St Fillans to Comrie Nature Walk

The Crieff and Strathearn Drover’s Tryst originally celebrated the life, work and traditions of the people who made Crieff the cattle-droving crossroads of Scotland in the 1700s, but today it is a walking festival run by volunteers following some of the routes that the drovers would have taken, along with many other popular walking routes. Having previously taken place during October, it has since moved to May to take advantage of the better weather, and that certainly paid off this year. People from all over the UK arrive in Crieff to attend the festival and it is a great boost for businesses in the area.

We have volunteered to lead a Nature Walk for a few years now, and for the past 3 years we have been taking walkers on a popular route between St Fillans and Comrie. This route is close to our hearts as we have spent a lot of time along different sections discovering the wildlife over the years, including our first local beavers. We also completed ecological surveys along the Loch Earn Railway Path (LERP) sections of the route before it was upgraded to a multi-user path. Whilst we were fearful of losing the “naturalness” of the existing path, we were really pleased at how quickly the new path bedded in and new growth colonised.

We started our walk at the bottom of Station Road in St Fillans, but briefly crossed the road to look down to the riverbank to check out the two billy goats which have been hanging around the village for some weeks. They are extremely handsome beasts and seem to have become quite accustomed to being viewed by groups of curious humans. They met with much approval and delight from our group. On to the walk, and the weather was fine with plenty of blue sky and a light breeze as we made our way out of the village along the upgraded railway path. While the usual garden birds surrounded us in song (wrens, robins, blue and great tits, song and mistle thrushes and blackbirds), we could also hear the songs of warblers. Although many were hidden in the leaves of the trees, we could hear the onomatopoeic calls of the chiffchaff, the descending melody of the similar-looking willow warbler, the rich, flute-like notes of the blackcap, the garbled melody of the garden warbler and the shimmering call of the wood warbler. These warblers are summer migrants and have arrived in the last month or so and are now adding their voices to the soundscape of the birch woodland along this section of the path. A “chacking” call drew our attention to a nearby great spotted woodpecker, and while watching this we also noticed a mouse-like treecreeper making its way up a trunk in search of tiny invertebrates. Each time it reached the top of a tree, it flew down to the base of the neighbouring tree and started another ascent. Although not seen on this occasion, this stretch of the path is good for spotted flycatchers during the summer months.

Over the open sheep fields, swallows dashed low after flies while higher up their dumpier cousins the house martins also hunted aerial prey. A low-flying red kite emerged from the conifer woodland ahead of us and circled around, not wanting to stray too far away from its nest. On the rocks to our left, a pied wagtail perched proudly with a mouthful of flies staring at us, presumably not wanting to give away the location of its nest. Having walked under the bridge below the A85 at Tynreoch, we left the path and climbed down the riverbank to look for signs of otter under the old railway bridge. Otters will leave their not-unpleasant deposits, or spraints, as a message to other otters. These spraints can often be found on prominent rocks at the water’s edge as well as under bridges. Some fresh and old spraints were present. We re-joined the path for a short way before heading off to our left to walk along the riverbank to show our group some old signs of beaver activity. This is where we spent many happy hours in the evening last year watching the beavers, but sadly it looks like this family have now disappeared. Whilst there, we watched a young dipper going along the bank, cautiously dipping its head into the water looking for food. It was obviously just learning to fend for itself.

We always look for birds of prey as we make our way along this section of the railway path, as you get great views of the ridges to the north and south, along with a view of the impressive Am Bioran behind. As usual we were treated to the sight of red kites and buzzards. We did not have the time for our usual long stint of skyline watching, but we were able to use our spotting scope to good effect to get a very distant view of our local golden eagle nest, where the female of the pair could be seen rearranging herself as she looked after her eggs or young. As members of our group observed, if you didn’t know what was there, you would have no idea what you were looking at.

As we walked along this section of the path (which ends at a small car park at Dalchonzie where it meets the back road to Comrie), we stopped to look at the flora growing at the sides of the path. There was lots of wood anemone, common dog violet, primrose, greater stitchwort, wild garlic, comfrey and wood sorrel which we stopped to sample as the leaves have a lovely lemony flavour which make a great addition to salads.

Out onto the road we stopped at our next river crossing on the small hump-backed bridge to check out a dipper nest on the buttress. As we looked down, an adult dipper flew out of the nest and upstream. This dapper black and white aquatic songbird traditionally raises its chicks at this location, often raising three broods during the nesting season. Looking over the other side of the bridge, another adult dipper was spotted foraging among the rocks at the side of the river. Shortly afterwards a pair of goosanders flew downstream above the river croaking to themselves.

Past the Head Keeper’s house at Dalchonzie we had a herd of red deer in the field by the road, some with their antlers just sprouting and in velvet. Further along in the next field there were also a group of goats, this time nannies with kids, the billys being nowhere to be seen, presumably off causing trouble somewhere.

Having past Aberuchill Castle to our right, a beautiful white building set in impressive grounds, we stopped to view one of the local osprey nests from a distance using the scope. The head of the female bird was just visible over the rim of the nest as she sat tight on her eggs. Thankfully the male flew in and circled before landing briefly on the nest, and then moved to sit in the next tree giving everybody good views of this wonderful bird. Kites and buzzards also circled above our heads at the same time. Nearby we could hear a sedge warbler singing from a damp corner of the field and we managed to spot it on the top of a prominent bush. We moved on slowly hoping for a sight of red squirrel in the mature mixed woodland to the right before meeting back up with the river to our left. We noticed the house martins had given way to their cousins, the sand martins, who use the sandy riverbank nearby to nest in. Shortly after this, one of our group spotted a couple of small birds chasing each other in the trees. It was a pair of willow warblers, and the male was displaying to the female before hopping onto her back to mate – which only took a couple of seconds! We then stopped to view a very obliging roe deer just up from the road.

When we arrived in Comrie we were greeted by our first swifts of the year; they were screaming and chasing each other around in the sky above our heads – a true sign that summer is near. After taking in the view of the river and the White Church from the Dalginross Bridge, we ended our walk in traditional fashion by treating ourselves to coffee and cake from Hansen’s Deli. Our happy little gang of walkers then left us to get their minibus back to Crieff. A great day was had by all.