Troup Head

One of my absolute wildlife highlights was landing on the Bass Rock back in 2017. To be surrounded by many thousands of gannets was incredible – really awe-inspiring and very memorable. They are magnificent birds with beautiful beaks and startling blue rings round their eyes, and so elegant in flight.

The Bass Rock

Aberdeenshire plays host to the largest UK mainland gannet/seabird colony at Troup Head. It’s not exactly close to Inverness, but it was near enough to spend a day there in the company of my parents during my final week in the Highlands. Not all the birds had arrived, but the sky was populated by a fairly large number of both gannets and fulmars, another lovely bird, both struggling with the strong winds.

It’s not the easiest place to find and isn’t sign-posted until you’re relatively close, then the signs are just small, square, RSPB images – you also have to drive through a working farm and at that point it’s easy to question if going in the right direction! Once the carpark is located though it’s not a particularly long walk along to the clifftop. Puffins nest here too, but as there probably weren’t very many back as yet we gave those a miss and headed straight to the gannet colony.

The cliff is pretty steep and due to the wind it was especially necessary to be quite careful. I confess I did lie on the ground and hang over the edge though in order to take some of these images. I was using my Nikon D500 with the Tamron 150-600mm, giving me a focal distance up to 900mm.

Looking down over the cliff edge to the gannets & rough seas below

I find flying shots fairly easy, and it was made more straightforward by the wind.

Some birds were collecting nesting material. This individual however didn’t seem to know what to do with it and circled past me at least 5 or 6 times.

I also tried to photograph the gannets against both the cliff

…and the sea, which, being quite rough, added a bit of drama I think.

Photographing the gannets on their ledges was more challenging. Due to the fact only some of the birds had arrived, most had chosen nest sites quite far down the cliff. It took quite a bit of hanging over the edge in different locations to find photogenic birds – one of the problems with gannets is that there are often quite a few of them in one spot which doesn’t lend itself to clean images, and in this case bits of cliff and grass tended to get in the way too. I managed a handul I liked though.

Three’s a crowd!

I especially like isolating a gannet’s head and neck. The lines on their beaks and their startling blue eyes are wonderful.

They look completely different face on!

The other bird that had already made itself at home was the fulmar. These are lovely birds, members of the albatross family. When their beaks are shut they look as though they are smiling – I like that

…they can also look a little ferocious when calling out for their mate

They were really struggling in the wind though, and would hang in the air for ages and found it difficult to return to their nest site and partner. It did make photographing them a bit easier though.

So that was my day! It’s not as good as landing on the Bass Rock, but it’s free(!) and more reliable (the Bass Rock landing trip is cancelled regularly due to the wind). It’s possible to get close to the birds and that is wonderful. Possibly not the place to go if you’re afraid of heights, but otherwise, highly recommended!

Living my Wildlife Dream (Temporarily)


Whenever I holiday in the Scottish Highlands I tend to stay at the same self-catering cottage in Tomatin – a great central location halfway between Inverness and Aviemore & close to the mountain hares. However, it was unavailable for my end of March week and after spending hours trawling through the internet looking for a reasonably priced cottage within my catchment area I finally came across a 2 bed house at Upper Finlarig, up the hill from Dulnain Bridge which was a good price and from the description sounded perfect (red squirrels in the garden being the other big selling point!) There was the owner’s house plus 2 cottages surrounded by farm land with a field opposite the garden which comprised both short and long grass, a couple of larch trees, a burn and more trees a bit further away.

From the front and up the hill there was a stunning view over to the Cairngorm Mountain range.

I wasn’t disappointed! As I arrived a brown hare ran across the road in front of me and the garden was full of little birds (and pheasants) crowding round the feeders – coal tits, blue tits, great tits, dunnock, house sparrow, wren, blackbirds, greenfinch, siskin and robins.

With the exception of the Sunday morning when I had a well-deserved lie-in, I was up by 6.30 every morning. Initially I’d go out and wander about to see what was in the surrounding fields. On those mornings I saw displaying lapwings, partridge, curlew, buzzards, oystercatchers, roe deer and brown hares although I couldn’t get close to the latter. The little birds were chasing each other around, full of the joys of spring. Really quite idyllic!

However… it soon transpired that I didn’t need to leave the comfort of the kitchen or garden to enjoy the wildlife. Two red squirrels, one male, one female, visited the feeders or sat in the trees next to the garden. Most mornings one or two roe deer could be spotted grazing at the back of the field and there were at least four brown hares spending a fair amount of time in the field too. When I’m at home in Glasgow I eat my breakfast looking out onto my back garden enjoying the goldfinch, house sparrows and blue tits that frequent my feeders, it is a lovely way to start the day – for me watching wildlife is my version of mindfulness as it lets my brain shut down temporarily as I enjoy the natural world. Therefore being in this cottage, looking out the window at all the wildlife on view was heaven. It would take me ages to eat my breakfast as I had to keep throwing it down to dash outside again with my camera! And it made leaving for the day very difficult! A nice problem to have though…

Initially I was a little concerned that it would be tricky to achieve nice images of the squirrels as they did tend to go to the feeder and rarely stopped anywhere else in the garden, even when I scattered both shelled and unshelled hazelnuts in photogenic locations.

However, on my first morning one sat in the large pine tree at the side of the garden, just as the sun hit the branch which was great.

Available to purchase via https://bit.ly/2D1dJkp

Later in the week I noticed that they were partial to the seeds of the larch tree flowers. Not always easy to photograph as there were a lot of little branches, but they are beautiful trees and on one morning a squirrel sat on a visible branch for ages munching the seeds providing me with some of my favourite photographs from the week. It’s lovely to see red squirrels eating food they’ve sourced, not the nuts I’ve provided (they did get through/cache a lot of hazelnuts too though!) What a joy to look out the window in the morning and see red squirrels!

Available to purchase via https://bit.ly/2WSLrAg

I think though that the highlight for me were the brown hares. As regular readers of my blog/social media followers will be aware I love hares, and it’s not just the mountain variety! I think they are beautiful creatures. It was a real thrill to see them in the field outside the cottage, and even more so that they often ran past the end of the garden, regularly pausing for a few seconds.

I honestly never expected to be quite so close without use of a hide of some sort. Much as mountain hares have a special place in my heart, I do confess that I like the ears of the brown hares best – they are so much longer! The only downside, from a photographic perspective, was that the area of field close to the cottage had a lot of earth piles and wasn’t nearly as neat and clean as the surrounding fields, so they aren’t the best images from that perspective, but nonetheless, it’s not all about photographs and I really loved seeing them every day. There was some chasing and a tiny little bit of boxing.

Another bird it was great to see in the field were a couple of curlews. Their calls were audible throughout the day, a gorgeous sound. One of them did still seem to be moulting though.

Not to be outdone, the little birds would perch and sing too. The robin sat in the larch or pine tree in the mornings singing and would display to other robins. Both a wren and a dunnock liked to sit on the fence posts and sing their little hearts out too. Fab!

Dunnock singing on a fence, Dulnain Bridge

This really was my idea of wildlife heaven – 30 species seen over the course of the week in the garden and surrounding fields and that’s lumping all types of gulls together as one. We even had a red kite fly over one day.

  • Robin
  • Chaffinch
  • Coal Tit
  • Blue Tit
  • Great Tit
  • Goldfinch
  • Greenfinch
  • Blackbird
  • Dunnock
  • Wren
  • House Sparrow
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Mistle Thrush
  • Curlew
  • Red Kite
  • Jackdaw
  • Gulls (black-headed mostly)
  • Buzzards
  • Lapwing
  • Oystercatcher
  • Starling
  • Brown Hare
  • Roe Deer
  • Partridge
  • Rabbit
  • Bumblebee
  • Red Squirrel
  • Treecreeper
  • Great Spotted Woodpecker
  • Pheasant

If/when I eventually get to move to the Highlands this is exactly what I’d love – only animal missing, and I’m pretty sure they will be in the local woods were pine marten.

It was a brilliant end to a fabulous seven weeks in the Highlands and a wrench to leave on the Saturday. I’ll share a couple of other things I did during the week (Troup Head for example) in a future blog.

Snow!

Finally after a few weeks of unseasonably mild (and windy, oh so windy) weather, winter returned for a brief spell to the Scottish Highlands in early March much to my delight. Although working during the week I was able to take advantage of the conditions for a couple of weekends, although it proved more than a little challenging!

Sunday 10th of March I headed to the mountain hares bright and early. The walk up the hill was ok, and the winds weren’t too bad. The forecast was for conditions to deteriorate at lunch time, but “weather” arrived earlier than expected and it wasn’t long before swirling winds and snow made an unwelcome appearance.  Here I am in a rare selfie video!

The hares were pretty active or distant and after photographing a couple I decided the best thing to do was find a sheltered spot and hope that some would run towards or near me.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

I didn’t have much luck so deciding to move on I turned around only to discover a hare had settled down a short distance away. (You should always check all around you before moving as this often happens).

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

I crept closer, possibly a little too close as I was trying to find cover from the elements, and the hare moved down the hill a little bit which was a shame as this was a nice spot with few distractions. I managed a images before it settled down again thinking that it would travel too far for me to follow.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Fortunately it quickly found a new spot not too far away and hunkered down, I shuffled down the hill and found a gap between two mounds to shelter in. It was miserable. Really miserable. I couldn’t keep the snow off the camera lens or body, even with a waterproof cover. My outer layers were soaked and I was gradually disappearing under the falling snow. The hare hunkered down, and I watched as it turned into a snowball. Within 30 minutes of first coming across it, the hare had virtually vanished, with only its eyes and nose visible – had I looked for it now I’d never have seen it. For hares these aren’t difficult conditions, they are much more suited to weather like this than to hot or wet days, the snow acts as insulation. Not great for us humans though!

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

It was really unpleasant and I questioned my sanity especially as visibility was now very poor and the wind increasingly strong.

So after a mere two hours I called it a day and walked down the hill with fellow photographer Ian Herd. I am pleased with the images I managed though as I didn’t have any quite like these!

Fortunately, I already had other plans for the afternoon. In March 2018 I’d seen images of red deer stags standing in the snow in a forest. Transpired that they were taken on the Alvie Estate just outside of Aviemore. This estate offers a number of activities from zip wires to a red squirrel hide and the opportunity, for a fee, to photograph the stags as they are fed. It’s great to have an estate using wildlife in a good way. I’ve never really managed any decent red deer images, except for a couple that make me smile which I took when at Aigas, and given that snow was forecast I thought this might be a good time to check out the estate. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so snowy though! This was a good thing mind you as it encouraged all the stags to come down off the hill to feed, in fact they were all awaiting our arrival. The gamekeeper held off putting out the food for a while so that I could get some photographs as they patiently waited. I discovered to my concern that my D500’s viewfinder was filled with condensation (it was already sick – it wouldn’t turn off) but I had brought the D610 too, so was able to proceed – always good to have a contingency plan! The snow was falling and the only challenging thing was trying to single out stags to photograph, as they were so often gate-crashed by other deer. Definitely some christmas card potential here! Great to see the animals close up, such majestic beasts.

Red deer stags in the snow, Scottish Highlands

Red deer stags in the snow, Scottish Highlands

Red deer stags in the snow, Scottish Highlands

Red deer stags in the snow, Scottish Highlands

Red deer stags in the snow, Scottish Highlands

I fully expected Sunday to be my final opportunity for winter weather photography, but come the following Saturday snow was again falling from the sky – too much snow really! I’d offered to take a friend, Billy McCourt, up to the hares, otherwise, having seen the forecast I don’t think I’d have gone near the hill that day. On the plus side there was no wind – amazing! So much snow had fallen overnight, and was still falling that the walk up the hill and, more especially the hill itself, were hard going. The hares were full of the joys of life, perfect conditions for them and were very mobile, bounding about all over the place and impossible to approach, especially as we were struggling to walk. I fell down so many holes, even although I was prodding the ground in front of me with my monopod. Insane!

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Sadly we never made it close to any animal, although I do have some wide-angle images I like.

Mountain Hare (lepus timidus)

Mountain Hare (lepus timidus)

Mountain Hare (lepus timidus)

Mountain Hare (lepus timidus)

Lots of red grouse on the hill as well as more feral goats than I’ve seen at any point this year so far. It was still early, but we were worried about the drive back along the untreated road, although actually it was better on the return journey! Everywhere looked gorgeous, a proper winter wonderland with tree branches laden with snow and lots still falling from the sky.  I love this kind of day…  except when wading through it.

Next stop was RSPB Loch Garten in the hope that the inclement conditions had encouraged the crested tits to return to the feeders. No such luck, but I enjoyed photographing the chaffinches and siskins for a while as they squabbled over seed and perched beautifully as the snow fell around them.

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Final stop was Cairngorm Mountain in the hope that the snow buntings would be in the carpark. We heard them as soon as we exited the cars. It was still snowing heavily, but the winds were light and the birds landed around us as we sat with them for 30 minutes or so before retreating to the cafe for a hot drink and chocolate brownie. They are beautiful little birds and their winter plumage of cream and brown matches the terrain perfectly.  They tend to hang about at a small picnic area where there are stone walls.  These are great for photography, especially when covered by snow because you can take eye-level images without lying on the ground – always a good thing!  The birds are confident and at one point there was apparently one perched on the wall right behind my head.

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Sunday the snow was already melting. I had managed to pull/strain my hip flexor muscles and there was no way I was going to make it up to the hares because it hurt too much to lift my leg plus I was a little upset that my D500 not only wouldn’t turn off anymore but now had a blank top LCD screen (it still works, but it’s not great…). It is supposed to be weather-sealed and I immediately dried it off and put in a sealed bag with silicon gel packs when I came off the hill, so it’s really annoying!! Anyway… I went to Lochindorb hoping that there’d be snow and visible red grouse. There was a little snow remaining, but there was also a lot of weather – blue sky would suddenly be replaced by heavy rain, sleet or snow. Very unpleasant and I was glad to be in the shelter of my car. It’s tricky spotting the grouse in brown heather at the best of times and even more so when travelling solo as I had to drive too. So I adopted the technique of stopping in every passing place and lay-by to scan the area to my side and in front. Annoyingly the first 2 grouse I found attracted another couple of cars of photographers who scared the birds off – 1 car was fine, but 3 too many. So I left them to it and went a bit further on. I found about 7 or 8 different birds along the road, some of which were in more photogenic locations than others. Nice to see though.

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So that was winter.  I think it’s probably over now – the hills I can see from my accommodation are gradually turning brown again.  One week (of leave) left then I have to return to Glasgow.  It’s been great though, and hopefully I’ll be back permanently before too long.

Gear –

All hare and Loch Garten bird images photographed with Nikon D500 and Nikkor 300mm F4 (old version).

Red deer and red grouse: Nikon D610 with Tamron 150-600mm (old version).

Snow buntings Nikon D610 and Nikkor 300mm F4.

Tripod used for Loch Garten and some of the red deer images, otherwise hand-held (or rested on snow/knee/heather/car window).

Videos Samsung S7

Hanging Out with the Mountain Hares, Winter 2019

I’m already three weeks into a 7 week stay in the Scottish Highlands – two weeks leave with a five week work attachment sandwiched between. I was excited to be up at this time of year to hopefully photograph some of the iconic species of the region in snow – I’d watched BBC Winterwatch the week before and seen the incredible weather they experienced and I arrived at my week one base in Tomatin, to be greeted with a snowy driveway and winter landscapes.

Unfortunately after two snowy days on the hills with the mountain hares the temperature rose dramatically and strong winds became the norm. The snow disappeared almost overnight. This threw me a bit, as not only did the snow vanish but so did the cresties and snow buntings and my plans of those plus red deer and red squirrels in the white stuff were snuffed out. Still, fab to be here, and I love the hares with or without snow, so I’ve spent every possible day when not working, or when the winds not excessively strong on the hillside in their company.

Mountain hares are fantastic creatures, and so very hardy. As I sit with an animal in about 6 layers of thermals and warm jackets, still feeling extremely cold and questioning my sanity, they are hunkering down in a sheltered spot in their gorgeous thick white coat. I can’t begin to imagine the conditions they have to cope with. Sadly the weather this past few months has been of the sort that hares find hardest to deal with and there are far fewer on the hillside than in years gone by. This is partly because many of the leverets didn’t survive the hot, dry summer and because mild, wet winters aren’t great for them either. Sad news during my first week was that the most celebrated hare on the hillside Mrs G had passed away of natural causes. Many of my favourite hare images both my own and by others, were of this incredible animal who was so accepting of respectful photographers and always made sitting with her worthwhile. She’ll be missed.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)

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It takes a bit of time to figure out how to approach mountain hares and to learn which ones are worth approaching in the first place. It’s hugely frustrating to spend half an hour edging closer to an individual only for it to run, so you also need to be able to figure out what is the closest the hare will allow. There’s a lot of trial and error! Going with a guide can be helpful, although for the most part I’ve learnt by experience. I usually use my Nikon D500 paired with the Tamron 150-600mm which gives me a focal distance of 900mm on the crop frame camera, so I can stay a long way back. On my last two trips up the mountain I’ve switched to my Nikkor 300mm F4 in the hope that the wider aperture will soften the background a bit more. Although the focal distance is half that of the Tamron, it hasn’t been much of an issue because if using a prime you have to stay a bit further back anyway in case the hare decides to stretch, otherwise you lose half the animal! It’s also a bit lighter so I’m actually enjoying using it up there more than I had expected to. As I mentioned, approaching takes patience. Once I’ve spotted a potential subject I generally put my bag down (I often regret this!) and start edging forwards very slowly, often on my hands and knees (I always wear waterproofs). I stop regularly and also pause for a while if the hare becomes too aware. In this way I am fairly successful at reaching the hares, which is good. I just wish I was better at picking those that are going to do stuff! It’s also worth saying that you need lots of layers as sitting in one spot for an extended period (often a few hours) can be very cold. I’ve walked up the hill in three base layers and a jacket plus warm thermal trousers and on reaching the top added waterproof trousers and another one or two top layers – even then I feel cold after a while. Hand warmers help too. Mind you, I feel the cold!

My first day was a little frustrating although it was gorgeous and it was great to see a white-tailed sea eagle fly overhead on the trudge up the hill.

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I sat with an inactive hare until I became so cold I had to move and then failed to find another accommodating animal. I have a few wide angle images I like though.

 

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Day two was much better, there’d been a fresh covering of snow overnight and the hillside looked gorgeous. I went up to the plateau hoping for some mobile hares, but spotted one digging itself a snow hole a fair distance away.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Once it was settled I very slowly, as there was no cover, approached and sat with it for a few hours (again until I became too cold to stay put). This hare did a bit of grazing and then treated me to a full on roll in the snow – fab! Every time it turned over it would look at me as though to check I was capturing the action on camera. Loved it.

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A few more of that hare and some others from that day:

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

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On day three the temperature rose and the winds picked up so it was still pretty cold on the hillside. I didn’t find any particularly active hares, but did locate a spot where the afternoon light was shining on the far hills giving the images a lovely orange glow. I was so well hidden that a second hare came over and sat in front of me.

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After that I had a difficult, again windy, day when all the animals I sat with were fairly inactive and also had grass in front of their faces which was really annoying! It wasn’t until the Saturday that I had a memorable encounter. I was heading down the slope intending to start the descent back to the car, when I saw two hares that were beginning to chase one another. I was trying to close in on them when I quite literally stumbled over another hare, but rather than run away it began to graze at my feet – it was really small, not much bigger than a large rabbit and totally fearless. I saw with it until the sun went down, a lovely experience. Sadly I haven’t found that hare again.

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The last two weeks whilst I’ve been at work the winds have died down and the weather has been warm and sunny… except at the weekends! On the middle Sunday I went up to the hares but although I sat with six separate individuals they were resolute in their intention to do absolutely nothing. On a positive note I found the walk up the hill much easier as the wind hadn’t yet awoken and I was chatting to James Roddie and his client.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

This weekend the winds again have been strong – gale force in fact. But I was up on the hill bright and early on Saturday before they really picked up. The walk up was a bit harder but it was a nice sunny day so I didn’t mind too much. I decided to concentrate on a different section of the hill for a change and immediately spotted a hare in a dip ahead of me. Unfortunately it immediately ran up the hill a bit before I had a chance to try and approach. So I walked up, a little to the right of it and was standing contemplating whether or not to try the same hare again or find another (given that it had run the first time, I would have expected it to do the same again) when I noticed it had started grooming. So, as I always do I abandoned my bag and edged very slowly closer while it was occupied with its ablutions. This was the right decision! It was a fantastic hare. Where all the others have sat, hunkered down, with the odd stretch, twitch or graze, this one was very keen on keeping clean, and groomed every 10-20 minutes, even treating me to the high-four back paw behaviour 4 times

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

…and shaking regularly which resulted in some very funny photographs!

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

We sat together for a few hours, and although I could have stayed with it, I had spotted some very frisky hares on the next section of the hill so decided to go and investigate them. Disappointingly they kept getting further and further away but it was entertaining to watch from a distance. Boxing hares are still on the wish list for this trip!

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) in the snow in the Scottish Highlands

By 1pm the winds were very strong and it had begun to rain, so I decided the safest thing to do would be to head for home. But I felt okay with that having had my favourite hare experience of the trip so far!

Where to Find and Photograph Red Squirrels in Scotland

I love red squirrels, they are so much fun to watch as they dart, bounce and jump through tree canopies and undergrowth.  Such inquisitive little creatures that make me smile.  I can spend hours watching and photographing them, and seek the squirrels out whenever possible.  In this blog I will share some of my favourite locations for photographing them (as well as a few others with potential) and include a handful of images from each to show what the location is like for photography.  I’ll write about free, wildlife membership and pay to hire hides.  Obviously this is just the tip of the red squirrel iceberg, and if you have any places you go to in Scotland to photograph them please do add in the comments below.

A few photography tips based on my experiences.

  • Unless it’s specifically stated that you shouldn’t feed them, or if you’re going to a paid photo hide, always take nuts, preferably hazelnuts with you.  A nut cracker is useful too as the squirrels will often take whole nuts and stash for later so unshelled nuts are more likely to be eaten in situ, (although they are more often than not stolen by birds!) so you have more time for photographs.
  • Red squirrels are speedy wee creatures, and the majority of places you’re likely to find them are quite shady due to the trees.  This makes it difficult to use a high enough shutter speed for moving squirrels, unless you push the ISO up very high and/or have a fast lens (although then you have the challenge of a shallow depth of field).  It’s therefore best in these conditions to concentrate on photographs of them when relatively static – this is true for photographing any bird/animal in low light, a very useful tip I was given a couple of years back.  Being curious animals, they will often pause to check you out, and of course stop to munch on nuts so have the camera ready.  By doing this you can keep the shutter speed lower and therefore reduce the ISO.
  • Try and photograph them away from feeders (same for birds) and if possible attempt at least a few images where they don’t have a nut in their mouth or front paws – not the easiest thing to do at times! Also good to try for eye contact, it makes the photograph more engaging.  They have massive personalities, so images that capture an element of this are great too.
  • If you’d like jumping squirrels then you’re best to go to a professional photography hide which has a set-up for this.  red-squirrel-jumping_36795848296_oNeil MacIntyre‘s hide (see below) is great.  For a face on jump you  need to use manual focus and set  focus halfway across the jump, use high speed continuous and then press the shutter as soon as the squirrel’s about to jump. Hopefully then one at least is in focus. Best to use a cable release or wireless remote.  High shutter speed essential, so pump up the ISO and try for an aperture at around 7.1 or 8 to increase depth of field.

 

FREE LOCATIONS/RESERVES

I’ll start with the free (or voluntary contribution) locations I enjoy visiting, beginning with the wonderful Eskrigg Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Lockerbie.  Not the easiest reserve to find, you won’t stumble upon it by accident, but google can help!  There’s a red squirrel hide and nut feeders as well as a large number of bird feeders here, aside from the reds you will be unlucky not to spot a nuthatch or great spotted woodpecker as well as all the regular little birds.  Sparrowhawks (I haven’t seen one here) are often sighted as are treecreepers and goldcrest (I’ve seen both) and there’s a pond with ducks, swans and apparently, on occasion kingfisher. There are a lot of red squirrels here, but I’ve found on some occasions they don’t come down regularly – I’ve had 4 or 5 at one time or, rare visits from a single animal.  Early morning is good.  Light isn’t bad as it’s at the edge of woodland, although it’s not bright by any means.  I tend not to use the hide, but sit on the boarding next to it so I can get down to eye-level with the squirrels.  Many are very tame, and will come within touching distance, often far too close to focus on.  My camera/lens choices here are Nikon D500 + Tamron 150-600mm for more distant squirrels and the birds, and my Nikon D610 with Tokina 100mm macro, for those much closer animals – you really need a short lens here and a fast one with large aperture very helpful too!  A mobile phone camera/video is great too.  The volunteers who run the reserve prefer that folk don’t feed the squirrels but do allow photographers to place some nuts in photogenic spots, but the hazelnuts should be shelled first.  I’ve written a blog about Eskrigg, so do check that out if interested.  Also, in the same part of the world, and discussed below, is the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide which also has visits from red squirrels.

 

A site I visited for the first time in December 2018 is Carnie Woods on the outskirts of Aberdeen.  It’s a small area of woodland, but because the red squirrels have been fed here there are far more than could live without human assistance, therefore there’s a very high chance of spotting a few especially if you go to the feeding station within the wood.  I loved this place, only downside really was the huge number of dogs walked there – an endless stream of them running around and frightening off the squirrels.   The squirrels were even tamer than at Eskrigg and I often looked down and found one attempting to steal nuts from the bag at my feet – so don’t leave your belongings unguarded especially if there’s anything they might like to eat/steal inside!  There are a couple of fallen logs and I was placing nuts midway along one of them, and photographing them running along towards me.  Only problem was there’s a plank attached to this log which isn’t great for photographs.  I never managed to get them to run along the other, more photogenic log. Fab place though and definitely worth a visit if you’re in or near Aberdeen. I wish it was closer to Glasgow!  Any short to mid-length lens will do here.  I mostly used the Tokina 100mm macro with both my cameras, but did have a longer lens on the other body.  I spotted treecreepers and goldcrest in the woods en route to the feeders.

Aberfoyle – there are red squirrels throughout Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, but a good place to stand a chance of seeing them is at the David Marshall Lodge wildlife hide.  Not brilliant for photographs as the undergrowth is quite high and the squirrels tend to go to the feeders, plus it’s a bit on the dark side and the squirrels aren’t too close so the best compromise between long lens and large aperture is best.  Also visited by lots of families with loud excited children and dogs and there’s a zip wire close by so lots of screaming and not the most peaceful of locations.  If you wander around near the hide though you might find a more photogenic spot and can maybe attract some with nuts.  I had success with this on one occasion.

Buchanty Spout, Perthshire – I visited this area to try and photograph the jumping salmon on the River Almond, but they chose not to travel upstream that day.  Very pretty spot though especially in the autumn.  If you cross over the river to the side furthest from the carpark, there’s a walk along the riverbank.  I saw 4 red squirrels here.  A bit of patience, fieldcraft, long lens and nuts might be required to get close to them though.  I had the wrong lens, as I’d come for the salmon, so struggled to photograph one sitting at the top of a tree, which is a shame as they’d have been quite interesting pictures.

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Morton Lochs – I confess I  mortonlochs_vole-3340bhaven’t actually seen any red squirrels here, but I’ve only been once and it was a bitterly cold November day and the whole place was frozen.  I have however seen many photographs of the squirrels which frequent a hide next to the carpark.  Nice location, possible to get good photographs and you don’t need a long lens – all I saw was this little vole.  Also known for kingfisher sightings if you go to the hide by the loch (it was frozen solid on my visit so not a lot to see there either).

Loch an Eilein on the Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore is one of many places in that area you can spot red squirrels.  The Loch is gorgeous and is surrounded by the remnants of the old Caledonian pine forest.  Read on to find out about a fantastic, pay to rent, hide here, but you can spot squirrels at the feeders in the carpark opposite the hut where you pay to park (you do have to pay to park), and also down towards the loch itself.  Early morning is best to see them and it’s not that easy to get close, but worth trying for the stunning location.

RedSquirrel-6
photographed at the feeders by the pay booth – torrential rain, so lovely to see one!

Other places I haven’t checked out but am aware of are Cluny House in Fife and the feeding station at the outskirts of Boat of Garten. In fact there are quite a lot of places near Aviemore.  Note – the excellent Inshriach Nursery in the highlands has now shut, so no more gorgeous cake whilst watching the squirrels…

PAY TO ENTER (FREE FOR MEMBERS) WILDLIFE RESERVES

Many of the wildlife organisations have red squirrels visiting their sites. The best I’ve found of these is RSPB Loch Leven.  Entry is £5 for non-members, free if a member.  Squirrels are located behind the visitor centre, by a small hide designed to encourage children to watch wildlife.  This whole bit of the reserve is full of bird feeders and therefore squirrels can be sighted anywhere but this area by the wee hide has the most light and a nice photogenic log which has good dips for hazelnuts. I had to wait awhile, maybe because the feeders were pretty empty as it was 2nd Jan so the centre had been closed for a couple of days, but eventually  I was visited by at least three individuals who returned again and again once they discovered my hazelnuts.  I wasn’t able to put out unshelled nuts though because the birds instantly stole them!  Whenever the nuts ran out, the squirrels would approach me and let it be known they’d like some more.  Although the reserve was busy very few people came near this bit, so I mostly had the squirrels to myself.  Any lens will do here.  I used the D500/Tamron combination, but mostly at the short focal length (200-300mm).  Sit opposite the fallen log and you’ll get some nice shots, but look behind and to the sides as well as the squirrels will sneak up on you!

Loch of the Lowes (Scottish Wildlife Trust – members get in free) by Dunkeld is best known for its ospreys, but there are red squirrels visiting the feeders outside the visitor centre.  They do apparently have a small pop-up hide that can be rented too.  Not the best for photography as you’re sitting behind (clean) glass, but lovely to sit in the warmth of the centre watching them and the many varieties of birds that come for a snack.  I don’t have any red squirrel photographs from here though as they were always sat at a feeder…

RSPB Loch Garten – Best known for it’s osprey viewing and crested tits but red squirrels are sometimes seen up by the visitor centre at the bird feeders – especially the long nut one.  I’ve had two sightings here, one of which was a squirrel high up a tree actually eating proper natural squirrel food – a pine cone!!

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PAID PHOTOGRAPHY HIDES

These are obviously by far and away the most expensive option, but they have been set up with photography in mind so can be a good choice.

My favourite by far of these is Neil MacIntyre‘s hide situated deep within the Caledonian pine forest on the Rothiemurchus Estate.  As I mentioned above you can see squirrels around the estate, but here you’re pretty much guaranteed some wonderful sightings in the most picturesque setting I’ve ever been to.  Almost every keen photographer has visited this hide so you’ll see photographs from it all over social media.  I’ve been twice, once in August when the heather was in full bloom which was stunning, and again in March when there was a light dusting of snow.  Being in the middle of a forest the light can be challenging and it’s good to take a long, fast lens.  But because the setting is gorgeous, it’s a great place for wide-angle photographs too. I used 3 different lenses here with my 2 cameras (Nikon D500 and Nikon D610) – Tamron 150-600mm, Nikkor 300mm F4 (with 1.4 t/c) and Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 for the wide angle photographs. Neil has a couple of jumps set up as well.  Large hide and Neil provides hot drinks and a few extra hazelnuts. This hide is bookable for morning or afternoon. Shared with others.  Neil also has a great book on red squirrels with some fabulous photographs.  I have two blogs about this hide – August 2017, March 2018.

Alan McFadyen’s (Scottish Photography Hides) sparrowhawk hide in Dumfries & Galloway is visited by red squirrels.  This site is mostly man-made and in a clearing so the light is good, but only works for close-ups of the perches.  You’ll hopefully also see the aforementioned sparrowhawks and lots of little birds, so it makes for a good day out.  I used my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4 here but had the Tamron 150-600 on my other camera body for the more distant photos.  This is a day rate hide, you may have to share with a few others.  This is my blog about my day here.

Bob Smith’s Nature Nuts hide in Perthshire, near(ish) to Blairgowrie sees regular visits from a number of red squirrels.  The light can be poor but they come close to the hide and there’s plenty of other action here too including almost daily visits from pine martens.  I’ve enjoyed both my days here.  Medium length lens best, again, fast if possible.  You park right next to it though, so bring everything with you.  No space for tripods, bring a beanbag. Day rate hide, stay as late as you can to see the pine martens. Bob also does beaver tours.   Blog featuring the red squirrels (and pine martens)

Argaty Farm, best known as a red kite feeding station now has a wildlife hide on the edge of a piece of woodland.  I was there the week after it opened and I think it was still a bit of a work-in-progress but I’ve seen some great photos from there since.  This hide is unique to all the others I’ve visited in that it has viewing windows at ground level so you can (if not too tall, or if on your own) lie on the floor and take eye-level images.  Again, light was challenging, and it was a sunny day in June, so take medium length lenses with large aperture.  I used my Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 until it broke…   Featured in this blog.

Black Isle Photography Hides – Set in woodland on the Black Isle (obviously!), one of a few hides run by James Roddie.  I visited in 2016, nice site, but unfortunately the squirrels took the day off, except for a brief 30 minutes or so.  I believe this is unusual, so if you’re up that way it’s worth a visit.  James also has a crested tit site (I visited last March, great views of the cresties) and  a pine marten hide which I’m looking forward to visiting later this summer.

That’s the hides I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.  There are a few others I know I can recommend, even without having been there myself – Andy Howard‘s hide near Inverness – he has some fantastic flying squirrel and backlit squirrels (sometimes both of those in one image!).   Loch Visions have a hilltop hide in Argyll, South of Oban that I intend to visit this year as it looks quite unique.  If you’re thinking of a week at the wonderful Aigas Field Centre near Beauly, then they now have red squirrels and a hide (plus a pine marten hide, and beavers).  Fab place, but the squirrels have returned since I was last there.

So, I hope this is of some assistance if you’re in or visiting Scotland and hoping to see red squirrels.  I know there are tonnes of other places, so please do add your recommendations in the comments section below.

Also, it’s worth looking at the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels website where people can report sightings (and please report any of your own sightings) and you can see them all on a map.

 

 

 

 

October Mountain Hares

I was given the opportunity to spend a few days working in Aberdeen, so used that as a great excuse to spend the earlier part of the week back in the Scottish Highlands to visit my favourite furry friends, the mountain hares.   On my last visit to the Highlands in October, back in 2016, the weather was glorious.  I stayed in the Aigas Illicit Still cabin and it was really quite idyllic.    This time, no such luck – wind and rain were the order of the day which wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t let it stop me getting up to the hares as often as possible.

Mountain hares are incredible creatures who brave all that the British weather can throw at them, sheltering not in warm burrows like rabbits, but by digging out holes in the snow, or finding indents in the ground in which to spend their days.  I have so much respect for them, especially in winter as I sit huddled in many layers still feeling the cold and they hunker down with only their fur to insulate them.  Respect!  They do no one any harm and are a joy to watch – their facial expressions are wonderful.  It angers/pains me that these creatures are shot to protect an industry that involves shooting other animals for sport and hopefully at some point in the not too distant future they will be given the protection that they deserve.  On the positive side, the estate I, and many others, photograph the hares on does not cull them and in fact encourages wildlife and should therefore be commended.

I probably wrote this in my July blog, but if you missed that, I’ll say it again, both locating hares in the first place and then finding one that will allow you to get reasonably close outwith the cold winter season (bearing in mind I have a 900mm max focal distance) isn’t easy.  They are both more mobile (so flighty) and also well camouflaged.  Obviously if you’re up there every day, or regularly, you figure out where to find individuals which helps, but the first day or two can be a challenge.  You can’t creep up on a hare, they have almost 360 degree vision, so it’s a case of locating one who is already settled and approaching slowly. After that it’s a case of sussing out the average distance at which the hares are comfortable and not pushing it.  However, I like a challenge and I love the hares, so none of this stops me! What I hate is the walk up the hill.  I really do need to work on my fitness!

I arrived at the hare hill early Saturday afternoon after the drive up from Glasgow.  Although a relatively sunny day with the odd shower, the light was really tricky.  At this time of year the sun lies low over the crest of the hill where the hares hang out.  This means that looking up the hill (the best angle from which to locate hunkering hares) is nigh on impossible as you’re blinded by the glare.   So I walked further up, avoiding the cluster of three photographers who obviously had found an obliging animal.   For some reason the higher hares always seem to be the most active, and suddenly I saw one leap dramatically into the air, really high!  Over far too quickly to photograph, but great to see.  Then, to my surprise it had a brief box with another hare – they aren’t supposed to do that at this time of year! – I managed to photograph that as they were on the horizon and therefore worked as silhouettes, I would have liked a bit of back light, but you can’t have everything!

The other one then demonstrated that it could leap just as high in the air as the first and ran off down the hill.  I followed and managed another silhouetted image which I quite like.

MountainHare_Oct18-jpg_c_5295b

I did find one semi-obliging hare during the afternoon which was one of the whitest I saw during my days on the hillside.  Frustratingly it eventually chose to sit with a few long strands of grass in front of it which was a shame as it had a lovely face, and kept twitching its nose which was enjoyable to watch, but reading the signs I was pretty sure if I attempted to shift position it would run off.

Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)

The forecast for Sunday was for very strong winds, but it’s the only day of the week you’re permitted on the estate before 11am so I drove along for 9am where I discovered that yes, the winds really were very strong!  As I walked along the initial level track I was lost in thought trying to decide what I should do, as walking up the hill against the wind was less than appealing.  I therefore paid very little attention to a squealing noise until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something brown being flung up in the air.  Transpired it was a rabbit being attacked by a stoat.  Unfortunately for all concerned, at this point the stoat clocked me and ran off for the shelter of a nearby wall, stopping for a few seconds to look back, which I managed to photograph.  If I’d been more observant I’m pretty sure I could have stayed put down wind and captured the action on camera, but as it was we were all losers – no photos, dead rabbit and hungry stoat.  I did sit downwind for a bit waiting to see if the stoat would return but it didn’t and in fact hadn’t even when I passed on my way back to the car.

Stoat_Oct18-jpg_c_5532

I decided to try walking up the path on the other side of the river, but seeing no hares crossed back over and traversed round the side of the lower hill on the left. No hares here either, and quite hard going in the wind especially as I clambered up quite high through the heather.  I did find the feral goats grazing amongst some gorse bushes (no photos) but other than blistering my big toe I came away with very little.  On the walk back to the car I saw a few crossbills, but I couldn’t hold the camera steady enough in the wind to photograph them.

It was still early and I was reluctant to waste the rest of the day, wind or no wind, so I drove down to RSPB Loch Garten in the hope of seeing the crested tits.  There were few people about up near the visitor centre and hundreds of chaffinches…

 

also coal tits plus a few blue and great tits and a number of great spotted woodpeckers.

I love watching little birds and even although the cresties were few and far between I spent an enjoyable afternoon there just sitting observing.  Can’t say I came away with any good crestie images, this was about the best it got.  But it’s not all about photographs.

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Monday although heavy rain was forecast the wind was a bit less blowy so I was back up the hill at 11.   Truth be told I found the walk up really hard work, my legs felt a bit lifeless and my big toe hurt, but I eventually made it.   There was one other photographer who had bounded up ahead of me and he was already settled with a hare, so I went up to the right of him and soon spotted a hare hunkered down above me.  I dumped my bag by a shooting butt, and slowly edged closer.   Hunkered hares tend to be the easiest to approach as they are quite settled, but you still need to move carefully so as not to startle, and also keep an eye on the animal to see how it’s reacting, pausing if it begins to look a little wary. Patience is the key in situations like this.

The hare reacted well to my appearance though and I got within a reasonable working distance.  I tend to spend as much time as I can with one animal as it’s then possible to witness a wide variety of behaviours.  This hare wasn’t the most active mind you.  It sat for a long time treating me to a few different facial expressions and just shifting position ever-so-slightly.  It’s never until I look back at photographs of situations like this that I realise how many expressions I captured on camera, which always make me smile!  I had a hare, I was in my favourite place, and I was happy!

It eventually had a mini-groom and nibbled at the heather before moving up the hill slightly, looking about, then bounding off to pastures new, so I did the same.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

I then wandered up to the left and saw a couple of hares grazing close to one another.  There was no way I’d get close to these two, so I settled down at a comfortable distance to see what they got up to.  One treated me to the most wonderful grooming session, with some gorgeous poses that make me smile whenever I look at them.  This is where it pays to familiarise yourself with hare behaviour, if I’d tried to get closer to it, this hare would have scarpered, and I’d have missed these photographs.

[BBC Earth used this a similar grid of these photographs for a post]

The rain was coming down quite heavily by now and due to the wind, almost horizontal.  I took a time-out and the other photographer on the hill came over to say hello.  It was Kevin Morgans, who takes some brilliant photographs, so nice to meet him.  He asked if I wanted to join him at a confiding hare, the one I’d spotted him with when I arrived.  We are pretty sure this was the female known as “Mrs Grey” because she was completely unphased by our appearance.  She’s the hare that always delivers, so it was good to know where her current form was.

Both Kevin and I were keen to try and photograph a hare shaking the rain water off and given that it was now pretty wet had hopes we might be able to achieve that.  Sadly we never quite got it.  This was the closest I got.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

She did however treat us to some other lovely behaviours though…

 

We then moved on, hoping to find other hares with a more photogenic backdrop, but struggled to get close to any.  The light was constantly changing, one moment it was sunny then overcast, often with the driving rain.  At one point a rainbow appeared but I wasn’t able to get a decent shot featuring it and a hare.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

I photographed one hare which briefly allowed us to approach. You can see the rain coming down in this image.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

As the light began to fail again we decided to return to Mrs Grey before heading back down the hill.  Good decision, these are my favourite photographs of the week. Initially it didn’t look good as she was eating long grass, although it was interesting watching as the blades disappeared into her mouth.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

But then she moved and started nibbling at the heather, which in this spot was still flowering.  Lovely!!

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

A few minutes later she moved back to a less photogenic spot and we called it a day.  Without a doubt, the best of my trips up the hill on this visit.

Tuesday was wet, very wet.  I wanted to go to the hares and maybe get the elusive shaking shot, but my legs told me in no uncertain terms that they were NOT walking up the hill that day, so I gave them the day off and drove up to Rogie Falls which aside from being a very pretty location is also a good spot for jumping salmon.  To be honest, much as I enjoy watching the fish attempting to scale the falls and the challenge of trying to photograph them, I don’t find the actual images hugely exciting, or emotive – the visual experience is far more emotive than the photographs.  But… given the weather it seemed like a good thing to do.  Unfortunately there was so much water coming over the falls there was absolutely no way any fish were going to make it up, and I only saw three attempts in an hour or so.  However, it really was quite mesmeric watching and listening to the water tumble over the rocks so I stood watching for quite some time.  There was a lone dipper trying to work the river, but it soon moved downstream.   Eventually I returned to the car and switched camera and lens with plans to try and take a few photographs of the amazing colours.  I’m no landscape or macro photographer, but these should give an idea of how pretty it was.

I had to drive to Aberdeen on Wednesday, but it was sunny and almost warm, so I decided to make one last trip up the hare hill.  I found the walk up much less strenuous, so the day off was probably a good idea!  The carpark was full of birders, apparently there was a peregrine falcon hugging one of the hillsides, and I heard mention of a white-tailed sea eagle, but by the time I was ready to  have a look I just caught a brief glimpse of one of them before it disappeared and I headed up the hill which I had to myself for the day.

I made a bee-line for Mrs Grey who was sitting in her usual spot.  We spent an hour or so together.  She had a short groom and then hunkered down, none of which was in a photogenic spot.  The 3rd of these images really shows just how massive and powerful their hind legs are!

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)

The advantage of repeated visits to the hares is that you begin to figure out where to find individuals as they do tend to have their favourite forms.  So I went to see if the first hare I’d photographed on Monday was in the same place, it was.  Again, not exactly active, but after a short groom it had a brief snooze and then treated me to a full on yawn, sadly I was side on, but still…

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)

Once it settled back down again, I returned to Mrs Grey who immediately treated me to a full groom – she really looked as though she was enjoying it!

This first picture shows how the hares clean themselves.  They wet their hind paw and use that to clean their fur and behind their ears.

Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)

I think this was the first time I’ve seen a hare sitting in this way whilst grooming, with all four paws in front. Looks quite sweet especially in number 5 below!

Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)Mountain Hare  (Lepus Timidus)

She settled down after this, so I decided to see if I could find one more hare before I had to head for Aberdeen.  As luck would have it I spotted this leveret (my first of the year!) and edged closer.  It sat in one position staring back at me for about 20 minutes and then decided enough was enough and disappeared off.

Mountain Hare Leveret (Lepus Timidus)

And that was it, I had to go.  Slightly traumatic drive back along the road though as I met a bus on one of the worst stretches and the driver, even with 2 visible passing places behind him, of which one was definitely big enough for the both of us, refused to budge, so I had to reverse a long way with the sun blinding me out the back.  Horrible!  So I took as long as I could just to annoy him, not that it worked, he just gave me a smug smirk as he drove past.  But, aside from that, it was another lovely day with the hares and it was sad to say good bye to them again.   Maybe I’ll be back later this year, but if not, I’ll definitely be there in Feb.

 

Gigrin Red Kites – Wow!

Last time I photographed red kites was at Argaty Farm in central Scotland and it was a disaster.  I don’t know why, but for some reason, even although I was using the Nikon D500 and my 300mm prime lens, a dream combination, it just didn’t work out for me and I came away with a mere handful of images.  That, however, has its advantages, especially as I returned from Gigrin in Wales with over 3000 photographs, many of which I’m pleased with – it makes the image cull much more difficult and time consuming!  It does mean however that I’ve decided to write a blog dedicated to this amazing experience.

I’ve visited the three Scottish feeding stations on a number of occasions.  The best of these by some considerable margin is Bellymack Hill Farm in Dumfries and Galloway.  There’s no hide just a balcony allowing a wider view point and there are a lot of birds.  Photographing the kites is such an exhilarating experience. They gather in the sky above and circle until the food is dispersed then all of a sudden with no obvious warning many of them plunge down to try and grab some of the morsels. The more birds there are the harder it is to photograph but I love it, it’s a period of exciting, frantic activity and really very addictive.

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Red kite photographed at Bellymack Hill Farm

When I told a friend that I was going down to Worcestershire he told me I had to go visit the Gigrin red kite feeding station.  Much as it was somewhere I’d always been very keen to go to it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be logistically possible on this trip, but after consulting google maps I realised if I planned things correctly I could go there as I slowly meandered back to Glasgow.   I did a spot of research and booked myself into one of their specialist photography hides (the Tower hide which is the medium height hide and costs £20 as opposed to the £7 for general entry).

Feeding was at 3pm but I arrived at 1pm and after a spot of lunch went for a wander up the tree-covered hill behind the hides to see what I could spot.  At this point, although I’d been told by the lady in the coffee shop that 600(!) kites were coming for the feeding, there wasn’t a kite to be seen, but there were a number of buzzards circling and calling out above the woods.  I also spotted a tree creeper, nuthatch with an acorn, great spotted woodpecker and of course a number of blue and great tits.

I went into the hide at approx 2.30. By this time the kites were beginning to gather a short distance away.

The hide was about 3 meters off the ground and the front half was open.  Even better I had it to myself.  I was using my Nikon D500, which as I’ve mentioned many times before is excellent for flying birds (except that one time at Argaty!), with the Tamron 150-600mm.  Initially I had thought to use the Nikkor 300mm lens, but decided that the telephoto would give me better reach and more flexibility when it came to shot choices.  I had planned to use my tripod, but quickly ditched that and went hand-held instead. As for settings, I was on manual, with auto ISO up to 2000 (in retrospect I might have set that a tad lower), so that the camera could deal with the different light settings depending on the background (sky, trees, grass).  In order to brighten the birds I dialled in a little positive exposure compensation and set the shutter speed to 1/1250 and aperture the largest possible (which is between 5.6 and 6.3 on the Tamron). I also used group focus mode for the majority of the session.  This all seemed to work pretty well on the whole and it was only the whiter birds that suffered from any over-exposure.

The food was put out at 3pm and before the farmer had finished the birds were swooping down.

Wow! Hard to put into words really.  Impossible at this time to try and track any bird, so it was really a case of point and shoot and see what I had captured afterwards!

Of course, with so many birds coming down it was often tricky to get a clean shot.

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It was of course a challenge at times to get the whole bird in the frame!

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The position of the hide was great when a bird having swooped down to grab some food then flew directly towards me.

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The kites scoop up the food with their talons

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but often seem to transfer to their beak to transport.

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The majority of the kites feed on the wing, clutching the food in their talons and curling their bodies round to eat whilst still flying.

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Eventually I managed a few diving images

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There were a few (or maybe just one, hard to tell) birds that were considerably lighter than the majority

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A few, especially towards the end, chose to land on the ground and snack on the meat.

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Meanwhile some sat in the trees and watched the goings on

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and a few final images…

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A great, exciting experience, the 90 minutes or so of activity went by so fast, but by 4.30 the drizzle had become torrential rain and I dashed back to the car and headed up towards Chester.  I’d highly recommend visiting if you’re in the area, but if you don’t want to pay for one of the specialist hides then get there early as the general ones fill up quite quickly.

 

Worcestershire: Little Owls, Kingfisher and A Confiding Snipe

A few years ago I made the conscious decision to focus on Scottish wildlife when it came to photography and have therefore spent all my holidays in Scotland familiarising myself with specific areas and the wildlife that lives there – so that I could learn their behaviours and hopefully improve my photography of them. Plus, of course, I love Scotland and its countryside, why on earth would I ever need to leave!??

However, one of the two guides on the fab otter workshop I participated in on Mull last November, Pete Walkden, does little owl guiding down in Worcestershire on a local farm. On my return from Mull I looked at some of Pete’s images and videos (this is a good one!) and decided it might be a nice thing to do. To be honest, owls have never really excited me. I love looking at and taking emotive images, and most owl photographs I’ve seen don’t really do it for me, much as I can admire the skill in taking them – mind you I’ve only ever had a brief encounter with a tawny owl & seen some tawny owlets.

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Tawny owlet at Aigas, 2015

But little owls appealed to me, Pete’s photographs and videos of them ticked the “make me smile” box – so I booked a week down South to see the owls and hopefully some other “exotic” English wildlife.

It was a great week, and although I confess in the weeks leading up to it I was craving to return to the highlands and the gorgeous purple heather carpeted hillsides, I actually really enjoyed the experience. It’s good to do something different every so often and the highlands aren’t going anywhere!

I was staying in an Airbnb cabin at the bottom of a garden in Lickey Hills. Small, but very well laid out with everything you could ever ask for. Perfect base for my nights down there. On the Sunday I visited the Worcester Wildlife Trust’s Upton Warren reserve which consists of two sets of pools – The Moors and The Flashes. The Flashes are bone dry due to the lack of rain although there were plenty of lapwings (there was no shortage of these gorgeous birds in Worcestershire) and curlews.

I spent time in The Moors’ hides and chatted to some friendly locals which is always helpful when visiting a new area. All the birders seemed to know one another and became quite excited at a Caspian Gull – I couldn’t get enthused by that, and to be honest couldn’t even figure out which one of the gulls it was… Nice area though, good set-up but little to see at this time of year sadly. Some massive dragonflies mind you! I saw and photographed my first banded demoiselle which was beautiful plus some butterflies. I didn’t have a macro lens with me, so these were taken with the Tamron 150-600 which doesn’t have a close focus so I had to stand way back!

A couple of the people I spoke to recommended I visit Grimley Pools. So as it wasn’t too far away I went there in the afternoon. As I approached the very first pool I saw a little egret at the edge – beautiful. I tool a few photographs before it flew off, not the most exciting image, but the best I got!

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I then saw something out the corner of my eye. It flew a little like a game bird, and landed on a fence post a fair distance away. I took a few shots just to see what it was and it transpires it was my first green woodpecker! I then moved on past a pool used for fishing and walked along the side of a field where the next pool was obscured by reeds (no reed buntings to be seen though). Eventually I came to an opening…

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My first impression was that this was a perfect spot for a kingfisher, and no sooner had the thought entered my head, I spotted a brief flash of blue. It was gone in a second though! Optimistic that it might return I settled down and initially entertained myself trying to photograph the migrant hawkers that hovered above the water and a passing cormorant.

Suddenly out the corner of my eye I saw a bird fly down and land less than a couple of metres from me at the side of the reeds – it was a snipe. Figuring it would disappear as soon as it realised I was there I slowly picked up the camera and took a few photographs of it within the reeds.

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It seemed completely unphased, and in fact, stayed in the area feeding and grooming in the shallows until I departed. A really beautiful bird so close up, and because it was there for so long I was able to work with it to take some lovely images, getting down low. Fab! I’m not sure 400 photographs of it were strictly necessary, but still…

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This has been my most successful image on Twitter for some time!

Whilst photographing the snipe I caught another flash of blue and turned to see that the kingfisher had reappeared and was perching in a nearby tree. I swung the camera round and fired off four shots before it flew off – amazingly all were in focus! I’m pleased with this especially as I had no time to compose! I’ve been reliably informed that it’s a juvenile female kingfisher.

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Eventually I decided I should leave as I had dinner plans, but it was a very enjoyable and fruitful afternoon.

Monday was little owl day. Pete took me to the farm and parked by the barn where the owls have their nest. Mum has moved on, but Dad and the two little owlets were around. The barn roof is relatively photogenic and Pete has erected a few perches next to it. Dad and one (or other) of the youngsters were around for an hour or so, and entertained me running around the barn roof to eat the worms Pete had provided. So full of character with the most amazing, penetrating yellow eyes. The first two here are of the owlet, the third of Dad.

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A rare cheery expression!

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Interestingly the only time they seemed to shut their eyes was when eating.

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I loved how they scuttled across the roof, it was quite delightful and so great to watch.

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Dad would often sit in the tree and watch over the youngster.

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Unfortunately they didn’t land on the perches and after not much more than an hour disappeared and never returned. This was possibly due to at least six buzzards flying overhead and calling out for much of the day plus the nights had been warm and muggy so probably ideal for late night hunting. A bit disappointing but it was great to have seen them for the hour, and you can never guarantee that wildlife will “perform” as hoped. Plus, for the most part (with the exception of Neil McIntyre’s red squirrel hide and Bob Smith’s Perthshire hide) I am cursed when it comes to hides, and Pete’s had great success so far this summer – so it was probably my fault!

Pete was kind enough to offer me another go the following morning, and again the birds appeared almost immediately. On this occasion the Dad did spend a fair bit of time on the perches in very photogenic poses in good light. So that was brilliant.

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Sadly though, again, after an hour they disappeared. But I came away with images I like and although more time with them would have been good, I was pleased with what I had achieved and at least I had company during the hours of inactivity. I think my favourites are of the birds looking skywards.

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Tuesday afternoon I returned to Grimley. This time I ventured a bit further and checked out some of the other pools. Lots of birds including a number of little egrets but none close enough for photographs. When I’d mentioned to Pete on Sunday that I’d been there he’d asked if I’d seen the hippo, to be honest I thought he was joking, but no, transpires there is one… why? I have no idea!

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I therefore returned to my spot from Sunday hoping to see the kingfisher again. As before it appeared briefly a couple of times and I was beginning to give up hope of photographs when eventually it came and perched on quite possibly the least photogenic spot in the area – a barbed wire fence. Typical! Still, it stuck around for a good few minutes in lovely light so not all bad.

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I also saw a couple of snipe fly by, plus little egret, heron, cormorants and more dragonflies. Gorgeous and fruitful spot and I’m amazed I had such luck here over my two visits given that I wasn’t in a hide, just sitting at the side of the pond (I did try my bag hide, but it was too hot!) Here’s a great crested grebe that passed by a few times.

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Wednesday, again on the recommendation of someone I met at Upton Warren, I headed further South to Gloucestershire to the Slimbridge Wetland Reserve. I’ve never seen so many varieties of duck and geese! Incredible how many there are. Some very pretty ones. They have a number of hides, but there was little to see that was close enough for photographs. Lots of lapwings though (as there were at Upton Warren and Grimley). The final one I went to gave good views of the crane family – 2 adults and 2 juveniles. When I arrived there were a few photographers getting very excited that the birds were about to fly… they didn’t! So they all left. I stuck around and eventually they came really close to the hide which was good. Very elegant birds.

Lovely to see avocets for the first time too, they breed at Upton Warren, but had already left.

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I also loved the black winged stilt – it looks so delicate and ever-so-slightly comical.

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Other than that I photographed lots of ducks & geese, most of which I have since deleted, and attempted to get action shots of them. Don’t ask me what any of these are though!

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There was a very young flamingo.

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I also enjoyed the water vole tank in which there was an active family of voles. They seemed smaller than the fossorial water voles I photograph in Glasgow, but quite adorable as you can see from this video.

Otters were great too, always a joy to watch. This is the North American river otter, a close relative of our Eurasian otter, almost identical but apparently a little bigger.

Thursday I bid goodbye to Worcestershire and headed west to Gigrin Farm to photograph the red kites, a place I’d been keen to visit for some time. But given how many photographs I took there, I’m going to save that for a different blog! Here’s one as a taster:

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Suffice to say, I had a great few days in Worcestershire/Gloucestershire, and no regrets about deciding to forego the highlands for a rare trip South – maybe I do need to consider leaving Scotland every so often for variety’s sake. My thanks to Pete for the little owls, local advise & company (a novelty when I go away).

Aviemore: Ospreys in the Mist, Mountain Hares in the Rain

This is part three of my whistle-stop tour of Scotland blog.  I began in East Lothian, then spent three nights in Mull before heading up to Aviemore to try my hand at photographing the ospreys again.  I visited Gordon’s hides in mid-August 2017 at the very end of the season (blog here).  We had quite a few drops but the birds disappeared before the light improved.  Gordon told me that mid-July was a good time to come, better light and more birds, so after Andy Howard invited me to join his Lunga day during his photography workshop on Mull I decided I could combine the two.

So on Thursday morning I was up at silly o’clock (3.30am) to meet Gordon at 4.15.  The forecast was good, and although it was a chilly morning (5 degrees) I was optimistic. Unfortunately events conspired again us.  The chill in the air meant mist hanging over the pond – it felt more like an October morning.  Birds started coming down very early, way before there was any workable light.   The first images I have were taken at 4.47am – far too early really. I had to use an ISO of 11400 for a decent shutter speed and the widest aperture of f4. (I was using my Nikon D500 and Nikkor 300mm F4 lens, tripod mounted).

Here’s one of those images, nik efex dfine2 has come to the rescue slightly but it’s not great, you can see the mist.

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The next bird dropped at 5am. I had reduced the ISO to 3200 and also lowered the shutter speed.

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Atmospheric, yes, but quality is poor.  I tracked this bird as it flew off.  I like this first image, mostly for the expression on the fish’s face, except for the fence in the background!

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The next bird arrived moments later and I was feeling hopeful that this would be a good morning, so long as they didn’t all drop before the light improved! ISO between 3200 and 4500 with a shutter speed of 1/800th.

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Then the action slowed down and I took what is probably my best image of the morning – of a mallard who was pottering about with her two fairly advanced ducklings.

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The light was beginning to improve although the mist was slow to shift off the water.  The issue now became a dominant male who perched in a tree on the cliffside and chased off any approaching birds. Even more frustrating, he didn’t come down to feed himself.  So we’d hear Gordon tell us a bird was heading our way and then be told that the dominant male was preventing it fishing.   We had one more drop at 6.17 and that was it although others did try.

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It was so annoying!!  The dominant bird was one of the reasons some of the others were coming so early (to avoid it) and then it prevented the late-comers feeding, probably pushing them to feed at Rothiemurchas instead.  The light by 6.30 was awesome but that was it.  My images, now I’ve worked on them are okay, but the potential was there for something special.

After a great breakfast at the wonderful Ardlogie Guest House and an hour’s snooze I went to visit the mountain hares.  It was a gorgeous day and as I trudged up the hill I realised it was the second anniversary of my very first mountain hare experience when I fell in love with these wonderful animals.

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One of my first hares two years ago.

Sadly by the time I reached the hilltop the hares had gone to ground to escape the heat.  I spent seven hours walking about, sitting about and having the odd snooze, but the only hares I saw were those I disturbed which ran off.  Beautiful up there though. It was so dry that the heather crunched under foot, very different experience from my usual visits.  Talking of the heather it was blooming already carpeting the hillside in beautiful pinks and purples. So although the photography wasn’t successful it was lovely to be there.  This is about the only photograph I came away with, which I like, so not all bad!

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What a difference a night makes! I awoke the following morning to heavy rain. I’d postponed my second visit to Gordon’s hide to the next day due to the forecast so enjoyed another excellent breakfast and decided to give the hares another go.  I figured that this wet weather would hopefully bring them out so I donned my waterproofs and trudged back up the hill (I hate that hill!).  The hares were, as hoped, much more visible but still tricky to approach.  Everyone talks about how you can get close to the animals here, but most are basing this on winter hares when they are hunkered down to preserve heat.  At other times of the year the majority don’t tolerate such a close proximity so it takes time to build trust and get within a reasonable distance.  Personally I never get too close but prefer to use my longest camera/lens combo (Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm which gives a focal distance of 900mm) so that I can take frame-filling shots from afar. I hate the thought that I might be stressing the animals be it summer or winter.

The rain stopped as I eventually dragged myself up to the top but there were some pretty soggy looking hares.

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I think they were enjoying the rain though after such a prolonged dry spell.  Today the heather had stopped crunching but the ground was still pretty dry.

I didn’t manage any really interesting photographs as most hares kept their distance, but it was so lovely to spend time with them again, there’s nothing I enjoy photographing more.

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Plus it’s a beautiful setting!

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The final hare I photographed was the most accepting of my presence and it was a beautiful creature, almost golden in colour.

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So definitely a more successful day!  [As I write this the mountain hare culling (slaughter) has begun again which is a hateful thing.  One Kind have yet another campaign under way to try to get this stopped, you can sign the letter here.]

I was heading home on the Saturday, but had my second attempt with the ospreys which proved even more frustrating than Thursday.  This time it was wet and foggy.  I was in the older hide which is side on to the new hide, and quite liked this viewpoint especially as the few birds that did try and fish often approached face on rather than in the usual spot. It was really challenging though as there was hardly any light and the birds couldn’t see the water due to the fog. Gordon struggled to spot anything as the hills disappeared.  One bird did fish though and had to make three attempts before snatching up a fish – without it this morning would have been a total disaster, as it was, it was just very disappointing.

This time I was using the Nikon D500 with my nikkor 70-200 f.2.8 VRII on beanbag.  Having the wider aperture allowed me to keep the ISO down to 1600 for these images, but, again, dfine2 has come to the rescue to remove the noise.

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So that was it for Aviemore ospreys, an expensive disaster really. This is no fault of Gordon’s though, he has a great set-up and is brilliant at giving a running commentary of what’s happening.  Both hides are good.  Typically the following morning was perfect with lots of drops and the images taken by Gary Jones and his workshop are wonderful.  It really tested my skills as a photographer although I’m sure others could have done better.  It was also a test for the D500.  This camera continues to impress. I bought it for the ospreys last year and it performed well this year too finding and holding focus even in the low, misty light with a massive buffer.  I tend to use the group focus mode to give a little more flexibility for fast moving subjects although this only works if there’s a clean background, otherwise I’d suggest single-spot focusing (which is what I use for the hares and most other subjects).

That was pretty much it for my trip although I did spend much of the day en route down to East Lothian visiting with other ospreys. First a location near Aviemore where there were a number of them, mostly hidden behind some trees annoyingly, but sometimes flying about…

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…and then I popped into Loch of the Lowes and watched the osprey family perched in the trees opposite the hide. Too far away for photographs but nice to see both chicks had fledged.

So… it was a bit of a mixed trip. July isn’t the best month for wildlife photography.  That said, I had a great time, it sure beats sitting in the office.  Highlight was obviously the trip to Lunga to see the puffins, but it is a real privilege to witness both white-tailed sea eagles and ospreys so close and any time I can spend with the hares is a real bonus!

 

Mull: Black Guillemots, Seabirds (Puffins finally!) and White-Tailed Eagles

After my all too brief visit to East Lothian I had one night at home before heading up the A82 to Oban for my ferry to Mull.  Although very slow going I made it in time to spend half an hour with the black guillemots at Oban Harbour in drizzly weather.  I’ve tried to locate and photograph them before without too much success but at this time of year they are nesting in the walls – poke your head over the promenade railings and you see their heads popping out!

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They were also bobbing about in the water

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and sitting on the seaweed.

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Beautiful birds with distinctive red feet, and I was delighted to finally see them properly.  I even managed one in flight, although truth be told it was a bit of a lucky shot!

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The rain became heavier (after a long dry spell) as I boarded the ferry to Mull.  It was my second trip here this year, having been over for a week in early May (it rained a lot then too).  On that occasion my attempts to get over to Lunga to spend time with the puffins failed miserably, not once, not twice but three times due to inclement weather so the primary reason for this visit was to spend a day with my favourite little birds courtesy of Andy Howard and Pete Walkden who invited me along for the extended Lunga trip they include as part of their Mull photography workshop week.

On that first rainy afternoon however I drove round to one of the locations I knew an otter could be found.  After sitting for quite some time I spotted her and tracked her along the coastline for a while.  When I first met this otter back in November (with Andy and Pete) she had two young cubs, in May just one

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The two cubs in November

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Mum and the remaining cub in May

…and now she was on her own.  Sadly she was obviously heading home and didn’t stop off on land so I never managed any photographs but always lovely to watch an otter, so I wasn’t too disappointed.

Driving back round to my Air bnb near Ulva I stopped off in a carpark on the shore of Loch na Keal.  I’ve seen otters here, but none that day although there were two white-tailed sea eagles perched in the trees (as there often is), herons fishing, and a curlew working its way around the shore.  This is one of my favourite places to stop and chill as it always provides good wildlife sightings. Again, I didn’t try and take any photographs, content just to soak in the sights and sounds of Mull.  I chatted to a lovely couple from Yorkshire (who I met again on the Mull Charters boat trip on Tuesday) for a bit then continued on to my accommodation.

The following day was my Lunga trip.  The rain cleared and it turned in to a beautiful morning, not too hot but calm.  Lunga is my absolute favourite location (of those I’ve visited) to see the puffins.  Gorgeous island, no restrictions on where you can go and birds all along the cliffs. Plus there aren’t the huge numbers of people that you find on the Farne Islands.  Great to catch up with Andy and Pete and to meet their workshop clients, none of whom seemed to mind that I’d gatecrashed their day.  After the obligatory stop off on Staffa (I really wish there was a Lunga only option) we finally reached Lunga in the early afternoon and clambered over the boulder beach.  I headed part way up the island and scrambled down to a foliage covered area where there were puffins and razorbills.

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This is the first puffin I photographed – it was very close! Notice how its coloured beak is beginning to disintegrate (puffins only have these beaks for breeding)

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A puffin landed close to me with a mouthful of sand eels, oddly it didn’t go down into a burrow so I took some photographs then moved off the rock I was standing on – at this point it immediately flew over and disappeared under the rock, so obviously, although I was being super careful to avoid the burrows, this puffin had set up home under the boulder!  I could then hear all kinds of noises coming from within the burrow.

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Suddenly I was approached by a trio of razorbills, so close my camera had trouble trying to focus.  So I moved on again to another rock (where, again, I was joined by a couple of razorbills – never knew them to be so friendly).

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I loved watching the razorbills.  I tend to come to Lunga in late April/early May when the seabirds have just arrived back on the island.  At this time the puffins are re-establishing relationships and territories so you see a lot of billing (bumping beaks together) and fighting. On this mid-July visit I witnessed none of this from the puffins which was a little disappointing. However, the razorbills almost made up for it.  You often see them cuddled up to their partner and there’s a lot of interaction.  Great to observe.

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I wonder what these ones are talking about!

Also – see here how they can turn their heads almost upside down! I love those bright yellow mouths too.

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This was also a good spot for flying puffins.

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Noticing some thistles I decided to try something a bit different.  Not everyone likes these, but I do!

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Eventually I moved on conscious of the fact that although I had 7 hours or thereabouts on the island, it was passing remarkably quickly.  At this point I rejoined the rest of the group and headed up to the cliff face populated primarily by guillemots.  En route we passed a few nesting shags.  Their young were quite advanced by this point – look how big this ones feet are!

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There were also 3 in a crevice in the rocks, (although only 2 are visible in this picture).

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Still plenty of guillemots on the rocks!

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I used my fisheye lens for this one.

There were puffins here too, but I spent some time concentrating on the other birds.

Kittiwakes

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Shags (I love the guillemot head popping up at the bottom left of this image like a periscope & the line of guillemots in the background (and the bridled guillemot eye below the shag)!

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(yet more) Razorbills

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and of course the guillemots, including a few bridled birds (not a sub-species just a dimorphism).

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I took a few more flying bird photographs here too, of which these are my favourites.

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Finally I headed back down the island to a spot where there are a lot of puffins with burrows on grassland at the top of the cliff.  Here I was delighted to spot a puffling, but only briefly and there was no time for photographs.  But still… a puffling!!!

I did photograph a few puffins in, or near their burrows…

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…grooming…

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…snoozing…

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…yawning…

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…interacting…

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…working…

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…and just hanging out

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Fab day and here’s hoping I can repeat the experience next year too!

The following day I was back on a boat, this time the Mull Charters white-tailed sea eagle trip.  Initially we had lovely blue skies, but the clouds soon appeared and it became overcast.  We had quite a few birds visiting the boat though and it’s always brilliant to watch these magnificent birds up close and personal.  When you see them in the trees (white-tails don’t do a whole lot, and spend much of their time just sitting about), you have no idea how big and powerful they are.

I decided to use my Nikon D500 with the nikkor 300mm F4 – my favourite combination. In the past I’ve chosen the Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 which is easier for tracking, but given that I’ve done this trip quite a few times, I figured I could try something different.

I came away a little disappointed, not with the action, which was great, but with the light. On my last trip with Martin it had been too sunny and this time there wasn’t enough light so the underside of the birds was dark.  However, using a combination of adobe lightroom and the (original) Nik Efex plug ins (color efex pro4) I have managed to save many of the images and I actually came away with a lot that I like.  Mostly flying shots as I struggled a little bit to keep track of the bird with the prime lens as it dived.

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…so that was it!  A lot to pack into 3 nights, but it was great!  Next stop Aviemore and the ospreys.