Trip Report: Scottish Winter Wildlife Tour 2018

A not so camouflaged Mountain Hare in a sparsely snow covered terrain.

This year we had two back-to-back trips to Scotland. The weather conditions between the tours were very different. On the first visit, it was cold and somewhat windy while the second time round it was mostly covered in snow.

As before, we started our journey in Perth. Our favourite, ‘nouveau cuisine’ restaurant was closed for renovation this time so we ended up trying something a little more conventional in the town centre, as well as an Italian.

Over the past year, the secluded forest site where we photograph Red Squirrels has had almost daily visits from Pine Martens. With such an effective predator in the vicinity, the squirrels have been understandably a bit twitchy. Despite this though, we have had visits from the squirrels on both occasions that we were there.

It was great fun, as occasionally they would jump onto the roof of our hides and make a bunch of noise. Although the light can be poor on overcast days, shooting static portraits are never a problem, especially with a tripod. A few of us were even brave enough to try for a jumping shot but the results were mostly un-sharp or what I would term ‘artistically blurred’!

A curious Red Squirrel came to investigate my camera set-up.

Our staging post for the next few days was Aviemore, in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. We headed out the following morning to look for one of my favourite British mammals, the Mountain Hares.

Spotting them when there is little snow is not difficult, due to their pale white winter pelts. However, in the snow-covered hills during our second visit, it was a little more challenging. Mark, my co-leader, once again came up trumps. It has to be said that we did not see that many this year. But the few that we came across were reasonably cooperative.

The thick snow on some parts of the slopes was a bit difficult to walk up. It was about knee-deep. Even heading down can spring a surprise or two, as one of us found out. Because you cannot see what is under the white blanket of snow, it is easy to accidentally step into a small trench or in our case, a small muddy runoff. To be fair at that particular point the snow was more like waist deep. It was no trouble getting out of course but it did take a good few minutes of snow and mud digging!

The only fun way to shoot Mountain Hare – the small blob a few metres ahead. (iPhone pic)

It is vital that when working with winter wildlife, no matter Ptarmigan, Mountain Hare, or Musk Ox, one must take care not to unduly disturb them. This is because in these harsher months, they need to conserve as much energy as possible especially when food is scarce. So we do make a point of respecting their wellbeing and kept our distance, approaching with great care.

Like most animals, once they feel safe or know that you are of no significance to them, they are remarkably calm. This is of course what we all want and provides the best opportunity to make great images. And so the second iconic Scottish species was ticked off.

This was the blob we shot. With a telephoto lens one need not be very close to get a nice portrait.

A hard day’s work is always rewarded by a hearty evening meal at a local restaurant. I had a three-course menu made for us this time because of some special dietary requirements. The Sri Lankan Beetroot Curry, I’m told, was a real winner. My favourite was the Duck Breast on Honey Roast Parsnips. This was promptly washed down with some award-winning ales.

Breakfast is usually a more gentile affair, with smoked Scottish Salmon on scrambled eggs, accompanied by a healthy bowl of fruit.

While never easy, it is always worth exploring new perspectives.

We headed out for our final day of photography. This day is devoted to photographing the perky Crested Tit. The spiky punk hairdo is what gave it its name. They are found only in Scotland in Britain, but it is not an endemic species and as such can be found across mainland Europe and Scandinavia.

Apart from the ‘Cresties’, we also have a myriad of birds coming to this site, such as the Chaffinch, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Robin, Tree Creeper, Greater Spotted Woodpecker and the Long-tailed Tit, but to name a few.

In addition, we usually also have a few very brave Red Squirrels. They can sometimes come to within a few feet away to investigate! This offers a second chance should we be unsuccessful in the first woodland site. Also, it offers a different setting to photograph them in.

I waited a while for the Crested Tit to land on this perch. The one-legged resting pose was a bonus.

So once again we had very successful sessions photographing these classic Scottish subjects. I would like to thank all my lovely guests for making the trips so enjoyable.

I will be running another tour next year. If you would like to come along to this wonderful journey, then please head over to the information page.