As habitats go, a river is a particular favourite of mine. Not only does it make one of nature’s most soothing sounds, but it’s usually a hub of wildlife activity.
When I arrived, the first bird to catch my eye was a blue tit, which was loudly serenading everyone around it with its ‘tea-tea-lily-lily-lily’ call. Beneath it, flickering from rock to rock, was a grey wagtail. Similar to other river-dwelling birds, grey wagtails have a high-pitched call that cuts through even the chattiest of rivers.
On the calm pond beside the stream, a pair of mallards swept around in slow circles. Surely one of our most under-appreciated beauties, the male mallard shimmers in direct sunlight.
I’d come to the river especially for dippers. This patch has a Rocky Road structure of stones, logs and twigs jutting out of the water, providing countless opportunities for perching and dipping.
On some occasions, I’ve had to settle on the bank and wait a while for the flash of brown and thrum of stumpy wings as a dipper zoomed by, but today I timed my visit perfectly. Just as I was peering along the water channel for a white bib, a dipper came zipping past me and landed several feet away.
I crept closer and watched as it ducked down behind its perch until only the top of its head was visible. It emerged holding an enormous clump of moss in its bill. With another dip, it sped back downstream, returning minutes later without its foraged cache.
For the next hour I watched a pair of dippers gather moss almost continuously. I’m always heartened and impressed by the diligence of some bird parents. Chicks were obviously on the way, and they would have a luxuriously cosy nest ready for them when they arrived.
I’m thrilled to announce that my first ever calendar is now available to buy!
I’m sorry the blog has been quiet these past few weeks. I’ve been smacking my head repeatedly against a wall getting my calendar design finalised and sorting out payment. And now I’ve finally got there.
Over the past couple of years I’ve had some amazing feedback about my wildlife photography. It’s been a real confidence booster so I’ve decided to put together a calendar of my favourite photos throughout the seasons. All of the images were taken in Scotland, including a fieldfare in the snow and a red squirrel in the sunshine. You can see previews of all 12 months below.
This would be the perfect gift for lovers of the wilder side of Scotland, providing a snapshot of the natural world for those who live there or perhaps those who haven’t been able to visit recently.
Size: A4 (21cm x 29.7cm)
Paper: FSC-sourced 300gsm artist paper
Delivery: Free for UK orders, an additional £4.00 each for international orders
Thank you for your support during a very trying time for freelancers. It makes my day reading your kind comments.
Once restrictions were eased in Scotland and I was given a precious piece of freedom to venture outside of my county of Moray, I planned a day trip to the Cairngorms. One of my favourite sounds is the whisper of a stream in a forest – it’s the epitome of fairytale magic for me. So when I arrived at Inshriach Forest on the western flank of the Cairngorm plateau and heard that incredible sound, I made a beeline for it. I passed other people heading up a rocky hill trail that would take them into the mountains. But I’m more forest sprite than mountain goat – my place is at ground level.
Inshriach is part of one of the Cairngorms National Park’s eight National Nature Reserves. As well as ancient Caledonian pinewood it contains mountainous and heather moor habitats too. Scottish rarities such as crossbills, red squirrels and crested tits are found there. There’s also the possibility of seeing golden eagles over the mountains, but I had my eyes on the ground rather than the sky.
A trodden grass trail broke away from the main track and I followed it, only briefly distracted by chaffinches and a characteristically vocal wren. The sound grew louder until eventually I was close enough to see the water sparkling in the bright sun. It was gorgeous. Allt Ruadh it was called – a tributary of the River Feshie.
Dumping my rucksack, I knelt at the edge and dipped a hand. Just as icy as I suspected. I always feel an urge to swim in wild water or at least wade knee-deep, but even with the sun it was far too cold for me on this occasion. Still, just to see and hear all that stirring water was a treat. I settled on the bank and crossed my fingers for dippers.
I spent several hours there, reminded of the time only by my rumbling stomach. As I leant back against the rocks with my soup flask and watched the rapids churn up white froth, my gaze caught on a flash of yellow. A grey wagtail! It was standing in the centre of the river, bobbing its tail and fluttering from rock to rock. After examining each one around me, it flew to the top of a Scots pine and began to sing. I’ve seen many different birds using treetops as a singing perch but never a wagtail, so it was both a surprise and a privilege. Its song was so loud I could hear it above the stream.
I suppose this is how I meditate. I can’t sit in a lotus pose, close my eyes and listen to drum music – my mind just wanders to deadlines and errands. But if I disappear into the wild and fill every one of my senses with nature, I forget all the admin and sink into the closest meditative state I can manage. It helps if there’s no service because it means my phone is useless. Having no connection to the material world could be scary I suppose, but if I stay safe and pack accordingly I can enjoy complete solitude and peace, if only for a morning.
I’ve been a busy, quite tired bee recently! April has gone by in a flash and no matter how long I spend at my desk, the length of my to-do list never seems to change. This month I’ve been hard at work on a few different projects which I can’t wait to share. Fortunately I still managed to squeeze in some much-needed nature time, so here are some of my recent highlights.
I was thrilled to have a second article accepted by Oceanographic magazine. In July last year I visited Troup Head near Aberdeen, which is home to a vast colony of gannets. Soon afterwards I met Tim Marshall, who first visited the site in 1988. Back then there were just four gannet nests – by 2013 numbers had reached 2885 occupied nests! I was so excited about seeing these gorgeous seabirds up close that I wrote a story about them, which is now published on Oceanographic’s website alongside my photos.
There’s been a running joke for a while that I have awful luck when it comes to seeing roe deer. For many people, in Scotland at least, roe deer seem to be ten a penny. They’re one of my favourite animals but for some reason my sightings are very rare – I’ve actually seen more crested tits than roe deer! As for photos they’ve been disastrous, either dark and noisy or almost indistinguishable behind a thousand branches.
So managing to photograph not just one buck but two simultaneously was an exceptional bit of luck for me. I’d been strolling along the river when the first buck appeared on the far side. Moments later a second buck joined him. It was intriguing how one still had all his antler velvet and the other had none. With the river between us they seemed comfortable grazing out in the open, giving me the clearest daytime views I’ve ever had of this gorgeous animal.
I shared my frankly miraculous encounter with a hare in my last post. That same morning, I also had a run-in with a very handsome male pheasant. I’ve heard pheasants call hundreds of times – that screeching grate echoes through open fields everywhere. But it was only the other day that I discovered what a pheasant does while it calls.
This male was foraging right next to my car window. Every so often he’d stand up straight and lift his head to release that banshee scream, scaring me half to death each time. After calling he would flap his wings, almost like he’d startled himself too. As I hadn’t taken the time to notice pheasants calling before, I hadn’t realised what an excellent opportunity to train my reflexes it was. I had great fun photographing these glamorous poses. Say what you like about pheasants but they’re suave looking birds!
I’ve saved the best wild encounter until last. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my most exciting bird encounters ever, and it happened only 200 metres from my front door. As I was having dinner I got an alert from a fellow photographer telling me there was a Slavonian grebe in the harbour!
Pasta forgotten, I raced down and lo and behold there it was. A harbour was the last place I thought I’d tick off my first Slavonian grebe. About the size of a moorhen, these birds are extremely rare in the UK. They can be seen on a few Scottish lochs but spend most of the year at sea. I felt incredibly lucky to have seen one at all, let alone a stone’s throw from home.
Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll be sharing photos from my first trip out of Moray this year. The day featured a trio of herons, a serenading grey wagtail and a mallard making a splash!
Despite the cocktail of sun, rain, hail and snow all in four days I managed to have an excellent Easter weekend of wildlife watching. I heard my first chiffchaff this week, which can only mean spring is on its way despite the occasional blizzard!
Osprey season has begun and I spotted my first of the year on Saturday. That was the hottest day in a long time and sunglasses were essential for squinting up at the sky. As well as seeing this stunning male osprey hovering over the estuary, I saw my first sand martin of the year (too nippy for a photo) and my first ever grey plover, which was a rare visitor to the area.
That evening the excitement continued with my first gannets and bottlenose dolphins of the year! It was a gorgeous evening with a cracking sunset, made even prettier by the appearance of three dolphins that cruised all the way around the headland. There were a couple of distant breaches too far away for a photo but it was so lovely to see dolphins again. I can’t wait for the season to kick off properly when there will be sightings on most days!
But the most exciting encounter happened on dry land.
I knew there were hares nearby as I often saw them dashing across the open fields, too fast and far away for a photo. I wondered if I pulled up with the windows down safari style whether they might appear a bit closer. For a photographer, a car can be an excellent wildlife hide.
I passed the time watching pheasants foraging. Every now and then the male would do his screech call and flap his wings, which looked lovely in the early morning light.
I waited for him to do it again but he wasn’t playing ball. My hands were going numb and I was just about to put the camera down when a hare appeared behind him.
I froze, actually hearing my heart thud as it padded towards me. Once it was ten feet from my lens it sat and stared right at me before lolloping back behind the bales. Even though it could see me, there was something about me being in the car that had relaxed it enough to check me out.
Once I was sure it had gone I checked the photos and actually cried looking at them, which has never happened before. The combination of shock, joy and relief was overwhelming and I almost couldn’t believe what had happened.
It’s been an Easter weekend full of treats, from soaring ospreys to sunlit dolphins to breathtaking views of one of the most iconic Easter animals: the gorgeous hare. Thank you Mother Nature!
Last week on one of my many coastal walks I glanced down to see a pair of fulmars perched on an earthy shelf on the headland. Fulmars are one of my favourite seabirds so I was delighted that there was a possible mating pair setting up shop on my daily walking route. They were cackling to each other and looking like adorable mini albatrosses. I got a couple of shots but the light was fading so I decided to return when I had a little more sun.
The next day I wandered back to the spot but they were gone, perhaps on a fishing trip or maybe they’d decided on another nesting spot. Not wanting to waste the trip out, I scanned the water for dolphins and birds. Just at the mouth of the harbour was a group of dots too small for herring gulls. On closer inspection through the binos I discovered they were long tailed ducks – another favourite of mine!
I hurried down from the headland and made a hasty loop around the harbour, peeping over the wall to see where they’d got to. I’d never seen more than a pair together before, and now I was out of the wind I realised they were making an absolute racket! There was a single female among all the males and she was flapping her wings and whipping the males into a frenzy. All the while a constant stream of three-note quack calls overlapped each other as the males jostled and squabbled around this one female.
The long tailed ducks near me are usually shy little cuties, but today there really was something in the water. By the looks of the female’s upturned bill and the twinkle in her eye it seemed as though she was egging the boys on! Well, we all need to let our hair down every now and then, and at least the long tails are allowed to have a party right now…
Elsewhere in the harbour there was more activity. Up until very recently the only redshanks I’d seen were far out and nearly impossible to photograph without the risk of breaking my leg on the slippy rocks – something I actually saw happen last year! I noticed a gathering of both redshanks and turnstones hanging out on top of the sea wall. Knowing they could be skittish, I stayed still and watched.
After a while another redshank popped up from behind the wall, surprising both me and the gang already stood on the edge. There was a great flurry of wings and I had the camera pointed at just the right spot to capture the near collision!
My intention had been to look for fulmars and I’d nearly headed in the other direction to walk further along the coast path, but after such a dramatic (and noisy) display I was relieved I’d stayed where I was! I love those surprises in nature.
I was sorry to see winter go – for over a week I trudged through ankle deep snow and captured some really magical wildlife. But now the snow has gone and all the lovely fieldfares, redwings and bramblings have gone with it. While everyone was looking forward to spring, I was looking back to the winter I loved most.
At the weekend I went for my usual walk and instead of the serene silence that I usually hear in coniferous woodland, I heard birdsong. I picked out robins, coal tits, blue tits and a distant yellowhammer in the gorse fringing the forest. Perhaps most special of all though was the trill of one of my absolute favourite birds: the crested tit. I think I’ll always feel that little jolt of joy when I spot a crestie – they’re just so rare and special and I feel privileged to be able to see them quite easily where I live. The sun was shining so brightly I wished I’d dusted off my sunglasses, and although there was still a chill in the air, I began to embrace spring a little more.
Today my phone made an exciting sound – it was the jingle I’d set especially for local bottlenose dolphin sightings. If the dolphins had returned then spring was really kicking off. It was another glorious day so during a work break I walked up to a particularly good sea vantage point near my house and scanned the perfectly still water. No fins this time, but I watched dozens of birds criss-crossing the horizon from zippy turnstones to bulky cormorants. There was a group of twelve long tailed ducks too, which was a familiar winter sight among the spring buzz. I’ve felt a significant shift in my natural surroundings this week and although I still miss the snow, I’m really looking forward to those gorgeous dolphins coming back.
Although I’m naturally quite an introverted person and love having time to myself, I’ve still struggled to adapt to the lockdown routine. I like to potter around outside for hours while I write or just watch the world go by, so it goes without saying that I’ve missed wildlife far more than the pub. Alerts have hit my local Facebook groups about ospreys just a few miles away from me and orcas (orcas!) further along the coast, but lockdown measures have kept me stuck in one spot.
Still, it’s a beautiful spot to be stuck in, and there have been some new visitors to my local patch over the past few weeks. Before the clocks went forward, the daily sightings always included goldeneyes, long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers. Now, as the spring wildflowers emerge and the days grow longer, I’m seeing some new faces on the backshore.
When I arrived in Scotland I was told that May was the true start of the bottlenose dolphin season, but I’ve already been spotting dorsal fins on the water. I’ve had three different sightings so far, and on the second I managed to photograph some for the first time. Even from a distance and with most of their bodies submerged, it’s easy to see just how large these marine mammals are. In fact, the bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth are the largest and most northerly in the world.
As well as cetaceans, there’s been some avian excitement too. My absolute favourite birds have arrived in my patch: gannets! I glimpsed a white wingspan last week but wasn’t sure if it was just another herring gull, but since then I’ve had indisputable views of these vast and beautiful seabirds. As well as flyovers, I had the privilege of watching a dozen gannets diving for fish just offshore – twisting their bodies and tucking in their wings at the last moment before hitting the water like feathered torpedoes. I’ve always been drawn to gannets’ subtle plumage and dramatic facial markings and it’s been such a treat to watch them in my patch.
As I walk along the shore, I have the option of looking left to the ocean or right to dense clouds of gorse. As well as infusing the air with a beautiful coconut smell, the gorse provides excellent shelter for lots of different birds. Over the last week I’ve seen willow warblers, stonechats, linnets, skylarks, hooded crows, swallows, swifts and yellowhammers in just a small area. The charm of the gorse forest is that you never know what you’re going to spot and I’m almost always surprised by something.
Although I’m usually drawn towards birds and mammals, I can’t help but notice emerging insects as the temperature climbs. Just along from the town allotments I’ve seen bees, peacock and red admiral butterflies and green foliage that’s speckled with ladybirds.
It’s been difficult for us all to stay connected to the natural world during the lockdown, but seeing snippets of spring visitors on my daily walks has really lifted my mood. Nature never fails to make me feel better, and it’s during these challenging times that our time spent outdoors is the most important. Stay safe and stay wild everyone.
I arrived in Grantown-on-Spey at night, so couldn’t see much of the Cairngorms wilderness that pressed heavily on both sides of the winding road. I glimpsed darting rabbits and the elegant form of a pair of deer, but there must have been dozens of other creatures concealed by the dense evergreens.
My accommodation, the Grant Arms Hotel, was beautiful; a formidable building of stone and wide sash windows that could easily be the set for an elaborate period drama. Also called the Wildlife Hotel, the Grant Arms provides guests with easy access to a range of reserves of all different habitats. When I checked in, a large notice board stood pride of place in the foyer, full of lists of upcoming events, guidance on watching wildlife – including the magnificent capercaillie – and sign-up sheets for the week’s guided walks and field trips. An impressive puzzle adorned with a picturesque nature scene lay finished nearby. On the walls were images of puffins, ospreys, black grouse and, in my room, a beautiful fieldfare. I’d never seen so much wildlife-related decor and I absolutely loved it.
As I unpacked, I felt a thrill of eager anticipation for the week to come. I’d never stopped in the Cairngorms before but only passed through, so I couldn’t wait to sample some of the incredible wildlife. I had my sights set in particular on the pine marten – an elusive and nocturnal member of the mustelid family. If I was going to fulfil my New Year’s Resolution and see one in 2019, the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival was my best chance.