Anagach Woods

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.

Photo: RSPB

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.




Golden Hour

The light was still faint as I drove through fields of green. Cars tore past in a work-fuelled rush, while I cruised leisurely in the opposite direction. My focus was on the forest today – my only objective to walk through trees and listen to wild sounds.

A flash of copper caught my eye and a stunning red kite appeared in the sky, wheeling over the rolling hill as it hunted for unsuspecting mice. I pulled over in a layby – the mud sticky before the sun reached it – and spotted three more circling in large, overlapping loops. Occasionally there was a squabble, and two birds would tussle in the air, cascading downwards and surging back up. It was easy to forget that bounty hunters and egg collectors almost pushed the red kite to extinction only a few decades ago. Now, you could drive down most country roads in Hertfordshire and see at least one. I had never seen four so closely together, and savoured the opportunity to watch such an inspiring conservation success story in the flesh.

Soon the kites drifted further off, reduced to dark flecks in the sky. I left them to their hunt and drove on, arriving at the edge of the forest before anyone else that day. As lovely as dogs were, I didn’t need their boisterous presence this morning. I pulled on hat and gloves and slung camera and binoculars around my neck, then crossed the road towards the woods.

To my delight, the species I’d come to see was already here in abundance. Grazing in a field beside the cows was a herd of fallow deer around seventy-strong. I have always been fascinated by the variation in fallow deer pelts. When I first saw deer at this site, having previously seen photos of white-spotted Bambis, I had thought they were a different species altogether. These fallows were two-tone; dark brown on the top half and a lighter brown on the bottom half, as if they had waded flank-deep in mud. I hastily took to the cover of the trees, creeping as quietly as I could along the fence to get a closer look.

However, these deer were no fools. The next time I stopped and snuck a look through the binoculars, there were several faces turned my way, ears pricked upwards and eyes gazing down the lenses. My cover was blown. I decided to carry on with my approach, heading diagonally and pausing behind each tree. Ears twitched, and after a few more moments of studying me, the herd moved off, first at a trot then at a gentle canter. Among so many deer, there were only two males; as the herd bounded in loose procession across the field I watched two sets of antlers bobbing among dozens of ears.

I continued deeper into the forest, dulling the sound of passing cars with birdsong and wind-rustled leaves. The trees were gently swaying, creaking eerily like squeaky doors. The breeze played tricks on me, sending leaves skittering across my path in a perfect imitation of birds. The thrum of a woodpecker echoed through the cold air. A buzzard called faintly in the distance.

Suddenly there was an invasion of grey squirrels, bounding over the leaf litter and across fallen logs. Two of them darted in a reverse helter-skelter up a thick trunk, their claws scratching wildly in the chase. Another was saving his energy, choosing instead to perch and chew on a shrivelled leaf, twisting and turning it in his tiny hands.

I left the squirrels to their play and headed further along the fence, glancing between the trees to see if the deer might have come back. They hadn’t, but there was a sprinkling of brown birds foraging in the grass, dotted among the cows. For a few moments I couldn’t figure out what they were. Speckled like thrushes, but I’d never seen a large group of thrushes before. Just then the sun appeared, illuminating bright red patches on the birds’ sides. Redwings! My first this winter, and what a show. There were around forty of them, hopping around in the grass. They were too far away for a decent photo, but close enough to watch through the binoculars.

After a while, a startling screech made me jump. The only culprit I could think of was a barn owl, but I was sure they would have finished their night’s hunt by now. I followed the voice further down the trail. It was an ungainly, dinosaur-like squawk that sounded deafening in the tranquil forest. Suddenly, as I was scanning the canopy overhead, a crow-sized bird with white, brown and grey feathers shot out of the leafy cover. I hadn’t seen a jay once when I’d lived in Cumbria, so it had been about four years since my last sighting. I was desperate for a good photo of a jay but this one wouldn’t be cooperating. It darted from tree to tree, pausing only for a few hoarse shrieks before taking to the air again, soon disappearing completely from view. Undoubtedly the prettiest of the corvids, but not the sweetest singer.

Soon the forest was nearly silent again, with just the gusts of wind disturbing the trees. The morning was rolling on, and golden hour had arrived. Between breaks in the cloud, rich yellow light illuminated the trunks, throwing their gnarled, twisted bark into stark relief. It was a glimpse of magic that only lasted until a cloud muffled the sunlight and the forest fell back into shadow.

The cold was beginning to bite my fingertips, and I could already hear the first dog walkers. It was a good time to turn back. I made my way slowly through the woods, past the field and the squirrel tree, looking forward to warming up back home. I was just scanning the trees one last time for any small birds when my eye caught on two more pairs of ears sticking up. The deer were perfectly camouflaged, and after we stood watching each other for a few more moments, the doe stepped out from her hiding place and began picking her way through the foliage. The buck took one more look at me before following her, just as the sun emerged again and made their brown fur shine gold.

There was something undeniably magical about watching deer in a forest. They were elegant and beautiful animals, their habitat just as serene. As I stood watching them stride away out of sight, I felt a strong connection to the forest and the creatures that lived within it. Although I didn’t truly belong here, for just a few short hours I felt at home.

Searching for Spoons

After so much excitement, I’ve neglected my camera recently and wanted to finally spend some proper time searching for Florida’s wildlife. I’d been told about a good spot for wading birds, and knew that the inhabitants included my new favourite bird, the roseate spoonbill. I set out before sunrise and reached the water just as the sky was beginning to lighten; pinks and oranges blending with blue.

My first sighting was almost immediate. Perched on a branch overhanging the lake and peering curiously as I wound down the window was an anhinga. With both heron and cormorant-like features, anhingas spear fish under the water with their long, sharp bills. The name originates from the Brazilian Tupi language and translates as “devil bird”. I don’t quite see the devilish resemblance – I found the anhinga delightful, especially when it shook out its striped wings. Like cormorants, anhingas hold out their wings after swimming to dry them. This one looked like either a female or a juvenile, as males are jet black with silvery streaks.



Soon the anhinga was joined by a yellow-crowned night heron, shoulders hunched down as if with cold. With a white cheek patch and a pale crown of feathers that looks more white than yellow, the yellow-crowned night heron is actually nocturnal, so I must have been really lucky to catch a late glimpse just before the sun emerged.

Yellow-crowned night heron

Elsewhere in the tree was a green heron, who was more brown than green so was perhaps a juvenile. Apparently, green herons are known to throw insects into the water to encourage fish to the surface, which is genius and must look amazing to see.

Green heron

Suddenly a snowy egret burst into view, legs dangling and panicked wings flapping. There was a deep, kronking call as more birds surged upwards. Puzzled, I glanced around for signs of a raptor, when a disturbance in the water caught my eye. There, gliding without a sound, was an alligator. My first alligator! I could hardly contain myself. All I could see of it was a pair of eyes and nostrils, so I had no idea how big it was, which was perhaps more nerve-wracking than seeing the whole animal. Even from the safety of the car my paranoia imagined the alligator leaping headlong at the open window, but it just cruised out of sight and the birds soon calmed down.


I wandered further on to try and find a spoonbill. There was a loud rustling above and I looked up to see the trees absolutely covered in white ibis; wading birds that gather in large groups all across Florida. I was spoilt for choice for photos. Although they’re not the prettiest of birds, their long, red bills still looked impressive, especially when they all took off in one simultaneous swoop. In the absence of car engines and people this early on a Sunday, the only sound to be heard was the wind in their wings which sounded so magical.

White ibis


After watching them leave I wondered what had scared them off. Once again I scanned the trees for signs of a raptor and this time I found one: a stunning osprey with a fish in its claws! I’d only seen ospreys once before in Scotland, all the way across a loch that made taking photos quite the challenge. This osprey, however, was a tree’s height away and sat in a perfect patch of sunlight that made its yellow eyes dazzle. It spotted me straight away and watched as I took photo after photo. Eventually it gathered up its breakfast and took off, just as the first dog walker came into view.



At 9:30am it was already getting too hot to be out without a hat, and my hastily eaten bowl of cereal at 6am seemed far away. I’d loved to have found my spoonbill, but having seen a bonus osprey and alligator I was far from disappointed. I’d just got back to the car and was fumbling for my keys when I glanced up, and by some miracle there was a spoonbill perched at the very top of a tree. It was the pink cherry on an incredible cake.

Roseate spoonbill


Beaver Expedition: Day 4

Another sunrise start for our final chance of watching the beavers. This morning the sun was visible, and when we set out it was a pale orange splotch hovering over the river, sending orange lines criss-crossing over the water as the wind stirred it. We made a beeline for our usual spot, slowing down as we approached the patch of rhododendrons in case the beavers had already emerged. Settling down and standing up tripods, the waiting game began. Infuriatingly, my hay fever chose this moment to launch its morning attack, and as my eyes streamed I fought the overwhelming impulse to sneeze and startle everything within a twelve-mile radius half to death. Not today hay fever.


The morning continued on with no visitors. Slowly but surely the sun climbed higher, bleaching the blue water with white highlights. The usual breeze whistled under the overhang of the trees and made them wave and rustle; the only movement in sight. A pied wagtail landed on the dead wood, tail bobbing as it turned on the spot. Deep in the woodland thicket a thrush sang, while the jackdaws chattered noisily in the distance.

Suddenly a beaver appeared, cruising silently from under the bushes and into the light. It made its way upstream, to where the river weaved between clumps of reeds and grasses. There it disappeared, but soon we heard quiet chomping noises and knew it was breakfast time.


In contrast to yesterday morning, the lone beaver wasn’t joined by any companions. It was possible that they had fed well late last night and did not need to venture out. Before long Heather and Cain headed off to get started on assembling the expedition vlog. As they made their slow way back over the water, Cain stopped and gestured into the reeds. I suddenly realised we hadn’t seen the beaver swim back, and while he could have easily dived under and passed by unnoticed, he could also still be feeding. Sure enough, Heather set the scope up to film again. Not wanting to miss the action, I treaded up the grass path nearly doubled over, until I saw what they’d spotted.

Just at the water’s edge, behind a layer of long grass like a bead curtain, was our beaver. Hunched up, the grass trembled as he chewed, shifted his body and chewed again. Squatting down, I got as close as I dared and peeked between the blades of grass to try and get a clear shot. The beaver paused, looked right at me – so much for my attempts at stealth – and carried on chewing. He stayed for a while longer until eventually stepping forward out of the grass and slipping back into the water, gliding down and out of sight.


Once I’d got a few more hours’ sleep and eaten a hearty breakfast, it was time to check the camera traps. After the efforts of finding the right spot, setting them up and waiting for any visitors, retrieving the trap was the best bit. I retrieved my laptop and we all huddled around the table, eager to see if we’d got any beaver footage. After the first trap only showed clips of grass blowing in the wind, we were a little disappointed. However, on the trap that we’d set on a post in the river, pointing towards a mud slope, there were multiple clips of beavers waddling in and out of the water! First a male coming and going, dragging his paddle of a tail behind him. Then another clip showed a much wider animal – the female – following the same route. It was so great to see, especially since we’d only seen the tops of the beavers’ heads as they swam on our morning stakeouts. To see their whole body and capture moving footage was a fantastic end to the expedition.


All too soon it was time to leave the site, and as we drove back down the gravel track the sun continued to shine. We decided to go back down south via the Loch of the Lowes, a Scottish Wildlife Trust site, to try and see some ospreys that were nesting there.

The loch was the largest I’d ever seen, looking more like an alcove that led into the ocean. The water was sparkling blue under the still beaming sun, surrounded by trees of every shade of green. We set up in the hide and the reserve guide pointed the nest out to us. On the far side of the loch, high up in one of the trees, was a clustered pile of branches and twigs, inside of which perched an adult osprey and two scruffy chicks. I’d never seen an osprey before so was thrilled to see such a fabulous raptor on the nest. As I watched them down the scope, the adult tended to her chicks, which were peering over the edge of the nest at the world around them.


Before long it was time to hit the road again, and after such a packed weekend I couldn’t stop myself dozing off in the car. I arrived home with my pockets filled with beaver chippings, woodpecker feathers and endless pages of notes – sure signs of a good expedition.

Species seen: Buzzard (Buteo buteo) European beaver (Castor fiber) Great tit (Parus major) House martin (Delichon urbicum) Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) Osprey (Pandion haliaetusPied wagtail (Motacilla alba) Song thrush (Turdus philomelosSwallow (Hirundo rustica)

The Controversy of Langholm Moor

To broaden my understanding of the conservation work that is going on around me, I visited Langholm Moor in Dumfries and Galloway. The moor is a man-made habitat and has been completely deforested. It is home to an ongoing project to resolve the controversy regarding raptors and grouse. Grouse shooting is the main source of income for the site, and raptors such as the Red-listed Hen Harrier are being persecuted for predating on multiple grouse species. I got to meet Simon Lester, one of the site’s gamekeepers until his recent retirement. He showed me round the site and explained some of the problems the moor is experiencing.

Langholm Moor by day
Gamekeeper Simon Lester

The Demonstration Project on the moor aims to restore “grouse moor management… as a way of meeting the conservation objectives of the site” (Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, 2010). There are several elements to the programme:

The habitat will be controlled using measures such as heather burning, heather restoration and control of livestock and feral goats. The heather is burnt down for several reasons. Simon explained that the grouse can only feed on heather when it is cut short. Also, heavy grazing from livestock in past years has severely reduced the quality of the heather that grows on the moor, so it is regularly reseeded and sprayed with fertiliser. I asked Simon how he controls the burning process, as it seems an extreme way to manage heather growth. In response, he said burning is a lot easier than cutting, but occasionally they do lose control of the flames. The process needs to be carefully planned and carried out over time in a mosaic pattern, so as to keep a variety of heather plots of different ages.

There are now no sheep present on the moor, but a small population of feral goats remains. In past years a mass culling of some four hundred individuals was carried out, leaving two hundred goats remaining. While the population size has now undoubtedly increased since then, goats are a lot less damaging to vegetation than sheep who, to quote George Monbiot, leave the habitat “sheep-wrecked” (Monbiot, G., 2013).

Another part of the project involves controlling populations of predators that prey on the grouse. While common species such as foxes, crows and stoats are culled on site, protected species such as the hen harrier are unaffected. Simon showed me a snare used to trap foxes. By law, the snares need to have stops fitted, which lock the snare mechanism and avoid strangling the animal. Simon makes a daily round of some three hundred snares, and shoots any trapped foxes he finds. This is a more humane approach to dealing with the problem, a combination of the stop-fitted snares and a quick death.

Trap used for mustelids (weasels and stoats)

Measures to control disease amongst grouse have been put into place on the moor. Simon explained how birds such as grouse digest the fibrous food they eat by swallowing grit found naturally on moorland. To combat the nematode worm Trichostrongylus, which has a devastating effect on grouse numbers, gamekeepers provide the birds with medicated grit, which protects them against infection and prevents crashes in populations. However, as stated on the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (2015), grouse often deposit faecal matter in the grit boxes, which can result in the spreading of disease. When I visited Langholm Moor, there was faeces present in the box Simon showed us, suggesting perhaps that there are flaws to the plan and in fact disease can still be spread even with the medicated grit.

Box of medicated grit

Another measure to conserve the grouse on the moor is diversionary feeding. This involves providing food for nesting hen harriers to deter them from predating on grouse chicks. For the first two to three months of the breeding period, gamekeepers provide carrion – namely rats and cockerel chicks from nearby farms – for the harriers to lessen grouse predation. This seems effective, but Simon told us the technique doesn’t actually affect grouse numbers, as the population tends to decrease in winter not summer. Therefore, the expense required to feed the harriers seems largely wasteful, if there is no measured improvement in grouse stock.

Post upon which carrion is placed, white post in background indicates hen harrier nest
Bonus find: vole skull

So where does Simon want the project to go? He wants to see all buzzards killed, as the species is so abundant. The priority on the moor is grouse, and any species that threatens its wellbeing is either culled or, in the case of the protected hen harrier, discouraged from including grouse in their diet.

The sun sets over the moor

After visiting Langholm Moor, I am left with mixed feelings. Simon seemed such a passionate naturalist with knowledge of a broad range of species, yet he supports the death of a native British species for sport. The grouse that are shot on the moor are left where they fall, not even eaten. I am not a vegetarian, and believe that we as a race were designed to eat meat, but killing animals for the pleasure alone is a travesty. How different is this to poaching lions? Money changes hands, a bullet is fired. Perhaps I have not yet grasped the full intentions of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, but from what I have learnt on the trip and during my research for this post, I have come to the conclusion that sustaining an area of upland moor by shooting a species that lives in it, seems a very sad way to maintain our country’s biodiversity. It just goes to show how little our government cares for wildlife, when grouse shooting is the only source of income for a site of nature.