April in the Cairngorms: Day 1

After my last trip up to stay with Andy Howard (@HighlandAndy on Twitter), Pete Walkden and I were keen to return… in fact, Pete had already been back up again a few weeks ago, unable to stay away, but I had to wait until this weekend, when we had booked to fly up to Inverness. Our last visit involved the very long drive up, meaning we effectively lost 2 days photographing, as we were in the car! Investigating flights, it made sense for this long weekend, to fly up.

A simple trip to Birmingham airport and we were soon climbing into the blue skies and heading North on the one hour, fifteen minute flight to Inverness! Clear conditions meant that within an hour, we were having spectacular views of the Cairngorms!

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It was fantastic to be touching down in such a short time and be here in time for a trip straight up to the Cairngorm Mountain in search of Ptarmigan! A quick cup of tea at Andy’s and we were loading the car and looking longingly at the distant mountains in Spring sunshine and blue skies. With forecasts for good temperatures but  gusty winds, we felt it was a suitable day to climb up to the spots where the Ptarmigan are now pairing and settling their territories. Last time we came, they were very skittish and we had done a lot of crawling across boulders only to have them fly. Andy had told us, it should be very different at this time of the year, with them settled as pairs….. and he was right!

We drove up to the car park and started the hour long climb up into the mountain to the altitude and areas that the Ptarmigan best like to breed. I could not believe that, that morning I was in Lichfield and now I was standing on a stunning mountainside, soaking in spectacular views…

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Only a week or so ago, this area was still deep in snow and, although the sun was shining, temperatures were not enough to melt the pockets that still remained. Rivers of fresh snow melt were running down the mountain side, carving paths and tunnels through the snow. It was totally spectacular as we worked our way up the mountain, keeping our eyes out for the Ptarmigan who would now be in their eclipse plumage; when they turn from their white winter coat, back into their brown & golden summer plumage.

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It was Andy’s trained eye who spotted the first pair, tucked up on the edge of a pocket of snow, their white and brown plumage blending perfectly with the melting snow and golden grasses underneath. Crouching, we crept to the edge of the snow pocket and watched them for a bit. Feeding on the emergent heather shoots, they were unworried by our presence, being used to walkers in this part of the mountain…. we crept closer… and closer. Positioning ourselves in the grass near them, we began to photograph … and boy, are they stunning birds! The female will moult into a stunning golden speckled plumage, the male a more grey version. The males’s red eyebrows make him distinctive. I love this period of change, when you can see the new summer plumage emerging from the remnants of the winter … I could not stop shooting!

These are not processed shots, but screen- captures from my card on my laptop. The final images will be on my Flickr account on my return home!

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We photographed this obliging pair for while, before deciding to head up higher to see if we could see any more. They are incredibly difficult to spot… their camouflage is totally amazing in this lichen-speckled heather and bouldered landscape and when they hunker down on the rocks, they are almost impossible to see. Only a movement and a red eyebrow tends to give away their presence. I tried to capture this in some of the shots I took….

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The landscape was truly breathtaking…. and most of the time, we were entirely on our own, other than the grouse, Ptarmigan and a few Mountain Hare…

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As we headed back down,  the light was golden and some Red Grouse were appearing on the lower slopes. Creeping and crawling through the undergrowth, I managed some shots of these, who looked stunning in this heather landscape…

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As we got back to the car, the light was fading… it was nearly 8pm and we had spent about 6 hours on the mountainside! Time had flown past and we all returned to Andy’s happy with the shots we had captured, but no time to look at them, as we were to have a 1.30am get-up time to get to the Black Grouse Lek hide before dawn!

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