Sat 17th May 2014

Two black grouse

April somehow slipped by without me writing a blog for you. Sorry folks, life has been so busy but I’m finally here to tell you a bit about what I’ve been up to.

Our trip up to Scotland was wonderful and once again I must thank Sir John and Lady Lucy Lister-Kaye and all their staff for a fabulous time at the Aigas Field Centre. In conjunction with Swarovski Optik they laid on a fantastic weekend of activities and I was delighted to be involved once again. The centre runs small group learning holidays and study courses throughout the year and I can think of no better way to experience the wildlife and stunning landscapes of the Scottish Highlands and islands. Do have at look at their website at www.aigas.co.uk.

I hardly know where to start to tell you about all we did and saw. One big achievement for me was getting a good shot of a tree creeper. We saw three in all. They are so hard to film as they never seem to keep still. The golden eagles we were only able to watch from a distance this time but it was still very special to see these majestic birds.

We did get up close to some pine martens. They came up to within 5 metres of the hide in search of their favourite treat, peanuts in strawberry jam would you believe, which was put out in feeders to entice them. I had the film crew in the hide with me; ten of us in all so it was a bit cramped. They’d come up to Scotland to get some more footage for the TV programme. We were also hoping to see some beavers and kept one eye on the nearby water’s edge. As we sat in silence, the bloke next to me whispered, “Down there, look.” I looked to where he was pointing and saw a shape in the water. I nudged the next chap, whispered to him and told him to pass it on. The message went on down the line until it reached the last bloke who was actually the nearest to the water. A moment later he pipes up, “That’s no beaver, that’s a duck.” We did laugh and it stayed a joke for the rest of the weekend. We never did see a beaver.

One of the highlights of the trip was the sealife excursion in a 9.5 metre rib boat run by EcoVentures which operates out of Cromarty. We were on the fifth trip of the day and were so lucky as the other four had been affected by bad weather and rough sea conditions and hadn’t seen all that much. It was a lot calmer by the time we went out and we had incredible sightings. The waves were still 20 to 30 ft as they smashed against the rocks but Sarah, who owns the company and guides the trips herself, was able to get close enough for us to see many nesting seabirds – shags, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars amongst them.

Further out from the shore the sea was less wild and suddenly we were surrounded by over 20 bottlenose dolphins. What a sight. The closest were only three metres away.

I want to say a big thank you to Sarah. If you are interested in knowing more about the wildlife around Cromarty and the trips available, have a look at her website: www.ecoventures.co.uk.

As if all that wasn’t enough, I got to see something I’ve never seen before, some black grouse. It was a very early start that day, 4 o’clock to be precise. So off we go climbing higher and higher up onto the high moor. We were being taken to a black grouse lek, a patch of ground where males display in order to attract a mate. Apparently there are only three such sites in the whole moor. When we finally arrived, there were seven males doing their mating dance and calling to the females. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it in my life. They are beautiful birds; just larger than a bantam, with a red comb and black feathers apart from a pure white backside. These white feathers are flared up during the mating dance. I was over the moon to see these stunning birds and to see this incredible display. After a few hours performing at the lek they go on their way, to return again early the next day to try again to entice the females in. It is so sad that the black grouse are in rapid decline in the UK.

So that was our Aigas trip this year. I am so excited to have been booked to do it all again next Spring. If you fancy joining me, keep an eye on the Aigas website, as noted above.

Back home here on Exmoor there has also been plenty to see. My wife Julie and I went out looking for deer early last month, spotting lots of hinds and a group of seven stags. You may remember me telling you a few months back about one of the big Exmoor stags getting shot. Well this stag had a friend, another stag, and they were nearly always seen together. It’s quite common to see pairings of stags like this. Well the good news is that this friend was amongst the group of seven stags we saw. I recognised him by his distinctive antlers. We were so pleased. I heard recently that a local chap up on the moor found the stag’s shed antler. He must have been pleased as punch.

We also had particularly good red deer sightings on the safari I ran on April 19th. One herd had around 50 individual animals in it. It was a very hot day and the hares were also out and about. It can be difficult to get up close to them as they bolt at the slightest disturbance but we watched one head on for a while before it finally took off. They are lovely animals. That was also the day I heard a cuckoo for the first time this year. There seem to be plenty about this Spring. I‘ve heard them in at least ten different places.

On safari last Saturday we saw eight ringed plovers. I could hardly believe my eyes. There are plenty of common and golden plovers around but this was really special. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me and when I went back with it later, they’d moved on.

Something else we always look for on safari at this time of year is the early purple orchid. They are fairly common in these parts but this year we’re seeing more than ever before, in the banks along almost every lane now.

I was up on the land the other evening when a red kite flew over really low, soon followed by two more. They circled a few time before flying to the fir trees in our woodland. I’ve only seen a total of six on the moor ever, so to see three together was amazing. It’s so encouraging to have these signs that the moor is in good shape.

Finally, I must bring you up to date with my badger project. It’s proving a great success after all the hard work and long wait for results. There are regular visitors to the container I’ve rigged with cameras and baited with food. Seven at one time is the best result so far, although I think it was probably topped by the three little cubs that came for a sniff about the other day. They were only about a foot long, so very young. What a special sight.

I’ve a busy couple of weeks ahead. I’m off to Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow (Sunday) for the celebrity day on Monday. I’ll be supporting Jim Doran Webb on his stand again. He’s the famous driftwood sculptor from the Philippines and his work is fantastic. Then on Sunday 25th May I’ll be at Exmoor Zoo opening the new monkey enclosure. The next day, the Bank Holiday  Monday, I’m going home to Brayford, not so far away from where I live now, to open their fête and give out the prizes. The film crew will be with me as well so it should be fun. Do come along if you are in the area. If not, I’ll catch you next month to tell you all about it.