It was in the autumn of 1977 and I was strolling along a rough vehicle track in a pine forest bordering the fast-flowing River Dee in the northeast of Scotland. The forest lies between Balmoral Castle and the Highland village of Ballater.
The so-called Glorious Twelfth (of August) had passed, so members of the British royal family would have been gathered at the castle for the start of the shooting season.
I was in the vicinity studying a common bird species, the rook. This bird is like a crow but with a white forehead.
I was interested in its seasonal movements and the environmental determinants of these movements. As it turned out, the large flocks of rooks, after much vocalising and wheeling in the air, deserted the upper reaches of this highland valley to spend the winter months on the lowland coastal plains.
The rook feeds on pasture and stubble, and inland these are more often covered in winter snow than are the fields at lower altitudes. Additionally, since on some mornings of my visits inland the temperature dipped to minus 20C, the seasonal desertion of these high fields was hardly surprising.
As I meandered along, scanning the tree tops for colonies of nesting rooks, binoculars at the ready, a large black car approached slowly and stopped about 10m away. A youngish woman got out, as did the dark-suited driver and they assisted an elderly lady from the vehicle.
The two younger persons looked at me in a hostile manner but the old lady, who was petite and elegantly dressed, approached to within a few metres of where I was standing and regarded me with some curiosity and a pleasant smile.
Not being very quick off the mark, it took me several seconds to recognise the lady who stood before me as the Queen Mother.
This was a lady who had suffered so much trauma in her life that a chance encounter with an Aussie birdwatcher was hardly going to faze her.
I would like to describe her attire in full detail as professional commentators do, but I lack such powers of observation and description. She wore a hat (of course) and her dress was of a subdued lavender colour (I think).
Regrettably, I cannot remember her exact words to me but she showed an apparent interest as I explained I was on sabbatical leave from my university in Australia and spending some of my time studying this bird.
We chatted for several minutes before she graciously took her leave, her attendants still glowering at me. Her car took her in one direction and I, in a somewhat dazed condition, took the other.
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