Monday, 31 December 2012

Golden Velvet

I took myself over to Swithland Res. yesterday in the hope of photographing the two long-staying female Velvet Scoters. The light was a problem for much of the time as the sun was full in my face from the dam.

Whilst waiting for the scoters to come close enough an obliging male Goldeneye posed nicely.

Drake Goldeneye

Got Any Gull

Gulls are a no go area for most law abiding birders - I have tried really hard to resist the temptation honest. As a young impressionable youth I knew no better and was lured into participating in the occasional gull roost. Luckily I managed to ween myself of it.

This nasty habit resurfaced when I heard whispers of a new gull species. It was supposedly a gull for hardened watchers not one for the occasional observer. Information was scant at the time, but I did manage to do a few Caspians. I quickly realised that this would lead to a decent towards the dark side.

After that I restricted myself to easier stuff like Ivory, Laughing and Mediterranean's. Disaster happened though when the lure of a Kumlien's was just too much - I just had to try it. Luckily it wasn't addictive and once again I got myself cleaned up and away from all that rubbish.

I was obviously at a low point in January this year as I found myself lured back to the landfill site. I hoped that even after finding an Iceland Gull that I could still be saved. However, a visit to the seedier side of Peterhead in Scotland saw my ruination.
Got Any Gull?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Boxing Clever Under the Bush

I hope everyone had a good Christmas Day.

A report of more Waxwings in town on Boxing Day had me out of the door and on the streets early. Unfortunately there was no sign of them, so I decided to check out the berry bush by the Elmesthorpe Village Hall again. I was in luck, as a flock of 27 were basking in the sun in one of the taller trees. 

This group was intent on eating the berries that had fallen on the floor under the berry tree. It was good to be offered a different pose to go at, as I can't really improve much on the photos of them against beautiful blue skies. 

Will they still be around in the New Year?

Click Here for Related Posts

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Bully Boy Thrush

I've hoped to see Waxwings at the Elmesthorpe Village Hall for many years, as there is always a good crop of berries on one of the small trees in the car park. This year is no exception and on Friday I spotted a Mistle Thrush feeding on the berries. I made a mental note that he might prove to be trouble if any Waxwings did find the berries. Well this afternoon I decided to have another look and low and behold there were some Waxwings on the berries but, you guessed it, the nasty thrush swooped down and chased them off.

They gave up trying to feed on the berries in the car park, instead they found some more behind the hall. It's amazing how one Mistle Thrush can create so much terror, especially as the flock eventually numbered 34 individuals.

The photographic opportunities were not as good as at Stoney Stanton, but I did manage to get a few records shots.


The Waxwings appear to have lost the battle with the Mistle Thrush, as I haven't seen them since last Sunday despite looking. The berries are still there, so maybe they'll come back.


Related Posts:

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Caspian Gulls

I offer no apologies for posting yet more Caspian Gull pictures, as the only way to really get to grips with this difficult species is to keep looking and learning. It is fascinating to compare the interest my Waxwing posts created in comparison to the ones about gulls. For some reason most of you appear to prefer pretty pictures of Waxwings?

The number of gulls visiting Shawell A5 Lagoons is on the increase. There was well over a thousand gulls at lunchtime today. An adult Caspian Gull put in a brief appearance, but didn't stay long. Resuming my search, I immediately came across another Caspian Gull - this one was a real classic individual. I identified it as a 3rd-winter due to the size of the dark mark on its bill; the lack of white tips on most of the primary feathers; the faint streaking on the  neck and the longest primary feathers (P10) showed just small white mirrors . All the standard features were there and this bird looked really sleek and had a very small head in comparison to its body. Almost all of the images I have taken of Caspian Gulls on water show they hold their heads high on an upward stretched neck. Other gull species obviously lift their heads up, but not as often as Caspians appear to. The adult re-appeared later, but photography was difficult as the light was too bright.

3rd-winter Caspian Gull
3rd-winter Caspian Gull

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Waxwing Update

The Waxwings are still in Stoney Stanton today and the number has risen to 25.

I found 17 more this morning in Hinckley by the McDonalds on the Northern Perimeter Road. They were feeding on exactly the same type and colour of berry that the Stoney Stanton birds are feeding on. Basically I was passing and I remembered a berry bush that had looked promising in the past, so I took a look on the off chance and bingo there they were.

I have got my eye on a few more locations, so hopefully more flocks will turn up locally.

The local Blackbirds have been posing well at times on the berry trees, so I thought I should show one of them off to you. Anyway this male deserves to get a bit of attention as he is really smart.

Monday, 3 December 2012

More Waxwings

I couldn't resist adding a few more images of these stunning birds - enjoy!

Nineteen were there today.

Sunday, 2 December 2012


I managed to join the Waxwing party today, as 12 Waxwings were still present in Stoney Stanton by the school on Station Road. It was made even better as the sun was out and the skies were perfect.

A Great Day - Two Caspians Gulls and a Famous Victory

I had had a productive morning but the cold weather and the lack of birds encouraged me to head home early. I was also keen to see how England would get on against the mighty All Blacks. I had argued with a South African friend during the week that England were making progress, however, that just got me a cocky smile. The New Zealanders obviously weren't in agreement with him, as they had already made their excuses mid-week - a virus was it?

Anyway England stuffed them! 

I guess time will tell whether this is the start of something great, but for now:

England 38 New Zealand 21 - get in there!

I couldn't find a home grown version of the highlights, so this one is the selected highlights that the New Zealanders are more comfortable with. Funny how it doesn't show the England players reacting to the final whistle.

Try this one:

Earlier in the day I was at my usual Saturday morning hang out - Shawell A5 Lagoons. The day started well with a colour ringed Herring Gull, T:090, which had been ringed in Aberdeenshire during 2010. It had also been seen at Shawell back in January of this year by Neil Hagley. Also two more colour ringed Lesser Black-backed Gulls put in an appearance. I had seen JL67, a Norwegian ringed bird in March this year, but the other one, DXJ, was new and was a Gloucestershire ringed bird.

Monday, 19 November 2012

More From Shawell

I made another visit to the Shawell A5 Lagoons at the weekend, which proved very fruitful. I read the codes on six colour ringed birds, including a Lesser Black-backed Gull ringed in southern Spain and another in Norway. I also read the ring on an adult Herring Gull, which was good as Lesser Black-backed Gulls account for far more ringed gull species at the site. This one had been ringed in Gloucester, so not quite so exotic as the other two birds. I have now read 65 different colour rings so far this year at the site.

Herring Gull (BYS)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Svalbard Part Two

The first entry on my blog was a trip report from Svalbard during July 2011 and this has proved to be my most popular topic so far. I have recently been spending time going through lots of photographs and have added many new ones to my Svalbard collection. I have chosen a few that you will hopefully enjoy and pasted them below:

Radio- tagged Polar Bear

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Iceland Gulls

I've just had another look through some photos I took last February and I had missed editing a few good images of some Iceland Gulls. As a result I thought I give anyone interested in gulls a treat. Apologies for scaring the rest of you off. The photos were taken at Peterhead Harbour, Scotland.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Gull From Atlantis?

On September 29th I saw and photographed an interesting gull at Shawell A5 lagoons. I immediately became interested due to the extensive streaking on it's head. This was far more extensive than on any of the 60+ Yellow-legged Gulls (Larus michahellis) that  I've seen this autumn at the site. The mantle colour was also interesting as it appeared quite dark. You can get an idea of the mantle colour from the photo below, which gives a good comparison with Lesser Black-backed Gull. Could this bird be an Azorian Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis antlantis)? 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Clues in the Name

Azorean 'type' Yellow-legged Gull
I finished work early so that I could get to Rutland Water in time to have a chance of seeing the Azorean Yellow-legged Gull that had been visiting Lagoon 4. Matthew Berriman picked it up around tea-time and helped everyone to find it. It was very distinctive and easy to locate even at a great distance.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Short-eared Owl at Shawell

I was off getting my gull fix this afternoon at Shawell A5 Lagoons and I was most surprised to see a short-eared Owl. Looking up from my scope I saw three birds over the lake and they weren't gulls.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Reindeer for Lunch Anyone

A family walk into the Cairngorms ended up with a surprise guest for lunch. As we settled down on a rock to enjoy our sandwiches we spotted a group of Reindeer higher up on the mountainside. It wasn't long before they started towards us and much to our surprise they were soon all around us. 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

John O' Groats

We decided to tick off John O' Groats during our recent holiday, which was a long drive from Aviemore. There isn't really that much there, but a winter-plumaged Guillemot in the small harbour kept me entertained for a while.


Highland Wildlife Park

Photos of captive animals from the Highland Wildlife Park:
Amur Tiger

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Snow in September

Yes it's true, we did enjoy a bit of un-seasonal snow in Scotland during September.

During our two week stay in Aviemore we experienced snow during quite a few walks, although admittedly only on the higher peaks. On one particular day I decided to spice things up with some steep climbs. Sam and I set off to climb Pinnacle Gully via the Goat Path and Coire Domhain. The Goat Path climbs up the back wall of Coire an t-Sneachda and as the name implies, it requires four points of contact at times - It also gets your blood pumping. 

Sam just After Climbing up the Goat Path

One I'd Saved For Later

The reason the blog has been a bit quiet of late is that I've recently had a couple of weeks in Scotland.

Over the years I have walked and climbed up to the top of most of the mountains that make up the Cairngorms, but one I hadn't was Beinn Mheadhoin (pronounced Ben Vane - don't ask me why). It always seemed too far due to the obvious obstruction of Loch Avon. Approaching from the north you have to climb up onto the Cairngorm plateau and then descend to the shores of Loch Avon before climbing back up the other side.

Beinn Mheadhoin from the Cairngorm Plateau

Saturday, 29 September 2012


As a change from gulls, for a few minutes, I headed to Croft Hill this morning hoping to find something good that had over shot the east coast. However, it was fairly quiet with the highlight being a Redstart, which was almost certainly the same bird that Dave Taylor found on Thursday.

Redstart, Croft Hill
In addition to the Redstart, there were a few Blackcaps and a Nuthatch (uncommon winter visitor to the hill) skulking about in the trees and hedges. Overhead there was a light passage of migrants including Meadow Pipits, Song Thrushes and a few Siskins plus I watched a Peregrine hunting in the distance. 

It was a splendid autumn morning with clear blue skies first thing. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

A Long Way From Home

I know that gulls are not everyone's cup of tea, but yesterday I managed to read the ring of one at Shawell A5 lagoons, Leicestershire and I was not expecting it to be quite as exciting as it turned out to be.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

More Caspian Gulls

I have been continuing my education at Shawell A5 Lagoons and I have found two more Caspian Gulls - both adults. The individual today was very helpful, as it did a nice fly past. The wings were very long and underneath they were really white apart from the classic black primary pattern. Compared to Yellow-legged Gulls there is much less black in the primaries. In flight the black appeared more like a black band across the wings on the underside.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Leicestershire & Rutland Annual Bird Report

After almost a year in production,  I can now announce that the LROS 2010 Annual Bird Report will be ready in time for the Birdfair at Rutland Water. Any LROS members visiting the show will be able to collect their copy from the LROS stand (marquee 2/stand 32). I do hope you enjoy reading it! 

I would like to thank Ben Croxtall, Roger Davis, Jim Graham, Steve Lister, Andy Mackay and Mark Skevington for all the help they have given me. Also thanks to everyone else who contributed.

I hope you like the photo of the Little Owl by Paul Riddle, which I selected for the front cover - cheers Paul.

Carl Baggott, Editor.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Caspian Gull

On Wednesday (08/08/12) I stopped off for 1/2 hour at Shawell on my way to Northampton. Initially there were few gulls on the lagoon, but then they began to arrive from the nearby landfill site. Amongst the newcomers was a 1st-summer (2CY) Yellow-legged Gull and an adult, plus a 3rd-summer / 4th winter Caspian Gull. This bird exhibited a classic range of features, which can be seen in the photo below - small headed with a gently sloping forehead; dark forward set  eyes; a long slim dull yellow bill with dark markings on both mandibles; faint 'pencil' markings on the back of the neck and it was distinctly long bodied and long winged despite it having one of its longest primary feathers missing.

Caspian Gull

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Here We Gull Again

Over the last couple of weekends I have further immersed myself into the dark arts of gull identification. To do this I have diced with death along the narrow verge of the A5 road and entered the leafy lair that overlooks the Shawell A5 Lagoons.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Escape to Norfolk - Day Two - The Revenge of the Horse Fly

I woke early on the second day of my Norfolk adventure, as I was looking forward to another good days birding. After a quick all day breakfast, out of a tin, I set off towards the RSPB reserve at Titchwell. Arriving early I missed the initial appearance of the 'dudes', but I new they'd be there at some point.

Bag's New Tent
The cloud had rolled in off the North Sea again, but there was little in the way of wind, so a few Bearded Tits had their heads up above the reeds. The 'Fresh Marsh' was alive with passage waders. The highlights being a single adult  Curlew Sandpiper, 15 Spotted Redshanks and half a dozen summer plumage Knot. As well as the waders there was five Spoonbills and four Little Gulls.

Moving on from there I decided to head up to the beach and on the way I came across three more Spoonbills on the Saline Lagoon by the beach. Whilst I was photographing the Spoonbills, I was practically eaten alive by Horse Flies (Cleggs). As I was wearing shorts they homed in on the back of my knees where they wreaked havoc. As always the insect repellent was back in my car!

The only thing apart from Herring Gulls on the sea was a solitary Common Eider, but Sandwich Terns were fishing offshore as were a few Little Terns. On the beach there were quite a few moulting adult Sanderlings along with good numbers of Bar-tailed Godwit.

Titchwell Beach Looking Towards Brancaster
I adopted the policy of waiting by the shoreline for the Sanderling to come to me, which was reasonably successful. However, they broke into a sprint when they got to the closest point.

On the way back from the beach 'a bit of nature in action' was going on. A tiny Avocet chick had gone on its own adventure over one of the overgrown banks separating two of the lagoons. It parents called constantly for it to return, but to the chick that would have seemed like crossing from one side to the other of a great forest. People wanted to rescue it, but I assured them that they would be reunited eventually. And so it was a that the tiny chick managed to cross the impenetrable forest and find its sibling on the other side.

Avocet Chicks

By the time I returned to the hides overlooking the 'Fresh Marsh' the sun was high in the sky and the clouds had disappeared. The hides were now full of birders and the noise level was some what higher than it should have been. I think people forget that birds have ears. The skill level was quite low amongst the gathering as a number of times I was alerted to the presence of a mis-identified bird. It is always difficult to decide whether to tactfully explain their error or just agree for a quite life? 

Later in the afternoon people began to leave and as if by magic the birds started to come in closer. Several Ruff and three Spotted Redshanks performed in front of the hide along with a Little Egret.

Little Egret

Spotted Redshank

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Escape to Norfolk - Day One

I had planned to go to the Cairngorms for a week in July. The idea was to live rough in the mountains whilst photographing juvenile Dotterel, as they gather into flocks before migrating. However, that plan was wrecked by the weather etc. 

Instead I settled for a couple of days in Norfolk. I had purchased a new lightweight backpacking tent for the  trip to Scotland, but instead of a night high in the mountains it was sea level at Burnham Deeping instead. Hopefully it will get more use later in the year, as my son and I intend to do another epic backpacking adventure.

Anyway, I decided to go to Great Yarmouth for Mediterranean Gulls first. On arrival the town was deserted apart from the scavengers clearing up the mess from the night before. Large gulls were gathered around most of the rubbish bins along the promenade. On the beach, between the pier and the Sealife centre, I located nine Med Gulls: eight adults and a 2nd calendar year bird. One of them was colour ringed - a green ring with the inscription AJEH.

Adult Mediterranean Gull
2CY Mediterranean Gull

Unfortunately the Med Gulls didn't have much of an appetite, as they ignored the bread I threw for them. Maybe they can read and decided that the Asda Smart Price loaf was too cheap for their Mediterranean taste.

Moving on I made my way slowly along the coast road heading towards Cley Next The Sea. I decided to check out if anything was on the sea at Weybourne and the first bird I saw was a Little Gull. The car park was pay and display, so I rushed over to the machine and fed it with the relevant change to get my ticket. Luckily the bird was still there just out from the surf. Though the light was poor due to a bank of grotty weather that was clinging to the coast, I still managed to get some quite acceptable photos. The gull was finding plenty of tiny fish to feed on.

Little Gull

The final stop before Cley was Kelling Quags, but to be honest this site did not live up to my expectations. A pair of Reed Warblers feeding their energetic family kept me entertained for a while.

The first thing I did on arrival at Cley Marshes was to walk along the East Bank. Over the marshes I counted five Marsh Harriers including immatures. On Arnold's Marsh there was a good gathering of waders including many Black-tailed Godwits and at least two Spottted Redshanks. However it was a showy Little Egret that took my attention.

 Little Egret

The car park at the reserve was almost full, though most of the visitors seemed to be in the visitor centre drinking tea. Cley was popular back in the late 1970's when I first visited, but back then the only tea on offer was poured from a flask. My first visit produced many lifers, but I had to be content with just enjoying seeing some of the birds I first saw when I was a school boy on this day.

Amongst the large group of adult Dunlins were a few juveniles and also a single adult Curlew Sandpiper. Other waders seen included Greenshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff. There was also a juvenile Mediterranean Gull on Pat's Pool plus an adult Yellow-legged Gull.

 Eventually I had to leave Cley, as I had to find the campsite at Burnham Deeping. On the way I noticed a Marsh Harrier close to road, so as there was a safe parking spot I decided to stop. At least five Marsh Harriers were present in the rough field and some of them were wing-tagged.

Heavily Cropped Image of the Wing-tagged Marsh Harriers

I easily located the campsite at Burnham Deeping and it took me less than ten minutes to pitch my tent for the first time (luckily everything was in the tent bag) and even less time to fall asleep.

Monday, 16 July 2012


I decided to abandon the Little Owls in favour of gulls this weekend. Yes, I swapped one  difficult test for another. Gulls are not easy, but the challenge can become all consuming. I'm keen to get to grips with young Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls (Larus michahellis and Larus cachinnans) this autumn, so now is a good time to start. The gulls from further south fledge earlier than the more northerly nesting species and begin to disperse earlier as a result. Shawell in Leicestershire is the nearest gull watching location for me, so I set off for the Shawell A5 Lagoons at around lunchtime on Saturday.

There was a reasonable gathering of gulls at the site when I arrived and their numbers increased, as more came from the nearby landfill site. I quickly located three Yellow-legged Gulls amongst the more numerous Lesser Black-backed Gulls - an adult and two 2nd-summers. The adult was a great bruiser of a bird, often acting aggressively towards its near neighbours. One of the two 2nd-summers had a very long bill, but it thickened at the tip and it had a noticeable Gonys angle.

The light varied quite a bit on Saturday. At times the birds were bleached by bright sunlight and at other times they darkened when the sun went behind the clouds. The mantle colour of the different gull species was most accurately determined when the light was duller. Yellow-legged Gulls have a distinct mantle colour when seen in flat light - it has a more blueish cast to it compared to Herring Gull. 

Dave Gray arrived about half an hour after me, which surprised me as I expected to be on my own this early in the gull watching season.

In addition to the birds mentioned above, Dave and I saw a good candidate for a 1st-summer Yellow-legged Gull. It was a large bird with a large bulbous tipped black bill. It was pale headed with a dark smudge around the eyes. The head shape looked good for this species  being quite rounded. The mantle and scapulars were mainly a bluey grey though some older thick dark anchor marked feathers were visible amongst the newer grey ones. The coverts were buffy and seemed to have more of a chequered pattern than the LBB Gulls of a similar age. The wing projection was shorter than the LBB Gulls and the general profile differed.
1st-summer Yellow-legged Gull
Comparison With Similar Aged LBB Gull
Your comments are welcomed, as I still have a great deal to learn about immature Yellow-legged Gulls.

I also managed to read colour rings on two adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls. One of them was quite interesting, as it appears that it spends its summer in Norway and winters in Spain (Black ring J7AC).

Gull colour ringing in Norway
Last CR-Code Black ring with white code: J7AC LBNW(J7AC);RBM
Ringing Centre Stavanger Museum (Norway) Ring number 4225817
Species Lesser Black-backed Gull (intermedius)  Larus fuscus intermedius  


06.07 2009   
Østre Klovholmen, Mandal, Vest-Agder, Norway
58°00'57"N 007°19'54"E

05.09 2009   
Playa La Salvé, Laredo, Santander, Spain
43°24'58"N 003°26'06"W

10.09 2009   
Ría de Villaviciosa, Asturias (Oviedo), Spain
43°31'17"N 005°23'40"W

14.07 2012  
Shawell A5 Lagoons, Leicester & Rutland, Great Britain
52°24'50"N 001°12'52"W

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Enough is Enough

I'm about to engage in the popular British pastime of moaning, although before anyone says anything I do realise that worse things are happening to people in the world.

Firstly we are all sick of the weather in Britain. This bloody jet stream has a lot to answer for, I honestly can't remember when we last had a decent summer. It's constant traffic from the Atlantic - one low pressure system after another. I have already stated previously that the wet weather is having a devastating effect on our insect populations. I used to enjoy photographing butterflies and dragonflies in summer. I came across a blog from a gentleman in America who gave out some tips on photographing insects, however, I didn't see amongst his tips that it is unwise to live in Britain. It is shaping up to be one of the wettest April - July periods ever. Though 1782 was the wettest on record apparently, so nothings new then. It does seem likely, however, that 2012 will take over at the top of the wet list.

My second moan is about pesky Little Owls: can I get one to come to the perch I'm sat in front of? NO! I have been putting in a load of hours sitting in my hide, or in my camouflaged car, but all to no avail. Last Saturday I was in my hide for 12 hours, yes that's 12 hours for one brief fly past. On Sunday I put in the time and I actually saw one of the owls land on the floor close by, but it didn't hang about. All week I have been going out in the early morning and again in the evenings, but the lazy little so and so's are hiding somewhere. Last night I nearly lost the plot. I blanked out all my car windows including the windscreen without getting out of my car, but as I was sorting my viewing window a car pulled up on the private road in front of me. The owner mouthed something that I couldn't here so I tried to ignore him, but he got out his car and walked over and started a conversation. He asked me where he was and added "am I near Cossington"? I laughed and told him he was the wrong side of Leicester. I tried to explain what I was doing, but he had to go and fetch his map. I'm not an unreasonable chap, but he was trying my patience. In the end I had to get out of my car and give him directions. Amazingly I did not get to photograph a Little Owl on a post that night. I was back there at 05:00 this morning, but the owls must have been dozing somewhere else. I did see one of the juveniles, but distantly. My staying power is being seriously tested on this project, so much so that it might be time to back off and re-think.

It has become so bad that I'm thinking of going back to the gulls, as weather doesn't put them off and they are easily attracted to where you want them with a loaf of bread.

Anyway back to the weather. I have been given a pass out to go off to Scotland for a week to continue my project in the Cairngorms. Well I plan to sleep out in the mountains in my new tent, but there is no sign of a day let alone a week when the tops are not going to be enveloped in cloud according to the mountain weather forecasts. I'll miss this opportunity if the weather doesn't alter for the better in the next few weeks - It's a hard life.

Of course it isn't all doom and gloom, as I was lucky enough to be watching three young Peregrine Falcons today close to home and there was a bit of sunshine also for a while.

I've put a few images from sunnier times below:

Common Blue Damselfly, Charnwood, Leicestershire
Has He Bitten Off More Than He Can Chew?

Four-spotted Chaser, Fosse Meadows, Leicestershire
Four-spotted Chaser

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Update to the South-West Leics Bird List

With a bit of help from Garsham Roberts the list now stands at 193. Garsham pointed out some of his records that I'd missed and in addition we had a fine drake Red-crested Pochard  at Frolesworth Manor Lake yesterday. 

The additions to the list are Smew, Red-breasted Merganser, Turnstone, Little Gull and the Red-crested Pochard.

See the updated list HERE

Below is a photograph taken by Adey Baker. Adey played it cool and waited for the sun to come out whereas I rushed to see it in the poring rain.

Red-crested Pochard, By Adey Baker

Friday, 6 July 2012

Mountain Magic

Due to the weather being absolutely terrible during the last few weeks, I have been stuck at my keyboard finishing off parts of the Leicestershire & Rutland Annual Bird Report for 2010 and other stuff. As well as that I decided to finish writing a short account of one of my epic mountain adventures. I hope you enjoy reading it and I look forward to receiving your comments. The adventure took place in February 2010.

Mountain Magic

The land slopped gently up towards the obvious cleft in the far hillside. The snow yielded to my every step. The only sound disturbing the silence came from my boots as they broke through the snow’s icy crust. My walk began before the sun had risen, but a cold dry day was in prospect judging by the clear skies above.
          The sun was just rising as I reached the Chalamain Gap, though very little light penetrated the chasm. Snow and ice clung to the walls and covered the jumble of rocks that lay at its base. It was eerily quiet and colder in there than on the open hillside.
            Suddenly a Mountain Hare darted from its hiding place. How easily it climbed the steep walls to my left and how wisely it avoided the blue ice cascading over an exposed rocky buttress. Meanwhile a pair of Ptarmigan peered down from above, their white winter plumage camouflaging them against the snow – or so they thought.
            Emerging from the 'Gap' the view was awe inspiring. Ahead the land dropped down steeply into the Larig Ghru (the Larig Ghru is a large pass cutting between the flanks of some of Scotland’s highest peaks) and beyond the mighty flanks of Braeriach were visible and so to were those of Sgor Gaoith towering to the west.
Larig Ghru
              Before heading across the ‘Ghru’ there was the small matter of traversing around the base of Lurcher’s Crag. This was easily done, but care had to be taken not to fall into the pass below. Sound footwork and good use of the ice axe saw me safely down into the narrow pass. Snow had filled the base making it easier to cross and begin my ascent of Sron na Larige.
Sron na Larige with Braeriach just Behind
 At first deciding on the best way to safely ascend was quite difficult. A direct route was the most obvious, but the snow was deep and soft and my every step was a great effort. A layer of cloud appeared above blocking the view. This, however, worked to my advantage. I only needed to worry about making my way up rather than how far it looked.
Eventually the steepness eased off, but ahead was a long up-hill trudge to the distant saddle. The saddle marks the beginning of the main climb up to the summit of Braeriach. Across to the east I could see the massive bulk of Ben Macdui – Scotland’s second highest mountain. The walk to Ben Macdui is often described as Britain’s wildest walk, but in winter the land to the western side of the Larig Ghru must surely be wilder due to its remoteness? Potential navigational difficulties presented by poor weather also add to the seriousness of this adventure. The walk to Braeriach is a 13-mile round trip, so in full winter conditions it should only be attempted during very calm weather.
I arrived at the base of Braeriach a very tired chap indeed. I almost talked myself into turning back, but after taking in some well-deserved calories I carried on. Walking on frozen snow is a delight even when wearing crampons. In contrast walking on or in deep snow saps energy very quickly. As I gained height the snow became progressively more frozen until I was walking on it rather than in it. Below I could see the magnificent Coire Bhrochain.This great corie was created thousands of years ago by the destructive powers of an ancient glacier. That frozen past had returned for a brief time, as everything was hidden beneath a blanket of snow and ice. I could just make out the frozen waterfall that sits below the shallow pools on the plateau opposite. These pools are the source of the River Dee. Cloud began to build below in the corie and occasionally everything below me disappeared from view. Above the mountains, the sky was a wonderful deep blue, which cast a blue tint on the snow.
The final walk to the summit was easy going, though it was important that I didn’t misjudge my steps as the sheer walls of the corie beckoned below. The summit of Braeriach stands at 1296 metres and is Britain’s third highest point. The summit cairn was submerged somewhere in the deep snow, but with the aid of my GPS, I located the highest point. The nearby tops of Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak looked inviting, but I knew that a night in a snow hole, with temperatures as low as -20°C, would have been the reward for that plan. Further to the south the Devil’s Point was just visible and to the south-east I could clearly see Carn a’ Mhaim being dwarfed by Ben Macdui.
Bag on the Summit of Braeriach
A couple of cross-country skiers arrived and had a quick chat with me about how wonderful the day was, as you do. All too soon they showed me how easy descending a mountain can be on skis, but I was left to finish on foot. A blister began to form as I made my way down. At first I ignored it but eventually I decided a bit of first aid was required. I removed my boot, whilst sat in the snow looking down into the Larig Ghru. It was at this point that my feet told me that outside the comfort of my winter clothing it was very cold. I quickly applied a ‘Compeed’ blister plaster (these are the best, don’t bother with cheap brands) and changed my socks. By the time my foot was back in its boot, it was my fingers that were the ones complaining, however, they soon warmed up again once they were back inside my warm winter gloves.
The sun was going down when I arrived at the Chalamain Gap for the second time that day and the temperature was rapidly falling. The Ptarmigan were still staring down at me from up high and once again, out of nowhere, a Mountain Hare broke cover and chose to flee, rather than rely on the camouflage of its winter coat. Clearing the ‘Gap’, I noticed the setting sun had bathed the distant forest in a bright orange glow.
As I made my way back to base camp, I accidentally flushed a pack of Red Grouse. I jumped as the first birds noisily took to the wing. At least fifty eventually scattered this way and that way before alighting on the side of an ancient glacial moraine. Exceptionally some Ptarmigan were with them and they rarely retreat this far down the mountain.
Nightfall was approaching rapidly, but to my right the snow covering the walls of the Northern Corries was flushed in a gorgeous pink radiance. It was beginning to get really cold and my hat was stowed in my rucksack. However, I had no intention of getting it out, as it was just too much effort to go searching for it. By the time I reached the icy slope down to the river and the final leg of my journey, I was forced to search for my hat. I also armed myself with my ice axe and crampons, as the slope was just too icy to negotiate without them. It seemed a little silly to need such drastic equipment considering I was so close to the finish. However, sheet ice covered the slope, so I had made the right choice. I kept the crampons on until I reached the ‘Sugar Bowl’ car park. My trek had taken me 13 hours. Unfortunately, I had averaged just one mile an hour trudging through the deep snow, but nonetheless I had achieved one of my personal ambitions to carry out an epic walk in full winter conditions.
The End of a Perfect Day