I love red squirrels, they are so much fun to watch as they dart, bounce and jump through tree canopies and undergrowth. Such inquisitive little creatures that make me smile. I can spend hours watching and photographing them, and seek the squirrels out whenever possible. In this blog I will share some of my favourite locations for photographing them (as well as a few others with potential) and include a handful of images from each to show what the location is like for photography. I’ll write about free, wildlife membership and pay to hire hides. Obviously this is just the tip of the red squirrel iceberg, and if you have any places you go to in Scotland to photograph them please do add in the comments below.
A few photography tips based on my experiences.
- Unless it’s specifically stated that you shouldn’t feed them, or if you’re going to a paid photo hide, always take nuts, preferably hazelnuts with you. A nut cracker is useful too as the squirrels will often take whole nuts and stash for later so unshelled nuts are more likely to be eaten in situ, (although they are more often than not stolen by birds!) so you have more time for photographs.
- Red squirrels are speedy wee creatures, and the majority of places you’re likely to find them are quite shady due to the trees. This makes it difficult to use a high enough shutter speed for moving squirrels, unless you push the ISO up very high and/or have a fast lens (although then you have the challenge of a shallow depth of field). It’s therefore best in these conditions to concentrate on photographs of them when relatively static – this is true for photographing any bird/animal in low light, a very useful tip I was given a couple of years back. Being curious animals, they will often pause to check you out, and of course stop to munch on nuts so have the camera ready. By doing this you can keep the shutter speed lower and therefore reduce the ISO.
- Try and photograph them away from feeders (same for birds) and if possible attempt at least a few images where they don’t have a nut in their mouth or front paws – not the easiest thing to do at times! Also good to try for eye contact, it makes the photograph more engaging. They have massive personalities, so images that capture an element of this are great too.
- If you’d like jumping squirrels then you’re best to go to a professional photography hide which has a set-up for this. Neil MacIntyre‘s hide (see below) is great. For a face on jump you need to use manual focus and set focus halfway across the jump, use high speed continuous and then press the shutter as soon as the squirrel’s about to jump. Hopefully then one at least is in focus. Best to use a cable release or wireless remote. High shutter speed essential, so pump up the ISO and try for an aperture at around 7.1 or 8 to increase depth of field.
I’ll start with the free (or voluntary contribution) locations I enjoy visiting, beginning with the wonderful Eskrigg Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Lockerbie. Not the easiest reserve to find, you won’t stumble upon it by accident, but google can help! There’s a red squirrel hide and nut feeders as well as a large number of bird feeders here, aside from the reds you will be unlucky not to spot a nuthatch or great spotted woodpecker as well as all the regular little birds. Sparrowhawks (I haven’t seen one here) are often sighted as are treecreepers and goldcrest (I’ve seen both) and there’s a pond with ducks, swans and apparently, on occasion kingfisher. There are a lot of red squirrels here, but I’ve found on some occasions they don’t come down regularly – I’ve had 4 or 5 at one time or, rare visits from a single animal. Early morning is good. Light isn’t bad as it’s at the edge of woodland, although it’s not bright by any means. I tend not to use the hide, but sit on the boarding next to it so I can get down to eye-level with the squirrels. Many are very tame, and will come within touching distance, often far too close to focus on. My camera/lens choices here are Nikon D500 + Tamron 150-600mm for more distant squirrels and the birds, and my Nikon D610 with Tokina 100mm macro, for those much closer animals – you really need a short lens here and a fast one with large aperture very helpful too! A mobile phone camera/video is great too. The volunteers who run the reserve prefer that folk don’t feed the squirrels but do allow photographers to place some nuts in photogenic spots, but the hazelnuts should be shelled first. I’ve written a blog about Eskrigg, so do check that out if interested. Also, in the same part of the world, and discussed below, is the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide which also has visits from red squirrels.
A site I visited for the first time in December 2018 is Carnie Woods on the outskirts of Aberdeen. It’s a small area of woodland, but because the red squirrels have been fed here there are far more than could live without human assistance, therefore there’s a very high chance of spotting a few especially if you go to the feeding station within the wood. I loved this place, only downside really was the huge number of dogs walked there – an endless stream of them running around and frightening off the squirrels. The squirrels were even tamer than at Eskrigg and I often looked down and found one attempting to steal nuts from the bag at my feet – so don’t leave your belongings unguarded especially if there’s anything they might like to eat/steal inside! There are a couple of fallen logs and I was placing nuts midway along one of them, and photographing them running along towards me. Only problem was there’s a plank attached to this log which isn’t great for photographs. I never managed to get them to run along the other, more photogenic log. Fab place though and definitely worth a visit if you’re in or near Aberdeen. I wish it was closer to Glasgow! Any short to mid-length lens will do here. I mostly used the Tokina 100mm macro with both my cameras, but did have a longer lens on the other body. I spotted treecreepers and goldcrest in the woods en route to the feeders.
Aberfoyle – there are red squirrels throughout Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, but a good place to stand a chance of seeing them is at the David Marshall Lodge wildlife hide. Not brilliant for photographs as the undergrowth is quite high and the squirrels tend to go to the feeders, plus it’s a bit on the dark side and the squirrels aren’t too close so the best compromise between long lens and large aperture is best. Also visited by lots of families with loud excited children and dogs and there’s a zip wire close by so lots of screaming and not the most peaceful of locations. If you wander around near the hide though you might find a more photogenic spot and can maybe attract some with nuts. I had success with this on one occasion.
Buchanty Spout, Perthshire – I visited this area to try and photograph the jumping salmon on the River Almond, but they chose not to travel upstream that day. Very pretty spot though especially in the autumn. If you cross over the river to the side furthest from the carpark, there’s a walk along the riverbank. I saw 4 red squirrels here. A bit of patience, fieldcraft, long lens and nuts might be required to get close to them though. I had the wrong lens, as I’d come for the salmon, so struggled to photograph one sitting at the top of a tree, which is a shame as they’d have been quite interesting pictures.
Morton Lochs – I confess I haven’t actually seen any red squirrels here, but I’ve only been once and it was a bitterly cold November day and the whole place was frozen. I have however seen many photographs of the squirrels which frequent a hide next to the carpark. Nice location, possible to get good photographs and you don’t need a long lens – all I saw was this little vole. Also known for kingfisher sightings if you go to the hide by the loch (it was frozen solid on my visit so not a lot to see there either).
Loch an Eilein on the Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore is one of many places in that area you can spot red squirrels. The Loch is gorgeous and is surrounded by the remnants of the old Caledonian pine forest. Read on to find out about a fantastic, pay to rent, hide here, but you can spot squirrels at the feeders in the carpark opposite the hut where you pay to park (you do have to pay to park), and also down towards the loch itself. Early morning is best to see them and it’s not that easy to get close, but worth trying for the stunning location.
Other places I haven’t checked out but am aware of are Cluny House in Fife and the feeding station at the outskirts of Boat of Garten. In fact there are quite a lot of places near Aviemore. Note – the excellent Inshriach Nursery in the highlands has now shut, so no more gorgeous cake whilst watching the squirrels…
PAY TO ENTER (FREE FOR MEMBERS) WILDLIFE RESERVES
Many of the wildlife organisations have red squirrels visiting their sites. The best I’ve found of these is RSPB Loch Leven. Entry is £5 for non-members, free if a member. Squirrels are located behind the visitor centre, by a small hide designed to encourage children to watch wildlife. This whole bit of the reserve is full of bird feeders and therefore squirrels can be sighted anywhere but this area by the wee hide has the most light and a nice photogenic log which has good dips for hazelnuts. I had to wait awhile, maybe because the feeders were pretty empty as it was 2nd Jan so the centre had been closed for a couple of days, but eventually I was visited by at least three individuals who returned again and again once they discovered my hazelnuts. I wasn’t able to put out unshelled nuts though because the birds instantly stole them! Whenever the nuts ran out, the squirrels would approach me and let it be known they’d like some more. Although the reserve was busy very few people came near this bit, so I mostly had the squirrels to myself. Any lens will do here. I used the D500/Tamron combination, but mostly at the short focal length (200-300mm). Sit opposite the fallen log and you’ll get some nice shots, but look behind and to the sides as well as the squirrels will sneak up on you!
Loch of the Lowes (Scottish Wildlife Trust – members get in free) by Dunkeld is best known for its ospreys, but there are red squirrels visiting the feeders outside the visitor centre. They do apparently have a small pop-up hide that can be rented too. Not the best for photography as you’re sitting behind (clean) glass, but lovely to sit in the warmth of the centre watching them and the many varieties of birds that come for a snack. I don’t have any red squirrel photographs from here though as they were always sat at a feeder…
RSPB Loch Garten – Best known for it’s osprey viewing and crested tits but red squirrels are sometimes seen up by the visitor centre at the bird feeders – especially the long nut one. I’ve had two sightings here, one of which was a squirrel high up a tree actually eating proper natural squirrel food – a pine cone!!
PAID PHOTOGRAPHY HIDES
These are obviously by far and away the most expensive option, but they have been set up with photography in mind so can be a good choice.
My favourite by far of these is Neil MacIntyre‘s hide situated deep within the Caledonian pine forest on the Rothiemurchus Estate. As I mentioned above you can see squirrels around the estate, but here you’re pretty much guaranteed some wonderful sightings in the most picturesque setting I’ve ever been to. Almost every keen photographer has visited this hide so you’ll see photographs from it all over social media. I’ve been twice, once in August when the heather was in full bloom which was stunning, and again in March when there was a light dusting of snow. Being in the middle of a forest the light can be challenging and it’s good to take a long, fast lens. But because the setting is gorgeous, it’s a great place for wide-angle photographs too. I used 3 different lenses here with my 2 cameras (Nikon D500 and Nikon D610) – Tamron 150-600mm, Nikkor 300mm F4 (with 1.4 t/c) and Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 for the wide angle photographs. Neil has a couple of jumps set up as well. Large hide and Neil provides hot drinks and a few extra hazelnuts. This hide is bookable for morning or afternoon. Shared with others. Neil also has a great book on red squirrels with some fabulous photographs. I have two blogs about this hide – August 2017, March 2018.
Alan McFadyen’s (Scottish Photography Hides) sparrowhawk hide in Dumfries & Galloway is visited by red squirrels. This site is mostly man-made and in a clearing so the light is good, but only works for close-ups of the perches. You’ll hopefully also see the aforementioned sparrowhawks and lots of little birds, so it makes for a good day out. I used my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4 here but had the Tamron 150-600 on my other camera body for the more distant photos. This is a day rate hide, you may have to share with a few others. This is my blog about my day here.
Bob Smith’s Nature Nuts hide in Perthshire, near(ish) to Blairgowrie sees regular visits from a number of red squirrels. The light can be poor but they come close to the hide and there’s plenty of other action here too including almost daily visits from pine martens. I’ve enjoyed both my days here. Medium length lens best, again, fast if possible. You park right next to it though, so bring everything with you. No space for tripods, bring a beanbag. Day rate hide, stay as late as you can to see the pine martens. Bob also does beaver tours. Blog featuring the red squirrels (and pine martens)
Argaty Farm, best known as a red kite feeding station now has a wildlife hide on the edge of a piece of woodland. I was there the week after it opened and I think it was still a bit of a work-in-progress but I’ve seen some great photos from there since. This hide is unique to all the others I’ve visited in that it has viewing windows at ground level so you can (if not too tall, or if on your own) lie on the floor and take eye-level images. Again, light was challenging, and it was a sunny day in June, so take medium length lenses with large aperture. I used my Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 until it broke… Featured in this blog.
Black Isle Photography Hides – Set in woodland on the Black Isle (obviously!), one of a few hides run by James Roddie. I visited in 2016, nice site, but unfortunately the squirrels took the day off, except for a brief 30 minutes or so. I believe this is unusual, so if you’re up that way it’s worth a visit. James also has a crested tit site (I visited last March, great views of the cresties) and a pine marten hide which I’m looking forward to visiting later this summer.
That’s the hides I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. There are a few others I know I can recommend, even without having been there myself – Andy Howard‘s hide near Inverness – he has some fantastic flying squirrel and backlit squirrels (sometimes both of those in one image!). Loch Visions have a hilltop hide in Argyll, South of Oban that I intend to visit this year as it looks quite unique. If you’re thinking of a week at the wonderful Aigas Field Centre near Beauly, then they now have red squirrels and a hide (plus a pine marten hide, and beavers). Fab place, but the squirrels have returned since I was last there.
So, I hope this is of some assistance if you’re in or visiting Scotland and hoping to see red squirrels. I know there are tonnes of other places, so please do add your recommendations in the comments section below.
Also, it’s worth looking at the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels website where people can report sightings (and please report any of your own sightings) and you can see them all on a map.