Monday, 31 August 2015

Cairngorm National Park 2015

The Cairngorms is the UK's largest national park, and at 4528 square-kilometres in area it hosts a huge range of habitats which are home to an equally huge range of wildlife. Species including red squirrel, mountain hare, otter, beaver, wildcat, osprey and golden eagle can all be found in the park, making it a very unique location as it is inhabited by many species which are endemic(ish, you know what I mean) to the park. On arrival to Pitlochry on the Wednesday evening we wasted no time and headed off to Queen's view tearoom which has an astonishing view of various mountains and loch tummel. After an hour or so we headed back to the car, which took us along a beautiful woodland path surrounded by all sorts of lichens I'd never seen before! Our lodge was literally a few metres away from the river tay, the longest river in Scotland! The river is a Site of Special Scientific Interest as it has a flagship population of Atlantic Salmon, Freshwater Pearl Mussel (hosting two-thirds of the world’s remaining stock according to the website) and native species such as the Eurasian Otter. I took my trail camera with me incase I saw any telltale signs, such as footprints, droppings or well-used paths.

One of the days spent in the Cairngorms was in the company of Andy Howard, an award-winning wildlife photography based in the Scottish highlands. We were trekking around the moorland with three cameras in search of mountain hares, whose latin name is 'lepus timidus' - they were in fact anything but timid, with one individual (seen below) grazing the heather a few metres in front of us quite happily. The most important rule of wildlife photography is to let the animal come to you, not vice versa. This individual was not scared or anxious at all about our presence, allowing Andy and I to get some lovely shots of it going about it's daily business (not much apart from eating and sleeping to be honest!)
The first individual we saw, grazing on the new heather shoots.

Such beautiful eyes.

Whilst out on the moorland we also saw red grouse and plenty of buzzards soaring above us. Mountain hares change their fur colour depending on the season to aid camouflage. In the summer months they have a brown and light grey coat (as seen in these images), but in the winter they go completely white in time for the arrival of the snow, making them invisible to predators. Due to the fact that they are masters of camouflage, mountain hares feel very comfortable sleeping out in the open. Unlike rabbits they don't have burrows to shelter in…instead they usually rest in between rocks and amongst the heather. They can stay in these spots for days on end, especially in the winter, building up quite a collection of droppings (seen in the image below!) The more droppings, the more favoured the 'hideout' is - it could be the most sheltered, have the best view over the moorland to spot predators, just the right size etc. As you can see the one pictures below is near perfect!!

Red grouse amongst the heather.

Mountain hares don't have burrows - they do however have 'bolt holes' which are much less complex, but provide a safe place away from aerial predators. The individual above is sat in her favourite spot, with just enough shelter from the wind, but also with a clear view of the moorland. Every so often she would get up and have a stretch and yawn…but apart from that she didn't really do much…it's a hard life! They may seem to have it easy but their population is not faring too well. The current number of mountain hares in Scotland is unclear but the latest annual research published in 2013 by the BTO has indicated a disturbing decline of "43 per cent since 1995". This may be due to persecution but again this is unclear. Unlike the brown hare mountain hares are native to the UK, dating back for thousands and thousands of years. A discovery of mountain hare bones in Devon were found to be 114,000 years old, so it would be a huge shame to lose something that has survived for so long as a species...

Mountain hare in monochrome.

I had a fabulous day with Andy, and would strongly recommend him to anyone in Scotland/visiting Scotland who has a passion for wildlife photography…you're almost guaranteed to get some good shots! Visit Andy's website by clicking here - see his portfolio and guiding options. The other day in the Cairngorms was spent at Loch of the Lowes (not in the park boundary) looking for red squirrel, osprey and beaver. By the end of the day we had ticked two off the list but the beavers were not showing - not surprisingly as they had last been sighted in early July. Red squirrels however were in full stock! I saw three individuals throughout the day, mostly around the peanut feeders. The Loch of the Lowes nature reserve is well worth a visit…it has large viewing windows looking over the feeders where birds of all sort congregate, and a two story hide with scopes to keep and eye on the osprey nest on the opposite side of the loch.

There was certainly lots of evidence of beavers! I was told that they travel between the two lochs on the reserve through a small channel of water just below the osprey nest. I'm wanting to visit the Cairngorms again some time in the future so hopefully I'll have better luck next time! Whilst I was in the gift shop just about to leave I spotted one of the osprey chicks (just days away from migrating) on the nest! I rushed out to the hide and by the time I got there I managed to get a few previous seconds in before it took to the skies again. The photo of the osprey below was taken through a scope, illustrating just how far away the nest was!

There were two ospreys left (this year's father and one of the chicks) around the reserve as the rest had already headed off to Africa! Once the final two have left it won't be until next spring until they return again.

There were many enjoyable walks in the Cairngorms, through woodlands and along side rivers. One particular woodland was full of all sorts of fungi, including this very colourful Amanita Muscaria variety below. There is something extremely magical about toadstools like this. Overall I had an incredible time in Scotland, seeing things I'd never seen before and capturing some lovely images as well. Now time for a well-earned rest!