There's something wrong with getting up at 2 in the morning on a holiday, but with the prospect of having to get past Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow on the same day, we felt it was worth getting an early start. So off we set, and were past Manchester by 7.30, leaving us well-placed to have a break, meander into Scotland and leave the Glasgow traffic to get on with things in our absence... which I'm sure it did. We eventually arrived at Aviemore in the early afternoon, pitched the tent at the Rothiemurchus campsite and went out to stretch our much-cramped legs. A gentle wander down the Glen Einich track paid immediate dividends for our southern sensibilities: huge black slugs like ambulatory liquorice on the path, Snipe chipping from a nearby bog, Juniper sprawling across the heather, Chickweed Wintergreen, Mountain Everlasting and Pale Persicaria in flower at our feet and a family of Crested Tits purring in the pines beside us. Never mind that the weather was grey and chilly, never mind that we were dog-tired; we'd arrived on holiday and we were ready to chill out.
Saturday: The Caledonian pine forests.
Chill out was exactly what happened overnight too: at some point in the early hours the cloud rolled back and the temperature dropped like the proverbial. We shivered, shuddered, turned over and went back to sleep, to awaken to the gentle sound of rain pattering on canvas. Ah yes; camping in Scotland. It all came rushing back. Nothing ventured, as the saying starts, so we got up and out and wombled off to Loch Garten and Abernethy Forest. We felt that we were tougher than needing to visit a luxury Osprey-observation-facility, so headed along the tracks between the dripping pines - all very atmospheric - and admired such delights as downy Goldeneye ducklings, Common Sandpipers twiddling on the lochside and a quartet of Red Squirrels having the most almighty bust-up. It couldn't have been a more acrobatic sight if it were the olympic gymnastics - there were squirrels hurtling up and down treetrunks with reckless abandon, chasing each other out into the thinnest of the branches - and dropping out of them - bounding helter-skelter across the logs, heather and juniper on the ground and starting the whole breathless endeavour all over again. Never did find out what it was all about though.
|Loch Mallachie looking gloomy and romantic. In a perverse sort of fashion.|
A hot drink was needed, so we settled down on the banks of Loch G., got out the gas-stove and brewed up some soup. Mid-way through this warming exercise we noticed a smallish duck with a trio of ducklings in tow. With some incredulity we watched this female Wigeon paddle serenely to the shore next to us, haul out and lead her young into the grass beside us. She constantly talked to them with a subdued version of the husky growl that you hear from the flocks in winter, whilst they piped excitedly back and dashed around the bankside feeding on insects and plants.
|Wigeon plus one of the three ducklings|
Sunday. Cairn Gorm.
In a similar fashion to the previous night, the cloud rolled back - but this time we awoke to glorious sunshine. This was the opportunity we were awaiting, so we scarfed down our breakfast and set out for a brisk walk onto the Cairngorm plateau. The way up is either short and nasty, long and steady or up the funicular railway - fortunately the latter starts at 10 in the morning and passengers aren't allowed out of the Ptarmigan Restaurant's grounds when at the top, unless they're on an organised tour. We slogged up the short and nasty route, stopping for Wheatears, Meadow Pipits and breath. Eventually we reached close view of a patch of snow, where two incredibly under-dressed birders were scoping for Ptarmigan. We stopped for a mouthful of water, scanned quickly with the bins, and headed on up - only to bump into a family party of Ptarmigan within about 5 minutes. We stopped and admired the beautifully patterned chicks, still in their down coats, and the amazingly cryptic female who chuckled away to her chicks the whole time we watched. We eventually moved off on and up, past the restaurant and up to the peak, where another cup of soup was in order whilst we admired the view east into Aberdeenshire and north up to the Moray Firth. Fine indeed!
We continued on around the mountain, skirting along the ridge towards Ben Macdui. A snatch of Snow Bunting song held us up for a while, but as he seemed happy to use a corrie as an echo-box, we let him be and continued along our way. We soon came across a fabulous spring-head, with rolling waves of Purple Spoonwort cascading down the wettest track: it would have been interesting to stop and search the mosses and liverworts more thoroughly, but I have no great wish to cause boredom and strife with Na, so we wandered on in search of birds. Eventually we found ourselves looking onto the slopes of Ben Macdui, with a cracking male Ptarmigan close by. As I scanned around the rocks - more in hope than expectation - a male Dotterel popped his head over a rock and gave me a dirty look. Close by was a female, with at least one downy chick trotting rapidly back and forth across the stony heath. We watched them from a restrained distance, then strolled over to admire a pair of Snow Buntings, and finally began to make our way back down the mountainside to some shelter and lunch. The journey back to the car was enlivened by a selection of nice montane plants: Globeflower, Trailing Azalea, Dwarf Cornel and also what appeared to be a clump of White Wood-rush.
|Purple Spoonwort cascades down the moutainsides...|
|The Cairngorm plateau from the top.|
We tried a bit of hide-based birding at Insh Marshes to round the day off, but there really wasn't anything going on. A couple of Roe Deer grazing on the edge of the marsh were the highlight, so we headed back for a well-deserved dinner.