Once this is done I will embrace 2021, or more likely eye it suspiciously from an appropriate distance while wearing a mask. These were the last full days of our hastily arranged two weeks in the highlands back in July/August.
In the context of 2020 that all too brief interlude feels, in retrospect, like a period of parole. An incongruous piece of normality shoehorned into a year which was, for the most part, anything but normal. Were it not for the pictures I might take some convincing that these weren’t just recollections from a dream.
The penultimate day involved a return to the atmospheric valley of the Findhorn for an out and back walk along the good trails of the Coignafearn estate. The valley has a surprisingly open feel considering that it cuts deep into the heart of the Monadhliath, which often give the impression of being unremittingly tightly packed when viewed from certain aspects. The valley also has a reputation as something of a raptor hotspot and yet remains relatively undisturbed by visitors – possibly a consequence of access being via a long, slow drive along a tight road with intermittent passing places.
The estate track passes close by a number of buildings, many of them seemingly little used but by no means derelict. Aside from the very occasional estate vehicle working across one of the tops there was little sign of occupancy or human activity throughout the day
Despite there being no forecast for rain, the sky during the outward part of the walk – apart from a few brief glimpses of the blue beyond – remained very much ‘Monadhliath’ in nature. The rain thankfully did stay away, but any deviation from the main track indicated that there had been plenty of it in recent days.
Immobile on its rock perch, this small bird – which we thought to be a juvenile Wheatear just transitioning into adult plumage – was either deep in concentration, indifferent to our presence, or possibly aware of some threat against which the best defence was to stay absolutely motionless…
By the time we’d turned to retrace our steps the cloud cover was thinning out appreciably and shades of grey gradually gave way to a somewhat more varied palette. The most noticeable absence from both the valley floor and the hillsides is anything in the way of tree cover; something not unique to this valley or these hills.
We remembered these goats, which may or may not be feral, being in almost the same spot on a previous visit. There’s fresh water and plenty for a ruminant to sink its teeth into; although there don’t seem to be enough of them to hold completely accountable for the absence of trees. We did however find a discarded antler from a red deer stag and, without wishing to jump to conclusions, there’s probably a connection to be made.
We were most of the way back to the parking spot when this merlin decided to give us a display of ‘flying just for the fun of it’. Almost too quick in level flight to be captured by the camera, these raptors (there were a pair) seemed to have chosen a territory adjacent to some crags occupied by peregrines, which might seem unusual bordering on the outright reckless. However we’ve seen similar instances of the two varieties of falcon living cheek by jowl in the Shropshire hills.
And at least we might have found the explanation for the immobilised wheatear from the earlier picture…
Final full day (Einich)
Like it or not, a sense of winding down inevitably sets in as the time for heading back south closes in. More often than not we’ll choose a familiar outing – one where the pace of the day just takes care of itself.
A relatively late start meant that we were just at the point where the views of Sgoran Dubh Mor, Sgor Gaioth and the western corries of Braeriach had begun to dominate the view south when it was time for a lunch stop. On what was a warm, cloudy day with scarcely a breeze, there was the most unexpected of discoveries – a sheltered spot, close to the water and absolutely midge-free. We were able to enjoy both the views and refreshments in leisurely comfort.
A roughly out and back route meant passing Lochan Deo twice. The second of these two photographs was probably taken on the return leg, by which time the mood would undoubtedly have degenerated somewhat. We were most likely walking in subdued silence.
And now, 2021…