Ben Nevis. Standing at 1345m high and towering like a giant over Fort William, it is the highest peak in the British Isles. Climbed by thousands every year it is considered quite the popular peak, with individuals travelling from all corners of the country and indeed the earth to ascend it in both the summer and winter months. For me, mountains have always seemed quite fascinating, not only in a geological sense regarding their formation but also in terms of their ecology and the glorious and beautiful creatures all over the world that call mountain ranges their home. Despite this, and despite my love of walking, there is another emotion that the mountains of the world instil in me; a sense of foreboding. The habitats, temperatures and changeable nature of mountains mean I respect them greatly and having read numerous accounts of the different wondrous mountains of the earth, I have never had a burning desire to climb one myself. But it’s only Ben Nevis! It’s hardly Everest or K2! No indeed and thank god, because if it were, you’d probably have to drag me up kicking and screaming. In fact, 2 hours into the Ben Nevis climb with sheer drops on one side of me, I wasn’t far off kicking or screaming. So why did I do it? Why bother? Well, last year I met an Irishman. An Irishman with a sense of adventure and love for the outdoors and exercise. Perfect! However, 11 months later and we’re going on holiday to Fort William and climbing Ben Nevis has become something of a given to said Irishmad. Oops. Irishman of course…Tentatively I accepted this challenge and early one Friday morning in May 2018, we set out to conquer the Ben.
The word over-prepared did not really cut it for the two of us. There we were, half way up a mountain, with thermals, ski jackets and all sorts of extra warm clothes shoved into our bags, on one of the hottest days of the year, sweating and slapping sun cream on ourselves at every available moment.
‘Better to be over prepared than under prepared sure!’ Tam kept exclaiming (sometimes more to himself than me), but I accepted this was true. We might not have conquered the Ben just yet, but we had definitely stuck it to hypothermia and exposure. Small victories.
So, what does the two of us sweating, over prepared and hangry (or at least one of us) on the slopes of Ben Nevis have to do with wildlife? Well, as it turns out, a lot actually. Make no mistake, most of the way up we saw nothing. Nadda. Nothing but other hot sweaty people wondering where in the world the bleeding summit was and why they thought it was a good idea to do this in the first place. The only unfazed individuals seemed to be runners (who were already on their way down from the summit!) and my Irishman (who had done it before) and who seemed intent on dashing the hopes of others we met when they asked how much further we thought it was to the top, in many cases ‘about another hour or so sure’ was not the response they were hoping for.
An hour from the summit and 2 hours 17 minutes in, I was beginning to lose my previous enthusiasm, taking a break, the first glimpse of wildlife I saw was a huge bumblebee. Starting our final push to the summit, we clambered, slid and skidded over endless snow patches that seemed intent on stopping us from reaching the top, clambered up rocks and finally, reached the rocky and scree covered summit. The views were breath taking and we had managed to bag ourselves one of the few days in the entire year when the summit is clear and free of cloud. By this point, I had gone quiet and hanger had begun to rear it’s ugly head, so Tam made the good decision to feed me as much food in as little time as possible as we picked our spot for lunch. It takes a strong individual to put up with my hanger, bur luckily, Tam fits the bill. Blood sugar rising, hanger levels falling, I began to take in our surroundings properly and something unexpected pricked my ears. Something that made the view of the Nevis Range even more stunning. Birdsong. A beautiful birdsong that my ears had not heard out in the wilds before.
Doing a quick scan of the area, I spotted the source. Sitting atop the tiny little shack that lies on the summit of Ben Nevis, there was a striking snow white bird, singing his heart out to the exhausted climbers and runners. Rummaging through my bag, I changed the lens on my camera and swivelled back around to snap my target. My new friend however, was not so interested in his close up and had flown off, his song still echoing around us. Frowning, I sat back down and grabbed some more food. Tam, mouth full of food, managed to make himself audible:
‘So, what was it?’
Dumbfounded, I hesitated. Good question. I admit, in the glance I had of him I had not recognised him. Nor could I place him in such a habitat. I now blame this lack of realisation on exhaustion, hunger and asthma related problems (a likely story) but I would refuse to be defeated. For now however, the little bird had disappeared. Slightly annoyed, I flounced down, resting my camera on my knee. Before I could take another bite of my sandwich however, there was a flash of brown, and a little person settled on the rock right in front of us, picking up the crumbs that had been left behind by the previous walkers. Raising my camera, I photographed her immediately, getting every angle, the sound of the camera shutter filling my ears. Unlike her mate, this one was very happy to show herself off. It was then that her name rang in my head; she was of course, a snow bunting.
I have never laid eyes upon a snow bunting before and on the summit of Ben Nevis, with snow still surrounding the peak, it was of course the perfect and most special place to see them. Snow buntings, very rare in the UK, are an Amber listed species. Mainly breeding around the arctic and in Greenland and Canada, in the UK, snow bunting breeding pairs are very rare indeed. The number is thought to stand at around 60 pairs, most of them confined to the very highest Scottish Peaks. Surveying numbers of snow bunting breeding pairs in the UK is very difficult indeed, with surveyors and scientists having to scale the peaks themselves to carry out fieldwork in order to make such estimates. In 2011, a team of scientists and volunteers made the epic journey to climb as many peaks as possible to gather data on snow bunting breeding pairs, which is why we have this approximate today.
Back on the mountain and once the female abandoned us, the male appeared once again singing on the top of the little shack. Jumping to my feet I managed to get some quick fire photographs of him preening himself. Surprisingly, I seemed to be the only one up there showing any interest in these gorgeous little birds.
Several photographs later came a thick Belfastian accent.
‘Come on, we still have to get back down.’
The thought was not overly joyful, but, after seeing the beautiful snow bunting pair of Ben Nevis, little could break my spirits.
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