Way back in 2016 I made the decision that I wanted to relocate from Glasgow up to the Scottish Highlands, ideally somewhere along the A9 corridor between Aviemore and Inverness. The Highlands have always felt more like home to me than Glasgow, whenever I drive up the A9 and pass the sign saying I’ve entered the Cairngorm National Park I feel a weight lift off me, it’s where I feel most complete. The idea was that I could relocate to my employer’s Inverness office – they wanted me, I wanted to be there, so what could go wrong… unfortunately the powers-that-be in Glasgow kept stalling and it eventually became apparent that this was never going to happen. Fast-forward to August 2019. Things at work weren’t going well, I was fighting a move that would de-skill me and take all the interesting bits of my job away, it was incredibly stressful. I headed North for a week’s holiday and came across a house on Right Move. It looked stunning. It wasn’t in one of my preferred locations (although I did know the area a bit as it’s close to Aigas), nor, by the particulars did it seem to tick many of my boxes, but something led me to view it and it was love at first sight – amazing views over the Beauly Firth to Ben Wyvis, fields on 3 sides, at the edge of a hamlet, but rural, only a few miles from Inverness and a modern building that looked like a period cottage. Plus, a lovely garden and the promise of all kinds of wildlife visiting and in the surrounding area. In October I collected the keys and it was mine! It was meant to be.
It’s now mid-December and the house is mostly decorated (there were some very iffy colour combinations) and there are fewer boxes in the garage to unpack. The winter has been a mixture of very wet or very cold & frosty so far. The latter is fab – the ground goes white, hundreds of birds turn up, hundreds if not thousands of geese fly noisily overhead, Ben Wyvis glows in the distance.
We’ve even had some snow, in fact, it coats the ground as I type this. Murphy (my crazy dog) is much more chilled too. He’s not sure about the sheep out back or the trains as they sound their horn going past, but other than that he’s a much happier hound.
It took a while to get out with my camera, I really wanted to eradicate as much magnolia from the house as possible first. But this month I’ve had the chance to visit some favourite haunts, make a start at exploring my surroundings and work on creating some photogenic perches for the garden birds.
The birds here are amazing. I thought I was doing well in Glasgow attracting a decent number of goldfinch, house sparrows, blue tits and dunnocks (plus a few robins, coal tits, great tits, starlings, wood pigeon, collared doves, feral pigeons…), but here I see literally hundreds of birds every day. There are large groups of both goldfinch and siskins; both tree and house sparrows; blue, coal and great tits, plus to my delight the long-tailed tits come en masse a few times a day for short periods; lots of robins and blackbirds, dunnock, wren and starlings. I even have a pheasant popping in for a snack on occasion and I’ve seen a great spotted woodpecker once. In the fields I see buzzards and red kites fly overhead. And then, of course, there are the geese. The noise they make is awesome, it fills the entire sky. They all seem to know exactly where they are going each day and sometimes land in my local fields. I haven’t managed to photograph them yet though, and I don’t think photographs would do them justice, you have to experience it!
I’ve been collecting photogenic, lichen-covered, fallen branches on my travels and have started putting up a few perches for the birds. The backdrop at the front of the house is great, the fields and Beauly Firth provide a lovely soft yellow and blue. It is the North facing side though which means at the moment there’s not a whole lot of light to be had and I haven’t managed to get a decent shutter speed for action shots of the birds squabbling over the sunflower hearts!
There is apparently all sorts of other wildlife in the area too. I went for a walk in the snow yesterday around some of the local fields to see what tracks I could spot. Lots of rabbits, possibly a hare or two, definitely fox and a badger. I followed the badger tracks and I think I’ve found a set, although it’s at the edge of a field and I don’t know how easy it would be to photograph as there’s nowhere to hide. I will set up a trail camera though and see what’s going on there. I’ve been told there are pine martens too. I’m trying to attract these to my garden, but no success there as yet. It’s early days…. red squirrels are in the neighbourhood, but a bit further down, again, none in my garden so far.
I went for a walk up near Garve the other day and saw Ben Wyvis up close, just before the snow fell, and found goldcrest and a flock of male bullfinch. The goldcrest was in a large pine tree and almost impossible to photograph, but there are other better trees so I will go back and try again on a sunny day.
I have, of course, been to visit the mountain hares. The conditions have been quite hard work, partly because I’m a tad unfit right now, also because there’s been a lot of snow and there are far fewer hares this year. Casting my mind back to my first 2 winters on the hare hill, the animals were everywhere, you just had to stop and look once you got to the top of the hill and there were a few to choose from. Now, due to 18 months of unfriendly weather (too hot/dry or too wet) the numbers have crashed. It’s going to be a tough winter for guides when the season gets underway. All that said, I’ve photographed a handful and lovely to spend time with them and to know they are close enough to pop down and see whenever I feel like it!
Snowy conditions are also the best time to photograph snow bunting. They are beautiful little birds and turn up in a flock in the Cairngorms, hang around for a few minutes then disappear, only to start the cycle again. They match their surroundings perfectly, but personally I like images of them in clean white snow best.
I also visited Loch Garten to hopefully see some Crested Tits. I only stayed for a short time but did have a couple of sightings, which was 2 more than during the 7 weeks I spent here in Feb/March! I saw them again in the woods at Lossiemouth but the light was terrible so almost all my images were silhouettes.
Finally I’ve found a location for otters which is brilliant. I’ve seen one, which, after searching and walking for ages popped up in front of me when I stopped for a snack. It sat on a rock a little way off shore and ate the entire fish, completely unaware of my presence. At times waves would break over it. The light wasn’t great, but I made the best of it. Really, just delighted to find one. It was a much longer trek to the location than on Mull, but at least there weren’t any other people about!
Exciting times ahead I think! I will be offering limited guiding in the new year, so if you’re interested do get in touch. Given the low numbers of hares I will only be doing hare guiding on weekdays (too many photographers already at weekends). I also have some pine marten days available in May and July at James Roddie’s brilliant Black Isle Hide, the best place in Scotland to see these stunning animals in daylight. I’m in the process of applying for planning permission to erect a glamping pod in my garden. If all goes as planned this should be available by summer 2020 at the very latest. It would suit 2 friends or a couple. I’ll keep you posted!
Many thanks for liking my images and reading my blogs over the past year, I’m looking forward to many new photographs and experiences over the coming months. Have a great Christmas and all the best for 2020.