After discovering Eskrigg and how fantastic a reserve it is, I really wanted to take Zahrah, as she’d never seen a red squirrel before. After my success last time, I was sure we’d have some luck. I also wanted to give the Manager, Jim Rae, a copy of the film I made on the reserve for my assignment.
We arrived at lunchtime, so headed straight for the Eskrigg Centre to set up tripods and tuck into our Sainsbury’s meal deals. The feeders were busy as usual. I kept an eye out for reds, but in the meantime we watched vivid yellow siskins, a nuthatch, a woodpecker and plenty of chaffinches snatching a quick snack before zooming back into the trees. It looked like the visiting female mandarin had moved on – it was a shame not to see her stunning male partner, but still exciting to see the species as it is.
On my last visit, prime squirrel time was about 3pm, so after finishing up lunch and having our fill of the birds on the pond, we headed to the squirrel hide, joining a group of fellow photographers and twitchers. Coal tits swept across the clearing while robins hopped about on the ground. A lone male blackbird darted about with the species’ usual uncoordinated urgency, clutching a feast of flies and worms in his beak for a lucky brood.
An hour and a half passed with no fluffy red visitors. I was a little embarrassed, having shown Zahrah my photos from last time and taken her with me today with perhaps blasé confidence that we’d be overrun with the little rascals again today.
The heat of the day was fading and under the cover of the trees it was getting cool quickly. The group of photographers shouldered their cameras and left, and soon we began to consider abandoning ship and coming back next week. Zahrah suggested we stay half an hour longer, and in the next ten minutes my eye caught on a bright orange tuft twitching behind a nearby tree. As I hurried to focus I breathed an enormous but hushed sigh of relief.
The squirrel approached slowly, sniffing the ground but pausing every so often to stand on its hind legs to look at us. I tried with all my might to catch these meerkat moments, but these animals are unbelievably nippy.
Soon, the squirrel was out in the open, collecting the hazelnuts that Jim had cracked and I’d sprinkled about. Pauses to eat were the best times to snatch some photos, when the animal’s only movement was a twitch of the tail. The way it clutched the nut in almost human hands and strategically nibbled was enough to make the coldest heart melt. As our cameras clicked I couldn’t help letting the occasional gasp or squeal of undying love for these rascals escape. Despite my interruptions the squirrel carried on feasting, deftly scooping up all the nuts I’d left one by one.
Before long, a second squirrel joined the first, skirting down a tree to find any nuts that the first had left, a third soon joining them. One of these individuals had somehow lost an ear tuft, looking adorably wonky as it paused to nibble, tail curled over its back in the iconic position.
My memory card was filling up fast – I couldn’t help but keep snapping as the squirrels explored and foraged. For me it was a combination of their distinct personalities, lovable curiosity and cute outfits that had me obsessed. They ventured close, peering up at us with beady eyes and tiny parted lips – my heart had long melted.
I forgot to notice the growing chill but the slowly setting sun was beginning to make photography a challenge, especially when the squirrels’ rapid movement made a slow shutter speed impossible. We were about to finally pack up and leave when three more arrived, this time the darker variety which I had a secret spot for. So we stayed a little longer and kept taking photos. I had a sudden thought – if photography was still dominated by medium format film, I would have spent my entire student loan. The habit of only pressing the shutter for the perfect moment was admirable, but I don’t think everyone’s had the opportunity to photograph red squirrels.
When we eventually did get home, I uploaded the shots and assessed the damage. Six hundred and sixty photos, not bad at all.