Ian Short Photography | www.ianshortphotography.co.uk |

Is it an early spring? Skylarks are already singing on Alvie Moor and lapwings are displaying over nearby fields. Has winter gone? Can we nod knowingly in the direction of the latest scare on global warming, or does the snow squall racing over the Glen Feshie hills remind us that winter is still in full swing?

 

Last week, in the Northern Corries of Cairngorm, it was definitely still winter. I felt the cold keenly, as I stalked the mountain hares who frustrated my efforts by dodging behind and under boulders. Visibility became very poor, because of swirling spindrift, which meant that croaking ptarmigan were heard but not seen. No sign of spring here, a previous visit had been more successful with some close sightings of these hardy birds.

 

Down in the valley it is a different picture. The birch woods are full of activity; male bullfinches are magnificent, long-tailed tits flit purposely in parties among the catkins and groups of goldfinches feed on the thistle seed in the rough ground near the wood. Nearer the river, on the neighbouring Kinrara Estate, is a small stand of very old Scot’s pine. These are the specimen trees that cone gathers once collected from to get seeds for nurseries. Maybe someone still does this. These magnificent trees attract small groups of crossbills to feed on the abundant cones. Their rather  fluid “jip-jip” call gives them away as it makes an immediate impact, so stop, look, and the binoculars will show the variety in the flock; red mature cock birds and orange immature males, with the yellowish-brown hens very active on this fine early spring morning. The main distinguishing feature however is the very strong crossed mandible used to prise open pine cones. As you probably know, the Scottish birds are now regarded as a different species, with slightly larger bills, but practically impossible to distinguish in the field.

 

Nearby is an osprey nest site in an old spruce tree near a spot much loved by the Duchess of Gordon who spent a fair bit of time hereabouts in the early nineteenth century when she tired of the social whirl of London parties (the main activity of these being match-making as she had a large family to marry off).Her daughter, the Duchess of Bedford, was also very attached to Speyside and she spent time here with the artist Edwin Landseer. He, and other so-called sportsmen of the day, would shoot ospreys as trophies, and this led to their extinction in Scotland, but they are safe now and the RSPB has played a major role in securing the future of ospreys in the Highlands. The eyrie is silent at this time of year after a very good breeding season in 2006 when we think two chicks were successfully reared. One late summer afternoon we watched five ospreys wheeling about in the clouds above Glen Feshie; I’m not sure if this was one family group or separate young that had come together before flying south to winter in Africa. Do they do this, have a last family get together before the long journey, or do groups of young adults congregate before the migration? No sign of them in late February, not an early spring so far as ospreys are concerned so we will have to wait a while longer for the sound of their high-pitched plaintive call and the fantastic sight of them  as they wheel around their nesting tree.

 

One of the delights, for me, in winter is to have a few trips into the higher forest that climbs up the eastern slopes of the Monadliath Hills. The estate gamekeeper feeds a group of red deer stags that shelter in the forest in bad weather. They look a wee bit tatty at this time of year what with the autumn rut and the cold and wet of winter. One or two had broken antlers damaged during fights in the autumn; the intensity of the rut was witnessed during the BBC Autumn Watch filmed on the island of Rum. Red deer are our largest land mammal and I never cease to be amazed by their beauty and grandeur as they move shyly through the forest. We don’t get too close as they will not tolerate us, remaining suspiciously aloof whilst I shoot away with a long lens. Also we don’t linger very long as we have to respect their peace, so after a short time we leave them to the silence of the winter forest and hill. Time for a rest in one of the estate bothies, high up the valley , a truly remote and inspiring wild place. A few flakes of snow fall giving serenity to the scene, what a contrast with a few months ago when the hills echoed with the roaring of the stags.

 

Early spring or not we are looking forward to our summer visitors as the wintering swans and geese fly north. The seasons turn, the skylarks sing and we keep an eye out for the osprey whilst the higher corries and mountain tops are still covered in winter snow. 

 

Ian Short

Landscape, Nature and Wildlife Photography
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