2017 Highlights (July – December)

What a year!  I’ve already written about the first 6 months, so I won’t repeat myself, but it’s fair to say that from a photographic/wildlife watching perspective 2017 has been brilliant. From the bucket list I’ve now landed on the Bass Rock amongst the gannets and photographed fishing ospreys – both unforgettable experiences.  I’ve learnt a lot: photographic techniques, field craft and wildlife behaviours.  My ambition for 2017 was to focus entirely (okay… so I did venture South of the border to the Farne Islands), on Scottish wildlife, learning as much as I could about a small number of locations and the animals living there.  Personally I don’t want to be the kind of photographer who just ticks species off, I want to get to know them intimately and in doing so take better images that capture the essence of the animal I’m photographing.  On top of all this I just love being out sharing airspace with these amazing creatures, it’s a real honour.  If anything my love of wildlife, Scotland, the outdoors and photography has increased during 2017.

August found me back in my spiritual home – the Scottish highlands.  Basing myself again in Tomatin I had a brilliant week.  It began with Aviemore Ospreys early on the Sunday morning.  I’ve wanted to experience the thrill of these magnificent birds fishing for as long as I can remember but I’ve never quite got my timings (or bank balance) right.  I only just made it this year as the birds were already packing their nests up to head South, but fortunately a few were still around and I was treated to a great show.  Admittedly it was a little on the dark side, but my D500 coped well (just as well as I bought it for this experience) and I’m pleased with the images I took in the conditions.  That said, I fully intend to return in summer 2018, earlier in the season to try again in better light.  This is a link to my blog about the ospreys & the D500.

I also spent a day in Neil McIntyre’s new red squirrel hide set in the magnificent Caledonian pine forest.  There was non-stop squirrel action from early morning until approx 4pm with 4 or 5 visiting continuously.  The setting is gorgeous and at that time of year it was carpeted in glorious pink and purple heather.  Beautiful.  Red squirrels are entertaining to watch, the time passed so quickly.  Definitely a highlight of 2017.

I made three visits to Chanonry Point to see the dolphins.   Chanonry Point itself isn’t one of my favourite places.  Personally I like being out alone with nature and you’re anything but alone here!  Still, if you want to see dolphins close to the shore this is still the place to be.  I was fortunate to see quite a lot of breaching, although sadly not on my evening visit when the light was glorious.  Not easy to photograph as it’s difficult to know exactly where or when breaching will occur, but I did pretty well, again I think the speed of the D500 helped a lot.

And, of course, I visited the mountain hares a couple of times. They aren’t nearly as active at this time of year as in March, but there’s still much to observe and photograph, plus quite a few sweet little leverets.  The heather was blooming up here too, and the midges for the most part stayed away.  I love little more than sitting on the mountainside in the company of a hare as it accepts my presence and gets on with the daily business of grazing, grooming, stretching and (mostly) snoozing.  Sitting in a hide is all very well, but the satisfaction of being out in the open with a wild animal where there’s no cover and no baiting really appeals to me.

It’s difficult for me to get away from Glasgow due partly to a full-time job, but also because I have a rescue dog who doesn’t travel and is a little complicated so I can’t just leave him with friends.  I have to plan weekends well in advance so I can book him in with his very popular dog sitter.  It’s hugely frustrating –  I love him but…   Anyway, I did plan a weekend down in Dumfries and Galloway although as luck would have it, it coincided with the tail end of two massive storms and the weather was pretty awful.  That however didn’t stop me from having two enjoyable days.   I visited the Bellymackhill Farm red kite feeding station en route down. My second time here and it’s a fabulous place to see these birds up close.  Challenging to photograph them diving for food though, because there are so many of them!  Beautiful birds and exhilarating to watch as they all suddenly decide it’s time to feed and swoop down.  Blink and you’ve missed it!

I also spent a day at the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide as I’d never had a chance to really see or photograph sparrowhawks up close.  Great to see some red squirrels here too.  Sadly the male sparrowhawk was a no-show but I was treated to a juvenile female making a kill and pausing just long enough for me to rattle off a few frames.  I stuck around for the evening tawny owl visit too which was great.

My final big trip of the year was a return to Mull, this time on an organised otter workshop with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden.  I’ve only just recently written about this, but suffice to say I loved every minute of it, even lying on seaweed in torrential rain when it was too dark and wet to take photographs anymore.  Otters are my favourite mammal and wonderful to watch, especially when there’s a family unit – of which we saw many.  I was lucky to have 5 and a half great days of otter experiences many of which will stay with me for a long time.

So it’s been a fantastic year.  What’s next?  Well, I return to the Scottish Highlands for a week in March, and Mull in late April/early May, hopefully little owls (although I’ll have to cross the border for those!!), more ospreys and I’d like to spend a bit of time in Bamff with the beavers.  After that who knows.  On the wish list black grouse, ptarmigan and capercaillie.  However, my primary focus will be on the species I’ve spent time with this year – mountain hares, red squirrels and hopefully otters trying to work on locations and lighting to achieve better images using the techniques and experiences of 2017.   Stay tuned!

Prints and greeting cards are available via my website, or just email me with your requests.  Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

hide setup

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.