Typical. I lived in southeast England for 18 years and never had snow in November, but it seems like it was all over Britain this weekend! As I live on the coast snow is rare here, but after a 40-minute drive south to Grantown-on-Spey there was snow beneath my boots again.
A festive food market was in full swing along the main high street. We had a quick browse before heading down the aptly named Forest Road to one of my favourite wild places in Scotland: Anagach Woods.
The last time I visited was on a sweltering afternoon in May. This time everything was coated in white, adding cartoon highlights to branches and trunks. Over the past couple of years I’ve become a real winter baby so I was in my element.
As we walked along a high ledge overlooking deep bowls of forest floor on either side, a chattery cackle overhead made me look up and jump for joy: a flock of fieldfares were flying over!
I’ve been longing to see fieldfares since they left for their breeding grounds in Scandinavia at the end of last winter. They’re one of my power five – along with bramblings, waxwings, redwings and long-tailed ducks – and I can’t wait to try and photograph them again this year.
There’s nothing like snow and fieldfares to get me even more in the winter mood!
After one day of the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival, I had already ticked off 27 species. The morning started off gloomy so I wrapped up knowing that the Highland air would bite without a little sunshine. After a delicious breakfast I met my guide Sue and we set off. Our destination was Anagach Woods, only a five minute walk from the hotel. I knew it was my kind of place from the first glimpse: dense evergreen trees, a winding trail and the lyrical murmuring of birdsong. The harsh, icy breeze that made the eyes squint and the neck shorten completely disappeared once we strolled past the first few trees.
Anagach Woods were planted in 1766 using young pine trees dug up and transported from the old Caledonian pine forest of Abernethy. A few of these original trees are still standing today; wizened goliaths surrounded by waxy saplings. Throughout Anagach are deposits in the form of fluvio-glacial ridges, raised beach sands and gravel deposits dating back 10,000 years to the Ice Age. “Fluvio-glacial” refers to the meltwater created when a glacier melts.
Within ten minutes of entering the woods, I had my binoculars trained on a red squirrel -tail and hands poised in the classic pose as it nibbled on a peanut. A completely peanut-based diet causes a deficiency in red squirrels, so the rangers fill their feeders with a special mix to keep the squirrels’ diet balanced. Whether the animals follow the regime is another thing entirely, and they don’t. They prefer to pick out the peanuts with the steely determination of a child eating around their vegetables.
It’s impossible to dislike red squirrels. (Personally, I have no quibbles with greys either – they’re not inflicting reds with the pox with any malicious intent, nor did they ask to be brought here.) Reds have the eye-watering cuteness of babies their entire lives, coupled with boundless energy. We watched two up in the tree, neither tolerating the other’s presence. After a brief, silent stare-down, a ferocious squabble broke out. In the blink of an eye, two orange flashes flew up the tree, twirling around the trunk with scrabbling claws. The victor was soon perched proudly on the feeder shelf – stuffing head, front legs and one back leg inside to grasp the prize.
We ventured further into the forest. Each time a branch quivered or a chirrup sounded, I scoured the canopy for a particular little bird with a very impressive Latin name. Lophophanes cristatus is mostly confined to ancient Caledonian pine forests and Scots pine plantations. On the RSPB map of the UK, this bird’s presence is indicated by only a small patch in the Highlands of Scotland. A member of the tit family, it sports a magnificent punk hairdo.
I had my sights set on the crested tit. As small as the far more common blue tit, the “crestie” is a firm favourite among Grant Arms guests and features on many wish lists including my own. My main objective during my time in the Cairngorms was to see a pine marten (dream big, I say). Or, if that dream turns out to be a little too big, I will happily settle for any new species. I kept my eyes peeled for cresties but sadly they eluded us that morning. Sue said that at this time of year they would be right at the top of the trees gathering nest material. When those trees stretch to dizzying heights of around twenty metres, spotting a tiny bird in the dense canopy would certainly be a challenge.
Despite the crested tit playing coy, we were treated to a lovely showing of a buzzard. Buzzards are one of those species that I sometimes underestimate. They don’t tend to get me too excited – especially for that one split second when you think you may have found an eagle – but that morning in Anagach I saw a buzzard land for the first time. Up in the air and bleached out by the sun, it can be hard to make out specific detail, but as the raptor perched in the pines, I could admire its snowy white chest – as soft as an owl’s – with speckled markings that gave it the air of a regal monarch’s gown. The buzzard preened its feathers for a while before taking to the air and melting into the trees. It was a fitting way to summarise the forest habitat: a creature can be there one moment, and vanish the next. Forests are irresistible to me, and Anagach easily became my new favourite.
I arrived in Grantown-on-Spey at night, so couldn’t see much of the Cairngorms wilderness that pressed heavily on both sides of the winding road. I glimpsed darting rabbits and the elegant form of a pair of deer, but there must have been dozens of other creatures concealed by the dense evergreens.
My accommodation, the Grant Arms Hotel, was beautiful; a formidable building of stone and wide sash windows that could easily be the set for an elaborate period drama. Also called the Wildlife Hotel, the Grant Arms provides guests with easy access to a range of reserves of all different habitats. When I checked in, a large notice board stood pride of place in the foyer, full of lists of upcoming events, guidance on watching wildlife – including the magnificent capercaillie – and sign-up sheets for the week’s guided walks and field trips. An impressive puzzle adorned with a picturesque nature scene lay finished nearby. On the walls were images of puffins, ospreys, black grouse and, in my room, a beautiful fieldfare. I’d never seen so much wildlife-related decor and I absolutely loved it.
As I unpacked, I felt a thrill of eager anticipation for the week to come. I’d never stopped in the Cairngorms before but only passed through, so I couldn’t wait to sample some of the incredible wildlife. I had my sights set in particular on the pine marten – an elusive and nocturnal member of the mustelid family. If I was going to fulfil my New Year’s Resolution and see one in 2019, the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival was my best chance.