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Aviemore & Cairngorms - Wildlife and Birdwatching Holidays in the Scottish Highlands

The mountains at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park have more high-level ground than anywhere else in Britain and Ireland. But you don’t have to hike to their core to have some excellent wildlife watching experiences. Fish-rich rivers, native woodlands where red squirrels live, lochs beside osprey eyries and farmland busy with wading birds are within easy reach of every town and village here.

 

Crested tits and crossbills 

If you’re hankering after some Strathspey specials, such as crested tit and Scottish crossbill, then try the trails network on the Rothiemurchus Estate. Orient yourself at the visitor centre beside the A951 ‘ski road’, then enjoy one of the many woodland and loch-side walks, including the delightful trail around Loch an Eilean. Go to the estate’s trout fishery, close to the bridge over the Spey at Aviemore, to see ospreys trying for fast-food take-aways in summer. 

Caledonian pinewoods

In the hamlet of Glenmore, about 6 miles from Aviemore, the Glenmore Forest Centre will help you to get your bearings before sampling some of the walks through the Caledonian pinewoods here. Watch for red squirrels (including at the Glenmore café) and signs of pine martens on the tracks. Lochan Uaine, on the track through the Pass of Ryvoan between Glenmore and Abernethy, is one of the famous ‘green lochans’ in the Cairngorms.

Year-round reindeer

Get the low-down on reindeer at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, almost next door to the Glenmore Forest Centre. Go on a guided walk to meet some of the herd, then travel up to the Cairngorm car park to gain access to paths across the foot of the Northern Corries. Be prepared for bad weather and keep alert for snow buntings and ptarmigan. There is no access to the plateau from the Cairngorm Mountain Railway, but there are great views over Strathspey from the restaurant.

Woodpeckers and peregrine falcon

Overlooking Aviemore, and accessible by an underpass below the A9, between the Youth Hostel and the caravan park, are the bonny birchwoods of Craigellachie. Enjoy wide views over the forests of Rothiemurchus and Glenmore to the mountains beyond from the path under Craigellachie Rock. Listen for great-spotted woodpeckers year-round, check the sky for the sleek silhouette of a peregrine falcon and see plants such as common rock rose.

The original Ospreys

The osprey eyrie you can see from the Loch Garten Osprey Centre in Abernethy Forest is perhaps the world’s best-watched nest. Ospreys have bred in the area for half a century, with Garten eyrie occupied since 1958. Make the pilgrimage by going along the B970 east of Boat-of-Garten (the ‘osprey village’) and follow signs along the minor forest road to a car park. Look for voles nibbling nuts under the feeder by the ticket office (in a building that houses eco-friendly loos). At the centre, attractions in addition to the star fish-hawk turn (viewable through telescopes and on video-link) include siskin, great-spotted woodpecker and red squirrel. There’s a dawn watch from here for capercaillie at a nearby lek in early summer

Red squirrels close-up

Get a red-squirrel’s-eye view of Scots pine trees on a tree-top trail and have a good chance of seeing some of these animals at the Landmark Forest Theme Park in Carrbridge. Scottish crossbills, siskins and crested tits also use these woods. Another good spot to see red squirrels is the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie.

Magnificent marshes

A huge wetland, thick with floating beds of sedges and other water plants, might seem tricky to visit. But if you use marked trails to the two hides at the Insh Marshes, close to Ruthven Barracks to the east of Kingussie, you’ll get a good idea of one of the riverside marvels of the Spey. There’s a car park off the B970 close to Insh. Watch for breeding waders such as lapwing, redshank, curlew and snipe and listen for water rail. Wildfowl include breeding goldeneye in summer and wintering whooper swans from Iceland.

Globeflowers and golden eagles

To savour the edge of the biggest mountain massif in ‘Monarch of the Glen’ country, flanking the south-west edge of the Cairngorms National Park, go to Creag Meagaidh. From a car park off the A86 Fort William to Inverness road, 10 miles west of Laggan, use a path for short walks or to go all the way to the foot of the impressive cliffs of Coire Ardair. Look for primrose and globeflower among the expanding native birchwoods and for mountain hare, ptarmigan and golden eagle on and over the higher ground.

Crested Tit, RSPB Images