Crested Tits and Capercaille - The Cairngorms

13th February 2010
The day dawned wet and drizzly as I awoke in the Scottish town of Perth. After a 400 mile plus journey I still could not see any snow of significance on the ground. The next stage of my journey took me to the wonderful area of the Cairngorms. The climb up through the lower ranges of the Highlands showed there was snow on the ground and the temperature had dropped again…..more snow?

My journey north had been planned and booked for almost a year as I wanted to photograph birds that could not be found in the south where I lived. Crested Tits, Siskin and Capercaille were on my “hit list”.

The first day in the Cairngorms was overcast with drizzly rain and intermittent sleet, but my first morning in the hide was productive with Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Coal Tit, Siskin and Tree Creeper. Wow what a start! The usual suspects of Blue Tit and Great Tit also put in a regular appearance. What really fascinated me was the sheer numbers of Chaffinches. I tried very hard to photograph them hovering next to the feeder log, but the weather did not bode well for fast shutter speeds even at ISO 800!

After a superb 1st day it was time to sample the culinary delights of the venue I was staying at. All I can say is, I think I will need to go on a diet after 5 days of this superb food and hospitality.

The following day was spent photographing the same species of birds in similar surroundings but from different hides.

I had been given an opportunity to go to a “secret” location to photograph what is probably the most threatened species in Scotland, the Capercaille.

We tracked the bird and found it near to a forestry gravel road. It was very evident that this was a rogue bird as it proceeded to display at us and defend its territory. We were being viewed as a threat and the appropriate evasive action had to be taken to not only safeguard us but also the bird. We spent a glorious 40 minutes photographing what is truly a magnificent bird of the ancient Caledonian forest, an encounter I will never forget.

The next day we had planned to go up to the mountain to photograph Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting but we had 3 feet of snow overnight and that had created problems further up the hill so we had to abandon the trip. But this gave wonderful opportunities to take images of the local highland cattle in the surrounding fields.

Today I was given fantastic opportunity to photograph another rare species, the Crested Tit. There are only small pockets of this bird throughout the Highlands of Scotland so it was an opportunity not to miss! The site was close to the forest and on the edge of a clearing beside a very muddy snow covered bog.
There was no hide to sit in so I had to sit out in the open on one of those cheap fold up seats with snow falling around me! What a magnificent setting, all I wanted now was for the birds to come and visit the feeder and I would be in heaven. I had not too long to wait for the first bird to arrive a lovely little Coal Tit with his distinctive black head with a white stripe down the middle. A couple of the “usual suspects” also paid a visit. The snow kept falling and a couple of times I had to brush the snow of me and my 500mm lens and camera set up. Thankfully I had covered the whole rig with the superb lens and camera cover from Wildlife Watching supplies.

After 45 minutes still no Crested Tits! But then from deep within the forest I could hear the distant contact calls of a pair of Crested Tits and in a flash they were on the feeder furiously pecking away at their free meal. They had missed the perch out completely! How inconsiderate of them!
After an agonising wait they paid another visit this time to the perch first! Brilliant! I fired off countless frames in my efforts to capture useable images for my “A” panel collection for the RPS. Job done! Great poses of the birds with their crests wonderfully displayed and to have two in a frame was very lucky indeed.
The Crested Tits came to visit once or twice after this so I did get a few more chances to take images. What a day.
These beautiful little birds are such iconic figures of the dwindling ancient forest of Caledonia.

My next trip took me deep within the forest to photograph another icon of Caledonia, the Red Squirrel.

On entering the hide it was obvious we had had yet more snow overnight and that the temperature was increasing slightly with a few rays of sunshine thawing some of the snow laden tops of the Scots Pines we were in the middle of. Every couple of minutes an avalanche of snow would fall to the ground with a distant thump. We baited up the feeders with fresh hazel nuts still in their shells and waited, and waited, and waited. After 2 hours I was almost giving up hope of ever photographing a Red Squirrel and then it appeared running down the side of the pine tree in a flash it picked up a hazel nut and vanished. Far too quick for my aging reflexes! To add insult to injury I could hear the little red devil knawing away at the hazel nut in a pine tree up above us! But then to my right another Squirrel came into view (and a bit slower this time) It sat and cracked open a couple of hazel nuts giving me plenty of time to set my exposure to gain a fast enough shutter speed and take a few images.

Sadly it was all over in a flash and our time was up in the squirrel hide.

That night whilst uploading and sorting images onto my laptop I recounted the lost opportunities over the past few days and also remembered some wonderful unforgettable moments I had experienced with wild birds and animals in such magnificent surroundings.
Photographing these birds and animals must be on the “to do list” of any budding wildlife photographer in fact it has to rate highly on any ones “bucket list”.


Shaun February 2010

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