21 October 2016 – Fifty years on…
Sometime during today, let’s just take a moment to quietly remember
We live a few miles from where we spotted those five buzzards in the previous post – a short hop from where the suburban fringes give way to farmland. I often think of it as a kind of frontier: the west midlands conurbation finally (thankfully!) dissipating into copse, covert, and the rotating mix of arable and grazing pasture.
Inevitably the divide is blurred and, in the same way that the building line encroaches outwards, remnants of the former greenery remain trapped within the suburbs – parkland, golf courses, cricket clubs. Often bequests from benefactors long departed, these oases endure – covenanted, protected and inviolate; safe from the clutches of the developers. Being arboreal, they also make for a fascinating battleground…
Not quite enjoying the cause célèbre status of the “back from the brink” red kite, or the poster bird celebrity of the osprey, buzzards seem to have just got on with the job of reoccupying territories from which they had long been absent. As an aside, something similar seems to be happening with ravens, although not in anything like the same numbers. Perhaps the ready supply of roadkill is part of the equation; the apparently unstoppable rise in the local grey squirrel population seems to be another, at least where the buzzards are concerned.
Over the course of the last couple of years I must have seen at least half a dozen instances of grey squirrel being carried in the talons of low-flying raptors; always buzzards and mostly around the tops of the trees which surround the local park – a mix of tall conifers and broadleaf (horse chestnut, in the main). A couple have been young, possibly snatched from dreys; mostly they have been of adult size.
In the context of evolutionary timescales, this is a brand new food chain – the greys being non-native and relatively new to the UK. If it is a building block in the longer-term reduction in the grey squirrel population, then it is a welcome one as far as I’m concerned. The greys have had an easy ride up to now: the polecats, pine martens and goshawks which might have controlled their numbers are largely absent from our locality; there’s the odd weasel and that’s about it. Reports of a slowly recovering goshawk population, should they turn out to be true, will be welcome in all sorts of ways; the buzzards are doing their bit – but they could certainly use some reinforcements.
A few days ago, we were just around the corner, browsing Motor Market’s forecourts in the hope of finding a nice Fiesta-sized car for the household’s newest driver. From above came the insistent, repetitive calls which mean only one thing – buzzards, plural.
In fact there were four: all similarly sized, circling in a tight group and climbing steadily over an area where greenery is in short supply. Then it was five: a much larger bird arrived and – flying considerably higher – it too began to circle, seemingly waiting for the others to climb and rendezvous. Possibly a female rejoining a family group of male partner and this year’s brood. Only a few years back, such a sight, in this place, would have been unthinkable.
But the recovery of this sometimes underrated raptor, welcome though it is to most of us who love to see them climbing on updraughts (and despite being by no means complete) is far from meeting with universal appreciation. The sources of the dissent are unsurprising; the lines of argument predictable. The Countryside Alliance believes that the “(buzzard) population is becoming unsustainable, and in some instances is having an adverse impact on other wildlife”; apparently our track record of intervention and eradication of apex predators isn’t enough to persuade them that keeping well out of it might be for the best. This is an organisation which employs a ‘Head of Shooting’; is it possible to imagine a more wretched job title?
Meanwhile, a report for the British Association of Shooting and Conservation – hardly a neutral broker when it comes to these issues – estimated that on average between 1% and 2% of pheasant poults were killed by birds of prey. Between one and two per-cent! and that’s an “estimate” by an organisation with an axe to grind. I wonder if there are any “estimates” available for the percentage of nests trampled by open-grazed livestock? Or by a deer population, completely out of control as a direct consequence of our inability to co-exist (yes, really) with apex predators? Like those buzzards climbing over Cradley Heath, we seem to be going round in circles…
Not long returned from a couple of weeks in the highlands, it’s probably understandable that, randomly, places with Gaelic names still spring unsolicited into the consciousness, accompanied by mental images of a clarity which is almost harrowing. Ironically, the better the time enjoyed, the more acute the ache of nostalgia: this is the comedown to end all comedowns; this is what the highlands can do to you…
The Cairn Gorm wind (Sunday, August 7th, 2016): Winds were predicted and it was indeed a bit blustery in the Spey Valley; blustery but no more than that. After a low-key, settling-in day, we’d ventured to Cairn Gorm, intending to ascend via Sron An Aonaich, otherwise known as the ‘windy ridge’ route – appropriately, as it turns out – and explore some more circuitous descent options, with a view to avoiding the funicular and as much of the ski paraphernalia as possible.
Stepping out of the car at Coire Cas, it was immediately apparent that conditions were a little bit more severe than blustery. As we raised the tailgate a number of items of clothing were plucked from the boot and distributed around the car park. With everything retrieved, an impromptu meeting agreed – unanimously, which is a rarity! – that heading for the tops today would be neither enjoyable or sensible.
It turned out to be a wise decision: later in the day, a record gust for the month of August was recorded by the Cairngorm weather station – a short stroll away from the summit cairn. (From the BBC website): “Met Office meteorologist Stuart Brooks said the wind speed on top of Cairngorm in the Highlands had so far reached 115mph and the weather station there was on track to note the highest gust ever recorded in summer”.
The midges of Glen Einich (Sunday, August 14th, 2016): We love the hills, and being out on them; but sometimes we just like to look at them from beneath. This could be just an excuse for the lazier days, of which we are also quite fond, but there’s no denying Scotland does have some very inviting glens. Glen Einich for one: a walk-in framed on its western side by the buttresses of Sgoran Dub Mor and Sgor Gaoith, with the corries of Braeriach to the east and, when it eventually comes into view, the blank headwall of Coire Odhar. Oh, and of course, there’s Loch Einich.
These are the places where it’s good to pause, reflect, and feel that particular sensation unique to the Scottish highlands; unique at least as far as the UK goes. Uneasy but not in an unpleasant way is the best explanation I can offer; a certain acknowledgement of scale on a number of levels – the physical scale of the mountains themselves of course; but also the timescales represented by those mountains, which will endure long after we, as a species, have become a footnote to their history.
I’m no mystic, but I do believe that on a certain level the genuinely wild landscapes communicate with us: come in here with attitude and you’ll likely come unstuck; don’t take liberties and maybe you’ll be okay – but there are no guarantees. And there would be no point in arguing back – mountains don’t debate!
Anyway, to the midges… and maybe, like the mountains, they will endure us as a species; I think they probably will. We’d progressed, largely untroubled, up to the point where the track splits and the lower path descends to closely shadow the river (Am Beanaidh), with the right-hand fork gradually climbing clear of the valley floor. It was here that they sprang their ambush – rising from the ground, descending from the sky, outflanking us and mocking our feeble attempts at defence; and all in the time it took us to make the decision – high or low? The little blighters have no interest in discussing surrender terms either.
Eventually we reached a high point, where the breeze seemed to thwart them a bit, and thereafter we mostly lost them – as long as we didn’t pause anywhere for too long – at least until we picked up a couple of patrols on the return leg, still keen for one last bite.
Edinburgh and the Highland Chieftain (Monday, August 15th, 2016): We’re all pretty fond of Edinburgh, particularly the astonishing variety of landscape to be found within the boundaries of a city. And we also all like a ride on a train…
Having established that even the walk-up return fares from Kingussie were surprisingly reasonable, we turned up at the station and booked for an out and back trip on Virgin Trains East Coast service, a train which goes by the name of The Highland Chieftain and eventually ends its journey at either London Kings Cross or Inverness. One surprise was that using the ‘Chieftain’ – a refurbished High Speed Train (Inter-city 125 in old money) – in both directions was actually cheaper than the alternative Abellio/Scotrail option, travelling by 3-car DMU. We enjoyed a nicely turned-out train – even on the northbound return, by which time it was several hours into its journey – with plenty of room and good seats in both directions. This doesn’t make me a convert to the idea of a privatised railway, and anyway the Mark 3 coaching stock dates back to BR days and could show a Pendolino a thing or two when it comes to seating pitch and window alignment.
Despite closely shadowing the A9 for a a sizeable part of the route, the train gives a much different perspective; particularly to someone who would usually be the driver. Passing Dalwhinnie, there was time to savour the view down Loch Ericht towards Ben Alder, looking massive even at this distance. Somewhere south and east of Drumochter, possibly around Killiecrankie, the highland wildness finally concedes its stranglehold, merging into the fertile prosperity of Perthshire and, for a while, we were back in familiar territory around Pitlochry and Dunkeld, rattling over the iron viaduct near to Dalguise. Away from the fractious and overcrowded peak-time commuter trains – which are an altogether different experience – it’s a great way to travel.
We had 5 hours in the city: a little more would have been nice but, as we already knew our way around, we were able to make the most of the time available. August in Edinburgh means Fringe, and negotiating The Royal Mile felt like the most tiring walking of the entire fortnight.
There and back, we spent roughly as long on the train as we did in the city. Not once did the journey seem to drag, not even for a second and not in either direction. In fact we were all visibly downcast as the northbound service passed through Newtonmore and began to slow.
The birds (various dates and locations): What follows is nothing more than a sequence of disproportionately fortunate encounters, which will probably never be repeated during a single fortnight. That’s all there is to it: no claims of expertise or meticulous planning; just sheer dumb luck.
Two young cuckoos being fed, in plain sight, by a pair of warblers at Achlean – mentioned here
An impromptu pause at Loch Morlich roadside, where a firecrest – a bird I’d expected to go my whole life without ever seeing – worked its way through the foliage until it was a few feet from the passenger side windows, while the three of us sat as motionless as is humanly possible
Two golden eagles – one in Glen Feshie, the other, a few days earlier, barely into Glen Einich – and neither at a time of day when you would generally be optimistic. In the case of the Glen Einich one, we were no more than a couple of paces from stepping out from the tree cover – and almost inevitably spooking the bird – when we spotted it, drifting at not much more than tree height. As it was, we got to see it circle a few times before heading off towards the west. The Glen Feshie eagle was being mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and was distracted enough not to notice us for a while. Neither sighting would have lasted longer than about 15-20 seconds but – having only ever having seen about three or four in my whole life – I don’t recall ever seeing a golden eagle for more than a few seconds.
We have, over the years, squinted at the tree line, trying to work out exactly where a cuckoo’s call might be coming from; never with any luck. We’ve similarly scanned skylines and hillsides, hoping to pick up the dark shape or shadow of an eagle in flight. Perhaps the occasional unlikely stroke of luck is nature’s trade-off for the fruitless hours.
Meall a’ Bhuachaille (Saturday, August 13th, 2016): For years we did this hill a disservice; an error of omission. We now try to make time for it whenever we’re in the area; the views are exceptional, it can easily be fitted into a part-day, and the summit shelter is sufficiently ‘wraparound’ to protect against everything other than a full-on northerly (there has to be a gap somewhere!). While we were taking advantage of the protection, a couple of young lads arrived who had run to the summit from Glenmore Lodge, via Ryvoan bothy; after all of 30 seconds, one said “Ready?”, the other nodded, and off they went in the direction of the next top – Creagan Gorm. We could only wonder, and wish them well
It’s probably a consequence of its distinctive shape and position at the head of the Ryvoan pass, but Meall a’ Bhuachaille – despite keeping company with much loftier neighbours – seems to be in view from most of Strathspey. We began to wonder whether Meall a’ Bhuachaille might be Gaelic for “visible from everywhere” but apparently it translates as ‘The hill of the herdsman’.
[Below] Meall a’ Bhuachaille and neighbours from… actually, I’m not sure. Probably (top to bottom): Glen Einich; Whitewell; somewhere else…
So that’s it for reflections until next time.
Which can’t come soon enough.
Just past Whitewell, returning from Glen Einich, I paused to look back towards Braeriach, take a couple of photographs and noticed an item of equipment parked in the corner of the field. I use the catch-all term “item of equipment” to allow some latitude for my lack of knowledge in these matters; although I think this is probably a tractor and that’s as specific as I’m prepared to be.
That said, I do know that there’s a wealth of knowledge out there among the outdoor community. My thing is railways – even old, long disused stretches of the former network, trying to picture how things might have been in their heyday; or the dedicated freight loops where a couple of trains a week fight through the buddleia en route to some surviving remnant of a quarry or colliery. We all have our little idiosyncrasies…
Anyway, all of that aside, zooming in revealed this…
Judging from the tyres, it might still be in use, although the front ones seem to have sunk a little, and the more you zoom the more blemishes are revealed. If its working life is done, it’s got a splendid place to spend its retirement.
It doesn’t matter that it tops out at well over 3,000 feet – there’s more to it than that. Scottish hill classification is – like life itself – something I don’t fully understand; probably because, as with life itself, I haven’t always been properly paying attention.
It’s to do with relationships and proximity (like a restraining order?), and also parents and subsidiaries. That last bit sounds like the kind of stuff you’d find in a PLC’s profits warning and maybe it all serves some purpose, but…
(Here’s the ‘but’): if it’s the case that Carn Ban Mor is blissfully indifferent to its designation – and we can probably take that as read – then I don’t really think it should matter to me either; which is convenient, because it doesn’t. To misquote Robbie Burns “A hill’s a hill for a’ that” and Carn Ban Mor is a fine old hill, and one with a particularly fine path.
Just before the croft at Auchlean, a track leaves the tarmac road and cuts away across the heather and bilberry. Alternatively, just past the croft, another track leaves the path to Glen Feshie at roughly 90º. It’s not long before the two converge, but fortunately we chose the latter option, otherwise we would have missed the two cuckoo chicks being fed by a pair of warblers in the lee of the farm buildings.
The energy expended by those small birds, incubating and nurturing the two cuckoos, is a genuine wonder of the natural world. For perspective, imagine a pair of robins tirelessly rearing a couple of young pigeons and you’d be about right.
Many hours later, we chose to return via the same route, just to see if the feeding was still going on: it was, even though the chicks both looked well capable of taking care of themselves. And their foster parents.
I’ll not dwell too much on the route, as there are any number of detailed and well-written descriptions available online. The path climbs through mixed woodland, which eventually gives way to open hillside and views of Glen Feshie and then the Spey valley. The Cairngorms national park is accessed via a gate and introduced by a boulder situated just inside the park boundary.
A food stop was taken in the comfort of a peaty gulley, just to the side of the path. It was only on emerging onto the higher open ground that we realised just how much we’d been sheltered from the wind by the presence of Carn Ban Beag on our northern side. On the upper slopes a group of reindeer crossed our path on the ascent, and did so again as we were returning.
What sets the path apart from many others is that it takes you to within a whisker of the summit, without the degeneration into either quagmire or ankle-snapping boulder field, which is so often the case and usually just at the point where the trickiest part of the ascent is reached. A small waymark cairn marks the point where you need to leave the main path and head across gently sloping open ground to the summit cairn/shelter and take in the views which, in this case, really do justify the use of the word “panoramic”.
The summits of Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine are familiar from a thousand pictures seen in guidebooks and on internet sites and; a little further on, there are excellent views across to the western corries of Braeriach. Almost due north, the rocky summit of Sgor Gaoith looks within touching distance; a little deceptive, as there is a drop down onto a saddle before needing to reascend another 100 metres in height.
On a pleasantly warm summer’s day, a steady procession of traffic eases over the stone bridge carrying the A44 across the river Severn at Worcester and out past the county cricket ground. In the shadows of the masonry arches, scarcely noticed, a pair of common terns engage in aerial ballet – wheeling, turning, stalling momentarily before plunging, fully submerged, into water the colour of tea with too little milk.
Whatever it is they are catching, momentarily attracts the attention of a few of the much larger birds they have for company; most of them simply continue to drift with the slow current. In any event, none of the gulls – herring, lesser black-backed, even the nifty and mobile black-headed variety – is anywhere near quick enough to effect a mugging before the food is swallowed whole and on the wing. The terns, for their part, seem wholly indifferent to the presence and interest of their larger neighbours; they are busy, and hungry.