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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


Photographing my Feathered Friends

I’m lucky to have a lovely little 1930s mid-terrace house in a hidden neighbourhood in Glasgow which comes with a relatively small (made smaller by a huge garage full of junk) garden.  When I moved in I rarely saw any birds other than the odd blue tit or robin but over the years I’ve worked hard on attracting them and in 2017 regularly had goldfinch, siskin, house sparrows, starlings, robins, blue tits, great tits, dunnocks, wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies, feral pigeons and rarer visits from wrens, blackbirds, chiffchaff, bullfinch and a brief few days of long-tailed tits.  I eat my breakfast looking out over the garden most days and it’s a joy to watch the birds squabbling over the sunflower hearts.

However, photographing the birds has proved more problematic.  The neighbourhood is full of cats – both my next door neighbours have two apiece.  And although they don’t venture into my garden too often, they might change their habits if I started putting out photogenic ground level feeding/drinking/bathing/perching areas.  And of course there’s Murphy, my hound.  He loves bird food (well, any food, actually).  So again, nothing can be where he can access.  All my flower/vegetable beds are surrounded by horrible fencing to prevent him stomping all over them, not that that stops him!  My kitchen/diner windows are original and not only a little on the dirty side at times but glass that my camera can’t cope with, and they are nailed shut due to a security conscious previous owner which is a shame as it would be a great place to sit with my tripod.

I have however managed to photograph a few of the birds perched on top of my feeding stand:



…and some in the tangle of rose/clematis and other shrubs at one side

Juvenile house sparrows
punk-rockin’ blue tit
Long-tailed tit –  I was SO excited to see this!
Chiff chaff

…on the fence:

Male blackbird
Juvenile jackdaw

…and this, a mobile phone picture, out my kitchen window of the goldfinch sitting on the telephone wires which became an album cover for the Peter Bruntnell Trio.


So… I’m going to try and figure something out this year, but last year I resorted to hanging out of my bedroom window photographing the birds in my next door neighbour’s cherry tree – not sure what all the passers-by made of this, but I was able to take some lovely images!

In winter/early spring before the leaves and blossom appear, it was fairly straightforward to locate the birds in the tree.  I tended to use my Nikon crop-frame camera with the Tamron 150-600mm, allowing a focal length of 900mm, perfect for these little birds, mounted on my tripod with gimble head and often cable release.


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…and one slightly “arty” shot


However it was a tad trickier once the leaves and blossom appeared, although it was definitely more photogenic  – I’d spot a bird but couldn’t find it through the viewfinder and the bird had often descended to the feeder before I located the spot.


Love this blue tit!



One bird I was really keen to photograph with the new leaves was the male bullfinch.  The orange of its breast feathers matched that of the unfurling leaves.  This took bucket loads of patience and frustration.  Mad dashes upstairs to the window whenever I spotted it often resulted in failure (Murphy thought I was quite crazy), or not quite the image I was looking for.

Missed the tree completely!
Colours right, but telephone wire wrong
The blurry leaves at the fore-front ruin this shot and not enough orange
Not enough orange and the blurry pink are the problems here although I like the expression

but finally!  I succeeded.  My most satisfying image of 2017.


So I’ve done okay in 2017, and hopefully I can do something to make the garden work better for me this year – especially as the cherry tree has been cut right back and probably won’t bloom in 2018.  I’ll keep you updated!

Rabbit with Feather – How I Got The Shot

Little did I know when I popped down to my local Glasgow park to try out my new Tamron 150-600mm lens in late June 2016 that I’d take my most popular photograph – a rabbit with feather in its mouth!

I bought the Tamron lens (the older version without image stabilisation – Tamron SP AF150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD Lens for Nikon Camera) because I was about to attend Laurie Campbell’s photography masterclass at Aigas, and my longest lens had been a 300mm F4 prime.  However I wanted a chance to try it out beforehand.  Sometimes everything comes together by chance.  It was a rare gorgeous balmy evening in Glasgow and Murphy (the dog) wasn’t enthusiastic about walking.  I therefore left him at home and took the new lens, paired with my Nikon D610 for a walk instead!

Truth be told I had planned to photograph the grey squirrels and had taken a pocketful of nuts with me, but this proved mostly unsuccessful, partly because the pigeons would steal the nuts and secondly the squirrels kept coming too close to focus on!  The problem with such a long lens…


I found a spot in the park where there is a raised stone platform – no idea what it once was – but it meant I could take photographs at eye level without lying down (always a benefit where there are so many nosey dogs around).  I noticed movement in the bushes behind and spotted a couple of rabbits eating daisies.



They didn’t seem too fazed by my presence, probably because they could easily dive back into the bushes if spooked so I turned my attention to them.

There were a couple on the stone platform, but it wasn’t particularly photogenic, however it was a good chance to try the lens at different settings and I photographed this one grooming.


One of the rabbits, for no obvious reason, picked up a white feather.  I know a lot of photographers will put down items as possible props, but I didn’t! This feather was just lying there and piqued the rabbit’s interest.


After taking these photographs the rabbit turned to face me and I took the portrait that has proved so popular.  This is the uncropped version.


It is, without a doubt one of my favourite pictures, there’s something quite endearing about the expression.  I did however print it A3 and it was a little scary quite so large!!

Here’s the crop I usually post.


BBC Earth picked up on it on twitter and used it for a caption competition. A few of the responses were…

Tufty stared down the nervous Chicken gang. Eyeing possible exits from the alley he idly swung his nunchucks and spat what was left of Cogburn onto the road. “Time to dance” he said.

Rabid dove killer caught on camera near North Leigh.

Honestly it’s not what you think!

‘Just trying to feather my nest!’

It finally happen… Bugs flipped and ate Daffy

When does the Christmas party start ? I’m spitting feathers !!

“In my defence, that bird had it coming.”

Oh, you said try the ‘heather!!’

“Well, they did say shake a tail feather!”

Oh, and I still use this Tamron lens for much of my wildlife photography – paired with the crop-frame Nikon D500 it gives me a focal distance up to 900mm.  If you’re looking for a long lens then, although the newer version, and the Sigma equivalents, have had great reviews, this is cheaper and a great option.

Prints or greeting cards available for all these images (and more!) via my website, or just email me directly.