October Mountain Hares

I was given the opportunity to spend a few days working in Aberdeen, so used that as a great excuse to spend the earlier part of the week back in the Scottish Highlands to visit my favourite furry friends, the mountain hares.   On my last visit to the Highlands in October, back in 2016, the weather was glorious.  I stayed in the Aigas Illicit Still cabin and it was really quite idyllic.    This time, no such luck – wind and rain were the order of the day which wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t let it stop me getting up to the hares as often as possible.

Mountain hares are incredible creatures who brave all that the British weather can throw at them, sheltering not in warm burrows like rabbits, but by digging out holes in the snow, or finding indents in the ground in which to spend their days.  I have so much respect for them, especially in winter as I sit huddled in many layers still feeling the cold and they hunker down with only their fur to insulate them.  Respect!  They do no one any harm and are a joy to watch – their facial expressions are wonderful.  It angers/pains me that these creatures are shot to protect an industry that involves shooting other animals for sport and hopefully at some point in the not too distant future they will be given the protection that they deserve.  On the positive side, the estate I, and many others, photograph the hares on does not cull them and in fact encourages wildlife and should therefore be commended.

I probably wrote this in my July blog, but if you missed that, I’ll say it again, both locating hares in the first place and then finding one that will allow you to get reasonably close outwith the cold winter season (bearing in mind I have a 900mm max focal distance) isn’t easy.  They are both more mobile (so flighty) and also well camouflaged.  Obviously if you’re up there every day, or regularly, you figure out where to find individuals which helps, but the first day or two can be a challenge.  You can’t creep up on a hare, they have almost 360 degree vision, so it’s a case of locating one who is already settled and approaching slowly. After that it’s a case of sussing out the average distance at which the hares are comfortable and not pushing it.  However, I like a challenge and I love the hares, so none of this stops me! What I hate is the walk up the hill.  I really do need to work on my fitness!

I arrived at the hare hill early Saturday afternoon after the drive up from Glasgow.  Although a relatively sunny day with the odd shower, the light was really tricky.  At this time of year the sun lies low over the crest of the hill where the hares hang out.  This means that looking up the hill (the best angle from which to locate hunkering hares) is nigh on impossible as you’re blinded by the glare.   So I walked further up, avoiding the cluster of three photographers who obviously had found an obliging animal.   For some reason the higher hares always seem to be the most active, and suddenly I saw one leap dramatically into the air, really high!  Over far too quickly to photograph, but great to see.  Then, to my surprise it had a brief box with another hare – they aren’t supposed to do that at this time of year! – I managed to photograph that as they were on the horizon and therefore worked as silhouettes, I would have liked a bit of back light, but you can’t have everything!

The other one then demonstrated that it could leap just as high in the air as the first and ran off down the hill.  I followed and managed another silhouetted image which I quite like.

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I did find one semi-obliging hare during the afternoon which was one of the whitest I saw during my days on the hillside.  Frustratingly it eventually chose to sit with a few long strands of grass in front of it which was a shame as it had a lovely face, and kept twitching its nose which was enjoyable to watch, but reading the signs I was pretty sure if I attempted to shift position it would run off.

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The forecast for Sunday was for very strong winds, but it’s the only day of the week you’re permitted on the estate before 11am so I drove along for 9am where I discovered that yes, the winds really were very strong!  As I walked along the initial level track I was lost in thought trying to decide what I should do, as walking up the hill against the wind was less than appealing.  I therefore paid very little attention to a squealing noise until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something brown being flung up in the air.  Transpired it was a rabbit being attacked by a stoat.  Unfortunately for all concerned, at this point the stoat clocked me and ran off for the shelter of a nearby wall, stopping for a few seconds to look back, which I managed to photograph.  If I’d been more observant I’m pretty sure I could have stayed put down wind and captured the action on camera, but as it was we were all losers – no photos, dead rabbit and hungry stoat.  I did sit downwind for a bit waiting to see if the stoat would return but it didn’t and in fact hadn’t even when I passed on my way back to the car.

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I decided to try walking up the path on the other side of the river, but seeing no hares crossed back over and traversed round the side of the lower hill on the left. No hares here either, and quite hard going in the wind especially as I clambered up quite high through the heather.  I did find the feral goats grazing amongst some gorse bushes (no photos) but other than blistering my big toe I came away with very little.  On the walk back to the car I saw a few crossbills, but I couldn’t hold the camera steady enough in the wind to photograph them.

It was still early and I was reluctant to waste the rest of the day, wind or no wind, so I drove down to RSPB Loch Garten in the hope of seeing the crested tits.  There were few people about up near the visitor centre and hundreds of chaffinches…

 

also coal tits plus a few blue and great tits and a number of great spotted woodpeckers.

I love watching little birds and even although the cresties were few and far between I spent an enjoyable afternoon there just sitting observing.  Can’t say I came away with any good crestie images, this was about the best it got.  But it’s not all about photographs.

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Monday although heavy rain was forecast the wind was a bit less blowy so I was back up the hill at 11.   Truth be told I found the walk up really hard work, my legs felt a bit lifeless and my big toe hurt, but I eventually made it.   There was one other photographer who had bounded up ahead of me and he was already settled with a hare, so I went up to the right of him and soon spotted a hare hunkered down above me.  I dumped my bag by a shooting butt, and slowly edged closer.   Hunkered hares tend to be the easiest to approach as they are quite settled, but you still need to move carefully so as not to startle, and also keep an eye on the animal to see how it’s reacting, pausing if it begins to look a little wary. Patience is the key in situations like this.

The hare reacted well to my appearance though and I got within a reasonable working distance.  I tend to spend as much time as I can with one animal as it’s then possible to witness a wide variety of behaviours.  This hare wasn’t the most active mind you.  It sat for a long time treating me to a few different facial expressions and just shifting position ever-so-slightly.  It’s never until I look back at photographs of situations like this that I realise how many expressions I captured on camera, which always make me smile!  I had a hare, I was in my favourite place, and I was happy!

It eventually had a mini-groom and nibbled at the heather before moving up the hill slightly, looking about, then bounding off to pastures new, so I did the same.

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I then wandered up to the left and saw a couple of hares grazing close to one another.  There was no way I’d get close to these two, so I settled down at a comfortable distance to see what they got up to.  One treated me to the most wonderful grooming session, with some gorgeous poses that make me smile whenever I look at them.  This is where it pays to familiarise yourself with hare behaviour, if I’d tried to get closer to it, this hare would have scarpered, and I’d have missed these photographs.

[BBC Earth used this a similar grid of these photographs for a post]

The rain was coming down quite heavily by now and due to the wind, almost horizontal.  I took a time-out and the other photographer on the hill came over to say hello.  It was Kevin Morgans, who takes some brilliant photographs, so nice to meet him.  He asked if I wanted to join him at a confiding hare, the one I’d spotted him with when I arrived.  We are pretty sure this was the female known as “Mrs Grey” because she was completely unphased by our appearance.  She’s the hare that always delivers, so it was good to know where her current form was.

Both Kevin and I were keen to try and photograph a hare shaking the rain water off and given that it was now pretty wet had hopes we might be able to achieve that.  Sadly we never quite got it.  This was the closest I got.

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She did however treat us to some other lovely behaviours though…

 

We then moved on, hoping to find other hares with a more photogenic backdrop, but struggled to get close to any.  The light was constantly changing, one moment it was sunny then overcast, often with the driving rain.  At one point a rainbow appeared but I wasn’t able to get a decent shot featuring it and a hare.

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I photographed one hare which briefly allowed us to approach. You can see the rain coming down in this image.

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As the light began to fail again we decided to return to Mrs Grey before heading back down the hill.  Good decision, these are my favourite photographs of the week. Initially it didn’t look good as she was eating long grass, although it was interesting watching as the blades disappeared into her mouth.

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But then she moved and started nibbling at the heather, which in this spot was still flowering.  Lovely!!

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A few minutes later she moved back to a less photogenic spot and we called it a day.  Without a doubt, the best of my trips up the hill on this visit.

Tuesday was wet, very wet.  I wanted to go to the hares and maybe get the elusive shaking shot, but my legs told me in no uncertain terms that they were NOT walking up the hill that day, so I gave them the day off and drove up to Rogie Falls which aside from being a very pretty location is also a good spot for jumping salmon.  To be honest, much as I enjoy watching the fish attempting to scale the falls and the challenge of trying to photograph them, I don’t find the actual images hugely exciting, or emotive – the visual experience is far more emotive than the photographs.  But… given the weather it seemed like a good thing to do.  Unfortunately there was so much water coming over the falls there was absolutely no way any fish were going to make it up, and I only saw three attempts in an hour or so.  However, it really was quite mesmeric watching and listening to the water tumble over the rocks so I stood watching for quite some time.  There was a lone dipper trying to work the river, but it soon moved downstream.   Eventually I returned to the car and switched camera and lens with plans to try and take a few photographs of the amazing colours.  I’m no landscape or macro photographer, but these should give an idea of how pretty it was.

I had to drive to Aberdeen on Wednesday, but it was sunny and almost warm, so I decided to make one last trip up the hare hill.  I found the walk up much less strenuous, so the day off was probably a good idea!  The carpark was full of birders, apparently there was a peregrine falcon hugging one of the hillsides, and I heard mention of a white-tailed sea eagle, but by the time I was ready to  have a look I just caught a brief glimpse of one of them before it disappeared and I headed up the hill which I had to myself for the day.

I made a bee-line for Mrs Grey who was sitting in her usual spot.  We spent an hour or so together.  She had a short groom and then hunkered down, none of which was in a photogenic spot.  The 3rd of these images really shows just how massive and powerful their hind legs are!

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The advantage of repeated visits to the hares is that you begin to figure out where to find individuals as they do tend to have their favourite forms.  So I went to see if the first hare I’d photographed on Monday was in the same place, it was.  Again, not exactly active, but after a short groom it had a brief snooze and then treated me to a full on yawn, sadly I was side on, but still…

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Once it settled back down again, I returned to Mrs Grey who immediately treated me to a full groom – she really looked as though she was enjoying it!

This first picture shows how the hares clean themselves.  They wet their hind paw and use that to clean their fur and behind their ears.

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I think this was the first time I’ve seen a hare sitting in this way whilst grooming, with all four paws in front. Looks quite sweet especially in number 5 below!

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She settled down after this, so I decided to see if I could find one more hare before I had to head for Aberdeen.  As luck would have it I spotted this leveret (my first of the year!) and edged closer.  It sat in one position staring back at me for about 20 minutes and then decided enough was enough and disappeared off.

Mountain Hare Leveret (Lepus Timidus)

And that was it, I had to go.  Slightly traumatic drive back along the road though as I met a bus on one of the worst stretches and the driver, even with 2 visible passing places behind him, of which one was definitely big enough for the both of us, refused to budge, so I had to reverse a long way with the sun blinding me out the back.  Horrible!  So I took as long as I could just to annoy him, not that it worked, he just gave me a smug smirk as he drove past.  But, aside from that, it was another lovely day with the hares and it was sad to say good bye to them again.   Maybe I’ll be back later this year, but if not, I’ll definitely be there in Feb.

 

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 hide, now booked by James Roddie.

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.

Red Squirrels and Stunning Purple Heather

On my recent visit to the Scottish Highlands I decided to concentrate on just a handful of species – mountain hares, red grouse, dolphins, wood ants (with limited success, they move too fast and I’m not great at macro – fascinating to watch though!), red squirrels and possibly crested tits.

My preference is always to find animals completely in the wild – that’s why I love the hares so much.  There’s no baiting, no hide, just me and the hare sharing a hillside. However, having said that, when it comes to red squirrels, achieving decent photographs without the liberal use of hazelnuts isn’t easy.  I’ve tried a few times up in the Queen Elizabeth Forest near Aberfoyle, but have had limited results, so I decided to book a session in Neil McIntyre‘s hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate.  I have a copy of Neil’s wonderful book “The Red Squirrel: A Future in the Forest” and love the images.  Neil’s spent 30 years photographing the red squirrels and his intimate knowledge of the subjects has produced some fabulous photographs.  I figured therefore that he’d know just how to set up a photographic hide to showcase these little mammals at their finest.

I wasn’t disappointed.  The hide is set deep in the Caledonian Pine Forest and is a completely natural setting except for a couple of jumps (more on those later).  The feeders are hidden behind trees and nuts are pushed into cracks in the bark.   When I was there the forest floor was carpeted in flowering heather which provided a stunning purple and pink backdrop (and foreground) to the images.

No sooner had I settled down than I spotted not a squirrel, but a little wren, perched very photogenically on a tree stump – an island in a sea of pink.  I’ve never managed good wren images – they move so quickly, but this one paused long enough for me to shoot a few frames.  Quite distant, but I think the composition works.

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I used two cameras.  The Nikon D610 with my trusty Tamron 150-600mm for the majority of the photographs (I did switch to the Nikkor 70-200mm for a bit too), mostly hand-held or with bean-bag.  Because of its massive buffer and superb focusing ability I used the D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4, tripod mounted for the jump on manual focus.

The squirrels soon appeared.  Hard to know exactly how many.  One had a little hole in an ear, and another an ear with bits missing.  But it’s fair to say they were present and active for the entirety of my stay.

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It’s such a pleasure watching the squirrels. They are so entertaining, the time just flew by, as did the shutter count on my camera!  The light improved as the day progressed, shimmering through the trees and creating some lovely back-lighting at times.

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I have so many images of red squirrels, sitting, hunched up with a hazelnut clasped in their paws, so my priority was on other behaviours such as grooming, teeth sharpening and relaxing…

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I also didn’t want just close-ups…

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…but also more distant shots that show-cased the forest, the heather and how small the squirrels really are in the grand scheme of things.  I came away happy that I’d achieved this.

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– and much as I was trying for images without nuts, that’s not to say I don’t have hundreds of those too!

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They made me laugh out loud more than once.   One squirrel, by the sound of it, was desperately trying to get into Neil’s locked strong-box where he stored the nuts.  It then ran across the roof and all of a sudden, stuck it’s head into the hide, disappeared and did the same thing at the other side of the window.  I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or the squirrel.  One also jumped onto a window ledge and sat looking at me for a minute – sadly too close for me to focus on.

When the squirrels chase one another they make little squeaking noises which was quite sweet.  Very hard to photograph the interactions though as they move so very quickly.  It’s also difficult to get pictures of them bouncing through the heather – great to watch though!

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I’ve seen a few photographs of red squirrels mid-leap – great images, and it’s a shot I’ve wanted to try.  Neil has set up a jump.  The idea is to manually focus in the gap, using a stick which is then removed.  When the squirrel starts to jump, you start taking pictures and hope that one in the sequence is sharp!  The D500 was perfect for this, it takes so many images very very quickly.  Therefore I had quite a good hit rate.  Only problems were 1. the jump was on the side with little other squirrel action, so I  more often than not didn’t see the squirrel in time.  Or 2, the squirrels had sussed out that they could by-pass the jump altogether and leap straight up onto the ledge with the nuts.  Frustratingly they almost all used the jump after having a nut, but were facing the wrong way!!

Here’s the set-up looking from the hide:

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I have to admit much as I’m really pleased with the jumping images I took I do feel a little like a fraud – it was a set-up after all and I almost think these kind of shots are comparable to the diving kingfisher set-ups which I’ve always steered clear of…  But!  That said, I’m happy to have achieved them.

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Not long after I arrived, a crested tit came down to steal a nut.  It appeared a few times, mostly on the one visible feeder (on the odd occasion when a squirrel wasn’t attached to it). I also captured it once whilst it sat in the heather. Not the best shots, but they are a bit different.  There were quite a few chaffinch and coal tits, the latter of which would chase each other through the hide.

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All in all it was a great day.  It’s not the cheapest red squirrel hide you’ll visit, but it is a good one and, if there’s snow on the ground when I’m next up in March I’ll be sure to go again. I love all the images, but I’ll sign off with my favourite.

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If you’re interested in prints or greeting cards of any of my images please visit http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk or, if you can’t find what you’re looking for please get in touch karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk