There was something in the woods. Just there, in the upper edge where the trees thin out, fan out, shrink, and start to lose heart as the demands nature makes on mountainsides gets too much for them to handle. We call it the tree line.
It was something blunt and low-to-the ground, the colours of the woodland, so that when it moved it was as if a piece of the woodland moved, threading a path among tree trunks, stepping over the roots. Tree shadows helped to break everything up, confusing shapes. But something moved there. There was nothing like a clear view, but the thought that lodged was almost unthinkable.
An hour ago, and two or three hundred feet higher up the mountain, there were six ptarmigan (a small bird) where a wedge of yesterday’s half-hearted snow lingered among a bed of broken rocks. They came across the corrie on a flat contour that seemed from the first to have the snow as a destination.
As they approached, there was just enough sunlight to put their pale shadows on the snow, shadows that fluttered as the birds stalled on the air, shadows that all but vanished as the birds landed on them. Shadows were setting the scene of the hour, half-hearted shadows from a half-hearted sun. Then the birds vanished. Ptarmigan, of all birds, can do that, especially when they are halfway through their autumn-into-winter moult, more snow-coloured than rock-coloured, and they pitch into a patch of mountainside that is briefly more snow than rock. Nature as conjuror: it is a wonderful trick.
In good binoculars the image brightened, and they were revealed again. In flight they were vivid and vital, seconds later they were snow and rock and rock-still. They crouched lower rather than take flight. They became more snow, more rock, less bird shape.
They are of the mountain. This is their belonging, their place on the map of the world, this mountain, these rocks, that snow. So pause, even in retreat from the cold and the fading afternoon November daylight, and admire their mountain-ness.
But in the pausing, in the turning to watch them land and disappear then reveal themselves again and then crouch, that half-glimpsed “something” in the edge of the wood had kept on moving, and may well have seen a flash of light in the binoculars’ lenses as they turned.
For sure, it would have seen the ptarmigan flight and the landing and the sudden crouch, and because it could see such things in a way that the watcher with the binoculars could not, wherever it had gone it was analysing new information as it went. And might it also be interested in the ptarmigan as prey? Being higher than the treetops helped. The view was unbroken along the entire upper edge of the wood, but it would only help if the “something” stayed up here. If it was interested in the ptarmigan, it just might.
Sit. Be still. Wait. Watch. Listen. Be mountainside. And so an hour passed, and the “something” of the woods failed to show.
A half-turn revealed the ptarmigan once more, well settled. Might they be there for the night?
The watcher’s dilemma was this. The “something” in the woods might still be there, being still in the edge of thicker trees, watching from cover. It had time on its side, all the rest of the day at its disposal, all the night. If it lives up here all year round, it has night eyes. The watcher needs to be off the mountain before dark.
Time for the watcher had become a factor. For the others, it was of no consequence at all. What changed was the arrival of a mountain hare. There was still some hill grass in the open edge of the wood where it rubbed shoulders with heather, the staple of the hare’s winter diet. The hare contoured across the mountainside among the very highest trees, pausing often to feed. Like the ptarmigan, it was most of the way towards its all-white winter coat, so it too was the shades of snow and rock.
Its presence produced no visible response in the ptarmigan. But suddenly there was a new movement directly downhill from the hare, and for the first time the binoculars were filled with a clear image of that “something”. It was a wildcat. Historically, there were wildcats here. But then historically there were wildcats all across the Highlands. Now they stare extinction in the face.
There is a grapevine. You hear things when you walk the same hills again and again, and there had been covert whispers about wildcats. But they had been absent for so many years that doubts had crowded out serious hopes. Long walks and longer stillnesses over many days had revealed nothing. But this particular something in the binoculars was unambiguously flesh and blood.
It advanced from the edge of the thicker trees into the first few yards of the open edge of the wood. Froze.
The mountain hare grazed on. The distance between them was perhaps 30 yards. But it was all uphill for the wildcat. And when it comes to running for your life, nothing suits a mountain hare better than “all uphill”.
The wildcat eased forward one impeccably camouflaged and utterly silent yard. This could take a while. The hare loped three or four strides from grass to heather, then abruptly sat back, ears tall, stiffened. There was a mutter of ptarmigan voices, like a fingernail running along the teeth of a plastic comb. In the same instant the wildcat mobilised, the ptarmigan flew, and the hare was gone, straight up and flat out, an uphill avalanche of snow and rock. The wildcat wandered off back into the trees. Questions: How long had the wildcat been there before the glasses found it? Had the mountain hare been watching the wildcat judging that the good feeding there was worth the risk, confident in its ability to outrun a wildcat up the mountainside? One way or another, the result was a mountainside that felt suddenly empty after the heightened tension and outright joy of briefly sharing in the mountain-ness of its natives. It is, of course, quite a thing to spend some time at close quarters with six ptarmigan, a mountain hare and a wildcat, then watch them all galvanise in response to a particular set of circumstances. There is no growing accustomed to such moments.
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