Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Adam Watson

At the end of January, a great friend died, Adam Watson. I'll miss him, of course I will. We did so much together and shared so many experiences, although most of our times in the hills and studying the wildlife there were spent separately. Our closeness was in our love for the hills.

Adam with three of his loves; sitting high in the hills watching a hen ptarmigan on her nest, as he introduces a young pointer pup to the scent and behaviour of the bird. The affection illustrated here reflects what Adam held for all natural aspects of the hills; the geology, weather, soils, vegetation and animals.

A hen ptarmigan walks over a slab of Cairngorm granite. Adam studied ptarmigan for his PhD in the 1950s, I studied ptarmigan for my PhD in the 1990s, with Adam as one of my supervisors. For anyone like Adam who spent so many days, and nights, on the hill and mostly alone, ptarmigan are admirable companions on the high rocky ground. They, as Adam supported, are true mountain birds, living through rain, snow, sunshine and storm with apparent ease, due to their wonderful adaptations to mountain life. He, like the rest of us humans, was only ever a visitor to the hills, no matter how long he spent up there, which was rather a lot.

A cock ptarmigan sits watching over his hen as she feeds on blaeberry in a gully below. Adam developed a technique for counting ptarmigan in the high hills. He would organise a team of enthusiasts, all on their own time, to go up into the hills at dusk, as the last hillwalkers had come down. We each took a post, strategically placed to hear any cock ptarmigan call as the sun went down, and we recorded the time and direction of any calls. We rarely saw the calling birds in the gloaming. This was all in mid-summer, so darkness did not last long, a couple of hours perhaps, and the time would pass quickly as I watched the pink line trace along the northern hilltops. Then the ptarmigan would call again, immediately before sunrise. Once it was fully light, we would walk back down and compare notes to work out how many birds had called and where.

I recall one such morning that promised a glorious day, so, as soon as I dropped off my notes from a count on the eastern slopes of Cairngorm, above Loch Avon, I went for a walk over Braeriach and Cairn Toul. It is days like that with Adam I shall always remember. For although we were never together except from handing over notes, he knew where I had been sitting, to the exact rock and I knew where he had been, to the exact rock, for we knew what the other knew and was likely to be doing. And I know Adam could have traced my steps over Braeriach and Cairn Toul in his mind, because he knew the route well and what I would likely see where. It's good to share but we didn't need to be together to share.

One of our first meetings was on the high tops of the Cairngorm-Ben Macdui plateau in the 1970s. The hills were less frequented by people then, much quieter, and if we saw someone on the high plateau watching birds, the chances were that we would know them by name if not directly. I remember I was watching a pair of snow buntings feeding on the dead insects lying on the long-lying snow patches, an important strategy for their survival in the Cairngorms. Then I recognised a bearded figure approaching, and he knew me vaguely from the Aberdeen bird network. We shared our observations of the day so far and discussed the birds' behaviour. Like so many times after, if I noticed a piece of behaviour or a feature of the hills, and mentioned it to Adam, he would likely have seen it himself and already thought of a reason for such. Yet, I don't think I ever heard him say to me or anyone, yes he already knew that, in a dismissive way. Rather he would nurture such comment and discuss it in a wider context.

In the 1980s, I worked on a project studying Dotterel, another specialist bird of the high tops. Adam was a valued authority for his experience of the bird, because until then there had been no thorough assessment of the national population. Dotterel breed on the broad plateaux which abound with insect life for the brief summer period. They only just have time to rear their young between the snowfields melting and the vegetation turning to autumn gold. Adam and I paired up one day for a walk over a plateau in the eastern Highlands spreading over four mountain tops. The first dotterel had only arrived in Scotland from their north African wintering grounds a few days before, and we thought we might see a few displaying and some courtship behaviour. Well, it wasn't long before I was flipping the pages of my notebook as we counted pair after pair of dotterel, groups of several pairs and flocks of birds, almost all already in pairs. The sexes being readily discerned by their plumages and sizes. We counted 288 dotterel that day, but they did not all stay there to breed, many moved on to other hills, or probably even over to the Norwegian mountains, for our study showed how the two country's dotterel populations are shared.

The long-term study of golden eagles in north-east Scotland (1943 - ongoing) was another of Adam's achievements. Adam was the link-pin for the North-East Scotland Raptor Study group in the late 1970s, the first such group in Scotland and still going strong. Eagles and other raptors were at the time, and still are in places, suffering from illegal killing, mostly on areas managed for driven grouse shooting. And nationwide, their numbers were just coming back after the effects of DDT poisoning. Those were interesting times and the group has over the years compiled much information on the breeding ecology of these birds.

Adam looking south-west from the high ridge of Foinaven in north-west Sutherland. He also studied golden eagles in Sutherland and Wester-Ross. Years later, I was fortunate to be employed in a study of eagles in those areas. We monitored the same golden eagle territories in Sutherland and Wester-Ross, twenty years apart, Adam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, me in the 1980s. We must have trod the same paths, climbed the same cliffs and seen the same views, and endured some of the same terrible weather as well as experiencing some fantastic clear days. I know this scene well.

In the 1990s, Adam identified the last remaining corn bunting breeding sites in the north-east of Scotland and we monitored their decline as agricultural practices intensified and fewer fields contained enough food for the buntings. That was mostly due to weed-control as we found more buntings in weedier crops and the increasing switch from hay to silage also reduced habitat for the birds. A small population has continued to live on in the north-east, their conservation aided by Adam's research and advice.

But the Cairngorms were Adam's true deep passion. This view of distant Braeriach from the cliffs of Cairn Lochan in a clear high summer day is one that he must have seen many a time, and it illustrates why the Cairngorms have such an appeal. They have deep cliff-lined corries with scores of rock- and winter-climbing routes. Adam wrote a comprehensive guide to these, climbing most of the routes in the 1950s and 60s in order to do so. And the plateau, those miles of gently undulating ground, set high above the glens below, make great walking ground and grand terrain for cross-country skiing, yet another mountain skill at which Adam excelled.

Also in the above photograph, are four snow patches. Adam recorded the late-lying snow patches every year, and he knew every patch. If I was passing a gully before late autumn, and the first lying snow of the next winter, I would pass on a note of its size and location to Adam. It was thanks to him that we know all the snow in Scotland has only been recorded to have completely melted six times, in; 1933, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006 and 2017. 

This pair of photographs were taken in the late 1990s when Adam was in his late sixties. They show how some people had piled boulders to form a windbreak around an outcrop of rock on the Cairngorm-Macdui plateau. Then they had left them there. In doing so they had exposed bare gravel where they had lifted the stones from, and killed the grasses and sedges they laid the stone onto. They also killed lichens on the stones by turning them upside down, lichens which take many many years to grow in the mountain environment. And the whole shelter was an incongruous eyesore to all who came in their wake. So we, without discussion, our minds were both triggered at once, set about dismantling the structure and removing all traces of our fellow man as best we could.

So if an old man can tidy up a few boulders and put them back in the places of exposed ground where they belonged, why can't all those self-proclaiming hill-lovers who leave mess behind them do likewise. When I first met Adam in the hills, and on almost every other day we spent on the hill together, he would pick up other people's litter. He spent eighty years in the hills and hasn't left anything behind other than a wealth of information on how to look after them.

SR and AW on the Cairn Lochan plateau on a brighter day (1998, Peter Moore). I will always remember and treasure what I learned from Adam, and how we shared so much with one another.

Adam Watson 

14 April 1930  -  24 January 2019