On my recent visit to the Scottish Highlands I decided to concentrate on just a handful of species – mountain hares, red grouse, dolphins, wood ants (with limited success, they move too fast and I’m not great at macro – fascinating to watch though!), red squirrels and possibly crested tits.
My preference is always to find animals completely in the wild – that’s why I love the hares so much. There’s no baiting, no hide, just me and the hare sharing a hillside. However, having said that, when it comes to red squirrels, achieving decent photographs without the liberal use of hazelnuts isn’t easy. I’ve tried a few times up in the Queen Elizabeth Forest near Aberfoyle, but have had limited results, so I decided to book a session in Neil McIntyre‘s hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate. I have a copy of Neil’s wonderful book “The Red Squirrel: A Future in the Forest” and love the images. Neil’s spent 30 years photographing the red squirrels and his intimate knowledge of the subjects has produced some fabulous photographs. I figured therefore that he’d know just how to set up a photographic hide to showcase these little mammals at their finest.
I wasn’t disappointed. The hide is set deep in the Caledonian Pine Forest and is a completely natural setting except for a couple of jumps (more on those later). The feeders are hidden behind trees and nuts are pushed into cracks in the bark. When I was there the forest floor was carpeted in flowering heather which provided a stunning purple and pink backdrop (and foreground) to the images.
No sooner had I settled down than I spotted not a squirrel, but a little wren, perched very photogenically on a tree stump – an island in a sea of pink. I’ve never managed good wren images – they move so quickly, but this one paused long enough for me to shoot a few frames. Quite distant, but I think the composition works.
I used two cameras. The Nikon D610 with my trusty Tamron 150-600mm for the majority of the photographs (I did switch to the Nikkor 70-200mm for a bit too), mostly hand-held or with bean-bag. Because of its massive buffer and superb focusing ability I used the D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4, tripod mounted for the jump on manual focus.
The squirrels soon appeared. Hard to know exactly how many. One had a little hole in an ear, and another an ear with bits missing. But it’s fair to say they were present and active for the entirety of my stay.
It’s such a pleasure watching the squirrels. They are so entertaining, the time just flew by, as did the shutter count on my camera! The light improved as the day progressed, shimmering through the trees and creating some lovely back-lighting at times.
I have so many images of red squirrels, sitting, hunched up with a hazelnut clasped in their paws, so my priority was on other behaviours such as grooming, teeth sharpening and relaxing…
I also didn’t want just close-ups…
…but also more distant shots that show-cased the forest, the heather and how small the squirrels really are in the grand scheme of things. I came away happy that I’d achieved this.
– and much as I was trying for images without nuts, that’s not to say I don’t have hundreds of those too!
They made me laugh out loud more than once. One squirrel, by the sound of it, was desperately trying to get into Neil’s locked strong-box where he stored the nuts. It then ran across the roof and all of a sudden, stuck it’s head into the hide, disappeared and did the same thing at the other side of the window. I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or the squirrel. One also jumped onto a window ledge and sat looking at me for a minute – sadly too close for me to focus on.
When the squirrels chase one another they make little squeaking noises which was quite sweet. Very hard to photograph the interactions though as they move so very quickly. It’s also difficult to get pictures of them bouncing through the heather – great to watch though!
I’ve seen a few photographs of red squirrels mid-leap – great images, and it’s a shot I’ve wanted to try. Neil has set up a jump. The idea is to manually focus in the gap, using a stick which is then removed. When the squirrel starts to jump, you start taking pictures and hope that one in the sequence is sharp! The D500 was perfect for this, it takes so many images very very quickly. Therefore I had quite a good hit rate. Only problems were 1. the jump was on the side with little other squirrel action, so I more often than not didn’t see the squirrel in time. Or 2, the squirrels had sussed out that they could by-pass the jump altogether and leap straight up onto the ledge with the nuts. Frustratingly they almost all used the jump after having a nut, but were facing the wrong way!!
Here’s the set-up looking from the hide:
I have to admit much as I’m really pleased with the jumping images I took I do feel a little like a fraud – it was a set-up after all and I almost think these kind of shots are comparable to the diving kingfisher set-ups which I’ve always steered clear of… But! That said, I’m happy to have achieved them.
Not long after I arrived, a crested tit came down to steal a nut. It appeared a few times, mostly on the one visible feeder (on the odd occasion when a squirrel wasn’t attached to it). I also captured it once whilst it sat in the heather. Not the best shots, but they are a bit different. There were quite a few chaffinch and coal tits, the latter of which would chase each other through the hide.
All in all it was a great day. It’s not the cheapest red squirrel hide you’ll visit, but it is a good one and, if there’s snow on the ground when I’m next up in March I’ll be sure to go again. I love all the images, but I’ll sign off with my favourite.
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