Friday 1 March 2013

Snowy Owl

Thanks to a tip off from Adey Baker, I managed to locate the wintering Snowy Owl on the north side of Ben Macdui close to Carn Etchachan on Friday March 1st 2013. After a prolonged search, I stumbled across the bird roosting on some rocks. I was lower down, so it hadn't seen me until I appeared at the same level. The owl was very wary and flew as soon as it spotted me. It did a nice flyby though, as it flew from one side of the valley and then back over again.

It appears to me to be a 1st-winter male.

Snowy Owl

I found it at grid ref: NH9981400311 (NH998003). Link to map

My adventure started in the skiing car park on the north side of Cairngorm. It was beginning to get light and the summit of Cairngorm was just about visible through thin cloud. 

I had made an attempt the day before, but had to abort as the cloud level was too low. I walked up in the dark hoping to beat the cloud. As it began to get light I realised the weather forecast was out by a few hours and the cloud had already arrived.

I was aware that the snow on the footpath was turning to ice, so it was no surprise that crampons were needed almost straight the way and stayed on all day. I chose to walk west in front of the two northern corries and then up the slope between Lurcher’s Crag and Corie an Lochain. This eventually leads to a flat plateau and if the visibility is good it offers great views of Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Angel's Peak. Also for those with a head for heights, the Larig Ghru can be peered down into.

Braeriach on the far side of the Larig Ghru

A pair of confiding Ptarmigan were enjoying the early morning sun, so I paused to photograph them.

Male Ptarmigan

I crossed the '1083 plateau' passing the two obvious cairns and then climbed the steep slope on to the main Cairngorm plateau. From here the route to Ben Macdui was obvious as the summit cairn was clearly visible. My route veered to the south-east away from the normal route to Ben Macdui. After a steep climb across the snow covered slopes the dramatic Loch Avon came into view.

Loch Avon

I entered the grid reference for the last known sighting of the owl into my GPS and headed straight to the location. It looked ideal as there was lots of rocks poking above the snow, but there was no sign of the owl. Scanning around the area revealed quite a few Ptarmigan and I also saw a distant  Mountain Hare making its way between some rocks. 

First I headed up hill to the point where the rocks finished and the snow cover was complete. There  is an obvious valley between the slopes of Carn Etchachan and the high ground above the Garbh Uisge Beag, so I headed down into there. I caught a glimpse of a white shape, which appeared to look interesting. It was a different white to the surrounding snow. I kept low and crept forward. The Snowy Owl was looking away, so I was able to enjoy great views. I also managed to take a few photos before it turned towards me. It immediately took flight and flew towards Carn Etchachan. Luckily it flew back towards me and up the valley; landing in the area it had been seen in previously.

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl

I decided not to disturb it further and I was mindful of the time it would take to follow it up hill, so reluctantly I decided to begin my return journey. I took lunch near Loch Avon whilst admiring the view.

A Great Place to Stop for Lunch

My descent back to the car park was via the Fiacaill Choire Chais, but there was just time to photograph a splendid little Snow Bunting, which was looking for handouts by the large cairn.

Snow Bunting

A word of warning to anyone planning to try and look for it - if you don't own winter mountaineering kit, including an ice axe and crampons, then wait for another one in an easier location. Navigation skills also need to be spot on, as this is not a place to find yourself lost in cloud. I have five weeks of climbing and walking in these mountains during winter under my belt plus many visits at other times of the year.

The Right Choice in Footwear

When the Cloud Descends on Ben Macdui it is Time for Home
It may stay around until the conditions improve, but this is a long walk in wild country at any time of the year. I've been there in May and June when there was snow, but it can still be a mission if the visibility is poor, so please take care.

The weather was fantastic on Friday and there was virtually no wind on the plateau. 

The Final Descent Amongst the Climbers - Alpine or What?

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  1. Wow Carl - stunning, absolutely stunning. Great timing for your trip! Brings back superb memories of the 2 males I saw on Lewis in 2007. Awesome birds. Looking forward to seeing more images from your week.

  2. Cool Carl and well done on the twitch mate!

  3. Great pics and a lovely story/advice to go with it.

  4. Well done mate what agreat twitch puts both your hobbies to great use

  5. Thanks for all the great comments both on here and on Bird Forum. This bird has really helped to raise the profile of my blog - 1300 views of this post alone in three days!

    Thanks also to everyone for sharing this experience with me.


  6. Unique and stunning pictures - what an adventure!