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.

An Endearing Grey Heron and St Abbs Head

Now I’m back home I can’t quite believe I tried to fit so much into such a short period of time, but between 12 July & 21st I visited East Lothian twice, Mull (+ Ulva and Lunga) and Aviemore and in this time I photographed seabirds, birds of prey and mountain hares with varying degrees of success.  Slightly insane, but an enjoyable, if exhausting, trip nonetheless.  I’m going to split this blog into three to cover each of these locations starting with the couple of days I spent based in East Lothian.

Why East Lothian before Mull?  It’s in completely the wrong direction from Glasgow! Well, my parents had kindly volunteered to look after my crazy hound Murphy, and it was a nice opportunity to spend a couple of days with them before my trip officially started.

My Mum and I went down to the John Muir Country Park and soon found ourselves at the small Seafield Pond on the outskirts of Dunbar.  There was a family of swans with quite well developed cygnets.

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…but the bird that really caught our attention was a juvenile grey heron.  There were a number of herons both adult and juvenile around the pond, but this one, a scruffy yet endearing individual, didn’t yet seem able to fly.  It pottered about at the edge of the pond and I crept a bit closer – it’s not often you can get within a reasonable distance from a heron as they are quite flighty (only other place I’ve ever had any success was Gosford, also in East Lothian and that too was a juvenile).  This bird didn’t seem at all stressed by our presence and on more than one occasion moved even closer – too close sometimes.

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At one point the bird decided to go for a stroll across the grass…

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…directly towards the swan family – fortunately it veered away into some reeds just before the swans became too feisty although it then disturbed some nesting moorhens and came rushing back out the reeds at speed.

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I was concerned that any dog off lead might cause an issue but none appeared while we were there, and it might of course have been the impetus it needed to finally take flight. It did try to fly (but failed!)…

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The following day after persuading Murphy (the dog) not to bring a roe deer carcass home from our walk in the local woods, my parents and I drove down to St Abbs Head.  I’ve visited many times but I confess on most occasions I haven’t walked much further than the first cliff side populated by guillemots.  By now, mid-July, most of the young had fledged and the cliff face was almost deserted except for the odd razorbill and shag.  Having never gone much further I didn’t really understand why people talk about how special St Abbs Head is but this time we walked on to the lighthouse where we’d heard there were a few gannets.  Wow – so many seabirds and I imagine quite a few had already departed! This was the rock face with the most guillemots and where the gannets were – apparently they have begun nesting here now, and there are also juveniles who have failed to find any real estate on the Bass Rock.  Chances are good therefore that this will become a new nesting colony for these fab birds.

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There were still a few guillemot chicks on the cliffs (these aren’t the best images so I’ll keep them small!).

 

Great to see nesting kittiwakes too – I’d been concerned when I visited Dunbar Harbour in June that there were so few nesting this year – but here, at St Abbs Head, there were a lot of chicks.

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Plenty of razorbills too – a bird I like almost as much as puffins – I love the interactions between the parents (more on that in my forthcoming Lunga blog).  It’s always hard to spot razorbill chicks, they must have them, but…   I did however see one nestled between its parents.

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So a very enjoyable afternoon and I could have sat there for much longer watching and listening to the birds.  I love seabirds and appreciate every minute I spend with them during the summer months. It’s always sad to see them depart.

Oh, and I made an attempt at photographing butterflies too. Really needed to spend more time on it and bring a tripod but this was my best attempt – a small copper.

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So, definitely somewhere I’ll be revisiting next summer!

Next… Oban and Mull

 

 

 

Daylight Pine Martens! A Day in the Nature Nuts wildlife hide

Back in July 2017 I visited Perth for the excellent Southern Fried Music Festival.  Originally I had planned to stick around until the Sunday, but Saturday’s headline (Rodney Crowell) pulled out and his replacement was of little interest so I figured I’d take advantage of a free evening/day to do some photography.  On the Saturday evening I joined Bob Smith of Nature Nuts photography to hopefully see some beavers.  We didn’t have a whole lot of success (although we did see a beaver briefly), but on asking what I could do in the area the following day Bob kindly offered me the use of his wildlife hide.  Of course I said yes!  And spent an enjoyable few hours watching red squirrels, jays, great spotted woodpeckers and a variety of little birds, including a couple of bullfinch.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stick around for the (possible) pine martens in the evening, but it was a good day.

I’d been hoping to return ever since, but never had the time, so when I booked a few days at Bamff Ecotourism on Bob’s recommendation to hopefully finally spend some time with the beavers, I arranged to spend the Monday in the hide.  (ps I wrote a blog about the beavers)

Equipment used: Nikon D500 & Nikon D610.  Tamron 150-600mm & Nikkor 300m F4.  The hide doesn’t have the best light being at the edge of a wood, but so long as I didn’t try for action shots of speedy squirrels I had a fair amount of success.

On this occasion it took a good hour or more for anything other than great spotted woodpeckers and little birds (mostly siskins) to appear, probably because there’s tonnes of natural food available right now.

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Round about midday I confess I became a little distracted as I had a 4G signal after three internet-free days and was a tad sleepy having risen at 4.30am every morning for the beavers.  I saw movement out the corner of my eye, it was a first visit from one of the local red squirrels.  The squirrel sat eating nuts for a couple of minutes and then, in a blink of an eye, disappeared at great speed up the nearest tree.  I thought little of it until I suddenly realised that the female pine marten had arrived!  I almost fell off my bench in surprise as this was really unexpected. The day before this marten had first made an appearance at 7.30pm which is fairly normal behaviour as for the most part they tend to be nocturnal.  It was around about that time I’d have to be leaving for the return journey to Glasgow, so I had told myself I possibly wouldn’t see one at all.  I’ve seen pine martens many times at the Aigas Hide but always in low or artificial light so this daylight visit was a first for me and although the light at the hide wasn’t brilliant, it was still an improvement on those Aigas sightings.

 

The marten spent about ten minutes in front of the hide munching on nuts and was so wonderful to watch.  She’s a beautiful animal.

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Once she departed, and I’d gotten over the shock of seeing her, and had messaged Bob with the news, things settled down again.  The one major difference being that the red squirrels all started to make regular appearances.  This was also a pleasant surprise as they are normally morning and early evening feeders, disappearing  for the afternoon. These did the exact opposite!  I’m not complaining though.  There were at least 3 individuals and there was almost always at least one present for the next few hours to keep me entertained.  I’ve spent a lot of time watching and photographing these animals this year, but I never tire of it.  Bob puts out a lot of nuts and even with the marten scoffing quite a few they never ran out of food.

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Jays were much fewer and farther between than my 2017 visit, but they did appear a few times, as did a pair of pheasants.

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At approx 5.30 I realised (again to my surprise) that the pine marten had returned …or so I thought!  Yes it was a pine marten, but no, it wasn’t a return visit.  At the time I (understandably I think) just presumed it was the female, as there was no reason to suspect otherwise.  The kits, although they might have been heard during the night were yet to make an appearance at the hide and it seemed obvious to expect them to turn up with mum.  However, on returning home and looking through my images I was convinced this was a different pine marten and it definitely looked more fluffy and dare I say cuter than the earlier one.  I sent some images to Bob who confirmed I had in fact had a visit from one of the kits – so I was apparently the first person to see one this year and I hadn’t even realised – doh!!  Actually its behaviour was quite different from the female so I should have guessed at the time. It ignored the egg I’d put out (apparently the female takes it and runs) and after a few minutes had dived under the logs for so long that I presumed it was long gone until it briefly reappeared. I’m now beginning to wish I’d stayed past 6.30 as I’m sure it and its sibling would have been back – they were both seen the following night.  Still – I had two daylight sightings of the pine martens so I am very happy!

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So it was another great day.  I spent time over the weekend both at Bamff and then Bob’s hide watching conservation success stories – red squirrels, pine martens and beavers are all making a return to Scotland and it’s heartening to see.  I can now travel less than an hour from Glasgow to spend time with red squirrels, and although realistically greys will never be eradicated from the cities, reds are definitely spreading further afield, thanks, as with beavers and pine martens, to the efforts of committed individuals and organisations.  We read of so much doom and gloom where wildlife is concerned these days it’s great to have some more positive examples.

If you fancy a day out with Bob or a visit to his wildlife hide, full details are available on his Facebook Page.

Bamff Beavers

If you’ve read my blog or follow me on social media I’m sure you’ll have figured out that I love wildlife and nature. Little in life brings me as much enjoyment as being out in the countryside surrounded by nothing more than birdsong and animals. Photographing it is a bonus.  It makes my day job almost bearable and if I had unlimited funds that would be gone in a heartbeat!

It therefore won’t come as a surprise to you that when Bob Smith of Nature Nuts told me about an off-grid cabin – The Hideaway on the Bamff Ecotourism Estate overlooking beaver ponds my interest was instantly piqued.  I looked it up online and made a mental note to book for the summer.

Beavers have fascinated me for some time.  One of my initial reasons for going to Aigas was the hope of seeing some of theirs, but even being in the hide for sunrise most mornings, and dusk too on all 3 visits I failed to see any at all.  I then spent an evening with Bob and we had one very short sighting of a swimming beaver before it disappeared.

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I read Jim Crumley’s excellent book on the return of the beavers (Nature’s Architects, The Beaver’s Return to Our Wild Landscapes – worth a read if you’re interested, Jim’s one of my favourite nature writers), and I’ve seen many programmes featuring them.  The way they manage the land and create homes and living areas is awe-inspiring.  Therefore the thought of spending a few nights watching these incredible animals seemed too good to be true!  I chose early June because the nights are short and it worked out well. Only issue was the grass which was already quite high. If you’re thinking of visiting (based on personal experience and the visitor book) to see the beavers there’s no real point before May, as it’ll be too dark. But go much later than I did and the grass will obscure them out of the water (although you might see the kits which I was a little too early for).

I approached my stay in the cabin with a little trepidation.  I stayed almost off-grid at The llicit Still cabin at Aigas which was a wonderful experience, but it was considerably larger and better equipped with everything other than refrigeration.  I needn’t have worried though.  Although definitely more basic this cabin was very comfortable. Small, yes, with kitchen facilities comprising only of a camping stove.  No running water but there was solar electricity which powered lovely fairy lights, spotlights and 2 USB ports (the cabin description doesn’t mention those, so other than the fact I invested in a power-block for charging my phone in advance this was an added bonus).  The bed, made out of beaver felled wood was super comfortable and there’s a wood-burning stove although it was so warm and muggy I had no need for this.  There’s an outside (but enclosed and heated) shower and a short walk to a composting toilet.  Fair to say my diet was appalling as I wasn’t entirely sure what I would be able to cook + no refrigeration is limiting, but I didn’t starve!

From the cabin there is the sound of many birds singing and calling.  Some are easy on the ear, others (the pheasant) not so much.

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Two treecreepers work the trees as well as various tits and a male great spotted woodpecker. Lovely to awaken to the sound of birdsong (and, not quite so lovely, buzzing beasties).

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The cabin looks out on one of the beaver pools.

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This family of beavers tend to base themselves at the top by the road where they have their lodge and have built a dam, or further down river where there are extensive, and recent, evidence of building works.  I walked down there on the Saturday morning and was blown away by what they had achieved.

 

Equipment-wise I started off using my Nikon D610 with Nikkor 300mm F4 lens, but during the first evening switched to the Tamron 150-600mm. It’s a slower lens but has longer reach.  From the Saturday morning onwards I used the Nikon D500 to give me even greater reach (max 900mm).  This was a gamble as the D500 is not as good in low-light and paired with the Tamron was not the best for evening/early morning photography.  However, I used a monopod and manual exposure trying to keep the ISO as low as possible (admittedly that often meant 5000!) and shutter down to 1/60 at times.  Sharp images are still achievable if the animals are photographed when static – all lessons I learned whilst photographing pine martens at Aigas on the photography masterclass.

Friday evening I sat opposite the lodge and was treated to a couple of hours of, I think, two beavers. One it seems is the mother who will almost certainly have young kits in the lodge, so was patrolling the area, swimming round in circles, and a younger one who mostly grazed on the grass on the opposite bank.  Wonderful to watch them so close.  In the water they look a bit like teddy bears and on land like giant, flat tailed rats (they are members of the rodent family so that makes sense!)

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Photographs of the grazing beaver were tricky due to the long grass and the fact it tended to eat with its back to the pools.  But I took a few before the light faded.

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I also saw an otter very briefly, but we spotted each other at the same moment and it disappeared.

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It was amazing how close the beavers came sometimes. I don’t think they have particularly good eyesight, relying on their other senses so as long as I didn’t move suddenly or make too much noise they don’t seem to notice my presence.  If they were in the water and startled they would dive down with a loud splash as they used their tail to warn others of possible danger.  Other times they would just sink into the water without a sound and disappear for a while.

The following morning I was up at 4.30 and after checking out the window that the beavers were still active, returned to the same spot for an hour or so.  They were doing pretty much exactly the same as the night before and I returned to bed for a bit.

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I spent the day exploring the woods and paths surrounding the Hideaway.  I searched in vain for red squirrels in the morning but did notice more ponds behind the cottage as I wandered through the woods and visited them a little later.  Evidence of beavers here too. and a picturesque setting.

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In the afternoon I walked along the path to the right of the cabin and crossed over a little bridge constructed of beaver wood.  It was here I saw all the extensive workings I mentioned above.  I walked along a path and saw my first red squirrel and came across a red deer hind grazing in a patch of deciduous woodland – I managed a few images before she noticed me.  There were nesting birds – I saw a starling deliver food to a hole in a tree and heard the cries of her young, and also spotted a wren with caterpillars.

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That evening I met up with Paul, one of the owners of the Estate, and a couple of other residents for a beaver walk.  He took us down to the pools I’d found in the morning.  The first animal we spotted though was an otter fishing in a small pond.  Lovely to watch.  We then found four beavers sitting a fair distance away grazing.  Back at the local pools there were the regular two doing exactly what they’d done the night before.  Once left to my own devices I walked down to the right of the cabin and in the fast-failing light watched one lone beaver tidying up the top of a dam but too dark for photographs.

Sunday morning I was up again at 4.30, and this time I walked round to the other ponds.  I found three beavers swimming about and eating both onshore and in the water. At one point three came together for a grooming session.  Frustratingly it was in quite tall grass so I only saw brief glimpses, but did take this little video.

I started to walk down to the far part of my local pools to see if any beavers were still at work but saw one heading back in the direction of the lodge, so followed it.  It did a spot of grooming and rearranged some of the mud on the dam before retiring for the day.

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After a few more hours in bed I went to Glenshee Ski Centre in the hope of finding the mountain hares and ptarmigan.  To be honest I had little idea where to go, so just took the chairlift up to the top and wandered around.  Although warm there were some very heavy rain showers and the mist came down so it wasn’t easy to locate anything.  I saw 4 hares of various colours – one in full summer pelage, one pretty white and two somewhere in between.  No ptarmigan though, although there were quite a few red grouse and I did see and photograph my first dotterel.

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The drive to and from Glenshee awarded me with more sightings – both a brown hare and a red deer hind ran out infront of me and I kestrel hovered above a field. Life was just about perfect!

In the evening, surprise surprise, I went out to see the beavers again.  Walking passed the lodge area I saw none, but obviously startled a beaver at the top end by the road as I heard an almighty splash!  I walked round to the more distant pools, partly hoping to see the otter again, but no sign of it.  The beavers were all quite distant so I walked back, passed the hideaway to the area with all the beaver-workings.  I saw a beaver heading in that direction so settled down under a tree overlooking the area where I’d seen the beaver on the dam the night before.  Paul and Louise appeared shortly after me and sat right at the edge of the water on a (I presume) beaver constructed bench, but after 10 beaverless minutes they left and I walked back a little bit closer to the riverbank.  Suddenly I saw a large twig moving swiftly towards the river and stopped in my tracks.  Sure enough the twig was attached to a beaver who swam into the water and spent about 15 minutes chomping on it.  Light was relatively poor by now so I had the ISO up at 5000 and a shutter speed of 1/80 – 1/60. As on all occasions over the weekend I was using my monopod and I’m pleasantly surprised at how many sharp images I achieved!

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Monday morning, again up at 4.30, I made a quick check of the same area but saw nothing so went round to the other pools.  I only saw 2 (at any one time) beavers this morning, but great to watch.

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Returning to the hideaway the adult female was doing her patrol around the pool and the very last beaver I saw was from the cabin window, returning from the lower pools. A perfect end to my beaver-spotting.

They really are amazing, fascinating animals and all credit to Paul and Louise for introducing them to the Estate and being such ambassadors for their return to the wild, where they belong.  If you want to read more then I can recommend Jim’s book mentioned above, also the Scottish Wild Beaver Group website.  Bob Smith of Nature Nuts does beaver guiding in the evenings and of course you could go stay with Bamff Ecotourism, even if you don’t fancy living off-grid like I did, they have regular self-catering accommodation and yurts, although you don’t have the added bonus of beavers out your window.

Monday I made a return visit to Bob Smith’s wildlife hide in the hope of seeing pine marten and red squirrels, but more of that in my next blog!

 

 

 

 

A Wild(life) Weekend in the East

I took advantage of the late May Bank Holiday weekend to visit my parents in East Lothian and for the first time since he entered my life, I left my dog Murphy behind, allowing a bit more freedom and a bark-free drive through to the East (bliss!)

I left Glasgow on Friday evening with the car telling me it was 21.5 degrees C outside and thought to myself how great it was to finally be going away without having to pack winter clothing as the weekend forecast was brilliant.  Unfortunately I (and the online weather apps) forgot to take into account the East Coast haar (fog) – 10 degrees when I arrived in Athelstaneford less than two hours later, and I immediately regretted leaving those warm clothes behind!  Still… I’m actually a little allergic to sun so I told myself it was for the best…

The haar was still hanging around on Saturday morning, but we headed down the coast towards the Scottish Borders nonetheless.

I had hoped to find some brown hares and wasn’t disappointed as my eagle-eyed Mum spotted two in one of the fields close enough for photographs.  So we stopped the car and watched them for a while. Beautiful animals, I’d really like to spend more time observing and photographing them.

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We popped into Smeaton Nursery Gardens and Tearoom  for a coffee and watched their gorgeous Ryeland Sheep (they look like teddy bears) and their lambs.

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Next stop was Dunbar Harbour.  I make a point of visiting this location every summer I’m in East Lothian so that I can check in with the kittiwakes, my favourite member of the gull family.  They nest in the wall of the old castle in the harbour and can be heard making their “kittiwake” calls.  This year it was concerning to see that there were far fewer birds than in previous years and, even more worrying, very few had nests – their numbers are declining everywhere and they are now on the red list of UK birds facing risk of global extinction so I suppose this shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I don’t know if they are just running late this year due to the crazy weather, but you’d think they’d all be here by now.

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St Abbs Head is home to a large number of seabirds, especially guillemots, so that was our next stop.  The mist had cleared so we had great views of the birds nesting on their precarious ledges and thousands bobbing about in the sea below.  Too far really for decent images though without hanging over the edge of the cliff & I’m not crazy enough to do that!

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I’d hoped the eiders at Eyemouth might have had their young, but I couldn’t find any birds and therefore I presume they were still nesting. So this was a very short stop especially as the haar was making a bit of a comeback.

We drove home via the Lammermuir Hills.  Last time I was there at Christmas they were covered in snow

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– they look entirely different now!  The sun was shining here though and it was a beautiful afternoon. We watched some curlews from the car as they had chicks so didn’t want to disturb.  My photographs were dismal unfortunately as all the grass and heather made focussing almost impossible at that angle.  Great to see so many though as curlews are now endangered in many parts of the UK.  I did photograph this red grouse and little bird (pipit I think, but I’m not going to try and say which one!).

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Later that evening we returned to the Lammermuirs to search for mountain hares.  I wrote a blog about my attempts to locate them in December (took three days but I found a few eventually), and was keen to try again, hoping they might be more visible now the snow was gone.  We walked along a track with many more curlews flying and calling overhead.  I was pleased to see quite a few hares  in the distance and running away.

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Given that the Lammermuirs don’t have a great reputation when it comes to preserving wildlife, any hare spotted is a bonus.  I wasn’t really expecting to get close enough to photograph any of them except as a wide shot as they are understandably flighty around people, but I came across one having a lie down close to the track.  I was pretty sure it would run, so crept slowly closer taking photographs as I went.  It eventually moved, but rather than immediately running away, it raised itself up on its hind legs for about 30 secs looking in the direction of my parents. I’ve never actually witnessed a mountain hare doing this.  Only times I’ve seen them on two legs they’ve been boxing. Then it ran! But I had a few close images which was brilliant.   Soon after this we saw the haar rolling in so headed for home as the mist swirled around us.

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Sunday we were up early to drive to Argaty Red Kites who have just opened a wildlife hide.  The haar followed us up the coast, but fortunately as we headed inland we found ourselves in beautiful sunshine although it was a tad windy.  The hide is in a lovely location across a field of sheep with their young lambs.  It sits just inside some woodland and fits 3 (or maybe 4 at a push) people.  One good thing is that it has two openings at ground level which are great for eye-balling the red squirrels.  Not the most comfortable position to lie in mind you, I had my legs sticking up in the air behind me but few hides I’ve visited have this option so I didn’t mind the discomfort.  The light was challenging all morning due partly to the trees with their summer foliage and the bright sunshine creating a lot of contrast.  There are quite a few perches and peanut butter (or something similar) has been put in crevices in the trees and tree stumps which attracted a couple of great spotted woodpeckers – an adult male and a juvenile – they visited throughout the morning.  Sadly we weren’t visited by nuthatch, jay or treecreeper which apparently have all been seen there fairly regularly.

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At least three red squirrels made appearances.  One was small and nervous – it was much darker than the others and never stopped in one place for more than a second – very tricky to photograph especially with the difficult lighting!  Very entertaining to watch though – we nick-named that one Speedy.

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Another spent most of its time at one peanut feeder working its way through huge quantities of nuts.  It rarely went anywhere else sadly and feeder shots weren’t what I was looking for.  It only really moved when it spotted Speedy – as it would always chase him away.

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The third appeared less often but was easily the most photogenic as it did sometimes move away from a feeder and pause for a moment or two.  The best shots of the day were when it sat on a branch with gorgeous new green leaves surrounding it.   It did, however, favour going completely inside the feeder to eat!

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None of the squirrels really spent much time sitting on the perches and stumps provided which would have given more opportunities for photographs which was a shame, but that’s wildlife for you – you can’t guarantee where it will go!  It was great though to watch the squirrels as they fed and zipped about.

In the afternoon we went up to the red kite hide.  There were quite a few birds circling above the farm all day – beautiful birds and quite possibly my favourite bird of prey.  I’ve visited Argaty for the kites a few times, but never before have I seen them start diving for the food before the guy putting it out has left the field.  It was all over in a blink of an eye.  Exhilarating to watch but I think these were my poorest ever kite images which is strange given that I had a high shutter speed and am normally pretty good at flying birds.   Still… it was an enjoyable afternoon as always and I came away with a few photographs.

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I had intended to rise early on Monday and go find some brown/mountain hares, but yet again the garden was shrouded in thick mist so I returned to bed.  I was due to go out to the Isle of May with the Scottish Seabird Centre to (hopefully) see some puffins having missed that opportunity on Mull due to the cancellation 3 times of my trip out to Lunga.  Seeing the weather in North Berwick I feared the worst – visibility was very poor, but the boat set sail anyway.

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My boat leaving the harbour, © Margaret Miller

It’s now a covered rib which is much warmer than the old one.  It was a strange, spooky journey out to the Island as we couldn’t see anything other than the odd seabird appearing out of the mist every so often.

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The Bass Rock was nowhere to be seen.  Simon, our guide, said this might mean more puffins were on shore rather than out at sea and I was looking forward to taking some atmospheric images though the haar.

However, just as we arrived at the Isle of May the mist cleared and for the afternoon I enjoyed beautiful warm and sunny conditions.  Unfortunately what this meant was that the puffins were few and far between.  This is the third largest puffin colony in the UK, and based on my experiences at this time of year (and a month earlier than this on Lunga on a couple of occasions) I’d have expected the birds to be on land sorting out their nests or even beginning to feed their young.  But no…  I believe they are running late this year due to the weather, and also, it seems, behave a bit differently from the other places I’ve been.  It may partly be due to the fact that visitors to the island are very restricted in where they can go to protect the burrows, and that the puffins are choosing to land in places that aren’t visible, or that they prefer to leave when we arrive, but I struggled to find anywhere I could photograph them. (Apparently there were a lot on land on Saturday when it was quite windy).

Eventually I spotted 3 perched on the cliff and moved into a better position

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In doing so I found a couple more sitting on the rocks just below me and much closer!  Phew!  I photographed these two until they flew off.

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And another close by.  It was standing with orange lichen covered rocks in both the fore and background which gave the images a lovely, almost sunrise-like glow.

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And that was it on the puffin front.  Quite disappointing as I witnessed none of the behaviours that make puffins special, but, fingers-crossed, I’ll have a day on Lunga in July which should reap rewards if we make it there!

There were plenty of other seabirds to enjoy though:

Guillemots

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Razorbills

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Fulmars

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Kittiwakes

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(other) Gulls

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Arctic terns who have only just started to nest so hadn’t yet got to the attacking passers-by stage yet, but who would all take off as one and fly around the harbour which was amazing to watch.

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And a lot of rabbits!

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On departing the Isle of May we did a slow circuit of the Bass Rock to see the gannets.  I love these birds and the landing trip I did last year was at the very top of my highlights, quite an awesome experience.  On this occasion the birds were all around and above us, searching for nesting materials.

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as well as crowding every available space on the island.

 

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Worrying to see one bird with a piece of plastic in its mouth and although these birds unlike many other seabirds are a success story right now, man is still doing its best to cause problems!

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Strangely I came away with more decent images of these, taken from a slow moving boat, than I did of the red kites!

So all in all a very enjoyable weekend in the East in which I packed a lot in. Next weekend I’m off on my travels again, this time to Perthshire for a weekend hopefully watching beavers and yet more red squirrels, more on that on my next blog.

 

 

 

A Week on Mull

This was my first visit to Mull since 2014 where it didn’t snow! Mind you we had (one day of) warm glorious sunshine then strong winds, heavy rain or drizzle and even hail stones, so weather-wise it wasn’t the best of weeks… Still… I was equipped for the conditions and although a little frustrating at times (especially when my puffin trip was cancelled 3 times and I never made it to Lunga) I made the most of my week on the island, and even if I didn’t return with nearly as many photographs as I would have expected it was an enjoyable stay.

Monday was the day of warm, glorious, sunshine – I’ve never been warm on Mull before! Everything looked wonderful, really clear and crisp. My parents and I were booked on Martin Keiver’s Mull Charters white-tailed sea eagle trip and as we left Ulva Ferry the water was like a mirror reflecting the mountains and gulls as they flew overhead.

The eagles came thick and fast. The first, a male, missed his fish entirely, and was quickly followed by his mate who had no trouble scooping it out of the water with her magnificent talons, they were pretty distant though. The third bird had a red-tinged tail…

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More came giving better and better views as they collected the fish.

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Great to get some images against the sky & hillsides too:

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The eagles were mobbed by both gulls and ravens – this raven was kind enough to fly side-by-side with a white-tail to demonstrate the similarities in their shape and difference in size.

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The strong sunlight had both advantages and disadvantages. I was using my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 lens. Due to the speed of the birds and variation in the light depending on whether the birds were shot against blue sky, hillside or water, I was in aperture priority mode (f7.1) with some negative exposure compensation. My shutter speed at times reached 1/5000! Therefore the vast majority of my images are sharp. However, I had to expose for the highlights (the birds heads/tails) and this combined with the harsh light meant that the feathers were dark and lacking any real colour. I’ve managed to improve on these in lightroom but a slightly cloudier day or lower sun would have been better. That said, the number of drops, and gorgeous day definitely compensated for any of these issues! Best (of 5) trips I’ve had out with Martin. We spotted an otter on the way back in too which was nice bonus, plus a stag silhouetted against the sky on a mountain top.

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Back in November I spent a week on Mull with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden photographing the otters. You can read all about it on this blog, but suffice to say it was a great week with many many wonderful otter encounters.

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So when I returned I had a good idea where to go looking for them. I found a mum and cub at the spot where, in November, there’d been a mum with two young cubs (see below).

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I don’t know whether one didn’t survive the winter (it was a bit of a wimp) or whether the more confident of the two had left home – I’ve heard differing reports. However great to see them. After one relatively brief and image-less encounter as they were finishing up and going home, I spent a fab couple of hours with the pair on the Wednesday. I spotted them as they came ashore on a little island. Here they groomed for a bit before heading back into the sea and fishing quite far out from the shore.

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Eventually they swam towards land and I got myself in position.

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The otters then spent at least an hour fishing, feeding, grooming and relaxing in the same area. Mum was eating kelp not fish.

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I think they must have sussed that I was there as both looked in my direction on a number of occasions but I stayed still and they returned to the same spot on the rocks again and again.

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At times though they were obviously completely relaxed and snoozed.

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I’m pretty sure I said this in my November blog, but watching otter families is one of my absolute favourite pastimes. Yes, I think I enjoy photographing mountain hares more and the resulting pictures of the hares are without a doubt better, but sitting in the company of otters is an absolute joy (in rain, wind, snow or sunshine!). The interactions between family members are lovely. These two spent a lot of time entwined, or with the cub resting its head on mum’s back.

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The other great thing about this pair is that they were hidden from view of other otter-spotters so we weren’t bothered by anyone else. What was lovely about November was the small number of photographers/tourists on the island, that was not the case in May! Cars crawled along the lochside and whenever I spotted an otter and stopped the car, others would pull in to see what was there. The otters, for the most part, stayed away from the shore, preferring to fish further out and if they needed to land went onto the little islands that appeared at lower tides.

You can’t really blame them… I know of (at least one) photographer who is quite vocal in his opinion that folk shouldn’t go to Mull for otters, but instead should visit the other islands (or rivers) where there are fewer people and plenty of wildlife – the same can (and is) said about the location where I, and many others, photograph mountain hares. I agree completely. However… not everyone has the time to find and then work these other places. I’d love nothing more than to find my own private otter / hare spot as I much prefer having the animals to myself, but with only 6 weeks annual leave, a dog who doesn’t travel, 2 radio shows and other interests, I can’t do it at present. But, believe me, if my plans to relocate North ever come to fruition it is top of my list to find new locations. In the meantime though, if I want to spend time with these animals that I love then I have little choice but to go to the tried and tested places. I do respect the wildlife though and do everything in my power not to stress them unlike some others.

Anyway… back to my week on Mull. Those were the only two occasions where I did much in the way of photography. Tuesday was miserable, heavy rain and strong winds all day so we spent much of it in the car. I did manage a few images though, mostly of the garden birds plus a lamb and skylark.

Female Chaffinch

Male Siskin

Lamb

Skylark

and finally a strange rainbow over the far bank of the loch which turned everything a little psychedelic!

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I went out early on the Wednesday morning which was lovely. The roads were quiet and the sun was shining. I photographed a male reed bunting singing its heart out, a great northern diver (of which there were many on Mull but mostly distant), a wheatear and common sandpiper

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Great Northern Diver

Male wheatear

Common Sandpiper

and then a white-tail flew down over the loch, it looked as though it was fishing but I don’t think it caught anything. It flew through some trees, presumably to the nest. Then either it, or its mate appeared and also flew down over the loch before returning, flying overhead, then perching in the same trees. Not the same standard of images as those from the boat, but great to get some which didn’t involve baiting.

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I returned to Salen and noticed that the light on the bird feeders was lovely, so spent some time photographing the siskin, goldfinch and greenfinch.

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After our trip out with Mull Charters on the Monday we briefly visited Grass Point. Not a whole lot going on, but nice to see some Highland cows and a chiffchaff.

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After the otter encounter we went to Carsaig, one of my favourite places on Mull. Sadly the feral goats were mostly quite distant although we bumped into one coming towards us on the same narrow path – not sure who was most surprised! I did photograph a one-legged ringed plover. It didn’t seem overly bothered by the lack of an appendage, but did have to hop rather than run.

Feral Goat

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We went to Croggan on the Friday and stopped off at Garmony Point en route where it was almost sunny although there was a storm close by.

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Storm Coming In

At Croggan there were some super-cute young lambs plus lots of little birds including ringed plover, warblers, song thrush and a cuckoo, but I couldn’t find it! Unfortunately the weather closed in around us when we reached the beach and the magnificent views were nowhere to be seen, but I enjoyed watching the plovers as they scuttled along the shore.

Lamb

Song Thrush

Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover

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My parents departed on a morning ferry and I stuck around for a few more hours. I watched two fishing otters, neither of which came near land, and walked down to Loch Ba which was beautiful. Lots of cows and a wheatear.

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I had a look for the dippers at Knock Bridge but the water level was so high they’d disappeared. I did spot a black cap, but it was gone before I had the camera ready.

So that’s it. Really wish I’d made it out to Lunga, and that the weather had been a tad better, but it was a lovely relaxing week with some great wildlife encounters.

A return to the red squirrels

Last August I spent a really enjoyable day at Neil McIntryre’s Rothiemurchas Estate red squirrel hide deep in a remnant of the beautiful Caledonian pine forest.  The setting was stunning and the squirrels put on quite a show!

When I returned to the highlands again in March 2018 I made a point of revisiting Neil’s hide.

I arrived a little early as there’d been yet more snow in Tomatin and I was a little worried about the roads.  I therefore wandered down to Loch an Eilein for a few minutes spotting at least five squirrels en route!  The loch looked incredible.  Frozen solid at that end with mist floating across at the treeline and sun beams penetrating the loch.  Wow! Here’s a phone pic which doesn’t really do it justice, but gives an idea:

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Unlike last time, I was sharing the hide with two others, so we all headed up together and got settled in.  Fortunately it’s a big hide and we worked around and with each other.

No purple and pink heather this time around, the foliage was more of an apricot colour, but it looked lovely too.  There was still a light covering of snow on the ground too – not quite as much as I’d have liked but as Neil pointed out, squirrel sightings are fewer when snowy because they stay curled up in their snug dreys.

The squirrels weren’t as active as August, but there were plenty of visits.  The only down-side though was that they primarily collected and cached the nuts, rarely stopping to eat or to take pause. Any broken nuts we put out were snaffled by the birds.  Great morning though!

The vast majority of these images were shot using the Nikon D610 and Tamron 150-600mm lens on beanbag with manual exposure – afterwards I did think I should probably have switched to aperture priority as the light was constantly shifting, but it worked out ok although I was constantly changing my settings.

This tree root with the pine tree in the background was a very photogenic perch.  The first image here is my favourite from the shoot.

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This has to be one of the most distinctive tree stumps!  I’ve seen it in so many images since Neil opened this hide.  You can see why though…

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This was also a very photogenic perch, much utilised by the squirrels this time

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I love the muted colours in those last two images.

This log, with a light covering of snow was a good spot for photographs

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Like last time I tried to take some photographs that showed off the stunning setting

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It was quite tricky on this occasion to photograph much in the way of movement as although the light was lovely at times it wasn’t bright enough for a fast shutter speed.

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I had a go at a backlit image – far from perfect, but for a first attempt I’m relatively pleased.

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I didn’t try for any forward-facing jumping squirrels this time but did try to do some from the side.  However they were slightly out of focus unfortunately – something to try again next time!

So all in all another very enjoyable morning at Neil’s hide.  I do recommend visiting it if you have a spare morning in the Cairngorms. It’s a wonderful setting at all times of the year and watching the squirrels is an enjoyable way to pass the time!

April Mountain Hares

What a difference a few weeks make! It was hard to believe as I walked up the hill in glorious warm sunshine to the mountain hares on Saturday 14 April that 6 weeks earlier I’d struggled with heavy ground snow and blizzard conditions (as described in this blog).

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Although there were a few large patches of snow remaining for the most part it was all gone and the hares, still more white than brown, shone like beacons in the heather. I’d made the mistake of dressing in warm clothing including my thermal waterproof Decathlon trousers and wished I’d brought sunscreen and worn less – even the wind was almost warm.

I drove up from Glasgow on Saturday morning arriving at the hare hill early afternoon. As I trudged up the path regretting my clothing choices and remembering how hard it had been to walk through the deep snow in March, it was lovely to hear the birds (pipits) sing and the grouse call out (because yes it is possible to have grouse and hares on the same moorland without culling!!)

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There were hares everywhere bounding across the heather full of the joys of life – it must be such a relief for them to finally have some decent conditions too.

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I eventually reached the top and spotted quite a few hares close to the path so spent a fair amount of time stalking them. Tricky though – in fact it was tricky all day – it seemed as if Saturday was grazing day. Almost every hare was actively feeding and therefore quite flighty as they were already mobile. I suppose in March, with the freezing, snowy conditions it was more important to conserve body heat than move away from photographers. I soon figured out the distance with which they were comfortable though and did manage a decent number of photographs during the seven hours I spent on the hillside.

There were two lying in the heather right next to the path. One of them was mostly obscured except for its feet which made me chuckle.

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The second hare then presented me with a whole succession of wonderful facial expressions

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Then flopped down close to me for a snooze. Unlike March, it wasn’t curled up in a tight ball, but spread out to benefit from the rays of sunshine. If I’d come across it already like this I think I’d have thought it a dead hare!

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I left her to sleep in peace after a while and pursued other options. All quite challenging and I did a lot more walking than normal when with the hares. Great to watch though! It’s good to see new behaviours and study the animals – it was so interesting to observe how different they were from March – it’s all part of the learning experience for me. They also looked lovely in their part winter/part summer pelage. The ground was covered in clumps of their soft white hairs blowing in the breeze.

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Eventually I decided to head down the hill and see if I could find Rafa. Rather than take the track I crossed to the other side of it and walked over the hill – far further round than I had intended. The advantage of this though was that I came across the herd of feral goats. Two were locking horns whilst the others grazed or sat in the sun.

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I found three hares near a patch of snow at the bottom. One was sitting on the side of the hill on what was the greenest part of the whole mountainside.

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The other two were far more interesting. It was a male and female. The jack jumped the jill (slightly obscured and came as a surprise to me, so no decent images) then sat whilst she rolled in the snow and groomed next to him. She moved up the hill, the male followed and mated with her – she let out a yelp and moved off. Seconds later they were grazing contentedly next to one another. I think it might have been Rafa (the jack) and Ginger (the jill) but can’t say for sure.

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This was an entertaining end to the day. After 4 hours of driving and 7 hours on the slopes I found my hotel and collapsed!

I was back on the hill by 10 the following day and had dressed in slightly lighter clothing which was a blessing as the sun shone again and although there was a much stronger wind it wasn’t cold. Truth be told the walk up the hill into the wind was hard work, my legs really weren’t enthusiastic to do it all again. There was a fair amount of stopping to admire the view and listening to the sounds of spring. Surprisingly I spotted no hares on the way up the path on Sunday, compared to at least a dozen on Saturday, but as soon as I arrived at the top I could see plenty on both sides of the track. There was one a couple of metres off to the right sheltering from the wind so I stuck with it. The hare relocated but, as with the day before, I quickly sussed out how close it would tolerate me, and with a 900mm focal distance on my Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm it wasn’t a problem to stay far back. Unfortunately though this was one of those hares that did very little. The odd stretch or nibble at the grass and that was it. I remained with it figuring that given how much time I’d invested in it already it would have to do something eventually. But after three hours I called time.

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Whilst sitting with this hare I was monitoring the hillside. One of the big differences I noticed at this time of year in comparison with other visits (March, July, August, October) was that the hares were often in pairs, or more. There were groups of 3 or 4 sitting and grazing together all along the edge of the one large area of snow.

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I decided to approach some of these and they gathered in a group of approx 7 animals and that’s where it got interesting. There was a fair bit of chasing and to my delight boxing. One of the hares was the instigator and was chasing the others. The difficulty was that the exposure when they were on the snow was quite different to that on the heather so a few of my photographs where they switched between the two weren’t successful – the problem with manual exposure! Plus, my finger was still in a splint after my March doorbell ringing incident so I had to use a monopod which was difficult to hold steady in the strong breeze. However I do have a few images and it was brilliant to watch. Boxing hares was something I had missed seeing in March due to the conditions.

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This was a good spot for photographs, the snow with the distant hills behind was quite photogenic. The hares liked to run along the snow

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and sit on the skyline.

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I reluctantly called it a day at 4pm knowing that I had to drive back to Glasgow. Still, over the course of the weekend I spent 13 hours on the hillside which is pretty good going and now I know that’s possible I’ll definitely do it again!

A selection of images are available via my website: http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk, if you’re interested in a print or greeting card featuring one not there then please get in touch karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk

Eskrigg Nature Reserve

Red squirrels are one of my favourite animals to watch and photograph. Unfortunately there are none in Glasgow though. You can find them at Aberfoyle, but the hide isn’t great for photography – I took these ones a short distance from the hide in 2016 which was a bit better but I had very limited success.

Argaty Farm, best known for its red kites has been encouraging the squirrels with some success, so that might soon be an option. Of course I love Neil McIntyre‘s Caledonian pine forest setting but it’s a fair distance away (competes with the mountain hares for my time) and is quite pricey even if it’s definitely the most photogenic location I’ve been to.

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However, over the Easter weekend I decided to check out Eskrigg Nature Reserve near Lockerbie. I think I had presumed it was further away than it actually is – 60 miles down the M74. Not the most exciting drive, but very straightforward except for the last bit – the reserve is not signposted until you reach the track to the carpark. Fortunately for quite possibly the first time ever, google maps got me straight there. Basically you turn off the A709 at Vallance Drive (it looks like a regular suburban street) and then take an immediate right down a track, at this point there’s a (not very clear) sign saying that this is the way to the reserve. The track isn’t surfaced, so drive carefully.

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It’s a short walk into the reserve and the red squirrel hide is situated alongside a large pond filled with mallards and mute swans. The mallards were frisky – at one point I witnessed a whole group of males mounting a poor female. Light facing that way was too harsh for decent images though and to be honest my attention was on the squirrels!

The area facing the hide is fairly open although when the sun disappeared behind clouds I did have to push the ISO up and lower the shutter speed. It would definitely be best on sunny days. There are a number of trees and tree stumps. If you sit in the hide some of the more photogenic stumps are obscured by closer trees though as I discovered.

The squirrels were all quite distinctly coloured, I’m not sure exactly how many there were, four or five I think. One was light orange with a white tail, another entirely light orange, one was very dark with an almost black tail and two had some kind of issue with their noses (reported). The light orange squirrel was the most active and super-speedy. One person I spoke to said when she’d visited in the past she’d seen as many as 14 squirrels – pretty impressive!

Here’s a shaky phone video – so hard to keep up with them, but gives an idea of how fast (and close) they were!

 

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Interestingly not only were they still caching nuts, but were also unearthing previously cached ones and eating those.

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After a while though the squirrels all seemed to be heading to the left of the hide and I was struggling to see them, so I moved onto the wooden platform where another woman was throwing down hazelnuts.

This was better as I was lower down and the views were much improved.

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I also had better angles to photograph them sitting in the trees

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I couldn’t believe how fearless the squirrels were, I could quite honestly have reached out and touched them if I’d wanted to. They would come and sit beside me sometimes – so very sweet, but not great when you have a crop frame Nikon D500 with a 300mm F4 lens (focal distance of 450mm) – I really struggled to get the whole squirrel in the frame! I would have been more successful with my full frame Nikon D610 and either 70-200 f2.8 or 100mm macro. I’d also recommend bringing some hazelnuts (they ask that you use unshelled, so get the nutcracker out at home and pre-prepare).

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There were a number of well-stocked feeders at the site which attracted a large variety of birds. All the usual suspects (chaffinch, coal tit, blue tit, great tit, robins, dunnocks) and I spotted a pair of long-tailed tits once at a feeder off to the side. A great spotted woodpecker was in the woods a bit further down and came close for a minute.

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A treecreeper was a regular visitor

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As was this nuthatch, attracted by the suet/lard in the tree.

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Mallards and pheasants appeared below the feeders too.

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One thing I would mention, although I say above that a shorter lens is best for the squirrels, if you want to photograph the birds then bring a longer one too as they are a little bit further away.

So definitely the best location I’ve found that’s easily do-able from Glasgow – I didn’t even explore the rest of the reserve and I would have liked to try and photograph the mallards, but I got so engrossed in the squirrels I ran out of time! It’s also free although donations are encouraged.

This is my favourite image of the day:

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Check out my website for higher-res versions of some of these images.