Travel: ‘Lekking’ at Atholl Estate

Off road in Glen Tilt
Off road in Glen Tilt
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Bagging Scotland’s ‘big five’ species is thrilling, but don’t overlook the other wildlife, advises Peter Ranscombe

The tension in the Land Rover was palpable as we edged further forward along the track and caught sight of the abandoned bothy ahead of us. Then the strange bubbling and rasping sounds began to reach our ears and we knew we were in luck.

Though our guide, Sandy, is a retired head keeper who spent 50 years working on Atholl Estate, even he couldn’t guarantee that we would see black grouse “lekking”. The male birds gather together in the spring to display their feathers and occasionally fight each other in an effort to impress the ladies. This particular lek had gathered on what was once a patch of garden in front of an old bothy on the estate, making the black birds easier to see than if they were hidden among the surrounding heather. Taking a break from snapping photographs of the birds, I happily sat back and listened to the other-worldly sound they make as they square-off against each other, which I once described on these pages as “a mixture of a barn owl calling and a primary school pupil running a wooden beater along a woodblock”.

As a wildlife watching experience, seeing a black grouse lek is hard to beat. To mark the Year of Natural Scotland, Scottish National Heritage is encouraging tourists to seek out the “big five” species – golden eagles, harbour seals, otters, red deer and red squirrels.

Yet for me, wildlife watching is as much about your own experience as it is about the species you spot. So I set out to visit Highland Perthshire in search of five experiences to savour. With black grouse ticked off my list, watching the ospreys at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Loch of the Lowes wildlife reserve just outside Dunkeld was next on the agenda.

Ospreys spend their winters in Africa but return home to Scotland to breed each spring. The escapades of the birds at Loch of the Lowes – and those at the RSPB’s Loch Garten visitors’ centre near Aviemore – have become like soap operas, with thousands of fans around the world watching their antics on webcams. There’s nothing to beat seeing the birds in person though and Loch of the Lowes is ideal, giving you the chance to peek into the nest using the latest high-definition cameras or watch the birds from the lochside in one of the hides.

After a bite to eat at the nearby Birnam Institute – always reliable for soup and a sandwich and homemade cakes – Pitlochry was the next stop to see the newly-opened Wild Space, the John Muir Trust’s visitor centre. Muir was born in Dunbar and went on to found the world’s first national park, at Yellowstone in the United States.

His story, told through audio-visual displays and interactive exhibitions at Wild Space, is inspiring, but what really stuck with me was the use of quotes from visitors to the John Muir Trust’s properties, which include Ben Nevis, Knoydart and Schiehallion.

Back on the road and the next experience was something more sedate; a walk through the woods at Balnaguard Glen, where I watched two jays – really just brightly-dressed crows, but a rare treat for me – flapping through the branches.

My first assignment for this magazine was to watch hen harriers on the moors of Highland Perthshire with Land Rover Experience Scotland at Dunkeld, sparking an obsession with off-road safaris. The trips offered by the firm – and by Highland Safaris, based at Dull, near Aberfeldy – would definitely feature in my top five wildlife watching experiences for Highland Perthshire.

Yet after all that walking, sitting in hides and riding in Land Rovers – and an enjoyable meal by the fire of the Logierait Inn, across the River Tummel from Ballinluig – my final wildlife watching experience is one of life’s simplest pleasures. Lying in bed with the window open in one of Atholl Estate’s woodland lodges at Blair Castle, I was surrounded by pheasants, rabbits, siskins and even a hare wandering between the lodges. Scotland may be packed full of dramatic sights like black grouse lekking and red deer rutting, but listening to the sounds of the birds in the trees and watching some of our more common but still enchanting species with a cup of tea by your side is often just as memorable.

• Black Grouse Safari Tours on Atholl Estates (tel: 01796 481355, cost £190 for six people.