Spring is sooner than you might think!

Wild flows on a nature trail in Speyside

While out on a our nature walks in the Cairngorms National Park we have seen the Lapwings making an appearance in the fields and the songbirds are starting to practice their dawn chorus.  It’s not quite a full melody yet but it’s giving the slightest hint that spring is just around the corner.

Campion in the Cairngorms
Campion on a nature trail

In fact, with the changing climate, spring is now 2.5 days earlier this year than it was a decade ago.  Every year the dates of wildlife events are recorded such as the first bud to burst, the first swallow to arrive or leave, the first flower to bloom or eggs to hatch.  The study of seasonal changes in plant and animal behaviour from year to year and their relationship with the weather and climate is called Phenology.

Some species might benefit from climatic changes.  The speckled wood butterfly used to be restricted to only the mildest parts of western Scotland and the Moray Firth but as a result of increasing temperatures, this butterfly is now widespread across the country.

Increasing temperatures will not benefit all species and some rare mountain plants such as the snow pearlwort and Highland saxifrage that survive in the coldest, north facing gullies and crags of the Scottish Highlands are at risk of disappearing.

Things to see in the Cairngorms
Common Frog

The science of phenology provides a powerful ‘early warning’ of species that could be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as the climate changes.  The UK holds some of the world’s oldest phenology records dating back to 1736 and you could add to them!

A project set up in the year 2000 called ‘Nature’s Calendar’ has allowed citizen science to take hold and there are now around 2.7 million records in the database. All the information is used to help scientists understand how wildlife is affected by weather and climate change.

It’s straightforward to take part and thousands of people have submitted wildlife records from all over the country from places such as their local park, back garden or school playground. Have you seen your first frog spawn, birds nest or flowering plant? Go on line to Woodlands Trust  website and submit your records.

 

How our native wildlife copes with winter weather in the mountains

With most of Scotland under a blanket of snow, it made us think about how our native wildlife copes with winter weather.

Wildlife in the winter
Mountain Hare in the Cairngorm National Park

Mountain hares are a fairly regular feature of our upland tours and we don’t always take time to appreciate how well adapted they are to winter weather conditions.  In late Autumn mountain hares grow a thick white winter coat.  The hairs in this are packed far more tightly as those on a human head or even a Labrador retriever.  This dense coat helps keep them insulated against the elements.  If you were to look at it closely you would see that is has 3 distinct layers; an undercoat, a pile layer made of slightly longer hairs and finally an outer layer of long guard hairs.  It is the middle pile hairs which change colour, turning from brown to white during winter, camouflaging them from predators.  Other species which we encounter which are well camouflaged in winter are stoats, ptarmigan and snow buntings.   Hare also have wide feet which allows them sprint across the top of the snow instead of disappearing into a snow drift!

Ptarmigan in the Cairngorm National Park
Ptarmigan in the snow

 

Ptarmigans are another species which we are lucky enough to occasionally spot.  Like the mountain hares, they are superbly well camouflaged and spotting them in the snow can be troublesome.  One of the most amazing things about ptarmigan is that they wear insulated snow boots in winter.  Well, maybe not snow boots but they do grow extra feathers which keep their feet warm and make them wider so they don’t sink into the snow.  This is particularly necessary as they dig through the snow to find the plants they eat underneath.  If you are lucky enough to see one, you will know that they are often found near the summit of hills, with the wind whipping past.  You would think that this would be a very cold and draughty place to spend the night but Ptarmigan have a great way to get out of the weather.  They make mini snow holes which they shimmy in to overnight.  This keeps them safe from the cold.  But what if a fox snuffles past and finds their hole, I hear you ask?  Luckily for them, the snow transmits vibrations well and they can feel predators coming, letting them make a hasty escape.

On reflection, it seems that mountaineers really have learned a few tricks from wildlife; layering up clothes to trap as much warm air in as possible, wearing snow shoes and even building snow holes to get out of the wind!

Justin & Joe go on a recce to find a new walking route

On a fine day the Wild Alba team head out to look at new wildlife walks in the great outdoors for the 2018 season.

A walk up a section of the east side Ben Rinnes is looked at. Ben Rinnes is the most dominating mountain in the region and one of the highest in Moray. It is a very popular hill walk with most people ascending from the West. The views are far-reaching from the top, taking in a large part of the North East of Scotland.

Wildlife walks in Scotland
Wildlife Tour in MoraySpeyside

The wildlife seen on the walk was extensive. As they walked through the forest Woodcock, Roe Deer and Red Squirrel where spotted. The forest was a pleasant mix of Scots pine, birch (downy and silver), alder and oak (pedunculate and sessile). Once on the side of the hill wider views opened up and other wildlife could be seen. A Kestrel and Buzzard flew high up the side of the hills while Snow Bunting and Red Grouse flew low over the heather. Further up the path a white Hare sped across the path disappearing over the brow.

The path ended at a Bothy sitting by the burn of Lyneriach nestled between the hill of Knocknashalg and Cairn Guish.  There were fine views of the Spey Valley below. The bothy provided shelter and place to rest before the walk back.

Wildlife Walk in MoraySpeyside
Mountain Bothy

This will make a great waking route and we hope that you will join us soon.

 

What has our botanist Dr Oliver Moore seen lately

Our botanist Dr Oliver Moore has been on a journey in the wilderness and has some fascinating observations:

Snowdrops in the Perthshire hills.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are thought to be an introduced and naturalised species in the British Isles (although some argue they might just be native in parts of Southwest England). This does not detract from the sheer joy of seeing them apparently growing wild in winter. Here they were flowering on a south-facing Perthshire hillside in early February.

Snow Drops in the Great Out Doors of Scotland
Snow drops in Perthshire

Fox tracks in Fife

Fox (Vulpes vulpes) tracks crossing soft sand between dune systems along the Fife coast in late January. Notice the relatively straight and purposeful pattern and the oval shape of each footprint that helps separate these tracks from those of a domestic dog. What the photograph does not reveal is the characteristic musty odour that accompanies the tracks at certain points where the fox has marked its territory. This odour is often described as ‘coming and going’ in that one minute you can smell it, and then you can’t, before catching a whiff once more.

Finding Tracks in the Great Out Doors
Fox tracks in Fife

‘Bubble-gum’ lichen in Wester Ross

Lecanora muralis is sometimes described as the ‘bubble-gum’ lichen because of its tendency to occur in suburban situations on tarmac – where it resembles the spat-out and well-trodden artefact. This lichen is fairly tolerant of pollution which enables its persistence in towns but this photograph was taken in Wester Ross where it grew in the splash zone of loch edge rocks. The miniature ‘jam-tarts’ with flesh-coloured discs are the reproductive structures and are known as apothecia.

‘Bubble-gum’ lichen in Wester Ross
‘Bubble-gum’ lichen in Wester Ross

Pine Marten ‘Poo’ in the Cairngorms

Always exciting to find Pine Marten (Martes martes) scat. This was found in the middle of a forestry track in the Cairngorms. Pine Martens are known to mark their territory in obvious places and scats are often used for this purpose. I could not detect much smell when I got down for a close sniff which contrasts with the vile odour associated with the scat of American Mink (Neovison vison).

Wildlife tours in Scotland
Wildlife tours in Scotland

Walking up Beinn a’Chuallaich

What a magical day we had walking up Beinn a’Chuallaich. This mountain is a large sprawling hill with several long ridges.

We started the day in Kinloch Rannoch and after a short but hard ascent we were rewarded with an amazing summit view. This fine hill is a Corbett which is a classification of mountain defined by John Rooke Corbett, who created a list of all the Scottish hills of height between 2500ft (762m) and 3000ft (914.4m) with a drop of at least 500ft (152.4m) between each listed hill and any adjacent higher one.

The great out doors with Wild Albe Tours
View of Schiehallion

The snow was deep and hard going; at times we had to wade through knee high drifts. All this extra effort made for a most enjoyable outing and the walk up took around 2.5 hours. Hot flasks of coffee where stored in our rucksacks along with the essential chocolate bars.

Not only did we get great views of the surrounding scenery we also spotted Red Deer, Red Grouse, Ptarmigan, Snow Bunting and a Buzzard.

Red Deer on a wildlife walking tour
Red Deer on a wildlife walking tour

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

We have been out this weekend doing the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Jackie, Laura, Jo and Justin each spend an hour seeing what they could spot.

The list was quite long with Blackbird, Blue tit, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Siskin, Long-tailed tit, Coal tit, Great tit, Tree Sparrow, Great spotted woodpecker, Hooded Crow, Robin and a cheeky Squirrel.

Big Garden Birdwatch
Cheeky squirrel on the bird feeder

You can still get involved as today is the last day of the birdwatch. The RSPB website is packed full of great advice on everything from bird care to how to make the perfect bird bath.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/

Announcement: New photography workshop!

Our guides have been busy scoping out locations for our new Mountain to Coast Weekend Break photography workshop. This week we’ve been out with one of our photographers visiting historical buildings and ruins, geological structures, rock formations, waterfalls and beaches from the highlands to the Moray coast. We are excited to be able to offer guests this opportunity to explore little-known locations while enhancing their photography skills. To celebrate the launch of this tour, guests will be presented with a free print of their favourite shot from the weekend.

Trip report: Wildlife Safari… plus whisky!

On this bespoke trip our guests wanted to squeeze a whisky tour in with as much wildlife as possible started with amazingly close views of bold coal tits whilst crested tits, great tits and a red squirrel attended the feeding stations beside us. A wonderful sighting of 7 black grouse was next, followed by a white-tailed eagle, peregrine falcon, two kestrels, several buzzards and a dipper, with red deer, mountain hare and feral goat representing the mammals. Heading up to the coast we added common and velvet scoter, red-throated diver, long-tailed duck, great skua, little auk, among many others. Then as the light began to fade, it was off to one of our favourite distilleries, where our guests were able to discover the secrets and intricacies involved in making whisky before sampling some for themselves.