Monday, 17 March 2014

Scottish Highlands - Final Part: Crested Tits, Red Squirrels And A Couple Of Mountain Hares

With the final full day in the Highlands pre-booked to be spent with Neil McIntyre, we chose to again head to Loch Garten for another go for the crested tits on the Wednesday, and unlike the previous visits, the sun decided to put in a most welcome appearance. Amusingly, this was the only day that Kate's handwarmer chose to warm up, on a day when it wasn't actually needed.

As before, the usual visitors to our feeders were coal tits and chaffinches, with crested tits coming in very occasionally. Kate had set up her Bushnell camera trap too, in the hope of getting some video captures of the cresties when they came in.

When the crested tits did arrive, we took as many shots as them as possible, including some when they approached, appearing somewhat like pixies in the trees.

Then they'd grab a beakful of food and vanish off into the woodland once more.

They seemed to be getting food from the trees anyway - perhaps small grubs hiding amongst the foliage, so weren't as keen on the food we had laid out as the other birds. By now we all knew the calls they make, so could pick them out from the other calls, and spot them as they flew around nearby.

With the light being so lovely, I had a mind to head to Lochindorb again, but Ann lives near moorland and has plenty of grouse shots from there, and with both Kate and I having had such good views earlier in the week, I chose to drag them away to have a look along the river Findhorn, in "Raptor Valley". Not only is this an area famed for seeing birds of prey (I've seen ospreys, golden eagles and a long-eared owl down here at various times of the year), but it is also simply staggeringly beautiful, with huge hills, snowcapped mountains and a cascading river flowing through.

But not before taking in the views around Loch Garten itself, which turned into a mirror on such a calm day. Beautiful.

Hoping to see golden eagles, I drove straight down to the end car park, though stopping along the way to check streams for dippers.

None around, though Kate thought she saw one flying low along the river. Ravens chased a sparrowhawk overhead, but no eagles alas. With showers starting to roll in down the valley, we were treated to a fine rainbow, well worth capturing.

Having learned how to spot mountain hares from Andy, we scanned the hillsides and, because the snow had melted from the lower slopes, spotted a couple of white hares crouched near rocks a short way up. Ann didn't need to be asked twice and followed Kate and me up the slopes towards the hares.

And using techniques from the day out earlier that week, we managed to approach them, close enough to get some reasonable images, which were welcome despite the 100s taken before, as these were without snow. Ann was chuffed to bits to have bagged some mountain hare shots, and scuttled off down the hill back to the shelter of the car, leaving Kate and me to traverse the slope to get shots of another individual nearby.

Heading back along the single track road, Kate managed to spot some hares down beside the road, though these were brown and seemed to have slightly longer ears than those higher up. They certainly weren't brown hares though and I couldn't get a shot in time as it legged it away before I could get at my gear from the back seat.

I also missed out on the goats that were feeding near the road, though Kate questioned why she was taking their pics, when she owns a pair of goats that seem to be remarkably similar in looks!

Neil had asked us to meet him near the Visitor Centre at Rothiemurchus and we were surprised to see a huge yellow Sea King helicopter descend over us, and land across the road. Certainly blew away any lingering cobwebs that morning.

Off to Neil's red squirrel location where I thought we would be in for the usual treat of seeing these cute characters, feeding right in front of us. Not to be though - one came down eventually, but only for a short while, as it appeared that they had perhaps been able to source food from one of his neighbours.

Being the gent that he is, Neil offered to let us try again on our last morning before taking us over to his crested tit photography site. Unlike the squirrels, these were on the scene instantly, and continued to perform for us all afternoon.

Last year I had battled with snow, sleet, rain and winds, struggling to get images as the light was so poor. This time we had too much light in some cases, with the sunlight making it tricky to get the exposure right and not blow the whites.

Still, with the brighter conditions, I could see the colours of the birds this time, along with the brightly coloured eyes. Such fabulous characters, and here, they seemed to rule the roost, bossing the other tits away.

As before, Neil moved the feeders around, allowing us to get shots of the birds on all manner of perches, advising us where he expected them to appear, and in most cases was spot on.

By the time the sun dropped behind the trees and the light started to fade, we had all got the sort of crested tit shots we had hoped for, and then some. And had a good laugh along the way with quite a bit of banter between us all.

Finally, to wrap up a fine day, and as it was Ann's Birthday, we walked (yes, walked!) down the road to the local hotel bar, and enjoyed some fine dining, great conversation and I got to down a few pints of Trade Winds again, without having to limit myself for a change.

And so the break had come to an end - we all got up early; Ann because she wanted to head back quickly and us so we could try for a couple of hours at Neil's place again.

While we saw one red squirrel at our second attempt, as before it didn't really stay for long, and with heavy hearts, we drove south, trying to absorb as much of the wonderful scenery and atmosphere as we possibly could. I am always gutted to leave such places, especially when the wildlife, scenery and company have been so fabulous, but I had to return Kate to her family, and make a start on processing some of the thousands of images taken during the week.

Once again the Scottish Highlands had delivered the goods, and for a change, I'd had the chance to share it with some great friends.


ann pallas-bentley said...

Ditto on all counts!! Can't wait for our next jaunt!! Thanks again for a great trip.

wildlifekate said...

A truly wonderful week.. thanks for everything Pete! :o)