Life Under Lockdown in the Scottish Highlands

I say at the start of every blog I’ve written since I relocated to the Scottish Highlands how lucky I feel to live here, but I feel this more strongly now than ever before. How life has changed since I last wrote. We’re now three weeks into the Covid 19 lockdown with no end in sight. However being based at the edge of a rural community has made this considerably more bearable for me than for many others. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones and for that I cannot adequately express how grateful I am. I can’t imagine what life would have been like if I was still in Glasgow, I’d be climbing the walls by now, and I was still fortunate enough to have a garden there. And, although I do live alone, I have my dog Murphy for company, so I can chat to him when he deigns to spend time in the same room as me!

Murphy (obviously taken a few months ago!)

Before all the virus measures kicked in I had planned to write a blog about my local area and the wildlife I’ve found here. Having now spent the past few weeks at home – I haven’t been out in the car for over 3 weeks now – I have more to say and share with you on this topic than I had expected to.

One positive thing that seems to have come out of the current restrictive measures is the number of times I hear or read about the fact that there seems to be more wildlife about. I’m not convinced this is actually true – however, I can imagine it is certainly easier to hear bird song without the constant drone of traffic on the roads. Folk are going for walks now as a means to get out the house when maybe they didn’t do so before and are noticing wildlife and nature to a much greater extent. Probably appreciating it more now too. I’ve been sharing a “feel good” image on my personal facebook page every day and I’ve been told by quite a few friends, even those that don’t “like” them, that they look forward to seeing the pictures – it’s an escape from what’s going on around us – finding accessible, emotive images that aren’t all mountain hares or red squirrels is beginning to prove challenging to me now though! Hopefully wildlife and the conservation of it will be the big winners in these crazy times.

one of my “feelgood” images

I am blessed with large numbers of birds visiting my garden. I live at the edge of a hamlet, with a grain field in front of the house and pasture fields behind. Therefore a wide variety of birds are around. Plus I spend a fortune on bird seed! If you’d like to see more birds in your garden then I heartily recommend purchasing a feeder and some seed. My top tip would be to go for sunflower hearts as most birds enjoy them and dropped seeds don’t sprout. Do not buy cheap seed – it’s got a large percentage of filler most of which will end up growing in your garden. I made this mistake once in Glasgow and had my very own wheat field as a result! The better the food, the less the mess and the happier the birds. After a while you won’t think of it as an expense but as a means to bring joy to your life. When I moved into my Glasgow house no birds visited the garden. The previous owner told me that this was because there were too many cats. However I worked really hard to attract birds and by the time I left I had large flocks of goldfinch and siskin, house sparrows, great/coal and blue tits (the latter nested in the garden) and many many more.

I digress, but really, do buy a feeder. If you don’t have a garden you can get stick on ones to go onto the window. You’ll love it!

Because I moved into my new house in October/November I had absolutely no idea what was in the garden. Lots of young trees certainly, but what they were was a mystery. They are now coming to life and I seem to have quite a few blossom trees, both pink and white. They look beautiful. I therefore resolved to photograph the birds perched in them. I had purchased a seat hide for use in the woods (more on that later), and I erected it in the garden at a reasonable working distance and settled down to await the birds. The cherry tree I chose had a good clean background due to the distance between it and the trees & bushes behind. You don’t want a messy background to spoil the images if possible. The birds for the most part didn’t hang about the tree though but prefered the dark trees and the hawthorn. But I was able to get a few images I like – they really shout out spring!

Tree sparrow
Blue Tit (x3)
Male chaffinch
Great Tit

I also captured one of the dunnocks and a thrush, which was the only time I’ve spotted one in the garden.

There are also still plenty of goldfinch and siskins plus house sparrows, starlings, collared doves, wood pigeons, chaffinches, blackbirds and carrion crows too as well as the odd visit from a great spotted woodpecker and yellowhammer (below). I haven’t seen the male sparrowhawk for a while though sadly.

The pink-footed geese still frequent the fields surrounding the house and fly over cackling loudly – I love this!

Red kites are a little less obvious at the moment, but have come pretty close, I hear buzzards regularly – the crows like to mob them – and I think I’ve seen an osprey flying over the Beauly Firth and my first swallow too. All this without leaving the garden!

My other garden visitor is “Jim” a local badger, named after one of my favourite musicians Jim Lauderdale (check him out!). I confess we’ve never met, but I put out a few nuts every night and he pops along for a snack. I think he might be responsible for my missing fat ball feeder too! Here he is, filmed with my most recent trail cam purchase (Browning Recon Force Edge which I highly recommend for both day and night filming).

The last few evenings have been beautiful, the light amazing. When I lived in Glasgow I tended not to go out with my camera after dinner because I never felt entirely safe, but that’s not an issue here, although it’s taken me a while to get round to it!

The tree sparrows seem to converge on the grain field in front of the house, there were lots there – not too photogenic though, so here’s one in a tree

The birds were singing, chasing each other and perching in the trees

There were rabbits everywhere, including black ones, but I couldn’t get close.

The fields behind my house are now filled with sheep – very friendly – rather than run from me as normal they all started to approach. It was a little intimidating but I walked slowly and they left me be.

The old skeleton trees were glowing as was the gorse. For a more creative photographer than me, there’s so much promise with these old trees, I think they are wonderful.

And finally, a couple of unexpectedly good sunsets. They didn’t look too impressive as I watched, but looking at the images afterwards, and all I’ve done to these is adjust the shadows, they weren’t bad at all!

I have a path behind my house which leads directly into a deciduous wood. I presume before the house was built 10 years ago this would have been public access, but not any more. Very few people visit this section of the wood, most stick to the other side of the burn where there’s an easily accessible track. It’s very popular with dog walkers. I’ve been placing trail cameras in various locations to see what wildlife lives there and it’s been amazing. I love collecting the SD cards from the cameras and looking to see what I’ve captured on film. Initially it was mainly badgers and roe deer but having hung up a nut bird feeder I had visits from 2 pine martens and a red squirrel. I therefore bought a squirrel feeder and eventually found a tree that I could attach it to in a secluded part of the secluded wood. Not easy to do though as none of the trees have particularly straight trunks!

Here are the two pine martens, fab to see them together! They haven’t been showing much of late, or maybe the cameras just aren’t picking them up, I don’t know…

The red squirrels have been awesome. My initial thought that there was maybe just one of them, was completely wrong. I now think there might be at least four if not more. I have a chair hide at my feeding station now and spend every morning in it watching and photographing the squirrels – really interesting, I’m learning loads, as it’s the first time I’ve spent quality time with the same group. But I’m going to save them for their very own blog soon. Here however is a little video of one eating lichen then having a scratch. (slightly wobbly as filmed hand-held with my Nikon D850 DSLR & 500mm lens)

Everywhere you go in the woods and at the sides of the fields is evidence of badgers – there are holes dug all over the place. So I spent ages looking for a sett. I found a few holes that could be used by badgers, but when I eventually found the sett – 2 minutes from my house! – it was so obvious. It’s big, lots of entrances but quite tricky to film due to the location (hill + trees). I obviously don’t want to disturb it, so camera placement has been more miss than hit. They have been fascinating to observe though. I know very little about badgers, but am slowly learning. I’ve seen anal rubbing, sett bedding collection, scratching and even some mating.

Here are a couple having a good scratch (filmed on my Browning Recon Force Edge – my best camera):

And here they are mating (filmed on my Browning Strike Force HDX Pro):

This one is collecting bedding – I love how it hops down the hill backwards!

Annoyingly they aren’t out much during daylight as yet so I haven’t tried to photograph and no sign of cubs on the cameras either as yet. I did see a badger in a different location though at 9am one morning when walking the dog which was a bit of a thrill.

Also on the cameras I’ve had a lot of roe deer footage. They like to graze at the sett. There are 2 hinds and a stag. One of his antlers is lop-sided now, but I haven’t kept any of the footage of him.

There’s also been a fox investigating the sett a fair amount

The one thing that has proved challenging during the lockdown has of course been earning any income. Great time to move, not such a great time to have become self-employed! The BBC Highland news team included me in an article they wrote about the problems faced by wildlife photographers/guides. Great to be asked – all because I tag BBC Highlands on my twitter posts! It came across as a bit bleak, but honest.

I also had one of my images picked up by a news agency and two newspapers used it (at different ends of the spectrum!) – The Telegraph and The Star. And! It’s a good excuse to slip a mountain hare into this post!

Finally, I do have greeting cards available on Etsy featuring a number of my most popular images. Only £2 a card. Do check them out, here’s a small selection

So that’s been my lockdown so far in my little Highland bubble. As I said back at the beginning, I’m incredibly lucky. I’ll write a blog about my experiences with the red squirrels in the next few days, plenty to say and show you about them! And don’t forget, aside from greeting cards, prints are available to purchase via my website.

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

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