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April 2016





Adventures in the Cairngorms

So we knew that there was a chance of snow in April but we didn't reckon on a deluge and some completely atrocious driving conditions.  Ian, Cathy and I booked in to Northshots cottage and we'd probably driven Pete and Amanda round the bend with constant 'just in case' questions about snow.  

When we arrived, the snow started.  The heroic James Shooter picked us up in his 4WD at ridiculous o'clock and drove us to the lekking site for a 4am start.  I don't think that I can adequately express my gratitude to James as he skillfully steered the 4WD up and down the lethally icy hills.  He said afterwards that they were the worst road conditions that he'd experienced all winter.  Thank you James!

We climbed the snow covered hill in pitch dark in a howling blizzard.  The prospect of sitting in a freezing hide (-6c) for the next 4 or 5 hours wasn't altogether appealing but I am so glad that I went.  I think alongside the knott roost at Snettisham, this ranks as one of my all time favourie wildlife spectacles. 

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The bubbling noises started almost immediately and although it was pitch dark, the bewitching sounds kept us peering into the darkness until we could finally make out the dark blurry shapes of the Black Grouse as they arrived at their lekking site to posture and compete for the best positions from which to attract the females.

It was utterly freezing and so dark that we couldn't make out any shapes at all but eventually, we began to see blurry movements in the gloom... and of course, that prompted my desire to try to record what I was seeing.  The first photographs are a testimony to my camera's ability to see better than I can in the dark!  It was managing to record blurry dark shapes, in pitch dark and in a blizzard.  I was so excited... and I love some of these early pictures.  Not everybody's cup of tea... all a bit marmite, but as my family will tell you, I can eat marmite from a spoon!

I am not going to post endless slide shows of the Black Grouse because there's a whole gallery... but perhaps just two more!

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It's virtually impossible to convey the acrobatic skills of these magnificent birds in a still photograph.  Having finished a bout of vicious fighting with a rival BG, or perhaps before they start the next one, the male will throw his head up and jump up and down in the air.  It's hilarious.

I took a long lens and a wide angle lens with me but all too often, a pair of BG were just out of ideal range for one and too close for the other... so I set about some deliberate but unusual compositions.  To be honest, the first were accidental but I went on to choose to explore this approach.  It amused me almost as much as the birds did!

The blizzard continued for almost our whole session at the lek.  It was virtually impossible to focus through the driving snow.  Right at the end, when most of the birds had left the arena, we had a bit of beautiful light.  The one remaining bird that was sitting in a snow hole right in front of us was lit up... magical! 

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A visit to the Cairngorms without spending time with Neil McIntyre and his Red Squirrels just isn't right!!  We went to the Pine Wood site where Neil has been watching the squirrels for years.  It's one of my favourite places.  These ancient Pine Woods are quite magical.  The more I visit, the more I want to return to watch more, to learn more and to just spend time watching this adorable little creatures as they scamper busily about in the woods.  This time I wanted to create more images that showed the squirrels in their habitat... with the squirrels looking small compared to the mighty trees.  

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We spent many hours going up and down stretches of road looking for Red Grouse.  I love the sound that they make.  We watched and listened to them for hours.  At this particular time of the year, the males are anxiously pursuing their females through the heather trying to ensure that they keep them in sight.  The females continue to potter about nibbling on heather shoots but the males are on guard!  Periodically the males pull themselves up to their full height and call out, full throttle and full wattle!  It's very impressive and ensures that opportunistic males keep clear.

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We spent time photographing other birds... woodland birds from a hide overlooking a beautiful valley, waterbirds on the shores of lochs, birds from car windows but best of all, Goldeneye courting on a beatiful loch.  The Goldeneye were my absolute favourite and a highlight of the trip.  It was quite magical to see their courtship displays and squabbles as the mist was still hanging around on the loch at first light.  Well worth getting up at silly o'clock for.

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Photograping the woodland birds with the opposite hillside for a background, and with the aperture wide open gives a wonderful diffuse background that simply picks up the gorgeous colours and, when it rains, sometimes picks up a rainbow!  Not photoshop, real!

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I really enjoyed playing about with reflections from the shores of a loch.  The still water allowed for some abstracts and reflections.  Fun!


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And then there were the trees!  Trees around lochs, trees in lochs, trees in the valley.  


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Many thanks to Ian and Cathy for their company on this trip.  We had fun.  Lots of laughs and lots of adventures