Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Rainy Forest! Wednesday 5th June 2019

Our week in Northumberland had been blighted by some indifferent weather and since arriving in the Scottish mountains that hadn't changed for the better at all and indeed had turned to pretty awful conditions at times. Waking up on this morning I could hear the rain absolutely hammering down on the tin roof of the cottage and a peek outside the window had me howling in anguish. I don't mind a bit of wet weather, birding can be very good in adverse conditions, but really heavy rain can put paid to any birding activity unless there is a reserve with lots of dry hides to go and sit in. Unfortunately the Speyside area has no such reserves so we were stuck in trying to see birds in the garden except that our cottage garden was 20 metres away down a shared driveway and we couldn't even see it through the sheets of rain that were obscuring the view! So our morning would be spent doing the tourist thing and taking breakfast in the excellent Carrbridge Kitchen which conveniently was just around the corner.

We could see the famous Pack Horse Bridge and the river Dulnain from the cottage windows and the river was absolutely pelting through. Finding Dippers locally would be tricky and I feared for any nests and young that were sited too close to the normal water lines. We idled nearly two hours away in the cafe and were absolutely buzzing from all of the coffee. I can't sit still for long so we decided to make the best of it and head out for a drive. Lochindorb at least offers the birder a chance to see something since you can view the Loch from the road that runs alongside it by using the car as a mobile hide. Unfortunately though Lochindorb is a bleak place in bad weather owing to its isolated situation on the Dava Moor. Famous amongst birdwatchers because of a breeding pair of rare birds, we found that others had the same idea and were slowly cruising along the narrow road in the hope of seeing them. I couldn't even see the area in which they nest because of mist created by the rain so there was little chance of spotting them today.

We rounded a bend and came across a very bedraggled pair of Red-legged Partridges. The whole Lochindorb area is managed as a Grouse shooting moor and recently the Partridges, and Pheasants, introduced for shooting on another estate a few miles away had moved into the area. The two Red-legs were pecking away at isolated tufts of grass and finding whatever they could for their own sustenance. We were able to watch them at very close quarters and they made no attempt to move away and appeared perfectly settled even if they did appear as fed up as we were in the conditions.

Red-legged Partridges
Finding nothing else of note on the Loch other than the large flock of Greylag Geese in various plumage guises we called it off as a bad job and headed back to the cottage. The forecast was for the rain to ease off in the afternoon so we'd wait it out. It would give me a chance to edit some of the photos taken over the previous few days.

By mid-afternoon I was bored, sitting in is not an activity I enjoy doing especially when in my most favourite place on the planet! The rain was still falling but had at least reduced to a steady drizzle, that dreich weather that only sounds right when described by a true Scot. We had to get out and do something so decided that we'd go for a walk in the forest. It was in similar conditions a few years ago when in similar miserable weather I had realised a life's dream when I found a male Capercaillie sheltering in a Scots Pine tree right next to a track in the Abernethy Forest. Ever since then I have optimistically entered the forest on many occasions only to return disappointed. But I've never lost that optimism and know that one day Mrs Caley and I will find the Horse of the Woods again.

Capercaillie, Abernethy Forest, June 2014
We stuck to the wide gravelled track navigating our way around and through the many deep puddles that stood in our way. The forest is so quiet that any sudden noise or movement makes you jump and we did just that when a Red Deer sprang out from the trees just ahead. 

It was in fact quieter than usual, the damp weather ensuring most birds were keeping their heads down. We walked on almost to where a ford crosses the track and finally heard our first Crested Tits of the holiday. They were playing very hard to get staying quite high up in the trees and the rain made viewing difficult. Not my best Crestie photos by a long chalk!

Crested Tit in the dreich
We could also hear Crossbills calling from nearby and found a small group in some smaller Scots Pines just a little further up the track. This family party comprising of the two adults and maybe as many as six juveniles were easier to follow and see owing to them feeding much lower down in a Scots pine. As seems to be the norm when I see Crossbills the female showed much better than the male primarily because the brighter coloured males tend to stand guard right at the top of the tree whereas the females snip off the cones from the lower branches and tend to the young birds. We watched these birds for quite some time and considering the conditions managed some good views and images. The bills and calls were definitely not in the range of Parrot Crossbill but seemed to be deep enough for the intermediate Scottish (if you subscribe to that version) Crossbill rather than the Common Crossbill. I don't count Scottish Crossbill as a separate species and indeed have logged these birds in my bird list as Crossbill species. In any case you need to have sonograms to claim Scottish Crossbill and I still haven't sussed out how to do that!

Juvenile Crossbill sp
Male Crossbill sp
Female Crossbill sp
As mentioned the female was very industrious and would select a suitable cone and then snip it off at the base. The cone would then be carried off to a more stable perch where seeds would be extracted and given to one of the juveniles. The behaviour of the juveniles varied from the disinterested to full on harassment of the parent bird depending on the individual, I guess that some young birds need more tending than others.

The male Crossbill finally left his sentry duty and began showing interest in the cones himself. He still never showed as closely as the female but I was still able to get a few better images. We'd been in company with the Crossbills for maybe ten minutes or more when suddenly and, as always, with no discernible stimulus, the whole flock erupted quickly from the Pine and flew rapidly to another part of the forest.

Up to now we'd been spoiled since the rain had only come down relatively gently. That was about to change for the worse once more and just as we had located a second family group of Crested Tits bigger and heavier raindrops began to fall. We were at least an hours walk away from the car so there didn't seem much point in just heading back so we stuck with the Cresties which became one of the most confiding that we'd ever watched. The Crested Tits were feeding among small Pine trees right next to the path and only at about eye level making viewing easy and binoculars almost redundant. Of course getting photos was just as tricky owing to the low shutter speeds created by the low light levels, I'm not a fan of cranking up the ISO level to compensate such low lighting because it makes for very grainy images so am prone to keep plugging away with slower shutter speeds in the hope of getting lucky. I wasn't too disappointed with the results but looked forward to returning to the forest on a nicer day later in the holiday.

Soaking wet through we left the Crested Tits to it and, despite having seen them and the Crossbills, walked rather disconsolately back to the car. Disappointed because we didn't even get a sniff of a Capercaillie on this walk, it's been five years now since we found the one in the tree and it's obvious that the species is really struggling in the Scottish forests. When we first started visiting Speyside over twenty years ago it was pretty much guaranteed that you'd get regular sightings of Capercaillie, both males and females. Nowadays such encounters are not likely at all and any views, even of a bird flying swiftly away, are rare. But every time we enter the kingdom of the Horse of the Woods we do so full of anticipation and excitement in the hope that it will be the day when we get to see the most magnificent of birds once more. Capercaillies captured my imagination those twenty years ago and they will always be my absolute most favourite of all bird species!

Capercaillie, Nethybridge, June 2013

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