Friday 28 September 2007

A Hawk Hunting

A Hawk Hunting

The hawk whipped round the side of the house too fast for me to even register its approach. Also too fast for the greenfinch pecking at peanuts in a feeder hung by a wall just outside the kitchen window. The speed of the sparrowhawk’s attack was so great that its momentum carried it on a few feet to crash into the window with a loud crack and a flurry of feathers. Standing maybe eighteen inches away at the sink I flinched at the noise and the sudden blur flashing into my face. Unhurt the young sparrowhawk turned and flew off round the side of the house. Knowing that a favourite perch was on a bird table outside the living room window, where I had photographed it less than half an hour earlier, I moved slowly and quietly into view. The bird was there, gripping a still struggling greenfinch in its talons. After a few minutes the hawk took off, slowly now, and flapped steadily away into the nearby woods. All was quiet. The drama, the violence was over. On top of the bird table a few soft feathers fluttered in the breeze.

The photo shows the sparrowhawk on top of the bird table shortly before the hunt. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF 80-200mm lens @ 180mm, f5.6 @ 1/200, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Capture One Pro.

Monday 24 September 2007

The End of Summer, a grey day on the Cairngorm Plateau

Grey air swept past on a cold wind, damp with thin drizzle. A few remnants of the previous day’s snowfall lingered between cold grey rocks. I put my hand on a patch of the cold whiteness, touching the first sign of winter. Grey mountains stretched away into the grey sky. The clouds only brushed the highest summits though, leaving the Cairngorm Plateau clear with sharp views that had been unusual during the hazy, misty summer. Four of us wandered into stony Coire an t-Sneachda, the cliffs at its head dark and threatening. Five pools lay on the corrie floor, revealing the wetness of the now fading summer. Often by mid-September there is barely one pool left. The steep Goat Track led up the corrie headwall to the plateau and a traverse across the slopes of Coire Domhain to the rushing waters of the Feith Buidhe. We stood on hard, cold granite slabs gazing down to long Loch Avon stretching out between craggy mountainsides, one of the great vistas of the Scottish Highlands. A sheltered corner below boulders provided a scenic lunch spot before we turned to face the wet wind and climbed gently beside the stream to the pool at its source, jackets done up, hats pulled down, gloves on hands, then crossed the bulky shoulder of Cairn Lochan before dropping out of the cold into Coire an Lochan.

The photo shows the view down to Loch Avon. Black and white captures the feel of the day better than colour. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens @ 21mm, f8 @ 1/200, ISO 200, raw file converted to a JPEG and processed in Photoshop Elements 5.

Sunday 16 September 2007

Blog Comments & Interviews: Alladale Revisited and Love In A Tent

Back on August 15 I wrote about plans to turn the Alladale Estate in Northern Scotland into a safari park. Since then the idea has continued to generate comment and there are interesting discussions on the TGO magazine blog and in two entries on Andy Howell's blog (following an editorial by Cameron McNeish in the October 2007 TGO magazine) - here and here. I expect further vigorous discussion in the future.

I have recently been interviewed for another blog, Maple Kiwi's Love In A Tent, about hiking and camping with my partner. Under her non-blogging name Michelle Waitzman Maple Kiwi has written a book called "Sex in a Tent: a wild couple's guide to getting naughty in nature" (Wilderness Press, Oct. 2007) that should be useful reading for any hiking couple (and not just for information on sex!).

The photo shows wild goats in the woods below Seana Bhraigh - not on the Alladale Estate but not far away. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, f8 @ 1/80, ISO 100, raw file converted to a JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.

Thursday 13 September 2007

Misty Days in Glencoe

What a dull summer this has been! The last time there was more than a day or two of sunny weather in the Scottish Highlands was back in April, over four long months ago. Low cloud and rain has been the norm, the hills gloomy and mist-shrouded. Recently I spent a few days in Glencoe, climbing Beinn a'Bheithir, Bidean nam Bian and Buachaille Etive Mor. Damp clouds clung to the ridges and summits and I saw little once I had climbed out of the glens. The hills still felt majestic though, their steep, rocky slopes giving an air of seriousness to the ascents. Despite the plethora of paths navigation can be difficult. Indeed, in places it's the existence of paths that can be the cause of problems. On Buachaille Etive Mor I met a succession of people who had followed a path south from the subsidiary summit of Stob na Doire and found themselves on steep dangerous terrain above waterfalls and crags. All had then sensibly climbed back up and located the correct path, which runs south-west from the summit. Stob na Doire is approached in a southerly direction when traversing the mountain from north-east to south-west, as most people do, and I guess it's easy just to continue on south down the path if you don't check the map. Elsewhere I found the new path in the forest below Sgorr Dhearg on Beinn a'Bheithir a lovely scenic walk compared with the steep muddy horror of the old path, which drops down slimy grooves in dense forest(and down which I once slithered in the dark on a cold winter's night after a wonderful traverse of a snow-covered Beinn a'Bheithir). However finding the start of the new path in descent is quite hard as it fades out in the open corrie above the trees and it would be easy to go down the old route instead. This new path, along with another further east, has been surveyed by Mike Newbury for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and his detailed, illustrated report is worth reading by anyone heading for Beinn a'Bheithir.

The photo shows Coire Gabhail, Bidean nam Bian. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 41mm, f8 @ 1/160, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Capture One Pro.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Pheasants and Feeders

Since the last post I have been watching the young cock pheasants that have taken up residence in the garden. In just a few days their plumage has changed with the sharper, brighter colours of the beautiful adult males starting to come through. The first green is appearing on the neck and head and a few thin tail feathers have emerged on some of the birds. The pheasants prefer to stay on the ground, scratching and pecking for seeds, but they are aware of the feeders and seed trays above them and occasionally one will extend its head upwards, looking at the food, then make an ungainly leap, often falling back down with a feeble fluttering of wings but occasionally managing to get its claws around the edge of the seed tray and hang on. Clearly nervous at being so exposed the bird then pecks madly at the seeds, constantly looking up, before losing its nerve or balance and tumbling to the ground. When disturbed the pheasants skulk, lowering their heads and extending their necks then creeping slowly away through the undergrowth. If really startled they run, snaking through the grass. I have yet to see any of these youngsters fly. Watching them I've found they seem more and more alien and I find harder and harder to imagine what life might be like for them. Beautiful aliens from a different world, even if it is my garden.

Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF 80-200mm lens at 200mm (effectively 320mm), f5.6 @ 1/60, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in Capture One Pro. Hand held.

Sunday 2 September 2007

Pheasants and Stoats, A Garden Drama

Late every summer the fields and woods around my house are alive with young pheasants, released from their rearing pens so they can attempt to become at least semi-wild before being shot. Used to being fed by the gamekeeper they're relatively tame and clearly not sure how to cope in the wild. They often congregate on roads and it can be quite hard not to knock them down. (As an aside I regard this breeding of pheasants in order to release them in the wild and then pretend they are wild birds and shoot them as bizarre and unpleasant). This last week some of these pheasants have taken up residence in our garden, feeding on seeds and scraps that fall from bird tables and feeders (and occasionally trying to fly onto these, usually unsuccessfully due to their size). Not yet in full plumage the young birds looks quite strange with a mixture of soft fluffy feathers and the growing bronze smoothness of the beautiful adult feathers. Many of them have rather bare heads, which look even more reptilian than usual, a hint of their dinosaur ancestry.

I was watching three of these pheasants pecking around below a feeder outside the kitchen when they suddenly froze, lowered their heads and looked away from the house, all of them taking up identical poses, a rather strange sight. Smaller birds vanished and all was quiet, usually a sign of a predator around. Suddenly a stoat erupted from the heathers immediately below the kitchen window and raced away, pursued closely by a second one. Ignoring the pheasants, which were facing in the other direction and never saw them, the two stoats ran round the side of the house and disappeared. The pheasants relaxed and started to move and look less like statues and the first small birds returned to the feeders when, just a few minutes later, a sparrowhawk flashed round the corner of the house and swooped on a coal tit that just escaped, flying off with the hawk just inches behind it. Stoats and sparrowhawk in quick succession - it was an eventful time in the garden and I was glad I'd been watching the pheasants.

The action described took place too quickly for me even to think about grabbing a camera. I later took this picture, through the kitchen window, of a young cock pheasant in the garden. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF 80-200mm lens at 200mm (effectively 320mm), f8 @ 1/250, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG and processed in DxO Optics Pro.