Winter Wildlife P1: Red Squirrels

Winter 2022/23 – where to begin?? I was so busy over the winter running winter wildlife tours that I didn’t have time to write any blogs. I have so much content to share though, that I’m going to try and cover the season in a few catch-up blogs split into different locations/subjects.

I’m going to start with red squirrels, both “my” local family and Cairngorm squirrels which I visit as part of my 2.5 day “Red Squirrel Therapy” residential workshop. Red squirrels are always a favourite with my clients and play a part in every winter workshop I run. Watching them bound across the ground, jump through the trees, chasing one another, and sitting eating nuts is so joyful. Personally, I never ever get sick of hanging out with them.

My red squirrel family filmed in January 2023.

The vast majority of my local red squirrels disappeared in the autumn. I think this was due to such a good harvest – there were plentiful amounts of berries and nuts. There must have been food they wanted somewhere in a connected wood which meant they abandoned my feeding station. This was great for the squirrels, but not only did I miss them, but it was quite concerning when it came to workshops. Fortunately by the winter I had two adults (Emmylou and Coop) making regular appearances and a third squirrel, an autumnal kitten I think, began to appear too, eventually gaining enough confidence to come in for nuts.

Typically whenever we had snow in my local area (which is quite rare) I didn’t have workshops! I took advantage of the wintery weather though, wrapping up in my many warm layers and sitting with the squirrels – they do look great in snow!

Our first snow came in mid December. I’d just returned from a trip to photograph the grey seal pups at Donna Nook (I’ll try and write a blog about that sometime too) and only had one full day back home before heading down to Blairgowrie for Christmas. I spent the morning with Emmylou and Coop.

Here’s Emmylou – she really is a very beautiful squirrel… and the only one not to desert me during the autumn.

And this is Coop. He’s recognisable because he has a button nose.

One of many things I love about my red squirrel site is that fact it is deciduous woodland, rather than pinewood. This means that it is constantly changing throughout the year and the beech leaves remain on the trees, a gorgeous deep orange colour right through until May, adding warmth and colour to what would otherwise be a stark setting over the winter. This robin looked great against the orange background.

I returned from Perthshire before the New Year and was delighted to have more snow on the 1st Jan. This was the first time the autumnal kitten mentioned above braved coming in for nuts whilst I was there. He’s smaller than the others but has the most impressive tufts! His most distinguishing feature though was the fact that he had lost the top third of his tail. It must have happened very recently as the spine was still attached. He looked healthy otherwise. None of this stopped him from gathering and eating nuts that day. He was a very busy little squirrel! 1st Jan was “Bo Day” on my social media accounts (my fave mountain hare), and so the name that came to mind was Alfie. I think it suits him! On this day, he was quite nervous of the other squirrels, looking around him with the worried stance (paws clutched to chest) but seemed relaxed in my presence. I confess I was concerned for him as squirrels use their tails for all sorts of things such as communication, balance, sun shade, umbrella and warmth. But he seems to be thriving which is a relief.

The other two were in as well. You can see just how short Alfie’s tail is when you look at these images!

I had visits from long-tailed tits and a jay that day too.

The last significant snow we had here was in mid-January – this was proper, heavy snow which turned to ice and meant I wasn’t able to use my car for a week. Fortunately I had no workshops and could hang out with the local wildlife! 16th January – all the squirrels were in. I love the snowy noses.

17th January, Alfie was in all morning. The snow was really deep and he kept leaping vertically up, corkscrew style into the air and back down into the snow – it was really funny!

Coop made a brief appearance too. He’s a bit of a bully when it comes to Alfie mind you. He almost always aggressively chases him away.

One of the main issues I have at both my red squirrel and crested tit sites over the winter months is the lack of light. The sun is so low in the sky it never gets above the treeline. However, on occasions we had some amazing light when the orange beech leaves came into their own and backlit images of the squirrels were possible.

It’s been really interesting to watch Alfie’s development over the months. He’s gained in confidence and, although Coop still terrorises him, he has learnt that speed is the best tactic. Alfie does everything at double speed and rarely eats any nuts at my feeding station. He bounds in, grabs a nut and bounds out, throwing himself between the trees. Very entertaining, but so hard now to capture any images of him! His tail will never grow back, but it has thickened and the end has hair now so it looks more “normal”. On occasion he’ll often appear at my site a hour or so before any other squirrel and I can see clients struggling to photograph him. He is fantastic to watch though!

I have more to write on my squirrels including the return/addition of other squirrels, but I’ll leave that for another blog.

Winter wildlife clients normally only visit my squirrel site as we spend the three days photographing a variety of different subjects, but I do take Squirrel Therapy clients to a hide in the Cairngorms. I temporarily switched from my usual hide due to low squirrel numbers. The new one has, to be honest, too many squirrels! It is great fun, but exhausting, watching and photographing these ones – at times there are seven or eight in at once and we have no idea where to point our cameras. A few of the squirrels have eye deformities/injuries, but there are some gorgeous individuals too.

Finally on the squirrel front, my parents are lucky enough to have red squirrels visiting their garden in Perthshire all day, every day! During the winter and spring most red squirrels only leave their dreys (nests) to feed in the mornings, but these Perthshire ones are in and out constantly. It’s very distracting when I’m visiting, and I spent many an hour standing at the window watching their antics. I don’t really like photographing squirrels in a garden, preferring a more wild setting, however we had snow when I was there too, which makes a big difference.

If you’d like to join me for a squirrel workshop or my 2.5 day Squirrel Therapy workshop (3 mornings of red squirrels, 2 afternoons of other subjects + 3 nights accommodation in my rental cabin “The Drey Inchberry“), then please do get in touch. They are such fantastic little creatures. I’ve spent many many hours watching and photographing them but it never gets old. I still love to go and see them. My site, as mentioned, is in deciduous woodland, it changes throughout the year and you will see the squirrels exhibiting all kinds of behaviours in the trees and surrounding area. I don’t use a hide, so we feel part of the gang and have a much better view of the whole area. This also allows for eye-level images although a chair can be provided if required.

I have prints and cards available of red squirrels, and there will be a 2024 red squirrel calendar too. Please check my website for details of these and my current workshops. If there’s an image you’d like a print of that isn’t there do get in touch as I can easily add it.

Read Part 2: Crested Tits and Other Woodland Wildlife

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

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