August in the Scottish Highlands

August arguably isn’t one of the stronger months of the year for wildlife in Scotland, the summer migrants have mostly departed and the winter visitors yet to arrive. However, one thing the Scottish Highlands have in August that makes them well worth a visit is the stunning heather, the flowers of which briefly carpet the moors and forests in glorious pinks and purples. I love it, and, given the fact my parents have 2 weeks timeshare in Aviemore, it’s always great to spend some time up there at this time of year.

This was my first holiday in my new Citroen Berlingo, “Bingo”, in which I’ve installed a Campal campervan conversion kit. These are really clever, folding up in the boot to a neat square when not in use. I bought the single version (because I have a lot of stuff!), and it comes with a pull out stove and a couple of storage areas. I had great fun buying things for it (I love the Kampa collapsible range) and attempting with limited success to make blinds for the windows. I was a bit concerned about switching from a mini cooper (I love my mini) to a large people carrier but actually it’s a fairly nice car to drive, steering is light, it’s more powerful that I expected, and the way my phone (and old ipod) interact is much better. I’m still not particularly great at reversing though!

Sundays are currently the only day of the week you can get up on the “hare hill” before 11am, so I decided to try out Bingo overnight Saturday. I found a layby near the hare carpark and set about converting it into the camper, getting eaten alive by midges in the process! The blinds worked ok and it was quite snug inside. Bed fairly comfortable, although I did find whichever arm I was lying on went to sleep after a while! In the morning the midges were ramming the windows attempting to get at me, so I moved to the hare carpark for an instant porridge and cup of tea before heading up the hill – all very civilized. Nice to meet Peter Lewis for the first time.

It was a hot day, and even at the top I was wearing a t-shirt, which felt quite weird! Flies were bad on the lower slopes but fine higher up. Unfortunately the heat and the heather meant that finding any mountain hares proved a tad challenging. I checked all the usual places and looked around for leverets but came back with few images. That said, it’s always a real pleasure to be up there (after I’ve got over the walk up the hill that is!).

Sometimes the hares were hard to spot!

One creature that I do love to photograph and spend time with in August is the red squirrel, and, as I’ve written about before including in this blog about where to photograph red squirrels in Scotland, a fantastic place at this time of year is Neil McIntyre’s hide set deep within the remnants of the ancient Caledonian pine forest on the Rothiemurchus Estate. It’s so pretty with the heather and old trees as a backdrop. It was another bright and sunny day which made photography quite tricky as the squirrels were in and out of shade and also hard to expose for both the heather and squirrels. I tended to under-expose everything which meant quite a lot of work in lightroom but I did come away with some images I’m pleased with and it’s always a joy to watch the squirrels scamper about.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

I spent Monday night in the Berlingo again, this time at Avoch Harbour before heading to Chanonry Point for sunrise. The tide was rising and it was a perfect morning for photographing the bottlenose dolphins. Unfortunately nobody told the dolphins and there were none at all. Gorgeous start to the day though.

I hate to fail at anything so I gave Ecoventures in Cromarty a call to see if they had any availability on their boat that day and transpired there was one free spot on the 11am sailing. It was so calm the water was like glass, and I especially liked this image of a distant sailing boat.

We found a pod of dolphins near Nairn including a very young calf. Given that I hadn’t planned for the boat trip I had a completely unsuitable lens with me (Tamron 150-600mm on the Nikon D500) which limited what I could photograph as the dolphins were too close. But I did manage a small number of images before they moved away at speed. We also saw young guillemots, gannets, seals and harbour porpoise.

On Wednesday my parents and I headed along the Moray coastline via Lochindorb where we saw lots of red grouse although most were too far away to photograph.

Along the Moray Firth we found some waders behind one of the harbour towns. The turnstones, in the summer plumage were really hard to spot as they scuttled along the rocks checking the seaweed for beasties. Also spotted redshank paddling along the shore and a small group of terns. At this point the skies opened and the rain started, really heavy rain, so we called it a day – no problem as I had a lot of squirrels to edit!

Thursday I was determined to find mountain hare leverets. The temperature had plummeted – it certainly wasn’t a day for t-shirts on the hill, on this occasion I was modelling thermal waterproof hat, warm clothes, head to toe waterproofs and fingerless gloves and was glad of all of this! I wandered about the lower slopes in the pouring rain and wind but failed to find any leverets (or hares). My parents, who had come along too, tried to point me in the direction of a couple of hares, but none of them were particularly obliging. We decided to call it a day but then bumped into Andy Howard by the carpark who asked if I wanted to accompany him back onto the hill, so I bid goodbye to my parents and turned around. Andy spotted “Ginger” from my July trip, not sitting in the same place as before but very distinctive. We left her be though and climbed up to the top. For ages we saw very little but eventually came across “Lady” or “DB” who was hunkered down along the ridge. We sat opposite him (for indeed Lady is male) and for the next hour watched each other. Lady did absolutely nothing except glower at us. It was bitterly cold and I had to take my hat off for fear that it would blow away. On the way back down Andy spotted a leveret and I decided I’d go back the following day to try and find both it and Ginger now I knew where to look.

Friday was stormy – not as wet as Thursday, but gale force winds. I started the day viewing a house on the Beauly Firth – much to my surprise it was perfect, ticking every box and a few more, and I was almost packing up the owners and moving in on the spot. (I’ve subsequently had an offer accepted on it, so all being well will finally be relocating North later this year!!!!!!).

I then drove back to the hares, the wind was so strong all the grasses were horizontal, and it transpires Bingo isn’t great in the wind given that it has such high sides. But I made it and after unsuccessfully looking for Ginger (who must have moved again) I then battled my way back up the hill to find the leveret. It was in the same place, but after taking a leaf out of Andy’s book and having a chat with it, the wee thing scarpered. I obviously don’t have his hare whispering abilities! I stuck around for a while hoping it would return but it didn’t so I wandered around the main hill for a bit on very weary legs before calling it a day.

Saturday was miserable, sheets of water falling from the sky so it was a stay in the accommodation and edit more squirrels day – I needed to get them finished before visiting another red squirrel hide on Sunday. This was a new hide to me, Mark Hamblin‘s which is in a wood near his home in the Carrbridge area. He has two. The main one is dug into the ground so you’re eye level with the squirrels. It’s set in a clearing in the wood which had a lot of flowering heather and was fairly light. Mark had obviously found some photogenic tree roots and branches so it all looked very photogenic. The other hide also dug into the ground looked out over a reflection pool. Between the two hides there must have been up to 10 squirrels, one old squirrel and at least two youngsters that chased each other up and down all the trees. The squirrels were pretty tame and when I was in the reflection pool hide one would jump on the roof and leap down onto the ledge of the hide. Time passed far too quickly and it was wonderful to watch and photograph all the squirrels.

After this I had to reluctantly head back to Glasgow, but as always it had been a great week.

Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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