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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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The cabin looks out on one of the beaver pools.

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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!)

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!