Wednesday, 27 February 2013

NorthShots Winter Wildlife Tour - A Summary - A Focus on Nature prize

I've recently returned from a week long trip to the stunning Cairngorms with the fantastic NorthShots  on their Winter Wildlife photography tour.  I was very honoured to receive such a prestigious prize, awarded to me through A Focus on Nature and kindly donated by Peter Cairns, one of my favourite nature photographers in the UK.

I've visited the Cairngorms a couple of times previously to take photos for my dissertation whilst on my photography Masters, looking at the conservation of habitats and species found across Scotland.  I instantly fell in love with the place and so I certainly jumped at the opportunity to return.  

So on Monday the 16th February, I embarked on an 8 hour train mission to reach NorthShots HQ near Kingussie for an evening of introductions and a hearty meal.  Peter soon announced to everyone that I was there for free, from which I bowed my head and avoided eye contact with everyone for the rest of the meal!  I was from then on known as "The Competition Winner" for the rest of the week, but apart from a bit of gentle ribbing, everyone was very kind, interested in what I was doing and readily made their years of experience available to me through tips and advice.

Scotland is a fantastic place to visit from a conservation point of view, it's full of species that aren't found, well or at all, in other regions of the UK due to habitat and climate restrictions.  It's a step into the past and in some places is as close to a wilderness as you can experience on the island we call home.

Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are one such species.  North Scotland is home to the strong hold of this charismatic species, with small populations remaining in North Wales and North England.  It is our only native species of squirrel here in the UK with its cousin the Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) being introduced from America.  Grey Squirrels are carriers of a parapox virus better known as Squirrel Pox, they are immune to the virus but this then passes on to the Reds when in close contact which can be fatal to them.  The invasive Greys also outcompete the Reds for food, they are able to feast on acorns, these contain tannins that are toxic to Reds and this offers a larger food source to Greys when times are tough.  Red Squirrel survival depends on the eradication of Greys and where they have been removed, Red Squirrel population health seems to naturally improve.

There is ample opportunity to photograph these fantastic animals around NorthShots HQ with a series of dedicated hides.  Simple backgrounds and great lighting make for some fantastic images.  I spent the first morning sat in the 'forest hide' and it was great to see this species once again.

In the afternoon we went for a short visit to photograph an impressive male Capercaillie.  This is a huge turkey sized species of grouse fully restricted to North of the border.  

This amazing species is in real trouble, having already been wiped out from the UK once before in the 18th century.  Birds from Sweden were reintroduced to the country and in the mid 1970s there was an estimated population of around 20,000.  Since then, numbers have decreased drastically and there is thought to be as little as between 1,000 and 2,000 left.

The main threat to this species is loss of suitable habitat - Caledonian Pinewood with trees of differing ages with dense floor cover of blaeberry and heather, along with boggy patches for strong numbers of invertebrates for feeding chicks.  Decreasing suitable habitat can be largely blamed on overgrazing by deer and sheep stocks.  It is also affected by fatal collisions with deer fences, predation by crows and foxes and an increase in abnormal weather patterns during it's breeding season that affects offspring survival.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I try to get a wide angle image to incorporate the subject's environment.  It gives a different perspective to a straight up portrait and from a conservational point of view, I felt it important to include the habitat that is so important to this species.

 As evening came on the first day and we were treated to surprisingly clear skies I walked down to the river side to take some long exposures of the night sky over the mountains.  

On the second day of the tour we started off with a trip over to Neil McIntyre's place for some further Red Squirrel photography and in the afternoon, set off on the hunt for Red Deer (Cervus elaphus).  Being the competition winner I was awarded prime seating position in the back of the pick up with two of the other guides... and everyones gear! Twenty minutes later and a little more crumpled than before we got in, we waited for the deer to show.  Red Deer numbers have soared across Scotland as they no longer have any natural predators.  When they get into woodland they graze heavily on new shoots and devoid areas of essential new growth, which in turn, effects several at risk species that depend on that type of habitat.  Here I slowed the shutter speed right down and panned with the subject to try a new perspective on a common subject and the image becomes a lot more about representing form than detail.

One of the main points I learned whilst being fully immersed in a photography week with Peter Cairns was that a photograph is much less subject, and much more lighting.  In essence, we shouldn't look to photograph rarer/more impressive subjects in poor light over common species in fantastic light, as no matter the subject, great light makes the shot.  So I tried to take this on board whilst out there and will certainly try and work on this concept more now I'm home as it makes a lot of sense!
Here a female Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), one of the best known species in the UK, but captured with great backlighting that just lights up the shape of the incoming duck.

After the fast shooting duck photography we quickly drove to the other side of the loch to fit in a spot of landscape photography! Busy busy on the NorthShots tour and thats just the way I like it and as a result we managed to witness the stunning colours of this sunset at the end of a great second day! 

Day 3 on the Winter Wildlife tour and we were to get our first taste of snow up the mountainside!  Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) were our target species, another species of grouse with an interesting evolutionary adaptation.  Their plumage changes with the seasons, mottled grey in summer to camouflage against the rocky hillsides and turning all white in winter.  They're a firm favourite of mine and they have a very distinguishable, deep rolling call.  These birds are at the very edge of their climatic range in the UK and only reside at the very tops of the highest peaks in The Highlands where the landscape resembles that of the Arctic Tundra.  Increasing temperatures due to global warming could wipe out any suitable habitat in the UK.  The increase of snow sports in Scotland could also be affecting numbers as human litter attracts crows and ravens that can act as predators to Ptarmigan offspring.  
Conditions were tough up the mountain with harsh lighting, timid birds and very slippy surfaces (it claimed 2 canon 1DX's and a 500mm - RIP) but I did manage a few inflight shots and I particularly liked the composition and background of this one.

 Day 4 and I was chomping at the bit to get a photo of this next subject.  The Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus) was my bogey bird from the summer before, having really wanted to get a photograph of these little punk rockers of the bird world but only ever seeing glimpses in the tops of trees.  So the morning was spent sat in front of a dedicated feeding station at NorthShots HQ, waiting and hoping that one of these birds would show up.  In the end we had around 4 or 5 quick visits in 4 or so hours and you had to be fast when they did come down!  Due to the time of day, sunlight was hitting the subject lighting it nicely from the front and with a patch of trees in shadow behind, I underexposed the scene to achieve a really nice dark background which helps make the subject pop.
Cresties are also at the very limit of their range here in the UK and are only found in Ancient Caledonian Pinewoods and some Scots Pine plantations deep in the Scottish Highlands.  They need a substantial amount of standing dead wood in order for populations to survive as this is where they make their nests.  So although plantations may be good for a short time, if and when they are harvested there is little chance for dead trees to remain standing which makes the case that natural Ancient Pinewoods are the best habitat for these birds - a habitat of which just 1% of its original coverage now exists in the UK.

In the afternoon a few of us went to visit a hill side where some of the group had seen Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) the previous day.  Like Ptarmigan, this species is also a master of disguise, brown in the summer months and turning all white in winter....except of course if they're laying low beneath the snow line, in which case they stick out like a sore thumb!  So this individual was pretty easy to spot from a distance and we slowly started to approach it, stopping every 2 metres or so as we edged closer to where it was hunkered down against the gales.  Thankfully this individual remained totally relaxed showing little signs of stress, falling in and out of sleep, preening and feeding which was a great feeling to have a wild animal accept you as a non-threat whilst being as little as 3 metres away.  Like the Capercaillie I also managed to get some wide-angle images that incorporated this species habitat but this portrait works well for me, the eyes staring directly back at me.  

On Day 5 of the Winter Wildlife tour I didn't manage any decent images.  Spent the morning in a hide set up specifically to capture Red Squirrels mid-leap.  They performed really well to start with but by the time I'd sorted out my focusing technique for the difficult task of capturing them mid-air, they got lazy and started walking round instead of leaping from trunk to trunk.  Too many hazelnuts!  So no photos on the last day but it was a welcome reminder that not everything is a success and you need to work hard to get consistently good images.

So that's it for now, the Winter Wildlife tour is over.  This post just includes a small snapshot of the images achieved on the trip and if you'd like to keep up to date on the rest you can follow my Facebook Page here.

What a fantastic trip and I couldn't recommend a trip with NorthShots enough.  So many great opportunities for some stunning photography and all with people who are really passionate about their imagery, Peter Cairns and Rob Jordan who led the tour were great to be around and their enthusiasm and expertise definitely rubbed off.  A big thanks also to A Focus on Nature who set up this prize for me.  If you have an interest in nature conservation and have something to offer, fill out an application and you never know what you might win or who you might meet.

I have my eye on the NorthShots trip to Iceland now, although I'd better pay this time as I don't think I can handle the abuse twice! Competition winner, over and out.


  1. Love your photos. If I'm feeling down a little browse through your recent posts lifts my spirits like nothing else.

    1. Thanks very much for your kind comment. Nature is a good healer!