Friday, 7 December 2018

November In The Highlands

This year, prior to going to Mull for the Otter Photography Tours, I drove up to stay with Andy and Lyndsey, initially for a Hallowe'en Party at a mutual friend's house, but also to spend some time with them both, and help Andy with preparing his crested tit and red squirrel sites, ready for the winter workshops.

But with Andy still on Mull when I arrived, I spent the first day alone with the red squirrels, which is never a bad thing. They're such charming creatures to watch, as they scurry around the woodland, collecting nuts to nibble on, or cache for the colder months ahead.

And after the recent success with the Super Squirrel images in the press, I took advantage of their acrobatics again.

The party was an absolute hoot, especially watching Andy apply his vampire make-up. After Lyndsey had spent a good while making him look rather suave with delicately applied tones and shades, he then transformed his look to something akin to one of the muppets, using a thick black crayon much like an infant would do with a discarded lipstick! Was funny though, and that was how the evening continued.

Back with the squirrels after the party, we tried out some new props introduced to the site. Being so inquisitive, the squirrels investigate anything new that is brought into their woodland, almost immediately. Getting them to sit for the perfect pose is a bit trickier, but they're a delight to observe anyway.

With reports of waxwings being spotted north of Inverness, Andy suggested we spend a day exploring some areas he's found to be attractive to these winter visitors, in previous years, and after just half an hour of looking around some suitable sites, we spotted some. Perched atop a tall tree, in suburbia, the waxwings were digesting a recent meal of berries, before dropping down in the safety of a flock, to berry trees nearby.

And safety in numbers was wise. We saw at least two sparrowhawks actively targeting the flocks of winter thrushes, including fieldfares and redwings too.

Then, whilst watching the waxwing flock later, a crow appeared to spook them into fleeing, but the crow landed elsewhere, and a small brown falcon perched up. Sparrowhawk was my initial thought, then kestrel... then, and Andy laughed as he heard me thinking out loud, merlin!

In suburbia! What a cracking little bird to see. Suddenly the absent waxwings didn't matter...

Later that day, we headed east, primarily to arrive in time for Andy to do a talk, but along the way we stopped off near RAF Lossiemouth, to watch the Typhoons coming back in from a flight. I have always loved seeing and hearing jets, usually from occasional visits to airshows. Standing, probably unwisely, at the end of the runway, the jets were flying in, directly over our heads, and ludicrously low at times too! Andy actually hit the deck at one point, for fear of being too close. I was crouching down, to get images of the jets as they touched down on the tarmac, against a setting sun.

The following weekend, Andy was swamped with work, so just Lyndsey and I headed out, again looking for the waxwings. When we struggled to find them, we called over to a small loch that Lyndsey had wanted to visit for some time, and were surprised to find a pair of dippers on a man-made drainage channel leading from it. Too dark for images, but they were a welcome sight, and the walk round the loch was lovely too, a red squirrel peering down at us from a tree being the highlight.

Back to the thrushes, and I ended up playing the guide. With a stressful job, Lyndsey doesn't get out as much with her camera as she might, so I was quite happy to position the car in spots where she could photograph the redwings. These are gorgeous birds that are often overlooked by folks wanting to see waxwings, but in the right light, these winter thrushes are just as beautiful.

Then later on, we tried the harbours, in the vain hope that the winter wildfowl might have started to use them again. In years gone by, we would see eiders, long-tailed ducks, mergansers, scoters and divers visiting and feeding from these man-made sheltered spots, but we believe they have been dredged to ensure the boats are safe, and as a result, the birds remain out at sea.

Near the harbour, on some rocks being washed over by the waves, were some waders, and one stood out as being a "purp". I've hardly any images of purple sandpipers, but alas by the time we had got anywhere near close enough for photos, the light had gone. One for next time, perhaps.

With fair weather forecast, Lyndsey, Andy and I were joined by a retired friend for a walk up the Cairngorms, to look for ptarmigan. The thing with mountain forecasts though, is that they're subject to change, and by the time we were nearing the area we wanted to be, it had been steadily raining for some time, and was quite breezy. Rain, sleet and snow aren't much of a problem for ptarmigan, but wind is, and they tend to be very wary in such conditions, making approach at times difficult.

And so it proved to be, when we found a small group beside a pool. Most seemed comfortable with us inching closer, but a male, perhaps the "look-out" for the group was ultra alert, and seemed nervous. Armed only with 400mm of reach, I wasn't quite as close as I'd have liked when he decided he didn't like the look of us, and flew, taking all the others with him... right up the side of the mountain.

Lyndsey and I decided to follow, and climbed up the steep slope to where we'd seen them land, but they were playing hard to get, and when Andy heard rocks falling nearby, he signalled to us to come back down. And as it happened, he'd found a lone female bird to photograph there anyway! We paused before heading back, to admire the view, both down and up, the latter looked very much like something from Lord Of The Rings, or perhaps Game Of Thrones... just needed a dragon draped over one of the black rocks.

By the time we'd got some images of the female ptarmigan as well, the rain was really coming down, and stupidly I'd not taken waterproof trousers with me. Getting cold up there isn't wise, so we all hoofed it down the slope, and into the cafe for hot drinks.

A day with the mountain hares followed, which was also damp and chilly. The individual we approached stayed put, which was great, but wasn't the most active. The most action we saw was the taking of a pellet or two, and a few amusing expressions.

We left the hare as we'd found it, which is always the best result.

Later that week I spent some time chasing the winter thrushes, alone this time. The redwings were easy to locate, being in the same spots as before, but this time the waxwings were also around, and would occasionally drop in to feed from the same areas.

I spent some time trying to get a vibrant autumnal background to shots featuring the redwings, especially when they perched on a fence.

The waxwings seemed to generally drop en-masse to the ground, so picking off individuals wasn't that simple.

The end to the week saw Andy and I take a stroll around Fort George, watching winter ducks flying past, although from afar. Then over to check on the crested tits. It seemed to be a bit on the mild side for us to get images, but three individuals showed pretty well, and we came away with enough shots to encourage us for another visit the following day.

The bright, vibrant colours of larch trees at this time of year make for stunning backdrops.

Then later on, used shards or pockets of light through the canopy, for an array of images with these magical little birds.

In what felt like the blink of an eye, the fortnight was over and we were packing the cars to head to Mull...

I will be running workshops in the Scottish Highlands during February for many of the subjects featured in this blog post. Please drop me an email if you're interested in photographing any, or visit my website for more information, and how to book a session.

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