In the middle of May a news item on the Mountain Weather Information Service website caught my attention: “Free upland bird training days” offered by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). I enquired by e-mail and received confirmation that I had a place on the training day in Glen Shee on Sunday 25 May.
On Sunday I set off armed with the usual hill walking kit plus my binoculars and a notebook. At the car park at Glen Shee I met up with the group – 17 other hill walkers and two members of BTO staff. We repaired to the cafe for an introductory talk during which Ben and Lorna showed us pictures of the species we might expect to see and played recordings of their songs and calls – the red grouse winding up and insisting we ‘goback, goback, goback’, the shrill cry of the dunlin and the forlorn whistle of the golden plover.
There is a shortage of information about bird populations in upland areas and this project has been designed to gather more data for scientists to work with. For the purposes of the survey uplands are above the 750 metre contour. In addition to nineteen bird species the BTO is also inviting walkers to record populations of mountain hares, mountain ringlet butterflies and the blaeberry bumble bee. A useful pictorial guide to the species was provided for reference.
As anyone who has been on the hills in my company will know I am always alert to the bird and animal life that we come across – and I knew all the birds they named: step one successfully negotiated.
Lorna had designed a booklet for recording the birds seen in the mountains and we were each given a copy of this brand new publication to take on the hill. Then we set off up the track leading to Meall Odhar and Glas Maol. Before long we stopped to look at a grouse sitting on a rock not too far away. Here the BTO team explained how we should use the booklets. First we had to identify the point at which we would cross the 750 metre contour – and record the reference of the 1km grid square, the time of starting in that square, plus details of all the birds sighted during the time spent in that grid square. A surprise sighting at this stage was a fast and low flying swift! They told us that they were also interested in absence information – so there was also a section to complete before leaving each grid square to show what we had not seen or heard as well.
On a misty day, in a fairly large group, it was unlikely that we’d see much, but Ben did manage to find a dunlin which ran along on the ground in front of him for some distance. This was duly recorded.
It was quite wet as we toiled up towards the summit of Glas Maol but at times the mist thinned, giving us brief views before it closed in again. We continued to walk until we met the Monega path and then followed it into another grid square where we saw a raven and a couple of meadow pipits. Retracing our steps we contoured round the side of the hill towards Creag Leacach. On this stretch we came across the burrows of mountain hares and then saw four hares spread across the hillside.
Entering another grid square we followed an old wall and the line of the county boundary up the stony flanks of Creag Leacach. As we descended from the cairn on Munro number two a ptarmigan was heard but we did not catch sight of it – they are well camouflaged and tend to stay among the rocks – but a call is evidence of their presence so it counts. Dead birds and animals or discarded feathers are not recorded.
As we picked our way across the moss covered scree slope on our descent towards Meall Gorm the clouds finally lifted to reveal views of all the surrounding hills. It felt like a different day. Just before 5pm we reached the parking spot at the bottom of the hill and lifts back to the ski car park were arranged.
It was nice to meet members of the XXL Hill walking Club from Aberdeen, who had kindly opened up their club outing to accommodate other walkers who shared an interest in the wildlife on our hills, and we all enjoyed learning about how we can contribute to this project.
I hope that our records of bird sightings will help to build up data that will improve knowledge of what lives in our hills and help the scientists to monitor changes over time. More information on the scheme can be obtained from the BTO’s ‘What’s up’ website http://www.bto.org/national-offices/scotland/our-work/whats-up/bird-sightings and I have a couple of spare recording booklets if anyone would like one. Individual ‘notable sightings’ of birds can be submitted by e-mail or there’s a mobile app that can be downloaded for the purpose.