Easter Saturday 20th April 2019

Our year is a busy one. We have been home for a week and we are now up at 4am to set off for the Cairngorms in Scotland by 5.30am. Everything was planned the night before so we had little to do but dress and feed the dogs who wondered why we got them up so early in the middle of the night!

We were off. The weather was good and soon after 6am, the first strings of pink opened the skies in front of us. Very quickly the sun rose, a bright orange ball and at times being so low I had to pull down the sun visor several times when the road twisted veering eastwards.
We made very good time hitting Taunton services within the hour and reaching Gloucester services within 2 hours. Very fast – not too much traffic. We continued with only one lavatory break all the way to Carlisle. It took six and a half hours and we arrived well before lunchtime.

Only twice did we have any serious traffic. Once at the Blackpool turn off and once at the turn for the Lake District. We stayed at the Premier Inn junction 44 (M6). It was only a few hundred yards from the motorway and there was a garage nearby selling fuel almost 20p a litre cheaper than the motorway services petrol station. The Premier Inn was good, clean, reasonable food, very good bed, clean room, good staff and inexpensive – you know what you are getting and above all incredibly convenient.

Next morning we filled our fuel tank and continued on for Scotland. Again, a good fast journey. We set off at 8.45am and arrived about 1pm – some 4 and a half hours later.
Everything was so much easier than normal, brilliant dry roads. Because it was bank holiday Easter Sunday, like yesterday there were many less lorries on the road than normal. On the way up we spotted several buzzards, two kestrels, a little egret in Somerset, the usual crow family; magpies, rooks, jackdaws and carrion crow. In the Lake District, Canada geese flew over the motorway and as we arrived in Scotland, a substantial flock of lapwings greeted us, and a few oystercatchers.

We booked in at the Grant Arms, missed lunch, but ate a very enjoyable supper and retired early.

The weather had made the journey particularly pleasant and fairly easy. One of the highlights was the mass of yellow flowers; avenues of daffodils both wild and planted, long lines of dandelion vivid flower heads on the road sides and banks of fresh cowslips. Even when we arrived in the Highlands, there were daffodils, often small on nearly every highway.

This year we have been particularly lucky. We celebrated some good weather and an attractive spring with early daffodils and then a wonderful showing of primroses and violets. Then we enjoyed a week in the Scillies and could see they had an even earlier spring and the islands were covered in flowers and now we are in the Cairngorm National Park celebrating their slightly later spring. May flowering everywhere and many trees, like the wild cherry are also flowering, an abundant time.

Our first day in the Cairngorms, Monday 22nd April

We settled well in the Grant Arms Hotel at Grantown on Spey. Many staff were as last year and welcomed us back. After a delicious breakfast of a proper pair of split kippers and in Cherry’s case, bacon, tomato, and a poached very yellow yolked egg; we collected our binoculars and camera and set off in the car to Lochindorb. Once off the main roads we encountered a huge flock of common gulls. These are rather pretty little gulls, a little larger than our black headed gull. Down in Cornwall and Devon we see very few stragglers; in their place, we have kittiwakes and black headed gulls. This was the breeding flock either side of the relatively quiet moorland road, but although they had in many cases paired, there were no nests yet.

We continued slowly and spotted several meadow pipits. Once by the loch we spotted a solitary black headed gull in his extremely smart rich brown headdress. A pair of siskins landed on the road itself and then leapt away on the breeze. Three mallard drakes, again in exemplary breeding uniform, were feeding at the water’s edge, a common sandpiper and oystercatcher followed, and a male lapwing was bathing in shallow water; once finished he left on the breeze, letting it lift him to the green field on the opposite side of the road, dancing in the air showing off to his wife who was sitting on, no doubt, 4 precious pointed eggs.

Then the viewing of the day; a pair of black throated divers riding the waves and diving some distance off shore. I failed to obtain a photo. Every time I had focused, they dived. We watched for several minutes and they disappeared.

Pied wagtails, barn swallows and then our first red grouse of this visit. What a smart fellow, intricate feathering on his back with his red eyepiece, he stood out. We then managed to see wheatear and stonechat and finally a pink-footed goose on the way back to the hotel.

In the afternoon, we decided to drive around the Glenlivet Estate.

A good set of birds, lapwings (one pair sitting on a manure heap clearly enjoying the warmth) oyster catchers, our first curlew (we heard him call first) and pied wagtails. Later by the “toon” pronounced very differently, there were many pheasant, French partridge, chaffinches, and a long tailed tit in the higher trees.

Our day was made by our first BROWN HARE sighting. At first, it sat and looked at us but quickly decided to run away.

The final sighting of the day was a dipper on Avon Bridges. We were particularly wanting to both see this attractive little bird as it is among Cherry’s favourites and she failed to see one last year in the Highlands. This year was different.

Later that night I made my first lecture. It went well but the audience was disappointingly low as the hotel is very quiet as this is the week following the book week.
As we went to bed, an emergency medicine program was on. Cherry loves these things and watched, I lay down on my good ear. She suddenly said, “Did you hear that?”
“Yes” I said, “he’s 69 and got a swollen bladder.”
“No,” she said. “He’s 75 and fallen off a ladder!”
We both giggled with mirth.

Tuesday 23rd April
The day dawned dry but a little cloudy but very quickly became brighter and the temperature rose to 22 degrees, about the same as yesterday.

No pheasants and herons waking us up as at home, or gulls and starlings as in the Scillies. Here the friendly cooing of the wood pigeon awoke us and continued its warm tones every now and again interjected by the anxious peeping of the oystercatchers flying back to the Spey as though lost.

Today we decided to drive to Findorn Valley. On the drive there, we watched oystercatchers, pink-footed goose, and chaffinches.

As we entered the valley, we saw a large brown hare trotting across the road in front of us. Chaffinches pinked gently and sang loudly. Two red kites flew over us. Cherry spotted them. I stopped the car and enjoyed good views. There followed sightings of lapwing and curlew breeding black headed gulls down on the river. The wonderfully handsome mistle thrush was hopping around on the turf next to the curlew. Mallard and curlew hugged the river. Red-legged partridge and a female pheasant ran in front of us. A blackbird flew out into the road. We stopped in an area large enough to park down by the river and looked around with our binoculars. Cherry was the first to spot two golden eagles and then a third giving very good views soaring together. A solitary greenshank was wading and feeding at the edge of the river. As we drove on Cherry made me stop suddenly and reverse and there to our right we watched hundreds of stags in velvet moving calmly from lower to higher ground each jumping over a six-foot fence. A few hinds joined them.
Meadow pipits, wheatear flew around. We then noticed a group of sixteen multi coloured goats ranging freely, with kids. We stopped to watch them, then parked in a formal parking area, and again looked around with our glasses. This time, a pair of peregrine were flying fast and high.
Another brown hare, stonechats, wheatear, mistle thrushes, and two rabbits finished the valley sightings. Right at the end of the morning, we saw a male greenfinch perched allowing us a good view.
Later in the day, we walked in Anagach Wood behind the hotel. We only saw small birds, blue tit, great tits, blackbird, wood pigeon and heard a tawny owl (male) calling. By chance, a roe deer ambled across in front of us.

Wednesday 24th April
The day started dry and bright, the hopes of continued good weather remain. I write up this diary from my field notebook looking out of the windows of our bedroom at Grant Arms at the square of grass below with great leaden containers the size of coffins filled with bright blooming daffodils. The deciduous trees are bursting with green buds of leaf, emerald green, jackdaws, starlings patrol the grass feeding, the starlings walking, and running like partly old men, the jackdaws were careful and aware of every potential danger with their untrusting pearly grey eyes. If they feel in danger, they return straight to the top of the high chimneys of the strongly built granite houses opposite my window vantage point. Here they are clearly nesting, several daws in several pots. Grantown really is a charming town, quiet but with always something to take the eye. The jackdaws fly from the chimney pots over the hotel to the woods and golf club behind, where they probe the velvet grass for bugs and worms; on their return they “home in to their personal chimney pot. The larger dumpy wood pigeons croon from tall trees and when on the grass they waddle around like fat old women. Touches of pink and mauve sparkle in their breast when caught by the sun, which makes them rather smart with their vicar’s white collars. A blue tit picked minute life from the unfurling fresh leaves unobtrusively, common gulls fly high in the sky flashing across the eddies and changes on the wind.
Early in the morning, we visited Loch Garten, but were both disappointed. The female osprey, now 22, had not migrated back to Scotland, assumed dead. Currently, no ospreys had taken over the site. The whole place was disappointingly empty of life, almost as though the wildlife had stayed under cover mourning the ospreys passing.
We saw a tufted duck (definitely not a golden eye) and a couple of mallards on the loch opposite the entrance to the RSPB. A lone great tit saw us off. We then travelled to Avielochan Hide and this was so different.
Swallows and a couple of house martins flew over the water skimming flies off the surface and then raking up over the reeds and bushes at the edge of the loch. The sun shone and both were clearly different and colours of the tails were very clear.
There was a crowd of noisy gulls holding a convention in the far side of the loch; the mixture was of the common gull, common here, the ridiculously handsome black headed gull with amazing chocolate colour heads and the much larger, and sometimes more aggressive herring gull. It must have been a hot subject as there were a lot of raised calls and much coming and going.
Two pairs of Slavonian grebe and a pair of dabchicks carried out their business quietly disappearing every few seconds in a dive for food. The Slavonians are a very rare grebe. It is estimated that there are only 30 breeding pairs in Scotland and they breed nowhere else in the UK. That means that this little loch was responsible for more than 3% of the breeding stock. The smaller little grebes are much more common but nice to see, very smart and often secretive and sometimes misidentified. One visiting couple, purely as they are small, had thought they had seen our tiniest duck, the much more attractively plumaged teal.

We watched three pairs of golden eye, the male in his eye catching black and white coat, the female a little darker.

We watched a snake like head rise from the sedges and reeds on the far side. It was a sitting pink foot goose. There appeared to be three resident pairs but like the gulls, it was a constantly moving feast. As many as fourteen more pink foots flew in and swam. A rather dark buzzard flew over as the pink foots organised themselves into a most military pattern floating passed us all equidistant from one another. Oystercatchers piped flying up into the air for no apparent reason and then rising, the sheep levelled grass on the other side looking rather embarrassed. A common sandpiper bobbed his white tail around the edge as a handful of sand martins flew in performing their aerial acrobatics. A curlew bubbled from nearby. Pied wagtails, willow warblers, blackbirds, great tits and of course chaffinches kept the whole place alive around the hide itself with a pair of willow warblers chasing one another around the gorse. A heron arrived and stood stock-still.
While in the hide on three separate occasions a large queen wasp entered, clearly favouring the hide as a place to build her beautiful wood chewed nest. Finally, a most stunning green mayfly rose from the water right in front of us. We left feeling very happy, deciding to check on the Spey Bridge much nearer the hotel.

On our way back we watched a large flock of black headed gull, obviously a breeding flock around a small but permanent pond.
Pink lupines lined the great river, only a few flowers out but signs of a good crop ahead. A pied wagtail continued to fly into the air catching various insects and return to the same half water covered boulder giving us an excellent chance to study his immaculate black and white breeding plumage.
A pair of dippers flew up and down the river, swallows and starlings flew over and chaffinches sung at every convenient spot. A male shelduck flew up the river calling loudly looking predominantly white, disturbing fiver common sandpipers that erupted with skimming wings down river landing with ever moving and bobbing white tails.
The whole, as everywhere, set among blazing yellow gorse, confetti like May and stark white blossoms. Daffodils performed as foot soldiers.

Thursday 25th April
It rained last night but has already cleared as I write my diary.

We set off for Cairngorm, although sadly there is no snow, temperatures at the car park were high at 120c and the Vernacular to the top had closed for structural reasons. On our way a buzzard flew over, pink-footed geese ate grass and a roe deer simply looked as we passed. On the way, we stopped at Molach Loch. At first the whole loch looked empty but soon enough a male goosander (the fresh water relation to the mergansers we had seen earlier in the year at Topsham) swam near to us, followed by tufted duck and golden eye while black headed gulls soared over the top. Mallard obviously were fed regularly and they glided in close to us looking up and wondering where the bread was. A sole black throated diver swam and dived and fished some way off.
We continued on to the main car park at Cairngorm. There we saw quite easily three male ring ouzels and one female and a pair of red grouse glided from above, down across the car park, most impressive! Meadow pipets abounded but no ptarmigan or snow buntings as it was already too warm for them and they had gone much higher.
Further on Loch Insh we saw the pair of ospreys high in their nest on the island, the female sitting tight, the male coming back every so often with a fish or a just sitting near to her. Goosander, goldeneye, mallard, and heron also favoured the loch. We watched yet another buzzard on our return journey.

Friday 26th April
Bright, sunny but with well-formed clouds.
As I start today’s diary a huge lorry is driving past with a substantial load of cut pine logs, some 20’ long. It seems so out of place with the beautiful quietness of Grantown. Of course wood is a major resource of the area and the road is a main route but fortunately very quiet on the standard of most English roads.

After breakfast, we drove to Findhorn Valley and saw a pair of buzzards and a kite, a few rabbits and a bullfinch. Otherwise, nothing of any real note. Slightly disappointed, we returned to Grantown where we had planned to take the old Strathspey steam train on a short return journey only to find that it was not running until Saturday. We reorganised to drive to the House of Bruar, which Cherry suggested was a little way down the road. On the way, we passed Newtonmore, where there is a small charity, making people, particularly children, more aware of the Scottish Wildcat, called the Wildcat Experience, which is a treasure hunt uncovering various multi coloured model cats around Newtonmore. The lady in charge was charming but said there were no more pure cats in the area.

As we were quite hungry by now, we popped into a place called The Tuck Shop opposite. It was a cross between a café, a gift shop, and a sweet shop. Normally in England, we would have enjoyed a pint of cider and a snack, or in Cherry’s case a glass of wine. But, here in Scotland there is a zero tolerance rule of drinking and driving, so we ended up in this rather unusual place. However, we ordered soup and a sandwich, which was very tasty, and the shopkeeper very attentive.
Yesterday, because of this no drinking at all rule, we returned mid-afternoon to have a drink and a bite to eat once the car was parked for the night. We visited a small pub in the main street. It looked and was simply a drinking pub with lots of machines and little atmosphere and before we could retrace our steps a rather large unkempt women greeted us. We ordered a glass of wine and a local brew. Then we asked for the menu, only to be told, “We don’t do food, it’s a drinking pub.” We looked at each other. “But” she said, “there’s a butcher next door who does nice pies and a fish and chip shop opposite, you can eat it here with your drink.”
Cherry and I looked at each other, surprised.
Having assured me it was OK, the barmaid, whose mother was the Licensee said again, “we’ll give you plates, cutlery and sauces.”
I went first to the butcher but because it was quite late, most of his pies had been sold. I went across to the Fish and Chip shop, immaculately clean, tidy, and ordered fish and chips for me and a chicken and mushroom pie for Cherry, and returned to the pub. Immediately plates and cutlery appeared and the food was transferred from the carrying boxes and paper. I shared my chips and we spent a pleasant if unusual hour.

The previous day we had had a hot chocolate and soup, very different from our norm.
Now we were driving to the House of Bruar, a vast out of town Emporium. Consisting of clothes shops, gardening unit, and a wonderful massive food hall. Huge number of drinks and a fine butchery with every conceivable drink, food and meat one could wish for. We learnt we could mail order to Cornwall for just £7.85, marvellous for Christmas and other celebrations. The return journey exceeding 90 miles, “it didn’t look that far on the map,” said Cherry, rather excited because she had bought a nice top in the clothes shop.

Saturday 27th April
Today we drove around Loch Ness on a circular route and rather than birding enjoyed the scenery, the wonderful purple mountain ranges reflected in the lochs, some of which were very low. The trees are bursting with various shades of green and blossoms. A large pink ornamental cherry, a vast old horse chestnut throwing out cascades of white candle flowers, amazing blossoming may and blazes of yellow gorse; daffodils still abound around almost all road signs and primroses sit quietly on the banks to the sides of the roads. We enjoyed the day, being Saturday, and in a slightly busier area there was more traffic than in the more remote areas we have visited this week.
After what appeared a truly successful talk on Gerald Durrell, we have been invited to return next year from 1st March 2020 for a week to present two lectures.

Sunday 28th April
Fairly cloudy day but still dry.
A note I forgot yesterday, we popped in to see Margaret Grant “kilt maker” on the High Street, Grantown. We showed her pictures of the ‘still’ in our living room – the one that we purchased from her last year. She was thrilled.

We have recorded mileages from this trip for future information.
Start in Cornwall 21790 Saturday 393 miles, 6½ hrs perfect weather
Carlisle 22183
To Grantown on Spey 22415 Sunday onwards 232 miles 4½ hrs perfect weather
End of tours, birding etc. 23005 590 miles
Return to Alladale 23168 165 miles 2¾ hrs each way good weather
Final Mileage 23799 631 miles home

Sunday 28th April
Good dry weather.
We set off for Alladale Wilderness Centre to collect a female Scottish Wildcat. The first piece on the main road was quick having departed about 9am, but the nearer we travelled the slower the journey, ending in many twisty lanes with passing places only until utter wilderness. We phoned ahead at 10am to warn of our arrival but were still an hour and three quarters before we finally arrived. Indications to Alladale Lodge were clear and we arrived outside of a beautiful elevated granite stone property, the Lodge.
On the way we stopped in Cromarty Firth on the Black Isle and watched red breasted mergansers, a pair of eider ducks, the male so handsome in his black and white attire. Noisy shelducks flew in front of us and a small group of common seal lay out on the lumps of sand at the current low tide. As we travelled away from the Black Isle we spotted two hooded crows among a flock of the more normally seen black birds. They were handsome and I managed to photograph one.
At Alladale we met Paul Lister the owner and got on well. Ennis the wilderness manager showed us around part of the estate but not before Paul had arranged coffee and water for us. We particularly enjoyed seeing the Highland cattle herd. Paul fed them to bring them near. They were stunning black and orange through to cream with their “teddy bear” calves. Ennis’s assistant boxed the female cat, and having enjoyed red deer and roe, heard our first cuckoo, seen a golden eagle, meadow pipits, a blue tit on a feeder, a green woodpecker, mistle thrushes and oyster catchers, we said goodbye for our return journey.
We now set off to Edinburgh Zoo and arrived, meeting the various keepers and picked up a male, 8 months old Scottish Wildcat and drove directly home. We enjoyed the whole break enormously.

Gallery of Photos from our trip

Tony Blackler

- A collection of short stories -

Tony is a passionate writer as well as an active conservationist. He is currently working on a number of books and we are delighted to be able to share a few stories from them.

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