Monday, 18 July 2016

Mull Photo Tour

I have to admit, as the ferry door lowered and Craignure came into view through my car's windscreen, I didn't have the usual feeling of elation to be arriving on Mull. Of course, I was happy, but I also felt slightly apprehensive, as this time the trip to this wildlife-filled island would be for the benefit of four paying clients, who had booked on the first fully-catered wildlife photography tour I had organised with my friend, and fellow professional nature photographer, Andy Howard.

Andy was already on the island, as he had some one-to-one sessions booked with another client, so I had a couple of days to help locate wildlife based on my knowledge of the best spots around Mull. I tend to visit Mull late Summer, as I have a passion for birds of prey, and by that time in the year the young have fledged, and hence there are more around. But the same knowledge soon helped me spot some of the species we wanted to show the clients, and I was pleased to see a ringtail hen harrier at one such location.

The males remained as difficult to photo as usual for me, though I did watch one bringing food back to some recently fledged youngsters in one of the glens, on a rather soggy morning. The prey seemed to be a mixture of perhaps pipits and the occasional vole.

Heading to one of several known good otter sites yielded a great view of one, as it marked its territory on the rocks.

And later that day, whilst the pair of us scoffed ice-creams, I clocked a short-eared owl in my rear-view mirror when it flew past the back of my car! It seemed to be annoying the local common gulls, and perched up near the shore to wait for a chance of perhaps raiding a nest...

Andy and I spent every hour possible before the first of the clients arrived, searching for wildlife, and it paid off when we found another otter during a downpour. With little breeze, we had to be extra careful with being quiet and still, but even limiting our shots taken and using silent modes on the cameras, the otter seemed to be aware of us being there.

The large self-catering farmhouse we had booked was available from mid-afternoon on the Saturday, and it was a pleasant thought to have a roof over our heads after camping for the first few nights. That said, we were both taken aback at how gorgeous the accommodation was, and how spacious - perfect for our clients' stay. With Andy's wife Lyndsey kindly meeting up with us that day to prep the food for the week, and our first client Ruth due to arrive, it was a case of us rapidly getting the house ready and ourselves organised.

Ruth, a professional musician, arrived shortly after, and I didn't need much persuasion to take her over to the location we'd seen the short-eared owl, while the food was being prepared. Having never seen one before, she was asking about their appearance in flight, and pointing to a "gull" at the time when I looked and realised she was looking at the owl as it quartered the meadow nearby!

The main arrival day was Sunday, and everyone seemed to turn up at the same time. The other clients were Fary (retired neuro-surgeon), John (retired joiner and mountain rescue team member) and Mark (IT Engineer). After a round of introductions over drinks and snacks, we zipped out to see what we might find on the first afternoon and evening of the tour. While the otters failed to show this time, we did get to see a female hen harrier rob a short-eared owl of its dinner, dropping the vole in the process, before swooping down to complete the mugging.

The tour would start the following morning, with a trip to Staffa and Lunga via Turus Mara's boat trip, and we were all pretty excited about it. The weather however prevented us from visiting Staffa, meaning we would have longer on Lunga, which was actually good news for us as photographers. One can never have too long with puffins!

Finding a spot away from the crowds (the majority of folks leave after a couple of hours, leaving the island to the photography groups who have paid more to stay longer), we dumped our bags and Andy suggested several types of images to go for, as well as offering advice on how to track puffins as they fly back to the cliffs. It clearly worked as the clients we soon nailing cracking images of the seabirds, whilst occasionally popping back to the bags to nibble on the picnic we'd brought with us. It's a long day so refreshments were most welcome.

While we generally stayed around the main puffin colony, there were lots of other birds around to photo, including razorbills, fulmars, guillemots, shags and great skuas.

The "bonxies" obviously terrified the smaller seabirds, and they caused panicked waves of them to flee the cliffs each time they approached. That said, despite their presence, and the gulls, ravens and peregrine falcons watching from above, the puffins generally seemed to be having an easier life than their friends down at Skomer and on the Farnes, where they're chased down by gulls on approach.

The return sailing was calmer and allowed for a rooftop view, which yielded a brief sighting of a basking shark, followed by several moments watching a pair of white-tailed eagles, plus a distant golden eagle. Not a bad start to the tour!

The benefit of having two guides on this tour meant we could have a one-to-two ratio, and as I'd brought some comms along, we could also ensure each vehicle was kept informed of anything spotted by the other one. The second day was spent looking for otters, and after dipping at one site, we managed to encounter four individuals shortly after. And while they were rarely all together in frame, we did get some good views of a pair mooching around on the rocks.

The comms then came into their own again when Andy's group had gone on ahead, and we spotted yet another pair of otters along the coast. A mother and cub, and as I was in contact with Andy, he was able to double back quickly to join us. With favourable conditions to approach, we were soon in position nearby, though not too close, to observe and capture the behaviour.

From our position, we watched as they groomed and rolled in the seaweed, with the mother occasionally going off to fish for her cub. He seemed to be enjoying life, and play fighting with her when she returned.

John commented to me that he was surprised at how excited I was whilst watching the action, quipping that perhaps it was the first time I'd seen otters. Both Andy and I tried to express that the encounter was quite simply one of the best we'd both ever enjoyed, so the excitement was hard to contain, and it was pretty clear from everyone's broad grins, the feeling throughout the group was mutual.

Amusingly, we were supposed to be visiting Iona that day, but the six otters delayed us by several hours, and we only managed to spend a short amount of time on the island. Andy splashed out on ice-creams for all, and we then set off in search of corncrakes. While we heard several, the vegetation seemed to be just that bit too tall to see any, and with time against us, we took one of the last ferries off of the island back to Mull for the drive back home.

Of course the drive back was made more enjoyable with sightings of a short-eared owl, followed by some very accommodating barn swallows resting on a barbed wire fence beside the road.

Midweek already, and with a dire forecast for Friday, we rearranged our private session with Mull Charters to be on this evening instead, meaning we would have a practice session with the public trip in the morning, ready for the main event later.

It was good to see Martin and Alex again, and we had great views of otters as we sailed out of the harbour area. Moments later, we were watching a majestic white-tailed eagle approach, and with advice on tracking the bird, and on recommended settings, some of our group managed to get some superb images right from the off. Having witnessed the event, we reviewed the images taken and addressed any concerns raised, and what we said obviously worked, as everyone soon achieved what they hoped for on the next dive.

For me personally, it felt strange to be standing back from the action, ensuring our group had the best possible view of the eagles, at the expense of my own. It's not like I don't have many images of these awesome birds though, and just watching them swoop down was a treat. I hoped that the private charter later, with fewer people on board would allow me to grab some more shots later as well.

I did take some images though, when the eagles were flying overhead, as they started to dive, and a few as they flew away, so it wasn't as though I was completely detached from the action.

We were lucky with the weather too, after a couple of sharp showers moved away, the skies generally cleared which helped everyone with maintaining the best exposures for the shots.

The second trip soon came around, and we boarded the Lady Jayne once more. By now the sky was completely blue, and when Martin moored the boat in a calm bay, with the eagles soaring overhead, it was pretty heavenly. The pair soon returned to the cliffs, and after our drinks, we sailed out to choppier waters, where one of those magical moments that happen so often on Mull, surfaced to breathe... a pod of bottlenose dolphins.

Even though there were only six of us on board, I still found myself standing back to allow everyone else to get the best views of the dolphins as they swam alongside the boat, and breached from the water all around. Some of the images taken by the group were simply sensational, and I think we all almost forgot we were supposed to be watching for the eagles!

That soon changed when the action recommenced, and we had some terrific views of the eagles coming down for the fish.

With the smaller group, I was also able to photograph the action all the way through the dives, and added a few more images to my library of these incredible birds.

The day ended with another otter sighting, and Andy bagged one of the most gorgeous sunset / silhouette otter images I've seen - benefits of having a 100-400mm lens attached to his camera instead of the big prime I had on mine. The sunset itself was worth staying for, and so ended yet another wonderful day on Mull, with yet another very late dinner, as had become the norm for this trip!

The lovely weather continued the next day, but as I have so often experienced in previous trips, good weather doesn't always mean great days of wildlife. In fact, the wildlife often seems to go into hiding on such days, for me anyway. Mull isn't just about the wildlife though, and wide-angle lenses replaced telephoto ones, for imagery of the glorious views to be had.

Taking a different route around the island allowed us to visit a site of a golden eagle nest, and using just his ears (closing his eyes) Andy worked out where the nest was, and where the eaglet was hence calling from. The parents passed over a couple of times, before we decided to leave. Halfway down the road, we spotted a large raptor low down, parked rapidly and jumped out to get some shots. Unfortunately for Ruth, Andy had been using her Canon 7D Mk2 with its cropped sensor for a bit of extra reach to view the eaglet moments earlier, and had left the shutter on a timer release, so when she tried for the shot, nothing happened. Well, apart from some unrepeatable language! For what it was worth though, the eagle was against the sun, so it'd have been difficult to gain anything decent from the image.

We didn't have to wait long for another view, this time of a different golden eagle, whilst it was being mobbed initially by a pair of buzzards, and later by a raven and hen harrier. The skies had clouded over by now, and only record shots could be taken. Not a bad record, though...

And she soon cheered up when she managed to grab a decent image of a male hen harrier as it hunted over a marsh. Something I was unable to do, as I couldn't get to my camera in time... One day I'll get a shot.

With rain forecast later, on our final full day of the tour, we all decided on an early start, and it paid dividends almost immediately, when we spotted the group of otters once more. With swirling winds, it was tricky to find a suitable spot to watch from, but manage we did, and were delighted to watch a pair of them play fighting on the seaweed, before going out fishing. With the warmer waters at this time of year, the otters generally consume their catch without needing to bring it ashore, but some of the crabs being brought up to the surface were perhaps too tricky to deal with, so they swam back to the rocks to handle them.

While we had decent views, we were really a smidge too far away for anything really good, and when the otter we had been watching went out fishing once more, heading out into the loch, I suggested we catch the others up. But then Ruth spotted one of the other otters much closer, and we all froze to watch. It was coming ashore, and we relocated to another viewpoint and collectively held our breath. It had caught a large crab, and landed it on a small seaweed-covered rock below us. We'd struck gold again!

Despite us being so close, the otter wouldn't have heard our shutters clicking (on silent mode of course) as it crunched through the shell of the crab.

Remarkably, after such amazing views, we moved to another spot on the lochside, and got even closer views of an otter, as it fed on a fish it'd caught. I couldn't fit the whole otter in the frame!

Needless to say, we stayed watching, and when the pair of young otters we had seen earlier came swimming over to the one below us, we wondered what we might see next. Alas a small movement from one of us spooked them, which was hardly surprising how close the otters had come to us, and they backed off slightly. Perhaps, for us at least, this was a good thing, as we were then able to photo the pair with a bit more space in the shot.

More magic as we saw them swimming around, hugging each other. At times with one head stacked on the other. So charming.

When they stopped playing and swam out into the water, we thought it was time to leave them be, and head elsewhere. It was getting busier on the roads, and more folks were slowing to look at what we were watching. It was also starting to rain pretty hard, as forecast. Around the loch, we saw a curlew perched on a rock, so I suggested we try for the slow speed shots to make the rain streak. Wasn't quite enough contrast to get the effect I wanted, but it wasn't bad.

Back to the digs for a well earned cooked breakfast, before we headed north to visit Tobermory for a change. We were going to take a drive around the north west corner of Mull, but ended up looking for more otters elsewhere, but drew a blank.

Saturday morning, and we had to be out of the accommodation by 10am. Andy and I busily tidied up, while our clients packed ready for their travel plans that day. As the house started to empty, as each left, both Andy and I felt a hint of sadness as the week had been such tremendous fun, and the wildlife had been incredible. I can't imagine how we could have had a better group of people as clients really. Everyone got on, shared an obvious passion for wildlife and photography, were more than willing to follow our guidance and definitely had similar senses of humour, all of which made the week fly by.

I had intended to stay for the Saturday in a vain attempt to photograph hen harriers, but the rain forecast for the evening rolled in mid-morning, and by mid-afternoon I was sailing away from Mull, with the long drive home ahead of me.

Andy has run such tours before, so perhaps didn't have the apprehension I had before this one. I didn't know what to expect; would I even enjoy the challenge? Would it be successful? Could I successfully guide and advise others to enjoy and photograph the wildlife I have captured on camera over the years on this wonderful island?

Now I know all of the answers, and am looking forward to running more tours. I loved every minute of it. To see the clients' faces light up when experiencing the action we witnessed, to hear them recount how they felt at seeing the wildlife, and to see the results on the back of their cameras, spoke volumes.

Next July (2017) we will be running two tours, with the same target species and trips booked. If you fancy joining us, please take a look at Andy's website (Click Here), and sign up.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Hobbies, Doves, Grebes And Owls

June already and I've not blogged anything since Scotland. Disgraceful for someone claiming to be a blogger. So what have I been up to since reluctantly returning from the glorious Highlands?

Oxfordshire always tempts me late Spring, as I love to watch the returning hobbies gather in numbers over the marshes of RSPB Otmoor, and while I didn't enjoy the same prolonged views of them as last year, I managed to grab a few shots as they hawked insects.

Another draw of the reserve is the chance to see (and hear) turtle doves. These lovely delicate doves used to be common throughout the UK but alas land management, farming practices and of course those morons in Malta who enjoy shooting them on their annual migration, have decimated numbers recently, and they're a rare sight now.

Otmoor is one of the best locations in England to enjoy these doves, and if you're patient, or lucky, you can get some fantastic close views of them.

On my most recent visit, there was a pair, and the male spent a great deal of time purring away to attract the female. When she arrived to feed on the seed sprinkled out by the volunteers on the reserve, he fluttered down to display... and she immediately flew off again. Plenty of time to win her over, one can only hope!

Whilst I was waiting for the turtle doves to perch up, my Bird Guides app on my phone informed me of a black-necked grebe back near home, at Earlswood Lakes in Warwickshire. I've seen several before, so chose to stay for the doves, and thankfully the grebe kindly stayed on the pool until the following morning, when I managed to catch up with it.

The light wasn't bad, just in the wrong direction generally, so I ended up sprawled on the grass beside the water to get as low to the bird as possible, and also to gain a darker backdrop from the woodland behind, reflected in the water.

Finding plenty to eat, the grebe generally stayed just that bit far out from the shore, for anything really good, but just after lunchtime, it strayed closer in once more, and we (a few familiar faces had turned up by now) grabbed some images of it.

Earlswood is also a good spot for great-crested grebes, so when the black-necked star was out in the middle, I was again rolling in the freshly-cut grass getting images of them instead.

With one chick on its back, and a second spreading its time between the parent birds, the family group shots provided a worthwhile distraction for me.

Finally, late last Summer, with kind permission from a local landowner, I tried to set up a feeding station for birds alongside a pair of resident little owls. Problem for me came in the form of wind. Not me from consuming too many sprouts, though I'm sure a few eyebrows will be raised reading this, but with the persistent gales from Autumn right through Winter and into early Spring. The hide was literally blown away on one day, flinging the chair inside over 40 feet across the field.

However, I called in again recently, and it would appear that the pair have been busy and have some smaller beaks to feed. Hence they are busy gathering food from around the farm, and I have enjoyed more success with them in a few days than in all the weeks spent there previously.

I hope this will develop into a commercial project where clients can join me to enjoy similar views, and get some cracking photos at the same time.

As and when this is ready, details will appear on my Social Media streams and of course, my website.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Scottish Highlands In May

Trying not to become a creature of habit, I wanted to see something different to what I normally photograph at this time of year, so returned to the Scottish Highlands for a week in early May. Unlike in Winter, I would be targeting species that aren't around during the colder months, though should I encounter anything I normally see, I certainly wouldn't refuse a shot.

Setting off early on a Monday morning, I avoided the rush-hour traffic and decided to take a brief detour from the usual route, to explore Langholm Moor, an area where in recent years projects involving the interaction of hen harriers and red grouse have been conducted to understand what might be a solution to the issue of harriers preying upon the grouse. Obviously I was after the hen harriers, and despite arriving in torrential rain, the clouds lifted and I saw at least two males hunting over the moors. Too distant for photos sadly. The area reminded me of World's End in North Wales, which is a tad closer to home for me!

Continuing my drive up north, I aimed for some more moors, and watched the red grouse (mainly males) pecking at the heather. I assume most of the females are now on eggs. The loch was pretty choppy so I couldn't see any divers on it. It was pretty quiet, so I cut across to the A9 again, and went for a look down Findhorn Valley. It's an area where I have often seen birds of prey, and indeed this time, I spotted a few buzzards around, plus a distant red kite. But just as the skies had finally cleared, the breeze dropped down to a more pleasant speed, I saw something soaring up over the ridge up the slopes from me. A golden eagle.

It was being mobbed by a buzzard initially, but the buzzard soon headed off when it had no effect on the much larger bird. I watched the eagle fly back and forth along the top of the hills, scanning the ground for any rabbits or hares that were hiding amongst the heather or behind rocks or trenches in the ground. Of course the hares are now brown in colour so are much more difficult to spot against the vegetation, though there are a few leverets around that might be easier to pick off.

I watched it for a while, hoping it might change direction and perhaps soar towards me, providing closer views, but it never did, eventually banking away and vanishing from sight over the top. An encouraging start to the trip though. And the day ended at Lyndsey and Andy's place, with a bite to eat and the usual warm welcome and amusing banter I've come to expect from staying with them.

The following morning was blustery, though the sun was still shining. A trip to RSPB Ruthven provided views of the Slavonian grebes, but just as one started to edge closer to me, a greylag goose dropped in, landed between the grebe and me, and sat there honking until the grebe had gone away again. Stupid goose. I was not happy. Andy was free from lunch, so I returned to Inverness to meet up and we headed out for the afternoon together, to see a few sites he'd recommended.

RSPB Tollie red kites feeding station was first on the agenda, where we watched just a handful of kites come down for the food put out. Unlike Gigrin, the kites here have to be quick to get the food, laid out on a table, or the local gulls get in there first and steal it!

The volunteer put the food out in batches though, and this allowed the kites to be prepared and eventually they managed to get a meal. Not quite the frenetic Hitchcock-esque experience of Gigrin, but entertaining nonetheless. And maybe an indication that the red kites around the area are finding enough food of their own not to need to visit the site? I certainly saw a few around the wider area on my recent visits, so they're definitely establishing themselves.

Next on the agenda were more Slavonian grebes, though this time at a different site, and as it turned out, a cracker of a place for views of them. With the strong winds continuing though, this initial visit was more of a case of watching and noting behaviourial patterns, and working out where might be best for us to photograph from.

However, whilst we were wandering around doing just that, a pair of grebes suddenly fronted up, and started to perform the courtship dance. Quite unexpected, as neither had presented the other with weeds, which is often a sign this is about to happen. I dropped to my knees (as the tripod was set low) and grabbed a few images of the performance. Face-to-face, they swayed their heads from side-to-side, making high-pitched trill sounds. But the choppy conditions cut short their show, and they dived back beneath the waves once more.

Then it was on to Chanonry Point, to see if the dolphins were performing. I've been before, but never had much success, and again found it tricky to guess where they would surface. Andy advised that they often use the tide to hold their position, so keep pointing the camera at the same place, but with the strong breeze and choppy waves, this was harder than it sounded. I think a smaller zoom lens might have been a better idea to give a wider area to watch, but eventually I got some action in the viewfinder.

The dolphins lie in wait for the salmon, as they come into the shallows of the firth, and set a trap effectively, so the fish virtually swim into them. You do get to see the dolphins occasionally accelerate to catch some, and it's quite dramatic as they make the surface froth with their speed and power. Once caught, the fish need to be in a precise angle to be swallowed, so you do see them being spat out and eaten again.

Andy is definitely a man with projects, and one of his latest is with red squirrels, not only photographing them in woods, but specifically getting images of them leaping. They can jump a very long way, as was seen initially with camera traps he'd put out, with them jumping over fifteen feet between trees. Putting in a hide, laying out a set-up to encourage them to jump and a reward of some hazelnuts, and hey presto, the chance to photograph them in mid-air!

With the woods being a gloomy place, a bright lens was needed, so I borrowed Andy's 70-200mm f2.8 though coupled with a 1.4 converter, still allowed for enough light in for the shots. Then it was a case of pre-focusing to where the squirrels jump across, and burst shooting as they do. You have to be quick as they're over in a flash!

We spent the middle of the week visiting the various sites at varying times. The dolphins were breaching more on one morning visit, but the light was behind them and the wind so strong, it was an effort to stand up, let alone keep the lens steadily pointing at the same spot on the churning sea. Still, I got a lucky break when one breached and I was alert enough to get a shot.

A small group of sanderlings caught my attention briefly, especially one that seemed to have been ringed so many times it seemed a tad ludicrous! Surely one is enough?

Another visit to see the grebes was amusing in that the waves on the loch were so large, the grebes vanished from sight when they were in the troughs. Would we ever get a calm day?

However, while it wasn't perfect for certain images, we did get to see some behaviour between the grebes, and the pair that had been courting earlier in the week, had obviously set up a nest and for a while at least, didn't seem keen on any other grebes coming close, so one was chased away!

And after the brief escape, the grebe chose to perform a wing-flap, which was snapped up by us both watching from the shore.

An added bonus, as we headed away from the loch was the sight of a cuckoo using some overhead wires to watch for caterpillars to swoop down upon.

Friday was the first calm day of the break, and Andy's friend Derek had pencilled it in as the day for hiking up Cairngorm for the dotterel, if they were back. Derek believed they arrive back late April, so ought to be there, though no-one had reported them from the site yet. Perhaps no-one had looked? The hike up was warmer than we'd expected, and I regretted ignoring Andy's advice about wearing light trousers, though I wasn't overly hot. As we reached the patches of snow higher up, shapes moved on rocks and Andy spotted a pair of ptarmigan. Worth a shot or two and my legs needed a break too!

Seemed strange when the weather was starting to show signs of summer that these birds could still be wandering around on snow.

Further up the slopes my legs turned to jelly and I left the others to go on ahead. I can happily wander for miles and miles on the level, but put a hill in front of me, and I'm useless. Andy kindly said he'd head up top and phone me if the dotterel were there, and as I lay photographing another pair of ptarmigan, my phone buzzed to tell me of dotterel in Lancashire. Perhaps I could call in there on my way back...

No need, as my phone started buzzing again. Andy was on the line and they'd found a group of six dotterel on the top. Time to get my legs working again and get my sorry excuse of a body up the mountain. To be fair, the rest had worked and I was soon up top, and within moments of getting there, clocked the dotterel. Initially, they were wary of us, so we sat still and had a bite to eat. Then the dotterel became intrigued by us, and approached. Fantastic.

We only had to sit or lie down, and they came over to us, sometimes too close to focus on.

There were five females and a lone male, who was being chased by the keen females, trying to secure him for a mate. We saw scuffles, chases and heard lots of calls as they scampered, scuttled and flew around the area.

I have seen dotterel in the past, several times, but never close like this, and it was a wonderful experience.

Derek explained how the female makes the nest simply by pressing its chest into some soft vegetation to form a small cup-shape, where the eggs are laid, and the male pretty much takes over then, leaving the females to leave. He has to look after the nest and subsequent chicks to raise them to the point of them flying away safely. Quite a challenge, when the area is watched by eagles, ravens and even visited by red foxes.

I had pretty much lost track of time up there, and we were late leaving the top. I could have stayed all evening, but it was definitely dropping in temperature and was probably wise to head back down, given the distance involved back to the car park. Waiting for us there was the herd of reindeer, but the sight of them feeding beside cars didn't inspire me to take any shots other than with my phone. I was exhausted and the suggestion of chips was a far more appealing idea. Another awesome day in the Highlands.

The weekend had arrived and this meant two became three, with Lyndsey joining us on our days out. Visiting the dolphins yielded a close sighting of a guillemot fishing in the shallows.

And afterwards, we headed over to the Slavonian grebes. The loch was flat but a breeze kept disturbing the surface seemingly each time the grebes appeared. Annoying, but magical to see them so closely.

Andy and Lyndsey took me to a site at the end of the day where they'd spotted dippers, and it didn't take us long to find them. There were three fledglings hiding in plain sight around the banks of the river and the parents were visiting each in turn to feed.

Though some had chosen a better place to perch than others!

The last full day of my trip started with a session in the red squirrel hide, though it was very gloomy indeed, and despite using a 300mm f2.8 lens, I still had to ramp up the ISO to 5000 for some images. Still, we had a good number of jumps to photograph and the project looks very promising for Andy. And it was interesting to see how the squirrels use their bushy tails during each jump, twisting it and swishing it around for stability.

The latter part of the day was spent on the slopes around the Cairngorm Ski Centre, with ring ouzels being the favoured target. There were at least two pairs around, and the female was the most accommodating when it came to providing photo opportunities.

Wanting to eek out every last moment of the trip, we headed elsewhere for the evening light, and as we looked for grouse on the hills, found a most compliant, and oh-so-cute subject.

A mountain hare leveret, and it didn't mind us being close at all. What a sweet little character.

Afterwards, I amused the others by manually pushing the car along the road so they could get some shots of a wheatear, avoiding the clatter of the diesel engine spooking the bird! And then we found somewhere to watch the sun set. Gorgeous. Warranted a change of lens too!

It was a tranquil, peaceful few minutes as the orange orb slowly sank below the horizon, accompanied by the calls of a cuckoo.

I had considered an early start for the long drive home, but Andy tempted me with one last visit to the grebes, and with a forecast of clear blue skies, calm conditions and a temperature in the mid-twenties, it was hard to refuse. Reality was that on site the loch was shrouded with mist, and it was hard to make out anything initially.

The mist slowly cleared and we hoped for some similar close views of the Slavonian grebes as on previous visits, but as anyone who does wildlife photography will know, nothing is guaranteed. The grebes we had been watching were obviously now taking it in turns to sit on eggs, and only one would go fishing at a time. And the other pair sharing the area preferred fishing further away.

But to see them in such vibrant light was a treat, and we almost got a courtship dance.

Knowing (or assuming) one pair were on eggs we chose to leave the site, though not before we had a brief cameo appearance from an osprey. Never came close, but great to see. And as we drove away, we spotted a pair of cuckoos, fighting over a caterpillar. Cue a massively cropped record shot...

One perched closer for a brief moment, adopting that classic cuckoo pose, but they then flew off, and I knew it was time for me to do the same.

I'm like a scratched record when gushing over how much I enjoy these trips to Scotland, but it really is a fantastic place to visit, at any time of the year. And of course massive thanks also need to be extended to Lyndsey and Andy Howard for their hospitality during the stay. Roll on the next trip...