Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Mountain Birding, 7th June 2019

I've deliberately left composing (ha!) this post for nearly three whole months because of the sensitivity to disturbance of some of the birds seen. By way of disclaimer, all of our views and photographs taken were from well walked paths in the mountains and at no stage did we venture off of them. The birds were allowed to approach us in their own time. I prefer it that way since I have their interests at heart first and foremost and would never cause distress to any bird just to get a clinching image. It is our normal practice to leave any birds suspected of being on or close to a nest well alone. I will also purposely not disclose or share any location details in this piece.

The main paths in the Cairngorm mountain range have become increasingly busy over the last year or two, particularly the easier ones to climb, ever since the Cairngorm Mountain Railway has been closed down. So I had spent a bit of time looking for an alternative route in a different part of the range to find the special birds that the Cairngorms are known for. As usual we had to wait for a decent weather window before we'd even consider going up and after a fortnight of very indifferent conditions we finally had our chance on a beautiful bright and sunny Friday morning although it was a tad windier than we'd have liked. Mrs Caley and I are knocking on a bit so if possible we prefer to do the climbing early in the day and like it better to go "straight up" rather than meander around and waste valuable energy. We found a space to park a short way from our chosen route and set out to the cheerful sound of Willow Warblers and Chaffinches singing away in the adjacent birch trees.

As can be the norm on a mountain excursion we saw little until we neared the plateau. We did hear a few Red Grouse from a distance away but none were close enough to even warrant taking a photo. The walk was tough, it seems to get harder each year, and we had a few regrets that we hadn't taken one of the easier paths in the main tourist areas but we were just about finding the energy to continue. Still a lot better though than my tortuous walk up and down in February earlier in the year where I was stricken down with a bug and really struggled (read about that here Uphill Struggle!). At least I felt good on this walk!

At well over 900 metres we finally encountered the first of our target birds for the day when we saw a pair of Ptarmigan feeding just off the track ahead. The "Mountain Chicken" (that nickname doesn't really do such a fabulous bird justice) wasn't a year tick since we'd seen some in their beautiful white winter plumage in February. Ptarmigan are the denizens of the mountain tops, remaining in situ all year round and braving the worst of the conditions through the winter period. On a warm sunny day such as todays they make the most of it by feeding voraciously on the newly shooting heather and grass. Unless they have chicks Ptarmigan are very approachable and hardly ever take to flight preferring just to walk slowly away if threatened. We sat down around 10 metres away and watched them feed just off the path.

female Ptarmigan

male Ptarmigan
The male bird of the pair was clearly on guard, he was ever watchful while the female fed heartily. Still some mating in the air I guess, the summer season had been delayed in the Scottish Highlands owing to a harsh Spring period. The male bird was now stood on the track ahead of us and although seemingly unmoved by our presence was ever watchful.

After a couple of minutes or so both birds had moved down the slope slightly and I actually saw the female take a drink from one of the many pools of water left over from the recent rains. Something I'd not seen before and I celebrated by taking just about the only blurred photos that I'd take all day so that the event went unrecorded!

Sitting and watching the Ptarmigan had given us a break so with a bit more recharged energy we now soldiered on upwards. We were looking for the best of all the mountain birds but knew that we'd have to almost reach the very top of this particular hill to see them and that was still another hundred metres climb or so up and as all hill walkers will know, mountains get steeper nearer the top so the last bit is the hardest! But we had all day, well at least half of it anyway, to get to our destination so had plenty of time for stops to get some wind back in our sails. Speaking of wind it was becoming breezier the higher we went and the wind direction was straight at us so walking became even more difficult. We're not the fittest folk around but we do have determination and besides we had a goal in mind. Almost at the top I heard what I'd been waiting for, barely audible over the whoosh of the wind, the high pitched "twit...., twit..." (perhaps they were calling me?) of a Dotterel. I liken the call to a squeaky bicycle wheel that catches just once on every revolution, "twit....., twit.....". Even though we could hear the bird pinning it down wouldn't be that easy. The call can carry for a fair distance in the clear air and the wind can shift it away from its source. The Dotterel themselves despite being beautifully adorned with rusty orange underparts (brightest in the females, more of that later) and with striking head patterns can be surprisingly hard to detect amongst the grass and rocks. We took a breather and I scanned the slope ahead of us, the calling bird couldn't be that far away since the top of the hill was only a few hundred metres ahead of us. It took me a while but then I noticed a movement further to the right but much closer than I was expecting. A beautiful male Dotterel, #233 for the year, was actually running towards us!

male Dotterel
We stayed put watching the male as he in turns ran a short way and then secured a food item as all Plover species do. Another bird emerged from over the ridge, a more brightly plumaged female this time. It was obvious that these two had formed a loose pair but both were actively feeding with the male only occasionally calling now to keep contact with the female. In a very few species of birds the normal breeding roles are reversed with the male doing all of the incubation and care of the chicks while the females do all of the "chasing" and "scrapping" to win a male over and mate. This is true of Dotterel and hence the females are more gaudily attired in much brighter plumage whereas the males are less striking which lends them greater camouflage when sitting on the nest. Most females leave once the eggs are laid and many go on to find another partner and establish another pair bond and therefore another clutch and brood. The male hatches and raises the young on his own but of course wader chicks are precocial, ie they hatch already developed to an advanced stage and are able to feed themselves very quickly after leaving the nest.

female Dotterel
We were still sat in the same place on the path when another two female Dotterel flew in from our left. Now things really livened up and we were treated to a spectacle that we've never witnessed before when all three females became embroiled in a battle over the male. The original female which already appeared to be paired up had to physically remove the other two from the territory. Much "wing flashing" was employed presumably as a show of strength and as a warning to the others. The male often joined in too although at times the activity was so frenzied that it was difficult to discern between them all.

When the raising of wings wasn't deterrent enough the birds then engaged in much chasing both on the ground and in the air and quite often actually appeared to come together although it all seemed to be a bit "handbags" rather than full on assault. For most animals getting injured could be a fatal mistake so skirmishes stay as just that. Of course all female Dotterel look the same to our eyes so I'm just assuming that the original and alpha female won the day and ousted the other two from the arena. The losers would have to find another male to court on another patch of mountainside.

Throughout all of this excitement the birds frequently flew around enabling me to get some very nice shots, something I'd not managed before.

Now the pair were alone again they set about feeding once more. Both appeared to be totally oblivious to our presence and while not quite "running around between our legs" they were certainly putting on a show remaining within 20 metres or so for the next hour. I took frame after frame of the delightful wading birds, probably one of my most favourite of that group  By sitting down for so long we had regained our own strength so would be much better suited for the hike back down than I was back in February when I'd been struck down with that bug!

There really didn't seem to be any point in forging on any further so when the birds disappeared over the ridge we just found a slightly more comfy spot next to a bigger rock that offered more shelter from the wind which had increased somewhat since we'd first found the Dotterel. There we ate our picnic while watching the odd cloud drift by and a couple of Raven that were messing around on a hillside across the glen. Halfway through my cheese sandwich I was suddenly aware that the pair of Dotterel had returned and were walking down towards us once more, our luck was definitely in on this walk! I had to roll of a few more photos of course.

We headed back down the hill following the same path that we'd taken up. Once you're away from the tops there is little to see bird wise except for Meadow Pipits. Surprisingly though we saw no Wheatears, a bird which appeared very thin on the ground in Scotland this year. Halfway down I'd realised that we hadn't managed, yet again, to find a summer plumaged Snow Bunting either. I was so engrossed by the Dotterel that I'd forgotten to scan likely areas for the Snow Buntings but guessed that the brisk wind would have made finding one difficult anyway and we already had them on the year list from our February visit. I must remember to remember to look for one next year though! It's years since I saw a smart black & white plumaged summer male Snow Bunting.

Almost at the end of our walk I heard the squeaky call of a Ring Ouzel another of the mountain specialities. Again we'd already seen some this year on a local migration haunt of the species but Ring Ouzels are always worth seeing. They can be very difficult to locate in the vast open landscape and like most mountain birds their calls reverberate around the hillsides and can fool you as to the whereabouts of the exact source. I've learned a few tricks over the years and Ring Ouzels tend to use either a prominent rock or small bush from which to sing. I found the bird, a male, perched in a small conifer about a hundred metres away. Its bill was stuffed with insect food which it duly delivered to its  brood at its nest site tucked away in some rocks. 

male Ring Ouzel
We watched the Ring Ouzel for a while ferrying food into the nest site which was actually quite close to the path. We kept a respectable distance away and I took a few frames of the bird in flight as and when it flew past.

The star birds of the day however were the Dotterel which we never tire of seeing although we get bloody tired in going to see them! And right now we were knackered! Easy day required for tomorrow I think.

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