Trip Report: Scottish Winter Wildlife Tour 2017

In Britain, the delightful Crested Tits can only be found in Scotland.

My good friend and co-leader for this tour, Mark, has been nurturing a Red Squirrel site for a good few years now. It’s in a secluded woodland carpeted with moss and surrounded by Pines. An idyllic setting for our furry friends. He has set up a couple of simple wooden hides with some carefully thought out setups for some good squirrel photography.

Everyone arrived safely on the first day and we had a sumptuous dinner in a local restaurant. The next morning everyone headed to the site for our first photo session. Mark and I set everyone up and waited in anticipation. We waited, and waited. Minutes turned to hours. Apart from a flash of red, none of the squirrels wanted to have their photos taken.

We speculated and changed things round a bit but nothing. There were half a dozen sightings, but the squirrels were unusually nervous and reluctant to come close to where we were. A couple ventured in front of the hides but none stayed long enough. Mark and I were stumped to say the least. This has never happened in the six years since it was first set up.

As we began to lose daylight. We decided that it just wasn’t going to happen. So we packed up and headed north to our next destination.

Although Mark and I were very disappointed with the whole non-session, it has to be said that everyone was very understanding. We have no idea what caused this behaviour. Was it the recent appearance of the Pine Marten that made them so wary? I guess we’ll never know for sure. Whatever the reason, as tour leaders, we still felt immensely responsible.

Mr. Red played a disappearing act on the first day.

The following day we set off to look for our second target species, the Mountain Hare. It was a calm and beautiful day, but without snow. The upside of this is that we can spot them in their pale winter coats with relative ease. The downside is that they are more inclined to stay at a distance because food is plentiful – they are less likely to expend energy if vegetation is under thick snow.

If nothing else on this trip, we’ve learnt that animals, in particular mammals, do not always conform to one’s theories. Not only did we find a good number of hares on the day, quite a few of them were very confiding. This allowed us to spend a decent amount of time to get the shots we wanted, but also to experiment a little. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a Mountain Hare up close, I’m still mesmerised by how beautiful they are. I think everyone on the day felt equally privileged to be able to work at such proximity with these wonderful, wild-spirited, beings.

At noon we took a break and sat on the hillside. Looking down at the valley at the sun-bathed mountains in the distance, within meters from the two individual hares that we’ve just spent an hour photographing, enjoying our packed lunches. It was a truly wonderful moment.

Nothing beats having a great view and good company for a spot of lunch. (iPhone pic)

Afterward, we crossed the river to another part to look for a different setting. This less grassy area was mostly covered in heather. We located a couple of individuals pretty much right away. The first was a little nervous but the second was up a slope lit by the afternoon sun. It crossed my mind that we could potentially get something quite different with it sitting in a partially shaded spot. This turned out to be a great idea. Most importantly, this fellow was so totally chilled out. In fact, he kept dozing off between our shutter clicks. He remained in the same spot for quite some time, until the very last ray of the afternoon sun disappeared behind the hills. At this point everyone decided to call it a day.

Sometimes experimenting with light can yield interesting images.

I always felt that when you’ve been out working hard during the day, a good hearty meal and a comfortable night’s sleep is essential for recharging your internal battery. The local restaurant we chose is one that we’ve used in the past and continue to serve us well. A three course meal washed down with some fine ales was a nice end to a productive day.

The following morning we set out to yet another location, this time to work on the third and final Scottish species, the perky Crested Tit. As it happens, Mark has been feeding the Red Squirrels here also, so we were half hopeful that we might get another chance to redeem ourselves.

Mark’s effort paid off big time. Within ten minutes of setting up the Red Squirrel came to say hello, sometimes within a couple of feet away. They all had a good winter coat on, and looked in superb condition. The ‘Cresties’ and few other small birds were as brave as they’ve always been, sometimes dropping right in front of us to feed. With the myriad of subjects coming and going all the while, at times it was difficult to know what to photograph!

The low afternoon sun spotlit the squirrel perch creating a dramatic effect.

So despite the initial false start, I’m happy to report that this year’s trip was another success. I hope (I think) everyone went home with some wonderful images. But more importantly, with great memories. My thanks to Sue, Barrie, Hedley, Nicky and my buddy, Mark, for the good company and experience.

If you’d like to visit the wilder side of Scotland with us, just get in touch!