The start of our Cairngorm trip this year began in a very tiring way … self inflicted … but ultimately rewarding … lack of conviction found me leaving the packing till the last day (I reasoned we have come and gone so often in the last 12 months that we have hardly unpacked – so why begin repacking until the day of leaving?!) But it always takes longer than you think, especially if you ‘undo’ stuff just to check its there …. Finally at the end of a seemingly never ending day we set off for the caravan – not to spend the night – oh no – nothing as logical as that! The big bird table needed re stocking and we needed to eat having had nothing all day (and the Chinese at Milnthorpe is a big draw!) We hadn’t long finished eating when David rolled up to join us and about 10.30pm we set off … Why so early? Cos we had a stop off on the way planned! A couple of years ago we were told about a black grouse lek but hadn’t found time to do anything about it at the right time of year…
At some unearthly time between 2.30 and 3.30am we were just short of our target and had stopped to get all our gear on, when the police rolled up ‘Now then chaps can we ask what you’re doing’? We explained ourselves and they said they had seen us driving through the last village and due to a spate of 4x4 thefts from the area had decided to check us out … I said ‘Yes I knew you had clocked us as you went past and I fully expected you to turn back, find us and feel our collars’! Two of us, driving together through the dead of night - definitely dodgy in their minds! After a chat they went off satisfied and we continued to our destination.
David and Ian set off with the pop up hide and camera gear while yours truly sat in the warm car ostensibly guarding our holiday stuff! They disappeared from view downhill for a while and then their head torches appeared climbing the moor: they say you can see a lit candle at ten miles and I can believe it – I could make out their shapes as they got in each other light beam, then finally the lights disappeared as they must have gone into the hide to set up tripods and cameras. Eventually a light started coming back and I knew Ian was on his way to collect me. We set off with me lumbering like a hobbled elephant across and down the moor, over a stream, through some woodland and finally the last pull up the moor.
The weather forecast which we had watched anxiously all week had promised a clear and quiet spell yesterday morning … they lied! It was blowing a hooley but wasn;t raining or snowing – small mercies then! The light was abysmal and remained that way. David and I settled down to wait for dawn and the arrival of the grouse and Ian returned to guard the cars and watch us through binocs. Although the hide was pegged down securely the wind was trying very hard to take it hang gliding – at the worst gusts both David and myself were hanging on to the sides just in case the pegs came out of the boggy ground! We should have put the cross section poles in the roof to stabilise it – instead it was banging and rapping like a sheet of tin … I’ve heard quieter thunder!
Three quarters of an hour came and went and dawn arrived with all the stealth of a grey cat on its belly … I eventually realised the hillside opposite had appeared out of the gloom – but only just … and then a black grouse landed in front of the hide not too far away swiftly followed by two more: I swivelled the camera a scant couple of inches and looked through the lens at a frame filling, if extremely dark image … no point in pressing the shutter. Without warning all three birds took off and David and I were left looking at each other and wondering if that was it, had we blown it in some way?
A further hour and three quarters at least ground past and nothing stirred but the gale. Suddenly David was bringing his camera in and breaking his tripod down: I said ‘Enough?’ ‘Yup’ came the reply. I had the phone in my hands calling Ian to come back to us when I looked out and a black grouse was landing – right in front of the hide, followed by 5 more and they got straight down to business strutting and ‘popping’ and ‘screeching’! The phone call went from ‘come and get us to no wait don’t bother the birds are here’!
Time passed as it does when there’s a camera in the hands and the subject is acting up a storm right in front … shame that the light never got much better, half an hours sunlight would have been the icing on the cake, but I’m not complaining! One bird in particular was big and bullish, a proper feisty package: he ran about chasing the others off the prime top spot on the lek, then he came and stood to the right of the hide and was so close I’m sure I could have reached out and grabbed his legs! Neither of us could see him as he was so near the hide! Almost 500 shots and several hours later and the action had slowed – the feisty bird had come round the front of the hide and was stood about 20ft off, the others had flown or walked off onto the hillside, tails down picking and feeding as they went. Finally sated and chuffed David and I grinned at each other and called it done! The phone call to Ian was made again and we settled back to wait his arrival to let us out …
A very nice way to kick the holiday off, though later with no sleep for 37 plus hours I began feeling quite ragged … I’m not 19 anymore and staying up day and night and day is just crackers at my age!