Ospreys, Scotland and much more...

14th August 2013
"My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer.."

So said a certain Rabbie Burns,and so it happened I was off to the home of RB, haggis, capercaillie, Red Squirrels and at least on this occasion most importantly..the Ospreys of the Cairngorms.
The Discovery was loaded with all my camera kit, camping kit, walking togs, and clothes to cover the 4 seasons weather you can generally expect to encounter in the Highlands in the 8 days I planned to stay. A 0500am start on the sunday morning for the 600 mile drive! I'd looked at the RAC route planner just once as the shock of how much of the map of the UK I was covering wasn't best dwelling on! So with iPod loaded up with new playlists and audio books I headed off into the dawn light on a stunning morning. Just 5 hours later, and after a refuelling breakfast, I was speeding along near empty motorways through the Lake District and the Borders and amazing scenery and avoiding the turning for Bannockburn as a true Englishman must (!) suddenly came Gretna, Glasgow, Stirling, Pitlochry and on to near Aviemore...and finally 8 hours after leaving home and a slightly illegal average speed of 76mph and I'm there... So I step out of the air conditioned Land Rover and it's a very unscottish 27 degrees and no cloud..!!
With a couple of hours to kill before I went to Peter and Amanda Cairns (Northshots) house at Glenfeshie I hit the highlights of Kingussie village nearby nearby and found a potential venue for lunch.!!

Alas with scottish sunday trading laws kicking in , it was closed! So no deep fried Mars bar for me..!!
But after recommendations by friends I actually headed for my intended recommendation. Voted one of the best 10 cake shops in the world, I found the Potting Shed at Inshriach Nursery tucked away in a back lane near Glenfeshie and after a pot of tea and two slices of cake I can confirm the award was justified :-)
I should explain this is actually one of their genuine cakes..Rhubarb & Raspberry Almond Sponge..one of my two choices and a justified bestseller!

But enough of cakes and so on to Northshots base, tucked away down a long track in an isolated idyllic glen bordered by mountains and the Glenfeshie river. Suffice to say the hospitality,food and accomodation provided was excellent all week.

An early start the next day (up at 0345am three days running in fact!) gave us the opportunity to be in the hide at not long after dawn. Obviously there are no guarantees with regards which if any, or when or how many times the local Ospreys may visit. In the 3 visits this week we saw between about 5 and 13 "hits" but of course you have no control on which dirwection the birds will arrive from. Indeed on the last morning the four attempts came from four different directions making us all quite trigger-happy!
But the sheer thrill of seeing such a stunning bird exhibiting it's natural behaviour leaves memories that won't be forgotten for a long time if ever. The photographs are great to get but for me almost secondary to the privilege of seeing Ospreys being..well..Ospreys!!
Here's the view from the hide.

I've added below some of my favourite images I managed to take and have put a few comments where I feel it may be of interest (some of the techie stuff) but I hope the photos just talk for themselves. (nb There are a few more in the Gallery section of the website).

This time he missed the trout (they do on the majority of attempts) but some birds are considerably better than others....

...As the bird struggles to get the fish underwater properly positioned in it's talons it effectively "floats" ....

...and then using it's six foot wingspan it lifts off and it's really only in the photos you realise the huge effort and massive wing movement involved to take off holding a fish that may weigh 1-2lbs or more.

And here are a couple of my favourites where I managed to get a head on view with the bird's amazing eyes showing as well as a great view of the fish as well as lovely light that wasn't too harsh.

For anyone thinking of going and wondering what equipment works best. Apart from the obvious solid tripod/head combination and as many frames-per-second as your camera will manage, we all had opinions on what lens to use. Consensus fell on a 400mm or 300mm with a 1.4x convertor assuming you're using full frame. On a cropped sensor of course a 300mm would be fine. However I do think that I'd actually start with a 300mm (on full frame ) and get some shots in the bag as if any closer it's easy to cut off wing tips when the bird's huge wings are totally extended (like in the 3rd photo above). And one can always crop in later when processing the images. I'd suggest then to maybe go to the 400mm or even 500mm to get those frame-filling images but I must confess that each time I added the convertor to my 300mm I took it off before the end of the session to ensure I would get any "once-in-a-million" shot that may occur (like 2 birds, 2 fish etc etc)..

On a slightly more serious wildlife note, a lot of opinions have been expressed recently about the issue of habitat/feeding areas being created to attract shy or elusive wildlife closer to photographers to enable shots similar to the osprey pictures here. Undoubtedly it makes it easier than before. One still has to understand your camera/lighting/settings/the animals behaviour etc but of course by getting the bird to interact much closer the chance of an image is greatly increased. My own humble opinion is simple. Anything that can generate a business for someone who has spent a lot of time and effort creating these opportunities which simultaneously helps the animal concerned by a) creating a higher profile which can highlight it's situation and b)not negatively affecting it's habitat/behaviour/success can only be a good thing. Secondly, I'm a conservationist and wildlife enthusiast before I'm a photographer. Maybe I've been lucky and nearly every photographer I meet is similarly minded. The danger becomes when people believe the only good photo is the latest "in thing" which I admit includes perhaps the Ospreys and Kingfishers I've seen this year. But the reality is I don't have the luxury of any Ospreys in Kent (unlike say my local Barn Owls) so this is a fantastic opportunity to witness a rare amazing bird behaving perfectly naturally, (bear in mind the trout fishery here has had Ospreys visiting for 30+ years). I look at bird watching and you can see the difference in an ornithologist and a "twitcher" where one is a naturalist and one is a list-ticker where getting that tick takes precedence over everything (often to the detriment of the very species they are pursuing!) . So long as wildlife photography can avoid that, I think only good can come out of opportunities like this if they are done properly and professionally. All I will continue to do is takes images that in some way move and inspire me and show the stunning wildlife we have on our (relative!) doorsteps. We can never take it for granted because if, as I do, you have been watching everything from grasshoppers to Ospreys the last 40 years then scientific and circumstantial evidence indicates our grandchildren will not be able to see everything we see now. If one photo of a Barn Owl or Osprey makes make one person go "wow" then it's helped in a very small way.

In the afternoons one main objective was to try and see the Bottled Nosed Dolphins at Channery Point on the Black Isle north of Inverness overlooking the Moray Firth. Whilst a well-known spot it's refreshing to see there's been no development of the sight with just an ice-cream van being the only pandering to the commercialism that I know would be endemic if the sight was say in Cornwall (pay and display car parks, viewing grandstands at £5 and hot dog sellers would be my guess....can someone explain to me why you can hardly ever buy healthy food at touristy sights and yet the govt moans everyone is getting obese!! )..
Alas we were unlucky, with just a few, mainly distant,sightings but on the occasion when they appeared a little more actively I was lucky to capture this image which was about the most they did that afternoon within close range of the beach so `i actually felt quite lucky to have got even this on the day. Amazing animals and the anyone who feels kids don't want to be involved with wildlife should have seen the excitement amongst the children (and the adults actually!) when a Dolphin appeared up close. Beats Playstation every time :-).

Whilst waiting I was amazed to see this Herring Gull pick up a fish from the surface 15 yards offshore (I'm not sure how it got there) and bring it back to the beach and despite angry calls from a fellow Gull this chap proceeded to jiggle it into position and eat it in one go despite it's massive relative size. I was lucky I had my 500mm lens on my tripod so I could swing quickly on to get a nice close view.

Again, with time to kill as we waited in vain for the Dolphins, I could admire the weather and the views and on the second visit the light was gorgeous and on noticing the glinting on the water in the distance behind me and the figures fishing on the small pier I decided to go a bit "arty"..I saw the yacht and hoped the boy fishing wouldn't move before it came into the frame. I actually really like the effect and just reminded me that there is always a picture to be taken even if one's original target isn't around.

Also, I spent one afternoon in a tiny hide hoping to see a pair of Ospreys feeding near their nest on the land owned by Peter and Amanda Cairns at Northshots. I could hear the chick (now 3/4 grown) calling and spurring it's parents on to feed it. After 3-4 hours I'd managed to get some lovely pictures especially as the light falling on the Cairngorm mountains behind was constantly changing. The next day the chick had actually ventured down from the nest to feed but not on my day alas. I used my trusty 300mm f4 again on my Nikon D4 for the images and here area couple of my favourites.

And finally with 3-4 days left in the Highlands after my Osprey adventure I was lucky to see a view, on one of those days, not many get to see. A perfect clear stunning view from the summit of Lochnagar possibly the most spectacular "Munro" in the Highlands and at 3789 feet still a good workout especially with the weather we were so fortunate to get. 25 degrees, little wind etc and a really clear view with little haze. I'd like to thank Lindsay for being such an excellent climbing companion despite having her knees taped up as well as being a world-renowned expert on all things to do with Ballater, Balmoral and what to see when "Ooot 'n Aboot" in the Highlands ! If you only ever climb one Scottish hill then Lochnagar would be a great choice. It was also good exercise after the excellent food of previous days and I can say that sitting in a hide for several hours isn't the best cardio workout !
A view here from the track half a mile after you leave the Visitor Centre at Spittal of Glen Muick. With a sky and temperature straight from the Mediterranean and Lochnagar summit just visible in the middle distance.

Here's the view looking southeast through the West Buttress past The Pinnacle and down the precipitous drop via sheer cliffs into the Corrie of Lochnagar. Even in summer you need to be aware where you're walking.

..and this is from the summit looking west with Loch nan Eun in the corrie floor and even some snow (end of July!) tucked away in the left corner on the steep slopes of the Stuic Buttress with more of the Munros like Ben MacDui and others in the distance...a stunning place and clear views like that are rarer than you'd think. In fact in the 4 hours from when we started (pic 1) and here you can see how much the cloud had built up and the next day?....rain and cloud!!

I hope you've enjoyed the blog and feel free to comment or to share with others and hopefully my next won't be too far away....NM

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