The old bird table in the back garden sat next to an equally old tangle of honeysuckle with an overgrown field, weeds flattened by winter, and impenetrable holly trees beyond. The tall limes stood to the north and hence did not cast their shade on the sunny, small house sheltered from the road by a thick beech hedge. Clearly no others in the neighbourhood fed the birds; four and twenty blackbirds, as well as a dozen chaffinch and half a dozen each of robin, house and tree sparrows went for the suet and bread. Great, blue, coal and occasional long-tailed tits, goldfinch and siskin vied for seeds and peanuts in the wind chime of plastic and metal feeders.
Robin on honeysuckle.
A pair of crows sortied over when the coast was clear as did the odd starling. A couple of dunnocks were ever quiet and ever present on the ground. In the early dawn frost, the pie of blackbirds strutted the patio demanding to be fed. For the ten minutes after the arrival of the requested provisions it was like a school canteen at lunchtime, with some respectfully queuing on bush and post but the majority barging loudly and excitedly to the front. The goldfinches and siskins, like handsome but squabbling actors chasing the lead role, hissed and bared their wings at one another to maintain their claim on a feeder.
Carrion crow on the run.
Strathpeffer lies in a sheltered valley half way between mountain and sea and enjoys the sun and shelter of the east coast. We walked the wee dog round Loch Kinellan just above the town. I remembered with a shiver that the wind here blew from the west and funnelled through the valley making the walk more endurance than enjoyment, but this morning the sun shone, the wind whispered and the water on the Loch lay flat. The goldeneyes enjoyed the peace but eased across the water as we neared. We heard a mistle thrush singing its plaintive song from a distant, bare ash tree. It is the loveliest sound of the early Spring, sad yet strong. Bright yellowhammers, dunnocks and robins joined in but with lesser resonance as we completed the round.
Loch Kinellan above Strathpeffer.
The weather turned and the wind picked up; undaunted, we headed south to the Spey and the dark pines of Loch Garten. Here at the RSPB reserve there are bird feeders that attract crested tits. A common bird across Europe but only found in the highland forests here in Britain. Ridiculous long lenses trained on a blizzard of tiny coal tits but one or two larger cresties turned out too. It was stupid fun to photograph them and the birds were tame and obliging. A picture of birds on the feeder lacked any sort of appeal, so the trick was to photograph them on nearby branches as they waited their chance or to lace a stump and capture a natural pose. Art and artifice.
Crested and coal tits.
A brief look over the windy Loch and the pines looked dark, dead and black without the sun. Back up the A9 but we diverted at Slochd to ‘eagle alley’ on minor roads laced with snow and ice but still passable and wound up onto wild moors. Here red grouse defied the cold and strutted without a care in their russet finery. The snow blew across the valley and a pair of ravens danced up and idled, ever watchful, in the strong wind There were some tall pines in the valley that may have held their nest. No eagles though but no disappointment either.
Red grouse at Eagle Alley
The next day and to Dornoch with its warm cafes and stout cathedral.
Down to the endless beach between wide dune and shallow sea; the dog ran a mile and we followed watching a tiny plane spin in the sky before landing low just over the marram in front of us. A flock of bar-tailed godwit were not disturbed by either menace and sat in a line at the water’s edge. The sky changed as dark rain-filled clouds ran over and the light was briefly brilliant on water, sand and cloud-laden Sutherland mountain.
Beach edge bar-tailed godwit.
Up through the distinguished links with a few handicaps at play; the adjacent holiday houses were fine sandstone and fresh painted white windows, set in spacious gravel. Onto little Embo harbour and dull long-tailed ducks and eider bobbed in the choppy waters waiting for their Spring finery. No otters today, just other dogs and lines of green holiday caravans parked too close together and empty. As dusk drew, we skirted Loch Fleet where common seals lay black bent on the distant sandbanks and heron and curlew hunted the rocky seaweed shore.
Common seals safely idling in the middle of Loch Fleet.
We headed out before dawn the next day south to Creag Meagaidh to find the black grouse at lek, but the winding journey from the A9 through Kingussie and Newtonmore, arch rivals in everything, and then on past Loch Laggan was long and we were running late. We arrived with the sun bursting over the mountains white with snow and full of precious ice in the corries. The car park was half full and a few tents were pitched; the hardy occupants had already set off to climb.
Views of Creag Meagaidh in the morning sun.
As we walked fast uphill three, or was it four, black grouse sped off the slope to the sanctuary of the birch woods in the valley. Three birds remained for a while in the brightening light and through the wavering scope we saw them fight claw to claw and parade for ten minutes or so before they too jetted down the hill no doubt to prepare, like boxers in training, for the following morning’s challenge.
Black grouse departing the lek at Creag Meagaidh.