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.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Scottish Highlands - Part 3: Woodland Delights And More Harbour Fun

After the brightness of Sunday, Monday was disappointingly gloomy, but we'd have been optimistic to hope for much better weather after recent weeks, especially during winter. Andy had commented as we left him on Saturday that we might have some luck with crested tits at the RSPB Loch Garten centre, so with no plans for the day, we headed into the woodland to find several other folks had already set things up there.

With such clean air, getting attractive perches for our feeding stations was very easy - most of the fallen branches are clad in lichen and moss, so it was more a case of working out how to support the perch itself. Once that was done, we sprinkled seed and other food around, and stepped back.

Chaffinches and coal tits make up the majority of visitors, so I used them to get the settings right on the camera. As it was so dull I'd removed the TC from the 500mm, which allowed more light in, and as the birds were so close, it wasn't needed.

After seeing them at Allan's place, we were chuffed to see some more crested tits at this spot and at last, Kate managed to bag herself some shots of one. As did I - ignoring red grouse in poor light is one thing, cresties are an entirely different matter!

We were pretty pleased with how frequently they came to the feeders that day, though isn't that typical of birds when the light is bad? Same in my garden at home - if it's sunny, they go into hiding...

Still, we grabbed as many shots of them as possible before heading back to the cottage to meet up with Ann, who had travelled up that day. Once she'd settled in, I drove both her and Kate down into Aviemore for a most welcome dinner at one of the restaurants, and enjoyed a very nice pint of Cairngorms Brewery Trade Winds with mine. Mmmm...

Having enjoyed some success with the cresties, Ann was keen to join in the fun and get some shots of her own, so it was back to Loch Garten in the morning, again setting up a feeding station of our own, and again hoping for some visitors.

Not visiting our feeders, but close enough for pics was a treecreeper. As is the norm for Kate, she was rather excited to see one so close up as we followed it around the tree trunks, watching it probe and poke amongst the nooks and crannies. Great little birds.

With the light being as poor as the day before, and rain coming down, I thought it'd be wise to take shots of anything around, including the chaffinches, which to be fair, look rather vibrant inspite of the gloom. And if I'm being honest, I could do with some shots of them for my gallery anyway!

Much like Kate, Ann's reaction to seeing a crested tit was a mixture of excitement, joy and panic, as she tried to grab shots of it. They really don't hang around, and that morning tended to only come in occasionally, grab some food and vanish into the darkness of the woodland again.

The rain steadily got worse, and I suggested that we head up to see if the coast was brighter. This time, instead of going straight to Burghead, I tried Findhorn, as I'd read that it could be quite good for birds on the estuary. It wasn't warm when we got there, with a cold breeze and rain in the air, and a lone figure stood on a jetty, scanning what appeared to be a rather empty area of water with his scope was enough persuasion for us to head to the shelter of Burghead again.

This time, without the glare of the sun on the water, it was certainly easier to get the exposure right for the eiders, diver and long-tailed ducks, though I prefer to see the colours from the reflections.

The great northern diver came very close by, and I grabbed several full-frame shots as it drifted gracefully by.

As usual (and I received a great deal of ribbing from various folks) I stayed in the comfort of my car to take my shots. Both Ann and Kate braved the biting wind to get some of their shots before the weather chased them back to the car. Seemingly unbothered by the weather was Neil McIntyre, who recognised my car from last year and strolled over for a chat. We were to meet later that week anyway, but it's always a pleasure to meet him.

Three grey seals were fishing in the harbour, and two of them seemed to be very playful with each other.

They were also skilled at catching flat-fish, though eating them without attracting the attention of the gulls was more of a problem.

Amusingly though, when a great black-backed gull managed to steal one seal's catch, it was caught by a surprise raid by a juvenile, which snatched the remains of the fish and wolfed it down before it could be caught up with.

Sadly the rains caught up with us, and we chose to head back inland, to the warmth of the cottage. Another fabulous wildlife-filled day out and a fine introduction to some of the delights of the region to Ann.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Scottish Highlands - Part 2: Grouse And Sea Ducks

Whilst walking back down the slopes from the hares to the car, we had noticed that a thaw had set in and the following morning we awoke to a lovely sunrise. Kate had arranged for us to meet Allan Bantick (Chairman of the Scottish Wildlife Trust) mid-morning, but we had enough time to zip up to Lochindorb for the red grouse, only this time I made the effort to get my camera out. In fact I went beyond that, suggesting Kate sit in the back of the car, so we'd both be on the best side of it, should we spot something.

That didn't take long, as first thing in the morning the grouse seem to like to stand tall amongst the heather and call out, especially when females venture nearby. With the place to ourselves, I could park anywhere along the road, and line up the shots.

The morning light made the birds look fabulous, and really caught the males' wattles (their red eyebrows), especially when they raised them up.

Time flies though, and we soon had to drag ourselves away, though the prospect of seeing some crested tits at Allan's place had appeal, especially for Kate who was yet to see one.

Allan's house is on the outskirts of Boat Of Garten, and beside the woodland surrounding it. Hence he attracts both cresties and red squirrels to his feeders. Allan and his lovely wife Heather gave us a very warm welcome, as did their dogs, who as usual befriended Kate immediately. With coffee and home-made biscuits on the go, Allan started to tell us both about his work and what he is doing in the local woodland to assist the crested tit population, with his bespoke nest boxes. As the woodland isn't really suitable for providing nest sites, he has been putting up boxes filled with wood chippings, which the tits excuvate as they would with old decaying wood, from a dead or broken tree.

He has had varying success, but is still learning about their behaviour along the way, and, judging by the feeders outside of his house, they're happy to live in the woods. Kate was sat down, but I remained standing to watch through the window, and within a few minutes I spotted one arrive, and seconds later, Kate was gleefully watching her first crestie!

After a short stroll through the local woods, listening to Allan explain his work there and Kate offer some of her seemingly limitless new ideas, we thanked him for his time and hospitality, and set the sat-nav for Burghead. With the fine weather I wanted to see if the harbour had retained its appeal for the various sea ducks I'd seen there last year.

It didn't disappoint. On arrival we could see a few long-tailed ducks plus a pair of red-breasted mergansers, and after only a short while, they were joined by eiders, impersonating Frankie Howerd, as usual!

Talking to one of the locals, we also heard that a great northern diver had been seen lately and sure enough, it appeared in the mouth of the harbour.

Kate wasn't impressed by it, and I can sort of see why. In winter plumage they're a bit dull I suppose, but I just love the way they glide around, bossing the show, though even it had to be wary of the great black-backed gulls.

With the water sparkling in the sunshine and catching reflections of the colourful boats and buildings around the harbour, I again grabbed as many shots of the ducks, diver and mergansers as I could.

I mentioned to Kate whilst we watched, that I'd wanted to get some shots of the eiders feeding, if possible. Especially as they eat such unappetising creatures. Seconds later, a female eider surfaced with a crab and rather skillfully, juggled it in her beak to break off its legs, before crunching and then swallowing the body of the crab almost whole.

And much to my delight, a male eider then repeated the trick, right in front of us.

I guess living in the harbour isn't a great idea for crabs!

The light eventually started to fade and we headed back, with Kate jumping out along the way, as she has on the drive up there, to capture some of the magnificent scenery. Back to the cottage for a home-cooked meal, a long review of the masses of shots taken and to discuss ideas of what to do next.