Sunday 31 January 2010

Big Garden Bird Watch

It’s always interesting to take part in the Big Garden Bird Watch each year and spend an hour seeing just how many birds are coming to the food we put out. Watching the birds regularly we know that the weather plays a huge part in numbers. The garden is quite exposed, facing south across Strathspey to the Cairngorms. In stormy weather there may be no birds at all. In mild weather there may be few birds. Last year it was cold and dry with a strong wind and no snow on the ground. We counted 19 individual birds from 9 species. For 5 species just 1 bird appeared. That was with two people counting so all the feeders and tables were observed throughout the hour. This year I was by myself. Due to the complete snow cover, the +1ÂșC temperature and the lack of wind I expected many birds, especially as the severe conditions have lasted over six weeks without a break. Counting was difficult at times due to the number of birds and the speed with which they flew in and out but I ended up with a conservative 54 individuals in 10 species. With only 2 species was there just 1 individual. Chaffinches were the most common with 25 seen at one time (probably more but at least that number). Last year there was just one. Other birds seen were 10 coal tits (last year 8), 5 blue tits (last year 2), 3 great tits (last year 2), 3 blackbirds (last year 1), 2 robins (last year 2), 2 great spotted woodpeckers (last year 0), 2 greenfinches (last year 0), 1 dunnock (last year 1) and 1 pheasant (last year 1). The only bird we saw last year that didn’t appear this year was a sparrowhawk, which flew in near the end of the count, ensuring that we saw no more birds.

Photo info: Coal Tits on seed feeder. Canon EOS 450D, 55-250@250mm, 1/400@ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file cropped and converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

The Snow Continues

For forty-seven days the ground has been snow-covered and now the wind has turned to the north, the temperatures have dropped and more snow has fallen. The very slow thaw of the last two weeks has ended with the snow pack much reduced but several inches of complete cover still remained when the snow started again. And another six inches or so has fallen over the last few days with more forecast this week. In the twenty years I have lived here never before has snow stayed so long. This is a real winter. I will be hauling supplied up on a sledge for many days yet. And keeping fit cutting firewood.

Photo info: Rabbit tracks in fresh snow with the Cromdale Hills in the background. Ricoh GR-D, 1/640@ f8, ISO 64, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Monday 25 January 2010

Scottish Mountain Guide - finished!

Six and a half years ago I signed a contract to write a guide to the Scottish mountains for Cicerone Press. Three days ago I posted the manuscript and photographs, work that has taken far, far longer than I envisaged back in 2003. Many weeks and months of research, both in the office and on the hills, eventually produced over 200,000 words and 287 photographs. The packed work, over 800 pages plus several CDs, weighed over 5kg and I carried it down the snowed-in track from my house to my car in a rucksack before driving to the post office and seeing it disappear. Finishing the book, which at times seemed always in the far distance, has left me feeling relieved and elated. Now the books and maps piled up next to my desk can be moved back to their shelves, now I no longer need feel at every spare moment that I ought to be working on the Scottish book. Now I can start work on other books!

Photo info: On Ben Loyal after a spring snow storm. Canon EOS 350D, 18-55@30mm, 1/500@ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Sunday 24 January 2010

The Aftermath of the Snow

The snow has been slowly thawing for over a week now, though the fields are still white and the track to my house is still impassable by car. Bare patches and large chunks of ice mean I can no longer haul up supplies on a sledge so I am using a series of packs I am testing instead. The mass of snow on the trees meant some damage was inevitable and many branches and a few whole trees had already come down before the thaw began. However the slowness of the melt and the refreezing of the wet snowpack on many nights has increased the damage. Instead of a blanket of soft snow the trees have been coated with a thick layer of heavy refrozen icy snow that has snapped branches and smashed smaller trees and shrubs to the ground. In the photograph above those mounds in the foreground are all snow-covered young birches. Many will never recover. The damage caused by rabbits and deer is now apparent too. Some small trees, including rowans and crab apples in our garden, have had two feet of bark completely stripped off. Branches that were weighed down by the snow were gnawed. Now free of their load they look very strange as the bare sections are far higher above the ground than any deer could reach, let alone a rabbit.

The snow was beautiful and made the countryside magical and wild. The aftermath is not so pretty. How the natural world recovers from this will be interesting to watch. And of course there may be more snow yet this winter. A year ago there was no heavy snow until February.

Photo info: Snow covered forest earlier this month. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@33mm, 1/60@ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Friday 15 January 2010

Wildlife & the Snow

As the snow slowly dwindles (it’s still a foot deep in my garden) life should become easier for wild birds and animals, which have had a harsh time over the last month. A flurry of wings has engulfed our bird feeders every day. The main birds in numbers are coal tits, blue tits and great tits. Fewer in quantity but present for most of the day are great spotted woodpeckers, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins and dunnocks. Pheasants are usually lurking below the feeders too. And for a few days a starling joined the throng, an unusual bird here. Absent have been the greenfinches that were regular visitors over the summer and autumn and siskins, which often appear for a week or two and then disappear for months. The severe weather has changed the behaviour of some birds as they become desperate for food. Dunnocks are usually very shy, creeping round on the ground and scurrying away from other birds. Recently they have been flying up to the seed trays and competing for the food. Robins and blackbirds have been learning how to cling onto the mesh of peanut feeders, though neither can hang there very long. We have been putting seeds on mesh trays and on the ground but this disappears very quickly, especially if pheasants are around. Rabbits have discovered the food too and learnt how to reach the feeders, something they can’t do when there isn’t deep snow. They climb on to a mesh seed tray that is barely big enough for them to sit on and when the seeds are gone stand up on to the tray and try and get peanuts out of the mesh feeder above. With one feeder they’ve learnt to rest their paws on the lip of the tray at its base and eat any seeds there, as the picture shows. Some of the rabbits have become quite tame too. When I put out food each day most still race away but a few just hop a few feet from the feeders and watch me. They’ve learnt to expect food too. On a day when I hadn’t put out any fresh food – the feeders were still over half full – a rabbit watched me cutting logs then followed me back to the house where it sat outside the porch door looking at me, patiently waiting. The rabbit won and I went back out and scattered some seed on the mesh tray. It was on its hind legs eating the seed before I was more than a few feet away. Elsewhere in the garden the rabbits have dug burrows in the snow and eaten the bark off trees and shrubs. Whether the plants have survived this we won’t know for a while. Once the snow has gone the rabbits will have to go back to finding other food as they won’t be able to reach the feeders and I won’t be putting food on the ground.

Photo info: Rabbit & bird feeder. Canon EOS 450D, 55-250@100mm, 1/500@ f5 ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Monday 11 January 2010

Backpacking Gear Weight Calculator

One of the many advantages of a computer is having it do tedious work. In pre-computer days I used to make hand written lists of all my gear plus all the weights. Every new item of gear meant a new list. Every trip meant a new list – unless I was taking exactly the same gear. And I had to add up all those weights. Using a spreadsheet a computer does all this for you. But first you have to set up the spreadsheet. For some this may be easy. For those like me with no actual computer training and no desire to learn how to do such things it’s much easier to have someone else do the work. After a few poor attempts at making a spreadsheet to which I could add new items and compile different lists with weights added up I searched around for something better and discovered Chris Ibbeson’s Backpacking Gear Weight Calculator, which did everything I wanted and more. Neat, efficient and a pleasure to use I’ve been using it for several years and recommended it in the last edition of The Backpacker’s Handbook.

Recently Chris contacted me to say that he has just released a new online version of the Gear Weight Calculator. Previous versions were downloads for Windows users. This version should be usable by Mac users as well. The new version also allows users to import items from other people’s lists, if made public, and so see what effect a different tent or pack or other item has on the overall weight. There’s also a blog, a forum and an online photo gallery. This looks to be a really useful site.

Photo info: Camping by Lochan Fada in the Northern Highlands. Canon EOS 350D, 18-55@18mm, 1/250@ f8, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Thursday 7 January 2010

New TGO - winter backpacking & cartridge stoves

The February issue of TGO is just out. My backpacking column is very appropriate at present as it’s about winter hiking and camping. In gear I’ve reviewed ten cartridge stoves, looking at how heat exchanger models compare with standard ones. Elsewhere John Manning reviews gloves, also apposite in this cold weather. (It’s -2 outside at present, with two feet of snow on the ground. I was outside earlier cutting firewood wearing an old pair of Extremities Guide Gloves, made from Windstopper fleece with a leather palm and fingers, as these are excellent for handling the saw and axe). And Eddy Meecham looks at insulating mats and why they aren’t always as warm as the R-values suggest, which is also useful information for snow camping. Other features in this TGO include an ascent of the high points in each country of Europe, dawn in the Arran mountains, Helvellyn in winter, the Welsh 3,000s, Jim Perrin on stravaiging (one of his best recent pieces), a profile of Outward Bound, and Paddy Dillon on the changing face of the Pennine Way.

Photo info: A winter camp in the Glen Affric hills. Canon EOS 350D, 18-55@41mm, 1/640@ f8, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Industrialisation of the Scottish Highlands to go ahead

The Scottish Government has given the go ahead for the line of giant pylons through the Scottish Highlands from Beauly to Denny. These pylons – ranging from 42 to 65 metres high – will run through the western side of the Cairngorms National Park and other areas of landscape beauty and importance and be visible from many mountains. Whilst this act of vandalism was expected it is still a big disappointment as it means the despoliation of the Highlands and the start of a period of mass industrialisation as the line only makes sense if many wind turbines are built in the wilds. This evil scheme means the Highlands will never be as wild or beautiful as they are now. The Scottish government should be ashamed of this attack on their own land as should the former environmentalists such as Friends of the Earth and the Green Party who have welcomed this destruction, showing that they are now the allies of big business and industry and enemies of nature and conservation. It is a sad day for Scotland.

Photo info: the current power line near the Great Glen.

Saturday 2 January 2010

A Decade of Backpacking Gear

As a gear tester for TGO magazine I try a wide range of outdoor gear every year. Over a decade this adds up to a vast amount of stuff. Out of the hundreds of items tried each year there are usually a few I really like and continue using after the test is over. Here are those items that impressed me, year by year, during the 2000s.

Pre-2000. A mention here for my favourite tent, which I’ve been using since it appeared in the early 1990s, the Hilleberg Akto, and my favourite Tilley Hat, from back in the days when there was only model.


Paramo Aspira smock. This has become a favourite for cold weather, especially when ski touring.

Jack Wolfskin Gecko microfleece. Used year round this thin lightweight fleece has proved very durable and should last a while yet.

Zojirushi Tuffslim Compact stainless steel flask. Filled with hot Rocks Organic Ginger this light small flask comes on cold weather day hikes and camping trips. It’s a little dented now but still keeps the contents hot.


GoLite Hex 3 tent. I first used this single pole, single-skin shelter on a trip with GoLite in the Uinta mountains in Utah where it stood up to torrential rain and very strong winds. I like it for winter camping in Scotland as there’s so much space, which is welcome on long dark nights.

Grivel G10 crampons. Reasonably light and able to fit lightweight flexible boots these have been used with many different models of boots over the years and are still going strong.

GoLite Coal Polarguard jacket. This is the best synthetic insulation jacket I have used. It’s a great shame it was discontinued many years ago. Mine is probably not as thick as when new but it still keeps me warm in cold, damp weather. I wish someone would make something similar.


Rab Quantum 200 sleeping bag. Very light, very compact, very warm for the weight this is my first choice for temperatures above freezing. It’s been used on hundreds of nights (and cleaned a couple of times) and is in fine condition.

ULA P-2 pack. The first lightweight pack capable of handling 15-20kg I used this pack a great deal until it was replaced by the similar Catalyst.


Smartwool & Icebreaker merino wool clothing. Once I’d tried this I dropped synthetic base layers for backpacking trips. Discovering I could wear the same shirt for two weeks without it stinking was wonderful!

Grivel Air Tech Racing ice axe. Lightweight but made of steel not alloy this is the axe I use if I think I’m likely to actually need it much.

Primus Micron gas stove. My favourite of all the tiny ultralight gas cartridge stoves that appeared in the 2000s. Tough, fuel efficient and simple.


Paramo Cascada trousers. I’d been wearing Paramo salopettes for many years for ski touring and snow camping trips but they always seemed overkill in less wintery conditions. The Cascadas give the same performance in a lighter, simpler garment and are my first choice trousers from autumn to spring.

eVent. The first eVent garment I tried was the Rab Latok and the breathability impressed me. Since then eVent jackets from Rab and Montane have been my choice from May to September, when I find Paramo jackets too warm.

A trio of down jackets. This year I tested down jackets, three of which I have continued using ever since. The Western Mountaineering Flight is very warm and very light. The PHD Minimus isn’t quite as warm but has a hood and is also very light. The Rab Neutrino is heavier but warmer and the one I take for really cold weather.


Shoes were a theme this year as I tested two models that have been my first choices ever since – the Keen Targhee II, which I used in winter and cold, wet weather as it has a waterproof membrane, and the Inov8 Terroc, which I wear the rest of the time and which have become my favourite three season backpacking footwear and been used on three TGO Challenges (the same pair).

Montane Terra trousers. Simple, tough, synthetic trousers that won’t wear out! Ideal for cool to warm weather.


GoLite Pinnacle pack. I’d been using the GoLite Gust for light backpacking loads for a few years but had always found problems with the design. The Pinnacle solved these and is my choice for loads up to around 14kg. It’s been on three TGO Challenges so I must like it!

Pacerpoles. I’d been using trekking poles for a decade without preferring any particular pair when Pacerpoles came along and I was instantly hooked. By far the most comfortable and efficient poles I’ve tried.

Windshirts. I’ve always used windproof as well as waterproof tops and my favourite had been the Buffalo Windshirt but mine wore out and the new version lacked a hood. Testing a batch this year two stood out and have been used regularly ever since – the Paramo Fuera Smock for colder weather and the lighter, thinner Montane Lite-Speed.


This was a year of new, impressive stoves. The Coleman Fyrestorm was the first stove designed to be used with an inverted cartridge for efficiency in sub zero weather. I’ve used it every winter since and it really does work well. The Primus EtaPower was the first heat exchanger stove that really impressed me – it’s too big for one but has been used for melting snow for groups on igloo trips and is my first choice for group cooking. Then there’s the Caldera Cone, a simple yet ingenious idea that provides an efficient windscreen and pot support for a meths burner whilst remaining ultralight.

Rab Phantom Grip gloves. Simple fleece gloves may not seem something to be enthusiastic about but these are the only ones I’ve had that are comfortable, quick drying, durable and wind resistant without being sweaty.


Therm-A-Rest Neo Air mattress. The most comfortable sleeping pad I’ve used. Luxurious in fact. Yet still very light and extremely compact.


It’s difficult to say which items from last year I’ll still be using in a few years time. Ones I suspect I might be are the Paramo Katmai shirt, an excellent warm weather trekking shirt, and the Rab Momentum eVent jacket, a lightweight well-designed waterproof.

And one I definitely will be is the TarpTent Scarp 1, the first tent that has challenged the Akto in my affections, especially for winter and snow due to the optional crossover poles and extra room.

Photo info: Camp on the summit of Ben Nevis in 2008 with Hilleberg Akto tent, Pacerpoles, Montane Litespeed windshirt, Montane Terra trousers, Inov8 Terroc shoes and GoLite Pinnacle pack. Canon EOS 350D, 18-55@23mm, 1/500@ f8, ISO 100, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6