Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Back For Spring Treats

When I left Scotland there was still snow on the hills and the snowdrops were in bloom. When I arrived back home in the Midlands, the snowdrops had been and gone, and the daffodils and crocuses were providing the colour; Spring was well underway.

Being north of the border at this time of year meant I had missed out on one of the local delights, watching the goshawks displaying in woods in Shropshire. That said, after checking the dates of previous years' images, I thought I'd give it a go a couple of times - maybe the season was delayed and I'd get a view anyway?

As is the norm for such days, there is a lot of waiting and listening - the birds were very vocal, but showed very rarely.

Thankfully the woodlands birds were busy preparing for the breeding season, and the woods were alive with their calls. While I try not to be distracted from my vigil on the treetops, I couldn't resist taking a few shots of a goldcrest nearby. They're such delights to watch, though not that easy to photograph, as they rarely keep still.

On my first visit there was a juvenile female goshawk around, hunting and making lots of noise. I had assumed that last year's young would have been seen off by the adults, but this one hadn't, and was possibly begging for food from the adults after failing to catch anything herself that morning.

And at the end of that day, I got a great view as she and the adult male goshawk circled over the canopy, briefly flying side-by-side, clearly showing the size difference between the genders.

A return visit saw even less action, and the juvenile seemed to have left. I could have had a great view of the adult female when she perched in a tree, had there not have been another tree right in front of her! Such is life. I did however hear what sounded like the adults mating, so I thought it wise to leave them be for the season.

With a sunny day forecast, I headed out to another woodland, this time in Worcestershire, in the hope of seeing some adders or common lizards. Having spoken to a local beforehand, I had been warned not to see much, after he'd spotted some muppet poking a stick around in the woods, trying to find the adders. If you want to see adders, the last thing you do is start poking a stick around in the vegetation. These shy snakes are ultra alert to any movement or vibration near them, and will vanish in seconds.

As I mooched around the clearings of the woods, I was rather surprised to spook a short-eared owl from the ground, but equally frustrated when it flew off into an area of woodland, never to be seen again. I think the local jays took offence to it, as they were making a terrible sound for a while. And later on, I saw a woodcock burst up from beneath a small tree, and also fly away.

After an hour or so, I did find a couple of adders, but they were partially hidden beneath the dead bracken, and the cloud cover at lunch made things worse by hiding the sun, and in turn encouraging the sun-seeking snakes to move back underground.

I stopped for lunch, and watched a couple ignore the clear signs all over the area about keeping dogs on a lead, as they strolled by, with their dog free to go where it wanted. Thankfully it didn't encounter an adder and get bitten. I wish dog owners would accept that these signs mean all dogs, even their "always well behaved" pets!

I was about to wander off to look elsewhere, when I saw in the corner of my eye, that another adder had slithered out into view, and was soaking up the sun again. I have recently invested in a new pair of binoculars (Kite Lynx HD 8x30) and unlike my old pair, these allow for close focusing - down to 1.3m in fact. So here, I was able to sit near the adder, and look at it in detail through my bins - something I could only do before, after I had left and processed any images taken. I love the detail of their scales, like armor almost, and also the colours of their eyes. Stunning creatures.

I grabbed a couple of shots, before I backed away and after failing to see any others, headed home for the day. Maybe it was a touch too early in the season to see that many. I will return later in Spring.

Speaking of Spring, there's a bird that puts on a special performance at this time of year, and thankfully there are a lot of them in the Midlands; great-crested grebes, and a number of my friends on social media had been posting wonderful images of them already. I know of many locations to see them, but I wanted to go somewhere I could possibly get down low for a shot or two.

To cut a long story short, I found a spot and within minutes of me setting up, I had two pairs nearby, both showing signs of dancing.

One pair were in beautiful light, but kept teasing me as they faced each other only to swim away once more, while the others were somewhat backlit, but further ahead with their courtship.

As such I needed eyes in the back of my head as I watched and tried to shift the camera round for shots of whichever pair were performing. Time was tight though as I had an appointment elsewhere, but typically just as I was about to leave, the backlit pair dived, and surfaced with some weed.


It was fantastic to see, and hear.

Dancing high up on the water, swishing the wet weed this way and that, before continuing their courtship display by mimicking each others' actions.

Then they headed back to the new nesting site to continue construction, and was my cue to leave, though I hope to be back again soon...

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Scottish Highlands For Photography Guiding

Following my trip to Scotland in January, I spent a couple of weeks at home before returning to the Scottish Highlands, only this time the visit focused on working. I had, after huffing and puffing up the slopes in January, hoped to spend these interim weeks getting a bit fitter, but instead was laid low with a stinking cold, and I just knew the hills and my legs wouldn't get on.

Before the guiding started though, I had a couple of days to spend with friends, and with a light dusting of snow, we called into the red squirrel hide, to catch up with the local inhabitants' antics.

The "running down the log" shot proved trickier than I thought, but the squirrels repeated the process enough times for me to get my eye in, and get a decent shot or two.

Sunday was spent up in the hills with the mountain hares. It was tough going as there was deep snow on the ground and it was powdery too, blowing around in spin-drifts which were most unwelcome as they blasted our faces. After watching one hare get spooked by the wind, we moved higher up the slopes and found a few gathered in some rocks.

As usual, a steady approach paid dividends, and soon we were lying in the snow, with our cameras trained on two of the hares. Understandably, given the temperatures and conditions, the hares were keeping low, and not doing much at all. In the end, the weather got the better of us, and we retreated back to the shelter of the car.

After a trip to the supermarket for supplies for the week ahead, and to the hiking store for a mountain first aid kit and survival shelter (essential gear for my guiding), I had an early night, ready for the first day of mountain hare guiding.

The majority of the first week was to be spent taking photographers up the slopes, to see mountain hares. Each day varied in terms of the hares we saw and approached, which made for an interesting and challenging week. It was also pretty painful at times, as the slopes which appear to be carpeted with heather, are actually littered with hidden rocks, and bruised knees and shins became the norm. The mornings also got a fair bit earlier by the end of the week when the 10:30am restriction on walking up the hills was lifted, when the deer stalking ceased.

The snow that had fallen over the weekend had all but gone from the hares' hill by midweek though, but I had a day up in the Cairngorms planned, with a client for ptarmigan. It was supposed to be a joint effort (of sorts) with Andy and his client, but when we discovered how icy the ascent was, Andy headed to a different slope instead. The walk was arduous and at times very slippery - I impersonated Bambi on ice several times, though thankfully my client had better grip on his boots. Once up top though, I managed to spot a ptarmigan quickly, and we were soon photographing it.

A male, with some of his summer plumage starting to show already was being quite vocal amongst the boulders nearby. Higher up the slope was another male, though he was even more white. I suggested to my client that we perhaps make a move towards that one, but he saved us the trouble, by fluttering down and landing right in front of us, to strut his stuff with the other male!

Perfect timing. We stayed put and watched them both calling and posturing, before they both chased a third male across the mountainside. My client was understandably delighted and jokingly suggested we head back down the hill after such success. We didn't, spending a few hours watching other ptarmigan on what was a gorgeous day on the mountain.

The forecast (which has to be used as a guide when going up the mountain) proved to be bang on, with the expected stronger winds arriving within minutes of us wandering back to the car park by the ski centre. Rejoining Andy and his client, we watched the snow buntings for about an hour before heading home.

The weekend provided me with a day off, and Lyndsey and I took the coast road along to the harbours, to see if anything interesting was about. Not much, alas, apart from cormorants, gulls and a few seals, making the most of the scraps dished out by the returning fishing boats.

Further along the coast, we called into Lossiemouth, and enjoyed fantastic views of huge flocks of wintering wildfowl, including teal and wigeon. A passing sparrowhawk put the whole flock up at one point, except for a pair of knot that I was photographing near the shore.

Sadly a dog walker eventually spooked them, and we called it a day.

Hares again for the Sunday, though this time I was able to hook up with Andy and his clients, who were also on the hills photographing these wonderful creatures. Settling around a jill (female hare) we were able to observe her behaviour, whilst watching the antics of other hares on the hills.

A wise move, as when things were quiet with the other hares, the one we were close to was often doing something, cleaning, grooming or taking a pellet.

As the day wore on though, the other hares on the hill, some displaced by other folks up there, began to head in our direction, and that meant they came into contact with one another... and that occasionally led to some action.

Perhaps the milder weather had encouraged the hares into believing spring had come early, but there was definitely some boxing going on, and some of the female hares were relentlessly chased across the slopes. They're feisty creatures though, and the pursuing males got a paw to the face if they got too close. And the fur was literally flying, carried on the breeze right past where we were sitting.

The second half of my Highlands guiding trip was to be spent with one client, a friend from back home. While he wanted images of hares, he was mainly hoping to get shots of an animal he'd never seen before; red squirrels. Amusingly, within moments of him seeing one in the flesh for the first time, one was sat next to him in the hide, only a few inches from his arm!

And it was good to see the local great-spotted woodpeckers visiting the feeders too that day. Common, but such striking-looking birds.

Another first came when we visited the crested tit site, and he enjoyed his first (UK) sighting of the star itself. They're such wonderful birds, and even though the light on that first visit was pretty dire, we used pockets of brightness through the woodland canopy to make use of the distinctive silhouette shape of the crested tit.

I think most visitors to the Highlands secretly want to see some of the white stuff, so it was good timing when we saw it falling from the skies midweek, and we were sat watching the red squirrels again. Of course it has its downsides, as the cloud means less light (before the snow settles and reflects it) and that means ramping up the ISO values to get any shutter speed, which is essential when trying to freeze the action of a leaping squirrel.

The squirrels have become so used to people already, that the hide serves more as a shelter to us now, than allowing us to hide from them. As such, towards the end of the day I relocated to a seat outside of it, to attempt to get some images of the squirrels leaping from a different angle. I have to admit though, when it started sleeting and there was no sign of the squirrels, I did question my decision...

The resident star named Tippy, on account of the colour of the end of her tail returned, and provided me with a few attempts at the shot.

After a joint evening out with Andy and our two clients, I joined them at the red squirrel hide for one last morning, before dropping them at the airport. It signalled the end of my guiding, and I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the working experience. I'm sure it's not everyone's cup of tea, given the cold temperatures, the backache from the heavy rucksack, the bruises and aching muscles from the hiking, and the challenge to put the client in the right spot for the wildlife, but it was an improvement on my last role, and I'm glad I have taken the bold step into a new career.

The squirrels continued to perform for an hour or so after the airport drop off, and I managed to get a cracking shot of Tippy in an almost Superman style leap.

Not wanting to head south immediately, I extended the stay for a few days, which allowed Lyndsey and me to take in some of the amazing vistas around Glen Affric. I had wanted to photo some deer, but in the end we found ourselves using stopper filters and wide-angle lenses, to capture the rivers and waterfalls in the area.

A most welcome night out at a local pub followed, and Sunday was spent walking in a beautiful reserve on the Black Isle, where Lyndsey and I spotted dippers on the stream.

When the rain finally arrived, we retreated to a coffee shop for shelter and millionaire's shortbread. Never a bad move.

After all the walking up the hills, I had joked that I wouldn't go back to see the hares during my stay, but overnight there was a fall of snow, and by morning clear blue skies greeted me as I opened the curtains. I knew I would regret it if I didn't revisit them, so made the effort once more, and after approaching and settling down near a hare, I waited patiently in the snow for some action.

I wanted to get some more "small in frame" images of the hares, so didn't bother getting too close to the one in front of me.

With handwarmers and a flask of hot coffee, I was well prepared to sit it out. And it did take a while to see some action; not much in the way of boxing, more of hares scampering around the slopes.

Late in the day, one hare, spooked from its form by a photographer, relocated near to me, and dug out a new form from the snow. It was fascinating to watch. Digging with its front paws, then kicking the snow out the back with its rears, and occasionally peeking out to check who was watching!

And just as I was starting to pack my gear away, after the sun had dipped behind the hill, a couple of hares scampered down towards me, and just stared at me for a moment! Definitely worth a few handheld shots!

My final day was spent watching snow buntings (failing to hover or fight as hoped) at Cairngorm, followed by a tour around Findhorn Valley, hopeful of an eagle sighting. That never materialised, though I did see signs of spring, with a group of mountain goats, and one springy kid!

A drive through a nearby grouse moor resulted in a sight I hope not to see again, and an image that won't be aired on here. It's had enough coverage elsewhere. But it was a stark reminder of the darker side to the countryside up in Scotland.

My last images taken were of a calm and partially frozen Loch Farr, though the sunset never really summoned any colours to add to the scene.

As is always the case with Scotland, I left with a mountain of images, many, many fabulous memories of both wildlife and amusing banter with friends, old and new, and of course the determination to return again, as soon as possible.

I will be adding 2018 dates to my website soon, if you would like to join me for a guided day out in the Scottish Highlands.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Mull, A Winter's Visit

Going to Mull in January doesn't strike you as an obvious choice, and to be honest, I had thought long and hard about it. Late in 2016 I had been asked if I could provide some guiding for seeing otters on Mull, and I worked out that altering dates for the Highlands trip allowed me to divert to Mull on the way home.

The idea depended on whether I could find some suitable digs that meant the trip would mostly be covered by the fee for the guiding. Even when I found something in the correct price bracket, I wondered if it was wise. Until I remembered why I had left my old life behind and started afresh. Grab any opportunity that comes your way; live for now. Within reason, of course. I'm not mad...

So in the pouring rain, splashing through melted floodwater puddles across roads, I made my way along the shore of Loch Ness, calling into Fort William for some supplies, and then via the Corran ferry, I dashed across the hills leading to Lochaline, and was surprised how quickly I reached the ferry terminal. Unfortunately I hadn't figured for it being a winter timetable... on a Sunday. D'oh! I had over 2 hours to wait for the next ferry over to Fishnish.

Had it not have been pouring down, I'd have gone back up into the hills, but instead I sat in the car and watched the birds around the shore, with the usual suspects such as oystercatchers and curlews featuring, plus a rather unexpected view of a kingfisher, perhaps forced to relocate from higher ground after the recent fall of snow.

Eventually I rolled off the ferry and was on Mull again, though I had a long drive ahead of me (still in monsoon conditions) down to the cottage near Bunessan, in the south of the island. I took it steady as my headlights were lighting up huge red deer stags beside the roads, and both woodcock and snipe would burst from ditches, the latter often resembling pale bats as they fluttered across the beams at speed.

Bed, breakfast and a brief stroll around the area where I was based. It was still raining, so I headed back to the shelter of the car, and headed north.

As usual, I was trundling along slowly, taking my time to scan the shore when beside a loch, the rocks nearby, and hills, posts, moors... basically looking at everything. Plenty around, but the first thing to warrant a photo was a kestrel, sheltering amongst the exposed rocks on a hillside.

With the rain driving in through the car window, I soon moved on again, and spotted a huge bird perched some distance from the road, and before I'd found somewhere safe to park, I knew it was a white-tailed eagle. As I climbed out of the car, with nowhere to provide any cover for me, I wondered if I could get any closer. The eagle turned its head in my direction. That's a no then, I thought. So I got back in the car, as it was drier!

Parking up for lunch, shortly after, I had just taken a bite from my apple when I saw a flick of a tail amongst the seaweed in front of me, and seconds later, an otter emerged, munching on something small. I ate the apple as quickly as possible, donned my camo jacket and scurried down towards the shore. Hiding in some rocks, I watched the otter as it fished off the shore. Then I became aware of a voice some way behind me; a man shouting at his dog to come back to him. I sighed, expecting the disturbance to scare off the otter. Then, as I turned my attention back to the otter, I realised a second one had been present further along the shore, and had been spooked by the dog walker, and it paused for a moment on a rock very close to me, to leave a spraint!

Then it scampered off into the seaweed and joined the other one, as it fished. As is often the case on Mull, the otters were finding plenty to eat, and after having their fill, turned to play-fighting one another. Being fairly close to me, I resisted the urge to use the high-speed shutter mode on my camera, and remained with the single shot, silent option, hoping to time a shot as the otters broke the surface to breathe.

Great fun to watch, even if I was being rained on, still. With the low cloud and time of year, it was almost dark before the clock struck 4pm, so I returned to the cottage, to dry out and review the day's images. Not a bad start, I thought.

A similar scene presented itself to me on the second day, with rain falling and calm conditions. It was surprisingly mild though - not what I had expected in January. A brief sighting of an otter early on, along with plenty of views of the wintering divers around the shores kept me entertained as I drove along. Then I clocked another eagle sat near the shore, and after pointing my bins at it, I realised there were four birds sat close to each other. I decided to go for a look, and used what little cover I had to get closer. Problem was, I had to take such a detour around the area to get such cover, by the time I popped my head over the hillock for a better view, all but one of the eagles had left!

I also saw a huge white-winged gull in the area, but the dreadful weather, and my lack of interest in gulls led me to ignore it. Silly, as it was probably a glaucous gull, given the size compared to the black-backs also in the area.

More otter antics followed, but mostly in dreadful light, and as with the previous day, it was dark by 4pm. If only the clouds would lift a little, I mused. As I turned the car round, a distant bird hunting caught my eye. A hen harrier. Too dark to bother with photos, but I made a mental note of where I'd seen it.

The otter guiding was towards the end of the week, and I had planned to find locations for otters prior to then. I had of course already done that, and quite a few of them, so fancied a change of scenery. I'd seen white-tailed eagles, but no golden ones yet. That had to change!

Knowing Mull like I do, means I know where to look for golden eagles, and within seconds of arriving in the area where I hoped to see one, I did. Two, in fact, hunting the hillsides. For such a massive bird, they have an uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings, and as soon as they pass in front of a hillside, instead of the sky, tracking them becomes a real challenge. Given the speed at which they can reach in a dive, I parked up and scanned all around me, when I lost them from view.

Wise move, as a third approached from behind me!

I watched through my bins as the three came together briefly over the hills, before the newcomer left again, and the original pair vanished over the top. Again, from past experience, I had an idea where I might see them, and my luck appeared to be in when I caught up with them hunting elsewhere.

They really are something special to see. And I always try to absorb the moment as much as I can, to recall on dull days at home with little to look at.

By mid afternoon, the overcast skies had started to clear, and I guessed I might get a bit longer to play before night drew in, so thought about heading over to some marshes where I had seen hen harriers roosting in years gone by. But the memory of that ringtail from 24 hours earlier persuaded me to remain where I was, and it proved another wise move.

The light had almost faded when I spotted her quartering the shoreline, that white band visible with the naked eye. She was ahead of me, and after grabbing some shots from where I had parked to watch for otters, I "made time" along the road to get ahead of her. It was a gamble, as I parked over a ridge and waited. Usually hen harriers vanish if I am prepared for taking a shot, so I was very surprised (and pleased) when she appeared on the horizon, and briefly hovered over a clump of grass.

I didn't need to be in silent mode this time, and the 1DX went into full machine gun mode.

What a gorgeous raptor, elegant, lightweight and almost delicate in her flight. How anyone can shoot these birds still saddens me - they must be lacking any sort of a soul; sad, pathetic, little people. But thankfully on Mull, these stunning birds of prey are safe from such threats, and just deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

What a fine end to a great day of raptor watching. My evening meal tasted extra special that night.

The following morning led to yet more otter fun, and I managed to get really good views of one as he slept, then groomed beside the loch.

I had thought as he headed out into the loch, that he was going to return to a holt, but instead of skulking low up a stream, he paused, and drank for about half a minute from the freshwater flowing into the loch, before turning tail, and going off fishing once more. Nature never fails to surprise.

The day ended with me filming a mother otter and her cub, fishing at playing along the shore from me. At one point, the mother swam off, leaving the cub to eat something she'd caught, but once eaten, the cub immediately realised she wasn't close, and started calling to her. She was well down the loch, and I wondered if she'd hear the squeaking sound, until the cub made the call in my direction, and I realised just how loud the sound was. She had heard it, and she collected her cub, before heading off into the darkness together.

Having focused on otters so much, I hadn't driven through the glens much, so chose to do so one morning, but the low cloud meant little was visible, aside from buzzards drying off on posts. I went to another location where I have enjoyed success with golden eagles, but failed to see any, and as I was trundling slowly away, spotted an otter near the shore. Initially I parked up, but could see the otter watching me, so I moved the car away, with the intention of getting out and approaching on foot. That didn't happen, when unexpectedly the otter surfaced with a vibrantly coloured scorpion fish, and swam right over to where I'd just parked up again, to deal with it. I couldn't get out, but had a glorious view anyway.

The otter was still aware of the car being there - it wasn't hidden, but it wasn't bothered, and munched through the rubbery-looking fish, right in front of me.

Then, before heading off fishing again, the otter seemed to pose on some rocks for me. Fantastic.

Once he'd gone fishing along the shore again, I was able to get out, and creep closer, hiding either amongst rocks or tall grasses, or within whatever bushes were growing beside the water. The otter then brought ashore some sort of flatfish.

More glorious views as this was consumed in front of me.

And, later that day, I encountered a family group of otters; a mother and two cubs. Magic.

Aside from the wildlife on Mull, I was also pleased to catch up with Martin, Judith and Alex, who are the family behind the Mull Charters boat trip success. Of course the Lady Jayne was away in dry dock for the winter, so I spent a rather chilly half hour watching waders at the end of Loch Na Keal, laughing at Martin's cursed tripod; every time he gets it out, the weather turns for the worse, and he's forced to put it away again. Certainly was the case that day, when we were blasted with icy winds and cloud, only to see the clouds part in the rear-view mirror of the car, as we headed back to their B&B in Salen for a coffee! Seeing so many otters during the week put me in good stead for the guiding, which went well - no problem finding otters, or putting the client close to them. In fact I had more issue with equipment, as the client had damaged his gear prior to meeting me (loch-side rocks are like ice, so be careful readers!), and I ended up lending him my camera and big lens. This limited my options during the guiding, but the client has to come first.

And so another week on Mull ended. I had contemplated getting the early ferry away from the island, to get home in time for the family trip to the country pub, but a message from my sister arrived in time, to say no-one was going, and allowed me to spend a couple of extra hours exploring.

Revisiting the spot where I'd seen that otter so closely earlier in the week proved to be yet another great move, though originally, when I was sat in the rain watching nothing but gulls beside the loch, I did wonder if I'd made a mistake.

Then a v-shaped wake appeared on the water, and I saw an otter with a fish swimming towards me. Out the car, and into hiding. Unfortunately the otter did the same (though not out of a car, of course) and ate the fish out of sight. But it did appear eventually to groom, and I got more great views.

So an otter was the last thing to be seen and photographed on Mull? No. The sound of a goose honking as it flew over distracted me for a second from the otter, and I saw a huge eagle spiral down from the skies, giving up on the faster-flying goose. It landed down the shore from me. I backed away from the otter, making sure I didn't spook it, and set off in the car towards where I thought the eagle had landed.

Not one, but two white-tailed eagles were perched on the shore. Awesome. With room to go off-road somewhat, and having a car capable of doing so, I was able to park as close as I dared, to get some shots.

People often ask me what the lure of Mull is, and moments like this help me answer. Being sat a short distance from two magnificent eagles as they scanned the shore for food, on a morning that I'd probably normally be reading the sports reports from the Saturday football matches.

Eventually they flew off by their own accord - presumably nothing appetising left by the ebbing tide. And I dragged myself away, back to Craignure, on to the ferry, and back home again. Have I mentioned how much I love Mull?

If you fancy joining me on Mull for such an adventure, drop me an email, or sign up for one of the Otter Tours I am co-running later this year. I can bleat on and on about how fabulous this place is for wildlife, but until you witness it for yourself, you'll always just be wondering...