I must be starting to sound like a scratched record now, with my trips north of the border, but after spending a week there recently, I was due to return for just a long weekend, mainly to take in the black grouse lek for real. As the break was limited in terms of time, we (Kate and I) chose to fly up instead of driving and, after a mere 75 minutes, we touched down in Inverness, to be met by Andy at the airport.
With clear skies and a warm breeze, Andy suggested that we waste no time, and head up to the Cairngorms, and after a quick cuppa, a change of clothes, we were soon parking up near the ski centre, and looking up the hills, or should I say mountains, to where the ptarmigan live. Unlike last time, I could see the paths as most of the snow had gone, with just small pockets remaining in dips or shaded areas of the slopes. And, an added benefit was actually having Andy with us this time, to help guide along the way.
Just as well too, as he spotted a pair of ptarmigan near the path well before the usual area, which neither Kate nor I had seen. We skirted around the pair, and then slowly approached. Andy was right, the birds' attitude had changed remarkably since even my last visit, and this pair seemed very settled and allowed us to get very close indeed. My last visits had been prior to, and then during the pairing up phases of the season, and the ptarmigan were a lot more unsettled or flighty, flying off at any sudden or unusual movement nearby.
We were supposed to be up at 1:30am, but by the time I'd sorted out what I was going to take along, and how I would carry it, it had gone 11, and I failed to sleep at all, choosing to get up at 1am and wait. By 2am we were on the roads to the lek site, and were treated to a fabulous display of the Aurora, though we couldn't stop alas, to photograph it.
By the time we'd hiked to the hides, the lights in the skies had all but faded, so we just settled into position, set the cameras up, and began to wait. It was pretty calm but chilly with clear skies. As before, it was a case of waiting for the birds to arrive, then listening to the sounds of the moors, with snipe drumming, before the light crawled across the lek site, and turned the sounds of the grouse into strutting and posturing birds.
After the previous visit, I chose to rig up my old 7D on the 500mm, and have the Mk2 on my 100-400mm lens, resting on a bean bag. This I hoped would allow me to compose shots better, to take in not only more than one of the grouse in a shot, but also capture some of the breathtaking views behind.
It was also Andy's cue to grab my hat, and boot it into the heather, pretending to be taking part in the lek himself, which was amusingly captured on camera by Kate, who was giggling at his daft antics nearby. Strolling down the hills, Kate spotted some common lizards sunbathing, and after a short chat with the gamekeepers, we headed back north, to spend the rest of the day at Chanonry Point. Stopping along the way for a coffee and slice of cake, of course!
Initially there wasn't much to see at the Point, and this was expected as the salmon run hasn't really started yet. But, it was worth a wait Andy said, as anything can happen there. Besides, we were all too shattered to do much else, other than sit on the shingle and watch the tide come in.
Then a disturbance in the water some way out, and a few gulls circling gave away the location of a pair of dolphins. Nothing spectacular in terms of views, with just glimpses of the heads, but mainly dorsal fins and the tail being visible, though pretty close in as the tide reached turning point.
I didn't need much encouragement to sleep that evening, awakening to the plan of a later start, but a return to RSPB Troup Head on the Aberdeenshire coast. Lyndsey was free today too, so the four of us set off east, calling into an ice cream parlour along the way. All of us though, had been fooled by the bright conditions, and chosen to wear lighter clothes, only to reach the cliffs and discover that the gusts of wind were icy cold! It was bright though, and the windy weather meant the gannets would be up at eye-level for the visit.
I've been to Bempton Cliffs a few times, but the number of gannets here was astonishing. It was like being in a snow-globe, with them circling round in waves with the gusts of wind. Quite literally at times too, when the hailstorms rolled in from the sea, and battered us as we crouched on the grassy slopes. These birds are made of hardy stuff, we all thought.