February Under Lockdown in the Scottish Highlands

Life under lockdown (the sequel) continues here in the Scottish Highlands, and although I am incredibly lucky to live where I do, I am beginning to yearn for a bit more freedom. I made the decision not to travel anywhere except for essential supplies and have lived my life this year within walking distance of my front door. Admittedly this gives me access to fields, woods and the Beauly Firth, so I’ve been making the most of these locations to exercise, photograph and monitor the wildlife via trail cameras.

The first half of the month was cold, really cold. The majority of the UK found themselves buried under many feet of snow as Beast From The East 2 hit the country. Me, well I may live in the Scottish Highlands, but I’ve chosen the one place which rarely sees much of the white stuff, so I spent much of those weeks moaning about my lack of snow!

However, I did have a little, and I made the most of it. The best thing about the snow was the appearance of a fieldfare in my garden. I wrote about it in my last blog but it came back again! What a brilliant bird. It’s a member of the thrush family and I often see flocks of them in the trees and fields near the house but they are impossible to approach for photographs. As soon as any snow fell, this one (I presume it was the same bird) would appear and take up residence on my lawn where I’d put out a couple of apples for it and the blackbirds. I don’t think I’ve ever been so entertained by a bird before. It would perch on the rocks around my pond and scan the surroundings for unsuspecting blackbirds then either swoop down on them or run speedily at them across the lawn making a barking noise. It very rarely had time to actually relax and eat any of the apple it was guarding. Interestingly, when another fieldfare appeared they fought each other and the new one was sent packing. I spent hours sitting at the window watching its antics and was able to sit in the garden and photograph it as well as filming on my gopro. Sadly it left with the snow, but it was fab while here.

I took a few images of the garden birds too

I’ve also spent a bit of time down at the Beauly Firth sitting looking out over the water towards Ben Wyvis and listening to the sounds of the birds as they fly past and feed in the shallows. My favourite bird call is that of the curlew, and there were a few of those about.

I also saw my first pintail ducks. At first I presumed they were geese as they are pretty big, but after consulting my bird book I was able to tick off a new species.

There were hundreds of redshank who flew past me at regular intervals.

As the tide went out they started feeding in front of me.

There were large numbers of teal further out in the firth as well as a lone shelduck. A group of black-tailed godwits flew past too.

I spent hours down there that day, it was a wonderful place to pass the time. I’ve been down a few times since when the tide is at the same point but sadly the birds haven’t flown past like they did that day. However it’s a beautiful place just to sit and watch them from afar.

A bird that’s rarely seen in daylight, other than as it flies up from under your feet as it hides in the undergrowth, is the woodcock. It’s classed as a wader too but is most likely to be spotted in woods. During the first half of the month I was disturbing these birds whenever I walked to and from the squirrel site or walked the dog but there was no opportunity to photograph them as I never spotted them before they took flight. They are beautiful birds, quite similar in appearance to snipe, but have a stripy head. I remember reading, or being told that during periods of cold weather when the ground is covered in snow or frozen that the woodcock will look for spots which had escaped the frost/snow, which makes sense! So having regularly seen them briefly in a specific area right behind my garden, I set up my trail cameras not really knowing what to expect. A couple of days later I was surprised and delighted to find that I had good footage of the woodcock feeding, in daylight, right in front of the cameras. It was really interesting to see them foraging and also to be able to admire their beautiful plumage.

It’s great when something goes to plan! This spot turned out to be a bit of a goldmine for wildlife during this time, again, probably because it wasn’t frozen so there was access to food. Over the course of 2 days and nights I captured fox, roe deer, red squirrel, redwing, jay, rabbits, tawny owl and badgers in that one location, amazing – and it’s a minute’s walk from my garden.

I have a peanut filled bird feeder hanging in a tree there and this attracted Ella and Louis, two of my garden red squirrels. What’s interesting about this pair is that they get along. This is unusual for red squirrels who tend to spend their time either avoiding or chasing one another. This footage is lovely as it shows the two of them co-existing and just being squirrels. I accidentally didn’t save the file which showed one of them collecting moss for their drey unfortunately.

The best footage though was of the badgers. The sett I attempted to photograph last year is very close to this location and, again, probably because the ground is soft and mossy, the badgers seem to like this area. Not only this, but my camera was perfectly placed to capture all kinds of behaviours: grooming, scratching, foraging, chasing, play fighting and even mating – all right in front of my camera, I couldn’t have placed it better if I’d tried.

My favourite footage was of, I think, last year’s two cubs who on Valentine’s night chased each other around for a couple of minutes. I’ve watched this repeatedly and it always brings a huge smile to my face.

There’s more of their behaviours captured in this video which showcases all the wildlife I’ve seen in that location. The only animal I’m surprised that hasn’t made an appearance as yet are the local pine martens.

Talking of badgers I’ve been checking out a few other setts to see if they’d be better for photography than my local one. I’ve finally figured out where the garden badgers live, a place I’ve walked past many times when out with the dog. However, it’s not an option for photography. Nor is the other sett I’ve visited which is hidden amongst some gorse bushes on a hillside. I do know of a 4th though which apparently might be better, so fingers-crossed. The woodland badger family seen above rarely show their faces above ground in daylight so although the spot where I’ve been filming them would be perfect I don’t think I’d have many opportunities. I’ll try though!

February has been another month where I haven’t seen my beloved mountain hares, but I have been told of a new location which I’ll check out as soon as I can. The best news though is that now the hares have been given legal protection in Scotland. This means it is illegal to kill them without a license. The government has said that these will only be granted in exceptional circumstances and I hope a majority of estates comply with the new legislation. The hares are fighting an uphill struggle right now, not only because of persecution but also due to climate change, so I really hope this gives them a lifeline.

Back to my month… red squirrels. I say this in every lockdown blog, but I honestly don’t know how I’d have survived without the company of these little guys. They are not only entertaining and photogenic but just being in their company, be it in the garden or the woods brings me so much pleasure.

When we had a little snow in January I focused primarily on the garden squirrels, this time I chose the woodland ones. They aren’t as active in the winter, but there was always at least one, often more, about during the morning. Squirrels look great in snow!

I did spend a little time with the garden squirrels though!

Once the snow melted I confess I lost my photography mojo a little bit. It’s lovely to hear the birds singing and to see the first signs of spring, but I’m not ready for that yet. However, once a week of strong winds was over I did get out with my camera again and spent a few days in the woods with the squirrels. They are becoming more active, possibly because of the milder weather and there’s been some lovely light there too. I think Patty, the dominant squirrel from last year, is still about. Hard to recognise her by appearance but her behaviour is unmistakable. She is a bit like the fieldfare and as soon as she spots another squirrel she launches herself at it, chasing it far far away. It’s really interesting watching the dynamics between them, especially when Patty is in residence. The others will hang back and as soon as she goes to cache a nut they rush in to grab one.

I’ve been lying in the same spot ever since I ventured out of the hide in November, but this past week I’ve relocated for the earlier part of the morning and had a beech tree behind where I shot many of these photographs which gives that beautiful orange glow.

It was also to take backlit images.

However, this is currently my favourite woodland squirrel – I’m a sucker for the cute ones. This little guy has spent every day that I’ve been down there camped out at the squirrel feeder, running up the tree to a safe place if spooked. I think he must be one of last year’s kittens as he looks young. Adorable!!

Here’s a little video featuring the woodland squirrels… and me!

I did spend a morning with the garden squirrels too. These were my favourite images.

In other squirrel news my 2022 red squirrel calendar is now available on Etsy. Very early, I know, but I had the time and I didn’t want to wait until I had thousands more images to choose from! It’s a bit larger this time around but I’m pleased with it.

And… the construction of my garden self-catering cabin “The Drey” is finally underway. Amazing. I’ve been going backwards in this process since cancelling the original one so it’s hard to believe it’s actually going to happen at last. My hope is that it will be available by the summer so long as Covid restrictions allow me to rent it out and it’ll primarily be for photographers/wildlife lovers and I’ll be doing workshops in the local area. Stay tuned for details!!

I use Nikon gear for my photography: Nikon D850 and D500 primarily with the Nikkor 500mm pf 5.6, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 and Nikkor 300mm f4. Filming is done using one of the above, or Browning trail cameras (Strike Force HD Pro X and Recon Force Edge) and my GoPro Hero 9 Black.

I purchase hazelnuts for the hungry red squirrels from Whole Foods Direct.

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

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