Oops! I almost stepped on an owl

Ben DolphinIt was hard not to feel impossibly smug as I propped my bike up against the ruined house at Gortenbuie. It was absolutely calm, not a breath of wind, and as I peered through the empty windows the only sound I could hear was the rigid dried-up leaves falling from the adjacent sycamore tree. As expected, I’d seen no-one.

“How many people ever access the hill from this direction?” I wondered.

I stepped out of the ruin’s shadow and looked to the south. The undulating skyline of Mull’s interior burned rusty red in the rising sun, the high hills scattering the morning rays in dazzling fashion across the sky. During my 7.5km pedal along Loch Ba the light had unquestionably been the most exquisite I had ever seen, the low sun casting the hills in soft orange hues and resulting in that peculiar phenomenon in Scotland – being unable to make fast progress on the bike on account of dazzling glare from the sun up ahead.

End of the road. An exquisite morning at Gortenbuie.

End of the road. An exquisite morning at Gortenbuie.

It was as perfect a morning as one could hope for, and looming up ahead was my objective, the shapely cone of Corra-Bheinn. At 704m this Graham is on many a bagging list and is therefore commonly ascended from the western end of Glen More, from the A849 that cuts through the hills between Loch Scridain and Strathcoil. But popular routes are usually popular for good reason, offering the quickest, shortest or easiest ways up, usually on well trodden paths. If a weather window is brief then such an approach might hold some appeal for me, but when I have a full day and a good forecast I’m more interested in finding more convoluted, less-frequented routes that do our wonderful hills justice. However, such routes are rarely easy options as they involve longer approaches, pathless glens, boggy ground and gruelling ascents. They’re undoubtedly more tiring but the benefits of these approaches outweigh the negatives. You travel through wilder landscapes, visit farther-flung glens and corries, see fewer (if any) people and as a result are likely to encounter a greater diversity or abundance of wildlife.

And so, approaching Corra-Bheinn from the shores of Loch na Keal and pedalling up Glen Cannel as far as I was able, before abandoning the bike at the ruins of Gortenbuie in favour of feet for a circular walk over these lofty hills, seemed like a great route choice. A perfect way of rendering accessible wee hills the opposite and turning what would likely be a half-day walk into an all-day bike & hike. From Gortenbuie I set out on foot for the lower slopes of Beinn a’ Mheadhain, which began rising 1km to the north. As I strode out across the vast expanse of grassland at the head of Glen Cannel I figuratively patted myself on the back for my route choice. Everything was going to plan.

An hour later and that feeling of smugness had been replaced by frustration and something bordering on despair. This was by far the worst terrain I had ever crossed in Scotland, which is saying something when you’ve walked across the blanket bogs of Sutherland! Seen from Gortenbuie it had the appearance of any other damp grassy expanse but the long grass had hidden the innumerable hoof-sized pot holes created by the grazing of cattle. Each pot hole was full of water, for all intents and purposes turning the head of the glen into a vast lake hidden beneath thousands of small, wobbly tussocks of grass.

From visual inspection alone it was impossible to tell which puddles were likely to merely wet my boots and which ones were likely to swallow me whole. In some of those inky black puddles my walking poles completely disappeared and dropped me sideways, in others they did little more than splash the surface. Painfully slow progress was only possible by sheepishly tapping my poles on the ground in front of me to check that it was going to take my weight, before committing my feet in an equally sheepish fashion. In the end, I made my way across the expanse by hopping from one tiny tussocky island to the next, and according to my GPS track I managed to turn 1km into 2km as I zig-zagged and back-tracked across the mire in search of a dry way out.

Crossing the tussock-covered lake in Glen Cannel. By coincidence I was filming a video blog when the owl appeared, so here’s a still of me snapping it as it flew off.

Crossing the tussock-covered lake in Glen Cannel. By coincidence I was filming a video blog when the owl appeared, so here’s a still of me snapping it as it flew off.

When I finally reached a marked rise in gradient on Beinn a’ Mheadhain’s northern ridge, to my dismay I found no relief. The lake somehow managed to defy gravity by creeping uphill and holding the water in situ. I felt like a fool. The cows I’d spotted on the approach to Gortenbuie coupled with the overnight rain had surely hinted at what was to come, but I’d not picked up on the warning signs. What on earth was I thinking!? Yes, the scenery all around me was glorious and the glen was beautifully quiet, but no amount of beauty and serenity could be worth THIS! Could it?

I fought hard mentally but as I squelched my way upwards I knew it was a losing game, and before long I’d got to the point nothing was going to redeem this hike. My boots were compromised, my feet sodden and I was sweating profusely in the still air. I longingly glanced back at the dry land around Gortenbuie, still depressingly close despite well over an hour of effort.

“Maybe I should turn back” I pondered.

And at that precise moment, as I wallowed in the soggy cattle-potted pits of despair, Mother Nature threw me a lifeline. As I slowly plodded through the mire a sudden commotion in the long grass not five metres in front of me made me jump, and sent my heart racing.

“Grouse!” announced the voice in my head unthinkingly, before noticing that the alleged grouse was in fact white and strangely large. The hidden creature flapped its wings to get airborne and awkwardly rose up from the tussocks, revealing two piercing yellow eyes staring in my direction. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened.

“A SHORT EARED OWL!!!!” screamed the voice in my head, excitedly.

Injured? Panicked? Aww, sorry for disturbing you!

Injured? Panicked? Aww, sorry for disturbing you!

The hapless owl seemed to be as unenamoured with this terrain as I was, struggling to escape the long grass and promptly tumbling to the ground in a messy heap. It ended up on its back and I wondered whether it was perhaps injured, unable to fly. It was undoubtedly panicked by my sudden appearance but as I watched, still from only a few metres away, it beat its large broad wings and rose upwards once more, all the while staring me down with those impossibly yellow eyes. We held one another’s gaze for so long, and the owl was so close that I thought for a moment it might actually attack me, but instead it made a silent and beautifully graceful escape over my shoulder. I turned around and watched until it disappeared against the huge flanks of Cruachan Dearg, and then I was left standing there alone in the bog, in total silence, bewildered and ecstatic at what I had just experienced.

“Erm…..did that really just happen?” I asked myself. I checked my camera to make sure. Yep, it definitely happened!

I was utterly stunned. Many a hillwalker, me included, is undoubtedly accustomed to having grouse, snipe or pheasants burst out from cover in heart-stopping fashion, or to having ptarmigan or golden plover teasingly scurry from behind a boulder, but in all my years I have never happened upon an owl in such a fashion. As diurnal (daytime-flying) owls I’ve certainly seen short eared’s on my walks, but I’ve never come so close as to almost step on top of them!

If at this point you are wondering what all the fuss is about, let me just say that owl encounters aren’t like other bird encounters, not for me anyway. I don’t know whether it’s because of their peculiar appearance, their hunting prowess or their prominence in folklore and mythology, but there’s something rather magical and enigmatic about owls, even the day-flying ones. And the most memorable aspects of an encounter with a short eared owl are its eyes, because that fixing gaze is something you never forget.

A bit blurred but hopefully you can see what I mean about those eyes.

A bit blurred but hopefully you can see what I mean about those eyes.

Most other birds’ eyes are located on the sides of their head. This gives them panoramic vision for evading predators and means that when they have an eye trained on you their head can be side on, and you never get that sense that you are being scrutinised closely. Owls’ eyes, like ours, are located at their front of their heads. This gives them the impressive binocular vision they need in order to hunt their prey in cluttered environments but it also means they have a smaller field of vision, so they need to physically turn their heads in order to look at you. And when they do so you’re under no illusion that you’re being watched.

Those massive, strikingly vivid yellow eyes, made all the more striking by the mascara-like black feathers around them, have the power to root you to the spot. They are predator’s eyes, no mistaking, and even though you know you’re far too big to be the owl’s dinner there’s something fundamentally primeval, something wonderfully hypnotic and yes, even something a bit unsettling about staring into the calculating eyes of a highly tuned killing machine.

Then of course there’s the remarkable grace that short eared owls have in flight. Though it is predominantly a mottled brown colour, the underside of its 3ft wingspan is pale white, which gives it the appearance of a giant moth as it silently quarters to and fro across open moors and grassland in search of its favourite food, field voles. On a hazy summer’s evening in the hills, seeing a short eared owl hunting is like watching an apparition before your eyes.

As you can probably tell, I’m a bit of a fan. I’m fortunate to see them most years in Fife’s Lomond Hills albeit only from a distance, and I’ve been trying over the last six years or so to get a decent photo of them. Typically I see them on days when I either don’t have my camera with me or I don’t have my zoom lens on my camera. And then when I do go out with the right kit, actively looking, I never see anything. Like most wildlife encounters there’s always been that element of pure luck involved, but short eared owls have always seemed especially elusive.

This time however, my zoom lens was attached and my camera was at my side like a gun in a holster. And as soon as I realised what it was in that long grass, I had drawn and shot. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to have called it a chance encounter of a lifetime, because I wouldn’t be surprised if I never get that close to a short eared owl in the wild ever again.

The short eared owl. A real beauty.

The short eared owl. A real beauty.

Unsurprisingly, I immediately felt vindicated for my seemingly abysmal route choice and was happy to find confidence unshaken in my general modus operandi of choosing bonkers routes up hills. Moreover, the fleeting but extraordinary encounter had worked wonders on my mood. With every beat of the owls wings the fog of despair had been blown away, and after the owl had finally worked its way free of the mire and sailed in total silence past my left shoulder, almost close enough to touch, it left me feeling as light as a feather. It was as though the previous agonising 90 minutes never happened, and such a dramatic turnaround put me on a ecstatically dizzy high that catapulted me up and around those hills with renewed energy.

I dare say that such turnarounds of emotion, from the pits of despair to the heights of ecstasy or vice versa will be a familiar phenomenon to many who go walking in Scotland’s hills. The weather can suddenly change for better or worse, perhaps seeing us emerge through the pea soup of an inversion layer into blinding sunshine, or seeing our benign blue sky day give way to a savage whiteout that has us fearing for our safety. But for me, the emotions that are prompted by rare and unexpected close encounters with wildlife simply cannot be surpassed as a way of lifting my spirits on a bad day.

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