Ptarmigan, male, nr Cairngorm Summit
Monday, 18th May - The first of two full days around The Cairngorms and the nearby forests of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy. There was no rush today as I was heading up Cairngorm and the first train didn't run until 10am.
I slowly drove up the mountain, stopping in a few places along the way. I checked out the Osprey nest at Moormore...all present and correct. There were also one or two Red Squirrels running around but quite shy. From there I went to one of the car parks on the shore of Loch Morlich. As I drove into the car park I could see fine examples of male Goosander and Goldeneye just yards from shore. Further scanning produced a pair of summer plumaged Black-throated Divers on the far side along with a pair of Wigeon and two families of Goldeneye.
Goosander drake, Loch Morlich
Goldeneye drake, Loch Morlich
I continued to drive up the mountain to Coire na Ciste and the Black Grouse view point. I met Andy & Phil from Ullapool and Lincolnshire respectively, who, like me had seen hardly anything. They were also heading up the mountain and we birded together several times over the two days. They drove off to Cairngorm Base empty handed while I scanned the tree tops for the Black Grouse. I found one almost immediately and turned to call them back but they were gone. I looked forward to telling them later. I followed them to the top car park seeing only Meadow Pipits along the way.
I was heading up Cairngorm via the Funicular railway. A ticket was £11.50 and this allowed me to use the railway as much as I liked during the day. This proved to be very useful. If you can tolerate the other users then this trip should provide you with all the Cairngorm specialities. Note that you cannot leave the Ptarmigan (top) station to access the mountain. However, if you climb up then you can then get the train down.
Now the Weather: Bloody Cold! It was dry at the car park, then it started raining halfway up then...well look for yourself.
Cairngorm Mountain Funicular Railway
Hmmm, Typical Cairngorm weather?
White Out from Ptarmigan Station
Well it was snowing heavily, luckily the wind remained light all day. We couldn't have picked a worse day. We only saw two species. Pied Wagtail and this gorgeous, male, Snow Bunting.
Snow Bunting, male nr Cairngorm Summit. Now fewer than 10 pairs around Cairngorm Summit.
Spot the Ptarmigan! No? I couldn't either. It is there somewhere because it kept calling.
We gave it up as a bad job, had coffee and cake and decided to come back later in the afternoon as the weather was due to clear. The journey down by train allowed me to see a fleeting Arctic Hare in a transition moult, Ring Ouzels and a juvenile Dipper flying up Cairngorm, up the Allt a' Choire Chais stream at a 45° angle. A strange sight.
I decided to drive back down the mountain but I nearly collected a few new hood ornaments for the car along the way.
Reindeer, Cairngorm. Britain's only free ranging herd.
I then parked at Allt Ban car park near the Glenmore Centre and walked along Allt Ban. A good place for birds and I found male Redstart singing, 5 Crossbills which turned out to be Common Crossbill :-( Tree Pipits and Spotted Flycatchers. Common Sandpipers and Black-throated Divers on the loch.
Common Sandpiper, Loch Morlich
Back up the mountain again. Ring Ouzels, Wrens, Dunnock & Northern Wheatears around the car park and Red Grouse on the slopes.
From the viewing platform the weather was clearer but there was not a sign of any Ptarmigan, only the odd "belching" call. There were however more views of Snow Bunting and distant views of 3 Dotterel north of the Station on Sron an Aonaich. Lots of grumbling from the birdwatchers who knew they would have to come back up the next day.
Tuesday 19th May- Woke at the unholy hour of 4am for no good reason and couldn't get back to sleep. Instead I got dressed and headed for a dawn drive around the Loch Garten area. Red and Roe Deer were everywhere. The primary targets were Pine Martin and Capercaillie. However, I only saw the Capercaillie sitting in a Caledonian Pine about 50 yards from the road. It soon took a dislike to me and disappeared sharpish.
Crested Tit is another bird which has been difficult to pin down but a chat with a photographer (sorry I can't remember your name), from Burnham Overy Staithe no less, pointed me in the right direction. He was dead on! I had been at the spot for about 45 minutes listening to Redstarts, watching Red Squirrels and Common Crossbills. I watched a Coal Tit taking food into nest excavated in a clump of Sphagnum moss. A crossbill call made me look up to see a chunky looking Crossbill sitting in the top of a Pine. I gave it a good scan, turns out there were 6 birds there. It wasn't a Parrot Crossbill but it was perfect for Scottish Crossbill, confirmed by a local birder close by. The family party only stayed for about 20 seconds then they were gone.
I was about to head for the car when what should start feeding in front of me but 3 Crested Tits. Two of the birds were an obvious pair, probably holding territory, and giving the third bird hell. They were rarely still.
Crested Tit, Loch Garten
I was very chuffed as I headed back up Cairngorm to the funicular. Not a lot to see on the way up except that I nearly took another Reindeer out. Santa would not have been pleased.
Remember earlier when I said "We couldn't have picked a worse day"? WRONG. Off the train at the top, through the exhibition, swerved round the shop, bypassed the restaurant onto the viewing terrace and...I was nearly blown over the side! Still snowing only now it had a 60-70mph wind behind it (known locally as a bit of a breeze) and NO BIRDS! Andy & Phil turned up and they had the same result. Coffee & cake and next train down and then back about 2pm.
Can't believe it's nearly June!
These little wind blown ice crystals were everywhere.
What happened next, dear reader, is a mystery because I parked up to watch for Grouse at 11am. Next thing I knew it was 1:45pm. My early morning had caught up with me without warning and now I was paying for it. Two cans of Monster later and I was Buzzing. Back to Cairngorm summit (I can now recite the promotional presentations, from the funicular, word for word).
Back on the viewing platform and I found another Dotterel on Sron an Aonaich then... EUREKA! a pair of Ptarmigan close by. Andy & Phil were made up when I showed them. They were off home soon.
A busy two days. I had seen almost everything that I had wanted to see. I headed back to the campsite to start packing so all I had to do in the morning was to drop the tent.
Tomorrow entails visits to the Findhorn valley & Loch Ruthven then to head North-west to Scourie for a few nights with visits to Cape Wrath & Handa planned.