A Week on Mull

This was my first visit to Mull since 2014 where it didn’t snow! Mind you we had (one day of) warm glorious sunshine then strong winds, heavy rain or drizzle and even hail stones, so weather-wise it wasn’t the best of weeks… Still… I was equipped for the conditions and although a little frustrating at times (especially when my puffin trip was cancelled 3 times and I never made it to Lunga) I made the most of my week on the island, and even if I didn’t return with nearly as many photographs as I would have expected it was an enjoyable stay.

Monday was the day of warm, glorious, sunshine – I’ve never been warm on Mull before! Everything looked wonderful, really clear and crisp. My parents and I were booked on Martin Keiver’s Mull Charters white-tailed sea eagle trip and as we left Ulva Ferry the water was like a mirror reflecting the mountains and gulls as they flew overhead.

The eagles came thick and fast. The first, a male, missed his fish entirely, and was quickly followed by his mate who had no trouble scooping it out of the water with her magnificent talons, they were pretty distant though. The third bird had a red-tinged tail…

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More came giving better and better views as they collected the fish.

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Great to get some images against the sky & hillsides too:

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The eagles were mobbed by both gulls and ravens – this raven was kind enough to fly side-by-side with a white-tail to demonstrate the similarities in their shape and difference in size.

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The strong sunlight had both advantages and disadvantages. I was using my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 lens. Due to the speed of the birds and variation in the light depending on whether the birds were shot against blue sky, hillside or water, I was in aperture priority mode (f7.1) with some negative exposure compensation. My shutter speed at times reached 1/5000! Therefore the vast majority of my images are sharp. However, I had to expose for the highlights (the birds heads/tails) and this combined with the harsh light meant that the feathers were dark and lacking any real colour. I’ve managed to improve on these in lightroom but a slightly cloudier day or lower sun would have been better. That said, the number of drops, and gorgeous day definitely compensated for any of these issues! Best (of 5) trips I’ve had out with Martin. We spotted an otter on the way back in too which was nice bonus, plus a stag silhouetted against the sky on a mountain top.

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Back in November I spent a week on Mull with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden photographing the otters. You can read all about it on this blog, but suffice to say it was a great week with many many wonderful otter encounters.

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So when I returned I had a good idea where to go looking for them. I found a mum and cub at the spot where, in November, there’d been a mum with two young cubs (see below).

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I don’t know whether one didn’t survive the winter (it was a bit of a wimp) or whether the more confident of the two had left home – I’ve heard differing reports. However great to see them. After one relatively brief and image-less encounter as they were finishing up and going home, I spent a fab couple of hours with the pair on the Wednesday. I spotted them as they came ashore on a little island. Here they groomed for a bit before heading back into the sea and fishing quite far out from the shore.

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Eventually they swam towards land and I got myself in position.

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The otters then spent at least an hour fishing, feeding, grooming and relaxing in the same area. Mum was eating kelp not fish.

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I think they must have sussed that I was there as both looked in my direction on a number of occasions but I stayed still and they returned to the same spot on the rocks again and again.

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At times though they were obviously completely relaxed and snoozed.

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I’m pretty sure I said this in my November blog, but watching otter families is one of my absolute favourite pastimes. Yes, I think I enjoy photographing mountain hares more and the resulting pictures of the hares are without a doubt better, but sitting in the company of otters is an absolute joy (in rain, wind, snow or sunshine!). The interactions between family members are lovely. These two spent a lot of time entwined, or with the cub resting its head on mum’s back.

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Otters

The other great thing about this pair is that they were hidden from view of other otter-spotters so we weren’t bothered by anyone else. What was lovely about November was the small number of photographers/tourists on the island, that was not the case in May! Cars crawled along the lochside and whenever I spotted an otter and stopped the car, others would pull in to see what was there. The otters, for the most part, stayed away from the shore, preferring to fish further out and if they needed to land went onto the little islands that appeared at lower tides.

You can’t really blame them… I know of (at least one) photographer who is quite vocal in his opinion that folk shouldn’t go to Mull for otters, but instead should visit the other islands (or rivers) where there are fewer people and plenty of wildlife – the same can (and is) said about the location where I, and many others, photograph mountain hares. I agree completely. However… not everyone has the time to find and then work these other places. I’d love nothing more than to find my own private otter / hare spot as I much prefer having the animals to myself, but with only 6 weeks annual leave, a dog who doesn’t travel, 2 radio shows and other interests, I can’t do it at present. But, believe me, if my plans to relocate North ever come to fruition it is top of my list to find new locations. In the meantime though, if I want to spend time with these animals that I love then I have little choice but to go to the tried and tested places. I do respect the wildlife though and do everything in my power not to stress them unlike some others.

Anyway… back to my week on Mull. Those were the only two occasions where I did much in the way of photography. Tuesday was miserable, heavy rain and strong winds all day so we spent much of it in the car. I did manage a few images though, mostly of the garden birds plus a lamb and skylark.

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Male Siskin

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and finally a strange rainbow over the far bank of the loch which turned everything a little psychedelic!

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I went out early on the Wednesday morning which was lovely. The roads were quiet and the sun was shining. I photographed a male reed bunting singing its heart out, a great northern diver (of which there were many on Mull but mostly distant), a wheatear and common sandpiper

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Great Northern Diver

Male wheatear

Common Sandpiper

and then a white-tail flew down over the loch, it looked as though it was fishing but I don’t think it caught anything. It flew through some trees, presumably to the nest. Then either it, or its mate appeared and also flew down over the loch before returning, flying overhead, then perching in the same trees. Not the same standard of images as those from the boat, but great to get some which didn’t involve baiting.

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I returned to Salen and noticed that the light on the bird feeders was lovely, so spent some time photographing the siskin, goldfinch and greenfinch.

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After our trip out with Mull Charters on the Monday we briefly visited Grass Point. Not a whole lot going on, but nice to see some Highland cows and a chiffchaff.

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After the otter encounter we went to Carsaig, one of my favourite places on Mull. Sadly the feral goats were mostly quite distant although we bumped into one coming towards us on the same narrow path – not sure who was most surprised! I did photograph a one-legged ringed plover. It didn’t seem overly bothered by the lack of an appendage, but did have to hop rather than run.

Feral Goat

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We went to Croggan on the Friday and stopped off at Garmony Point en route where it was almost sunny although there was a storm close by.

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Storm Coming In

At Croggan there were some super-cute young lambs plus lots of little birds including ringed plover, warblers, song thrush and a cuckoo, but I couldn’t find it! Unfortunately the weather closed in around us when we reached the beach and the magnificent views were nowhere to be seen, but I enjoyed watching the plovers as they scuttled along the shore.

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Song Thrush

Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover

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My parents departed on a morning ferry and I stuck around for a few more hours. I watched two fishing otters, neither of which came near land, and walked down to Loch Ba which was beautiful. Lots of cows and a wheatear.

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I had a look for the dippers at Knock Bridge but the water level was so high they’d disappeared. I did spot a black cap, but it was gone before I had the camera ready.

So that’s it. Really wish I’d made it out to Lunga, and that the weather had been a tad better, but it was a lovely relaxing week with some great wildlife encounters.

A return to the red squirrels

Last August I spent a really enjoyable day at Neil McIntryre’s Rothiemurchas Estate red squirrel hide deep in a remnant of the beautiful Caledonian pine forest.  The setting was stunning and the squirrels put on quite a show!

When I returned to the highlands again in March 2018 I made a point of revisiting Neil’s hide.

I arrived a little early as there’d been yet more snow in Tomatin and I was a little worried about the roads.  I therefore wandered down to Loch an Eilein for a few minutes spotting at least five squirrels en route!  The loch looked incredible.  Frozen solid at that end with mist floating across at the treeline and sun beams penetrating the loch.  Wow! Here’s a phone pic which doesn’t really do it justice, but gives an idea:

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Unlike last time, I was sharing the hide with two others, so we all headed up together and got settled in.  Fortunately it’s a big hide and we worked around and with each other.

No purple and pink heather this time around, the foliage was more of an apricot colour, but it looked lovely too.  There was still a light covering of snow on the ground too – not quite as much as I’d have liked but as Neil pointed out, squirrel sightings are fewer when snowy because they stay curled up in their snug dreys.

The squirrels weren’t as active as August, but there were plenty of visits.  The only down-side though was that they primarily collected and cached the nuts, rarely stopping to eat or to take pause. Any broken nuts we put out were snaffled by the birds.  Great morning though!

The vast majority of these images were shot using the Nikon D610 and Tamron 150-600mm lens on beanbag with manual exposure – afterwards I did think I should probably have switched to aperture priority as the light was constantly shifting, but it worked out ok although I was constantly changing my settings.

This tree root with the pine tree in the background was a very photogenic perch.  The first image here is my favourite from the shoot.

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This has to be one of the most distinctive tree stumps!  I’ve seen it in so many images since Neil opened this hide.  You can see why though…

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This was also a very photogenic perch, much utilised by the squirrels this time

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I love the muted colours in those last two images.

This log, with a light covering of snow was a good spot for photographs

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Like last time I tried to take some photographs that showed off the stunning setting

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It was quite tricky on this occasion to photograph much in the way of movement as although the light was lovely at times it wasn’t bright enough for a fast shutter speed.

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I had a go at a backlit image – far from perfect, but for a first attempt I’m relatively pleased.

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I didn’t try for any forward-facing jumping squirrels this time but did try to do some from the side.  However they were slightly out of focus unfortunately – something to try again next time!

So all in all another very enjoyable morning at Neil’s hide.  I do recommend visiting it if you have a spare morning in the Cairngorms. It’s a wonderful setting at all times of the year and watching the squirrels is an enjoyable way to pass the time!

April Mountain Hares

What a difference a few weeks make! It was hard to believe as I walked up the hill in glorious warm sunshine to the mountain hares on Saturday 14 April that 6 weeks earlier I’d struggled with heavy ground snow and blizzard conditions (as described in this blog).

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Although there were a few large patches of snow remaining for the most part it was all gone and the hares, still more white than brown, shone like beacons in the heather. I’d made the mistake of dressing in warm clothing including my thermal waterproof Decathlon trousers and wished I’d brought sunscreen and worn less – even the wind was almost warm.

I drove up from Glasgow on Saturday morning arriving at the hare hill early afternoon. As I trudged up the path regretting my clothing choices and remembering how hard it had been to walk through the deep snow in March, it was lovely to hear the birds (pipits) sing and the grouse call out (because yes it is possible to have grouse and hares on the same moorland without culling!!)

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There were hares everywhere bounding across the heather full of the joys of life – it must be such a relief for them to finally have some decent conditions too.

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I eventually reached the top and spotted quite a few hares close to the path so spent a fair amount of time stalking them. Tricky though – in fact it was tricky all day – it seemed as if Saturday was grazing day. Almost every hare was actively feeding and therefore quite flighty as they were already mobile. I suppose in March, with the freezing, snowy conditions it was more important to conserve body heat than move away from photographers. I soon figured out the distance with which they were comfortable though and did manage a decent number of photographs during the seven hours I spent on the hillside.

There were two lying in the heather right next to the path. One of them was mostly obscured except for its feet which made me chuckle.

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The second hare then presented me with a whole succession of wonderful facial expressions

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Then flopped down close to me for a snooze. Unlike March, it wasn’t curled up in a tight ball, but spread out to benefit from the rays of sunshine. If I’d come across it already like this I think I’d have thought it a dead hare!

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I left her to sleep in peace after a while and pursued other options. All quite challenging and I did a lot more walking than normal when with the hares. Great to watch though! It’s good to see new behaviours and study the animals – it was so interesting to observe how different they were from March – it’s all part of the learning experience for me. They also looked lovely in their part winter/part summer pelage. The ground was covered in clumps of their soft white hairs blowing in the breeze.

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Eventually I decided to head down the hill and see if I could find Rafa. Rather than take the track I crossed to the other side of it and walked over the hill – far further round than I had intended. The advantage of this though was that I came across the herd of feral goats. Two were locking horns whilst the others grazed or sat in the sun.

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I found three hares near a patch of snow at the bottom. One was sitting on the side of the hill on what was the greenest part of the whole mountainside.

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The other two were far more interesting. It was a male and female. The jack jumped the jill (slightly obscured and came as a surprise to me, so no decent images) then sat whilst she rolled in the snow and groomed next to him. She moved up the hill, the male followed and mated with her – she let out a yelp and moved off. Seconds later they were grazing contentedly next to one another. I think it might have been Rafa (the jack) and Ginger (the jill) but can’t say for sure.

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This was an entertaining end to the day. After 4 hours of driving and 7 hours on the slopes I found my hotel and collapsed!

I was back on the hill by 10 the following day and had dressed in slightly lighter clothing which was a blessing as the sun shone again and although there was a much stronger wind it wasn’t cold. Truth be told the walk up the hill into the wind was hard work, my legs really weren’t enthusiastic to do it all again. There was a fair amount of stopping to admire the view and listening to the sounds of spring. Surprisingly I spotted no hares on the way up the path on Sunday, compared to at least a dozen on Saturday, but as soon as I arrived at the top I could see plenty on both sides of the track. There was one a couple of metres off to the right sheltering from the wind so I stuck with it. The hare relocated but, as with the day before, I quickly sussed out how close it would tolerate me, and with a 900mm focal distance on my Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm it wasn’t a problem to stay far back. Unfortunately though this was one of those hares that did very little. The odd stretch or nibble at the grass and that was it. I remained with it figuring that given how much time I’d invested in it already it would have to do something eventually. But after three hours I called time.

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Whilst sitting with this hare I was monitoring the hillside. One of the big differences I noticed at this time of year in comparison with other visits (March, July, August, October) was that the hares were often in pairs, or more. There were groups of 3 or 4 sitting and grazing together all along the edge of the one large area of snow.

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I decided to approach some of these and they gathered in a group of approx 7 animals and that’s where it got interesting. There was a fair bit of chasing and to my delight boxing. One of the hares was the instigator and was chasing the others. The difficulty was that the exposure when they were on the snow was quite different to that on the heather so a few of my photographs where they switched between the two weren’t successful – the problem with manual exposure! Plus, my finger was still in a splint after my March doorbell ringing incident so I had to use a monopod which was difficult to hold steady in the strong breeze. However I do have a few images and it was brilliant to watch. Boxing hares was something I had missed seeing in March due to the conditions.

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This was a good spot for photographs, the snow with the distant hills behind was quite photogenic. The hares liked to run along the snow

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and sit on the skyline.

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I reluctantly called it a day at 4pm knowing that I had to drive back to Glasgow. Still, over the course of the weekend I spent 13 hours on the hillside which is pretty good going and now I know that’s possible I’ll definitely do it again!

A selection of images are available via my website: http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk, if you’re interested in a print or greeting card featuring one not there then please get in touch karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk

Eskrigg Nature Reserve

Red squirrels are one of my favourite animals to watch and photograph. Unfortunately there are none in Glasgow though. You can find them at Aberfoyle, but the hide isn’t great for photography – I took these ones a short distance from the hide in 2016 which was a bit better but I had very limited success.

Argaty Farm, best known for its red kites has been encouraging the squirrels with some success, so that might soon be an option. Of course I love Neil McIntyre‘s Caledonian pine forest setting but it’s a fair distance away (competes with the mountain hares for my time) and is quite pricey even if it’s definitely the most photogenic location I’ve been to.

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However, over the Easter weekend I decided to check out Eskrigg Nature Reserve near Lockerbie. I think I had presumed it was further away than it actually is – 60 miles down the M74. Not the most exciting drive, but very straightforward except for the last bit – the reserve is not signposted until you reach the track to the carpark. Fortunately for quite possibly the first time ever, google maps got me straight there. Basically you turn off the A709 at Vallance Drive (it looks like a regular suburban street) and then take an immediate right down a track, at this point there’s a (not very clear) sign saying that this is the way to the reserve. The track isn’t surfaced, so drive carefully.

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It’s a short walk into the reserve and the red squirrel hide is situated alongside a large pond filled with mallards and mute swans. The mallards were frisky – at one point I witnessed a whole group of males mounting a poor female. Light facing that way was too harsh for decent images though and to be honest my attention was on the squirrels!

The area facing the hide is fairly open although when the sun disappeared behind clouds I did have to push the ISO up and lower the shutter speed. It would definitely be best on sunny days. There are a number of trees and tree stumps. If you sit in the hide some of the more photogenic stumps are obscured by closer trees though as I discovered.

The squirrels were all quite distinctly coloured, I’m not sure exactly how many there were, four or five I think. One was light orange with a white tail, another entirely light orange, one was very dark with an almost black tail and two had some kind of issue with their noses (reported). The light orange squirrel was the most active and super-speedy. One person I spoke to said when she’d visited in the past she’d seen as many as 14 squirrels – pretty impressive!

Here’s a shaky phone video – so hard to keep up with them, but gives an idea of how fast (and close) they were!

 

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Interestingly not only were they still caching nuts, but were also unearthing previously cached ones and eating those.

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After a while though the squirrels all seemed to be heading to the left of the hide and I was struggling to see them, so I moved onto the wooden platform where another woman was throwing down hazelnuts.

This was better as I was lower down and the views were much improved.

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I also had better angles to photograph them sitting in the trees

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I couldn’t believe how fearless the squirrels were, I could quite honestly have reached out and touched them if I’d wanted to. They would come and sit beside me sometimes – so very sweet, but not great when you have a crop frame Nikon D500 with a 300mm F4 lens (focal distance of 450mm) – I really struggled to get the whole squirrel in the frame! I would have been more successful with my full frame Nikon D610 and either 70-200 f2.8 or 100mm macro. I’d also recommend bringing some hazelnuts (they ask that you use unshelled, so get the nutcracker out at home and pre-prepare).

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There were a number of well-stocked feeders at the site which attracted a large variety of birds. All the usual suspects (chaffinch, coal tit, blue tit, great tit, robins, dunnocks) and I spotted a pair of long-tailed tits once at a feeder off to the side. A great spotted woodpecker was in the woods a bit further down and came close for a minute.

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A treecreeper was a regular visitor

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As was this nuthatch, attracted by the suet/lard in the tree.

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Mallards and pheasants appeared below the feeders too.

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One thing I would mention, although I say above that a shorter lens is best for the squirrels, if you want to photograph the birds then bring a longer one too as they are a little bit further away.

So definitely the best location I’ve found that’s easily do-able from Glasgow – I didn’t even explore the rest of the reserve and I would have liked to try and photograph the mallards, but I got so engrossed in the squirrels I ran out of time! It’s also free although donations are encouraged.

This is my favourite image of the day:

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Check out my website for higher-res versions of some of these images.

Cresties

Little did I know when I headed to the Scottish Highlands in early March that I’d spend quite so much time photographing crested tits. When I visited in March 2017 it was considerably milder and although many hours were passed at RSPB Loch Garten the cresties were few and far between (sociable place to hang out though), this year with the snow and cold weather this wasn’t an issue!

Monday was a difficult day. It was supposed to be a full day with the mountain hares but it had snowed heavily since the Sunday and although the main roads were clear I had real trouble finding anywhere I could park the car and was concerned about access to the hares. I visited RSPB Insh Marshes and spent a bit of time in their hides plus walked one of the trails through deep snow. Only photographs I came away with though were sheep!

I then braved the road up to Cairngorm Mountain thinking I could find the snow buntings in the car park, but the drive up was terrifying with snow drifts and the car park didn’t look great for my car, so as soon as I arrived at the top I went straight back down again!

Finally I found myself at Loch Garten. Surprisingly there were no photographers in the car park, nor a bird feeder to be seen – last year this was a hive of activity (even although there were few cresties). I met a woman who told me that all the photographers were gathered on the path up to the visitor centre, but also informed me of a different spot where I could see and photograph the cresties without disturbance from others. I walked past the huddle of men in their camo gear with 500mm F4 lenses and soon found where she was talking about. There were regular visits from a couple of crested tits and although the conditions weren’t great it was lovely to see them and good practice for my official crestie session the following day.

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They seemed to enjoy the fat ball I brought with me too! This one looks really cheery.

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I awoke to yet more snow on Tuesday morning but managed to get the car out the drive and onto the A9 to travel to the Black Isle for a day at the Black Isle Photography Hides crested tit site. I was amazed to discover that as I approached Inverness all the snow completely disappeared – there was none falling or on the ground – just rain. I met James Roddie, one of the two James’ involved in BIPH at Munlochy and followed him up to the site. As we got closer the rain turned back to snow and I thought great! Cresties in snow!

James showed me the perches the birds liked and then took his leave. I got myself set up, but my initial optimism soon disappeared as I realised just how wet the falling snow was. It didn’t take long before my waterproofs were completely drenched and although I stayed dry under them it really was quite miserable. I found myself asking why on earth I was paying to stand outside in such conditions – why didn’t I go somewhere warm and sunny for my holidays??? However… I braved the weather for 4 hours and managed a few images I liked although the ISO was really a bit too high.

These were all taken with the Nikon D500, Tamron 300mm F4, tripod mounted with gimble head. You can tell from these images just how wet it was!

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I did take a few nice shots of other birds visiting the site including a dunnock, robin and coal tit (there were hundreds of coal tits!)

 

I returned to my cottage, changed into dry clothes then scattered some seed on the patio and proceeded to photograph the chaffinches & starlings in the snow from the comfort of the lounge!

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James Moore (the other Black Isle James) was kind enough to offer me a second go with the cresties on the Thursday. And although part of me would have loved to spend the day with the hares, I couldn’t refuse as I really felt I hadn’t achieved what I had set out to.

This was a much better day, weather-wise. Still some snow lying (which was very useful otherwise I’m not sure I’d have found the site again without the footprints) but sunny. Based on my experiences on Tuesday I decided to switch to the Tamron 150-600mm lens and a monopod which made my ability to move about (or swing round) much easier. No sooner had I arrived than I heard a buzzard overhead – looked up and there were three of them. No photos but nice to watch whilst I awaited the arrival of the cresties. It took about half an hour for them to appear, but once they did I had regular visits all day. I felt a bit like the gunner on a fighter plane, swinging the monopod and camera round to try and capture them!  Crested tits don’t tend to hang around for long in one place – easy enough to spot especially as they have a distinctive call, but more often than not by the time you get the camera to that spot the bird has disappeared! But this was my 3rd day of cresties that week and I had had a lot of practice so had a fairly high success rate.  One advantage of the tamron lens (with a max focal distance of 900mm on the D500) was that I didn’t have to physically move much (other than spinning round) as I could zoom in from quite a distance.

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I’ve seen many images of crested tits taken at this site and others where the bird is perched on a photogenic bare branch with attached pine cones. They look great & I’d be delighted to have a few like that, but I couldn’t see any of these branches (and if any were lying on the ground they were under the snow) and, also I quite fancied doing something a little different. I decided to use the branches and pine needles to frame the cresties – adding a completely natural soft green vignette to the images. I was relatively pleased with the results.

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I put a lump of suet-ball in the v of a tree stump. All the birds loved this, including one of the crested tits (the other preferred the peanuts).

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One of the two cresties was having a bad hair day (as you can see from some of the images above). This final image of the bird has quite possibly been my most successful post on twitter!

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James told me on Tuesday that there had been regular visits from long-tailed tits. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I was possibly a little more excited by that news, than the opportunity to photograph the crested tits! I realise for many people these gorgeous little birds are regular garden visitors, but I’ve only ever had one in my garden a couple of times at the tail end of spring 2017 (and for about a second a week or so ago), and I’ve tried everything to encourage them to visit! Sadly on the Tuesday what with the dismal weather, they didn’t bother to show up, but on Thursday, pretty much every time I decided to take a time-out and have a sit down or snack, a pair would magically appear at the feeders/fatball. I’d therefore have to throw down whatever I was eating and try for a few images before they disappeared again.  These birds stay still for even less time than the cresties so shots away from feeders are really tricky to achieve!

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I also spotted a couple of treecreepers.

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and at least two robins.

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My favourite series of image of the day were actually of one of the long-tailed tits. I’d like to say I intentionally composed this so that the background would mirror the colours of the bird, but that would be a lie! Very pleased with these though!

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Thanks to James and James for having me back for a second, far more enjoyable day. If you are looking for a lovely, natural setting to photograph crested tits over the winter months, then do check out Black Isle Photography Hides.

A selection of these images are available to purchase via my website. If you’d like one that isn’t there please get in touch and I can sort for you.

March (2018) Mountain Hares

Readers of this blog or followers on my social media accounts will be aware how much I love spending quality time with mountain hares. The setting is stunning (especially this year when coated in a thick blanket of snow) and it’s wonderful just to sit with a hare as time passes by – even when the hare does little more than twitch and do a half-hearted groom in 3 hours whilst we survive a blizzard and biting cold winds together!

I booked this year’s March trip back in August and had been counting down the months and days ever since. In recent months I’ve bored friends and colleagues with my worry that there’d be no snow (hard to believe now!). It has seemed to me this winter that every single UK wildlife photographer (and all their friends) have been photographing the hares, probably due to the aforementioned snow. So I was a little concerned that I’d be fighting for a spot in the car park and on the hills. For me, one of the joys of the hares is sitting alone on the mountainside, just me and the hare as one. I do worry that the “hare hill” might turn into another Chanonry Point with photographers jostling for a good spot, getting too close to the animals and causing unnecessary stress. I suppose all the people keep the raptors away, but still…

Initially I thought my holiday was jinxed. First my dog sitter cancelled due to illness, then the “Beast from the East” struck Central Scotland. Glasgow was shut for 3 days – we were told not to travel into work (a first) – my car was parked on untreated roads, would I be able to move it? My parents kindly agreed to take Murphy (the dog), but although the “beast” was a bit late arriving in East Lothian, their village was snowed in by Friday and inaccessible…. So I spent a frantic hour or two on Friday trying to find new dog sitters. Fortunately I came across Dog Buddy and found Corey who was free, so on Saturday morning Murphy was dropped off with complete strangers – it worked out though! I wanted snow, I got snow!

My drive up was without incident and I had a lovely walk around Loch An Eilein to stretch my legs. The snow was falling and it all looked very pretty.

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However… when I arrived at my cottage in Tomatin (3rd stay there, it’s lovely), I rang my host’s doorbell and my middle right finger went wonky.

Transpired I’d damaged the tendon and so spent Sunday morning at A&E in Inverness to have a splint fitted. Fortunately, it didn’t hurt and as I’m left-handed it was less of an inconvenience as it might otherwise have been. I was initially concerned I’d be unable to operate my camera with a heavy lens, but although hand-holding wasn’t really an option my monopod made it easier. I do have to wear a splint for 6-8 weeks though…

Sunday afternoon I made it to the hares. As I only had a few hours, and because there was plenty of snow, I stayed on the lower slopes where I soon found a wonderful hare which was quite content for me to hang out with.

(I took all my mountain hare images on this trip with the Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm lens which gave me a maximum focal distance of 900mm meaning I never had to get too close to the hares. Now, it is possible with some of the animals here to be considerably closer than that, but I’d rather give them as much space as possible to avoid any unnecessary stress.)

This was a brilliant hare, and we were to spend a lot of time together during my week. It was still in its winter pelage with little brown marks above its eyes. On that first afternoon I took some of my favourite photographs as it groomed & grazed…

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and stretched its legs.

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I also took my favourite paw image that afternoon, and it was after posting this photograph on social media that I named the hare “Rafa” – see if you can work out why!

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It was fairly heavy snow on the hillside and I was quite glad to be on the lower slopes.

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A feral goat started bleating loudly down by the woods which caught my attention. On looking more closely I noticed another hare at the edge of the trees grazing (it’s quite small on the left-hand side of the second photo below).

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I parted company with Rafa and moved slowly down the slope so as not to spook the hare and spent some time photographing it, pleased to have a subject in slightly different surroundings. Suddenly there was a flash of orange in my viewfinder, I was so surprised I forgot to press the shutter – it was a red squirrel! It would have been fab to have an image of both together, but I only managed this one in focus picture of the squirrel just before it darted up a tree.

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After this I called it a day, but did grab one quick shot of a feral goat kid, of which there were quite a number.

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When I opened the curtains on Monday morning I was quite relieved I’d visited the hares the day before as I was greeted with deep snow which was still falling. It continued until Wednesday morning, and although I managed out and about on both Monday and Tuesday the road to the hares was frustratingly not an option.

Wednesday afternoon though, after a morning in Neil McIntyre‘s red squirrel hide I decided it was time to stand up to the weather and I tentatively drove along the single-track road hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction as all the passing places looked inaccessible without a 4×4 and / or winter tyres. I made it without incident but as there was really only a couple of hours of light left I stuck to the lower slopes again. There were quite a few cars in the car park but I had this area to myself (how I like it) and it didn’t take long to spot Rafa who was sitting in pretty much the same place as before – such a beautiful hare!

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I was treated to some more grooming. In order to wash, the hares wet their front paw and use it to clean their bodies as can be seen in this series of images.

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Rafa then had a yawn and lolloped off.

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There was another hare sheltering in a snow hole (I think this is Ginger who I spent more time with on Friday). So I took a few photographs of it and then headed home.

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Friday was my only full day with the hares which was a shame, but I made the most of it arriving at the site early and staying until the sun went down. A hare ran past behind me, and then there was another sitting right at the side of the track only feet away which had a great face.

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Although it started off as a beautiful morning by the time I’d climbed the hill (hard work in deep snow), catching up with Andy Howard, as he was also heading up with a client, the blue sky disappeared, replaced by a white-out. Andy went off to see if he could find Mrs Grey and I located a hare hunkered down a little further on. I settled down and for the next three hours during which time a snow storm passed through I sat with this hare as it did almost nothing at all. It was freezing! I don’t blame the hare for its inactivity, the wind was bitter and visibility reduced to almost nothing. No hares were moving at this time. The sun eventually reappeared and the hare did a half-hearted groom and a bit of snacking then moved down the slope a little to feed some more.

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I decided to go and look for a more active hare and spotted three a little further up, but they were quite skittish. I photographed a few from a distance – it’s always nice to get some wide-angle shots especially when the hills looked so stunning.

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I found a couple more hares and took one of my favourite images from the week

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At this point I decided to go back down the hill and check in with Rafa. Not long after I’d got myself settled I heard a noise – it was 2 men on snow mobiles who zoomed down the hill close-by. Knowing this would upset Rafa I was ready for some running shots. Fortunately he didn’t go very far and I followed him up a slope and discovered he was with a second hare (known as Ginger apparently). So I spent the last couple of hours of daylight, when there was some great light with these two animals. Here’s Rafa

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…and Ginger

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As the light fell I spotted an opportunity for a back-lit image of Ginger

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Saturday morning before returning to Glasgow I had one final visit to Rafa. The weather was horrible though, blizzard conditions. I sat facing Rafa, which meant facing into the snow – very unpleasant! Rafa did absolutely nothing and my camera lens kept getting snowy, so I walked down to the woods and tried to photograph a feral goat with the most brilliant face. I failed though as it went too deep into the woods. I returned to Rafa for another half and hour or so, still nothing, and called it a day.

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So… brilliant to spend time with the hares again, especially Rafa. The enjoyment I get from being with them is unabated, and I soon forget the freezing conditions and difficult walking as I look back on my experiences. It is such a privilege to spend time with these hardy animals. It was disappointing not to see any boxing, chasing or rolling in the snow this time around, but I traded that for the stunning snowy hillsides, so I can’t really complain.

I hope to be back up for a quick visit in April and am already looking forward to that!

A selection of my new winter hare images are available for purchase via my website.  If you’d like one you don’t see there please get in touch and I’ll add.  Greeting cards also available by request.

Fossorial Water Voles

Water Voles (Arvicola amphibius) are one of those creatures I’ve been keen to see and photograph for some time.  Images of them sitting on river banks munching on grasses are adorable.  However they have been in serious decline for many years due partly to changes in agricultural methods and the removal of many of the habitats they would frequent and also the introduction of the American mink which is not only semi-aquatic, but is also small enough to access their burrows and kill the voles.  I do know a few locations in Glasgow where the “Riparian water voles” can be located, but I’ve only ever spotted one briefly when out walking the dog (who was quite taken aback at my sudden excitement!). It might of course have been a brown rat swimming across the pond, but I’m sticking to my belief it was a water vole!  Admittedly though, I haven’t made much effort to check these locations out as yet, but it’s on the to do list in the spring/summer when they are more likely to be seen above ground.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I was told of a successful colony of water voles not on a riverbank, but in a small park in a fairly depressed area of the city!  Hard to believe.  These voles, known as “fossorial water voles” do not live beside water but have their burrows in areas of the park which are kept unmown to protect the fragile habitat and infrastructure.  The locals are apparently quite proud and protective of their “rats”.  They were discovered about a decade ago when one was found in a rat trap.  The council have been pretty good at protecting them during a period when this area has been going through a lot of regeneration which is good.  Fossorial water voles are  uncommon in the UK but Glasgow has a few pockets of them in one specific area although I have read that they are more prevalent in Europe.  In some ways water voles are more suited to life away from water as they don’t have webbed feet, not are their coats particularly water proof.  No idea why these voles are mostly black though.  It’s great to have a water vole success story mind you, and almost on my doorstep.

Obviously within days of being told of their existence last April I took advantage of an afternoon off and went to investigate.  It did feel ever-so-slightly surreal walking round the small park with my camera gear as folk walked their dogs or took a lunchtime stroll.  A few did approach me wondering what I was doing or offering advice on where to look but everyone was friendly.

The voles are in a number of areas of the park, obvious by the fact the grass is uncut and they are riddled with burrows.  Interestingly there are no signs up asking people to stay off these areas (so as not to destroy the burrows) and I did see a couple with their dog stomping over it.  I stayed on the outskirts so as not to damage the burrows, looking for signs of life but it took a while to get my eye in.  Eventually I started to spot things moving that weren’t the local jackdaws, flashes of black in the grass.  On closer inspection these were the voles which are mostly very dark in colour.  They’d pop out, munch some grass then disappear again.

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Even although I was now seeing the voles, photographing them proved challenging primarily because of the grass.  The ground is uneven and the voles, who often only came part way out of their burrow to allow for a quick exit if required, were almost always at least partly obscured by blades of grass.  It’s also not the most picturesque of settings. Eventually however I found this one.  It sat on some open ground for ages facing towards me as it fed.  Brilliant, and still my favourite photograph of these animals.  Unfortunately a dog came over and the vole disappeared – the problem with parks!

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Still, it was a good start.  I planned to return as soon as possible, but never quite found the time. I did pop along during the summer, only to quickly realise that the now long grass made it impossible to spot the little voles at all.

Finally I made it back in January.   Again, like the first time it took me a while to spot the water voles.  I stood at the back of one of their areas, away from the public path, but did feel quite self-conscious.  After 30 minutes or so I saw one pop up and headed round the edge towards it… but it vanished.  Another one caught my eye, but was gone by the time I was within a decent distance of it for a 900mm focal length.  Oh so frustrating, but I have patience.  Finally one appeared and stayed visible.  I edged a little closer and slowly sat down to watch and wait for some clear shots.  Before long a second one appeared, and then when I turned to my side, a third!  Clear shots were still difficult though.  I had to delete the majority of pictures because of the grass.  Again, the ground wasn’t particularly photogenic, half dead grass at this time of year and a fair bit of refuse, nothing like those picturesque river shots…  Being low down did allow for a shallow depth of field to soften these, but the grass was an issue and I couldn’t exactly pop over and give it a trim!

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These initial voles eventually headed back to their burrows and I stood up to move closer to some others I’d seen a little further along.  This time I stayed standing to see if that was more successful, much as I do prefer to be eye-level.  Grass wasn’t quite such a problem – except for one annoying blade obscuring bits of the one eating facing towards me, but depth of field here meant more of the ugly stuff was in focus.

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I confess the photoshop spot healing brush helped cut the grass in this image!

Sometimes I’d see the ground move, but no vole appear, obviously one moving about just under the surface. Suddenly one popped its head out a burrow right in front of me, really close!  It sat there and looked around, including directly at me for a minute or so.  Fortunately it was just far enough away for me to focus on.  Great to see one so close though, and it really was quite adorable, almost like a little cat with its whiskers. Sadly it never turned fully towards me and I didn’t want to move and spook it.

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I also finally saw a brown one, which was a beautiful chestnut colour.  And then there were three brown voles, one peaking its head out a pile of dead grass for a second.

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It’s quite an experience being amongst these water voles, who are just going about their business within a stones throw of park users and a whole lot of dogs.  For an animal so endangered in the UK, to see so many in one place, obviously surviving and thriving is brilliant and a real privilege.

This is only the beginning where the voles are concerned.  I intend to spend much more time with them over the next few months and then hopefully move on to the water ones.  I haven’t really mastered the art of photographing them, and need to try and find a way to get low down and take clean shots. Exposure was a little dodgy too as they are so black.  So I’ll be back as soon as I have a free afternoon.  Truth be told they don’t do a whole lot, but it’s lovely just to sit with them as they munch away happily, and who knows, if I spend enough time with them I may see some more interesting behaviour.

 

Photographing my Feathered Friends

I’m lucky to have a lovely little 1930s mid-terrace house in a hidden neighbourhood in Glasgow which comes with a relatively small (made smaller by a huge garage full of junk) garden.  When I moved in I rarely saw any birds other than the odd blue tit or robin but over the years I’ve worked hard on attracting them and in 2017 regularly had goldfinch, siskin, house sparrows, starlings, robins, blue tits, great tits, dunnocks, wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies, feral pigeons and rarer visits from wrens, blackbirds, chiffchaff, bullfinch and a brief few days of long-tailed tits.  I eat my breakfast looking out over the garden most days and it’s a joy to watch the birds squabbling over the sunflower hearts.

However, photographing the birds has proved more problematic.  The neighbourhood is full of cats – both my next door neighbours have two apiece.  And although they don’t venture into my garden too often, they might change their habits if I started putting out photogenic ground level feeding/drinking/bathing/perching areas.  And of course there’s Murphy, my hound.  He loves bird food (well, any food, actually).  So again, nothing can be where he can access.  All my flower/vegetable beds are surrounded by horrible fencing to prevent him stomping all over them, not that that stops him!  My kitchen/diner windows are original and not only a little on the dirty side at times but glass that my camera can’t cope with, and they are nailed shut due to a security conscious previous owner which is a shame as it would be a great place to sit with my tripod.

I have however managed to photograph a few of the birds perched on top of my feeding stand:

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…and some in the tangle of rose/clematis and other shrubs at one side

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Juvenile house sparrows
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punk-rockin’ blue tit
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Long-tailed tit –  I was SO excited to see this!
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Chiff chaff

…on the fence:

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Male blackbird
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Juvenile jackdaw

…and this, a mobile phone picture, out my kitchen window of the goldfinch sitting on the telephone wires which became an album cover for the Peter Bruntnell Trio.

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So… I’m going to try and figure something out this year, but last year I resorted to hanging out of my bedroom window photographing the birds in my next door neighbour’s cherry tree – not sure what all the passers-by made of this, but I was able to take some lovely images!

In winter/early spring before the leaves and blossom appear, it was fairly straightforward to locate the birds in the tree.  I tended to use my Nikon crop-frame camera with the Tamron 150-600mm, allowing a focal length of 900mm, perfect for these little birds, mounted on my tripod with gimble head and often cable release.

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…and one slightly “arty” shot

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However it was a tad trickier once the leaves and blossom appeared, although it was definitely more photogenic  – I’d spot a bird but couldn’t find it through the viewfinder and the bird had often descended to the feeder before I located the spot.

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Love this blue tit!

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One bird I was really keen to photograph with the new leaves was the male bullfinch.  The orange of its breast feathers matched that of the unfurling leaves.  This took bucket loads of patience and frustration.  Mad dashes upstairs to the window whenever I spotted it often resulted in failure (Murphy thought I was quite crazy), or not quite the image I was looking for.

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Missed the tree completely!
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Colours right, but telephone wire wrong
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The blurry leaves at the fore-front ruin this shot and not enough orange
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Not enough orange and the blurry pink are the problems here although I like the expression

but finally!  I succeeded.  My most satisfying image of 2017.

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So I’ve done okay in 2017, and hopefully I can do something to make the garden work better for me this year – especially as the cherry tree has been cut right back and probably won’t bloom in 2018.  I’ll keep you updated!

Rabbit with Feather – How I Got The Shot

Little did I know when I popped down to my local Glasgow park to try out my new Tamron 150-600mm lens in late June 2016 that I’d take my most popular photograph – a rabbit with feather in its mouth!

I bought the Tamron lens (the older version without image stabilisation – Tamron SP AF150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD Lens for Nikon Camera) because I was about to attend Laurie Campbell’s photography masterclass at Aigas, and my longest lens had been a 300mm F4 prime.  However I wanted a chance to try it out beforehand.  Sometimes everything comes together by chance.  It was a rare gorgeous balmy evening in Glasgow and Murphy (the dog) wasn’t enthusiastic about walking.  I therefore left him at home and took the new lens, paired with my Nikon D610 for a walk instead!

Truth be told I had planned to photograph the grey squirrels and had taken a pocketful of nuts with me, but this proved mostly unsuccessful, partly because the pigeons would steal the nuts and secondly the squirrels kept coming too close to focus on!  The problem with such a long lens…

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I found a spot in the park where there is a raised stone platform – no idea what it once was – but it meant I could take photographs at eye level without lying down (always a benefit where there are so many nosey dogs around).  I noticed movement in the bushes behind and spotted a couple of rabbits eating daisies.

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They didn’t seem too fazed by my presence, probably because they could easily dive back into the bushes if spooked so I turned my attention to them.

There were a couple on the stone platform, but it wasn’t particularly photogenic, however it was a good chance to try the lens at different settings and I photographed this one grooming.

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One of the rabbits, for no obvious reason, picked up a white feather.  I know a lot of photographers will put down items as possible props, but I didn’t! This feather was just lying there and piqued the rabbit’s interest.

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After taking these photographs the rabbit turned to face me and I took the portrait that has proved so popular.  This is the uncropped version.

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It is, without a doubt one of my favourite pictures, there’s something quite endearing about the expression.  I did however print it A3 and it was a little scary quite so large!!

Here’s the crop I usually post.

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BBC Earth picked up on it on twitter and used it for a caption competition. A few of the responses were…

Tufty stared down the nervous Chicken gang. Eyeing possible exits from the alley he idly swung his nunchucks and spat what was left of Cogburn onto the road. “Time to dance” he said.

Rabid dove killer caught on camera near North Leigh.

Honestly it’s not what you think!

‘Just trying to feather my nest!’

It finally happen… Bugs flipped and ate Daffy

When does the Christmas party start ? I’m spitting feathers !!

“In my defence, that bird had it coming.”

Oh, you said try the ‘heather!!’

“Well, they did say shake a tail feather!”

Oh, and I still use this Tamron lens for much of my wildlife photography – paired with the crop-frame Nikon D500 it gives me a focal distance up to 900mm.  If you’re looking for a long lens then, although the newer version, and the Sigma equivalents, have had great reviews, this is cheaper and a great option.

Prints or greeting cards available for all these images (and more!) via my website, or just email me directly.

 

The Lammermuirs – Snow, Red Grouse and the Elusive Mountain Hares

I awoke on Boxing Day in East Lothian to the sight of what was possibly snow or frost on the Lammermuirs. 24 hours of heavy rain had obviously turned into the white stuff on higher levels.  So it was a no-brainer to head to the hills in search of red grouse and mountain hares.

The hare population on the Lammermuirs has been decimated by estates protecting their grouse (according to the One Kind website, RSPB Scotland received evidence that between 1500 and 1700 mountain hares were shot by landowners across the Lammermuirs in the spring of 2014) and I knew before I set out that the chance of finding any mountain hares as happy to let me close as those I normally photograph was extremely low – however, just to see the hares would be great!!

To my delight the moors were covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow.  I photographed some red grouse from the car then my Dad and I went a walk round a hill where the only tracks were of wild animals (and sheep).

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A red grouse sat close to the car and unusually didn’t fly off as I walked past, so I took a few more images and was able to get down lower than I would from the car.

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The hills looked gorgeous with tree branches hanging low from the weight of the snow and views over to the equally white Pentlands in the distance.  Grouse flew up around us, but there was no sign of physical hares.  Stunning though.

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After posting a red grouse photograph on Twitter and mentioning the lack of hares someone kindly got back to me and offered to give me a good location to spot them.  Unfortunately this didn’t arrive until too late for my second day.  My parents suggested a spot on a road where they have seen dead hares.  My Dad and I duly set out but again hundreds of tracks but not a hare in sight, not even running in the distance.  They were obviously close by but hunkering down.  The ground was covered not only in snow but also in long grasses that folded down to create dry, sheltered tunnels and there were lots of old burrows too, so plenty of places for hares to remain out of sight.  We stayed on the path. A few more red grouse images were all I managed from the car on the way home.

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It transpired that the area recommended to me was exactly where I’d been the day before, just further on.  So on the third day my Dad took on dog walking duties and I headed out alone for one last try, jokingly remarking that I wasn’t coming back until I’d seen a mountain hare!  I walked up to the location keeping my eyes peeled, but surprise surprise nothing.  I stopped a couple of times in sheltered shooting bays and scanned the hills for 30 minutes or so each time – still nothing!  These hares are completely different from those I photograph in the Scottish Highlands which although in their forms are moving about and far more visible.   I comforted myself with the fact that this was a good test run for my March Highland trip – my new boots were both cosy and comfy and I was pretty much snug in my winter clothes.  So all good on that front.

On the way back I stopped at an area that had attracted my attention, a stream in a gully with running water and sheltered banks covered in long grass and high heather.  There had to be hares here, it was perfect!  Sitting and waiting hadn’t worked before so I adopted a new technique – wander through the gully (and heavy snow) and see if I disturbed any hares and… it worked!  One dashed out from under me and sped away.  I didn’t have my camera out, but at least I now knew I’d found a good location!  Camera in hand and bag stowed I tried again and dislodged another couple managing a few shots of them running away and sitting in the distance.

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I tried sitting again and looking for them in the grasses, but other than a group of grouse flying over my head so close that had I not had 2 hats on I’d have felt the breeze from their wings, no sign of hares.   Finally after I’d moved on slightly I spotted one still semi-hidden and took about 3 photos quickly before it too ran off.

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That was it.  Obviously nothing like my highland hares, but I’d never expected anything like those experiences.  It would probably be easier to spot them in the winter when there was no snow, but I’d be very surprised if any sat and groomed etc whilst I watched on.   I was pleased mind you – I hate to be defeated and I did what I had set out to do.  I’m also delighted that there are still some hares left on the Lammermuirs!