Allan Bantick OBE welcomes you to the Cairngorm Wildlife Diary for 2018
Most of the badger sightings mentioned here were made at the Strathspey Badger Hide. If you would like to go, click here for booking details.
or more detail please let me know.
For more immediate brief updates follow me on Twitter @AllanBoat. Enjoy the diary and please do get in touch if you have any comments.
Mon 1st to Sun 14th Jan
In recent weeks the diary has been rather less detailed than previously. This has been for good reasons and that pattern will continue, at least for the time being. The first two weeks of the year has mostly been routine filling of feeders to help the birds and red squirrels with their survival at this wintry time. So far the winter has, I think, had more sustained sub-zero temperatures than in recent years so the death toll among wild animals may be higher. I could look it up of course, but we've had snow and ice lying in the gardens, fields and forests in Strathspey since before Christmas and more snow is forecast for the coming week and I do not remember such a scenario since the noughties. As well as the feeders I have also been checking a couple of trail cameras and they have detected very little mammal activity, even near the badger hide and near the pine marten nest-box tree. In the office there was not much to do over Christmas but that has now changed and there are a few meetings and phone meetings looming concerning wildcats and badgers. I also intend shortly to prepare nest boxes for the coming season, most of which can be done in dodgy weather, however the badger hide needs a coat of wood preserver and that cannot be done until the weather improves.
Mon 15th to Sun 21st Jan
Went round all the feeders early in the week to make sure the birds and squirrels had plenty of food in these difficult weeks. Still lots of snow and more forecast with freezing temperatures every night. The wildcat TNVR work is now in full swing and I am now working on next steps for the Steering Group in liaison with SNH and others. On Sat 20th we went to the badger hide in deep snow.
Mon 22nd to Weds 31st Jan
Temperature shot up on Monday and by the evening much of the snow had gone so I hope that tomorrow I’ll be able to check the trail cam at the badger hide. Managed to make good progress on succession planning for the SWA Steering Group so we should go into the summer at full strength. Got to the badger hide on Weds and Bea and I checked all the nest boxes and cleared out those that needed it including removing the dud goldeneye eggs from a goldeneye box and throwing them into the river. On Friday I retrieved the feeder from the loop area – managed to slip on the ice and bashed my head on a tree stump. Fortunately I had a very thick woolly hat on so no real damaged done other than bruised arm, leg and pride. I worked through the SWA Minutes on Saturday and then the rest of the weekend was largely football watching. On Monday 29th there was an extraordinary burst of interest in the badger hide so I started confirming bookings. I also confirmed with the Chairman of Scottish Badgers my likely future role in that organisation after I step down from the Board next Autumn. On that subject, on Tues 30th I represented Scottish Badgers on the ScotLink Wildlife Forum meeting in Stirling.
Thurs 1st to Sun 4th Feb
Thursday was a total write off due to having to wait for a parcel delivery service that simply did not arrive. Caught up on emails to some extent and laid plans but dared not leave the house and the so-called helpline was no help at all. Friday was not much better. Weather still pretty cold with frost at nights and snow showers on and off. Parcel eventually arrived and it turned out the driver had lied to everybody and had skived off early, abandoning our delivery. Investigated our Schedule One license to be told there were ongoing discussions between BTO and SNH so everything was delayed. On Sunday we went round the crested tit nest boxes to remove old nests and check all was well. Two boxes needed new fronts and one was missing altogether, at which I remembered I had taken it home for repairs and it was still in the workshop. We had two capercaillie incidents during the circuit; the first was finding some capercaillie droppings in snow on top of a tree stump beside box 16 and the second was seeing a capercaillie male in flight in more or less the same place.
Mon 5th to Sun 11th Feb
Monday started very cold so it was with sore fingers that I re-installed the missing nest box number 19 in its rightful place. We expected visitors at the weekend so with better weather for a day or two domestic chores inside and outside were the order of the day. Nevertheless, I was able to fit in some wildlife stuff including making and fitting new fronts to boxes 11 and 17 and checking the nest boxes in the garden. To my amazement I found a brand new nest in one of them. Fair enough, we had seen a blue tit showing an interest in that box two weeks ago, but we did not expect the daft bird to go ahead and build a nest during this snowy weather. On Wednesday, after a small amount of soul searching, I resigned my membership of the Scottish Green Party and wrote to Patrick Harvie, co-convenor, to explain why, which in a nutshell was that it was not the party I thought it was, expending much less effort on environmental matters than I expected. I even suspected them at times of combining with other parties to screw with the Scottish Government just because they could. On Thursday Bea and I attended an excellent lecture at a SWT North of Scotland meeting by Alan Watson-Featherstone on the Caledonian Pine Forest and in particular on Aspen. Brilliant stuff, highly educational and entertaining. It did not however please everybody and after the lecture I spoke to a young lady who disagreed with Alan's approach entirely, citing work and thinking done by a certain James Fenton who, among other things, dismisses the idea that the Scottish Highlands once had extensive pine forests. I checked out James's website later and it is pretty heavy-duty stuff, dealing as much with philosophy and semantics as actual cases. We're all entitled to our views I suppose.
Mon 12th to Sun 18th Feb
Checked the hide on Monday to find no badger activity and no wildlife action on the card in the Acorn camera other than people and children out walking and playing; I guess they were guests at the fishing lodge. Still very wintry with frosts at night and snow showers on and off all week. Nevertheless a brave (daft?) blue tit continued to visit the nest box with a nest in it in the garden so I set up the Bushnell camera to try to capture the action - no luck at the time of writing. Spent some hours attending to paperwork to do with the Wildcat project and preparing for meetings. Quite pleased to see so many red squirrel tracks in the snow in the forest this week; they seem to be coping with the wintry weather OK. I was unconvinced that the badgers would do likewise, but I took some friends to the hide on Saturday and we were treated to the sight of five very healthy looking badgers. We had waited more than an hour and were just getting ready to give up and leave when the five brocks wandered into view to scoff peanuts. Terrific. What is not so good is that Michael Gove is considering rolling out the badger cull right across England. Sad and disappointing, because he was beginning to show signs of listening to science - a false dawn. Back at the hide, before settling in to wait for badgers I checked the Acorn camera and there was nothing at all on the card, despite my friends and I having wandered past the camera on the way to look at a nest box before checking the SD card. I think the camera has packed up. Sunday produced the first real sign that Spring may not be far away; a woodpecker was hammering in the woods just west of the Angle somewhere near Box 17.
Mon 19th to Sun 25th Feb
On Monday I gave a talk about the birds and mammals of the Cairngorms to the Boat of Garten SWRI Group. A small but very engaged audience made it a most enjoyable experience. On Tuesday the woodpecker was at it again in the woods, although I fear it is being premature because there is more snow forecast for next week. On Wednesday we got sight of the Scottish Environment LINK Response to the Scottish Government Wildlife Crime report 2016. You can read it here. It's a bit of a mixed bag, as you'd expect. On Thursday, while driving to Grantown, we passed a dead badger on the A95. Reported it to Scottish Badgers later. On Thursday I Chaired a meeting at Scottish Natural Heritage offices in Inverness. On Friday I took a family of four to the hide; we had 3 badgers within 10 minutes and 5 minutes later there were 5 badgers. Sadly no pine martens but a good start to the season nonetheless. With heavy snow forecast next week I filled all the feeders with the drumming of woodpeckers ringing in my ears - they've obviously not seen the forecast.
Mon 26th Feb to Sun 4th March
Spent much of Monday dealing with wildcat stuff by email and phone to do with taking wildcats into account when managing land. On Tuesday I met with Stuart Housden, former Director of RSPB Scotland, for a couple of hours over lunch during which we solved all the world's problems, as you can imagine. Snow had a moderating effect on activities this week and will also do so next week as the forecast is for cold weather to persist. I have therefore cancelled all badger watches planned for next week. In the woods, I kept the feeders full and watched and listened for activity. Lots of deer, woodpeckers still drumming and long tailed tits visiting our gardens. Teresa May's Brexit speech this week told us nothing new and gave no comfort to leavers, remainers or the devolved parliaments in Wales, NI and Scotland. What a mess. Saturday was supposed to be a volunteer day at Milton Loch but again the snow stopped us doing much other than fill bird feeders and check all was well.
Mon 5th to Sun 11th March
Much of this week was preparation for next week, involving reading reams of papers and writing agendas and speeches. On Wednesday I attended a meeting at ScotLink HQ in Edinburgh to plan for events concerning the Species Champions initiative. Thursday found me deep in the woods examining what I at first thought might be cat prints but could not be certain so I decided to set up a trail cam soon nearby with some Valerion Root as a lure. No public badger watches this week due to the weather but I took the risk and confirmed one for next week. Checked the Bushnell camera in the garden and it revealed that the nest box wars continue unabated with a short clip of a great tit and a house sparrow jousting for supremacy. Friday, I set up the Acorn cam near nest box No 8 facing a bag of Valerion root, as promised. We'll see. In the afternoon a did more work on next week's wildcat meeting, then in the evening I went to the badger hide to see if all was well. It certainly was; after only ten minutes there were 3 badgers close to the hide and soon afterwards 2 of them indulged in a spectacular display of mating. The frosty weather certainly hasn't cooled their ardour. The relationship between pine martens, red squirrels and grey squirrels has suddently become a hot topic as Dr Emma Sheehy's research has matured to the point where definite conclusions can be drawn. This has excited much press interest and she has been on TV and radio and there have been articles in the papers, notably the Guardian. In a nutshell, the presence of pine martens causes serious decline in grey squirrel numbers, to the benefit of red squirrels, which are now returning to places from which they had been eliminated by grey squirrels. I am so reminded of conversations I had with Prince Charles and Her Majesty a few years ago on the subject; they both believed, wrongly, that pine martens were a serious threat to red squirrels. My attempt to persuade them otherwise, based on Emma's early research, failed. The question is, should I get back in touch with them with an update, (or will that just sound like, "I told you so !"?) or should I simply assume the well publicised facts and figures of the past week will somehow reach them? Answers on a postcard. On Saturday and Sunday I researched trail cameras with a view to replacing the frustrating Acorn which has been beset with problems since I first bought it years ago. I eventually settled on a Bushnell E3 from Handykam but with no great confidence that I had done the right thing. Stay tuned.
Pine Marten With An Egg
Mon 12th Sun 18th March
Checked the aforementioned Acorn camera at the Valerion Root lure site but nothing had approached the bait. The Acorn had actually worked but without access to its menus I cannot set it up properly, and even if I could there's no guarantee it would do what I'd asked it. On this occasion it has set itself to take just still photos but it had actually taken a random mixture of videos and stills. Much paperwork and many phone calls to do with badgers and wildcats, culminating in a terrific wildcat Steering Group meeting at Battleby on Friday. Mighty meaty discussions and bold decisions were the order of the day and I think we all left feeling pretty positive. At home, the weather had returned to winter which may confuse the birds that had begun their mating activities. It happens every year so I expect they'll cope. The new camera arrived but it was not what the advert described. The suppliers had made a mistake on their website; a copy and paste error - we've all done it! We managed to sort it out amicably. Found pine marten poo on what we call the Secret Path, not far from the village. Nest box wars have intensified as two blue tits, two house sparrows and a great tit have investigated the sparrow gallery on the shed. On Sunday I met a family in the woods; Mum, Dad, child, dog and cat. Yes "cat". It was strolling along with the family large as life but Dad picked it up when my dogs approached. The dogs did not know what to make of it. Neither did I.
Mon 19th to Sun 25th March
Bought some chicken thighs from Tesco and set up two cameras in the woods with chicken as bait for wildcats, using the old dodgy Acorn plus the brand new Bushnell E3. We'll see. On Tuesday I took one of the woodland feeders home, repaired it and put it back. Later I checked the new E3 camera and to my annoyance I had not switched it on properly when I set it up. Grrr. It was all the more annoying when I noticed that the chicken thigh that I was using for bait had been chewed by something. Hopefully whatever chewed it will come back tonight and be videoed. Fitted the old Acorn with a new bracket supplied by Handykam and set it up for the sparrow gallery. Checked it after a couple of days but it seems the return to cold weather has put a halt to the breeding season. Exchanged views, with others, on the final versions of some wildcat papers that we hope will pave the way for action in due course. Saturday was Earth Hour so we and other villagers assembled at Milton Loch to star-gaze and drink mulled wine. Lots of sounds of wildlife, mostly ducks and geese on the loch. On Sunday I checked the Bushnell cameras: the Aggressor had taken roe deer and a fox and the E4 had some nice videos of roe deer, both male and female, and some large dogs running loose. Nothing showed any interest in the chicken thighs I had arrayed on trees in front of the cameras, not even the fox or the dogs.
Mon 26th March to Sun 1st April
On Monday I took a couple from the Dorset Badger Group to the hide at short notice. A delightful evening in the company of at least 5 badgers and several mice. We also heard a tawny owl from the hide, then saw one flying across the B970 as we drove home. I put out food in the garden in case our local hedgehogs were awake and in need of a meal but it was all still there in the morning. I was back in the hide on Tuesday with another keen family; Mum, son and daughter, all members of Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Badgers, no less, and son was on Countryfile at the weekend. Great stuff. We were rewarded with six badgers. Wednesday was much concerned with a storm of emails about wildcats in Aberdeenshire. In the evening I escaped to the badger hide once more with a couple of young vets from Australia and a former fellow badger guide who intends to return to the fold and once more do some guiding. For the second night running we had six badgers.
Three badgers at the hide
On Thursday there was more wildcat activity in the media, resulting in more time-consuming email sessions. In the afternoon I checked the two Bushnell cameras in the woods but there was no wildlife on the Aggressor and just some roe deer on the E4. I removed the Aggressor and in the evening I set it up at the badger hide to establish whether or not the pine martens were still about; we haven't actually seen them yet this year. Before returning home I left some peanuts for the badgers and called out to them to let them know, at which a badger emerged immediately. I did not stay long. Friday was our first crested tit nest check of the season; there was no nesting activity yet but Box 3 had been vandalised - the lid had been ripped open, thus tearing apart the rubber strap that holds the lid in place. Later I checked the camera at the hide; it had recorded lots of badger activity and a small blizzard but no pine martens. Over the Easter weekend I topped up feeders, and removed the new E3 camera which had failed to capture anything of interest. I also had telephone conversations with some of my wildcat colleagues to bring them up to date with recent developments. I think people are rediscovering the value of phone calls person to person in some circumstances compared with texts and emails.
Mon 2nd to Sun 8th April
The week began with more snow and the forecast suggests it will continue for a few days, then warm up for next weekend. Despite the snow, the nest box wars are continuing with blue tits having the upper hand at the moment. On Monday I checked the Bushnell camera at the badger hide to see if pine martens were in the area and sure enough they had visited the hide area the previous three evenings in a row so hopefully that means our visitors will be seeing them in due course. I put together this brief video of some of the action and posted it on Twitter and YouTube.
On Tuesday we saw 6 roe deer in the woods within 100 metres of the Community Hall, a rare gathering. At home, the nest box wars got crazy - starlings in the starling box were ousted by a pair of house sparrows, then another pair of sparrows started building in the open-fronted robin box a few feet from the starling box. In the evening I took a family to the badger hide in a minor blizzard. The badgers were in no way deterred and we had five of them in view at one point. We also saw greylag geese, a curlew and some mice, and we heard a tawny owl. On Wednesday we awoke to 2 inches of snow but it was very wet and was melting by the afternoon so I set up the new Bushnell E3 camera in the woods on a fallen tree trunk upon which I had created a lake of peanut butter and syrup and sunk a flotilla of dates therein. We'll check at the weekend if the pine martens and red squirrels approve. On Thursday our golf was cancelled due to ice and snow so I checked the nest boxes at the badger hide. The tit box had a small amount of nest material in it but its entrance had been chipped a little larger, presumably by woodpeckers. None of the large boxes (tawny, goldeneye and kestrel) showed any signs of use yet. Whilst there I checked the Bushnell camera; badgers and pine martens had been in attendance every night despite heavy snow and sub zero temperatures. In the evening I went back to the hide with a family where we saw 6 badgers but we had to leave before the kind of time that pine martens have been arriving lately. They'll probably be on the SD card when I next check the camera. On Saturday I checked the Acorn camera in the garden (still no hedgehogs) and the E3 camera in the woods (one video of a red squirrel and one of a woodpecker).
Mon 9th to Sun 15th April
On Monday I took Steve Reddick and his wife and a neighbour to the hide - lots of badgers but no pine marten although the Bushnell camera revealed that pine martens had been there every night but very late, mostly around midnight. Spent most of Tues and Weds in bed with a tummy bug but did manage to check the E3 camera (red squirrels and jays) and took a family to the hide where we had six badgers. The badgers seemed quite nervous and I think that might have been caused by the very rustly jackets the guests were wearing. Must consider how to deal with that in future; perhaps invest in a range of warm fleeces for people to slip into once they're in the hide. Checked the card in the Bushnell to discover that the pine marten was not there at all last night but two of them were there the previous night around midnight as usual. At home I sorted out three of our surplus fleeces to go to the badger hide as a temporary measure then dealt with lots of wildcat emails. Still recovering from illness so no practical work on Thursday other than to drive to Inverness for Kenny Taylor's excellent talk on puffins for the North of Scotland Scottish Wildlife Group. Lots of admin on Friday to do with badgers, wildcats and the Tomintoul and Glenlivet Wildlife Group (TGWG) for whom I shall shortly be working as a volunteer panel member, then in the evening I took a professional couple to the hide where we had 5 badgers, a few mice, several greylag geese and an otter in view at various times. At one point the greylags advanced menacingly across the field, honking noisily, towards a group of badgers who were innocently foraging for peanuts on the other side of the fence. The poor badgers were terrified and fled in alarm! That's a first for me. The weekend was a mixture of golf and looking after my poorly wife with a bit of TGWG meeting preparation thrown in.
Mon 16th to Sun 22nd April
On Monday I attended the TGWG meeting at Tomintoul at which we put the finishing touches to approvals and conditions for four projects, all involving planting of trees or hedges. We also clarified governance arrangements to help us newbies to bed in. I agreed to help out with advice on some practical aspects of providing squirrel feeders for one of the projects. Checked the Acorn camera to find to my delight that we have at last had a hedgehog in the garden - it was at 0200 on Fri13th April. Bea and I agreed that BoGWiG will erect the new capercaillie signs in the woods, in return for which the Park will make a donation to the group. Decided to expand the management arrangements for the Badger Hide, based on an online diary, and also decided to add another potential guide to the list. Meetings have been arranged for next week. Sent a copy of Dr Emma Sheehy's new pine marten research paper "The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Friend" to HRH Prince Charles; he had shown a keen interest in the subject when research began a few years ago into the interaction between red squirrels, grey squirrels and pine martens.
HRH Prince Charles love his red squirrels
On Tuesday I went to Edinburgh for a ScotLINK Species Champions event at the Scottish Parliament. All the usual enthusiasts were there to celebrate the year of young people in the context of wildlife and the environment and it was good to see Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham and other MSPs take the trouble to attend. Wednesday was mostly taken up with hanging around in Inverness while our Jeep got serviced and MOT-ed. Thanks to the internet being available in all the cafes I was nevertheless able to keep up with developments following press articles about the theft and damage to wildcat survey equipment in Aberdeenshire. Public reaction was heartening with offers of money and replacement cameras to offset our losses. I also managed to complete my poem about a fence-post. In the evening I took a couple to the badger hide where we had six badgers in view at one point, There were no pine martens but the cameras told us they had been there on three of the past five nights. On Thursday Heather and I and the dogs screwed new signs in place in the Boat of Garten Woods asking people to manage their dogs in certain ways in different parts of the woods to help protect the threatened capercaillie, from dogs-on-leads, to dogs-under-close-control, to let-the-dogs-run.
Erecting Capercaillie Signs - note the dogs on leads in that area
I also had a phone conversation with Scottish Government that afternoon on certain aspects of wildcat conservation. On Friday I checked the camera at the new feeder on the fallen tree to find that the red squirrels have finally learned how to lift the lid. Spent the rest of the morning in the office dealing with progressing Scottish Wildcat Action next steps, much of it on the phone. Fall out from the trashing of some of our equipment in Aberdeenshire continues unabated with general outrage across the board and some very generous offers of funds to replace damaged items. My particular personal thanks to photographer Andy Howard who has a policy of giving back to nature in this way. Good one Andy! On Saturday I did the round of the feeders and filled them all up, then in the evening I took Dod and Sally Morrison to the hide where we had seven adult badgers, a badger cub, a pine marten, some mice and a tawny owl; a great night.
Mon 23rd to Mon 30th April
On Monday I ran a guide training session at the badger hide for a potential new guide; it went well. Checked the Bushnell camera while I was there to find the pine marten had been at the feeder on two of the last three nights. Back at home I checked the Acorn camera to find that a hedgehog at visited our garden on three of the last five nights, this despite not putting food out for it. Must check the hibernation box to see if there are any signs of it being used. Tuesday was spring cleaning and golf. On Weds I checked the E3 camera - it had more than 300 videos and I only got through about half of them before bed time. One thing it did show was a red squirrel eating a date, which I wasn't too sure about supplying but I'd heard pine martens liked dates so it was worth a try. Had a meeting with colleague Martin Jones who had agreed to cover the badger hide bookings while I'm away on holiday soon. In the evening I took a couple to the hide where in the short time we stayed we had 5 badgers including a cub. The Bushnell camera at the hide revealed that pine martens had been at the feeder on both of the previous evenings and on both occasions there had been two pine martens together. That bodes well. On Thursday I finished working through the 300+ images on the E3 card - just jays, red squirrels and great tits - no pine martens, which surprises and disappoints me. I also checked out a possible wild camping site for this evening's badger watch couple without much success. A wildcat blog warning the public to beware of a misleading wildcat website link received final sign-off from me and SNH today. To be clear, anyone reading this who would like to donate money or report a wildcat sighting to Scottish Wildcat Action should do so via www.scottishwildcataction.org . Still with wildcats, we've now got a date in the diary to decide the detail of the shortly-to-be-formed Land Managers sub group. On Thursday evening I took a young wild-camping couple of scientists to the hide where we saw 9 badgers, including one cub, and glimpsed a pine marten. On Friday Heather and I were guests at the launch of David Hetherington's book The Lynx And Us. All the great and the good were there completely filling the community hall to capacity. It was good to see several of my colleagues from Scottish Wildcat Action. On Saturday I swapped the card in the E3 camera and then took a supply of peanuts to the couple who look after the Milton Loch site, again this was to cover my upcoming holiday absence. The E3's card had more than 200 videos on it that were all red squirrel, jay and a few small birds; still no pine marten which is a little worrying as I have not even seen their scats at path junctions this spring. In the evening I took one of the Scottish Wildcat Action team and her friedns to the badger hide where we had at least 6 badgers, some mice and a tawny owl. No pine marten sadly and it had not been recorded by the trail cam on either of the two previous evenings. Sunday was mostly for golf. On Monday I checked the card in the fallen-tree E3 camera and again it was just jays, red squirrels and small birds. Since putting that camera there a few weeks ago it has taken hundreds of videos and not a single pine marten has been recorded. I have also not found a pine marten scat in Boat woods for weeks, which is unusual and it makes me wonder if something sinister is going on.
Tues 1st to Sun 6th May
Excellent Scottish Wildcat Action meeting on Tuesday, planning the creation of a Land Use sub-group in which we hope to form partnerships with estates, farms and shooting interests to help preserve the wildcat. On Wednesday Bea and I did a complete round of the 20 crested tit nest box. Not much nesting activity yet but boxes 4 and 18 seem to have been used as moulting dens, containing lots of dark feather, box 2 had nest material but no nest and box 12 had a nest, complete with cup, but no lining. In the evening I took Ben from the BTO and his family to the hide where we had at least seven adult badgers and one cub. Ben and I checked the goldeneye duck boxes but found no evidence of use yet - but we did hear a cuckoo. I also checked the Bushnell card to find the pine marten had only visited the feeder once in the last four evenings; disappointing to say the least. I then reset the Bushnell to a basic photo setting to cover the two week period I will be away. On Thursday I took a couple from Yorkshire to the hide where had at least 5 badgers in view at one point. No cub or pine marten this time though, and the SD card in the Bushnell camera showed that the pine marten hadn't visited the feeder last night either - I hope all's well.
Mon 7th May to Sun 20th May
Away in the Balkans for two weeks, mostly in Albania but with one day each in Greece (Corfu) and Macedonia. We saw lots of swallows and their nests, a fox (in Macedonia) 2 buzzards over Albanian farmland and precious little else that you could call wildlife. The only road kill we saw in more than 1600 km of driving through wild countryside was domestic cats and dogs - which probably tells its own tale. Our guide rather sheepishly confessed that men in the Balkans like to shoot, so that probably explains a lot. Albania is quite poor and is reckoned to be one of the most corrupt countries in continental Europe so care for its wild animals is probably not high on anybody's agenda. So much for the title of our tour which was "The Land Of The Eagle".
Mon 21st to Sun 27th May
Checked all the cameras for the two weeks we've been away as follows:
Garden: No hedgehogs on the Acorn cam, which for once seems to have behaved itself..
Boat Woods: Almost 2,000 pictures on the E3, mostly of red squirrels and jays but a few of roe deer and common small birds. No crested tits and no pine martens which is disappointing and slightly worrying.
Badger Hide: Very poor quality night time pictures on the Aggressor camera, in many of which no animals could be detected, just darkness and a vague tree outline. However, a pine marten was visible in about 2 out of every 3 pictures on roughly alternate days, mostly after midnight which is long after our badger watchers would have gone home to bed. I am very grateful to Martin Jones and Steve Goodall for doing a great job of managing the Badger Hide while I was away. They took lots of people between them and raised vital funds for the wildlife group "BoGWiG".
On Tuesday I took two Australians to the badger hide for their second visit on consecutive evenings and for the second time a pine marten favoured them with a performance, this time just 5 minutes after we'd shut the hide door. We also saw 4 badgers over the next hour or so plus a roe deer, a brown hare and some mice. On Wednesday Bea and I did a full crested tit nest box check. Sadly no cresties had made an attempt to nest although three great tits and a coal tit were sitting on eggs. At another box there were nine eggs in a nest but no parent birds - it would not have been a crestie as they never produce so many eggs, probably a blue tit but time will tell. On a tree stump beside box 16 there were fresh capercaillie droppings and I think that's the third time in a row so I reckon one of the trail cameras should spend a little time there or at a similar stump between boxes 18 and 19. In the evening I went back to check if a parent bird had returned to the 9 eggs in Box 4 but no luck. On Thursday I set up the Acorn camera pointing at the capercaillie stump between boxes 18 and 19 - fingers crossed for some caper images. Spent part of the afternoon on wildcat work, then in the evening checked some nest boxes in our garden; the starling box contained a heap of lovely chicks but disappointingly none of the three sparrow gallery chambers has produced eggs, despite two of the three chambers containing complete nests.
Two complete nests but no eggs - all that work for nothing. I've resealed the boxes in the hope the birds will come back and try again
Long session in the dentist chair on Friday so the rest of the day was a write-off. On Saturday I checked the camera at the hide to find the pine marten had been there most nights but always after midnight. I checked the goldeneye duck boxes with the endoscope and the one on top of the hill on a plastic pole contained a duck sitting on eggs. In the evening I took a delightful couple from Holland to the hide where we had at least five badgers, 2 roe deer, 2 GS woodpeckers, a brown hare and some mice. One of the badgers had a wound on its face just behind its right eye and scratch marks on its neck and one of the other badgers also had a wound on the side of its face but less severe. Neither seemed unduly bothered by their injuries. The following evening I took the same couple to the hide again where we began by checking the footage on the Bushnell camera to see what had happened after we had left the previous evening. The SD card showed that a pine marten had been on the feeder for three feeding sessions during the night. The first session began at 2330, which was only 40 minutes after we had left the hide, the second session was at 0200 and the third session was at 0500. We therefore stayed in the hide longer this evening than the previous evening and our patience was rewarded when at 2315 the pine marten arrived and fed on peanuts at the feeder for 15 minutes.
Mon 28th to Thurs 31st May
Monday was mostly an admin day. On Tuesday I took @nerdboy386 (Zach) and his dad to the hide where we had 5 badgers but no pine martens and I then had a very similar evening on Wednesday with a couple from Switzerland. That's more or less it for the hide for a week or two while we give it its annual facelift. On Thursday I brought all three trail cameras home for servicing. Sadly, neither of the two cameras in Boat woods recorded any pine martens which is both surprising and suspicious. In 2018 I have not seen any signs of pine martens around the woods and none of the cameras have picked them up. Hmmm. Later I set up one of the cameras at the starling box in our garden in which the young starlings are almost ready to go - they keep appearing at the entrance hole and call for food.
Friday 1st to Sunday 10th June
On Friday I did some preparation for tomorrow's annual refurbishment of the hide - I strimmed the grass and ferried the paint and brushes and other stuff from the road to the hide. We used to be able to drive to the hide for this job but the gates are now locked and the farmer won't allow us a key. The starlings are still in the nest box so certain noisy jobs waiting to be done in the shed will have to wait a bit longer. Despite all this and some overdue admin, Heather and I managed 9 holes of golf in the sun. The rest of the week is something of a blurr so I'll make do with a summary. The hide roof needs to be replaced so I took a roofer there to discuss a plan. We painted the rest of the hide as planned. The starling chicks fledged but sadly the Bushnell missed the happy event. I took two groups to the hide and Martin took one. Lots of badgers seen but the pine marten only turned up once. Lots of wildcat planning and reporting undertaken; things are taking shape nicely. The feeders in the woods have not seen much action lately which is typical of this time of year. Collected the three trail cameras together and re-jigged the locking devices ready for the next session. Attended the quarterly meetings of Scottish Badgers in Perth. Found what is probably old pine marten poo on the secret path in our woods within 500 metres of the new housing development. That allays my concerns somewhat but I would prefer something a bit more concrete. Finished the week by topping up the woodland feeders and then boiling several kettles to scald out the stinking starling nest box, the equally nasty paving slabs below it and the bird bath.
Mon 11th to Sun 17th June
This was a busy golf week but there is still some wildlife stuff to report. The bird feeders in the woods were being used a little more this week than in recent weeks so I acquired a new sack of peanuts. I researched various types of roofing covering as an alternative to roofing felt for the leaky badger hide and at the moment I favour a rubber version. We'll see. Lots of wildcat and badger admin kept me busy in the office on and off and I managed to take three groups to the badger hide. On the first visit we had five badgers. On the second visit we had five badgers and a pine marten, then, as we left the area and passed the pine marten nest box tree, we spotted two pine martens in the tree, one of which dived into the nest box when it saw us. On the way home a badger shot across the road in front of the car; fortunately too far ahead to be at risk. I went back to the hide the next evening where we had four badgers and two pine martens. The martens wanted to get to the peanut feeder but were wary of a badger that was foraging between them and the feeder. Eventually they abandoned the idea and ran away. Back at home, I checked the Bushnell camera in our garden every few days and eventually it revealed that a hedgehog had been foraging among the wildflowers in the small hours of Sunday morning.
Mon 18th to Sun 24th June
The football World Cup was in full swing by the start of this week so only the minimum of wildlfie stuff got done. On Weds I took my old friends Rhys and Ifan from Wales to the badger hide. They've been coming to Scotland for years and know exactly where to find our most exotic wildlife species. On this occasion we had 7 badgers in view at one point but sadly the pine marten did not put in an appearance. On Friday was the media launch of our Generation Wildcat campaign at SNH headquarters at Great Glen House in Inverness. STV and BBC sent film crews and the Press and Journal sent a reporter and camerman so we were well covered. I gave the introductory speech, then our Project Manager did likewise, then we played the brilliant pre-recorded video message from Cabinet Secretary for Environment Roseana Cunningham MSP. That evening STV used some of the footage, including part of the interview with me, on the evening news and there was an article in the P and J next morning with quotes from me, Roo Campbell and the Cab Sec. Mission accomplished.
Mon 25th to Sat 30th June
Suddenly the feeders in the woods are being used more heavily than recently so I had to go round and fill them all up. Also in the woods, we are seeing roe deer in great abundance than lately - unconnected with the feeder thing of course. On Monday night I was in the hide again - 4 badgers and 2 pine martens came to entertain us. The pine martens were quite small and stuck together so were probably young siblings. On Tuesday it was back to the hide with just one guest. We checked the goldeneye box on the pole on top of the hill to find the eggs were still there but no sitting bird. Interestingly, there was pine marten poo all around the foot of the pole so maybe the martens were crapping themselves in frustration at not being able to get to the eggs.
A Trail Camera Checking Pine Marten Activity At The Goldeneye Box
Back in the hide, we soon had 4 badgers. In the office, there were lots of emails and phone calls to deal with ahead of this week's Scottish Wildcat Action Steering Group meeting; nothing untoward, quite the reverse, as they all helped towards a smooth meeting, especially the input from those members of the group who were unable to attend in person and wished me to table their views on topics in which they are particularly expert. The meeting went well and the project is progressing according to the plan. In particular, our large-scale evidence-gathering efforts, with input from external partners, will be invaluable in shaping future actions. On Thurs 28th I did the rounds of the crested tit boxes. All the boxes that had eggs in at the last check (23rd May) were totally empty so I assume the chicks hatched and fledged successfully. Sadly none of them were crested tits which makes this the third or fourth year in a row that we have failed to attract crested tits into the boxes. This week has been one of the hottest on record with temperatures in the thirties; that's no good to man nor beast. I hope our local wildlife is not suffering too much. I've made sure there's plenty of water in our garden for the birds and hope that other villagers are doing the same. On Friday Bea and I went to the badger hide to take a closer look at the goldeneye box. There was no duck present so I checked the eggs - two were broken and the remaining five seemed cold to me. We'll check again in a few weeks time. Before leaving we set up a trail camera aimed at the foot of the pole that supports the nest box to try to see what the pine marten poo under the box was all about. There were noticeable scratches on the plastic pole suggesting the martens had tried to climb it; the camera will reveal if they are doing that. On the way back to the hide we took a video of the inside of the kestrel box using my phone attached to a long pole; no sign of activity. Here's a still frame from the video:
The Inside Of The Kestrel Box
Sun 1st to Sun 8th July
Great start to the month at the badger hide on Monday where a keen young guy and I enjoyed the company of 5 badgers and two pine martens. A badger chased the two pine martens up a tree and tried to follow them up it but lost its nerve. They all calmed down quite soon and settled down to eating peanuts just a few metres apart. While wating for the badgers we checked the footage on the trail camera beside the goldeneye nest box on its plastic pole to find it had taken some brilliant footage of a pine marten trying and failing to climb the pole. Strike one for non-lethal predator control. Here's a wee video I put together for YouTube:
At tea time I posted the video on Twitter and by midnight it had received more than a hundred Retweets and more than two hundred Likes. While all that was going on I took four RSPB staff members to the badger hide where we had 8 badgers in view at one point and then eventually a pine marten showed up for ten minutes. We also saw a roe deer, a brown hare and some woodmice. A marvelous day, despite the almost unbearable heat; it was 29C in Aviemore this afternoon. Next day, interest in my pine marten video continued until by midnight it had more than 180 retweets, more than 300 likes and more than 12 thousand views on Twitter. On Saturday it was golf at Nethy where we found fox scats near the 2nd green and pine marten scats near the 6th green. In the evening I took Dod and Sally to the hide again where we had 7 badgers, a female goldeneye with 2 young on the river and a brown hare in the field. The trail cam at the goldeneye nest box pole had recorded yet more failed attempts by pine martens to climb the pole; determined little devils.
Mon 9th to Sun15th July
Wildcats and domestic cats featured in Monday's office work and then it was time to get out into the field. I set the Bushnell camera in the garden to low sensitivity to try to deal with too many false triggers. In the evening I did the same with the cam at the goldeneye nest box pole and also fitted it with new batteries and I then stayed for a while to sit outside the badger hide with the badgers. Earlier my Firefox browser had been the cause of two quite serious problems, one of which has probably cost me more than £200, so I'll have to stop using it. Pity because I quite like it. In the woods I had to top up all the feeders and repair one of them that might have been deliberately tampered with. No sweat. On Friday I checked both trail cams with their new low-sensitivity settings and the results were good; less false triggers but still capturing the mammals - pine martens at the hide and a hedgehog in the garden. The pine martens at the foot of the goldeneye nest box pole were simply passing through and not attempting to climb the pole - maybe they've give up. Also on Friday I took a delightful family to the hide where we saw at least 6 badgers and a brown hare. No pine martens this time.
Mon 16th to Sun 22nd July
Took myself to the badger hide on Monday where I checked the Bushnell camera - it had recorded another failed attempt by a pine marten to climb the plastic goldeneye nestbox pole. I then sat out with the badgers for half an hour; the two cubs came quite close to where I was sitting reading a book but the three adults were a bit shy. In Boat Woods I have begun to see more pine marten signs than earlier in the year. On Wednesday there were scats behind the Deshar Road houses, on the Caper Track and at the junction at the north end of the Secret Path. There was talk in the Press of wildcat kittens being found abandoned and taken to a refuge. No doubt more details will emerge but as a general principle great caution must be taken with this kind of thing in case mother cat is still around. Apparently searches were made for a parent but without success. On Friday, plans to visit the badger hide were thwarted by bad weather so I was forced to stay at home and watch The Open at Carnoustie on Sky Sports - tough job but someone had to do it. My future with Scottish Badgers was clarified today; after I step down as a Trustee in the Autumn I'll stay on as an adviser which will include representing Scottish Badgers on external bodies where appropriate. On Saturday I refilled all the woodland feeders and then went to the badger hide. The trail camera at the goldeneye nest box had recorded yet more failed attempts by pine martens to climb the goldeneye nest box plastic poles. I sat out with the badgers for half an hour; there were only three this time.
Mon 23rd to Tues 31st July
The early part of the week was much tied up with various aspects of our wildcat work, from publicising the need for neutering of domestic cats, to planning workshop meetings to drive future decision making, to providing the media with a balanced view on the supposed recent discovery of wildcat kittens. I also began planning a campaign to make our village more hedgehog friendly, using advice and materials provided by Hedgehog Street and PTES. On Wednesday I spent a lovely evening in the hide with a keen young couple (Jamie and Jemma I think) who work for the New Zealand Department of Conservation. We checked the trail camera to see what the pine martens had been up to and sure enough they had been attempting to climb the goldeneye nestbox pole again and failing again. We exchanged wildlife stories for a couple of hours while watching at least 8 badgers near the hide, a roe deer on the grassy slope, a pine marten on the riverside track and some woodmice dashing between the hide, a hollow rowan tree and a badger tunnel. I was back in the hide on Friday with a couple from the Lothians who had been to the hide before, many years ago. They are both members of Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Badgers so we had lots to talk about. The trail camera had recorded more failed attempts by pine martens to climb the pole. Badgers came out almost as soon as we arrived; I daresay they are hungry with all this dry weather so the peanuts would have been most welcome. On the river there were goldeneye ducks, goosanders and herons and we also glimpsed a roe deer among the trees. A pine marten arrived slowly and I was reminded of a pine marten with a limp that had been caught on video a few weeks ago. It gingerly climbed the feeder tree but did not eat much before crawling higher in the tree and eventually settling down in a complicated fork in the trunk. A bit later on a much more lively pine marten bounded into view, ran past the hide and the feeder tree without stopping and just kept going till it was out of sight up-river. On Sunday it was back to the hide, this time with 3 Romanian people who are based in Arizona. We had 7 badgers plus the slow pine marten. The marten was unable to settle down properly at the feeder because each time a badger came near the feeder tree the pine marten crept higher up the tree to a safer perch. Weird. By the way, the word 'badger' is 'bursuc' in Romanian. Monday's badger people were a family of four who came to the hide in February on one of the first visits of the year. They arrived this time having had to tear themselves away from watching pine martens in the garden of the lodge they had hired for the week - not a great start to the evening. However, eight badgers came out to amuse them as a consolation and I think they got some good photos. The final day of the month was spent recovering from a hectic few days - although I did squeeze in some paperwork.
Weds 1st to Sun 5th August
August began with a flurry of emails about wildcats, protected area legislation, species champions and Doodle polls. It's difficult to fit it all in - and I'm trying to be retired!! OK, I hear you, "No sympathy, self inflicted, you love it really, get over yourself". One piece of brilliant news, my good friend and successor as Chairman of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Robin Harper, has been awarded the OBE. A fine man with a long history of public service of many kinds including nature conservation and green politics. Proud to know you Robin, well done and richly deserved. On Thursday I took a family of five friends to the hide in heavy rain. The badgers were not at all deterred by the rain and we had six in view at one point. Just before we left, 2 pine martens turned up but did not stay around for us to watch for more than a minute or so. On Friday I began to write an article about hedgehog conservation for our village magazine. I particularly want people to connect up their gardens by making gaps in their fences for the hedgehogs to pass through easily. On Saturday I continued thinking through how we might persuade ospreys to nest in our village which is known as the osprey village but which does not actually have ospreys within its boundaries, the nearest being at the RSPB osprey centre a couple of miles away.
Mon 6th to Sun 12th August
The early part of the week was family stuff. On Wednesday I took keen photographers Charles and Sandy to the badger hide. Both guys are regular users of our Milton Loch bird hide but this was their first visit to the badger hide. They were rewarded with at least 6 badgers and I think they went home with lots of great photos. The pine martens did not show up but a brown hare did. In our garden, we were twice visited by hedgehogs, thanks to the holes I cut in the fences last year. I hope we get a good reaction from the hedgehog article I wrote for next month's BoG Standard, the local magazine. Still with hedgehogs, during Friday's golf competition an injured hedgehog was reported to have wandered across the 6th fairway at Abernethy at about 7pm - I hope it recovers OK. Saturday saw some drama in our garden; my wife found a partially plucked dead wood pigeon under one of the trees. It was quite close to the fence so I reckon a sparrow hawk had killed the bird and then been disturbed by someone walking past on the pavement. I threw the carcass into a nearby field for nature to dispose of it in its own way. Later I got a message from Martin Jones, one of our badger guides, to say the Friday evening group had a great evening with at least 6 badgers and a pine marten on view. On Sunday I popped in at Hen Harrier Day Highland in the Grant Arms Hotel, Grantown on Spey in time to catch the Q and A session and chat to some of the company afterward. There was a good turn out for the second year running with lots of well-kent faces in the audience - too many to name.
Mon 13th to Sun 19th August
On Monday I spent a good deal of time on some tricky wildcat correspondence and then did the round of the woodland feeders, some of which were actually empty, to my shame. Hedgehogs were a strong topic of conversation at the golf club on Tuesday where it seems that these wee creatures are very common in the village of Nethy Bridge, much to my delight. Also in plentiful supply are voles which I saw three times in a week on various parts of the Abernethy golf course. On Tuesday evening I took Steve and Zoe to the badger hide where we had 8 badgers and 2 pine martens. We also had a sheep. This particular sheep turned up about a week ago and we've seen it both in the flesh and on the camera trap on and off ever since so I phoned the tennant farmer and he said it wasn't one of his but he would find out where it belonged and have it collected. Good PR. Speaking of the camera trap, I removed it from where it was monitoring pine marten activity at the goldeneye nest box on a pole on the hill above the badger hide. There was some footage of the pine martens still attempting and failing to climb the pole and also some clips of a roe deer - and of course the sheep. On Wednesday morning I spent a couple of hours preparing for a wildcat meeting at Aigas in the afternoon. The meeting went well and we remain on track to deliver the current phase of the project. On Thursday morning I arranged with my neighbours which bit of our joint fence could feature a hedehog door that would be easy for the hogs to access without inconveniencing ourselves. On Thursday afternoon I began to progress the outcomes of Wednesday's wildcat meeting. Friday was a day of badger meetings in Perth with episodes of working on my laptop in Perth cafes after the train and before the meetings and after the meetings before the train home, plus during the train journeys. Interestingly. I chatted on the train with James Corden's agent from Los Angeles - she was over for the Edinburgh Fringe but was taking a break to visit Inverness and see some of the famous Scottish Highlands.