Recently we spent a weekend in Aviemore exploring places we probably should have already visited. One of these places was the RSPB’s Loch Garten, famous for being one of the few places to experience the ancient Caledonian pine forest and where the osprey’s first returned to Scotland in 1954.
We made our way rather early to the reserve to make the most of the day but secretly hoping to see a male capercaille among the pine forest in the morning light. As we pulled into the car park, got our stuff together and were reviewing the information board a group who were just finishing their morning walk approached and very nicely informed us that if we went up to the visitor centre which was now closed for the season we could easily see Crested Tits on the feeders.
We thanked them and began to walk the path through the magnificent Caledonian pine forest.
The ancient pine forest is considered to be one the last remaining wildernesses on the British Isles where some of the rarest species such as the Capercaillie, Scottish Crossbill and Crested Tit can only be found but it now only covers 1% of the area it did 4,000 years ago due to clearing of the forest for farming and the removal of predators allowing deer numbers to boom and feast on new shoots of the forest preventing continual regrowth.
As we arrived at the visitor centre we realised the area was a hive of activity with various small birds, mostly Coal Tits, zipping around nibbling at the feeding stations and scavenging on the forest floor for seed and nuts dropped by others.
While we were busy watching the Coal Tits scamper around another tit appeared. A crested one!
With there only being 1,000 to 2,000 breeding pairs left in the UK which are confined to the small pockets of the Caledonian pine forest dotted around the North of Scotland they are one of the rarest small birds you can see.
This little one came very close on a couple of occasions, probably to see if we had any food for sharing, allowing us to get some nice close-ups of its beautiful crest.
It was also a bit of bully. Cornering the Coal Tits around it who found food first so it could claim it for itself.
Other than the Crested and Coal Tits there were lots of other small birds using the feeding stations and scavenging the dropped food from the forest floor.
While we were busy watching the birds there was also a rustle among the tree tops behind the bird feeders. It was a Red Squirrel jumping from tree to tree looking for breakfast.
You only remember how quick and nimble the little reds are when you are trying to photograph them. This one scurried further up the tree along the branch, jumping onto the next tree and disappeared from sight. We only knew it was there from the rustling in the tree tops or the forest floor in the distance.
Having spent far more time than we had originally planned around the visiting centre we thought we needed to move on and explore more of the forest.
As we headed back towards the loch I noticed a strange little bird I had never seen before.
I found out later in the RSPB bird book that it is a Treecreeper. They are unusual little birds, they fly to the bottom of the tree trunk and scurry up it stopping every half a meter in a hopping like motion on the look out for ants and insects in the tree to eat. Once they reach the top of the tree they fly to the bottom of the next one and start again- they do this across their territory.
While I was caught up watching the Treecreeper go about its business. Kirsten had found a perfect spot at Loch Garten’s edge to take in the view.
After stopping we made our way to go on a walk through the Abernethy pine forest. The walk provides spectacular views of Loch Garten, the pine forest and finishes at Loch Mallachie.
As we headed back using a different route, we noticed dead trees stacked and lined up in an abnormal way. It turned out to be fencing to protect a wood ant nest!
Wood ants are a keystone species that help to maintain a healthy forest by dispersing a lot of plant seeds and preying on plant-eating insects thus promoting new growth, so we were very glad to see this nest being protected from human interference.
We could only see one little ant making its way out of the nest to start the day.
As we finished our walk and reached the car it was clear we both really wanted to spend more time here so we decided to have an early start the next day and come back. We also discussed how close the tits at the feeding station were coming to investigate us, checking for food so we decided to get some bird food. We couldn’t decide whether the birds would prefer seed or nuts, so we got both!
We got up the next day, had breakfast, packed our things and headed back to Loch Garten’s feeding station and put some food out on a log a foot or so in front of us. The Coal Tits were delighted and all over it.
The Crested Tit and other birds were a lot more cautious watching from a distance and occasionally coming close to take the nuts and seed from the forest floor the Coal Tits knocked off.
Given how comfortable the Coal Tits were around us we wondered if they would take food from our hand. So we took turns at sitting down holding out a handful of seeds, keeping perfectly still. At first they were nervous but the longer you stayed still the more comfortable they became.
They would land on the tips of our fingers, hop down and take a bit of food before flying off. You could feel how tightly their little clawed feet grip your fingers. It’s a very strange sensation but also a very nice one.
While we were busy feeding the Coal Tits another visitor arrived to the feeding station who scared off all the other birds.
It chiseled away at the feeder for a bit before flying off into the surrounding tree tops.
The sound of its pecking easily carried through an almost silent forest. It kept flying from tree to tree making it hard to follow but finally it took a rest on a dead tree top, surveying the forest before flying off out of sight.
We spent some more time watching the coal tits feed before we had to make our way home.
This will be the first of many trips for us up to this spectacular location. We have only scratched the surface of the amazing wildlife to be viewed in this forest and are already planning our next trip to the area. Can’t wait!
Our tips for a visit;
1.) From speaking to some of the locals who we met in Loch Garten it turns that Autumn is the best time to visit and see the Crested Tits instead of Spring which we have seen mentioned on some websites and other sources. In spring the Crested Tits are rearing young and don’t stray very far from their nest for food so they can’t be very easily seen. During Autumn they are busy getting ready for winter and travel further for food so can be easily seen at the feeding stations around the visitor centre where food is in abundance for them (Apparently this pattern is also true of Scottish Crossbills!).
2.) Take some nuts or bird seed and feed the coal tits and other birds around the visitor centre. It also helps to ensure the birds have enough available food to keep them going through the tough winter.
3.) Get to the forest early. Capercaillie and Crossbills are most active at first light, so you increase your chances of sighting one of these beautiful but rare creatures.
Thanks for reading.
Elliot & Kirsten.