Spring

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As the year rolls from March into April, here in the Highlands we start to see more definite signs of spring. The snowdrops have of course been and gone, but now the daffodils are out in their full glory, along with primroses and crocuses. There is a noticeable difference in the grass too – during March there is very little colour in the fields, everything is a washed out browny-yellow. But as April approaches, I start squinting at the verges – is there just a hint of fresh green there? By now there is no doubt, the Paddocks and garden are looking almost lush and their first cut is fast approaching. For all of you down in England, I do appreciate that you’ve probably had the lawnmower out several times already, but we have the longest winters in the UK here – one of the reasons it is still a suitable habitat for reindeer.

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Relaxed reindeer with a glorious backdrop. Jenga has the best start on her new antlers of the females.

Up on the mountain, the deer grass is breaking through, and the first migrant birds are arriving back from their winter holidays – there were three ring ouzel squabbling their way along the path as I walked out to feed the herd this morning. I’ve heard tell that the first swallows are in Devon (it’ll still be a few days until they pass by us) and the distinctive osprey pair are back at Loch Garten – we popped along the other day and were glad to see EJ hanging out on the nest, and a brief visit from her long-term partner Odin. Last year I watched a pair circling over the hill enclosure, just checking out Black Loch perhaps before deciding it wasn’t suitable to nest at.

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Old girl Lilac still looking superb at nearly 18 years old.

April is a fun time to spend with the reindeer, with anticipation in the air. The females tend to be relaxed and lazy, with heavy tummies and enjoying the fresh grazing starting to come through. Their coats have lost their sheen and are starting to moult, and most of last year’s antlers have fallen off, with some making good progress on this year’s set. Slightly less relaxing (for us, but not the reindeer) is the start of the Easter holidays, with its associated rush of visitors. Having a limit on numbers for the Hill Trip has certainly made our lives less stressful though and hopefully improves the experience for our visitors too – just a reminder to come early if you’re coming for the Trip to make sure you get tickets!

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A group of visitors learning about the reindeer, who are delighted to pose whilst they wait for their dinner.

The other slight bit of stress is that all of us herders are assessing who we should pick for our calving “bet” – the annual game of trying to guess who will calve first. Us herders spend a lot of time peering at bellies and potential developing udders, trying to work out who is pregnant and who is likely to calve early. There isn’t any money put down, and indeed no prize for winning, but the person whose reindeer calves last has to swim in the loch! The decisions are mostly made now, but I’m already slightly apprehensive that I’ve made the wrong choice – suddenly everyone else’s choices appear much rounder in the belly department than mine… I’ll stick to my guns though with fingers crossed!

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Every time I look at Dixie’s belly I worry that I’ve picked the wrong reindeer for the calving bet!

Normally, spring is a welcome relief after a long hard winter… this year I can’t really claim that as it’s been a very easy winter with little snow, but it’s still lovely to see the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, with the promise of a (hopefully) long, glorious summer ahead. Fingers crossed that it’s warm to make for an easier swim if I end up losing the bet!

Andi

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The Return of the Natives

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Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – photo courtesy of Jack Ward of Alba Wildlife (much better photographer than me!)

While the other reindeer herders are spending the first part of the year watching the female reindeer gradually expand outwards and wondering who is going to calve first, I am often preoccupied with the return of the birds – the first fluting song of a Willow Warbler is one of my annual highlights, heralding the onset of summer. An ‘outdoor job’ in such a beautiful location as the Cairngorms means I’m in the right place at the right time to see, bit by bit, the changing of the seasons – and nothing makes me happier than to see winter finally receding! And added to that, I’m lucky enough to work in an area with outstanding birdlife, some of which is very rare elsewhere in the country.

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Christmas Day 2010 (left to right Veikka, Fiona, Kermit, Bee, Eco, Tilly and Go)

The first sign I look out for is the birds starting to sing once again and I can remember, on Christmas Day in 2010 in Coylumbridge, taking photos (above) in the snow of Fiona, Tilly and our team of reindeer just before our first parade of the day (we do four parades at local hotels on the big day itself) and hearing a Coal Tit sing – the first of the new breeding season. A new season starting before the other had even finished. Ironically that is my most vivid memory of the whole day! That might just have been a particularly enthusiastic, or at least optimistic, bird however, as this year I think it was into February before I heard anything singing.

After that excitement there’s a long lull as winter drags on, seemingly never-endingly, but the days tick by as we retrieve the reindeer for the daily 11am visits each morning, one by one their antlers falling off as we get later into the winter. The Red Grouse get more and more noisy in March, often erupting out of the heather calling as we walk past and startling me, although the reindeer don’t appear to even notice them. Into April and spring is definitely starting to make an appearance, the weather milder (sometimes!), the plants starting to show fresh growth, while curlews, meadow pipits, pied wagtails and black-headed gulls move back into the area from their coastal wintering areas. Meanwhile the reindeer get wider and wider…

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Ring ouzel on the hill enclosure fence – taken with my compact camera so not the best photo, sorry!

Then the migrants start to return, back from Africa. I usually see my first Wheatear up at one of the ski car parks on Cairngorm, the white flash of their rump unmistakeable. Then there are the Ring Ouzels, basically looking like a blackbird with a white chest, but again they’ve come all the way from Africa. At the moment there is a pair hanging around the hill enclosure, shouting at me most days when I enter to feed the reindeer. The Swallows are back too, and as usual are in and out the reindeer shed up on the hill when they nest annually. In the summer, as we harness up reindeer in the shed to go trekking, I wonder how many visitors have noticed there is a swallow on her nest just feet from them, peering down at the daily proceedings. High up on the mountain plateau the Dotterels return in May, one of only two species in Britain where the male incubates the eggs so the female is the one with the brighter plumage.

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Dotterel on the Cairngorm plateau – photo courtesy of Andi Probert

But it is the little, greenish Willow Warblers that are my absolute favourite, and I keep an ear on the grapevine in April, as news of them making their way north after their arrival at the south coast trickles in, and in mid-April they arrive on mass, the birch trees lining the Sugar Bowl path up to the enclosure suddenly dripping with them. And not long after their arrival, then the calving season kicks in and spring is well on its way, winter is behind us, and all is right with my world!

Hen