A return to the red squirrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I love the muted colours in those last two images.

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Mountain Hares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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and sit on the skyline.

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

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

Eskrigg Nature Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A treecreeper was a regular visitor

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

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Mallards and pheasants appeared below the feeders too.

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

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

This is my favourite image of the day:

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