Hidden within Abernethy Forest in the lowlands of the Cairngorms National Park is Loch Garten. With its ancient Caledonian pine forest, boggy woodland and rich waters, the reserve is an embodiment of the wild and compelling nature of the Scottish Highlands.
May is an ideal time to visit. The weather is warming but the swarms of midges are yet to descend. The herby scent of pine fills the air, birdlife is abundant as summer migrants such as redstarts and tree pipits arrive, and the ospreys should be hatching their chicks – it’s a unique chance to see these graceful fish-scooping predators in action.
From the carpark by the Boat House, follow the trail as it skirts the western banks of Loch Garten, taking in all 1,090m of Bynack More to the south. Closer to shore, look out for bank voles, grazing roe deer, teetering common sandpiper and blinking frogs. Continue south through the rare bog woodland, where the trees’ stunted size belies their age.
Tiny bank voles dart between the vegetation ©Getty
As the track U-bends, an ideal vantage point opens over the rust-coloured waters of Loch Mallachie. There’s a nest box for goldeneye ducks on the nearest island – search for displaying males out on the water, vigorously throwing their heads back.
The path undulates back north through the Caledonian woods. Look out for crossbills, red squirrels and crested tits, the trilling call of the latter a welcome addition to any walk.
Watch male goldeneyes displaying on the water ©Getty
Before you reunite with the path back to the carpark, keep an eye out for the nests of wood ants. These huge pine piles, often located at the base of decaying tree stumps, can serve as navigational aids – their southern side is flatter, increasing its surface area to absorb more heat.
Cross the carpark and head up the linear Big Pines trail, guarded by the gigantic ‘granny’ Scots pines.
Your final destination is the Loch Garten Osprey Centre. The centre offers a chance to spot these mesmerising birds as they return to Scotland in spring and summer to breed. There are also opportunities for close encounters with siskins, chaffinches and great spotted woodpeckers.
Birds thrive in the reserve, from small chaffinches to soaring ospreys ©Getty
The UK’s only endemic bird resides at Loch Garten Nature Reserve. Though hard to discern from the common crossbill, mating studies have proven that they are indeed a different species – apparently it’s all in the size of the bill.
Scottish crossbill ©Alamy
Click here to head over to the OS Maps website for an interactive version of this route.
Main image ©Alamy