"Next time we'll fly up" was what (Wildlife) Kate and I said to Andy and Lyndsey Howard as we bid farewell to them both, and considered the eight hour drive back to the Midlands after a few days spent in and around Inverness.
But what a wonderful break we had enjoyed, packed with wildlife, fun and photography of course, all set against the Scottish Highlands.
Followers of this blog will have picked up on my love of Scotland and its wildlife, and with this being the third trip north of the border of the year, it's becoming a bit of an obsession, and every time I have to leave, I find myself searching for legitimate reasons for returning. In February this year, I had returned yet again without any pictures of ptarmigan, though thanks to Andy, I had a day's worth of memories (and images) of mountain hares.
So this trip I was hoping we could get up a mountain to see the ptarmigan, though the initial forecast didn't look promising. We'd have to wait and see.
To make the most of the few days we could spare up there, we travelled up on a Tuesday evening, kipped over at a Travelodge and then met up with Andy mid-morning. Not wishing to waste any time, we followed him to a site in some woods in the Highlands where he has established a small feeding station, attracting crested tits. Amusingly, as we walked through the woods to the site, crested tits called out from the trees nearby, as if they were following him! Perhaps he's the Pied Piper Of Cresties?
Aside from my desire for ptarmigan, this trip also provided Kate and I with the chance to put our new Canon 7D Mk2 cameras through a decent set of tests, and the gloomy conditions that afternoon were certainly a good starting test for how the noise handling in the camera would cope with higher ISO settings. The original 7D could push the ISO up if the light was there, but if it wasn't, and I needed to crop in, then pushing it beyond ISO 800 was a risk most of the time.
I started with an ISO of 2000, and opened the lens up to f4. Back of the camera the results looked promising, and while there was noise on the RAW images, the tools I am used to processing with, easily coped with it, and the images are, in my eyes, fine.
As with other crested tit sites, coal, blue and great tits were also battling for turns on the feeders. Andy moved them around to allow us to change the angle of our shots, to make the most of any available light, be it direct or as a background. Something he seemed to be very good at finding. I think a monopod might be preferable to a tripod next time too, as he was far more mobile than me, quickly able to adjust position for a different shot.
What little light we had soon faded, and we decided to head back, but not before Kate rigged up one of her Bushnell camera traps, and left out some food. The hope was to get a pine marten, as Andy had spotted some scats around the area.
Another camera was later placed in some more woods near to Andy's house, where he has been seeing red squirrels.
Then it was back to Andy and Lyndsey's lovely house for dinner and a good old natter. Lyndsey sadly had to work during the week, but we met her that evening, and she would be free for the weekend at least. Andy was keen for us to see some of the footage of badgers they had captured, including some superb action during the day. Needless to say, this whet Kate's appetite and before we set off the next day, we wandered down to the area to rig up another Bushnell camera trap.
With dangerously strong winds forecast for the mountains, Andy suggested we head to the lower slopes in search of mountain hares. In February we had enjoyed amazingly close views of some accommodating mountain hares as they went about their business in the snow. This time, the hares would be in different colours, with it being Autumn, and the milder weather meant we'd have no snow this time. On the walk up, Kate spotted a dipper on one of the streams, which was hopping around between the rocks, finding plenty to eat. Pausing to scan the area, both Kate and Andy quickly located hares dotted around the area, making me question my eyesight, as I failed to see any!
As before, we picked one and carefully approached, taking time to do so and allow the hare to become used to our presence.
Keeping low to the ground, we watched the hare as it fed and groomed. It was certainly more comfortable to do so on the heather than in the snow, though Andy had decided not to wear a favourite fleece after some banter the previous night, and regretted it with each gust of icy breeze.
Leaving the hare as we found it, we moved to another younger looking hare, though the view to this one wasn't as clean, with stalks crossing its face. Again, this one stayed put, and we looked for one we had seen earlier.
Sat in the middle of a track you would assume it would be easy to see, but they blend in so well, with the exposed boulders littering the area. On closer inspection Andy was convinced that it was the same hare he had photographed on many occasions before, and was the same one we had seen in February. Certainly looked as miffed as that one, though it didn't seem to mind us being close.
With cloudy skies, we were using higher ISOs again, but thankfully with these animals, a fast shutter speed isn't needed, and their fur hides any noise too.
Overhead, ravens and buzzards circled, and later in the day we were pleased to spot a golden eagle hunting the higher hills. Calls from grouse echoed across the moors and Andy's keen hearing picked up red deer calling from afar. In a sheltered spot, out of the breeze it was pretty close to heavenly, and I can see what brings Andy back here time and time again.
If we had thought the light was poor before, Friday drummed home how bad it can really get. Rain was forecast and it didn't fail to deliver. Heading to Glen Affric, we scanned the hills and woods for red deer. The area is stunning in terms of scenery, though in this light the deer were pretty difficult to spot; perhaps made more so by the mild weather keeping them higher up the hills.
Eventually we found small groups of them, and I actually envied Kate with her 100-400mm lens (mine was in the boot), as some of these enormous animals more than filled the frame, and she was able to zoom out and compose better images.
Here would be a proper test for the Canon 7D Mk2, as I tested some shots at ISO 4000 and 5000, in the torrential rain.
After a rather dear (no pun intended) lunch beside Loch Ness, we chased some brighter weather across to Lochindorb for the grouse, but alas failed to keep up. Annoyingly, the grouse all seemed to be on the wrong side of the car for me, and by the time we were returning, the wind direction had changed, so the rain was still hitting my side, and the grouse had gone into hiding! When some did appear, it was so dull, I yet again dialled up ISO 4000 & 5000 to take some shots.
With Saturday supposedly being our last day to do anything, we optimistically checked the forecast and it was much more promising. Light winds and no rain. Lyndsey was also free to join us for the day, as was our good friend, and professional tog, Neil McIntyre, who met up with us at the Cairngorms car park. Thankfully, what with me being so horrendously unfit, we were able to take the funicular railway up to the top, where we set out to look for the ptarmigan. I must note here, that Neil has a pass to allow him (and members of his group) out of the confines of the restaurant area.
Literally moments after taking in the amazing views, both Andy and Neil were pointing out small, moving white blobs in the distance. Ptarmigan! Dumping some of the gear, scrambling up and over a slope, approaching slowly and deliberately, soon I was lying in range of some shots of this special game bird.
They were feeding amongst the rocks as they moved around, calling and being very alert. I managed to grab a few shots before a couple spooked the whole flock, and they were off, flying down and away, and around the lower slopes to another feeding area, leaving me with a big grin. Like red grouse, I seem to really like these birds. Just something about them. And their call...
Splitting up into groups, we headed off to find more, and in doing so, spotted some rather white mountain hares.
The ptarmigan were in general rather flighty, and it wasn't helped with ignorant dog walkers, who allowed their mutts to chase after hares, scattering the flocks of birds as they charged by.
Spotting a small flock heading up a slope towards us, we lay low in wait, and started to get some decent shots against the dark background of the tree-covered hills below.
Then a quad bike came by and away they went. Damn. But I had some shots and by now the light was starting to go... but in doing so, creating the most amazing sunset over the peaks.
Despite being armed with 500mm lenses, both Andy and Neil set about capturing superb images of it... so of course I had to try too, with some success.
Both Lyndsey and Kate were equipped with smaller, more appropriate lenses and scuttled off across the slopes for better views to capture. I just took some time to drink in the views. It's not often to be up so high, with barely a breath of breeze, watching the sun slowly sink behind distant peaks.
We weren't alone in appreciating it, as the funicular railway driver stopped the train on the way down to allow folks to get shots from the windows, and we stopped again lower down the mountain from our cars to get yet more images.
The last day was supposed to be spent driving home, but we'd already decided to try for the cresties one last time. Before heading there, Kate and Andy collected the Bushnell cameras from the badgers and squirrel sites. A whoop of delight from them both caught my attention as I was making a coffee. At the squirrel site, during a night clip was a pine marten!! Fantastic.
The camera trap at the cresties alas had been affected by moving foliage so we never saw what had taken the food laid out, aside from a few small rodents. Again the light wasn't great but we tried a few shots of the crested tits before both Kate and I knew it was time to leave.
With more great memories from a few days with Andy and Lyndsey we packed up and followed them to the main road home. It won't be long before we're back up there, not just for the wildlife, scenery and atmosphere, but to enjoy the fine company of wonderful, generous friends once more. But next time we'll fly up...
The infamous Mull-Lull is something that always affects me during Autumn, as the excitement and eternal anticipation of seeing something memorable on Mull is hard to match when back in the Midlands. At best, a scan of the skies might yield a buzzard or maybe a red kite.
This year has also been a bit flat with some of my favourite species, such as the peregrines whose nest failed, and the lack of hobbies across the country has disappointed, even at sites like Otmoor. So when all else fails, I return to one of my favourite hunting grounds, Worcestershire, and Upton Warren managed to provide some moments of magic.
The kingfishers have had a good year and are in decent numbers. Aside from fishing and streaking past the hides, they have been arguing over territory, and in doing so, making some unusual sounds - almost like a warbling call. Made a change to hear them making this sound from perches just out of sight, to the usual long peeping call as they flash by!
One species that seems to be flourishing in the UK is the little egret, and there have been as many as four around the Moors Pool of late. Super to watch them flying around the pool, but better still to observe at close quarters hunting the shallows.
Not only are they experts at plucking tiddlers from the water, but they have an eye for anything moving.
With the warm summer, they have been in good numbers but while hunting the flying insects amongst the reeds, the dragonflies themselves become the hunted, and the little egrets frequently attempted take them from the air.
This not only provided some entertainment whilst watching, but also a few decent images, when the egret was facing the right way for some shots.
I usually try to keep an eye on the bird news reports, via websites and Twitter, in particular watching out for any signs of short-eared owls. There seem to be a few around at the moment, so I have tried a couple of previous sites. Before you get excited, I've had no luck so far - apparently they are favouring hunting well after dusk, so no good for images. But the warm summer and the flies it has supported, has meant that stonechats have had a great season - I saw loads on Mull, and the same has been true back here.
Hardly a substitute for the glare from a shortie, but not to be sniffed at.
Especially when seen in the first light of the day, as the morning mists start to lift.
With the trees heavily laden with berries, I have also been on the look out for winter thrushes. And it was whilst looking for these that I spotted something perhaps even better to photo. A green woodpecker.
These flighty birds are one of the most difficult to get close to. They're just so alert to any sound and will fly off to safety if they're unsure of anything at all, even a sudden gust of wind. Thankfully, some seem to be accepting of cars, so by remaining inside mine, I was able to get pretty close.
And, by parking up in places where the woodpecker seemed to be heading towards, I managed to get some exceptionally close views.
Favouring any gaps in the grass, or edges of kerbstones, the woodpecker (a female) was apparently finding plenty to eat, and even a torrential downpour didn't put her off.
Put me off slightly when all the rain from the roof of the car dripped on to my leg through the window! Worth it I suppose for such views.
The male has been, despite the car as a hide, very difficult to approach, but I have managed at least one half decent image.
And with a new camera to play with, the Canon 7D Mk2, I have also been able to push the ISO up and still get usable results. This kestrel for example, like the male green woodie was at ISO 1000, and cropped in.
I will be doing a more comprehensive review of the camera soon, after I have been able to point it at a few more subjects. My Mk1 7D has been a brilliant camera, so I have high hopes for this one. Stay tuned...