Tuesday, 21 August 2018

At last! The forest. June 9th

A whole week into the holiday and, apart from a walk into the woods behind our cottage on Sunday, we hadn't ventured into our most preferred of places, the Pine Forest! Normally we'd break our necks to get into the trees and seek out the most enigmatic bird of all but over twenty years of experience has calmed us down somewhat and we now knew that it was better to get some of the other more difficult to find local birds in first. Capercaillie are really hard to find in June anyway and although we expected to get some views during this fortnight, it was far from guaranteed. It was now five years since we had seen this stunning male bird (below) close to Nethybridge and in the intervening years only distant flight views had been achieved. Maybe we'd be luckier over the remaining week of our holiday?

We have several favourite tracks into the forest that we take, experience telling us that generally you need to get quite a long way away from roads and people to stand the best chances of seeing the "Horse of the Woods". We weren't up particularly early either, setting out at 07:00, a good three hours after day break, since many of our better sightings of Capercaillies had been later in the mornings and even after midday. We walked away from the parking area leaving our car alone under the trees. The trees towered above us on all sides filtering the pleasant sunshine through and already casting shadows across the way. It was a beautiful morning, the type that I live for. To my mind there is no better place to be in the entire world than a Scottish Pine Forest on a fabulous fresh morning. This morning the forest was eerily quiet though and I wondered, not for the first time on this trip, where were all the birds? I couldn't hear any Willow Warblers singing or calling and very few Chaffinches, the most common inhabitant here, were heard either. Another worrying sign that birds have had a very hard winter and spring and are sadly in decline. 

We had walked a fair way, already over the bridge that crosses the Nethy river where we'd watched a wonderful juvenile Dipper a couple of years ago, and still the quietness remained. Don't get me wrong, I love the tranquility, but would just like to hear a bit more birdsong. On reaching the crossroads of tracks we headed straight on uphill. This was where we gratefully encountered the first birds of the walk with a Common Redstart singing from a dead tree and a Spotted Flycatcher (thankfully added to Mrs Caley holiday list) flitting from branch to branch. Finally we heard a Willow Warbler singing in a small stand of birch trees by a small tributary stream of the river Nethy. The path winds up through some really old Scots pines and a valley cut by the stream falls away to the right while more trees straddle the slope to the left. We heard the soft trill of a Crested Tit high above us in the canopy. It took a few minutes but we finally located not one but two of these fabulous little birds as they very actively fed in the many nooks and crannies in the branches. A further five minutes was needed before either of the birds presented themselves closely enough to photograph.

Now we were zoned in lots of birds followed onto the day list, nothing rare but it was encouraging to finally be seeing birds in good numbers. Tree Pipits sang right at the tops of the tallest trees, hurtling themselves skywards before descending parachute like back to the treetop and continually singing throughout the whole show. Spotted Flycatchers were seen in good numbers but all were proving impossible to capture via the camera. We came across a number of fallen trees that would have been taken by a winter storm. A line of felled giants lay in a straight across the forest suggesting that a very strong "tornado" or similar must have travelled directly through the forest. These trees are huge, in British terms, and must take some blowing over! A pair of Common Redstarts had decided to build a nest in the upturned roots of one of the prone trees and we watched them busily take material to the construction site. The female of the pair posed momentarily on a nearby branch.

The path emerges from the trees onto a wider vehicle track that continues further past a Lochan and into the hills beyond. The area by the confluence of these ways is a good area for seeing Capercaillie since there is a wide turning area and lots of small pine saplings, which they love to eat. We've had a fair few close encounters with the biggest of the grouse species here over the years including a hen that flew around us a few times indicating a nest site or even the presence of young chicks. On that occasion we moved away quickly so as to minimise disturbance. This morning there was no immediate sign of any Capercaillie, although we did see some fresh looking droppings, so they were thankfully still in the area.

I could hear Crossbills calling from the last few trees before open moorland takes over. The landscape is being re-wilded here and lots of new Scots pines are growing fast and enlarging the existing forest which can only be good news for the Capercaillie and the other forest dwellers. The Crossbills were located feeding in one of the pines and we watched from afar slowly edging closer in order to get better views. There were at least nine of the finches including many juveniles but which Crossbill species were they? In Scotland there are either two or three separate species of Crossbill depending on which school you adhere to. Everybody accepts that there are Common and Parrot Crossbills present but some authorities also lay claim to a Scottish Crossbill which by design is an endemic species. The differences between the three are slight, Common's have the smallest bills and the highest pitched calls whereas Parrots have the largest bills and deepest calls. Scottish are intermediate between the two. The calls of these birds were definitely closer to the "kup, kup" call of the Parrot Crossbill rather than the "djlip, djlip" of the Common Crossbill. They were also feeding in a Scots pine tree which apparently Common Crossbills generally don't do. Unfortunately records of Scottish Crossbill are only accepted on call and a recording has to be submitted and I completely forgot to take any video since I was too busy taking photos! I suspect that these birds were indeed Scottish Crossbills since the bills were fairly hefty as well as them having the deeper call. See Crossbills for an account and pictures of both Common and Parrot Crossbills that I saw in Surrey on New Year's Day this year.

Crossbills (probably Scottish), female (top 3), juvenile (bottom 2)
The Crossbills had taken their leave flying away over the trees and we resumed our walk. This part of the track passes through an open area and the views are panoramic. Once again the hill rises to the left whilst the land falls away to a low lying boggy area to the other side. There are Golden Eagles in this part of the forest but none were flying high today. Black Grouse are also sometimes seen but in my experience you need a "dreich" day to encounter them, in the warm sunshine they will have gone back to the trees to roost and spruce up. I noticed a quick movement across the track ahead and could also hear the alarm calls of some Mistle Thrushes. After a few seconds the source off the Thrushes consternation raced back across the track, it was a Weasel! Weasels are lightening fast and this one was on a mission, checking the track edges for prey but not at all stealthily, instead relying on its rapidity of movement to surprise anything that it may come across. It was difficult to observe let alone capture with the camera!

The small Loch emerged through the trees to our right. This is a beautiful and serene spot which attracts waterbirds to breed. In the past we have seen Goosander, Wigeon and Goldeneye all with ducklings here. Today though there was just a Little Grebe and a family of Mallards swimming on the water. Interestingly the Mallard troop contained two all white ducklings amongst the regular plumaged birds. I'm unsure whether they're part farmyard or purely leucistic birds.

Mallard family
Cuckoos were very vocal in this part of the forest and we could hear and see four different birds at the same time. As well as grabbing our attention they were being intensely monitored by the resident Stonechats and Meadow Pipits for obvious reasons.

There is another open grassy area way up here that is also home to a Black Grouse lek but you need to get here much earlier in the summer to see them than we had managed on this walk. After our brief picnic lunch (no killer pie this time) we retraced our tracks and headed back. I always feel like the pressure lifts on a return journey. On the outward leg I'm always on a knife edge, (hopefully) ready to act quickly if anything (like a Capercaillie) presents itself. By the walk back I feel as if the opportunity to see things has passed so I'm more relaxed. Of course surprises can still occur and most birds move around all the time, but Capercaillie don't tend to, so unless one has been flushed from elsewhere, if there weren't any around before then they're unlikely to be later. So we settled on enjoying some Tree Pipits that were gathering insects from the path itself and a Mistle Thrush that eyed us warily from a dead tree.

Tree Pipit
Mistle Thrush
Midday had crept up on us, the sun was bearing down, and by Scottish standards it was now quite hot! I heard a less than familiar song emanating from the Juniper covered slope and it took me a while to work out that it was coming from a male Whinchat. I found him perched up prominently on one of the bushes. Male Whinchats are stunning little birds with that impressive eye-stripe standing out even from some distance away. Much less common than their close cousins the Stonechat, to see a Whinchat you generally have to visit an upland area of Britain unless lucky enough to catch them on migration when they drop in to more lowland sites including my local RSPB reserve at Otmoor.

male Whinchat
There was no further sign of the Crossbills and the forest was much quieter now as it tends to be after the morning rush. The walk back through the trees was pretty uneventful apart from some more Cresties high up in the canopy and a very confiding (at last) Spotted Flycatcher.

Spotted Flycatcher
We'd enjoyed our walk immensely as we always do but naturally were also a tad disappointed not to have met a Capercaillie along the way! There'll be other walks into the trees this week, you can be sure of that!

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