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 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 Sun 29th 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. 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.