This is my first time walking in Scotland. As someone who rarely leaves Norfolk I always thought that the drive to Highlands was akin to a trip to the moon. I’m just fresh back from another hike along another lush glen in the Argyll Forest. A thigh-burning climb up a deep verdant gorge, overhung with trees draped in dripping moss. The moss is everywhere, clinging to both granite and wood. To our left, as we ascended, a bubbling burn travelled down steeply in a series of gullies and waterfalls; seeking the huge sea loch below. The lower reaches of the glen were lined with deciduous trees. Oak, sycamore, beech, hazel and chestnut. With the leaves now turning, the rustic tint of autumn adds to the melancholy of the brooks constant song. As the path wound upward, the strange time-twisted forms of the trees my mind was drawn to JRR Tolkien’s Ents. Higher up, the gorge was walled with granite and huge, towering pines. All the way up, I was scanning the surroundings for sign of movement. This is pixie territory and in three days (if you discount the one roadkill we passed) I’d seen just one red squirrel … and that was close to our holiday cottage. There is time yet, but I was hoping to see more. The chances of pine marten, golden eagle, osprey or wildcat are mere pipe-dreams. Further up the glen we broke out above the tree line and stood admiring the view across the strath. I felt I was looking at a million pine trees and again, my mind was drawn to the cover picture on my old childhood copy of The Hobbit. The bare hilltops and moors hold no appeal for me on this trip, I must confess. Heather and bog hold their own place in my heart but I will rarely linger long above the tree line now. My soul is in the wood and forest … as it is in Norfolk. Like Cumbria, the rain is part of the package here. You just have to learn to live with it, as we outdoor types know. Walking beneath the tree line at least affords some shelter from both deluge and wind. Perhaps the most enthusing moments for me so far have been seeing my first hooded crows and a goshawk. Those of you who read my shooting articles or books will appreciate that I am fascinated by corvid cunning and intelligence. Studying the ‘hoodies’ up here has captivated me. I had always thought of them as ‘loners’, like their carrion crow cousins but up here I’ve seen them in small (perhaps family?) groups. In the car park at Lochgoilhead, they were quite approachable. Tamed by the lure of food from tourists, I suspect. Away from the tourist spots they were as cautious as a carrion crow. The variations in amount of smoke-grey plumage was interesting too … from half to full mantle. The goshawk sighting was quite by chance, in the persistent rain unfortunately meaning my DSLR was covered up. We saw it just below Creag Bhaogh. What I first thought was a small buzzard took off from a crag and soared past us, then floated down towards Glenbranter. We all commented on the grey plumage and it took a reference to one of my books later to confirm. Incidentally, today, we took the opportunity to walk around the Allt Robuic waterfalls. In full spate after three days of torrential rain, the force of the cataracts were awesome. I couldn’t help thinking that if this were in Cumbria someone would have wrapped the gorge in fencing and charged you to see it. Well done Scotland! As for red squirrels, at least I’d seen one. The rest of the family were disappointed they hadn’t seen any. Near Penrith a few years back we’d seen (and photographed) several. I had to remind everyone, though, that with a national population reputed to be only 110,000 the chance of a sighting was always going to be slim. Perhaps the most disappointing ‘failure’ was the lack of red deer. Even while touring in the car among the high peaks, we didn’t see one. A dearth confirmed when we sat to dinner at the Creggan Inn, Strachur last night. I had picked it for its venison. I searched the menu handed to me and questioned the waitress? “Sorry, sir. We have none”.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2017
I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see them this morning; yet I was. It was my wife, Cheryl, who first saw them and pointed skyward with a query. “They look like Kestrels, but they’re not?” I watched the three birds for a while as they coursed the azure sky on the first morning of July. A date of significance to both of us as it would have been my father-in-law’s 69th birthday. I say ‘would have been’ because sadly he passed away (unexpectedly yet peacefully) a week ago. The sighting of these birds was synchronicity at its best. The first time I had ever seen a Hobby was standing alongside him at the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve about 15 years ago. Both countrymen, both shooting men, we would occasionally turn up at the reserve for a walk around with the ladies. We would duly pay our entrance fee and refuse to join the RSPB due to its inherent hypocrisy, its increasing animal rights agenda and its disdain of shooters as conservationists. On that particular morning we stood watching what looked like a couple of huge Swifts swooping low across the water-meadows alongside the River Yare. Then occasionally they would fly high and start dropping and tumbling like Peregrines, clearly plucking something (invisible to us) from the air. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but Derrick told me they were Hobbies. Falco Subbuteo. I bowed to Derricks experience, though there was to be an amusing incident that winter, to which I will return.
Henceforth, I knew a Hobby in flight straight away and it was obvious this morning, watching them closely from beneath, why my wife had first thought them to be Kestrels. The Hobby has a dun and black-striped under carriage but though it will soar, it doesn’t hover. When soaring, it spreads its primary feathers and looks like a Kestrel. However, when hunting, the wings tuck tight in a scythe-like form as it streaks through the air like a Swift. The giveaway markings are on the head. The deep black moustache and pale cheeks. I mentioned that I shouldn’t have been surprised. That day with Derrick was close to his birthday and Strumpshaw Fen was alive with dragonflies. So was Taverham Mill reserve this morning. Hobbies love hawking dragonflies and are one of the few birds who can catch, strip and eat their prey while in flight. Hence the tumbling motion. The three birds we saw today were invariably parents and a fledgling.
That amusing incident? Derrick and I were watching a flock of birds on the winter splashes. I used to watch these birds in their hundreds in my youth, in Hertfordshire. I commented to Derrick that it was great to see numbers of Lapwings again. He looked at me strangely and said “They’re not Lapwings. They’re Peewits!” I was tempted to explain that they were one and the same but refrained. Derrick was brought up as the son of a gamekeeper in the depths of North Norfolk. If that’s what they were to be called, who was I to argue?
This morning, watching the Hobbies, I had time to reflect on how much my father-in-law lived for the countryside, his sport, his guns and his rods. As a BASC and CPSA coach, he taught many people how to shoot. More importantly … how to shoot safely. That was Derrick, through and through. Dedicated. A true sporting gentleman. May he rest in peace.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2017