Sunday 30 May 2010

Loch Garten & Abernethy Forest

On hearing that the third egg had hatched at the Loch Garten osprey nest, it seemed time for the first visit of the year to see these iconic birds. So on a cool, cloudy day we drove through the pinewoods of Abernethy Forest, noting the bright green of the emerging blueberry bushes contrasting against the dull brown and green of the trees, to the Osprey Centre. There we watched through telescopes as the female osprey EJ shuffled around on the ungainly tangle of sticks that is the nest then took a short flight to stretch her wings. There was no sign of her mate, Odin, though the detailed diary on the wall said he had brought a fish earlier in the day. The young ospreys could only be seen via the CCTV footage displayed on screens inside the centre. Later in the season they will be visible peering above the rim of the nest and flapping their wings.

Happy to have seen one of the ospreys we then took a walk through the forest past Loch Garten to Loch Mallachie. The woods were quiet except for the occasional burst of bird song and there was the relaxing peaceful feeling often engendered by ancient forests, a sense of timelessness and tranquillity. The shores of the lochs were not so calm though, with a cold wind rippling the water and sweeping tattered clouds overhead. The weather was more like early March than late May and we were bundled up in cold weather clothing. But the reeds in the shallows were green with fresh growth and the first white water lilies were starting to flower. Patches of snow on distant Bynack More showed that winter is clinging on this year.

As we approached Loch Mallachie we came upon a cluster of bird watchers staring intently through telescopes and binoculars. In a hushed voice one of them told us there was a crested tit, one of the rare species found here, feeding a chick in a nearby tree. We looked but saw nothing. Chilled by the wind we eventually moved on to the shores of the loch. On the far side a flock of geese were swimming on the edge of a reed bed, too distant for the species to be identified. Again the wind moved us on and back into the shelter of the forest. It was not a day to linger. We’d seen the ospreys and felt the power of the forest. That was enough.

Update: May 30, 2.30pm. My feeling that winter is slow to depart this year is backed up by a report that 3 inches of snow fell on Cairn Gorm last night. At low levels there was just heavy rain and a cold wind.

Photo info: Loch Garten in late May. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS at 18mm, 1/160@f11, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.7.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

The Case of the Disappearing Pheasants

For several years now we’ve seen pheasant chicks in the garden, scurrying after their mother through the grass. We’ve assumed the nest was in the garden but have never searched for it as we didn’t want to disturb the birds. This year though my partner noticed a clutch of eggs in some low shrubs right next to the path to the front door. As we’d both been away for a fortnight we wondered if the birds had become used to an absence of humans and so chosen this spot for the nest. However the shrubs had been badly damaged by rabbits during the heavy snow of last winter and there were few leaves. In previous years the pheasants could have nested there and we might never have noticed. As it was we were impressed at how well camouflaged the female was when sitting on the eggs. To avoid frightening the birds away we hurried past this spot whenever we went out. When there the female always sat tight and never showed any sign of movement. Rain and wind had no effect either. One day it snowed and she sat there with snow spattering her plumage. The male meanwhile strutted round the garden, inflating his plumage to make himself look bigger, and chasing off any other male pheasants that came near.

Then several days ago Denise noticed pheasant feathers strewn along the path. She traced them back to the nest, where many lay around the eggs. There was no sign of the pheasants. At this point we hoped something had scared them off briefly and they would return. But they didn’t reappear that day. Or the next. Or the one after that. Then a different male appeared in the garden and started feeding from a seed tray not far from the nest. There was no fight, no sudden crash of wings as “our” male launched himself at the intruder. The nesting pheasants had gone. Now the eggs are cold. Clearly something attacked the female pheasant. Maybe a fox, maybe one of the stoats we see regularly in the garden. There was no blood amongst the feathers and the eggs weren’t touched so maybe the pheasants saw off the predator but were so frightened that they abandoned the nest. Whatever the reason we probably won’t see pheasant chicks in the garden this year.

(If you’re wondering about the title to this post, well, Sherlock Holmes stories have been my bedtime reading recently!)

Photo info: The abandoned pheasants’ eggs. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS at 55mm, 1/25@f22, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.7.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Innov-Ex 2010 Conference on Sustainability

At the end of last month I attended the 2010 Innovation for Extremes conference in Lancaster. I’ve been to these conferences, which are organised by Mary Rose of Lancaster University and Mike Parsons (innovative gear designer, formerly of Karrimor and then OMM), before but not for quite a few years – it is a long way south! This year I was invited to be a judge for the Design Prize, along with Graham Thompson from Trail magazine and outdoor blogger and writer Pete Macfarlane (Petesy), so I took the train down to Lancaster. The theme of the conference was sustainability and the outdoor industry and there were many excellent and thought-provoking speakers, including ones from Japan and Canada who spoke via video links. There’s good coverage of the conference on the Innov-Ex site and Petesy blogged his thoughts during the event (I was making notes on paper!) so I’m not going to write a review of the whole day here. However I have been pondering some of the issues and difficulties raised and considering how they affect everybody concerned with the outdoors and the environment.

The first thing that became clear was that assessing the environmental impacts of producing, selling and using gear is complex and not necessarily intuitive. Whilst CO2 production and climate change dominate environmental concerns at present there are other matters that should be taken into account such as pollution and the use of scarce resources. Impact cannot just be measured in terms of carbon output. And there always is impact of course. There’s no way of making anything that does not have an impact just as there’s no way of going into wild places without having an impact (or even just living, come to that). The question is whether impacts can be reduced and what is the best way to do so whilst still making and using gear. And assessing this is difficult and requires looking at the whole process from the raw materials through production methods, transport and sale to the final disposal of the product. In the talks on this two points struck me. The first was that it’s possible for the use of a product to be the main impact on the environment rather than its manufacture – whether this applies to any outdoor gear I don’t know, the example given was of aircraft. The second was that the more modern method of manufacture may not be the most environmentally friendly so that even with the transport involved manufacture overseas by an older method may have less impact than a more modern one closer to home. The example given here was steel-making in India and Western Europe with the former apparently being the more environmentally friendly. So to really do anything to minimise impacts companies need first to have a detailed understanding of every aspect of their business, including what happens to their products after they’ve been sold.

Of course in the greater scheme of things the outdoor industry is very small and even if it reduced its impact to a minimum it would have little overall effect. However setting an example and showing that industries can be cleaner could well be useful, as is argued by Yvon Chouinard, whose company Patagonia has been considering all this for many years. (I recommend Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman). To this end the European Outdoor Group, which represents outdoor companies, has set up a Sustainability Working Group. Speakers from this group pointed out that one thing needed was a common language and understanding of words and common expectations. To this end the Group is producing a tool for outdoor businesses with guidelines for communicating to customers. Actually, “consumers” was the word used but I much prefer “customer”, which I find far more friendly and accurate – words do matter! And I’m not that happy with “sustainability” either – I know what it means in the Innov-Ex context but it’s become far too misused and twisted by developers. It seems everything can be sustainable now, even destruction of wild places.

There were many representatives from the outdoor industry at the conference. Just by taking a day out to attend they showed their concern. What will be the long term effect is another matter. But the feel at the conference was that something was happening, however tentative and slow.

The Design Award went to Veronica Legg for her Women’s Winter Climbing Trousers, which I thought the most practical of the entrants, a simple but innovative solution to an obvious problem. Looking at the different designs and discussing them with the other judges was a useful exercise for me. It’s always worthwhile taking in other points of view.

Photo info: Proof that I don’t spend all my time outdoors! Cortney McDermott, Chair of the European Outdoor Group Sustainability Working Group, addressing the conference. Sigma DP1, 1/25@f4, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.7.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

May Snowfall on Glas Maol

The long cold winter is proving slow to fade away. For several days now snow showers have been falling in the Cairngorms and a bitterly cold wind has been blowing down from the north. Today I walked over the three Munros rising east of the Glenshee Ski Centre and the Cairnwell Burn – Carn an Tuirc, Cairn of Claise and Glas Maol – and for most of the day it could have been February rather than May. Only in brief bursts of sunshine when the wind dropped away did it seem like spring. Then the temperature rose rapidly and my cold weather clothing suddenly seemed ridiculous. Mostly though a succession of squalls blasted across the hills, bringing driving snow and stinging hail. The temperature was below zero and the snow was settling in windblown drifts. All three summits were enveloped in swirling clouds, out of which I occasionally wandered to see a wintry, monochrome landscape. The wind and snow kept me moving, with only brief stops for snacks and photographs. Wildlife was about on the high tops despite the weather. Deer trotted away into hidden corries. Mountain hares raced across the snow, dark now in their summer coats. Ptarmigan were in summer plumage too but their speckled grey feathers make for better camouflage. A flock of eight dotterel skittered across stony slopes then rose and flew away in one smooth sweep, the birds moving almost as one. I met no other walkers and saw no tracks in the new snow. Scoured by the savage wind and the sharp hail I was relieved to drop out of the weather and into the slight shelter of the slopes below the exposed summits. When will this winter end?

Photo info: Fresh snow on Glas Maol, May 11. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS at 18mm, 1/800@f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.7.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

June TGO

The June issue of TGO magazine is just out. My backpacking column is about the pleasures of forest backpacking while in the Wild Walks section I describe one of my favourite walks – across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui. In gear there’s my review of fifteen pairs of zip-off trousers. I need a new pair of these but wasn’t impressed with any of those tested so I’m still looking. The other big review is by Judy Armstrong, who tests women’s trail shoes and finds several pairs to like.
Elsewhere in gear John Manning has a very useful look at bug protection, including clothing, treatment for gear and repellents, just in time for the midge season, which will be starting all too soon.

The rest of the issue includes an entertaining interview by Emily Rodway with the unusual Laurence Main, described as a walker, guidebook writer, dowser and druid; Andy Stothert considering which is the best walk in the world, which in his case must be one in the Lake District and more specifically the upper reaches of Eskdale and Lingcove Beck (now that really is narrowing it down – the whole world to a tiny corner of Cumbria); John Gillham being impressed by some of Snowdonia’s lower peaks; Ann Luck trekking in the Himalaya on the 2009 TGO Readers’ Trek; David Gray on Suilven, and Adrian Hendroff on the Irish hills.

Photo info: Ed Huesers in the forested foothills of the Colorado Rockies. Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55 at 20mm, 1/80@f8, ISO 100, raw files converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.7.

Sunday 2 May 2010

New Edition of Skye Guide

A new edition of my walking guide to the Isle of Skye has just been published by Collins. The first edition came out in 2001. The book covers 30 routes from short coastal strolls to serious scrambles in the Cuillin. The 2010 edition has new Ordnance Survey mapping (the old one had Harveys maps) and the layout has been tidied up, making the text easier to follow. Information has been updated with information on access legislation (the first edition came out before the 2003 Land Reform Act) and the latest details for weather forecasts and other useful contacts. Those routes that I have walked since 1999-2000, when I did the research for the first edition, have been updated too. The bulk of the text and the photographs are the same as the first edition however. The price is £12.99