Sunday, 3 May 2015

Spring snow and cuckoos

Snow covering the eastern Highlands - a view from above the North Sea

I flew into Scotland on Monday, the day after a snow storm and the hills were white with Spring snow. However, the weather continued to be wild and windy so it was few days before I could have a clear day on the hills. When I did reach the high ground I could see that the winter had been windy as there were lots of long-lying snowbeds, filled with drifted winter snow; on top and between there was a thin covering of soft new snow, lower down the ground was pie-bald with fresh patches. The whole landscape sparkled in the Spring light between the continuing showers.

The snowy ridge of Creag Leacach under a heavy sky

It was the 1st of May, and after the previous run of warm weather I expected the plants and animals to be well on in their fresh growth and breeding behaviour, no so. The buds on the heather and other heath plants had only just begun to expand, none had opened yet, and the hen red grouse were still feeding up to make their eggs, none had laid a full clutch and begun incubation. The cock grouse were calling out to mark their territories, with an occasional squabble between neighbours, but mostly they were walking along behind their hens, overseeing their safety from predators and keeping suitors away.

A male rock ptarmigan sits quietly - tricky to see as his pie-bald plumage merges well with the patchy snow lie 

My main purpose for the day was to count the numbers of pairs of red grouse and rock ptarmigan on a hill where I have been studying them for over twenty years. So after watching over the ground for a couple of hours, mapping the birds' locations, I ventured on up and slowly quartered the study area. The grouse numbers were high, but there were only a few pairs of ptarmigan and they were rather difficult to see in the snow.

He watches over his female as she feeds on fresh spring growth farther down the slope

As the day drew on, the temperature up on the hill began to drop, so when I came down I enjoyed the warmth of the glen. The birches were opening their leaves and when I stopped by a loch for a look around, I heard my first cuckoo of the year. A cuckoo and Spring snow, a nice day, and rather a nice start to my summer season in the Highlands.

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