of the glen were away, and the garden was strangely empty of birds, which is unusual. Plenty of deer also on the hillsides, still quite high up despite some snow. Very little else in the way of birdlife, but did find a stonechat and a lingering meadow pipit. Subsequent trips up ‘dead-end’ glens have produced similar results. We had a walk up Glen Fintaig, and were staggered by the number of deer about, both red and sika.  Tracks in the snow suggested a lot of activity in the lower parts of the glen. When seen together the two deer species look quite different, and it is hard to imagine that the degree of crossbreeding that has been suggested actually takes place. The sika looked very dark, almost black, and have an undistinguished bearing, with a bent neck and poor antlers. We only had the briefest glimpse of an eagle that day, with rather better views of buzzard and raven. The undoubted highlight was a flock of around 20 snow buntings, flitting around the edge of the snow line and twittering tunefully. A trip up Glen Nevis yesterday also produced at least one golden eagle (probably a pair, although I only saw one bird at any one time, and that at a distance), but only one deer. This is not unusual as deer are controlled in this area and tend to stay away from the main tourist paths.  It always comes as a pleasant surprise to find the goldies hunting not a wing-beat away from one of the local honeypots. I heard that the Glen Nevis pair had successfully fledged young last year, and this remains one of the best places for the casual visitor to see them in Lochaber.

We have taken advantage of breaks in the weather a couple of times and headed east towards Speyside. Dropping people off at Kingussie station is always a good excuse to visit Insh Marshes. Several whooper swans on the flooded marshes, along with a single Bewick – despite the lack of scope that day this was so much smaller than the whoopers it could not really be anything else.  A walk around the reserve produced several roe deer, a few treecreepers (which we are seeing a lot of at present) and a large flock of 20-30 long-tailed tits. The latter are always a pleasure to see and surprisingly difficult to photograph, as they don’t seem to use feeders in this part of the world.

We did however, make a subsequent visit along the A86 this time to Loch Morlich and Cairngorm, in the hope of photographing crested tits. A search around the woods at the end of Loch Morlich yielded a nice shot of a goldcrest, more sightings of treecreeper, and eventually good views of perhaps three cresties,  although these were proving hard to photograph. Angela was testing a new camera with a 60x zoom, but this doesn’t help if the little blighters don’t stay still for more than two seconds. We had much better success on the feeders at the nearby Glenmore visitor centre. One poor crested tit flew smack into the window, but recovered sufficiently to flutter into a nearby tree, where it was very still for quite a few minutes. Others seemed to prefer feeding on fat from half coconut shells. A great spotted woodpecker also posed obligingly. We carried on up to Cairngorm, where they had just enjoyed the first major snowfall of the season. The main slopes and carpark were full of skiers, despite it being midweek. We had Coire na Ciste almost to ourselves, however, and went in search of mountain hare. Plenty of tracks and fresh pellets, along with evidence of where they had sheltered by rocks, but no hares themselves. We were surprised by the number of red grouse around, feeding in patches of rough grass emerging from the snow, and visible all along the side of the road up to the funicular. We were delighted to see a flock of snow buntings in the main car park, virtually ignoring the skiers and hunting for scraps around the (disused) picnic benches. These also proved very amenable to photography. On both trips we also saw black grouse perched in trees by the side of the road close to Creag Meagaidh; always worth looking out for.

A few centimetres of snow at home allowed us to do some tracking, which we keenly anticipate each winter. Fox prints were once again to the fore both along the canal towpath and through the forest plantations. It never fails to surprise us to see just how much fox activity there is locally, as we rarely see them. We also followed a red deer through the forestry for several miles before it disappeared into unpathed territory. Despite new fences there are still a few resident in the Glen Loy forestry, along with numerous roe deer, which ensure that the forest road verges are well cropped. The other species of note is, of course, the pine marten, who have a much more drunken approach to paths, wandering from one side to the other, always inquisitive and always hungry. Vole and mice tracks also criss-cross the path, usually appearing from a hole and quite often disappearing to leave a raised run under the snow.

At Glenloy Lodge we have had up to four pine martens visiting in the evening at feeding time. They are becoming bold in their haste to reach food before their rivals, and only become more hesitant as their immediate hunger is assuaged. The jay is still occasionally visiting our feeding station, which is now being routinely patrolled by our local sparrowhawks. For the first winter since we have been here there are flocks of house sparrows in the bushes bordering the garden and they too are regularly using the feeders, and no doubt making a contribution to the sparrowhawk larder. A reasonable-sized flock of about 40 crossbill has been passing through the garden at regular intervals, but now they have worked their way through most of the remaining cones. We have also been privileged to see a barn owl up and down the road not far from the Lodge on a couple of recent occasions. The highlight of the year so far, however, has been a stoat, partly in ermine, which hunted through the garden one morning. This busy little mammal made a thorough exploration of the rhododendron bushes and flower beds, before disappearing off into the forestry. The partial whiteness was a bit puzzling. At the time it visited there was no snow, and it seems awfully late in the winter for the coat to be in transition. We still wished it luck, although I suspect that the pine martens have the local vole population well under control.