Halfway through my backpacking trip around Scotland this spring, I hitchhiked over to the Cairngorms in search of what might just be the hardiest bird in Europe – the Ptarmigan. After a couple of nights spent camping at around 900m in a semi-sheltered hanging valley, I managed to come away with some photos I was happy with, as well as an extra story or two to tell. So I thought it was about time I shared this little adventure with you all!
Ptarmigan are pretty widespread in the northern parts of the world, but within the UK they’re restricted to the higher hills in Scotland. They don’t migrate, choosing instead to tough it out through the long, dark winters. This is no mean feat in a place where snow lies deep on the ground for much of the year and extreme cold coupled with 100mph winds are not uncommon.
However I was there in May, when the snow should have mostly disappeared and the weather should have been steadily improving. However, this was Scotland, where the weather is fickle. And the spring/summer of 2015 was one of the worst in living memory, which is why you can see cliffs banked out with snow in the next photo, despite it being the last day of May.
Fortunately for the Ptarmigan, they’re well equipped for these harsh conditions. They’ve got plenty of insulation and even their large feet are covered in feathers to stop them freezing on the snow and ice, as well as giving them more surface area so they don’t sink into fresh powder. In winter they turn almost entirely white to camouflage against the snow (the only UK bird to do so), while the male’s summer plumage has evolved to blend in superbly with their boulderfield homes.
All the photos above are of males in transitional plumage, superbly camouflaged for the spring where boulders are interspersed with snow fields.
But the females look quite different, and their camouflage is even better. A Ptarmigan nest is just a slight depression on the sparsely vegetated ground, on which the female Ptarmigan sits completely still, relying on her cryptic plumage to avoid detection.
I realise that the camouflage doesn’t look particularly impressive here, but when a female is lying motionless on the ground among the low alpine vegetation, she’s almost impossible to see. Three times I was a single step from treading on a nest before the sitting female looked up at me or flew off in an explosion of feathers and noise, surprising me so much I nearly lost my balance.
Take just a few steps away, and it could take a minute or more to see the female Ptarmigan again, even though you know she must still be there.
Sadly I can’t show you any photos of what the nests look like or how good a nesting female’s camouflage really is, as Ptarmigan are Schedule 1 protected birds. This makes it illegal to intentionally disturb a nest, so I quickly moved on whenever I stumbled across one.
Ptarmigan are remarkably confiding birds. I can only guess it’s because they’ve never had to fear humans due to their inaccessibility, although I imagine these plump friendly grouse would make an excellent meal if you didn’t mind the hike. It’s a good job they stick to the mountains!
Being able to get so close is fantastic for photography, as you can use a shorter lens than is normally necessary for wildlife, so you can include the beautiful habitat in which the Ptarmigan live. Some individuals are friendlier than others, and after about half an hour of slowly inching closer, one male let me come so close that I could literally have reached out and touched him. It’s a remarkable experience to find a completely wild bird with so little fear of humans, and being trusted by something you could easily eat for dinner is very special indeed.
You’d be forgiven for thinking from these photos that the weather was pretty good for the Scottish mountains. Clouds higher than the summits and even occasional weak sunshine! It didn’t last long…
This is what my tent looked like after two blizzards and some terrifyingly close thunder and lightning. Crawling out of a worn-out sleeping bag that would have been inadequate at its best and then forcing your cold feet into wet or frozen walking boots isn’t much fun. Stomping around for the next hour will gradually warm up your extremities until the pain goes away, and only then can you walk more comfortably, even if the wetness isn’t particularly pleasant. Retreat back to the tent for food or whatever a while later, and repeat several times a day.
Even the Ptarmigan didn’t seem too happy about the late snow. After several months of it, they probably thought it was about time for the typically brief Scottish summer to take over, but the mountains had other ideas. If you’ve ever wondered what a fat grouse looks like when it’s completely fed up, look no further.
That is the face of a Ptarmigan that’s had enough.
The snow came down thick and fast for quite a while, with a single hopeful break being rudely interrupted by a violent barrage of hailstorms that stung even through four layers of clothing. The bad weather certainly made for some interesting pictures, but I was soon so cold that I was longing for it to end.
It’s not only Ptarmigan that eke out a living in these high places. There’s a good supporting cast of other wildlife, but the Ptarmigan were certainly the most visible. Mountain Hares were abundant, but I could never get anywhere near them – they always ran when I was still at least 100m away, often before I had any idea they were even there.
There were also a few birds around besides the Ptarmigan, but they were mostly summer migrants that I can only assume were thoroughly unimpressed by the weather. There were plenty of Wheatears and Meadow Pipits hopping around, and I had brief views of a pair of Ring Ouzels that must have been trying to nest nearby.
But the highlight came while I was waiting out a snowstorm in my tent. I could hear a strange knocking noise outside, and just when I’d decided to brave the weather and investigate, my whole tent shifted and I heard some conceringly close snuffling. There was a Reindeer sticking its nose inside my tent! I had no idea how to get rid of such a large animal before it damaged my only shelter, so I tried shouting and banging my pots together until it ran off. It turned out there was a whole herd of Reindeer that had silently moved up the valley while I sat oblivious in my tent.
Almost silently, anyway – the knocking noise transpired to be the sound of their hooves on the rocks.
Unfortunately I didn’t get any decent photos of the Reindeer before they moved back down the valley, so you’ll have to cope with another Ptarmigan instead.
After two chilly nights where I didn’t sleep much and spent most of the time shivering, I decided it was time for me to head back down the mountain. The relative warmth of the forests was wonderful, but there’s something special about spending time alone in the mountains, surrounded by wildlife with not a person in sight. In fact, I didn’t see anyone else for almost 48 hours.
Despite the bad weather and my lack of winter gear, my time photographing the Ptarmigan was undoubtedly one of the best parts of my entire five week trip.