What does the obsessive grouse enthusiast do to celebrate his birthday? The answer is surely obvious; he goes and finds some grouse to play with. And not just any grouse. I have a serious soft spot for ptarmigan, and having shot a brace in Sutherland two years ago, I can praise their sporting characteristics as much as I can admire their beauty.
Given their habit of living above 2,500 feet, ptarmigan are not easy to come by. Historically, they were once widespread in the Galloway Hills and across the Southern Uplands. Overgrazing and human interference on the hilltops meant that by the mid eighteenth century, their numbers were declining rapidly, and with the possible exception of a few birds on Arran, the most southerly ptarmigan are now found on the slopes of Ben Lomond.
With a limited budget, I needed to strike a balance between the costs of travel and the likelihood of seeing a ptarmigan, and the best compromise appeared to be the Cairngorms. Having seen them fluttering around the car park at the Cairn Gorm ski centre, some friends and I planned a walk up through the mountains to the summit of Ben MacDui with quiet confidence. I reasoned that if I could see ptarmigan from the visitor centre, the actual peaks would be wriggling with birds. Like all the best bird related adventures, this was not to be the way of things.
After four hours of pushing uphill, we reached the summit of Ben MacDui, having seen nothing in the way of bird life. Well over four thousand feet above sea level, we stood in an eerie cloudbank and wondered whether or not the fabled “grey man of Ben MacDui” was going to loom out of the rocks to haunt us. Instead, a snow bunting flickered through the barren stones and stopped to have a bath in a puddle. At least there were some signs of life, but the chances of seeing a ptarmigan seemed to be fading.
Beginning to feel the first twinges of panic, we returned from the cloudy summit and back into radiant sunshine, which lit up the whole expanse of the Cairngorm plateau. Above the heather line, there was only dwarf junipers and crowberry between the stones, while vast expanses of the hillside appeared to be made up of nothing more than scree, boulders and sand. Brightly clothed shapes bobbed amongst the rocks here and there, clutching telescopic hiking poles and adhering resolutely to the revolting stereotype of the highstreet hillwalker. Nothing is less appealing to me than a neon yellow waterproof jacket, and why walkers make a conscious decision to be visually offensive is a mystery.
On the final straight before the steep descent to the finish line, a cloudy grey bundle started up from my feet and scuttled a few paces through the stones. After several miles of arduous climbing, I had found the very bird I was looking for. We watched one another and I began to take photographs. It was a single hen ptarmigan, and over the course of the next half an hour, I followed her from a distance through the rocks. It was thrilling to see her tail twitching like a grey partridge as she walked, while the fluffy white gaiters padded silently on below.
Ptarmigan live in some of the most remote and inhospitable places in the country, and the quality of their camouflage means that if you turn your eyes away even for a second, you lose them. But what they lack in accessibility, they make up for with quiet innocence. At times, I was less than seven or eight feet from this little bird, yet while she showed initial alarm at my presence, she latterly relaxed and began preening almost within arm’s reach. I took dozens of photographs, crawling through the stones and occasionally glancing down over what must have been almost a thousand feet to the vast sweeping valley below.
After a seven and a half hour slog, we returned to the car having scaled Scotland’s second highest mountain. Looking back up to the rough face where I had seen the single ptarmigan, I wondered how on earth I could have had a better birthday present.