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.

Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)Mountain Hare Yawning  (Lepus timidus)

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.

 

Daylight Pine Martens! A Day in the Nature Nuts wildlife hide

Back in July 2017 I visited Perth for the excellent Southern Fried Music Festival.  Originally I had planned to stick around until the Sunday, but Saturday’s headline (Rodney Crowell) pulled out and his replacement was of little interest so I figured I’d take advantage of a free evening/day to do some photography.  On the Saturday evening I joined Bob Smith of Nature Nuts photography to hopefully see some beavers.  We didn’t have a whole lot of success (although we did see a beaver briefly), but on asking what I could do in the area the following day Bob kindly offered me the use of his wildlife hide.  Of course I said yes!  And spent an enjoyable few hours watching red squirrels, jays, great spotted woodpeckers and a variety of little birds, including a couple of bullfinch.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stick around for the (possible) pine martens in the evening, but it was a good day.

I’d been hoping to return ever since, but never had the time, so when I booked a few days at Bamff Ecotourism on Bob’s recommendation to hopefully finally spend some time with the beavers, I arranged to spend the Monday in the hide.  (ps I wrote a blog about the beavers)

Equipment used: Nikon D500 & Nikon D610.  Tamron 150-600mm & Nikkor 300m F4.  The hide doesn’t have the best light being at the edge of a wood, but so long as I didn’t try for action shots of speedy squirrels I had a fair amount of success.

On this occasion it took a good hour or more for anything other than great spotted woodpeckers and little birds (mostly siskins) to appear, probably because there’s tonnes of natural food available right now.

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Round about midday I confess I became a little distracted as I had a 4G signal after three internet-free days and was a tad sleepy having risen at 4.30am every morning for the beavers.  I saw movement out the corner of my eye, it was a first visit from one of the local red squirrels.  The squirrel sat eating nuts for a couple of minutes and then, in a blink of an eye, disappeared at great speed up the nearest tree.  I thought little of it until I suddenly realised that the female pine marten had arrived!  I almost fell off my bench in surprise as this was really unexpected. The day before this marten had first made an appearance at 7.30pm which is fairly normal behaviour as for the most part they tend to be nocturnal.  It was around about that time I’d have to be leaving for the return journey to Glasgow, so I had told myself I possibly wouldn’t see one at all.  I’ve seen pine martens many times at the Aigas Hide but always in low or artificial light so this daylight visit was a first for me and although the light at the hide wasn’t brilliant, it was still an improvement on those Aigas sightings.

 

The marten spent about ten minutes in front of the hide munching on nuts and was so wonderful to watch.  She’s a beautiful animal.

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Once she departed, and I’d gotten over the shock of seeing her, and had messaged Bob with the news, things settled down again.  The one major difference being that the red squirrels all started to make regular appearances.  This was also a pleasant surprise as they are normally morning and early evening feeders, disappearing  for the afternoon. These did the exact opposite!  I’m not complaining though.  There were at least 3 individuals and there was almost always at least one present for the next few hours to keep me entertained.  I’ve spent a lot of time watching and photographing these animals this year, but I never tire of it.  Bob puts out a lot of nuts and even with the marten scoffing quite a few they never ran out of food.

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Jays were much fewer and farther between than my 2017 visit, but they did appear a few times, as did a pair of pheasants.

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At approx 5.30 I realised (again to my surprise) that the pine marten had returned …or so I thought!  Yes it was a pine marten, but no, it wasn’t a return visit.  At the time I (understandably I think) just presumed it was the female, as there was no reason to suspect otherwise.  The kits, although they might have been heard during the night were yet to make an appearance at the hide and it seemed obvious to expect them to turn up with mum.  However, on returning home and looking through my images I was convinced this was a different pine marten and it definitely looked more fluffy and dare I say cuter than the earlier one.  I sent some images to Bob who confirmed I had in fact had a visit from one of the kits – so I was apparently the first person to see one this year and I hadn’t even realised – doh!!  Actually its behaviour was quite different from the female so I should have guessed at the time. It ignored the egg I’d put out (apparently the female takes it and runs) and after a few minutes had dived under the logs for so long that I presumed it was long gone until it briefly reappeared. I’m now beginning to wish I’d stayed past 6.30 as I’m sure it and its sibling would have been back – they were both seen the following night.  Still – I had two daylight sightings of the pine martens so I am very happy!

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So it was another great day.  I spent time over the weekend both at Bamff and then Bob’s hide watching conservation success stories – red squirrels, pine martens and beavers are all making a return to Scotland and it’s heartening to see.  I can now travel less than an hour from Glasgow to spend time with red squirrels, and although realistically greys will never be eradicated from the cities, reds are definitely spreading further afield, thanks, as with beavers and pine martens, to the efforts of committed individuals and organisations.  We read of so much doom and gloom where wildlife is concerned these days it’s great to have some more positive examples.

If you fancy a day out with Bob or a visit to his wildlife hide, full details are available on his Facebook Page.

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 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.

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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wren
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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!

Sparrowhawks, Red Squirrels, Tawny Owl and more.

Much as I love nothing better than being outside photographing wild animals, sitting in a (relatively speaking) comfortable hide has its advantages especially with the weather we’ve had in Scotland of late!  In the past few months I have spent the best part of a day in three different hide set-ups.  Nature Nuts in Perthshire, Neil McIntyre‘s new red squirrel hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate and, most recently, the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide in Dumfries and Galloway.  They are all quite different, but I had a great time sitting watching the wildlife in all three.

Bob “Nature Nuts” hide is set at the end of a wooded area and was visited regularly during the day by red squirrels, jays, woodpeckers, bullfinch and other small birds.  Light wasn’t great but the endless action provided some good images.  I had to leave mid-afternoon, so missed the (many) pine martens that are visiting the hide in the evenings which would have been great.

I’ve written extensively about Neil’s hide already – it’s a stunning natural setting sitting amongst the glorious Caledonian pine forest.  My visit coincided with the blooming of the heather, and this was, I think the star of the show. Of course the non-stop visits of the red squirrels was fantastic too and great to see a crested tit as well.

While Neil’s hide lends itself to wide shots showing the forest in all its glory, Alan McFadyen’s sparrowhawk hide has been designed exclusively for fairly close-up images.  It’s set in open space which, so long as there’s some sunshine, provides much more light than the other two.  It’s comprised of a number of areas created artificially by Alan, all covered in moss all designed to be photogenic.  This works really well for close shots as the background is far enough away to be a lovely soft blur.

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The hide is described as a place to photograph sparrowhawks, but there are also morning and late afternoon visits from red squirrels and I had regular sightings of great spotted woodpeckers, finches, tits and jays.  In the evening a tawny owl has been visiting too.

It may be in a open setting, but you still need decent light, and it was a relatively cloudy and dull morning – much better however than the days before or after though when the rain fell steadily.   I therefore had to use a higher ISO than I would have liked for the first few hours when the squirrels were most active.   I had my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4 lens resting on a beanbag with cable release attached just in case I could use it.   This is a great camera/lens combination providing sharp images at 450mm focal length on the crop frame, which was perfect for the hide.   I don’t know how many red squirrels there were, but they came regularly for hazelnuts, many of which, after checking, they took away to cache for the winter. I hadn’t realised how wet it was until I looked back at my images!

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At 11am the squirrels disappeared, although there were a few visits after 4pm.  These were my favourite images as the light was much better allowing for better camera settings and some lovely orange light.

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I had real difficulty photographing the nuthatch who flew down to the main little bird area and, once the squirrels were gone, their perch.  It just didn’t stick around, scooping up a few nuts and immediately flying away.  So frustrating!  Eventually though, at some point in the afternoon, it spent a couple of minutes in the squirrel area looking quite photogenic.  Result!

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Jays were infrequent visitors too.  I could always tell when they were approaching due to their distinctive call.  They are so very entertaining to watch as they gobble up as many nuts as possible in a short period of time, looking around inquisitively.

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It was also good to see brambling and great spotted woodpeckers.

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The real reason I’d booked this hide though was to photograph and see close-up sparrowhawks.  My parents get them fairly regularly in their garden but although I’ve had brief glimpses I’ve never been able to photograph.  Alan gets regular visits from both male and female birds.  There’s a special perch for the male, who comes down to eat dead bait left by Alan.  The female birds don’t touch this preferring a fresh kill.  Now, I love little birds and I had mixed feelings about watching the birds hunt and kill live animals, however, it’s nature and they have to eat too…

Unfortunately, my day in the hide coincided with the male sparrowhawk deciding not to visit, a rare occurrence apparently.  The male is the more attractive of the birds and I’d have loved to have seen it.

I spotted a female very briefly in the morning, she landed, squawked and flew off.  No chance for photographs.  However at lunchtime, I almost had a kit kat moment.  I was making myself a cuppa-soup when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement.  Looking up I realised it was a female sitting on a pile of branches that  Alan put out to try and protect the little birds from predators – unsuccessfully this time as it turned out.  The female almost instantly flew up into the air, and I thought I’d missed my chance of photographs again.  Much to my delight and relief, she only flew a short distance and landed on a little wall.  She posed here beautifully, with her kill, for no more than a minute before departing but it was long enough for me to take the following images.  Looking at them on my return home I admit I was really pleased with these although I still feel bad for the little bird she caught.   Transpires she’s a juvenile female – but already a good hunter!  This was a much more satisfying scene to photograph than the male with bait and I’m just relieved I looked up from the soup making!

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In late afternoon, not long after the return of the squirrels an adult female arrived.  She behaved completely differently.  She landed on the pile of branches and sat looking around for a good few minutes.  She then disappeared inside the branches before re-emerging on the ground, always hunting for unsuspecting prey.  Finally she flew up onto a higher branch, stopped off next to the bait left for the male, looked disdainfully at it and disappeared.  She was there for about 10 minutes so plenty of time for some photographs.

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Alan kindly invited me to stay on for the evening tawny owl visit, where I was joined in the hide by another couple.   The owl is also provided with bait – in this case the food left out for the male sparrowhawk.  Alan lights the perch with 3 LEDs although they are still quite far back so a high ISO of 4000-5000 was required.  I used the same set up as before except this time the camera was mounted on my tripod and I utilised the cable release.  I’ve had some great tuition on low-light wildlife photography from Laurie Campbell when at Aigas, so I knew how to deal with the conditions – slow shutter speed, so no point taking any pictures until it is static otherwise they will be blurry.  Cable release and tripod helped with this too.  The owl appeared shortly after Alan left and made quick work of one of the bits of bait.

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It then flew off but returned again a few minutes later.  Unfortunately this time it ate with its back to us but did turn its head a few times.

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Gorgeous bird, wonderful to see up close, I’d only ever seen tawny owlets before. Again,  pleased with the images I got.

So all in all it was a great day.  The hide definitely delivers – even if the male sparrowhawk was a no-show.  Alan has a number of hides available, do check out his website for more information.

 

 

My kind of wildlife images

I spend a lot of time looking at photographs of wildlife – it’s a great way to learn more about the animals and the possibilities there are for capturing amazing images of them.  But nothing beats actually being out in the field observing them in the flesh.  My aspiration when it comes to wildlife photography is to stick to a few species and spend as much time as is possible watching them.  Not as easy as it might seem, none of my target species are close to home, so for the time-being I have to rely on vacation time, but as I love nothing more than sitting in the middle of nowhere for hours on end watching and photographing wildlife, there is no better way I can think of to use my precious holidays.

Over the past couple of years I have remained in Scotland (and Northumbria), focusing primarily on the Eastern Scottish Highlands, the Isle of Mull and East Lothian.   I don’t want to be one of those photographers who travels to far-flung places just to tick an animal off the list, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  For me, the thrill is observing animals natural behaviours and taking photographs that I find emotive and interesting. The more time you spend with them the greater the chance of achieving this.  Talking to other photographers is another great way to learn more, as is reading books on the subject.  I’ve just finished an excellent book by Marianne Taylor on hares “The Way of the Hare” which I’d highly recommend.

My target species are mountain hares, red squirrels, puffins, gannets and, my favourite animal of all, the otter. I’d also like to spend more time with beavers as I find them fascinating.

I’m going to let the photographs demonstrate what I’m trying to say.

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I spent a wonderful day in Neil McIntyre‘s new red squirrel hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate in the Cairngorms.  It’s set in Caledonian pine forest and when I was there in August the forest floor was covered in purple heather – stunning. I’m going to do a full blog on this soon, but in the meantime…   just as I was packing up I spotted this little squirrel lying on a distant branch, probably exhausted after all the hazelnuts it had eaten throughout the day!  I’d never seen this before and finally managed to find an angle unobstructed by other branches.  I haven’t come across too many similar images (although I’m sure they exist!). Neil, who I consider to be “the squirrel guy” told me he’s never successfully managed to photograph this behaviour.

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So many red squirrel photographs are close-ups of these adorable animals clutching a nut in their paws – I have hundreds of those.   But this is something a bit different, also from Neil’s hide.  This image instantly appealed to me.  I like the sense of scale and the light. The scots pine trees are huge and the red squirrels so small.

And finally, this red squirrel photo (yes, it does have a nut in its mouth) makes me smile!

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This next squirrel was photographed high up a tree at the RSPB Loch Garten Osprey Centre – the benefit of having a cropped frame camera with a 150-600mm lens giving me a focal distance of 900mm.  It’s the first time I have ever seen a red squirrel eating natural food, not nuts.

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My priority on my highland trips is to visit the mountain hares. I wrote a blog about this a while back, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but ever since I was first introduced to them by Laurie Campbell on the Aigas photography masterclass week I’ve been smitten. In the past year I’ve been up the hill seven times and spent many wonderful hours sitting observing and photographing these gorgeous animals.  They are definitely most active in the winter months when I witnessed all sorts of behaviour.

After an extensive grooming session, this one had a snow bath…

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Here are a few of it grooming – again these always make me smile when I look at them.

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In August, again with the gorgeous purple heather carpeting the hillside, I was able to focus more on facial expressions.  I love the look on this animal’s face.

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I had hares yawning and sticking out their tongues…

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And finally this pair, having a snooze.

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Puffins are also fantastic to watch and photograph.  I’ve written about this year’s two trips already, but here are a couple of images to show the kind of pictures I like.

The first is so romantic, the way the puffin on the left is looking up to the one on the right is lovely.  The second is another one that makes me smile.  This puffin spent ages trying to detach these grasses for its nest, without a lot of success, but it did put a whole lot of effort into it!

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I haven’t yet really taken any photographs of otters that I’m 100% pleased with – but I’m on an otter workshop later this year so fingers crossed!  I did photograph this gorgeous otter cub in the Scottish Borders but the light wasn’t great.

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Finally, it is possible to find some species to photograph without leaving my bedroom!  During the spring I spent many enjoyable hours sitting at the window photographing garden birds in my neighbour’s cherry tree.  I can watch birds all day!

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For prints or greeting cards of any of my images please visit http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk or contact me karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk