Ptarmigan, Cairngorm and the Great Glen.

In the last week of February 2018 the ‘Beast from the East’ – an arctic blast from Siberiamet ‘The pest from Portugal’ – officially known as Storm Emma – up from the South. Large parts of Britain were plunged into the customary chaos that accompanies snowfall. Schools were closed, trains and planes cancelled and roads blocked. The Thursday was the worst. That was the day we chose to drive up from Southern England north to Aviemore, in the Highlands of Scotland.

To be fair, we did check the roads on-line before setting off and they looked okay. We were also only intending to reach Dunbar in the Scottish Lowlands that day, where we had a friend to stay over with. In any case, our accommodation in Aviemore was pre-booked and pre-paid and the payment was not refundable. We had no choice.

But above all, we wished to see ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) in their white winter plumage. The ptarmigan is a member of the grouse family of an arctic disposition such that it is only found in Britain in a very few parts of Scotland.

My brother Ivor and I had seen them once before, more than thirty years ago, on the top of Ben Lawers in the Grampian Mountains of Scotland. However, it seems they are no longer to found there and it is now necessary to head further North, to the Cairngorms, and so to Aviemore, from where a road leads to the mountains. We had also seen mountain hares on Ben Lawers, in their white winter coats. We hoped we might see them as well on this trip. I had tried to visit the previous year, but failed. I was determined to make it happen this year. I succeeded in persuading not only my brother and also our friend Paul to come too – and now nothing was going to prevent my quest.

We never reached our friend’s at Dunbar. The major snow that day fell on the hills and roads of the Scottish Borders to the South, completely blocking the main A1 road north of Anwick in Northumberland. We tried a detour which was shown as open, until we joined a line of stranded vehicles in a horizontal blizzard. After long and hopeless efforts trying to push vehicles on their way, we were resigned to having to spend the night in the car. Just then a local farmer offered to tow us out backwards with his tractor. We returned the way we’d come – passing more cars stuck irrevocably at the sides of the road – and spent the night in a splendid B & B inn – The Newcastle Arms, on the High Street – in the border town of Coldstream. Now Coldstream lies on the North bank of the River Tweed, and therefore in Scotland. We were happy. We had at least made it to Scotland.

The next morning we were obliged to sit down to a Full Scottish Breakfast, except that one of us didn’t want the sausages, another declined the haggis and none of us wanted beans. I gathered that the staff were used to this kind of thing. Mind you, in the confusion, I didn’t get the black pudding which I did want.

I then remembered that I’d got snow chains in the back of the car. In fact I’d bought them specially for this trip. I tried to fit them. It was impossible. The instructions required you to make a perfect arrangement of a spider’s web of interconnected chains and then wrap them around the back of the tyre without disturbing that perfection. I gave up.

Fortunately the interweb showed that an indirect route to Edinburgh was open – confirmed by another guest at the Inn who left early and kindly phoned to tell us that all was clear. We were soon on our way. We drove through a delightfully snow-strewn landscape with clear roads all the way to Aviemore.

*

Next morning we were off to see the ptarmigan. The road to the mountains runs through and between the Glenmore Forest and the Rothiemurchus Estate, pine forest on either side. This is part of the ancient Caledonian Forest, characterised by Scots pines more or less undisturbed since they established themselves here after the last ice age. The road runs beside the edge of Loch Morlich and finally emerges from the pines to climb steeply up to the Cairngorm Ski Centre. The car park was well stocked and there were skiers and snow-boarders in abundance riding up on a ski tow and returning in hardly a minute to queue for a quarter of an hour for the same again. Our goal, meanwhile, was to take the footpath to Coire an t-Sneachda, a corrie or tarn some two miles up the adjacent valley. The path was not overly steep and we soon rounded the spur and left the Ski centre behind and out of sight. A party of professionally equipped hill-walkers – crampons, ice axes, gaiters and goggles – passed us. They assured us that we would find ptarmigan only a little further on. But the path was covered in snow, we were un-equipped and we soon reached a point where we begun to sink up to our thighs in the drifts.
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At the same time the weather was clearly deteriorating and the snow falling thicker. It seemed wise to turn back and try again another day. But before we did, I said, let’s just stand and enjoy the view for a while. The view was white, and sloped down in long spurs and valleys to the forest. Then I turned to go – and happened to look behind me. Half a dozen heads peered at me over a ridge of snow not ten yards away.

Not ptarmigan. They were dark against the snow, not white. Red grouse. White eye ring, white dash below the bill and a red comb above the eyes. Normally these birds take off explosively on being disturbed, but these just moved off slowly over the snow on their stocky, feathered feet. Perhaps they preferred not to fly in the blowing snow. Despite their feet, they also sunk into the snow I noticed, as we had done.

We returned along the path. Already our footsteps from walking up were more or less obscured by the fall and drift of the snow.

Next morning we headed off again for the Ski Centre. Twice. The mountain road was closed. A queue of traffic waited for it to open, but after our second attempt we though it better to find somewhere else to visit. On our third and last day the weather on the hills looked as poor as the day before and we decided not to bother to try and went to see Loch Ness instead.

Therefore, of course, we saw no ptarmigans, or mountain hares, at all.

We saw plenty of other delights however, both wildlife and places.

*

Having retreated from the mountain that first day, we decided instead to take a walk around Loch an Eilein on the Rothiemurchus Estate. The Loch lies a couple of miles south of Aviemore surrounded by pine forest – native Scots pine and others; growing close, dark and straight; twigs lichened grey-green. The Loch was largely frozen over but the circling path through the pine woods was mostly clear of snow and nowhere difficult.

We stopped for a picnic lunch half way round, and sat on a fallen tree beside the ice’s edge.

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We saw nor heard not a bird nor a beast all the way round. The forest was silent, empty of animal life , as forests and woods so often are – until you come upon a mixed flock of foraging tits and finches perhaps, or hear the drumming of a hidden woodpecker. But here there was nothing – except for humans and their dogs that is, of which there were many – as forests and woods so often are. It was only as we approached the end of the trail that birds appeared. This, we soon discovered, was because there were bird feeders hung outside the Loch an Eilein Information Centre. Chaffinches and various tits in profusion. Mind you, a buzzard also glided by, there were mallard at the edge of the Loch – and I heard wood pigeons calling.

No ptarmigans of course.

Back in the car park there were young people hovering, with clipboards. They were Conservation Biology students from the University of Kent. We were happy to be interviewed. We identified each of the creatures on the photo sheet in a jiffy. This seemed to impress our interviewer. She implied that others she had accosted had not been half so well informed. We nodded modestly. Then we confused her totally by explaining that we were long familiar with, for example, red squirrels – one of her animals – because of the Tufty Club. You know, Tufty the red squirrel who taught children how to cross the road in the 1960s. You don’t know ? No. Neither did she of course.

The main purpose of the interview turned out to be whether or not we supported the introduction of the European Lynx into the Cairngorms National Park. My answer was yes – as long as they didn’t eat sheep too much but did eat domestic cats. I’m not sure what she made of that and it only occurred to me later that if they ate domestic cats they might eat Scottish wild cats too. That would not be good. I worried all night that I had not thought of this at the time and that my vote might lead to the extermination of the Scottish wild cat. Fortunately, we bumped into the same students, and the same student in particular, at Loch Morlich the next day, so I was able to report my second thoughts. Mind you, I now realise that she didn’t have her clipboard with her, so probably my second thoughts were never actually recorded . . .

*

Loch Morlich was also mostly frozen, like Loch an Eilein the day before. It is a much busier place than Loch an Eilein , with all kinds of activity centres, camping places and car parks nearby. Our Kentish students were there on hired skis, sans clipboards. Their academic field trip had happily turned into a holiday. One of them who had never even seen snow before, never mind been on skis, was excitedly taking selfies on her mobile and posting them off to her family somewhere in the tropics. The students were appropriately excited when we pointed out a dipper (Cinclus cinclus) bobbing on a rock and plunging into the flow of a stream that ran through the woods. Yet another opportunity to impress them with our vast fund of wildlife-related knowledge. It comes with age of course.

On the far side of the Loch we noticed a single, female, goldeneye duck (Bucephala clangula), then its companion male – green, almost black headed; bright yellow eye and a white patch on its cheek. The water was unfrozen here. They repeatedly dived to feed – and bobbed up again. They are winter visitors to the UK, down from the taiga forests of the arctic North. Home from home here among the Scottish pines. A little further on and we saw that there were more goldeneye – and teal (Anas crecca) – Britain’s smallest and – I insist – most attractive – duck; widgeon (Mareca penelope) – also delightful; and half a dozen whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus). Whooper swans visit the UK for the winter from Iceland. They are readily distinguished from our resident mute swans by their yellow – not orange – bills and their tendency to hold their strikingly long and skinny necks straight and vertical – not in an elegant ‘s’ shape. These birds were also feeding, but by dabbling, not diving, bottoms up – and paddling furiously to keep them up. I thought of ospreys (this being osprey country, as I will come to), then bald eagles, but finally decided it would need something more the size a pteranodon – to take them unawares as they dabbled, I mean, and fly off with them for dinner.

The RSPB’s reserve at Loch Garten is famous for its ospreys. In summer. Nonetheless, it was not far away and we decided to pay a visit. We were not alone. As we approached the osprey nest viewing hide we saw a group of birdwatchers apparently watching a wooden bench. One of them was armed with the customary birdwatcher’s camera, on a tripod, with a lens like a howitzer. Such equipment often has ‘Canon’ written on it and I have more than once been known to ask whether they’ve got a licence for it. But on this occasion I desisted. On closer approach it became clear that they were actually concentrating on a stick they had lent up on the back of the bench. The stick was smeared with peanut butter. There were also peanut feeders hanging close by. They were after crested tits.

The crested tit (Lophophanes cristatus) is, in the UK, a bird of the Caledonian pine forest. That is, you have to go to where we were to see it. It is quite distinct. It has a crest. It also sports a curved, black cheek stripe on a white head, and a black bib. Altogether very attractive.

Meanwhile, this was birdwatching by bribery. Even then, it only just worked. Rather than crested tits, we had obviously come upon the National Coal Tit Convention, with a few great tits and chaffinches, and a single goldcrest, as gatecrashers. We had to wait a good fifteen minutes before a single crested tit finally put in an appearance. It went to the stick for only a moment, but then kindly stuck around for a minute or so in a pine tree hardly three yards away, so that I had my brief fill of it even without my binoculars.

*

On our last day, with snow clouds still on the mountains, we decided to visit the Great Glen and Loch Ness. The Great Glen divides the Highlands. It runs straight and narrow from the Moray Firth and Inverness in the north to Fort William in the south-west – a distance of sixty-two miles – and then on to Loch Lynnhe and the sea. Loch Ness occupies the northern third of the Glen. It’s not too far from Aviemore, and in any case, it’s one of those iconic places one should certainly visit if one has the opportunity. This was it.

However, it took us a while to get there as we were twice distracted en route.

The first distraction was the railway viaduct which curves over the River Findhorn at the village of Tomatin. We left the A9 dual carriageway to go and have a look at it. We drove to and beneath it and looked up at its great stone piers and its lattice iron-work across the top – all immediately reminiscent of the viaducts at each end of the Forth Railway Bridge. It turns out they were both designed by the same man, Sir John Fowler, who also engineered the Metropolitan and most of the Circle underground lines in London.[2]

Our second distraction was a sign pointing to RSPB Loch Ruthven. This was not a reserve we had heard of, but all agreed it ought to be investigated. The loch lay hardly a mile down the lane. An information board at the edge of the car park announced that this was one of the best places to see both Slavonian Grebes (Podiceps auritus) and Black-throated divers (Gavia arctica).

In summer.

In winter, meanwhile, ‘you may see one of the local buzzards.’

Our excitement had been raised up and then dashed in a moment. Meanwhile, a cock pheasant, clearly used to being fed by visitors, helped make up for it with its offering of a close-up view of filigree brass and green plumage.

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So too did the place itself. The loch was largely frozen over, and we walked through lichen-hung woods on a tumbled, rocky path to the reserve’s single hide – from which no birds of any description were visible. However, we were accompanied along the path by a happy gathering of coal, great and blue tits and of chaffinches.

Slavonian grebes can be seen all round the UK coast in winter – if you can tell them apart from other winter grebes – but all those few that breed in the UK – about thirty pairs – do so within forty miles of Inverness. Black-throated divers similarly spend the winter around the coast, but they only breed – some 200 pairs – in North-west Scotland. I’ve never knowingly seen neither.

We finally reached Loch Ness at its southern end and descended to the small town of Fort Augustus. There were wild geese on a field between the road and the loch. We grabbed some sandwiches and returned the way we’d come until we reached Loch Tarff and stopped to eat. There were red deer scattered on the hill side opposite – all hinds as far as I could make out. A little further on we came on a herd of stags beside the road, which took little notice of us. Red deer go about in separate sex groups most of the year, only disrupted by stags muscling in on the hinds during the rut, from August to December.

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Loch Tarff, I noticed from the map, lies hardly a mile from the southern shore of Loch Ness, but some 900 feet higher, illustrating how deep and narrow the Great Glen cuts through the plateau of mountains that make up the Highlands.

We found another sign beside the road, this one for the Falls of Foyer. We descended a path of steps half worn, half constructed, through pine woods, all the time looking out for red squirrels. An information board at the top had said they were here. We didn’t see any. After a few minutes we came to a viewing area. A waterfall trickled down a vertical wall of rock. No doubt it would roar when the snow and ice melted, but not today. We looked down vertiginously into a deep, round pool of dark water. ‘Oh, there ought to be nymphets ! ’ I exclaimed. I meant nymphs of course. ‘Come on Tracey’, said Paul in his best estuary English, ‘Get yer kit orf, there’s tourists’.

I lingered, but she never appeared.

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On the way up to Scotland on the A1 we had been surprised to spot a red kite (Milvus milvus) fly over somewhere in Yorkshire. We knew they’d been reintroduced in the Chilterns, west of London, and that they’d spread, but this seemed a long way from there. Then we saw some here in the Great Glen. A little research reveals that – without us knowing – red kites have also been re-introduced in Yorkshire and in central Scotland, just north of Stirling; in Dumfries and Galloway in the south-east of Scotland, and, more recently, in Aberdeen. None of these introductions are very close to Loch Ness, but red kites are big birds with wide wings. In medieval times they were a common bird of town and village, scavenging on refuse and hunting for such things as mice and earthworms. My theory is that they have spread so successfully nowadays because we lay on breakfast, lunch and dinner for them daily in the form of road-kill. This may also explain the great increase in the numbers of magpies.

Our last bird of the day were hoodies at the side of the road – Hooded crows (Corvus cornix). I remember when I first saw them, in southern Denmark, seemingly two shades of chocolate in the early morning light. In fact they are one shade of grey and one of black. Once upon a time they were considered to be a race of the all black carrion crow (Corvus corone). Now they have been elevated to a separate species, the hybrids between them having been found to be less vigorous than the pure-bred. It’s hard to keep up.

As for Loch Ness, we saw no monster. We did nip up to a viewpoint in Farigaig Forest, through massive pines and mounds of green moss on the forest floor. We could see Urquhart Castle in the north and across to less severe slopes opposite where there were farms and settlements below the line of the bare mountains. Otherwise, we drove most of the Loch’s length, came to Inverness, and returned to Aviemore, content.

The next day we drove home without incident.

  1. All photos – Paul Gateshill.
  2. For more about the viaduct by a true enthusiast see The Happy Pontist : http://happypontist.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/scottish-bridges-28-findhorn-viaduct.html