20 May 2018
This was the test I had set myself: could I walk several miles up into the mountains with all my gear, watch eagles and make the long trek back?
Yes I can. I’ve done two long walks here. The first was in warm sun on the afternoon I arrived. I was looking forward to seeing the loch again with its little grebes and sandpipers.
But things have changed. The track has been levelled and drained. A 4×4 with two men passes me in the opposite direction. Around the next bend my worst fears are confirmed. There is a digger parked up, a shed with a generator, and there by the loch is a new cabin. Another bit of wilderness has gone! Further on the very rickety old bridge has been replaced with a new wide and sturdy one. The track goes on up. Is it a new road linking Cougie with Glen Affric perhaps?
No, the path down to the glen is still there and opposite, winding down the valley, is a flat trail of disturbed ground, but it’s not a road. I walk on and am relieved to find that, although the old footpath has been levelled and drained, there are no passing places, so this is not a road.
I get to the top of Glen Garbh and decide to turn back. I cannot believe that eagles will nest so near to all this disturbance. Saddened, I trudge the two hours back.
Over the course of the evening Iain told me that the road is to give access to a reservoir which will deliver water to a turbine in Glen Affric. The broken ground I saw was the pipeline after restoration of the ground. The road will be closed to non-turbine traffic and nature will return. Will the eagles? Sasha thinks so – she has seen one there recently.
Iain showed me in detail on the map where to go. It’s a place where he has always seen eagles – a roosting site, but it’s way up in the mountains – proper eagle country. He took me part of the way along a very rough track and told me to go through the first gate in the deer fence, but to strike off up the course of a stream before the second gate.
“They’re always there, though come to think of it I haven’t seen one around there for the last couple of weeks. It’s a gentle, gentle slope up by the stream and then a stiff climb up to the peaks.”
We were sitting in his Jeep the previous evening. I was looking at patches of snow a long way off.
The next day was cloudy.
“That mist you see up there . . . ”
“By the patches of snow”
“Aye, that’s it. That mist might be in your favour – they’ll be flying lower.”
So I’m to be up in the snow and the clouds. This is it: the big challenge.
Iain, his youngest son Douglas, and Ripper the big ugly lovely dog,
dropped me off at around 11 am. Trudging uphill into a strong cold west wind, I got to the stream by 12. So far so good. Half an hour later I had made very slow progress trying to find a route up a minor gorge where on both sides the peat had been hollowed and undercut by the melting snow and rain. The dark clouds above had not turned to rain but to a fine drizzle – not enough to need the poncho. I struggled on until I reached a point where I could see the ridge – just beneath the mist – where the roost site is, and find some shelter from the wind.
There would be no point in trying to get to the ridge because I would be in the clouds. I found a hollow from which I could watch and got out the bag hide. It has been designed specially so that once you have the lens poking out through the elasticated ‘snout’, there will always be some netting in the way wherever you try to drape the rest of it. After struggling for about 5 minutes, I took it off again to establish which way round it was supposed to go. Finally I had it right, covering my feet and the rucksack, all but the lens hood of the camera, and my head in the ‘head space’. I could see fairly well through the net and had the camera ready on my lap. I imagined the eagle appearing through the mist and flying towards me, not seeing this odd shape as a threat. I would slowly bring up the camera as it got closer, get the auto-focus on it and, tracking its wingbeats, fire off a string of shots. These will be my best eagle pictures yet. The damp heather is uncomfortable, but sacrifices must be made. I have a mini-flask of coffee and a sandwich. This is what I came here for.
That misty ridge with its patches of snow is imprinted on my memory. Nothing but the wind stirred in an hour of waiting, and with the resignation of the seasoned bird watcher, I set off back down the corrie. With no taxi waiting it was a much longer walk back and I was really tired when I finally got to the camper just before 5 o’clock. I had been out for five hours and the only birds I had seen had been meadow pipits and a hoodie.