After encountering a nesting pair near Loch Garten in 2010, I have been wanting to photograph crested tits ever since. Such quirky characters with their spiky crests and intricate markings, but confined to the woodlands around the Scottish Highland, which meant a planned trip would be required... so late last year I booked a week off work this year and started to make the necessary arrangements.
Initially I had only thought to go for a couple of days, and had contacted a professional photographer (Neil McIntyre) who I'd met before a couple of times, to use his facilities for the crested tits and also red squirrels; it seemed a shame not to do them as well! But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to stay a tad longer, so in the end I had booked the Saturday night in a B&B, and then the next four in a cabin.
And so, at 4am on the Saturday morning, I woke, packed the car and by just after lunchtime, I'd arrived in the Aviemore area. Initially I tried a spot near Boat Of Garten, where I hoped I'd see crested tits, but with the snow around, I thought I'd head up for the red grouse at Lochindorb, a favourite spot of mine. The road up there was a tad slippery, but I got up there safely, and on turning off the engine, heard the first calls of the grouse.
With the snow amongst the grasses, gorse and heather, the grouse were a bit easier to spot than usual, and it didn't take me long to get close to one for some shots.
Sat on a clump of snow, it stood out well, but the light was a bit behind. Still, made for some reasonable images. Heading down towards the loch, I found some more mooching around in the vegetation, and unlike those I've seen at locations like Long Mynd, these don't seem to be bothered about vehicles.
After a while, with the weather seeming to be getting better, I thought it'd be a shame to let it go to waste, and headed to a site on the north coast where Chris Packham (on Winterwatch) had enthused over long-tailed ducks. From what I could tell, it would be possible to park on the harbour and view the birds from the car. And within seconds of turning on to the harbour, I saw my first ever pair of long-tailed ducks. Fantastic!
Chris was right - they are fabulous ducks, and they were so close! With the clear water in the harbour, you could even see them diving down to feed at the bottom.
The vibrantly painted boats and buildings behind the harbour made for some colourful reflections on the water, which really set off the photos.
Also around were the females, plus eider ducks. I've seen the females of these close up before (Shetland), but only ever seen the males in collections like Slimbridge. This was a real treat to see them in the wild, and still so very close.
As the light began to fade late afternoon I spotted a pair of common scoter out in the entrance of the harbour, and waited hoping they'd come closer.
The female ventured in closer, but he didn't alas, and as I'd promised to be at the B&B for a certain time, thought I'd best head back down to check in. A great first day, and well worth the early start.
Amusingly, as I chatted to the B&B owner, I realised a friend from Hereford was staying at the same place, and we ended up down the local pub having a laugh and a few ales, with me realising driving for over 500 miles doesn't do wonders for my eye sight, as I played very badly at pool!
After a most welcome breakfast, I watched the local red squirrels in the garden of the B&B (was way too gloomy for pics) before heading back up to Lochindorb again. As before, it took only a few moments to locate a grouse close by, and this time it posed atop a mound, where it plucked at the heather.
The weather was very gloomy, so I headed back to Burghead, to watch the ducks again. The light was flat but seeing these fine ducks brightened my mood considerably, and I again prayed the common scoter might come in closer. The seas were rather stormy though, and even in the sheltered harbour, the water was rather choppy.
While the scoter again remained distant, I did see a guillemot venture into the harbour and provided a few minutes entertainment as it paddled around, diving occasionally, appearing metres from where it disappeared.
On the walls of the harbour were small flocks of turnstones and redshanks, and one of the latter, when separated from the main group looked worth a shot or two...
Neil had arranged for me to be in the cabin during the evening, so there was no rush back, but with sleet falling, I drove to the area nearby and chilled out, before meeting up with him at the cabin on the site. What a fantastic spot. Surrounded by woodland and mountains, in a spacious estate, the cabin looked great, and the interior was so welcoming. Canvas prints of Neil's photos adorned the walls, and I smiled when I read Paula's (Shetland) comments in the Guest Book. She'd been there for the black grouse lek last year.
A comfortable evening with TV and internet available, and I was ready and waiting for Neil to collect me at 9am. I wasn't ready for the snow though, and wasn't sure (after comments from the lads on Sat night) that I wanted it. Over to the squirrels first, Neil put out the hazelnuts and we waited for a few moments for the squirrels to approach.
With the falling snow, just starting to settle and cover the various perches, I soon worked out that the snow was a real blessing, as it added something a bit magical to the scene.
I have shots of red squirrels (from here before) in the summer, so having wintery images was a bit special. If anything, the 500mm lens was a tad much on the cropped body of the 7D. Perhaps a 400 or 300mm lens would have been better, but careful positioning allowed me to get many full frame shots before the squirrels decided they'd had their fill, and scuttled off into the woods again.
Not to miss an opportunity, when a treecreeper chose to creep up one of the trees next to me, I grabbed a shot of that too!
Next stop, crested tits. Excellent. A short drive to a private site, and we hiked out across the rather sodden, snow-covered ground to the feeding station. An unusual set up I have to say, but logical I guess and it works a treat. Neil was using peanut feeders to attract the birds, and attract them it did; never seen so many coal tits!
Didn't take long to see the first crested tit arrive, but it was harder to get one to perch where we wanted, especially when the coal, blue and great tits seemed to be everywhere.
I got a few shots of empty branches before bagging the first crestie shot, but soon got into the swing of things, and with some second guessing, started to get keepers of these punk rocker birds.
Moving the feeders around allowed for chances of different perches, though the windy conditions really weren't helping. Neil admitted that the day before in calmer weather, the birds had been providing so many more photo chances than when I was trying.
Even so, I managed a shed load of shots, and wanted more when Neil called time on it. With a second day of the same planned, I considered spending the remainder of the day in the cabin relaxing and reviewing pics, but I didn't!
Back to Lochindorb in even more treacherous weather, but definitely worth it. Deep snow covered the moors, and showers of it passed over frequently.
With the snow showers and occasional glimpses of sunshine, I scanned the moors for other birds and found a pair on the top of a small embankment. The male was watching over a nearby female, and provided a great shot in a blizzard, which I duly took advantage of.
Further up the road was a lone bird, on the road itself. It seemed reluctant to move for the car, so I bagged a few images for its portfolio of whisky auditions, before it moved to the edge of the road, and into the deeper snow.
I actually drove alongside it, and even when I said "Hello" to it, as you do when you're sane like me, it simply looked up at me. Parking up a few metres further away (to get a focusing distance), I grabbed some portrait shots of the accommodating individual.
Same plan as before, a 9am pick up from the cabin only this time the blizzards were back with a vengeance. By the time we'd reached the squirrels it was pretty deep and after only a short while, the squirrels seemed to be spooked by something and vanished.
I'd still bagged a few dozen shots mind, and Neil suggested we look for the capercaillie instead. I was happy to do this, as I've never seen one.
Despite an extensive walk through the woods where it lives, conversations with Marcus Conway and his group of adventurers, we never laid eyes on the capercaillie, so that remains one to get.
So it was back to the cresties, only this time, Neil had allowed me to drive up, to spend as much time on site as I wanted.
Which I duly did.
The snow had eased and with it the gales had dropped. Low light again, but with the snow to provide ambient reflections of what light there was, decent conditions.
Moving the feeders around, I chose a wide array of perches and had great success at most.
It was cold though, and with frequent sleet showers, I was glad of the warm clothing and handwarmer to keep me going.
Eventually, the rain came again and didn't look like leaving, so I did instead. Back to the warmth and shelter of the cabin, for a review of the hundreds of images taken that day.
After a wild night (weather!) it was an early start to meet up with Andy (a friend from Twitter) to go in search of ptarmigan over on the west coast. Despite living in Scotland, neither he nor his friend accompanying us had winter tyres on their cars, so it fell to me to pilot the Yeti over there. Took a bit longer than usual (for Andy) as the roads were covered with snow, but we eventually parked up on the top of the mountains overlooking Applecross. A hotspot for ptarmigan apparently and we had some fantastic light too.
Unfortunately we also had some hurricane-force gusts of wind too, and I found it a real struggle to walk only a few hundred metres to the summit. The wind literally blew you off your feet at times, and with solid ice underfoot, it was a miracle I didn't fall over.
Sadly the ptarmigan failed to show - we found some tracks and also saw a pair of golden eagles, which were probably hunting the same birds as we were, but when a blizzard rolled in and we found ourselves clutching at rocks being battered by ice, snow and freezing temperatures, we thought it was wise to call it a day. Another one for next time...
We stopped on the way back to grab some shots of deer beside the road. So it wasn't a complete failure on the photo front...
Have to say though, the Paramo jacket and Stealth Gear trousers combo, in such conditions were amazing. I didn't feel cold (apart from my hands) at all - I was actually slightly too hot! Worth the money for sure!
I had planned to leave on Thursday to avoid late week traffic, but had been considering hanging round if the weather was decent, but raising the blinds revealed snow falling softly, and was my cue to leave for home.
A well planned trip which yielded some excellent results and as usual with Scotland, left me wanting so much more.