Cliche it may be, but the Dove Step campaign has formed into a family, a sprawling family with vital supporters and many relatives. I am delighted to announce that we have a new supporter, a natural addition to the family; Opticron. We have been actively pursuing Dove Step since the summer of 2013, so we are now three years and two journeys into our efforts, I feel Opticron along with Bridgedale Socks and Anatom Footwear answer the final piece of our equipment puzzle; optics. Opticron optics are light weight enough we can justify taking them whilst providing a quality that does not require us to compromise on quality viewing. After all – we are bird watchers – our love of bird watching is what started the juggernaut that is Dove Step in the first place!
It is easy to judge our efforts by the monies raised for RSPB and specifically Operation Turtle Dove, (£8.5k at the time of writing) or even the miles endured, which is in excess of 1k on Dove Step journeys and many times that when you consider training too. We are equally keen to fulfil a further function, a priority from the start; awareness raising. As part of this, you will find Turtle Dove themed output on the social networks, I will happily do podcasts and of course give talks on Turtle Doves and Dove Step. I have done two recently, one to the Norfolk Birdfair – which was well received and also boosted our JustGiving total. Earlier this week, I delivered another talk to the Birdwatching Wildlife Club based out of the Grant Arms Hotel, Grantown on Spey – another good audience with a great Q&A session post-talk.
At the Norfolk Birdfair I had the good opportunity to visit the Opticron stand and to test their more compact models. As with all kit, we are keen to slim-down and weight-save where possible, whilst maintaining functionality. In chatting with the Opticron representative, its became clear that the binoculars were just what we required for Dove Step 3, the upcoming Spanish leg. Lightweight, compact and robust. All without compromising upon performance.
Upon arriving at the Grant Arms Hotel ahead of a long weekend’s training on the Cairngorms, we were greeted by a parcel; pairs of Opticron Traveller and Discovery binoculars. We ditched our previous binoculars at the hotel and set off to the Cairngorm Mountain Carpark to meet Dove Step fellow Phil. The aim of the trip was to test ourselves and our new binoculars over some of the best mountains and birds the UK has to offer. Rob used the Discovery model and I used the Travellers throughout our time in the Highlands. We set off in low cloud, with mist meeting the hillside and totally whiting-out the tops, especially where snow still lay. Even in these conditions, our Optiicrons gathered light and allowed for great viewing of singing male Snow Bunting and Ptarmigan. I even managed distant digi-binned shots through the binoculars using my iPhone. Whilst the shots are not going to win any awards – we were keen not to disturb the birds and they do serve as a great record of our sightings.
We submitted our first Munro; Ben Macdui on the Friday evening. Taking a break for a snack behind a wind break of stone, we were joined by a particularly inquisitive female Snow Bunting. I didn’t even need to raise the Opticrons for this one – happily taking crumbs from just beyond my Anatom boots.
From the summit we relied upon Phil’s expertise as a mountain man, navigating us through whiteout and down to Loch Etchachan. This is a hugely scenic spot, with a steep sided corrie with patches of snow still laying. As we approached the loch-side, a Peregrine flew through – and through the night we were accompanied by Ptarmigan, Common Sandpiper and Common Gull calls. The Ptarmigan was particularly pleasing – certainly the first time I’ve slept in proximity of these excellent mountain grouse. We awoke to clear blue skies and overwhelming views; we could see back to the summit of Ben Macdui – the previous day’s achievement and also up our next quarry; Beinn Mheadhoin. This is another Munro – with a drawn-out top perfect for Dotterel – which were duly present with a male leading us out of his territory and presumably away from eggs or young. The true summit is reached by clambering up a steep sided rock protrusion. From this vantage point we got to fully appreciate the incredible views and cloud inversion beneath us. The Glens beneath were all shrouded by fluffy white cloud with tendrils of mist whipping over some of the valley heads – seriously beautiful and well worth the steep ascent straight out of camp. From here we dropped down into Loch Avon, a stunning loch which even boasted small beaches! It would take an intrepid sunbather to get there though and there is no ice-cream van for miles!
The weather was extremely good from this point onwards, for the reminder of the day and all through the next day’s walking. I am not sure Rob, Phil or myself were expecting to be fire-fighting sun burn and dehydration on a trip to the Highlands, but that is exactly what happened. Things were a little more acute for Rob and myself as we had both left our caps in the car! Given the mist and cool air when we left we had both started out with our Bridgedale hats on – a fact which seemed insane as we went on to sweat freely and acquire a pink hue and in my case outright angry sunburn in places!
From Loch Avon we continued to Fords of Avon where we mercifully gained some shade in the trees; as we snacked and hydrated, Crossbills flew overhead, Willow Warbler and Tree Pipit sang and Siskin noisily went about the tree tops. Having submitted two Munros, pre and post camp, the day’s mileage became a grind in the sun – albeit an enjoyable one – to our chosen camp site, beneath the Devil’s Point. The views opened up to reveal the Point itself and the broad u-shaped valley of Liarig Ghru which was great end-of-the-day motivation. Having inadvertently disturbed a Red Grouse from the nest back at Loch Avon, they had been near constant companions throughout the day; it was fitting to have them audible from the tent all night too.
Our last day on the mountains was spent connecting our camp beneath the Devil’s Peak with the Cairngorm Mountain Carpark. On the way we saw the best of the Liarig Ghru following the route of the stream over bolder fields until we achieved our first views out towards Aviemore and the urban trappings of food and beer! However, instead of continuing to Aviemore we had a further dose of awesome to contend with; the Charmaine Gap. This is an incised rock strewn gap and the last significant feature we had to contend with on our route. The boulders range from head-sized to monoliths the size of a double fridge; even the largest and most solid looking can wobble with unnerving uncertainty once you dedicate your weight to them. From the Charmaine Gap we followed the route over the moor and back to Cairngorm Mountain Carpark, the ‘gorms weren’t happy to let us leave without one last test though. To make it cross the last few hundred metres we had to drop down to valley bottom level and a broad around about route before ramping straight up all the way to our parked cars. This was a real thigh burner and we sweated freely till the very last moments. At the Mountain Carpark we were welcomed back to civilisation by a ‘chacking’ female Ring Ouzel which was followed shortly after by a sighting of the resplendent male feeding well on the embankment immediately beneath our parked cars.
Throughout, our route gave us the very best of birding, adventure and weather with many thanks to Phil Cruttenden for planning the route and navigating us safely through intense whiteout conditions.