Friday, 6 July 2018

Success and failure up on high! 5th June 2018.

Now that we had settled into the Speyside birding scene after the excellent day yesterday (see: Down to some serious birding) it was time to get specialised. In order to see a couple of the rarer birds in this part of the world you have to go up. Up a mountain in fact. Going up a mountain involves, for us anyway, a long and arduous trek uphill and, in our pretty unfit state, it absolutely wears us out! But it has to be done and since the weather outlook for later in the week wasn't the best (strong winds forecast) we had decided that the first opportunity of a good clear sunny day with little wind just had to be grasped. Cloud, rain and wind are not conducive to mountain birding so a clear, still and sunny day in prospect had Mrs Caley and I assembling at the Cairngorm Ski Carpark at 08:00. There was barely another soul around so even before we set out on our chosen path we were able to enjoy watching a pair of Ring Ousels forage among the short grass by the stream. We had had excellent views of a male Ring Ousel the evening before so didn't linger too long and soon we were trekking up towards the mountain plateau. 

male Ring Ousel
female Ring Ousel
Our route would take us up well over 1000 metres which ordinarily would constitute a "Munro" (hills over 915 metres) but apparently because there are bigger hills attached (Cairngorm & Ben Macdui) ours would only count as a secondary top. Just as well I'm not a "Munro" bagger then (2 would probably kill me anyway!). Halfway to our destination at about 800 metres and after seeing nothing on the way, we found the first Red Grouse which were quite high up their own standards at this time of year. This meant that we'd have a fair bit of climbing to do before we reached the target birds which will be up at the top. A male Wheatear was chattering away from a rocky perch and a few Meadow Pipits flittered around but otherwise it was very quiet.

Red Grouse
The biggest problem with mountains is that the higher you go the steeper the walk becomes! The last few hundred metres is the hardest but there is ample opportunity to stop and wonder at the view which stretches out all around. It is also necessary to scan the rocky landscape in order to look for the target birds. Another couple of birders had passed us earlier and now we had caught them up (not really, they'd just stopped walking for about an hour!). The two chaps were new to the area and had never seen either Dotterel or Ptarmigan before which are the birds that all birders come up here to see. They asked me if we'd seen either and were quite (unpleasantly) surprised when I told them that they'd have to go much higher up yet! To the top in fact, well to the plateau anyway. They were soon off at a trot leaving us alone once more to continue in our own good time. We finally reached base camp at about 10:30 and took a break for some sustenance as I continued to scan for the birds. It didn't take me long to clock a Ptarmigan at about 20 metres distant. At this time of the year I prefer to bird only from the tracks even though you're free to roam wherever you like. 

There are rare breeding birds up here including Ptarmigan and I for one don't wish to disturb them. A few years ago I had almost trodden on a Dotterel and was treated to it's diversionary broken wing tactic, which some bird species use to divert you away from their nests. I should add that that particular Dotterel had chosen a nest site just feet away from the path so I had hardly intruded and after moving away we were able to watch it happily return to its nest and continue incubating. This Ptarmigan on the other hand, a male, appeared to be just as interested in us, probably because his mate or even family would be close by, since he actually started towards us. Maybe he fancied a cheese and tomato sandwich! He halved the distance between us allowing for some decent shots before deciding that he'd prefer some short vegetation instead and settled down to his own lunch. 

We walked on and encountered the two birders again. They had found a few Ptarmigan but had failed to locate any Dotterel despite wandering (wrongly I thought to myself) around the short grass searching for them. They couldn't stay any longer and left me musing whether we'd now see any of what, is to my mind, one of the most enigmatic of all wading birds. The only way to see Dotterel in the UK, unless you are lucky to find or see some during their migration (as we were lucky enough in Hertfordshire last spring), is to walk up a Scottish mountain since that is the only place they choose to breed. There are only around 750 pairs in the entire Scottish mountain range too so finding them isn't easy either. But the Cairngorm plateau is a reliable spot for them so I remained confident that I'd find some before the day was out. The only time that I'd not found any was in early May one year when the plateau was still covered in lots of snow. For the next three hours I searched long and hard using all vantage points but couldn't find a single Dotterel! I found a singing male Snow Bunting at extreme distance and higher up (we were already tired so didn't fancy walking higher to get close to it) and even found a much rarer bird (more of that below) but there was not a Dotterel in sight.

During our searching we'd found some more Ptarmigan, all males and a couple of these were characteristically very confiding. The females I guessed, must be busy with parental duties and staying out of sight. 

But no Dotterel. We were so disappointed that even the fact that I'd found a really rare pair of summering birds that were exhibiting signs of possible breeding didn't lift our spirits much! Dotterel along with Capercaillie are the main two species that we most want to see every time we come to Scotland.

As for the rare birds I must remain tight lipped. I took some photos and emailed them to the county recorder and he asked me not to broadcast any details since, unfortunately, egg thieves still continue to plunder nests in Scotland. They are common enough birds in the UK in winter so there isn't any need for anybody to go to see them either. In most years just 1-3 pairs stay in the UK to breed so the record was extremely well received. Of course they may have been just late migrants and may not be breeding at all. Perhaps, once the breeding season is over, I can share my find in another blog. I've been lucky enough to find a few rare breeding birds in Scotland over the years, a direct result of spending a lot of time out and about. In the past I've seen Green Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper on breeding territory and once found a family of recently fledged Redwing and their parents. All common enough birds during migration and winter periods but very rare breeders in the UK.

The walk down and back to the car was uneventful as usual although a Mountain Hare did cross our path. We passed the entrance track into Coire an t'sneachda (I think that's how you spell it) and remembered our last visit here at the end of February when it had been -20 degrees centigrade with a chilling wind too! Today even on the plateau it had been nudging +15! Quite a contrast. You can read about that walk to see Ptarmigan in their white winter finery here: (The Ice Bird Challenge)

We took refuge in the Pine Marten bar at Glenmore where, in my completely knackered state, I enjoyed one of the most satisfying pints of cider (Thistly Cross Original) that I've ever had! I'd already hatched a plan to walk up a different mountain in another attempt to find a Dotterel and now just had to work out when it would be best to let Mrs Caley know! Best let her recuperate a bit first....

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