Sunday, 8 May 2016

Wild days on the tops

The famous outline of  Stob Dearg, Buachaille Etive Mor

While surveying for ptarmigan over the past week, I was reminded how hardy and well adapted these birds are to their mountain habitat. They endure sun, wind, rain and snow on the high tops of the Scottish Highlands, and as I wandered over the hills I thought I should write a post, not on the birds but on the wild place they live in. This blog is about wildplaces as much as wildlife after all.

Footprints on the snow-lined ridge, looking over to Na Gruagaichean in theMamores

The past winter left vast amounts of late-lying snow on the high ground in the Highlands, more than I have seen lying so late into May for a many years. Long wreaths of snow cornices lined the tops and the north faces of the high hills were deep in snow, lying as low as 600 m and rising in continuous snowfields to the summits. Yet on the windward, south and western faces there was very little snow. Some of the snow was safe to walk on, but other sections were soft and wet. I avoided any sections of cornice where I could see that there was a risk of avalanche, where there were hundreds of tons of snow teetering on the skyline, wet and heavy, ready to fall as it thawed. I would be walking in sunshine, then a few minutes later I would be enveloped by wild winds and stinging rain/snow, with poor visibility. Safety was the priority.

Ben Nevis on the skyline from the summit ridge of Binnein Mor 

The walking was very tiring for three days as the winds were so strong, then on the fourth day, there was calm and bright sunshine all day. The peaks were glistening and it was a joy to be out. That day I was up on the eastern end of the Mamores, a massif south of Ben Nevis.

The climb started from near sea-level, next to an old church in the village of Kinlochleven. The leaves were just opening on the birch trees and the summer migrants had arrived. I heard my first cuckoo the day before and there was another one calling here. Wood and willow warblers were singing and tree pipits were doing their parachute song-flight. Meanwhile the usual car-park robin and chaffinches were coming in close for the chance of a few crumbs.

It was a long climb to the ptarmigan habitat of short alpine heath; passing through birch, then oak woodland, heather moor and wet heath. All the while a series of seemingly endless panoramas opened up as I gained height. It was such a brilliant day that after walking across the hillsides looking for ptarmigan, I had to go up onto the ridge for fun, pure fun and the exhilaration of being high on a mountain on a perfect day.

Snow cornices rim the eastern corrie of  Binnein Mor. The snowy peaks of  Glencoe are in the distance, on the far side of the moors of Blackmount

 All things must end though, and after strolling along a few kilometres of high narrow-way I had to head back down, Oooh, the descent was so tiring, and sore on the legs. The route I took fell straight down a very steep ridge. Although the good thing was that I was losing height fast and I was back down by the edge of the woods before I knew it. A cuckoo was first, then I was walking past warblers and chaffinches again. And as I pulled off my boots the carpark robin came back up to me, looking for crumbs.

I gave it some.

Looking down 1000 m from the summit of  Na Gruagaihcean to  Kinlochleven.


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