Monday, 21 April 2014

Hopeless in the Highlands Part 2: the Capercaillie Quest

For the second April in a row, Matt, Tom and I escaped to the wonderful Cairngorms in search of the Scottish greats. Setting up home at the usual base of Estacarny in Tomintoul.

Last year we had limited success, lots of early starts and bad weather. Its shocking to think that last winter everything was covered in drifts of snow. This year I got sunburn.

Day 1

We were up for Caper Watch at 5.30, with me chivying the boys out to the car in the freezing cold, the sun just rising. Unlike last year, the car park was practically full, and we entered the hide to find it lined with birders. Unfortunately, despite the many bodies, the hide was still freezing, and the view noticeably Caper free... Even the ospreys looked frozen and bored and at 7.30, we gave up; heading for second breakfast at Grantown.

Poor Osprey's, we never really stop to enjoy you

Full of lorne sausage and black puddings we parked up at the golf course and wandered into the pines (sticking to the path of course). After 5 minutes of wandering we'd zero'd in on a crested tit high in the canopy (approximately 15 meters up), 15 minutes later we'd found more birders (who said they'd met others who'd seen capers there that morning), and I was regretting carrying my camera.

After 50 minutes I was really regretting it. We were ambling alongside the Spey, trying to work out the quickest way back to the car, when we stumbled across a group of siskin in a birch tree... right beside a spruce that appeared to be raining cones. Finally we'd manage to track down those sneaky Scottish crossbills (and gett some pictures to double check our ID). Time to find the car - which took another 30 mins and a nice shot of a red squirrel - and go back for a nap on the sofa.

Poor crossbill record shot

Red Squirrel at Grantown

Saturday night we were booked into the pine marten hide on the Rothiemurchus estate for a dusk watch run by Speyside Wildlife. If you have limited time and want a completely unforgetable experience, I highly recommend it. John, our guide, was knowledgeable, having worked in the park fr the past 3 years, and the hide was blinking luxury after the -3 start to the day at Loch Garten. There were seats. SEATS! And even double glazing. That wasn't even the best part.

As the light was dropping John told us that badgers habitually used the area, and woodcock and tawny owl could commonly be seen. Then, BOOM, two roding woodcock. Points to me. Quickly followed by views of grazing roe dear. Already happy, we settled in to wait for sun down. And we waited. and waited. After an hour I was beginning to think that the mammals had capercaillied on us, and were destined not to make an appearance. Then Matthew, sitting nearest to the window, pointed down in front of the hide - where a lovely old brock was snuffling at the peanuts. Points to Matthew.

I snapped a couple of quick pictures, then went to tell the others, sat at the far side of the hide, and we were inundated with photographers. He hung around for a good 20 minutes, before shuffling off down the path, just as John told us he'd picked up a marten on the infra-red cameras. A moment later he was up on the platform outside the hide, munching on raisins and peanuts.

His name was Ouzel (which instantly made me happy), last year's kit, still lurking around the territory. He had two small dark patches on his cream bib, and barely stopped eating for half an hour, when he suddenly shot up the tree, came down the other side and slunk over the brow of the rise. We were slightly crestfallen.


I gazed out into that darkness for a while, watching for movement. Just finding interesting rocks. Owl shaped rocks. Points to me. I called the tawny and the rest of the hide shifted again. The bird sat for a while, waiting for mice and bank voles attracted by the food on the ground, and then launched a couple of attacks, before ghosting off into the darkness. That's it. Ten o'clock. time for bed.

Nope. Three more badgers arrived 5 minutes laters, snuffling and shuffling over the peanuts. Their mouths a blur. No quarrelling, no nervousness. Just concerted eating. They cleared up one side of the hide in no time; a female wandering round to the remains in front of the panoramic windows, while the others ambled away into the darkness.

Brilliant badger - thoroughly ignored when the second marten appeared

This female was fearless. right up to the windows. I could have watched her for hours, unfortunately for her, after 15 minutes another pine marten appeared. He was called Twiggy, so named for his poor body condition when he first arrived, and was the local dominant male. He set to clearing up the remaining food and the hide buzzed with happiness. We finally left at 11 30, completely elated, before the hideous realisation that wee had to be up in 5 hours to get to the Caper Watch... and it was a 50 minute drive back to the cottage.


Day 2

Almost four hours later I woke up, crept round the cottage, and almost ditched both boys in the attempt to make it to Loch Garten for 5.30. In his rush to catch a lift, Tom double layered pyjamas with clothes, and away we went. The hide was slightly emptier, but more importantly there was a caper. It was distant, but we got it in scope, and a truly awful record shot before it disappeared back into the tree line. I ate a victory cookie, then we went home for more sleep.


After a solid nap we spent the rest of the day exploring Cairngorm and wandering the shores of Loch an Eilein, where we spent an exciting ten minutes luring in GS woodpecker by drumming on trees, 5 minutes watching goldeneye and teal, and 90 minutes roasting alive.


Scottish Crossbill
Crested tit
Red grouse
Tawny Owl
GS Woodpecker
Carrion Crow
Willow warbler
Great, Coal and Blue Tit
Song Thrush
Plenty of Oyks, Lapwing, Curlew
Too many Chaffinches

Mountain Hare
Pine Marten
Red Squirrel

Unlike last year, we left feeling smug, already planning a trip later in the year - watch this space.


  1. Hey Nat, sounds like a good trip!

    1. Just what I needed, all this thesis writing is driving me up the wall!