2020 – what a year. Not quite what I was expecting from my first full year living in the Scottish Highlands, that’s for sure! The Covid-19 virus fortunately didn’t affect me or my friends and family from an illness perspective, but it certainly meant life was a bit different. I am just so very very pleased and relieved I left my mid-terrace house in Glasgow’s Southside for life in the country (read more about my move in this blog), I can’t begin to imagine how I’d have coped had that not happened and I really felt for those in cities during that period (and beyond). Obviously it wasn’t the best time to start a new career as a wildlife guide and photographer. After March work pretty much dried up except for a brief period in the summer. However I’ve managed to cope financially and hopefully things will begin to improve soon.
Being restricted to my local area for a few months over the spring and early summer wasn’t entirely a bad thing. I always holidayed in the Highlands, so being stuck there was ok and I’m incredibly lucky to live in an area full of wildlife and open spaces.
The year started well. I spent many days on the hills with the mountain hares both guiding and in the company of other guides. There was a fair bit of snow and repeated visits meant I knew where to find the good hares. Hare numbers were significantly down and photographer numbers significantly up both of which presented a few challenges but my clients and I had some amazing, memorable experiences. 4 or 5 of my days were as good, if not better, than those from past years. It was brilliant to live so close to my favourite place. It is hard to choose favourite images from those days but I’ll try…
This image was taken on the most amazing day where every encounter was up there as one of the best. Having spent the day at the top of the hill, my client Conrad and I returned to the lower slopes more than happy with what we’d experienced. This, however, was the icing on the cake. Two hares (Definitely jill Fidget and possibly jack Luigi) started chasing and eventually mated and it all took place just in front of us. Brilliant. Of the series of images I captured the one above is my favourite although, I love this one too…
It’s unusual to see interaction like this between hares and although they were actually fighting rather than cuddling it does look like a hug! More from that day and the ones below in this blog.
If I had to choose a favourite image of 2020, this would be it. Taken in mid-March, I was on my own that day but on arriving at the top of the path was met by guide Andy Howard and his hare workshop. He invited me to join them and I’m so glad I did! We sat with 2 beautiful animals. The one above was the first, but it did nothing other than snooze in the winter sunshine, so we relocated to another, leaving our bags where they were. Eventually we decided it was probably time to head down the hill, but on reaching our bags chose to sit with the original hare for a bit longer and before long it began to graze and approached us as it did. I was lying on the snow and unable to move backwards without the chance of spooking it for Andy’s clients. Fortunately, turning my camera to portrait I was just about able to fit it in to the frame and I love this image! It prints beautifully too.
My final hare before lockdown kicked in a couple of days later and what a beautiful animal. I had been photographing (I think) the same two hares as on that day with Andy and rather than attempt to walk down a long snow field I chose to slide down it (I had the hill to myself). It was great fun and I was picking up speed when I scooted past this hare. I managed to do an emergency stop and clambered back up. Amazingly the hare stayed put and I spent about 30 minutes with it. Certainly one of the most stunning hares I’ve seen.
Lockdown for me was mostly about local red squirrels and badgers. The badgers were so frustrating. The sett is within minutes of my garden but halfway down a hill which lost the light very early in the evening. Probably because there are a lot of dog walkers in the woods the badgers tended to appear fairly late and to top it off they were spooked by the slightest noise. All that said, being able to watch them was brilliant especially when they groomed each other and played. I have a few images but videos worked best.
The squirrels were much more successful. I was over the moon to discover I had some locally and set up a feeding station early in the spring. By mid-April I was ready to photograph them and put up a little chair hide. I’d spend almost every morning in their company and it was such a joy to get to know the three original squirrels – Slaid, Emmylou and the (very) dominant Patty. Their interactions and behaviours were fascinating and I learnt so much as well as enjoying every second I spent in their company. Over the course of the summer three became eight or nine thanks to a few new adults and some adorable kittens. Unfortunately what this meant was I completely lost track of who was who, this wasn’t helped by the fact the squirrels kept changing colour – tails went from orange, to golden, to stripy then black. Very confusing! The one squirrel I’ve always been able to recognise was the 4th because he has a black mark on his thigh. I’ve always had a soft spot for him ever since I first saw him attempting to access the feeder again and again and again… I named him “Wee” Bruce (after Robert the Bruce)
If I have to choose a favourite image of the squirrels it would be this one. This is one of the first two kittens. I named them Gram and Marty. Adorable. I have a few blogs covering the woodland red squirrels starting with this one “My Red Squirrel Family“
Initially I was photographing the squirrels on the branches of the tree on which I’d placed the feeding box, but in late summer I relocated to a slightly more open area close by. Eventually in November I decided to see how they would react to me being outside the hide and amazingly they were okay with it so long as I made no sudden movements. What a difference it made, I suddenly felt as though I was part of the action with squirrels darting about all over the place and I was able to take eye level images. On one occasion Wee Bruce actually ran up the back of my legs and on others a squirrel would pop up next to me to check me out, all very entertaining! Being with the squirrels is such a joyful experience.
It’s so hard to choose a favourite from this time, and I’ve been meaning to write a blog about being up close and personal with the squirrels, but here’s one I like.
I haven’t just had red squirrels in the woods, in late autumn 4 appeared in the garden, 2 kittens and a couple of slightly older animals. This was a dream come true for me, but oh so very stressful as I then started worrying about them being run over – although no houses across the road they do like to run along it. I’ve absolutely loved being able to sit at my kitchen window and watch them. This is the first of the kittens who came to visit. I called her Etta after Etta James’ song “Stormy Weather” as she would sit munching nuts during storm Aidan. Read about the garden squirrels in this blog “Red Squirrels in the Garden“.
My other favourite is this one, when I was in the garden and the two kittens appeared together. This was wonderful to witness, they were so affectionate. One of them lost its balance and fell to the ground and the other looked really concerned and checked on it when it returned. So touching. An image from this series appeared in an article in The Guardian on Christmas Eve.
Jumping back a bit in time, I spent an enjoyable morning photographing red squirrels in the snow at Mark Hamblin’s hide in the Cairngorms. This is a great location and the hide is dug into the ground so the squirrels are at eye-level. I have many images I love from this day, but this one is without a doubt my favourite. It’s also one of my best selling greeting cards. More from this day, and other February images in this blog.
I was fortunate to be able to spend some quality time in the Black Isle Nature Photography pine marten hide before it re-opened to the public. This is a beautiful location and the resident female marten appeared almost daily. This year she had three kits, and although I only ever saw her with one, it was such a delight to witness. especially when they interacted. I wrote about this and other early summer experiences (squirrels, badgers, birds) in this blog.
I also have at least three pine martens visiting my woodland feeding station almost every night. Sadly I’ve never actually seen them, but I do keep a trail camera trained on the feeder and I have captured some wonderful footage mostly featuring one of the youngsters I named Peanut. More on my youtube channel, but here’s a taster:
Talking of the Black Isle Hides, I also spent a fair bit of time photographing the crested tits in the early part of the year – such personable (and noisy!) little birds. This is a lovely, natural setting too and I loved to capture the birds perched on the young pine trees.
I’m constantly amazed by the variety and number of birds that visit my garden – it costs me a fortune in seed, but I really don’t mind as they bring me so much pleasure. I often find myself sitting on my kitchen sofa mesmerised by them (and the garden squirrels). I think this is a full list:
- Coal/great/blue and long-tailed tits
- tree sparrow/house sparrow/dunnock
- blackbirds/song thrush
- great spotted woodpecker
- carrion crows
- pied/grey wagtail
- swallow/house martin
- (male) sparrowhawk
And from the garden:
- red kite
- reed bunting
(plus of course red squirrels, badgers, mice, rabbits and maybe pine marten also in the garden)
Not bad I think! Hard to choose a favourite image, but I loved this of the stonechat whose brief appearance was a complete, but pleasant, surprise.
My other little bird highlight was a visit by long-tailed tit fledglings at my woodland hide, I was so excited! Even better they stayed for a few minutes in a photogenic location.
My favourite bird photographs in the latter part of the year were a series of images I took of a young shag. I was sitting on a rocky promontory when I suddenly spotted the bird really close by preening. I was using my cropframe D500 with the 500mm lens so a focal distance of 750mm and due to the proximity to the edge of the cliff I couldn’t move further away! However I liked what I was able to achieve.
Once lockdown was over I started visiting the mountain hares again and I had the most wonderful few months with them, so unexpected! I found and followed four different leverets and it was both educational and enjoyable to get to know their different personalities. I wrote a blog about them, so I won’t say too much, but here they all are:
So… that’s a brief glimpse at my 2020. I had some wonderful, memorable experiences which, although not as varied as they might have been had covid not happened and the Highlands filled with thousands of visitors over the summer, I really can’t complain. For me, being outdoors in the company of wildlife isn’t just a job, it’s a calling and brings the most joy to my life and as a result 2020 was a lot better than it could have been. I’m also fortunate to have some good friends and colleagues both local and more distant and a supportive family (and dog) that made the isolation bearable, and for that I’m forever grateful. I also have to thank my followers on social media who have made such lovely comments about my images and been kind enough to purchase cards and calendars from my Etsy store (re-opens 3rd Jan), as well as come out on the hill for a mountain hare guiding session – thank you!!
Who knows what 2021 might bring, but if I have even half as many days like those mentioned above I’ll be happy.