As a youth growing up in Britain, I was very grateful for the YOC — Young Ornithologists Club — an offshoot of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Teenage birders would never admit their passion to schoolmates for fear of relentless teasing in what was a pretty macho culture, so it was a relief to have a forum where you could talk about birds with your peers without worry. Among the great things that the YOC offered were birding holidays, several days away from home, sleeping in a youth hostel, doing nothing but birding with like-minded kids and expert leaders.
Soon, though, even these experiences left me longing for more, and so it was that at the age of 15, I, along with two friends whom I’d met on a YOC holiday, planned out a month-long adventure to the north of Scotland in search of mythical birds.
After school broke up for the summer, we met up at our first destination, Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. I remember well the excitement of heading into the remnants of the ancient Caledonian pine forests for the first time and seeing crested tits and Scottish crossbills. At Loch Garten, we saw nesting ospreys, then an extreme rarity in Britain: Grey wagtails and dippers graced the River Spey. But it was the mountaintops of the nearby Cairngorms that truly sparked my imagination.
The easiest way to get to the top of the mountains was via chairlift that continued to run into the summer despite most of the snow being gone. With hand-drawn map in hand — one of several we carried with us that had been made for us by other birders who had trod these hallowed hills — we searched for our target birds. Fortunately, we had good weather as our itinerary only allowed us this one day on the peaks; more often than not, the Cairngorms were socked in with low cloud.
One of the first birds we saw in the barren open country, a lifer for all three, was a ptarmigan, a game bird closely related to the red grouse and whose plumage turns wholly white in the winter. Now, though, in mid-summer, they were a mottled gray and blended in very well with the rocks.
Another specialty we saw were snow buntings, birds we’d seen wintering in flocks on English beaches but were in their nesting habitat here. But it was on the very top of Cairngorm that we hoped to see the bird we longed for, for this was one of the few places this bird nested in Britain. It was the dotterel, a beautiful and fearless species of plover, brown above, chestnut below, with a striking white eye stripe and chest stripe. The birds winter in a narrow range in north Africa and each spring make the journey in groups known as “trips” to the high country of northern Europe. The name dotterel dates back to at least the 15th century and means dotard or foolish one because of the ease with which they could be captured and then cooked. Queen of England Anne Boleyn reportedly found them quite toothsome. Fortunately, the birds are now fully protected.
We spent some time looking for these mythical birds without any luck, and our spirits were beginning to sink when we spied one running just a few feet ahead of us. We sat quietly and realized dotterel were all around us, some sitting still while others fed like the typical plovers they are, running a few feet, then stopping, head erect, looking for insects through their large dark eyes.
With the dotterels in the bag, so to speak, we headed down the mountain and prepared for the next leg of our trip. We were to take the ferry from Aberdeen to the Shetland Islands, the most northerly part of the British Isles. More adventures awaited us!