Unlike the south of Britain, which is apparently half underwater from flash floods, Scotland is basking in spring sunshine.
How could we stay indoors?
With our eyes still barely open (well, mine, anyway) we were heading up into the Perthshire glens by 5.30 am, the sunrise already catching the clouds near the eastern horizon and turning them into liquid gold.
As we got higher into the hills, we stopped a few times to take in the beautiful scenery, fresh and green under a clearing sky. It must have rained in the night, and the raindrops were frozen on the grass like opalescent jewels. Layers of pale blue mist were lingering in the shadow of the valleys, while the tops were bathed in sunlight.
Under some young birch trees, about seven or eight blackcock were beetling around like clockwork toys, their lyre-shaped tails fanned to reveal their pure white underwear. From their puffed-out throats came a constant sound of fanatical cooing and wheezing. Unlike the displays earlier in the season, this wasn’t a practice run – it was all-out war. The confrontations got heated and the duellists came to blows several times; at least one loser was forced to abandon his pride and take refuge in a tree.
We couldn’t see any greyhen here, but the display was quite a way off and we didn’t go any closer. The females could have been lurking anywhere on the ground, perfectly camouflaged, watching the action from a ringside seat. I took a video, not so much for the sight as for the sound. I’ll publish it on The Hazel Tree shortly.
Further up into the hills, plenty of red grouse were enjoying the warmth of the sun, their plumage almost perfectly matched to the brownish-pink heather. Their attitude was much more laid back than their hormone-driven cousins in the valley. Colin tried his red grouse impersonation which goes a bit like “terrrrrible, terrrrrible!” and one of them grumpily answered “too right, too right”.
The female grouse should have youngsters by now; we saw a couple of hens and they did (to our eyes) look preoccupied, but we didn’t spot any fluffy chicks in tow. Tellingly, none of them took off – they just walked fast, and gave us a few wary backward glances.
The mountains over Tayside were sporting a fresh covering of snow, and there were pockets of frost in the lee of the heather tussocks. All the puddles had a crust of ice on them, and everything was sparkling like diamonds.
Down in the old pine trees on the other side we stopped and made a cup of tea; well, in actual fact we made coffee for Colin but I had forgotten the tea bags. However, our attention was distracted by the size of a bird that was sitting in a young larch tree. It was enormous.
Greyhen or capercaillie? In our eagerness, we both decided it must be a female capercaillie. While Colin was manoeuvring his long lens, the bird decided she’d seen enough and took off, landing in a more distant tree. We still have no positive identification, but we saw a greyhen in another tree shortly afterwards, and she seemed small by comparison.
At the foot of the glen, something with long wings glided over the car and swooped low over the heather moorland to the right: a short-eared owl. Its wing feathers were translucent in the sunlight, and through the binoculars I could see its huge facial discs and luminous yellow eyes. It alighted on a rock and was immediately mobbed by meadow pipits, tiny birds a quarter of its size, boldly protecting their eggs or youngsters.
The sky was a brilliant blue as we drove back towards Stirling, and all the trees had a gold-green haze as the sunlight caught their opening buds. The conditions were so perfect that I persuaded Colin to stop in Muthill so that I could photograph the beautiful Old Church with its spectacular Norman tower. Look how amazing this is! Out of respect, I tried not to dance around the gravestones too much, but it was hard not to be excited. Unfortunately, the door to the tower was locked: I would have loved to go inside and climb up it.
I would go into lots more detail, but I’ll save Muthill Old Church and Tower for The Hazel Tree – watch out for a feature on this very soon. Keep an eye (or ear) out also for the blackcocks’ answer to Il Divo.
All images copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf