open country

When the celandine has started to flower in a hidden corner and the snowdrops are a bright addition to otherwise brown ground, it is strange to think of the mountains capped with thick cold snow. Life seemed to be beginning as usual in nature’s reassuring cycle. What life is there on the high places except the odd hill walker?

In what seemed like an otherwise harsh and lifeless environment, there is one call that comes eerily through the obscurity of mist, rock and snow – the gentle primeval belching of the ptarmigan. The sound floats gently towards us in the great silence.

The ptarmigan, Lagopus mutus, pictured top of page, inhabits barren, rocky mountain tops, generally above 800m. This bird is a grouse and although it looks like the red grouse it is in fact smaller and not as widespread. In its full summer plumage it can be distinguished from the red grouse by its white belly and white under-wings.

This winter, the RSPB site manager at Abernethy has reported that ptarmigans have resorted to mountain survival techniques during the bad winters recently. The birds have been observed making snow holes to protect them from the wind chill. These shelters have ranged from simple depressions to small caves.

These plump grouse are known for stomping about in these snow holes in order to prevent them being snowed in during winter storms. They are recognisable as ptarmigans’ creations by the presence of their droppings and the angel-wing shapes they leave in the powdery snow when they quit their holes in the morning.

Despite the observations from Abernethy being well documented in the press, they were treated with disdain by one reader. A letter from this keen ornithologist noted that the birds will make shelters even during less harsh winters. He was also adamant that they position their snow holes in areas where the wind will drive snow away from the entrance and so avoiding being snowed in. If such a site is not available they will burrow themselves in.

The smaller size of the ptarmigan and its shorter legs also enable better heat retention. The feathery down on its legs and feet helps to protect it from the extremely low temperatures. The fact that it moults to a white plumage in winter not only gives it better camouflage for the season, it also has a different make up from its summer plumage allowing a warmer coat.

Because of the length of the winter in the mountain environment, it is not surprising that the ptarmigan lays her eggs from May to July. Male and female make a number of scrapes but will only choose one for the nest.

I am tired of walking uphill when I can see no end to my toil; I have no views to quench my senses. After a few hours my rucksack feels too heavy as I feel smaller at every step – the mountain is getting bigger, almost out of my reach. There is no comfort here and periodically my Achilles tendons ache.

This white bird that flies out from the north face is like a little snow angel; it is so beautiful. I only get a glimpse of the round head and body carried into the air by its wings and the fan of black-tipped feathers that make up its tail.

The ptarmigan is an emblem of gentle life in an otherwise barren and desolate area. Despite bird surveys in the early 1980s showing the presence of around 20 birds on Goatfell on the Isle of Arran, I do not recall ever having seen one anywhere on the Arran hills. It is with regret that I also read that there seem to be none on the island at the present time.

This bird has now become for me a symbol of the Highland hills as the golden plover is a symbol of the Southern Uplands. What are we to them but a disturbance in their high kingdom?