Badenoch and Strathspey (Updated Sept 2014)
By Pete Moore, Warden, RSPB Insh Marshes NNR
In this relatively small area are the finest examples of pinewood, mountain and marshland habitats to be found anywhere in Scotland. With Crested Tit, Capercaillie and Crossbill in the pinewoods, Dotterel, Snow Bunting and Ptarmigan on the high tops, breeding waders and wintering Whooper Swans on the marshes, along with breeding Osprey, Goldeneye and Slavonian Grebe, this area has long been a mecca for birdwatchers.
Only 1 – 2% of the original Caledonian pine forest survives today and this is best experienced around Abernethy Forest (RSPB), Glenmore Forest Park (Forestry Commission visitor centre at NH976098) and Rothiemurchus Estate (visitor centre at NH903109). Crested Tits and Crossbills are regularly seen but it is highly recommended that you learn their calls before you go because otherwise they can be easily overlooked. Parrot Crossbill, Scottish Crossbill and Common Crossbill have all been recorded breeding in the area so you cannot assume that any crossbills seen or heard here are Scottish Crossbills. Indeed, in a given year Scottish Crossbill may be less likely encountered than the other species! Be content with recording “unidentified crossbill” because for most people Common and Scottish Crossbills cannot be reliably separated in the field (at least without a sonogram).
For such a large bird, the Capercaillie is very elusive and there is a large measure of luck in finding them. The best chance of seeing them is to visit RSPB’s Capercaillie viewing hide at Loch Garten early in the morning in April to early May (NH978184 and visit www.rspb.org.uk for details). The Capercaillie population is struggling so please do not wander around the pinewoods looking for them in the spring because you may well cause disturbance to lekking birds.
There are marked pine forest trails at Loch Garten RSPB reserve (NH 971185), Glenmore Forest Park (NH976098), Uath Lochans (NH830235 on the west side of Glen Feshie), Rothiemurchus Estate and Anagach Woods (NJ035275 on the eastern side of Grantown on Spey). There are also trails around the settlements of Carrbridge, Nethybridge and Boat of Garten where Crested Tit and Crossbill may be seen. Don’t forget to check out bird feeders in village gardens for Crested Tit and, in the summer, at the Loch Garten osprey centre (NH978184).
Raptor enthusiasts should keep an eye out for Goshawk and Hobby, both of which now breed regularly in the area, though they are frustratingly elusive, especially the former.
Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher and Tree Pipit are seen regularly in the pinewoods and also in birchwoods such as Craigellachie NNR on the western edge of Aviemore (accessed via an A9 underpass next to the youth hostel at NH892122. Peregrines traditionally nest on cliffs here too). Pied Flycatchers and Wood Warblers are infrequent. For these species try the woods at the start of the road to Loch an Eilean (NH891107) and RSPB’s Loch Insh Wood (NH835038 on the southern edge of Loch Insh).
For the mountain specialists – Snow Bunting, Ptarmigan and Dotterel – go to Cairngorm Mountain visitor centre car park (NH989061) above Glenmore Forest Park. Walk up onto the Cairngorm plateau, either via Cairngorm itself or via the northern corries, then follow the plateau towards Ben Macdui. Please note that to reduce disturbance to these rare breeding species, access to the plateau is not allowed from the funicular railway top station (Ptarmigan restaurant). You will have to do it the hard way and walk up from the main visitor car park which requires a good level of fitness. Please check the weather forecast before you go (updates are available in the Ranger station) and be suitably prepared with map, compass and warm, waterproof clothing.
An alternative site for these species is Carn Ban Mor (NN8997), east of Glen Feshie. This hill is accessed from Achlean car park (NN981985) near to the end of the road along the eastern side of Glen Feshie. Go between mid-May and July for Dotterels.
RSPB Insh Marshes (main car park at NN775999) is said to be the best wetland in Scotland and the best example of a functioning river floodplain in the UK. During April to June it holds good numbers of breeding Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank and Snipe along with breeding waterfowl, including Wigeon, Goldeneye and Greylag Goose, and other wetland species such as Sedge Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler and Water Rail. Note that contrary to some published information, Wood Sandpipers do not breed here and are extremely unlikely to be encountered. Spotted Crakes are traditionally associated with Insh Marshes but in recent years have become increasingly irregular. Marsh Harriers are seen here in the summer, though have only bred on one occasion in the past. Winter brings Whooper Swans and regular raptor sightings, including Hen Harrier, Merlin, Peregrine and the occasional wandering White-tailed Eagle. If you have patience and a telescope, look for Golden Eagle on the Monadhliath hills north-west of the reserve.
The River Spey is obviously a major feature of Badenoch & Strathspey and is a good place to see Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail in the summer along with Dipper, Goosander and Goldeneye year round. This area holds the majority of the UK’s breeding Goldeneye population, most of which utilise purpose-built nest-boxes. Good viewing points for river birds include bridges over the Spey at Grantown on Spey (NJ034268 and NJ040263), Boat of Garten (NH947191), and Broomhill (NH997224 just north of Nethybridge).
Ospreys can be seen in various places during the summer, including Loch Insh (NH834052) where they nest and the fish farm at Aviemore (NH897116) where they regularly feed, though a visit to the famous RSPB Loch Garten Ospreys (NH978184) will also give the opportunity to see Crested Tits and, when possible, footage of the nests of Goldeneye and Redstart via nest-box cameras.
Finally, breeding Slavonian Grebes may be seen at three sites between Boat of Garten and Aviemore, namely the flooded fields west of Boat of Garten (public viewing point at NH931190 but some years the water levels are too low for nesting), Loch Vaa (park at Laggantygown Cemetery NH910174) and Avielochan (roadside pull-in with room for one car at NH905164). The Grant Arms Hotel has a hide at Avielochan for the use of its guests.
Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands by Gordon Hamlett. Buckingham Press.