Much as I love nothing better than being outside photographing wild animals, sitting in a (relatively speaking) comfortable hide has its advantages especially with the weather we’ve had in Scotland of late! In the past few months I have spent the best part of a day in three different hide set-ups. Nature Nuts in Perthshire, Neil McIntyre‘s new red squirrel hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate and, most recently, the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide in Dumfries and Galloway. They are all quite different, but I had a great time sitting watching the wildlife in all three.
Bob “Nature Nuts” hide is set at the end of a wooded area and was visited regularly during the day by red squirrels, jays, woodpeckers, bullfinch and other small birds. Light wasn’t great but the endless action provided some good images. I had to leave mid-afternoon, so missed the (many) pine martens that are visiting the hide in the evenings which would have been great.
I’ve written extensively about Neil’s hide already – it’s a stunning natural setting sitting amongst the glorious Caledonian pine forest. My visit coincided with the blooming of the heather, and this was, I think the star of the show. Of course the non-stop visits of the red squirrels was fantastic too and great to see a crested tit as well.
While Neil’s hide lends itself to wide shots showing the forest in all its glory, Alan McFadyen’s sparrowhawk hide has been designed exclusively for fairly close-up images. It’s set in open space which, so long as there’s some sunshine, provides much more light than the other two. It’s comprised of a number of areas created artificially by Alan, all covered in moss all designed to be photogenic. This works really well for close shots as the background is far enough away to be a lovely soft blur.
The hide is described as a place to photograph sparrowhawks, but there are also morning and late afternoon visits from red squirrels and I had regular sightings of great spotted woodpeckers, finches, tits and jays. In the evening a tawny owl has been visiting too.
It may be in a open setting, but you still need decent light, and it was a relatively cloudy and dull morning – much better however than the days before or after though when the rain fell steadily. I therefore had to use a higher ISO than I would have liked for the first few hours when the squirrels were most active. I had my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4 lens resting on a beanbag with cable release attached just in case I could use it. This is a great camera/lens combination providing sharp images at 450mm focal length on the crop frame, which was perfect for the hide. I don’t know how many red squirrels there were, but they came regularly for hazelnuts, many of which, after checking, they took away to cache for the winter. I hadn’t realised how wet it was until I looked back at my images!
At 11am the squirrels disappeared, although there were a few visits after 4pm. These were my favourite images as the light was much better allowing for better camera settings and some lovely orange light.
I had real difficulty photographing the nuthatch who flew down to the main little bird area and, once the squirrels were gone, their perch. It just didn’t stick around, scooping up a few nuts and immediately flying away. So frustrating! Eventually though, at some point in the afternoon, it spent a couple of minutes in the squirrel area looking quite photogenic. Result!
Jays were infrequent visitors too. I could always tell when they were approaching due to their distinctive call. They are so very entertaining to watch as they gobble up as many nuts as possible in a short period of time, looking around inquisitively.
It was also good to see brambling and great spotted woodpeckers.
The real reason I’d booked this hide though was to photograph and see close-up sparrowhawks. My parents get them fairly regularly in their garden but although I’ve had brief glimpses I’ve never been able to photograph. Alan gets regular visits from both male and female birds. There’s a special perch for the male, who comes down to eat dead bait left by Alan. The female birds don’t touch this preferring a fresh kill. Now, I love little birds and I had mixed feelings about watching the birds hunt and kill live animals, however, it’s nature and they have to eat too…
Unfortunately, my day in the hide coincided with the male sparrowhawk deciding not to visit, a rare occurrence apparently. The male is the more attractive of the birds and I’d have loved to have seen it.
I spotted a female very briefly in the morning, she landed, squawked and flew off. No chance for photographs. However at lunchtime, I almost had a kit kat moment. I was making myself a cuppa-soup when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. Looking up I realised it was a female sitting on a pile of branches that Alan put out to try and protect the little birds from predators – unsuccessfully this time as it turned out. The female almost instantly flew up into the air, and I thought I’d missed my chance of photographs again. Much to my delight and relief, she only flew a short distance and landed on a little wall. She posed here beautifully, with her kill, for no more than a minute before departing but it was long enough for me to take the following images. Looking at them on my return home I admit I was really pleased with these although I still feel bad for the little bird she caught. Transpires she’s a juvenile female – but already a good hunter! This was a much more satisfying scene to photograph than the male with bait and I’m just relieved I looked up from the soup making!
In late afternoon, not long after the return of the squirrels an adult female arrived. She behaved completely differently. She landed on the pile of branches and sat looking around for a good few minutes. She then disappeared inside the branches before re-emerging on the ground, always hunting for unsuspecting prey. Finally she flew up onto a higher branch, stopped off next to the bait left for the male, looked disdainfully at it and disappeared. She was there for about 10 minutes so plenty of time for some photographs.
Alan kindly invited me to stay on for the evening tawny owl visit, where I was joined in the hide by another couple. The owl is also provided with bait – in this case the food left out for the male sparrowhawk. Alan lights the perch with 3 LEDs although they are still quite far back so a high ISO of 4000-5000 was required. I used the same set up as before except this time the camera was mounted on my tripod and I utilised the cable release. I’ve had some great tuition on low-light wildlife photography from Laurie Campbell when at Aigas, so I knew how to deal with the conditions – slow shutter speed, so no point taking any pictures until it is static otherwise they will be blurry. Cable release and tripod helped with this too. The owl appeared shortly after Alan left and made quick work of one of the bits of bait.
It then flew off but returned again a few minutes later. Unfortunately this time it ate with its back to us but did turn its head a few times.
Gorgeous bird, wonderful to see up close, I’d only ever seen tawny owlets before. Again, pleased with the images I got.
So all in all it was a great day. The hide definitely delivers – even if the male sparrowhawk was a no-show. Alan has a number of hides available, do check out his website for more information.