Friday, 2 March 2018

The Ice Bird Challenge! Cairn Gorm 26th February.

The main aim of our trip to the Cairngorms was to try and get views and photos of the mountain speciality bird; the ptarmigan. We've seen ptarmigan many times in the summer and in the autumn but had never had good views of the birds in their winter plumage which is almost entirely white. I did scope some high above the Cairngorm ski centre once but they were miles away and just appeared as small white blobs on a massive expanse of snow.

Mrs Caley and I had planned to spend the first reasonable day by trekking up the mountain to see the "mountain chicken" in it's winter finery. Sunday was a fabulous blue sky day with little wind but we were tired after all the travelling of the previous days so Monday it was. And of course Monday dawned with leaden skies and a chilly wind knocking the already freezing temperatures lower still. But we had to go since the weather forecast for the rest of the week looked far worse!

Togged up with multiple layers of warm clothing, we shuffled our way across the car park and hailed one of the ski centre rangers and garnered some first hand information as to likely spots to look. He very helpfully informed us that the route we intended to take was very icy and "a wee bit wild" because of the winds so wouldn't be a particularly pleasant undertaking! Fortunately I had had the foresight to buy some cleats (or crampons) that fit onto our boots ready for the ascent. They at least made gripping the icy path easier.

Once we had left the relative shelter of the car park area the wind really hit us. Only about 25 mph apparently with occasional stronger gusts but with it carrying a wind chill factor of -18 degrees centigrade it certainly bit into you! The higher we went the colder it got and when we emerged into the wide open space of Coire an t'sneachda it really was very inclement. But we had to push on if we were going to see the birds and turning back was not an option (sorry Mrs Caley!).

There was nothing moving at all on the lower reaches of the walk and we were at around 700 metres above sea level before we saw our first red grouse sail past while uttering its "get back, get back" call. if the red grouse were this high up then we'd have to go a lot higher still to see any of their hardier cousins. I usually get ahead of Mrs Caley and then stand and wait for her to catch up which gives me a chance to scan the ground ahead. On one of these reconnaissance halts I spotted a red grouse very gingerly pecking away at a windblown patch of heather. Using a boulder as cover it was not intent in moving far and allowed a few photos to be taken. Holding the camera still in the wind was tricky so I had to lay on the snow to keep the movement to a minimum (good fieldcraft eh?). The shots were taken and the camera safely stowed in my rucksack when almost immediately I saw another red grouse sat hunkered down right next to the path. Repeating the drill, I actually had to back away from the bird in order to focus on it. The feathering on these grouse is exquisite and they are truly beautiful. What a shame some people have to shoot them in order to satisfy their bloodlust.

We moved on, gaining altitude with every step. If you stopped you froze so moving was the best thing to do. However it was tough going for us, unlike for all the fit young folk that steadily passed on their way to climbing up the corrie face. They are true nutters! 

Coire an t'sneadcha ahead!

Eventually and just as Mrs Caley was becoming very dispirited I saw what we had come for, a little fluff ball of white feathers resembling a snowball sat sheltering behind a small rock. I was ecstatic and turned to Mrs Caley and gave the thumbs up and a very excited fist pump.
Got one!

Not that ptarmigan are hard to find, they are just hard to get to. Once you've arrived in their territory they're relatively easy to locate even though in all plumages they are very well camouflaged. White coats in the winter allow them to blend in with the snow cover and helping to render them invisible to passing predators such as golden eagles. In the summer they moult into a mottled grey plumage which allows them to pose perfectly as lichen covered rocks. I tried to achieve the impossible and render myself invisible by once again laying flat on the snow and continued to rattle off some images. Soon I had noticed another female ptarmigan close by too. The birds were most unconcerned by my presence though, devoting all of their efforts into finding food amongst the meagre offerings available. They had been helped by the stiff wind blowing the snow away which left the tiny sprigs of vegetation poking through the underlying ice. I guess that when there is lying snow then they have to move lower down the mountain in order to find food. I don't think that the severity of the weather bothers them at all and that their movements are purely governed by the food supply and how to reach it.

I had promised to Mrs Caley, whom I should add was also enjoying seeing the birds now that we'd found them, that as soon as we had seen some ptarmigan that we would turn around and head back to the sanctuary of the ski centre and a hot drink. Well that was partly true but I still had to find a male so we couldn't leave straight away. I explored a little further but couldn't locate any male birds so I returned to the two females for another photo session. 

Mrs Caley was sheltering behind a boulder while I once again laid flat out on the freezing ground. I could hear the motorbike like "karrrr" sound of a male ptarmigan but despite searching couldn't locate it. Two more females flew into view while the mechanical noise made by the male continued but still I couldn't locate it. Who said finding them was easy? 

Not so easy!
Eventually though the male bird came striding towards me and his harem. He didn't seem at all threatened by me probably thinking that in my shades of non camouflaged greens that I'd be easy pickings for the eagles. He just busied himself making sure that his "girls" knew he was there. Mrs Caley then related to me how the male had walked past her no more than 4 feet away! Some dames get all the luck!

Happy now that I had some decent photos of both male and female birds we turned and headed back down the mountain. The light on the mountains, even on a dull day, is sharp but lends a blue tinge to everything so is never too harsh. We were frozen to the core but exhilarated all the same. Back at the ski centre we warmed up with a very expensive hot chocolate each before venturing back outside to observe the resident flock of snow buntings. A write up on those fabulous birds is here Jewels in the snow. Cairn Gorm, 26th February

Had Enough!
Going up to see the ptarmigan is highly rewarding and you get a very real sense of achievement once you get up to them and connect. You must go prepared though since at this time of year the conditions can be brutal. One of the most memorable birding experiences of my life!

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