On winter mountains are strong friendships forged. I spent today with Deb, whom I met on my first trip to Hemis National Park in search of snow leopards in February 2013. That we saw six snow leopards, including a mother near-missing a blue sheep, was remarkable. More remarkable still was what we humans shared in camp and on snowy mountainsides: Europeans, far from their own landscapes and thoughtscapes, learning from one another and from the skill, open-heartedness and diligence of Ladakhis. Therein lies the power of the trip.
|Deb, a marsh tit and friends watching two snow leopards in the |
Tarbung Valley, Ladakh, February 2013
(photo by Russell Scott)
Deb and a marsh tit in the Husing Valley
(photo by Russell Scott)
|A map drawn by our Ladakhi friend Chitta of|
the sites where we saw snow leopards in February 2013
Instead, more talk of Norfolk, where today Deb and I walked the banks and boundaries of NWT Cley Marshes. All the birds of winter were here, though winter's dramatis personae has changed greatly in the thirty years I have been here too. Among the many mutedly fluting teal on the marsh were little egrets. Stirring the purr-wing wigeon there were marsh harriers, so recently seen only in summer here. In the puddled grass were plenty of brents, bringing with them their many bar-backed youngsters from a successful season in the tundra. Ruff were here, commuting in quick-winged flocks between the marshes and the stubble-fields, and redshank, loud in the winter stillness. On the shingle goldfinches fed from the dried heads of the horned poppies, remembering in their wings the poppies' buttery summer blossoms. Rolling in the surf were bull grey seals who, unlike almost every other vertebrate about its winter business at Cley today, are at the height of their breeding: their harems are pupping in the dunes on the Point and no sooner have they done so than these precious females will come into season for the only time in the year.
After our cold walk and steaming soup in the visitor centre, Deb and I called at the Pinkfoot Gallery where Sarah was full of news of otters and pine martens in Scotland. We crooned and drooled over art and, stopping by a striking bronze sculpture of a hare, Deb, who has seen snow leopards (and woolly hares) with me in Ladakh, said, 'It's one of my dreams to see a hare in the wild.'
I did a double take. Perhaps I double-took (I'm not sure). The penny dropped. Deb had never seen a hare. I raced to Sarah's office my mind full of spots along the coast where hares could be seen. I needed a nearby site which I could be sure to reach before the afternoon's light left us altogether. I suggested the hilly fields above Salthouse and - yes - Sarah confirmed that Rachel often sketched hares there. I bustled Deb into the street and into my car. We raced (as fast as the 20 mile speed limit through the High Street would allow) to Salthouse. No hares in the fields by the first muddy parking spot. From the second we could walk across a winter cereal field - every hare's favourite - and scanning closely I found one hunkering like a lump of earth between the sharp green lines. I pointed out the place, lifted my binoculars again, and saw that it had gone. No lump of earth. No hare.
We rushed across the field to where the hare must surely be found, and there indeed he was, flattening himself millimetre by millimetre into a furrow. So we tiptoed along the field's edge, crisp with the fresh shoots of alexanders, as the hare pressed himself into the mud. Finally, after Deb had certainly seen her hare, he leapt to life, spun round, and bounced across the field showing how effortlessly he could give us poor bipeds the slip.
I have seen five species of hare this year - woolly in Ladakh, mountain in Kamchatka, Ethiopian and Starck's in Ethiopia (Starck's hare: what a beauteous thing and what a habitat in which to live!) - but this home hare in a cold field, shared with a friend, was the best by far.