Tuesday, 6 July 2010

On Top of the World in a T-Shirt!

Undeterred and buoyed by the excitement of our time spent in the Monadhliaths, we now turned our attention to the Cairngorm massif, one of the most renowned and majestic of montane landscapes in the British Isles. A rather static looking cloud base had draped itself over the shoulders of Cairn Gorm (4,084 feet) on the day that we chose to walk to the top of Britain’s sixth highest mountain. However, we decided to trust the weather forecast and set off up the initially steep climb from the Ski Centre car park, hopeful that the sun was going to burn through the thin veil of cloud by the time we ventured nearer to the summit. And, as if by (Mull) magic, that’s exactly what did happen, with the last wisps of cloud dissipating in time for a lunch rendezvous that left us, quite literally, on top of the world!

Thousands upon thousands of people appear to want their little bit of the Cairngorms and arrive each year to walk, climb, ski...and birdwatch! This can put a whole lot of unwanted pressure on an already fragile environment, jam-packed with some of the most magnificent scenery in Scotland (outside of the Isle of Mull!) and of enormous importance for nature conservation.

Pink or red granite is the bed rock which has been shaped by monumental natural forces over hundreds of millions of years to form the present day Cairngorm mountains. The extreme climatic conditions that prevail on Cairn Gorm continue to shape the contours of this amazing landscape and influence the unique wildlife that resides there. Thin, poorly developed, acidic soils are common and, consequently, a highly specialised lower plant community of mosses and lichens exists in the Cairngorms. We found rather few plants in flower as we made our way up the mountain, but one that we did encounter was rather special. The Trailing Azalea is a mini-shrub that was festooned with a mass of beautiful pink flowers. Carpeting the gaps between the outcrops of granite boulders, it is well-adapted to the fierce winds and bitingly low temperatures that are often a feature of Cairn Gorm.

Late lying snow is not unusual near the summit of Cairn Gorm in mid-June, although we must have cut rather incongruous figures as we trudged through the snow in our t-shirts. The temperature was in the mid-50’s Fahrenheit and with little or no wind to mention it felt positively balmy at 3,700 feet! As predicted by our friends at the Met Office, the cloud on the tops really was ephemeral in nature and, by the time we had the weather station and summit cairn in our sights, it was sunshine and blue skies all the way.

We call the Ptarmigan Mull’s mythical white grouse, as the island appears to have little more than a relic population of this peculiar bird of the high tops and, try as we have, we never ever see them! With a British population of around 10,000 pairs they are not uncommon, it’s just that their choice of montane habitat rather restricts the opportunities that most birdwatchers have of seeing them on a regular basis. We didn’t think that a walk up the tourist track to the top of Cairn Gorm offered us the best chance to get to grips with this fabled bird, yet how wrong we were to be proved!

Close to the summit and even closer to the path, we saw an unmistakable head and neck sticking up between the cold, grey lichen boulders. Excitement took over and trying to keep our binoculars steady proved difficult, as we revelled in these views of a hen bird, still in what looked like the grey and white plumage of Spring. For the next 20 minutes, if not more, we were treated to the most amazing close-up views of a pair of these magical birds. The delicate grey, black and white plumage could not have been better camouflaged, as the birds fed among the similarly coloured rocks, barely 20 metres ahead of us. All this and we hadn’t even had our lunch yet!

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