On the weekend of 24-26 February the DESS team headed to the Cairngorms with mammal expert Rob Strachan. Also joining us were Rob’s partner Jane, Stuart Spray and his partner Louise. Stuart is making a short film about the trip. The main purpose of the trip was to look for Pine marten signs in the pinewoods of Strathspey, and to learn about Pine marten surveying techniques, and also to learn more about the elusive Scottish wildcat. The trip also gave us the chance to see some magnificent remnants of Caledonian pine forest and learn about their management, and of course, to watch wildlife at every opportunity.
On the Thursday Rob gave us a couple of very informative presentations about Pine martens and wildcats at the DESS offices in Edinburgh. We drove North on the Friday in glorious sunshine, getting to our first site, Kinveachy forest, just in time for lunch, which we had near the Sluggan bridge, which was built to cross the River Dulnain and is on General Wade’s military road. The afternoon was spent walking around Carn Bad nan Luibhean. Unfortunately we didn’t find any signs of Pine martens, but did see some Crested tits, a hen capercaillie, some red deer, mountain hares, and some beautiful old forest.
On Saturday morning we headed up to Boat of Garten to meet the SWT’s chairman Allan Bantick. He took us on a short walk through pinewoods near Boat, and explained about the work he does locally with a badger hide, feeding the pinewood birds and red squirrels, and providing specially adapted nest boxes for Crested tits. The February sun was strong enough to bring the wood ants out from their mounds, and armed with the knowledge from a Wood ant guide written by the SWT’s own Jonny Hughes, we set about trying to decide if they were the Northern wood ant (Formica lugubris), or the Scottish (Formica aquilonia).
In the afternoon we made the short journey round to Loch Morlich. We refuelled at the squirrel cafe, watching a rather well nourished red squirrel enjoying some peanuts, while we enjoyed hot chocolates (cream and brandy optional) and dime bar cake (its a tough gig).
We followed the paths around the loch. The budding bryologists in the group headed out onto a bog pine flush to check out some Sphagnum, finding very luxuriant cushions of Sphagnum fuscum, as well as some Sphagnum pulchrum, and Sphagnum girgensohnii as well as the more familiar Sphagnum fallax, cuspidatum and capillifolium. However, mammalogists and bryologists move at different speeds, and they had to tear themselves away before more discoveries could be made. When they caught up with the rest of the group, the bryologists discovered they had missed out on seeing an otter swimming in the loch, but cheered themselves up with the discovery of a sphagnicolous liverwort. This was identified in the field as Calypogeia arguta, but needs to be confirmed. When we rejoined the road in Glen More we found our first pine marten scats of the trip. Hooray! While these were being discussed, studied, photographed, measured, sampled, sniffed, etc. a passing walker asked if we had ever seen a Capercaillie, as she thought she had just been attacked by one. Her iphone pictures revealed it was indeed a rogue capercaillie cock. Male caper begin their lekking displays at this time of year, seeking to woo the females between now and early May. Occasionally a male will go rogue, thought to be caused by excess production of testosterone, and will display to and chase off anything and anyone who passes through his lekking ground. This sounded like too good an opportunity to miss, and we hot-footed it up the track towards where he had been seen.
Sure enough, a couple of miles away, there he was, displaying in the forest 100 yards from the track. As we watched he came closer, and closer, and closer, until he was on the track, and, trailing his wings would sweep towards us, chasing us back - no-one (apart from Nathan) was keen on getting too close to that formidable beak. He took a particular interest in our cameraman Stuart, and in Nathan (see photos).
We then went to a spot where pine martens are regularly seen just after dark. After a two hour wait in varying degrees of patience from Tom’s muttering, shuffling, fidgeting, pleading with everyone for food, to Carolyn’s zen statue we decided it was a no-show and it was back to Aviemore YH for tea, biscuits, fajitas, beer, pool, MOTD and much needed sleep.
On Sunday morning we paid a visit to the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig. While driving through the large animal enclosures we spotted a stoat in ermine that had just killed a rabbit and watched as it struggled to heave the body into a hole. This sighting was the highlight of the trip for many, who had not seen a stoat in ermine before. We were then given a most informative tour of the park’s wildcats by David Barclay, senior keeper of carnivores. Seeing the park’s wildcats at close quarters gave us an opportunity to practice using the pelage scoring system that has been developed to try and work out how wild a wildcat is. The park’s breeding pair of wildcats looked pretty wild. On approaching their cage they would bare their teeth and hiss and spit like a blue blooded wildcat should. David also took us to see a young wildcat that is off-show, and a couple of scats that had been left by wild wildcats that had been visiting its enclosure during the night. Wildcats are very rare animals and their signs are very elusive, so this was a rare opportunity to seem them.
In the afternoon we headed North again to the RSPB’s Abernethy forest reserve. Head warden Desmond Dugan accompanied us on a walk through the reserve. He told us about the history of the reserve from the RSPB’s first involvements in the area with the Loch Garten ospreys in the 1950s through to the present day. We also learned about the way the deer have been managed on the reserve to encourage natural regeneration of the pinewood, and the RSPB’s plans to encourage regeneration of the forest back to its natural treeline on the Northern escarpment of the Cairngorms. On our walk we saw several pine marten scats, as well as fox scats, roe and red deer droppings, and caper and black grouse droppings. We were also lucky enough to see some blackcock. Desmond showed us a colony of Twinflower (Linnea borealis), and we found some of the lovely moss Ptillium crista-castrensis.
In all, it was a great trip to a spectacular part of Scotland, and we are very grateful for the wonderful weather we enjoyed, the luck we had with wildlife encountered, to Rob, Jane, Stuart and Louise for coming with us, and to Allan, David, and Desmond for showing us round.