If, like me, you are someone who visits the high tops of the Cairngorm massif in winter, finding a Snow Bunting sitting atop a cairn waiting to greet you with a head tilted sideways glance, would not surprise. They have often hung around my huddled shelter, snatching frozen crumbs I have offered them. Not as gregarious or bold as Chaffinches, but they clearly associate the combined presence of humans and a cairn with potential rewards.
Early on the last day of 2008, I cautiously approached the summit cairn of Carn Aosda on icy scree. I was putting off the strapping on of my crampons that inevitably involved a cold-fingered fumble with straps. I spotted the Snow Bunting, fluffed up against an eastern sky the colour of thin custard. She was unfazed by my ungainly figure flapping about like a new born penguin trying to balance myself on the ice. I slowed slightly so as not to startle, but she kept her cold vigil, ignoring me. Keeping my distance, I dumped my pack a couple of metres away from the cairn and unpacked my flask and flapjack.
There was hardly a breath of wind. My heart slowed and my breathing relaxed as I put my hat on. Winter sunshine – my favourite walking conditions. It was barely 9 am. The year was petering out, but the day still held a promise, especially now I was above most of the Glenshee Ski paraphernalia. The Snow Bunting didn’t move, even when offered a crumb and I wondered what she’d had for breakfast already. So small, yet so tough, I thought.
Snow Buntings are largely winter visitors to Scotland, but up on the high plateaus of the Cairngorm region where snow-fields remain well into the summer, there are breeding populations that stay year round.
Growing cold and stiff, I stood up to leave and she flew off, becoming invisible quickly against the scree in the low light, As I looked for her, I became dimly aware again of the hum of machines from the Ski Centre. Four snow-makers working overtime to make up for another poor season in the hope of attracting visitors over the holidays.
The snow bunting has no such technical option at its disposal, I thought. If the steady decline in snow cover year on year continues, it will eventually lead to a decline in our breeding population. If winters in Greenland and Scandanavia become less harsh, there may even be an eventual loss of our visiting population.
I shouldered my rucksack and headed west to continue my round out to Carn a’ Gheoidh and back via the litter strewn and mobile mast decked summit of The Cairnwell. I was rewarded on the way with sightings of mountain hare and a ptarmigan.
On the way down, having never seen one up close, I decided to go and have look at the snow machines. I noted with some irritation that the flood lighting had been left on all day next to the slope where the machines were operating and wondered if the ski resorts understood anything about the potential impact of CO2 emissions, or made even the vaguest connection to their current predicament.
For a few minutes, I stood next to the snow-makers spouting ice crystals high into the blue afternoon sky like a giant firework. Snow machines like these, with a capacity for creating about 60 m3 of artificial snow per hour, consume about 20kw of power and up to 500 litres of water per minute. Impressive. Multiply by four. I did the sums.
Heading home for my Hogmanay dram, I mulled over the conundrum of skiing economics, environmental impacts, carbon footprints, local communities, tourism and the probability that it was all looking a bit unsustainable in the longer term. And at a point not too far in the future, just like the skiers, the Snow Bunting will start looking for better conditions elsewhere.