Friday, 3 April 2015

Scottish Highlands

Leaving Mull via the Fishnish terminal felt somewhat alien, and despite knowing I was heading north for more adventures, I still felt slightly saddened to be travelling away from the Isle, especially on a calm, sunny morning. The crossing was brief, and after allowing those in more of a hurry than me past, I continued my journey across the moors, through the glens towards Corran, where I had intended to get a second ferry over to the main road, leading to Fort William. However, it was glorious and there was an alternative, scenic route to be used, which led north along the edge of Loch Linnhe before heading west around Loch Eil. With no schedule to adhere to, I took the longer route, and loved every minute of it.

The scenery was at times breathtaking, and I thought it'd be rude of me not to stop occasionally to drink it all in.

Before long I was on a "main" road (one with 2 sides!) heading north, being rather thankful that the authorities had managed to open the A82 again after a landslide, and providing me with a direct path to Inverness. Disappointingly I failed to spot Nessie as I drove along, but I started to smile when I recognised the roads leading into Inverness, and following his good directions, I was soon trundling up the track to Andy's house.

Dumping my bags in the spare room, Andy was quick to explain what wildlife was around and suggested we head out to the mountain hares, seeing as the weather was good and we had plenty of time on our hands. Thankfully, one of the hares that Andy had introduced me to before, nicknamed Bagpuss, was sat contentedly on the hillside, with another whiter companion nearby. With careful approach, we soon got close enough to them for some shots and I followed Andy's lead on what angles to try for, and listening to his knowledgeable ramblings on what to expect the hares to do, based on his lengthy observations of them over the years.

It has to be said, once settled and accepting of your presence, hares don't do an awful lot. You have to be patient, innovative with angles and observant of signs of activity, so as to be ready for them to perhaps stretch or yawn, or groom for a short while.

They do occasionally wander off to feed too, but being so close to a wild animal, and for them to go about their business with you present is a real privilege.

Heading back after, we diverted to some moorland to look for red grouse, but were surprised to find another hare, somewhat standing out like a sore thumb in the darkened heather.

Then it was back for a much needed meal with Andy and his wife Lyndsey, who had both kindly offered to let me use their place as a base for the week.

Sunday was a day off for both of them, and we set off to look for some local reserves. Finding one from the RSPB proved to be interesting, taking in some bumpy tracks along the way, but eventually we found the right place. The lake had a hide on it, and aside from the wildfowl on it, there were feeding stations either side, to bring in some woodland species of birds, plus red squirrels.

It was a pretty gloomy day, and the local water rails, apparently frequently photographed around the hide, failed to show, though I heard a couple calling some distance away. Two pairs of little grebes provided some entertainment though.

And a red squirrel visited, and spent some time actually inside one of the feeders!

The cloud failed to lift and we spent the remainder of the day out in the moors, watching the antics of red grouse. Some of which were sometimes a bit too close to us to focus on!

After seeing so many deer on Mull, I had hoped to catch up with some in one of the glens of the Highlands, but my drive proved fruitless, finding cattle where there had been deer before. Just one stag showed, and that was off before I could compose a decent image with it. Not wanting to waste the day, I decided to head over to Applecross (I know, it's not exactly close but I knew the scenery would be spectacular along the way), and the clouds out west seemed to be more fragmented.

Stopping to photograph firstly some goats...

And then a castle (Eilean Donan), though the sun resolutely refused to shine upon it.

Before long I could see the mountains and the pass leading to Applecross, and as before, when Andy (and Derek) and I had visited for ptarmigan, the sun was shining upon it. So, would I finally get to see the ptarmies at the top?

No. Just as I turned the car up the steepest part of the road leading to the top, the cloud rolled in, and by the time I was at the car park, it was snowing so hard I couldn't see past the end of the bonnet.

It cleared eventually, but by then I was unwilling to trek up to the top, for fear of another icy blast rolling in. Sat in the car I watched a distant white-tailed eagle lift up over the summit, and an even more distant golden eagle drift along the ridge behind. Bizarrely though, on the way back down I noticed a dipper on one of the small pools.

Grabbing some shots of the scenery as I left, I thought it would be wise to head back, given the time it had taken to get there.

Amusingly, as I enjoyed some of the faster, straighter roads back towards Inverness, I spotted a stag, posing pretty much how I had hoped to see them in the glen where I first headed. I wasn't going to refuse such a shot!

If Monday had been a day of many miles and not many pics, Tuesday would prove to be the reverse. I made my way to where the hares live, and found I had the place to myself for the entire day. With showers forecast, I had wrapped up warm, and soon, using techniques learned from Andy, was sat on the hillside next to Bagpuss and his friend.

With a bright start to the day, I focused on getting portraits of the hares. At this time of the year, they are losing their white winter coats, both from grooming and rolling around on the heather. It can be seen from the images, that the browner fur is starting to be revealed.

As before, I watched and patiently waited for them to do something. Doing so I was able to grab images of them cleaning and yawning.

Then, as I tried for yet another angle, something magical happened. It started to snow. Only briefly, and soon the clouds had moved off down the valley.

Trying for some other hares proved more tricky, and as I found out from Andy later, the individuals I attempted to approach are far less tolerant than Bagpuss. One legged it before I could even start moving towards it, while the other waited for me to start climbing a steep slope before it decided to relocate.

I found a third sat out in the open and as the snow came down again, it initially allowed me to sit close by for some shots, before it scampered around me, to a form nearby, where again it allowed me to approach.

By now the snow showers were coming in thick and fast, and the view down the valley vanished at times. This made for more interesting images of the hares, and I was keen to watch if the weather affected their behaviour.

Bagpuss had ventured out to roll in the heather, but the snow seemed to put a stop to this, and he ambled off to feed instead.

His colours certainly help him blend into the surroundings.

Eventually the cold and wet (mainly because my gloves aren't waterproof) forced me to leave, and I spent the remainder of the day up on the moors with the red grouse, again taking advantage of it being snowing for some different shots.

Most are paired up at this time of year, following the females around, and fending off rival males, should they dare stray too close.

All week I had been watching the forecasts, and Wednesday seemed best to try for the ptarmigan up on the Cairngorms. With Andy's detailed instructions and a map he'd lent me, I was soon puffing and panting up the slope. Overnight it had continued to snow and some of the paths described to me had simply vanished. Nevertheless, after a call to Andy, I was soon in the right place and kneeling in the snow with a pair of ptarmigan sat on boulders nearby.

With such bright light and snow reflecting it all around, I was able to drop the ISO right down, and whack the shutter speed up. Then it was a case of locating the birds and hoping they'd stay still.

Thankfully, I managed to bump into Derek again, and I realised that following him around would be best, with his experience of the area.

Climbing one side of the corry we found several individuals, including some still in full winter guise. They're stunning birds.

And then taking care to cross to the other side, as the ground made up of holes, boulders and streams was completely covered with snow, we caught up with another group.

With some taking guard, watching us, others dug away at the snow to uncover the heather to eat.

As with the hares, I tried to get some angles to achieve the best backdrop to the images, using rocks, the snow and when possible, the blue sky on display above.

The hike up, crawling round on my knees, balancing between boulders, trying not to let my camera fall away from me and holding it all steady for shots proved to be rather tiring, and I left the mountain mid-afternoon. Surprisingly, the way down was much easier as where there had been snowy slopes before, gravel paths now showed me the way back to the car park. Amazing how quickly the snow thaws from the hillsides.

Not wanting to waste the fine weather, I again headed to the moors to catch up with the red grouse, and capture them in bright conditions for a change.

While the males with their vibrant red wattles are easy to spot against the vegetation, the females are so well hidden, that they need to move to be spotted.

The main event for the week up there though, would be the black grouse lek, and after getting the ptarmigan pics I had wanted, I looked at what was around locally to distract me before then. At the house, with their array of feeders, Andy and Lyndsey have attracted all manner of birds to their garden, and the most vibrant one was worth a look one morning before leaving. Yellowhammers. Up to six at a time and again, with them being rather skittish, I was glad of the silent mode on the new camera.

The RSPB site of Loch Ruthven isn't far away, so I tried the hide after Lyndsey suggested it, and she was right, the Slavonian grebes were back... and mating.

Also around the woods were masses of frogs and toads. The latter often sitting on the paths, something I warned other visitors of, before lying down in the undergrowth with my macro lens, to get some ground-level shots of them.

On another loch nearby was a pair of black-throated divers in summer plumage. They're stunning looking birds, but frustratingly remained distant, only heading to the shore of the other side of the loch occasionally.

While I could have exercised my right to roam and gained closer images, I chose not to, not wanting to risk disturbing them as they set up their nest.

The day of the lek started early. Very early. Begged the question whether it was worth going to bed, when you had to be up for 1:30am. We drove out to Mark Hamblin's place and then followed him over to the lek site. Thankfully some of the hike to the lek was taken care of by my Yeti, which coped admirably with a very bumpy, rutted track through the woods. Soon we were in the hide and after listening to instructions from both Mark and later Andy, I settled down to wait for the action to start.

The first sign of it is the sound of the birds landing, and then you have to strain your eyes, to make out the pale tail feathers against the darkness.

With dawn comes the sight of the lek, and what a site it is. With mountains behind, it is almost magical.

The birds, all males, have been using this site for a while, and do so to size each other up even before the females arrive. Hence, we were witnessing a pre-lek really, not that it was a disappointment. Making gurgling sounds, puffing up their necks, fanning tails and screeching, these males are both fascinating and amusing in equal measures.

The hides are slightly below the lek, so images are pretty much at ground level. And thanks to the capabilities of the 7D2, I was able to start taking shots far earlier in the day than I could with the original 7D which was next to me, on a bean bag. That said, I was shooting at ISO 6400 initially!

As the light improved, the ISO could be reduced. And the challenge was to fit the birds into the frame. A cropped sensor and 500mm was slightly too cramped for most images where more than one bird was involved.

With there being no females present to fight for, this session was mainly about posturing, with a very occasional fracas breaking out. And, as they were over before they seemed to start, I need to watch out for the signs for my next visit, if I am to capture some of the action!

Once the light had improved enough for the 7D to work, I could get wider shots of pairs of black grouse sparring.

Unfortunately, as the sun surfaced, the birds which had been flighty all morning, departed, and after a wait to see if they'd return, we called time on the session.

Despite feeling like we had done a day's photography, it wasn't even breakfast time, so we headed north, calling into Huntly for brekkie, before on to Troup Head, an RSPB reserve on the north coast.

The fields were filled with yellowhammers, though they wouldn't let us get close enough for anything like a decent shot. The cliffs though, were already a hive of activity, with gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and gulls nesting high up, and guillemots and razorbills whizzing around below, closer to the sea.

Andy had hoped that a stiff breeze would allow us to get some good flight shots of the gannets, but it eased and we had to make do with shots from their antics on the nesting sites.

And the calm, serene scene soon turned sour, with a pair of gannets involved in a furious and bloody battle.

Striking dangerously close to the eyes, they risked blinding each other as they locked beaks.

Eventually, they tumbled from the cliff face, plummeting down below and out of sight. We hoped they had the sense to let go before it was too late, but neither returned afterwards, though our tiredness had caught up, and we chose to head home by early afternoon. Calling into a favourite ice cream outlet along the way.

My final day saw me try again for the black-throated divers, and as before, they remained at distant. Annoyingly I encountered a pair on another loch, very close by, but they flew before I could get a shot. The harsh light and strong winds made for a challenging day's photography, and saw me return to the woodland floor for some more toad shots.

And a visit to Boat Of Garten yielded some images of whooper swans feeding on a small loch.

A last look at some moors for some red grouse, and it was time to pack up for the drive home.

I set off early morning, having thanked Lyndsey and Andy for their generosity and hospitality during the week. Both have become great friends, and anyone wanting to experience what the Highlands have to offer in terms of wildlife, would do well to make use of Andy (Andy Howard) as a guide.

My fortnight in Scotland in March had come to an end, but what a trip it had been. Full of fun, excitement and new experiences, providing memories to treasure, and proving that Scotland is a fabulous destination to aim for at any time of year, for its rich abundance of wildlife.

1 comment:

Sevda Dere said...

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