Rabbit with Feather – How I Got The Shot

Little did I know when I popped down to my local Glasgow park to try out my new Tamron 150-600mm lens in late June 2016 that I’d take my most popular photograph – a rabbit with feather in its mouth!

I bought the Tamron lens (the older version without image stabilisation – Tamron SP AF150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD Lens for Nikon Camera) because I was about to attend Laurie Campbell’s photography masterclass at Aigas, and my longest lens had been a 300mm F4 prime.  However I wanted a chance to try it out beforehand.  Sometimes everything comes together by chance.  It was a rare gorgeous balmy evening in Glasgow and Murphy (the dog) wasn’t enthusiastic about walking.  I therefore left him at home and took the new lens, paired with my Nikon D610 for a walk instead!

Truth be told I had planned to photograph the grey squirrels and had taken a pocketful of nuts with me, but this proved mostly unsuccessful, partly because the pigeons would steal the nuts and secondly the squirrels kept coming too close to focus on!  The problem with such a long lens…

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I found a spot in the park where there is a raised stone platform – no idea what it once was – but it meant I could take photographs at eye level without lying down (always a benefit where there are so many nosey dogs around).  I noticed movement in the bushes behind and spotted a couple of rabbits eating daisies.

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They didn’t seem too fazed by my presence, probably because they could easily dive back into the bushes if spooked so I turned my attention to them.

There were a couple on the stone platform, but it wasn’t particularly photogenic, however it was a good chance to try the lens at different settings and I photographed this one grooming.

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One of the rabbits, for no obvious reason, picked up a white feather.  I know a lot of photographers will put down items as possible props, but I didn’t! This feather was just lying there and piqued the rabbit’s interest.

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After taking these photographs the rabbit turned to face me and I took the portrait that has proved so popular.  This is the uncropped version.

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It is, without a doubt one of my favourite pictures, there’s something quite endearing about the expression.  I did however print it A3 and it was a little scary quite so large!!

Here’s the crop I usually post.

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BBC Earth picked up on it on twitter and used it for a caption competition. A few of the responses were…

Tufty stared down the nervous Chicken gang. Eyeing possible exits from the alley he idly swung his nunchucks and spat what was left of Cogburn onto the road. “Time to dance” he said.

Rabid dove killer caught on camera near North Leigh.

Honestly it’s not what you think!

‘Just trying to feather my nest!’

It finally happen… Bugs flipped and ate Daffy

When does the Christmas party start ? I’m spitting feathers !!

“In my defence, that bird had it coming.”

Oh, you said try the ‘heather!!’

“Well, they did say shake a tail feather!”

Oh, and I still use this Tamron lens for much of my wildlife photography – paired with the crop-frame Nikon D500 it gives me a focal distance up to 900mm.  If you’re looking for a long lens then, although the newer version, and the Sigma equivalents, have had great reviews, this is cheaper and a great option.

Prints or greeting cards available for all these images (and more!) via my website, or just email me directly.

 

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The Lammermuirs – Snow, Red Grouse and the Elusive Mountain Hares

I awoke on Boxing Day in East Lothian to the sight of what was possibly snow or frost on the Lammermuirs. 24 hours of heavy rain had obviously turned into the white stuff on higher levels.  So it was a no-brainer to head to the hills in search of red grouse and mountain hares.

The hare population on the Lammermuirs has been decimated by estates protecting their grouse (according to the One Kind website, RSPB Scotland received evidence that between 1500 and 1700 mountain hares were shot by landowners across the Lammermuirs in the spring of 2014) and I knew before I set out that the chance of finding any mountain hares as happy to let me close as those I normally photograph was extremely low – however, just to see the hares would be great!!

To my delight the moors were covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow.  I photographed some red grouse from the car then my Dad and I went a walk round a hill where the only tracks were of wild animals (and sheep).

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A red grouse sat close to the car and unusually didn’t fly off as I walked past, so I took a few more images and was able to get down lower than I would from the car.

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The hills looked gorgeous with tree branches hanging low from the weight of the snow and views over to the equally white Pentlands in the distance.  Grouse flew up around us, but there was no sign of physical hares.  Stunning though.

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After posting a red grouse photograph on Twitter and mentioning the lack of hares someone kindly got back to me and offered to give me a good location to spot them.  Unfortunately this didn’t arrive until too late for my second day.  My parents suggested a spot on a road where they have seen dead hares.  My Dad and I duly set out but again hundreds of tracks but not a hare in sight, not even running in the distance.  They were obviously close by but hunkering down.  The ground was covered not only in snow but also in long grasses that folded down to create dry, sheltered tunnels and there were lots of old burrows too, so plenty of places for hares to remain out of sight.  We stayed on the path. A few more red grouse images were all I managed from the car on the way home.

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It transpired that the area recommended to me was exactly where I’d been the day before, just further on.  So on the third day my Dad took on dog walking duties and I headed out alone for one last try, jokingly remarking that I wasn’t coming back until I’d seen a mountain hare!  I walked up to the location keeping my eyes peeled, but surprise surprise nothing.  I stopped a couple of times in sheltered shooting bays and scanned the hills for 30 minutes or so each time – still nothing!  These hares are completely different from those I photograph in the Scottish Highlands which although in their forms are moving about and far more visible.   I comforted myself with the fact that this was a good test run for my March Highland trip – my new boots were both cosy and comfy and I was pretty much snug in my winter clothes.  So all good on that front.

On the way back I stopped at an area that had attracted my attention, a stream in a gully with running water and sheltered banks covered in long grass and high heather.  There had to be hares here, it was perfect!  Sitting and waiting hadn’t worked before so I adopted a new technique – wander through the gully (and heavy snow) and see if I disturbed any hares and… it worked!  One dashed out from under me and sped away.  I didn’t have my camera out, but at least I now knew I’d found a good location!  Camera in hand and bag stowed I tried again and dislodged another couple managing a few shots of them running away and sitting in the distance.

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I tried sitting again and looking for them in the grasses, but other than a group of grouse flying over my head so close that had I not had 2 hats on I’d have felt the breeze from their wings, no sign of hares.   Finally after I’d moved on slightly I spotted one still semi-hidden and took about 3 photos quickly before it too ran off.

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That was it.  Obviously nothing like my highland hares, but I’d never expected anything like those experiences.  It would probably be easier to spot them in the winter when there was no snow, but I’d be very surprised if any sat and groomed etc whilst I watched on.   I was pleased mind you – I hate to be defeated and I did what I had set out to do.  I’m also delighted that there are still some hares left on the Lammermuirs!

 

2017 Highlights (July – December)

What a year!  I’ve already written about the first 6 months, so I won’t repeat myself, but it’s fair to say that from a photographic/wildlife watching perspective 2017 has been brilliant. From the bucket list I’ve now landed on the Bass Rock amongst the gannets and photographed fishing ospreys – both unforgettable experiences.  I’ve learnt a lot: photographic techniques, field craft and wildlife behaviours.  My ambition for 2017 was to focus entirely (okay… so I did venture South of the border to the Farne Islands), on Scottish wildlife, learning as much as I could about a small number of locations and the animals living there.  Personally I don’t want to be the kind of photographer who just ticks species off, I want to get to know them intimately and in doing so take better images that capture the essence of the animal I’m photographing.  On top of all this I just love being out sharing airspace with these amazing creatures, it’s a real honour.  If anything my love of wildlife, Scotland, the outdoors and photography has increased during 2017.

August found me back in my spiritual home – the Scottish highlands.  Basing myself again in Tomatin I had a brilliant week.  It began with Aviemore Ospreys early on the Sunday morning.  I’ve wanted to experience the thrill of these magnificent birds fishing for as long as I can remember but I’ve never quite got my timings (or bank balance) right.  I only just made it this year as the birds were already packing their nests up to head South, but fortunately a few were still around and I was treated to a great show.  Admittedly it was a little on the dark side, but my D500 coped well (just as well as I bought it for this experience) and I’m pleased with the images I took in the conditions.  That said, I fully intend to return in summer 2018, earlier in the season to try again in better light.  This is a link to my blog about the ospreys & the D500.

I also spent a day in Neil McIntyre’s new red squirrel hide set in the magnificent Caledonian pine forest.  There was non-stop squirrel action from early morning until approx 4pm with 4 or 5 visiting continuously.  The setting is gorgeous and at that time of year it was carpeted in glorious pink and purple heather.  Beautiful.  Red squirrels are entertaining to watch, the time passed so quickly.  Definitely a highlight of 2017.

I made three visits to Chanonry Point to see the dolphins.   Chanonry Point itself isn’t one of my favourite places.  Personally I like being out alone with nature and you’re anything but alone here!  Still, if you want to see dolphins close to the shore this is still the place to be.  I was fortunate to see quite a lot of breaching, although sadly not on my evening visit when the light was glorious.  Not easy to photograph as it’s difficult to know exactly where or when breaching will occur, but I did pretty well, again I think the speed of the D500 helped a lot.

And, of course, I visited the mountain hares a couple of times. They aren’t nearly as active at this time of year as in March, but there’s still much to observe and photograph, plus quite a few sweet little leverets.  The heather was blooming up here too, and the midges for the most part stayed away.  I love little more than sitting on the mountainside in the company of a hare as it accepts my presence and gets on with the daily business of grazing, grooming, stretching and (mostly) snoozing.  Sitting in a hide is all very well, but the satisfaction of being out in the open with a wild animal where there’s no cover and no baiting really appeals to me.

It’s difficult for me to get away from Glasgow due partly to a full-time job, but also because I have a rescue dog who doesn’t travel and is a little complicated so I can’t just leave him with friends.  I have to plan weekends well in advance so I can book him in with his very popular dog sitter.  It’s hugely frustrating –  I love him but…   Anyway, I did plan a weekend down in Dumfries and Galloway although as luck would have it, it coincided with the tail end of two massive storms and the weather was pretty awful.  That however didn’t stop me from having two enjoyable days.   I visited the Bellymackhill Farm red kite feeding station en route down. My second time here and it’s a fabulous place to see these birds up close.  Challenging to photograph them diving for food though, because there are so many of them!  Beautiful birds and exhilarating to watch as they all suddenly decide it’s time to feed and swoop down.  Blink and you’ve missed it!

I also spent a day at the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide as I’d never had a chance to really see or photograph sparrowhawks up close.  Great to see some red squirrels here too.  Sadly the male sparrowhawk was a no-show but I was treated to a juvenile female making a kill and pausing just long enough for me to rattle off a few frames.  I stuck around for the evening tawny owl visit too which was great.

My final big trip of the year was a return to Mull, this time on an organised otter workshop with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden.  I’ve only just recently written about this, but suffice to say I loved every minute of it, even lying on seaweed in torrential rain when it was too dark and wet to take photographs anymore.  Otters are my favourite mammal and wonderful to watch, especially when there’s a family unit – of which we saw many.  I was lucky to have 5 and a half great days of otter experiences many of which will stay with me for a long time.

So it’s been a fantastic year.  What’s next?  Well, I return to the Scottish Highlands for a week in March, and Mull in late April/early May, hopefully little owls (although I’ll have to cross the border for those!!), more ospreys and I’d like to spend a bit of time in Bamff with the beavers.  After that who knows.  On the wish list black grouse, ptarmigan and capercaillie.  However, my primary focus will be on the species I’ve spent time with this year – mountain hares, red squirrels and hopefully otters trying to work on locations and lighting to achieve better images using the techniques and experiences of 2017.   Stay tuned!

Prints and greeting cards are available via my website, or just email me with your requests.  Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

Magical Moments with the Otters on Mull

I’ve waxed lyrical on this blog about my love of mountain hares, well, truth be told, although that is true, they actually come second in my affections, pipped at the post by the otter.

I’ve loved these playful, secretive mammals for as long as I can remember.  They have such wonderful personalities, and I can’t think of an animal I enjoy watching more primarily because not only do they genuinely seem to have fun with each other, but they also so obviously have deep family bonds.

Finding, and then photographing them though can be a challenge.  Earlier this year I was delighted to spend a day with the river otters in the Scottish Borders courtesy of Laurie Campbell.  This was a fantastic experience where we saw far more otters than I had expected including a little, ever-so-cute cub which sat in the undergrowth at the side of the river just long enough for us to take a few photos before it slipped into the water and disappeared.   This was the warmest day of the year so far with glorious blue skies – great for sitting and waiting for otters to appear, but not so great for photographing them!  Interesting to observe the different characteristics of the otters that dwell in rivers though – it’s the same species, but quite different in many respects.otters1

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It was back to sea otters in late April when I spent a week on Mull.  Unfortunately the tides weren’t in my favour and although I saw otters I had few opportunities to photograph them.

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On my return, frustrated both by this and some disappointing news, I had a look on Andy Howard’s website and noticed he had one place available on the second of his two inaugural November otter workshops – on a whim I dropped him an email to see if it was in fact still available and before I knew it I was booked for a week on Mull!  I first came across Andy after I had fallen for the mountain hares – he has spent many a day on the mountainside with the hares and has some wonderful images, but I also love Andy’s other photographs.  He’s great at bringing out the essence of his subject which is something I strive to do in my photography too, so I was looking forward to spending a week with him and fellow guide Pete Walkden.

I headed over to Mull on the 10am Sunday morning ferry planning to spend the day before the official start time of 5pm doing some otter-spotting of my own.  I headed for one of the lochs and was just getting myself organised when Andy and Pete pulled up and asked if I wanted to join them – minutes later we were crawling through the rocks to photograph a mother and cub curled up together on some seaweed – something I love to watch and saw many times over the course of the week.  Suffice to say after this experience my expectations were high for the week!

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I was paired with Brian, a retired head teacher from Northern Ireland who had been on a number of Andy’s previous highland tours.  We were both capable of navigating the slippy shore rocks which would hopefully provide us with more chance of getting close to the otters.  We rotated guides – 3 days with Pete and 2 with Andy.  I used my Nikon D500 mostly with the original Nikkor 300mm F4 lens and 1.4TC giving me a focal length of 630mm.  This is a much lighter (and cheaper!) combination than that of Andy, Pete and Brian who all sported Canon cameras and 500 or 600mm prime lenses – beyond my carrying capacity and budget.

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Brian and Andy on the very wet Tuesday

Over the course of the week we primarily photographed two pairs of otters – both mother and cub, and another mother with two young cubs.  There were other single otters too, but the family groups were more interesting – the interactions between the otters is so wonderful to witness.  Interestingly two of these otter families were each joined on occasion by another otter with whom they were affectionate and playful – we think in both cases these were older siblings, no longer with the mother but maintaining a strong bond.

Andy and Pete took time to explain the field craft required to spot and approach the otters and were helpful with camera settings too.  The biggest challenge by far all week was the weather.  Monday was drizzly rain which swirled around getting on the camera lens no matter how hard I tried to protect it.  Tuesday was miserable – I’ve never been so wet, and the images suffered from the lack of light and sheets of rain falling from the sky. Wednesday was the best day but there wasn’t much in the way of wind and then Thursday/Friday we had ice showers…!

Monday we spent time with the same otters as I’d photographed on Sunday, recognisable by the raw patch on mum’s nose.

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…as well as another mum and cub – this cub had the most adorable teddy bear face!

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Tuesday was miserable – I don’t think I’ve ever been so wet.  Fortunately my thermal/waterproof hunting trousers from Decathlon proved to be resilient as did my jacket so I stayed dry.  Both Brian and I had issues with our hats falling over our eyes though!  Rain covers on the cameras were more essential than usual, but it was a struggle as there was no light to speak of so camera ISO was higher than I’d have liked and as a result these aren’t the highest quality images you’ll ever see.  That said we still had plenty of otter encounters.

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This was a solo otter photographed in the morning which rolled around in the seaweed.
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My favourite pair of otters – mother with a dodgy eye and her adorable cub.

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By this point in the day there was no light and all the images I took look like mud.  Frustrating, because the cub was riding the loch waves very close at eye level which could have made for some wonderful photos…

Wednesday was SO much better, not exactly sunny and we still had some rain showers, but nothing like Tuesday.  That said, there was little wind to speak of and as such Pete, Brian and I were incredibly lucky to have two brilliant encounters.  Firstly with the mother and cub from Tuesday and then a mother with two cubs and an older sibling.

The mother and cub (my favourite squeaky fur ball) were initially quite a distance away allowing for these wider in the frame images (a kind of image I love).

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Then after a quick dip in the loch, they snuggled up together on the seaweed for a snooze.  Mum eventually left the cub to go fishing and it remained curled up…

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Mum returned with a fish which they shared – she then departed again and the wee cub was mobbed by some hooded crows – it held its own though.

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I have a shaky little video of the otter with the hoodies which can be watched here.

Driving back along the coastline Pete spotted the Mum with 2 little cubs.  We crawled as close as we could (still a fair way back) and suddenly realised there were 4 otters – we presume an older sibling was visiting.  The two cubs were very young, and one of them really wasn’t very enthusiastic about going in the water.  It would follow the other out for a metre or two, but would then turn around and head back to shore where it sat and squeaked until the others returned.  At one point both the cubs were entwined on the promontory – adorable…

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Thursday was cold but yet again we had a fantastic day, this time with Andy. First photograph I took wasn’t of an animal at all though but a stunning rainbow over the far shore…

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We came across the mother with the raw nose and her cub just before they returned to their holt.

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Then we photographed a dog otter. We tracked it along the shoreline and Andy correctly anticipated where it would come ashore.  Unfortunately yet again the mammal decided to hang out in a dip in the seaweed so although it rolled about we couldn’t get any clear images!

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We then located one-eyed mum and cub.  On one occasion she brought a fish on shore for the cub, seeing it was struggling, she disappeared and returned with a smaller, more palatable fish for it and took the other for herself – although when the cub had finished its meal it tried to steal the other one back!   Then Andy spotted that the mother had caught an octopus (or squid) and we quickly got ourselves in position lying on top of a large flat rock.  Unfortunately as is so often the case, a pesky boulder got in the way so I wasn’t able to get any good octopus images, this was the best I managed.

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However the cub treated us to some golden moments.  They were so close and we were all snapping away, but neither otter seemed remotely bothered – maybe because we smelt so strongly of the sea/seaweed by this time they didn’t have the faintest idea we were there!

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Our final experience with this pairing was the most enjoyable to watch – Pete and I (Brian had left early) had seen the two of them and were tracking them along the shore.  Suddenly there were three!  The mother and the new otter were very affectionate and the little one took great delight in playing with it in the sea diving and jumping – brilliant to watch but very difficult to photograph especially as the light was constantly changing.

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This looks as though the two on the left are laughing at a joke told by otter #3!

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Not as sharp as I’d have liked, but trying to photograph the otters jumping out the water was a bit like trying to capture dolphins breaching – ie more more splashes than actual action.

 

The week was all about otters, but I did photograph a few hooded crows as well as a buzzard that sat perched on a mound of grass in the pouring rain, seemingly oblivious to our car and the three snapping cameras.  Rain was running down its back and dripping off it’s beak.  Suddenly it leapt in the air and onto the ground, rising with a vole.  Annoyingly, although I was able to photograph the entire sequence my shutter speed was far too low.  You win some…  There were many many buzzards and herons.  We saw the odd white-tailed eagle, but I was never close enough to photograph (Andy and Michelle got some fantastic images of two white-tails mobbing an otter), and we also saw one distant golden eagle and hen harrier.

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It was a great week, every single day provided wonderful opportunities with the otters – helped by Andy and Pete’s knowledge of the island and its occupants and their ability to spot the otters where most would miss them.  I think the fact that Brian and I were mobile and able to crawl across slippy rocks and wet seaweed to get into a good position helped too.  I can see why the otters curl up on the seaweed – it was really comfortable to lie on!

Andy and Pete are running the November tours again in 2018, check out their facebook pages or websites for details, I can definitely recommend it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sparrowhawks, Red Squirrels, Tawny Owl and more.

Much as I love nothing better than being outside photographing wild animals, sitting in a (relatively speaking) comfortable hide has its advantages especially with the weather we’ve had in Scotland of late!  In the past few months I have spent the best part of a day in three different hide set-ups.  Nature Nuts in Perthshire, Neil McIntyre‘s new red squirrel hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate and, most recently, the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide in Dumfries and Galloway.  They are all quite different, but I had a great time sitting watching the wildlife in all three.

Bob “Nature Nuts” hide is set at the end of a wooded area and was visited regularly during the day by red squirrels, jays, woodpeckers, bullfinch and other small birds.  Light wasn’t great but the endless action provided some good images.  I had to leave mid-afternoon, so missed the (many) pine martens that are visiting the hide in the evenings which would have been great.

I’ve written extensively about Neil’s hide already – it’s a stunning natural setting sitting amongst the glorious Caledonian pine forest.  My visit coincided with the blooming of the heather, and this was, I think the star of the show. Of course the non-stop visits of the red squirrels was fantastic too and great to see a crested tit as well.

While Neil’s hide lends itself to wide shots showing the forest in all its glory, Alan McFadyen’s sparrowhawk hide has been designed exclusively for fairly close-up images.  It’s set in open space which, so long as there’s some sunshine, provides much more light than the other two.  It’s comprised of a number of areas created artificially by Alan, all covered in moss all designed to be photogenic.  This works really well for close shots as the background is far enough away to be a lovely soft blur.

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The hide is described as a place to photograph sparrowhawks, but there are also morning and late afternoon visits from red squirrels and I had regular sightings of great spotted woodpeckers, finches, tits and jays.  In the evening a tawny owl has been visiting too.

It may be in a open setting, but you still need decent light, and it was a relatively cloudy and dull morning – much better however than the days before or after though when the rain fell steadily.   I therefore had to use a higher ISO than I would have liked for the first few hours when the squirrels were most active.   I had my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4 lens resting on a beanbag with cable release attached just in case I could use it.   This is a great camera/lens combination providing sharp images at 450mm focal length on the crop frame, which was perfect for the hide.   I don’t know how many red squirrels there were, but they came regularly for hazelnuts, many of which, after checking, they took away to cache for the winter. I hadn’t realised how wet it was until I looked back at my images!

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At 11am the squirrels disappeared, although there were a few visits after 4pm.  These were my favourite images as the light was much better allowing for better camera settings and some lovely orange light.

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I had real difficulty photographing the nuthatch who flew down to the main little bird area and, once the squirrels were gone, their perch.  It just didn’t stick around, scooping up a few nuts and immediately flying away.  So frustrating!  Eventually though, at some point in the afternoon, it spent a couple of minutes in the squirrel area looking quite photogenic.  Result!

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Jays were infrequent visitors too.  I could always tell when they were approaching due to their distinctive call.  They are so very entertaining to watch as they gobble up as many nuts as possible in a short period of time, looking around inquisitively.

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It was also good to see brambling and great spotted woodpeckers.

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The real reason I’d booked this hide though was to photograph and see close-up sparrowhawks.  My parents get them fairly regularly in their garden but although I’ve had brief glimpses I’ve never been able to photograph.  Alan gets regular visits from both male and female birds.  There’s a special perch for the male, who comes down to eat dead bait left by Alan.  The female birds don’t touch this preferring a fresh kill.  Now, I love little birds and I had mixed feelings about watching the birds hunt and kill live animals, however, it’s nature and they have to eat too…

Unfortunately, my day in the hide coincided with the male sparrowhawk deciding not to visit, a rare occurrence apparently.  The male is the more attractive of the birds and I’d have loved to have seen it.

I spotted a female very briefly in the morning, she landed, squawked and flew off.  No chance for photographs.  However at lunchtime, I almost had a kit kat moment.  I was making myself a cuppa-soup when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement.  Looking up I realised it was a female sitting on a pile of branches that  Alan put out to try and protect the little birds from predators – unsuccessfully this time as it turned out.  The female almost instantly flew up into the air, and I thought I’d missed my chance of photographs again.  Much to my delight and relief, she only flew a short distance and landed on a little wall.  She posed here beautifully, with her kill, for no more than a minute before departing but it was long enough for me to take the following images.  Looking at them on my return home I admit I was really pleased with these although I still feel bad for the little bird she caught.   Transpires she’s a juvenile female – but already a good hunter!  This was a much more satisfying scene to photograph than the male with bait and I’m just relieved I looked up from the soup making!

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In late afternoon, not long after the return of the squirrels an adult female arrived.  She behaved completely differently.  She landed on the pile of branches and sat looking around for a good few minutes.  She then disappeared inside the branches before re-emerging on the ground, always hunting for unsuspecting prey.  Finally she flew up onto a higher branch, stopped off next to the bait left for the male, looked disdainfully at it and disappeared.  She was there for about 10 minutes so plenty of time for some photographs.

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Alan kindly invited me to stay on for the evening tawny owl visit, where I was joined in the hide by another couple.   The owl is also provided with bait – in this case the food left out for the male sparrowhawk.  Alan lights the perch with 3 LEDs although they are still quite far back so a high ISO of 4000-5000 was required.  I used the same set up as before except this time the camera was mounted on my tripod and I utilised the cable release.  I’ve had some great tuition on low-light wildlife photography from Laurie Campbell when at Aigas, so I knew how to deal with the conditions – slow shutter speed, so no point taking any pictures until it is static otherwise they will be blurry.  Cable release and tripod helped with this too.  The owl appeared shortly after Alan left and made quick work of one of the bits of bait.

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It then flew off but returned again a few minutes later.  Unfortunately this time it ate with its back to us but did turn its head a few times.

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Gorgeous bird, wonderful to see up close, I’d only ever seen tawny owlets before. Again,  pleased with the images I got.

So all in all it was a great day.  The hide definitely delivers – even if the male sparrowhawk was a no-show.  Alan has a number of hides available, do check out his website for more information.

 

 

Nikon D500 and Early Morning Ospreys

For a number of years now I’ve been keen to experience the sight of ospreys fishing.  I’ve seen it so many times on television and in images, and it looked incredible.  I had observed a couple of ospreys either sitting on a nest or tree through scopes, but that’s all.

I initially thought that my late August Highlands trip was going to be too late for the ospreys who by that point would be packing up their nests and heading off to warmer climes for the winter.  However I came across a video blog on FB where journalist Andrew Laxton Hoyle documented a trip to Aviemore and a couple of sessions with Gordon at Aviemore Ospreys.  I had only been aware of the Rothiemurchas osprey set-up, so did a bit of research and got in touch with Gordon.  Luckily my trip coincided with the tail end of the season and I booked a morning session for the day after I arrived and was assured that no ospreys meant no payment.

I then panicked – a morning with the ospreys is really expensive, and I didn’t want to screw up!  I did as much research on photographing them fishing as I could and then, two weeks before heading North I made the decision to look out all my old camera gear and part-exchange it for a 2nd hand Nikon D500 which, given everything I’d read about it, seemed like the perfect camera for high-speed bird photography.

This was risky, especially as it only arrived a few days before my osprey session.  On the one rain-free evening I took the camera with the Nikkor 300mm F4 lens attached down to my local Glasgow park and tried it out on the flying gulls.  Wow, impressive.  I used a variety of focusing methods and settled on group focus as the best option.  The camera locked onto the birds extremely quickly and with its incredible buffer (up to 200 images in raw if you use the fast XQD card (also super-expensive, but I figured if I had a camera with such capabilities it was silly not to take advantage of them)) it was easy to capture sharp images of the fast moving gulls. Given that it was my first go with the camera I was delighted with the images I came away with.

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This definitely made me feel a little better about the osprey session although I was still nervous I’d screw up as I drove to Aviemore at silly o’clock on Sunday morning as I was scheduled to meet Gordon at 5am.

I didn’t really know what to expect – certainly I had presumed the body of water would be larger than it was – it was really just a small pond filled with hungry fish.   There were two hides set into the ground to give low-level views one for face-on shots the other side profiles.  There were four of us and we used the face-on hide.

It was still dark as we set-up, again I used the Nikon D500/Nikkor 300mm F4 combo, giving me a focal length of 450mm on the crop-frame sensor.  Gordon left us with a walkie talkie and disappeared to a location good for spotting incoming birds.  It wasn’t long before he was telling us of birds circling above.  Great that they were, not so great that the light was still very poor!

They started dropping at 5.45 – for late August far too early for usable images, but a good chance to test out the D500.  I pushed the ISO up super-high (51200) to allow for a shutter speed of 1/500 at F4 – still too slow really, but I knew these images would be record/trial shots only to get the hang of photography the birds – and of couse hoped they’d keep coming as the day dawned.  The ospreys came down so fast, landed in the water, before scooping up a fish and flying directly towards us before heading away.  Amazing to watch.

These are a couple of the very early images, really just to show what the D500 can do at such a high ISO.  I’ve only slightly tweaked the exposure from the raw files, no noise reduction

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…not photographs I’d normally publish, but again, I was impressed at how good the camera dealt with the noise at such a high ISO.  With some noise reduction they look ok as photos of record, it’s certainly possible to make out the features of the birds.

Fortunately though, the birds continued to drop for another hour, and the light by the end was almost ok – if I’d had another 30 minutes of action the light would have been great, but that wasn’t to be…  It was mostly juveniles, just learning how to fish for themselves, so there were a number of failures and abandoned drops – but this was good as it meant more appearances.

It was interesting how submerged the birds are initially

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and amazing that they manage to haul themselves out of the water, often with large fish in their impressive talons

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…and then fly off.  Stunning looking birds when you see them up close.  So powerful with that intense yellow eye.

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Not all were successful, some dropped the fish.

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It was a wonderful experience if frustratingly dark and frustratingly short-lived.   I’d never really expected to be so close.   The D500 performed brilliantly and I think justified its existence in my camera bag. As with the gulls it locked and kept focus and even in the low-light didn’t struggle with this.  The large buffer allowed for me to find the bird and just keep taking pictures until it was gone, capturing more of the action.  I used the group focusing mode again with back button focus and it worked a dream, I also only took RAWs.  I’d highly recommend this camera for photography like this.  The 300 prime was also a good choice, although there were times, due to the speed of the action that I missed the wing-tips (see below) which was so annoying! And I’d also recommend Aviemore Ospreys.  A fraction cheaper than Rothiemurchas and a lovely setting.  I now have the osprey bug – not great for the bank balance! – and hope to return a little earlier in the season next year to try again in better light.

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Red Squirrels and Stunning Purple Heather

On my recent visit to the Scottish Highlands I decided to concentrate on just a handful of species – mountain hares, red grouse, dolphins, wood ants (with limited success, they move too fast and I’m not great at macro – fascinating to watch though!), red squirrels and possibly crested tits.

My preference is always to find animals completely in the wild – that’s why I love the hares so much.  There’s no baiting, no hide, just me and the hare sharing a hillside. However, having said that, when it comes to red squirrels, achieving decent photographs without the liberal use of hazelnuts isn’t easy.  I’ve tried a few times up in the Queen Elizabeth Forest near Aberfoyle, but have had limited results, so I decided to book a session in Neil McIntyre‘s hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate.  I have a copy of Neil’s wonderful book “The Red Squirrel: A Future in the Forest” and love the images.  Neil’s spent 30 years photographing the red squirrels and his intimate knowledge of the subjects has produced some fabulous photographs.  I figured therefore that he’d know just how to set up a photographic hide to showcase these little mammals at their finest.

I wasn’t disappointed.  The hide is set deep in the Caledonian Pine Forest and is a completely natural setting except for a couple of jumps (more on those later).  The feeders are hidden behind trees and nuts are pushed into cracks in the bark.   When I was there the forest floor was carpeted in flowering heather which provided a stunning purple and pink backdrop (and foreground) to the images.

No sooner had I settled down than I spotted not a squirrel, but a little wren, perched very photogenically on a tree stump – an island in a sea of pink.  I’ve never managed good wren images – they move so quickly, but this one paused long enough for me to shoot a few frames.  Quite distant, but I think the composition works.

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I used two cameras.  The Nikon D610 with my trusty Tamron 150-600mm for the majority of the photographs (I did switch to the Nikkor 70-200mm for a bit too), mostly hand-held or with bean-bag.  Because of its massive buffer and superb focusing ability I used the D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4, tripod mounted for the jump on manual focus.

The squirrels soon appeared.  Hard to know exactly how many.  One had a little hole in an ear, and another an ear with bits missing.  But it’s fair to say they were present and active for the entirety of my stay.

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It’s such a pleasure watching the squirrels. They are so entertaining, the time just flew by, as did the shutter count on my camera!  The light improved as the day progressed, shimmering through the trees and creating some lovely back-lighting at times.

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I have so many images of red squirrels, sitting, hunched up with a hazelnut clasped in their paws, so my priority was on other behaviours such as grooming, teeth sharpening and relaxing…

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I also didn’t want just close-ups…

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…but also more distant shots that show-cased the forest, the heather and how small the squirrels really are in the grand scheme of things.  I came away happy that I’d achieved this.

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– and much as I was trying for images without nuts, that’s not to say I don’t have hundreds of those too!

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They made me laugh out loud more than once.   One squirrel, by the sound of it, was desperately trying to get into Neil’s locked strong-box where he stored the nuts.  It then ran across the roof and all of a sudden, stuck it’s head into the hide, disappeared and did the same thing at the other side of the window.  I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or the squirrel.  One also jumped onto a window ledge and sat looking at me for a minute – sadly too close for me to focus on.

When the squirrels chase one another they make little squeaking noises which was quite sweet.  Very hard to photograph the interactions though as they move so very quickly.  It’s also difficult to get pictures of them bouncing through the heather – great to watch though!

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I’ve seen a few photographs of red squirrels mid-leap – great images, and it’s a shot I’ve wanted to try.  Neil has set up a jump.  The idea is to manually focus in the gap, using a stick which is then removed.  When the squirrel starts to jump, you start taking pictures and hope that one in the sequence is sharp!  The D500 was perfect for this, it takes so many images very very quickly.  Therefore I had quite a good hit rate.  Only problems were 1. the jump was on the side with little other squirrel action, so I  more often than not didn’t see the squirrel in time.  Or 2, the squirrels had sussed out that they could by-pass the jump altogether and leap straight up onto the ledge with the nuts.  Frustratingly they almost all used the jump after having a nut, but were facing the wrong way!!

Here’s the set-up looking from the hide:

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I have to admit much as I’m really pleased with the jumping images I took I do feel a little like a fraud – it was a set-up after all and I almost think these kind of shots are comparable to the diving kingfisher set-ups which I’ve always steered clear of…  But!  That said, I’m happy to have achieved them.

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Not long after I arrived, a crested tit came down to steal a nut.  It appeared a few times, mostly on the one visible feeder (on the odd occasion when a squirrel wasn’t attached to it). I also captured it once whilst it sat in the heather. Not the best shots, but they are a bit different.  There were quite a few chaffinch and coal tits, the latter of which would chase each other through the hide.

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All in all it was a great day.  It’s not the cheapest red squirrel hide you’ll visit, but it is a good one and, if there’s snow on the ground when I’m next up in March I’ll be sure to go again. I love all the images, but I’ll sign off with my favourite.

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If you’re interested in prints or greeting cards of any of my images please visit http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk or, if you can’t find what you’re looking for please get in touch karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk