Thursday, 8 July 2010

With Privileged Gaze

We had really caught the Cairngorm bug and a particularly virulent strain it was too! We wanted to make the very most of our week off-island and, with the weather remaining kind to our aspirations, we couldn’t resist another venture on to the slopes of Cairn Gorm. This time, though, we thought to avoid the ‘crowds’ by traversing part of the moss heath plateau between Cairn Gorm and Ben MacDui, a well-known area for nesting Dotterel. Our hopes were high after the success of the previous day, but we never could have imagined topping our experiences of the day before. You know what? We did!

Our idea of trying to avoid the ‘crowds’ was excellent in principle but poor in reality, as we found that other likeminds had thought along the same lines. It so happened that many of these walkers were birdwatchers, who were on the mountain for the same reason as ourselves, so we all benefited from each other’s observational skills. The Cairngorm plateau is a large, wide expanse and can take a bit of searching. It can also absorb a lot of people, although, unlike our days on Creag Meagaidh, we never quite had the feeling that we had the place to ourselves!

Our intention was to follow the path towards Lurcher’s Gully and to roam the tundra-like environs overlooking the Lairig Ghru, before skirting the imposing cliff edge of Cairn Lochan and heading back to the summit of Cairn Gorm (then that promised ride down on the funicular!) It had the making of a long, yet, hopefully, profitable day to remember. The weather is capricious, to say the least, in the mountains, even in June and, despite it remaining dry and sunny, the wind had picked up and was blowing from a very chilly, northerly direction. Unlike the day before, we weren’t going to get away with wearing t-shirts for long!

Stopping every so often to scan the boulders and moss heath for potential sightings of Ptarmigan and Dotterel, we had drawn a blank and were contemplating huddling behind a small cairn to find some shelter from the cold wind, in order to have lunch. Then, as if out of nowhere, there it was, a male Dotterel! On seeing us, had it slipped off its nest unnoticed? We edged closer and closer, until we were at a discreet enough distance to view the bird well without disturbing it. Only then did we realise that this bird was tending three chicks, sufficiently small to have only recently hatched. It was difficult to curtail our excitement, but we did, and spent some fifteen minutes watching in wonder at a safe distance and with a privileged gaze.

It wasn’t that long ago that the British population of these role reversal (the dowdier-plumaged male undertakes the incubation duties and the caring for the young) mountain plovers was thought to be only 100 pairs. Recent studies have shown this figure to be nearer to 900 pairs in some years, but there can be considerable movement between breeding hills in Scotland and...Norway! Birds that have failed in their initial attempt to breed on Scottish mountains have been known to lay a replacement clutch in nests, not on an adjacent hill in Scotland, but across the North Sea in the Norwegian mountains.

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