I have recently returned from a really lovely holiday in the Highlands of Scotland. We were staying at the rather comfortable Grant Arms hotel in Grantown on Spey. The Spey is arguably Britain’s greatest salmon river and indeed Grantown benefits from the sporting people who travel here from all over the world to wet their lines. The town also benefits from the custom of other outdoor folk – the skiers who come for Britain’s most reliable snow on nearby Cairn Gorm and nature lovers like me, who come in search of birds found almost nowhere else in Britain.
I was positively drooling at the thought of a whole array of great bird sightings when I left the hotel early doors heading for Cairn Gorm itself. At just over 4,000 ft it is the sixth highest peak in Britain and is surrounded by four other peaks over 4,000ft. This effectively creates a biggish patch of genuine arctic habitat – it’s like a bit of Iceland being airlifted into Scotland. I was hoping for three key species – ptarmigan, an arctic grouse that goes pure white in winter; dotterel, a pretty plover where the male cares for the young whilst the hen struts her stuff; and snow bunting, a beautiful finch-like bird that looks like a snowflake in flight.
It was hard work as I left the rangers hut. We climbed up a granite staircase for 1,000 ft and then, although the path leveled off a little, we were walking across a snowfield that was still being used by the skiers at weekends. The vistas were superb. Our guides Atilla and Jim shared lots of interesting information about the mountains, but we didn’t see a bird all morning – not even a crow.
Just before lunch Atilla hollered to me so that I could hear him above the gusting wind. I turned in hope of something – maybe a dotterel sighting – but he simply offered out his hands to show me a ball of feathers he’d found in the snow. It was a dead siskin – a pretty canary like bird found in coniferous forests
After we peaked and refueled we began our walk back to base. Jim took us on a detour where ptarmigan were guaranteed! The scenery was spectacular, great granite boulders, rough grassland with bubbling mountain torrents and occasional splashes of colour from cotton grass, cloudberry and the gem like flowers of creeping azalea. But not a bird in sight; only two patches of ptarmigan droppings and a single white feather.
It was a sign that I should give up (even though I don’t think I’d been cowardly) and accept that today was not my day – time for me to return to Grantown, bearing a lifetime first: the only trip I’ve ever made where I’ve seen not one single living bird. I often think failure has more to teach us than success – we just need the hope and perseverance to keep going. It’s a lesson that’s as true in business as it is in birding.