At the beginning of February Social Media was awash with images of mountain hares in snow, crested tits in pine woods and ptarmigan sat upon sun-drenched rocks, all from the Cairngorms region of Scotland, and I have to admit I was desperate to be able to return to the area. Dad's treatment had been a long slog since getting back from Mull last summer, and I was waiting for news of what he had to face next. The answer was a break from it for a couple of weeks, giving him a much needed rest, and me a window of opportunity to head away.
A call to my dear friend Andy in Scotland followed, and within a day I was packing and making a very early start, to travel up the motorways to cross the border once more. Usually I plan these excursions for weeks in advance, but this was such a last minute decision, I had absolutely no agenda for the trip, other than making the most of some time away from Birmingham and its hospitals.
First stop after reaching the Highlands was to an area great for seeing red grouse, and amusingly as I tootled slowly along the road leading to the moors, I spotted Andy going the other way, busy guiding one of his clients. The light across the moorland was pretty decent and red grouse were typically easy to locate. I also clocked the first red squirrel of the trip, as it scampered across the road behind my car.
My first full day in the Highlands was spent with Andy and a friend from overseas, firstly enjoying the charms of the woodland birds at Andy's crested tit site, and later, hoping for a visit from the large flock of snow buntings frequenting the car parks at the Cairngorms ski resort.
With a breezy day forecast on the Monday, I stocked up on nibbles for the car, and headed out into the glens in search of red deer. Last winter I had enjoyed little success with finding some; expecting to see far more on the mainland after leaving Mull, so I hoped for better luck this time. After driving for a few miles with the car's heater off and the windows down (to eliminate any heat haze worries) I spotted a group of stags on a hillside, and slowly brought the car to a halt nearby.
Saw a pair of stonechats and also a buzzard, which was using the high wire fences of the airport to perch upon and hunt from. Makes a change to see something else taking off from an airport!
Feeling vaguely energetic, I thought I ought to go look for the mountain hares that afternoon, so filled my Paramo coat's pockets with essentials, and hoofed off up the hills. After seeing the fabulous snowscape shots from friends before the trip, it was a bit disappointing to find much of the snow had melted, leaving patches in shaded areas. Made spotting the hares easier though!
With a few groups of photographers already on the slopes, I aimed for somewhere away from them and managed to find Bagpuss, sat looking typically grumpy in a shallow form. Was nice to see him again, even if he didn't seem to share the sentiment.
Crossing the areas with old snow on was as tricky as before, but it was a real challenge to remain upright in these conditions. If the ice-covered snow beneath my feet didn't give way to make me lose my balance, then a gust of icy wind would do it for me, and I found myself face-down in the snow a couple of times. Definitely one of those mornings where I questioned my sanity.
And indeed there was, and what a difference a day made. Sunny and calm, and once again, a blanket of snow over the area. With helpful advice from Andy on where to aim for, I was soon back on the slopes, and sitting admiring the glorious views. Admittedly the hares weren't to be seen near me, but I had been told to be patient, and readers of this blog know what I'm like on that score.
My penultimate day was spent touring the harbours along the coast, east of Inverness. While the sea ducks never materialised, I still got to see a couple of grey seals eating flat fish, something enjoyed by the local cormorants too. How they eat something so huge is beyond me.
One of the many joys of photographing these birds in Scottish woodlands is the abundance of fabulous perches available. A quick search amongst the undergrowth and we had a branch smothered with lichen to use, which was almost worth a picture on its own.