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.

SiskinSiskinGreat Spotted WoodpeckerGreat Spotted Woodpecker

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.

Pine MartenPine MartenPine MartenPine MartenPine Marten

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.

Red SquirrelRed SquirrelRed SquirrelRed SquirrelRed SquirrelRed SquirrelRed SquirrelRed Squirrel

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

JayJayFemale Pheasant

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!

Pine MartenPine MartenPine MartenPine MartenPine MartenPine MartenPine Marten

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.

Perthshire_30July_png_c-9900

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.

Bamff-pheasant_jpg_c_7169

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).

Bamff-treecreeper_jpg_c_7453

The cabin looks out on one of the beaver pools.

20180604_063847

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!)

bamffbeaver_jpg_c_DSC7618Bamff-jpg_c_7191Bamff-jpg_c_7333

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.

Bamff-jpg_c_7177Bamff-jpg_c_2603Bamff-jpg_c_2570

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

Bamff_otter-jpg_c_2471

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.

Bamff-jpg_c_7187

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.

20180603_060107

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.

Bamff-redeer_jpg_c_7138Bamff-redeer_jpg_c_7133

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.

Bamff-jpg_c_7347

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.

Bamff-dotterel_jpg_c_7416

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!

Bamff-jpg_c_7469

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.

bamffbeaver_jpg_c_DSC7625Bamff-jpg_c_7304bamffbeaver_jpg_c_DSC7685Bamff-jpg_c_7294

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.

EastLothianMay2018-brownhare_jpg_c_5415EastLothianMay2018-brownhare_jpg_c_5424

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.

EastLothianMay2018-ryeland_jpg_c_5463EastLothianMay2018-ryeland_jpg_c_5472

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.

EastLothianMay2018-kittiwake_jpg_c_5506

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!

EastLothianMay2018-guillemots_jpg_c_5514

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

lammermuirs-png-6505

– 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!).

EastLothianMay2018-pipit_jpg_c_5633EastLothianMay2018-redgrouse_jpg_c_5645

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.

EastLothianMay2018-mountainhare_jpg_c_5690

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.

EastLothianMay2018-mountainhare_jpg_c_5691EastLothianMay2018-mountainhare_jpg_c_5694EastLothianMay2018-mountainhare_jpg_c_5703

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.

ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5811ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_2252

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.

ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_2307ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_2316ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_2388ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_2395ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5755ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5762

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.

ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5798ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_2383

 

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!

ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5916ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5914ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5891ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5888ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5833ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5800ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5905

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.

ArgatyMay2018-jpg_c_5995ArgatyMay2018-6375ArgatyMay2018-6223

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.

IsleOfMay-mist_jpg
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.

20180528_123944

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

IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6619

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.

IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6628IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6647IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6655IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6683

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.

IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6704IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6710IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6724IsleOfMay-puffin_jpg_c_6728

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

IsleOfMay-guillemot_jpg_c_6771IsleOfMay-guillemot_jpg_c_6785IsleOfMay-guillemot_razorbill_jpg_c_6783

Razorbills

IsleOfMay-razorbill_jpg_c_6609IsleOfMay-razorbill_jpg_c_6781

Fulmars

IsleOfMay-fulmar_jpg_c_6545IsleOfMay-fulmar_jpg_c_6548

Kittiwakes

IsleOfMay-kittiwake_jpg_c_6770

(other) Gulls

IsleOfMay-gull_jpg_c_6608

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.

IsleOfMay-arctictern_jpg_c__6828IsleOfMay-arctictern_jpg_c_6818IsleOfMay-arctictern_jpg_c_6831

And a lot of rabbits!

IsleOfMay-rabbit_jpg_c_6524

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.

IsleOfMay-gannet_jpg_c_6968IsleOfMay-gannet_jpg_c_6979

IsleOfMay-gannet_jpg_c_6916IsleOfMay-gannet_jpg_c_6990

as well as crowding every available space on the island.

 

IsleOfMay-gannet_jpg_c_6943IsleOfMay-gannet_jpg_c_6955

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!

IsleOfMay-gannet_jpg_c_6900

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…

seaeagle30april-2331

seaeagle30april-2333

seaeagle30april-2351

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

seaeagle30april-2564

seaeagle30april-2565

seaeagle30april-2569

seaeagle30april-2652

seaeagle30april-2654

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

seaeagle30april-2351

seaeagle30april-2570

seaeagle30april-2573

seaeagle30april-2643

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.

seaeagle30april-2391

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.

redeerstag

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.

otters_thursday_png_c-2719

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).

otters_wednesday_png_c-2347

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.

Otters

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

Otters

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

Otters

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.

Otters

Otters

Otters

Otters

Mull_WedDay-3415

At times though they were obviously completely relaxed and snoozed.

Otters

Otters

Otters

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.

Otters

Otters

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!

Rainbow

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

early2may-jpg_c_3043

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.

early2may-jpg_c_3080

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.

early2may-jpg_c_3128

goldfinch

siskin

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.

grasspoint-jpg_c_2883

grasspoint-jpg_c_2912

grasspoint-jpg_c_2892

grasspoint-jpg_c_2896

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

Mull_WedDay-jpg_c_3551

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.

Storm Coming In

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

croggan-jpg_c_4341

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.

20180505_1209291711647911.jpg

20180505_1214351636366530.jpg

Mull5May-jpg_c_4368

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:

lochaneilein

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.

redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0292-EditredsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0272redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0267

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…

redsquirrelsD610_7march_png_c-0198redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0343redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0355

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

redsquirrelsD500_7march-png_c_3617redsquirrelsD610_7march-0723redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0438redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0868redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0877

I love the muted colours in those last two images.

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

redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0233redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0236redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0680redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0097

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

redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0372redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0179redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0564

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.

redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0462redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0744redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0770

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

redsquirrelsD610_7march-png_c_0545

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).

March
20180415_1313541793634521.jpg
April

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!!)

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0053

mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1137

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0087

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_9611

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

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_9617mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_9634mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_9661mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_9720mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_9725

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!

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_9771_2

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0126mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0167mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0330mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0351mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0374

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0274mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0307

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0596

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0451mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0461mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0492mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0535mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0560_squaremountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0580mountainhare_april2018_sat-png_c_0583

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_0666mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_0712mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_0729mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_0940

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1267mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1287

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.

mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1348mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1352

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

mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1542mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1599mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1762

and sit on the skyline.

mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1431mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1437mountainhare_april2018_sun-png_c_1573

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.

red-squirrel_36983282045_o

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.

eskrigg

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!

 

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9312

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9406

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9142

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9263

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

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_8906

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.

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9226

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9372

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

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_8845

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9078

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9081

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9114

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9136

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).

EskriggReserve0118-adobe_png_c_9153

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9238

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9250

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.

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9209

A treecreeper was a regular visitor

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9383

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

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9180

EskriggReserve0118-png-c__9169

Mallards and pheasants appeared below the feeders too.

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9366

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9459

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:

EskriggReserve0118-png_c_9265

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

Cresties

Little did I know when I headed to the Scottish Highlands in early March that I’d spend quite so much time photographing crested tits. When I visited in March 2017 it was considerably milder and although many hours were passed at RSPB Loch Garten the cresties were few and far between (sociable place to hang out though), this year with the snow and cold weather this wasn’t an issue!

Monday was a difficult day. It was supposed to be a full day with the mountain hares but it had snowed heavily since the Sunday and although the main roads were clear I had real trouble finding anywhere I could park the car and was concerned about access to the hares. I visited RSPB Insh Marshes and spent a bit of time in their hides plus walked one of the trails through deep snow. Only photographs I came away with though were sheep!

I then braved the road up to Cairngorm Mountain thinking I could find the snow buntings in the car park, but the drive up was terrifying with snow drifts and the car park didn’t look great for my car, so as soon as I arrived at the top I went straight back down again!

Finally I found myself at Loch Garten. Surprisingly there were no photographers in the car park, nor a bird feeder to be seen – last year this was a hive of activity (even although there were few cresties). I met a woman who told me that all the photographers were gathered on the path up to the visitor centre, but also informed me of a different spot where I could see and photograph the cresties without disturbance from others. I walked past the huddle of men in their camo gear with 500mm F4 lenses and soon found where she was talking about. There were regular visits from a couple of crested tits and although the conditions weren’t great it was lovely to see them and good practice for my official crestie session the following day.

lochgaten5mar-png_c_2536

lochgaten5mar-png_c_2790

lochgaten5mar-png-c_2527

They seemed to enjoy the fat ball I brought with me too! This one looks really cheery.

lochgaten5mar-png_c_2566

I awoke to yet more snow on Tuesday morning but managed to get the car out the drive and onto the A9 to travel to the Black Isle for a day at the Black Isle Photography Hides crested tit site. I was amazed to discover that as I approached Inverness all the snow completely disappeared – there was none falling or on the ground – just rain. I met James Roddie, one of the two James’ involved in BIPH at Munlochy and followed him up to the site. As we got closer the rain turned back to snow and I thought great! Cresties in snow!

James showed me the perches the birds liked and then took his leave. I got myself set up, but my initial optimism soon disappeared as I realised just how wet the falling snow was. It didn’t take long before my waterproofs were completely drenched and although I stayed dry under them it really was quite miserable. I found myself asking why on earth I was paying to stand outside in such conditions – why didn’t I go somewhere warm and sunny for my holidays??? However… I braved the weather for 4 hours and managed a few images I liked although the ISO was really a bit too high.

These were all taken with the Nikon D500, Tamron 300mm F4, tripod mounted with gimble head. You can tell from these images just how wet it was!

cresties6march-png_c_2843

cresties6march-png_c_2925

cresties6march-png_c_2902

cresties6march-png_c_3019

I did take a few nice shots of other birds visiting the site including a dunnock, robin and coal tit (there were hundreds of coal tits!)

 

I returned to my cottage, changed into dry clothes then scattered some seed on the patio and proceeded to photograph the chaffinches & starlings in the snow from the comfort of the lounge!

gardenbirds6march-png_c_3447-2gardenbirds6march-png_c-3531gardenbirds6march-png_c_3502

James Moore (the other Black Isle James) was kind enough to offer me a second go with the cresties on the Thursday. And although part of me would have loved to spend the day with the hares, I couldn’t refuse as I really felt I hadn’t achieved what I had set out to.

This was a much better day, weather-wise. Still some snow lying (which was very useful otherwise I’m not sure I’d have found the site again without the footprints) but sunny. Based on my experiences on Tuesday I decided to switch to the Tamron 150-600mm lens and a monopod which made my ability to move about (or swing round) much easier. No sooner had I arrived than I heard a buzzard overhead – looked up and there were three of them. No photos but nice to watch whilst I awaited the arrival of the cresties. It took about half an hour for them to appear, but once they did I had regular visits all day. I felt a bit like the gunner on a fighter plane, swinging the monopod and camera round to try and capture them!  Crested tits don’t tend to hang around for long in one place – easy enough to spot especially as they have a distinctive call, but more often than not by the time you get the camera to that spot the bird has disappeared! But this was my 3rd day of cresties that week and I had had a lot of practice so had a fairly high success rate.  One advantage of the tamron lens (with a max focal distance of 900mm on the D500) was that I didn’t have to physically move much (other than spinning round) as I could zoom in from quite a distance.

highlands_cresties4-png_c_4898

highlands_cresties4-png_c_4866

highlands_cresties4-png_c_4858

I’ve seen many images of crested tits taken at this site and others where the bird is perched on a photogenic bare branch with attached pine cones. They look great & I’d be delighted to have a few like that, but I couldn’t see any of these branches (and if any were lying on the ground they were under the snow) and, also I quite fancied doing something a little different. I decided to use the branches and pine needles to frame the cresties – adding a completely natural soft green vignette to the images. I was relatively pleased with the results.

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5712

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5257

highlands_cresties3-png_c_6049

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5516

I put a lump of suet-ball in the v of a tree stump. All the birds loved this, including one of the crested tits (the other preferred the peanuts).

highlands_cresties3-png_c_6198

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5780

highlands_cresties3-png_c_6191

One of the two cresties was having a bad hair day (as you can see from some of the images above). This final image of the bird has quite possibly been my most successful post on twitter!

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5329

James told me on Tuesday that there had been regular visits from long-tailed tits. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I was possibly a little more excited by that news, than the opportunity to photograph the crested tits! I realise for many people these gorgeous little birds are regular garden visitors, but I’ve only ever had one in my garden a couple of times at the tail end of spring 2017 (and for about a second a week or so ago), and I’ve tried everything to encourage them to visit! Sadly on the Tuesday what with the dismal weather, they didn’t bother to show up, but on Thursday, pretty much every time I decided to take a time-out and have a sit down or snack, a pair would magically appear at the feeders/fatball. I’d therefore have to throw down whatever I was eating and try for a few images before they disappeared again.  These birds stay still for even less time than the cresties so shots away from feeders are really tricky to achieve!

highlands_cresties4-png-c_5920

highlands_cresties4-png-c_5874

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5292

I also spotted a couple of treecreepers.

highlands_cresties3-png_c_6447

highlands_cresties3-png_c_6428

and at least two robins.

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5542

My favourite series of image of the day were actually of one of the long-tailed tits. I’d like to say I intentionally composed this so that the background would mirror the colours of the bird, but that would be a lie! Very pleased with these though!

highlands_cresties4-png-c_5681

highlands_cresties4-png_c_5685

Thanks to James and James for having me back for a second, far more enjoyable day. If you are looking for a lovely, natural setting to photograph crested tits over the winter months, then do check out Black Isle Photography Hides.

A selection of these images are available to purchase via my website. If you’d like one that isn’t there please get in touch and I can sort for you.

March (2018) Mountain Hares

Readers of this blog or followers on my social media accounts will be aware how much I love spending quality time with mountain hares. The setting is stunning (especially this year when coated in a thick blanket of snow) and it’s wonderful just to sit with a hare as time passes by – even when the hare does little more than twitch and do a half-hearted groom in 3 hours whilst we survive a blizzard and biting cold winds together!

I booked this year’s March trip back in August and had been counting down the months and days ever since. In recent months I’ve bored friends and colleagues with my worry that there’d be no snow (hard to believe now!). It has seemed to me this winter that every single UK wildlife photographer (and all their friends) have been photographing the hares, probably due to the aforementioned snow. So I was a little concerned that I’d be fighting for a spot in the car park and on the hills. For me, one of the joys of the hares is sitting alone on the mountainside, just me and the hare as one. I do worry that the “hare hill” might turn into another Chanonry Point with photographers jostling for a good spot, getting too close to the animals and causing unnecessary stress. I suppose all the people keep the raptors away, but still…

Initially I thought my holiday was jinxed. First my dog sitter cancelled due to illness, then the “Beast from the East” struck Central Scotland. Glasgow was shut for 3 days – we were told not to travel into work (a first) – my car was parked on untreated roads, would I be able to move it? My parents kindly agreed to take Murphy (the dog), but although the “beast” was a bit late arriving in East Lothian, their village was snowed in by Friday and inaccessible…. So I spent a frantic hour or two on Friday trying to find new dog sitters. Fortunately I came across Dog Buddy and found Corey who was free, so on Saturday morning Murphy was dropped off with complete strangers – it worked out though! I wanted snow, I got snow!

My drive up was without incident and I had a lovely walk around Loch An Eilein to stretch my legs. The snow was falling and it all looked very pretty.

LochAnEilein

However… when I arrived at my cottage in Tomatin (3rd stay there, it’s lovely), I rang my host’s doorbell and my middle right finger went wonky.

Transpired I’d damaged the tendon and so spent Sunday morning at A&E in Inverness to have a splint fitted. Fortunately, it didn’t hurt and as I’m left-handed it was less of an inconvenience as it might otherwise have been. I was initially concerned I’d be unable to operate my camera with a heavy lens, but although hand-holding wasn’t really an option my monopod made it easier. I do have to wear a splint for 6-8 weeks though…

Sunday afternoon I made it to the hares. As I only had a few hours, and because there was plenty of snow, I stayed on the lower slopes where I soon found a wonderful hare which was quite content for me to hang out with.

(I took all my mountain hare images on this trip with the Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm lens which gave me a maximum focal distance of 900mm meaning I never had to get too close to the hares. Now, it is possible with some of the animals here to be considerably closer than that, but I’d rather give them as much space as possible to avoid any unnecessary stress.)

This was a brilliant hare, and we were to spend a lot of time together during my week. It was still in its winter pelage with little brown marks above its eyes. On that first afternoon I took some of my favourite photographs as it groomed & grazed…

mountainhare4march-png_c_1784

mountainhare4march-png_c_2005

mountainhare4march-png_c_2001

and stretched its legs.

54 active hare

I also took my favourite paw image that afternoon, and it was after posting this photograph on social media that I named the hare “Rafa” – see if you can work out why!

78-favourite-hare

It was fairly heavy snow on the hillside and I was quite glad to be on the lower slopes.

20-sitting-hare

A feral goat started bleating loudly down by the woods which caught my attention. On looking more closely I noticed another hare at the edge of the trees grazing (it’s quite small on the left-hand side of the second photo below).

71 wide angle hare

70 wide angle hare

69 wide angle hare

I parted company with Rafa and moved slowly down the slope so as not to spook the hare and spent some time photographing it, pleased to have a subject in slightly different surroundings. Suddenly there was a flash of orange in my viewfinder, I was so surprised I forgot to press the shutter – it was a red squirrel! It would have been fab to have an image of both together, but I only managed this one in focus picture of the squirrel just before it darted up a tree.

73 wide angle hare

After this I called it a day, but did grab one quick shot of a feral goat kid, of which there were quite a number.

72 wide angle hare

When I opened the curtains on Monday morning I was quite relieved I’d visited the hares the day before as I was greeted with deep snow which was still falling. It continued until Wednesday morning, and although I managed out and about on both Monday and Tuesday the road to the hares was frustratingly not an option.

Wednesday afternoon though, after a morning in Neil McIntyre‘s red squirrel hide I decided it was time to stand up to the weather and I tentatively drove along the single-track road hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction as all the passing places looked inaccessible without a 4×4 and / or winter tyres. I made it without incident but as there was really only a couple of hours of light left I stuck to the lower slopes again. There were quite a few cars in the car park but I had this area to myself (how I like it) and it didn’t take long to spot Rafa who was sitting in pretty much the same place as before – such a beautiful hare!

21-sitting-hare

I was treated to some more grooming. In order to wash, the hares wet their front paw and use it to clean their bodies as can be seen in this series of images.

26-grooming-hare

27-grooming-hare

27b-grooming-hare

Rafa then had a yawn and lolloped off.

76-favourite-hare

66-wide-angle-hare

There was another hare sheltering in a snow hole (I think this is Ginger who I spent more time with on Friday). So I took a few photographs of it and then headed home.

mountainhares_7march-png_c_4645

mountainhares_7march-png_c_4660

mountainhares_7march-png_c_4665

Friday was my only full day with the hares which was a shame, but I made the most of it arriving at the site early and staying until the sun went down. A hare ran past behind me, and then there was another sitting right at the side of the track only feet away which had a great face.

highlands_mountainhares9March-png_c_6751

Although it started off as a beautiful morning by the time I’d climbed the hill (hard work in deep snow), catching up with Andy Howard, as he was also heading up with a client, the blue sky disappeared, replaced by a white-out. Andy went off to see if he could find Mrs Grey and I located a hare hunkered down a little further on. I settled down and for the next three hours during which time a snow storm passed through I sat with this hare as it did almost nothing at all. It was freezing! I don’t blame the hare for its inactivity, the wind was bitter and visibility reduced to almost nothing. No hares were moving at this time. The sun eventually reappeared and the hare did a half-hearted groom and a bit of snacking then moved down the slope a little to feed some more.

highlands_mountainhares9March_png_c_D500108

highlands_mountainhares9March_png_c_D500183

highlands_mountainhares9March_png_c_D500249

highlands_mountainhares9March_png_c_D500273

I decided to go and look for a more active hare and spotted three a little further up, but they were quite skittish. I photographed a few from a distance – it’s always nice to get some wide-angle shots especially when the hills looked so stunning.

highlands_mountainhares9March_png_c_D500457

65-wide-angle-hare

67-wide-angle-hare

68-wide-angle-hare

I found a couple more hares and took one of my favourite images from the week

77 favourite hare

At this point I decided to go back down the hill and check in with Rafa. Not long after I’d got myself settled I heard a noise – it was 2 men on snow mobiles who zoomed down the hill close-by. Knowing this would upset Rafa I was ready for some running shots. Fortunately he didn’t go very far and I followed him up a slope and discovered he was with a second hare (known as Ginger apparently). So I spent the last couple of hours of daylight, when there was some great light with these two animals. Here’s Rafa

24-sitting-hare

54-active-hare

48-active-hare

49-active-hare

highlands_mountainhares9March-png_c_8610

highlands_mountainhares9March-png_c_8612

highlands_mountainhares9March-png_c_8619

highlands_mountainhares9March-png_c_8642

…and Ginger

50-active-hare

51-active-hare

41-feeding-hare

42-feeding-hare

highlands_mountainhares9March-png_c_8527

As the light fell I spotted an opportunity for a back-lit image of Ginger

60a favourite hare

Saturday morning before returning to Glasgow I had one final visit to Rafa. The weather was horrible though, blizzard conditions. I sat facing Rafa, which meant facing into the snow – very unpleasant! Rafa did absolutely nothing and my camera lens kept getting snowy, so I walked down to the woods and tried to photograph a feral goat with the most brilliant face. I failed though as it went too deep into the woods. I returned to Rafa for another half and hour or so, still nothing, and called it a day.

highlands_mountainhares10March_png_c_DSC8717

So… brilliant to spend time with the hares again, especially Rafa. The enjoyment I get from being with them is unabated, and I soon forget the freezing conditions and difficult walking as I look back on my experiences. It is such a privilege to spend time with these hardy animals. It was disappointing not to see any boxing, chasing or rolling in the snow this time around, but I traded that for the stunning snowy hillsides, so I can’t really complain.

I hope to be back up for a quick visit in April and am already looking forward to that!

A selection of my new winter hare images are available for purchase via my website.  If you’d like one you don’t see there please get in touch and I’ll add.  Greeting cards also available by request.

Fossorial Water Voles

Water Voles (Arvicola amphibius) are one of those creatures I’ve been keen to see and photograph for some time.  Images of them sitting on river banks munching on grasses are adorable.  However they have been in serious decline for many years due partly to changes in agricultural methods and the removal of many of the habitats they would frequent and also the introduction of the American mink which is not only semi-aquatic, but is also small enough to access their burrows and kill the voles.  I do know a few locations in Glasgow where the “Riparian water voles” can be located, but I’ve only ever spotted one briefly when out walking the dog (who was quite taken aback at my sudden excitement!). It might of course have been a brown rat swimming across the pond, but I’m sticking to my belief it was a water vole!  Admittedly though, I haven’t made much effort to check these locations out as yet, but it’s on the to do list in the spring/summer when they are more likely to be seen above ground.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I was told of a successful colony of water voles not on a riverbank, but in a small park in a fairly depressed area of the city!  Hard to believe.  These voles, known as “fossorial water voles” do not live beside water but have their burrows in areas of the park which are kept unmown to protect the fragile habitat and infrastructure.  The locals are apparently quite proud and protective of their “rats”.  They were discovered about a decade ago when one was found in a rat trap.  The council have been pretty good at protecting them during a period when this area has been going through a lot of regeneration which is good.  Fossorial water voles are  uncommon in the UK but Glasgow has a few pockets of them in one specific area although I have read that they are more prevalent in Europe.  In some ways water voles are more suited to life away from water as they don’t have webbed feet, nor are their coats particularly water proof.  No idea why these voles are mostly black though.  It’s great to have a water vole success story mind you, and almost on my doorstep.

Obviously within days of being told of their existence last April I took advantage of an afternoon off and went to investigate.  It did feel ever-so-slightly surreal walking round the small park with my camera gear as folk walked their dogs or took a lunchtime stroll.  A few did approach me wondering what I was doing or offering advice on where to look but everyone was friendly.

The voles are in a number of areas of the park, obvious by the fact the grass is uncut and they are riddled with burrows.  Interestingly there are no signs up asking people to stay off these areas (so as not to destroy the burrows) and I did see a couple with their dog stomping over it.  I stayed on the outskirts so as not to damage the burrows, looking for signs of life but it took a while to get my eye in.  Eventually I started to spot things moving that weren’t the local jackdaws, flashes of black in the grass.  On closer inspection these were the voles which are mostly very dark in colour.  They’d pop out, munch some grass then disappear again.

watervole05_cwatervole07_cwatervole09_c

Even although I was now seeing the voles, photographing them proved challenging primarily because of the grass.  The ground is uneven and the voles, who often only came part way out of their burrow to allow for a quick exit if required, were almost always at least partly obscured by blades of grass.  It’s also not the most picturesque of settings. Eventually however I found this one.  It sat on some open ground for ages facing towards me as it fed.  Brilliant, and still my favourite photograph of these animals.  Unfortunately a dog came over and the vole disappeared – the problem with parks!

watervole-3_c

Still, it was a good start.  I planned to return as soon as possible, but never quite found the time. I did pop along during the summer, only to quickly realise that the now long grass made it impossible to spot the little voles at all.

Finally I made it back in January.   Again, like the first time it took me a while to spot the water voles.  I stood at the back of one of their areas, away from the public path, but did feel quite self-conscious.  After 30 minutes or so I saw one pop up and headed round the edge towards it… but it vanished.  Another one caught my eye, but was gone by the time I was within a decent distance of it for a 900mm focal length.  Oh so frustrating, but I have patience.  Finally one appeared and stayed visible.  I edged a little closer and slowly sat down to watch and wait for some clear shots.  Before long a second one appeared, and then when I turned to my side, a third!  Clear shots were still difficult though.  I had to delete the majority of pictures because of the grass.  Again, the ground wasn’t particularly photogenic, half dead grass at this time of year and a fair bit of refuse, nothing like those picturesque river shots…  Being low down did allow for a shallow depth of field to soften these, but the grass was an issue and I couldn’t exactly pop over and give it a trim!

watervole_Jan18-png_c_8581watervole_Jan18-png_c8599

These initial voles eventually headed back to their burrows and I stood up to move closer to some others I’d seen a little further along.  This time I stayed standing to see if that was more successful, much as I do prefer to be eye-level.  Grass wasn’t quite such a problem – except for one annoying blade obscuring bits of the one eating facing towards me, but depth of field here meant more of the ugly stuff was in focus.

watervole_Jan18_png_c-8795watervole_Jan18-png_c_8864

watervole_Jan18-png_c-8891
I confess the photoshop spot healing brush helped cut the grass in this image!

Sometimes I’d see the ground move, but no vole appear, obviously one moving about just under the surface. Suddenly one popped its head out a burrow right in front of me, really close!  It sat there and looked around, including directly at me for a minute or so.  Fortunately it was just far enough away for me to focus on.  Great to see one so close though, and it really was quite adorable, almost like a little cat with its whiskers. Sadly it never turned fully towards me and I didn’t want to move and spook it.

watervole_Jan18_png_c-8979

I also finally saw a brown one, which was a beautiful chestnut colour.  And then there were three brown voles, one peaking its head out a pile of dead grass for a second.

watervole_Jan18_png_c-9095watervole_Jan18-png_c-9144watervole_Jan18-png_c-9181watervole_Jan18-png_c-9196

It’s quite an experience being amongst these water voles, who are just going about their business within a stones throw of park users and a whole lot of dogs.  For an animal so endangered in the UK, to see so many in one place, obviously surviving and thriving is brilliant and a real privilege.

This is only the beginning where the voles are concerned.  I intend to spend much more time with them over the next few months and then hopefully move on to the water ones.  I haven’t really mastered the art of photographing them, and need to try and find a way to get low down and take clean shots. Exposure was a little dodgy too as they are so black.  So I’ll be back as soon as I have a free afternoon.  Truth be told they don’t do a whole lot, but it’s lovely just to sit with them as they munch away happily, and who knows, if I spend enough time with them I may see some more interesting behaviour.