We had a lovely break last week at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown on Spey. My wife and I, along with my daughter and her husband had three days in this 3-star hotel which specialises in catering for people interested in wildlife. It has everything that is required for the birdwatcher: guides, films, talks, discussions, charts showing a myriad of species from birds to butterflies, and information leaflets detailing places to visit locally to see particular birds, some of them relatively uncommon, such as the Scottish crossbill and the Slavonian grebe. Its location is also situated on the Speyside whisky trail, a visit to a distillery being a good diversion on a wet day. Importantly the Grant Arms Hotel welcomed dogs, and wee Molly received a welcome bag with goodies on her arrival. I gave a talk on wildlife crime in the hotel – the principal reason for the visit – and there were two dogs at the talk (as well as 30 or so humans).
Autumn is a fabulous time of the year to be out and about in the countryside. The trees are showing brilliant colours, ranging from the green of oaks still to start their winter ‘moult’, to the yellow leaves of birch and needles of larch to the bright red of rowan leaves, and of course their berries as well.
It was a real treat to be walking in the ancient Caledonian forests of Nethybridge and Loch Garten in mid-October. I was in awe at the size of some of the ancient Scots pine trees and tried to imagine what Scotland must have been like before so many of them were felled. It is really tragic that we are left with only 1% of this great forest, though thankfully more are being planted to join up the remaining fragments.
Since capercaillie are now so scarce I didn’t really expect to see one, but I am lucky to have memories of seeing them regularly in mature woodlands just to the west of Perth when I was a teenager. It was commonplace to see upwards of 30 capercaillie on stubble fields at harvest time, and walking through the woods I regularly disturbed a feeding Capercaillie that clattered off the top of a tree and flew like a bomber through the wood to land on another further on. The last one I saw – a hen caper – was about eight years ago no more than a mile to the west of the Perth city boundary. It was feeding in a stubble field on the other side of the main A.9 from a mature wood. It was there a couple of days later, this time lying dead at the roadside, having been struck by a vehicle.
I was fascinated by the tit species in the main car park at the Loch Garten visitor centre. The main species were coal tits, with blue tits, great tits and crested tits in much lesser numbers but in roughly the same proportion. I have seen most bird species in Scotland but this is a first for crested tits. They are lovely wee birds and it is hardly surprising that they are a favourite of photographers. Those in the car park were giving great opportunities for photos and some photographers were spending hours and must have been taking literally hundreds of photos.
I was surprised at how trusting the coal tits were. Many people, my daughter Janet included, were holding out handfuls of sunflower hearts and the tits were landing on the palms of their hands, selecting a seed and flying back to a tree or bush to eat it. Janet had four on her hand at the same time and was just captivated by their trust.
Tree creepers were common on the edges of the car park, but I was surprised there were no red squirrels. It is ideal habitat and I am sure they are there but I neither saw nor heard a red squirrel. I say ‘heard’ as that is often the way red squirrels are located, the scraping of their claws giving them away as they run up the bark of a tree.
On my last day, while the rest of the family went to Nairn, I had a lovely quiet walk in the autumn sunshine down by the side of Loch Garten, seeing a flotilla of pink-footed geese and some goldeneye on the loch, and turning to come back once I had reached Loch Mallachie. Altogether this was a memorable short break, in a fantastic part of Scotland in a hotel which I could not fault and the best that any of us have ever stayed in. I’m really surprised it is just 3-star.