Pine martens, badgers, red squirrels and snow: early spring in the Scottish Highlands

After an exceptionally busy February I’ve had a little more time to work on projects during March and early April which will hopefully eventually lead to more workshop/hide opportunities for guests to my rental cabin The Drey and maybe others too. I’ve also put together my residential winter wildlife package and run some workshops and even done some mountain hare guiding! Weather-wise we’ve experienced record-breaking March warm temperatures and April snow.

I’ll start with the mountain hares. These blogs used to be filled with images of these, fantastic, animals, but in recent years numbers have crashed at the location I visit. This isn’t because of culling on this specific estate (others… yes), regardless of what you might read on social media, but due to climate change, illness and predation. This is one of the good estates and isn’t a game hunting one so should be supported. Numbers have been falling every year since I first started photographing them in 2016 and it was already becoming quite challenging during my first winter as a guide 2019/20. The summer of 2020 I was quietly optimistic as I found a number of leverets, but both before the winter lockdown and after it I was saddened to find very few and then no leverets that summer at all. I therefore stopped guiding as I didn’t want to disappoint my clients by not giving them the experience they were hoping for. However, this winter I did come across a small pocket of hares, one of whom is fantastic. The vast majority of mountain hares don’t do very much during the day, and it’s possible to sit with one, should it let you approach, for hours and see very little in the way of behaviours. This hare, however, is very relaxed and grooms, yawns, eats regularly. Fantastic. I took two clients up to see her and also spent a couple of days there by myself enjoying being back on the hill in the company of my favourite animal again. I’ve called her “Bo” and I really hope she’s there when I next have a chance to visit.

I also went to a different location with a couple of friends where there are mountain hares. I don’t tend to go here very often for a variety of reasons, one of which is the long walk but it’s a good spot and has the most amazing views as well as mountain hares. We photographed this one in early April, perfectly camouflaged against the snow, rocks and heather.

I’ve photographed feral goats in a couple of locations. In February/March they give birth to their kids and it’s lovely to watch them. They have such fantastic faces too.

Sadly I don’t appear to have frogspawn in my garden pond this year. I really enjoyed watching the tadpoles grow into frogs last summer. I did, however, find some toads in a local pond. The reflection of last year’s bracken turned the water a gorgeous golden colour.

One of my projects over the past few weeks has to create a feeding station in my garden for the badgers who visit every night. I have two setts close to my house and badgers from both visit. I love to have them here although I was less impressed when they dug up and ate all my tulip bulbs – bad badgers! I’ve propped a log up against a tree at the entrance to the path from my garden into the wood where one of the setts is. The brock (male) visits every night repeatedly and another one, a female I think, but based on behaviour, not his mate, also comes in less frequently. He’s quite battle scarred and had a raw patch on his shoulder for a while but it’s healing well now which is a relief. They are very funny to watch as they attempt to access the nuts and lard at the top of the log. Sometimes they swing themselves up, other times they climb along the log or they stand on their tip toes to reach it – badgers are very stretchy! I have a Nitehawk hide in the garden which has viewing panels on 3 sides so I use it for my Introduction to Wildlife workshops in one direction and for the badgers in another. They aren’t easy to photograph as they tend to spend their time eating, but every so often there’s a brief opportunity, and, to be honest, it’s just great to see them! I light the area with LED lights as they never appear before dark and then sit quietly in the hide until a badger appears. On one occasion the brock came over and snuffled round the hide, I could hear him sniffing so close. If you come and stay at The Drey I’m giving the opportunity to photograph the badgers for £50 so long as you don’t mind staying up late.

My red squirrel family have been unusually quiet these past few weeks. I think this is partly because the weather has been a bit confusing (cold, mild, cold, snow, hot, cold, snow… etc) and because it’s breeding season. Patty, the dominant squirrel went awol for a while which was a little concerning, however she finally reappeared this week with visible teats so she must have been away having kittens. Her behaviour changes at this time and she spends most of her time sitting scoffing nuts (even the peanuts) rather than caching and behaving aggressively towards all the other squirrels. She’s such a brilliant character it’s great she’s back as I love to introduce her to clients.

Another fab female squirrel is Sam. She has a scarred nose but it so very sweet. She often comes in and sits eating nuts but has been being terrorised by the boys recently- I imagine they are looking to mate with her. There’s been a lot of chasing through the trees and she’s not had as much chance to snack. I love to see her too, and she’s also fast becoming a workshop client favourite. Check my website for details of my red squirrel workshops.

I’m still volunteering up at Tollie Red Kites. The kites were brilliant in March. Lots of them and they were keen to feed as well as interact. I ran a birds in flight workshop with an 11 year old who is already a keen photographer. His photographs are great and I’ve helped him take it to the next level. If you’d like to come on a birds in flight workshop (whatever your age!) please do get in touch, all you need is a camera with a long lens (ideally 400mm+)

Here are a few images I took one day when the birds were behaving brilliantly. Tollie is now open Wed-Sun every week with the feed taking place from 2pm.

My major project at the moment is in the same wood as my crested tit site. This pine wood (Scots pine, conifers and a few deciduous trees) is a goldmine when it comes to wildlife opportunities. There are so many species it’s incredible and really exciting. The cresties are now back in the tree canopies and breeding. As schedule 1 birds I have to let them be so have dismantled that site and removed the bird feeders. I’ll put that back together in the late autumn ready for photography sessions over the winter.

I’ve now relocated to a different part of the same wood which is better for mammal photography so that I can take advantage of the red squirrels, pine marten and maybe badgers who live here. There’s a fallen log here which is good for baiting and I’ve put up a squirrel feeder which has had the squirrels scratching their heads and banging their tails in frustration. Very amusing to watch.

They are now beginning to get the hang of it, but one is a little intellectually challenged although he has now figured out (sometimes) how to get into the feeder.

It’s been really interesting working with a new bunch of squirrels, I’m so used to “my” squirrel family who are brilliant and so good at posing. These ones are still in phase one of their training but are very lovely.

Aside from the squirrels a badger is in every night, still in the dark though. He’s very good at climbing. There’s a buzzard that flies by and calls out very regularly. He’s bullied by a crow a lot. A jay came down too.

The primary reason for this site though isn’t the squirrels but the pine martens. Thanks to my trail camera up at the crestie site I realised one of the martens was appearing in daylight sometimes over the winter so I had high hopes I could, with some work and a lot of patience, photograph it in daylight over the summer months. I’ve been baiting the site with peanuts and honey almost every day and have been delighted to see the marten appear any time from 4.30pm. There are at least two martens but I think it’s the same one, with a clean bib, who is in earliest. I put my Nitehawk chair hide up a couple of weeks ago and have been using it for the squirrels. A couple of days ago I went up in late afternoon and decided to stick around for a bit on the off chance the marten would appear. I jumped the gun a bit and missed out a couple of steps in the process but hopefully it won’t impact things. She appeared just before 7pm and instantly clocked that something was different. She ran up a tree and sat banging her tail for a minute before coming down for some food. The marten was very nervous and came and went a few times but did scoff a fair few nuts. I took a few photographs using a silent shutter. You can see how she’s started to shed her thick winter pelage – her face is a much darker colour with shorted fur. Martens appear to have a much higher IQ than squirrels and more awareness of changes than badgers too so it will be a while before she relaxes I think.

Such a thrill to see her in person. It’s great when patience pays off and something goes to plan. That said, it’s very early in the process and I don’t intend to return to see her for a few days. In the meantime I’ve put an old broken lens on a tripod in the hide to get her used to seeing a camera. I currently intend to keep this site to myself as I need to work on getting her relaxed. I’m really looking forward to spending time with her over the summer if all goes well. Martens are stunning, intelligent and entertaining animals to watch and I’ve always loved any time I spend with one, it’s such a privilege.

Finally for this blog, I’ve now put together my residential winter wildlife package for winter 2022/23. This is for 1-2 people who will stay in The Drey. It’s 4 nights accommodation and 3 days of photography. Because it’s a small group we can be quite flexible in what we photograph and how long we spend with each subject. Possibilities are red squirrels, crested tits & other woodland birds, snow bunting, red deer, red grouse, red kites and, depending on hare numbers and client fitness, mountain hares. Evening badger or pine marten photography would also be possible. It’s available to book now by clicking the link above. Please do check my availability as well as that of the cabin though.

I’m still running the three night, two and a half day red squirrel therapy residential package too, this is available all year round.

Both workshops are suitable for all levels of photographer. All you need is a camera and a decent zoom.

If you like my work I have cards available in my Etsy store and prints on my website. And if you’re interested in a workshop or a stay in my cabin please do get in touch.

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

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