Cairngorms Break – Day 4 Ptarmigan & Sunsets

At last we had a forecast that looked good enough for us to head up in the Cairngorm mountains to search for the species Pete had most wanted to photograph this holiday; the Ptarmigan. Ptarmigan are in the Grouse family. They are possibly Britain’s toughest birds, living in the cold, harsh mountains of Scotland. Ptarmigans are masters of camouflage changing their colour to suit the season. In winter, they are completely white except for a short black tail, while in summer a brown and yellow plumage blends the ptarmigan into the lichen covered rocks. At this time of year, they are beautifully mottled; each one unique as they change into their winter coat. Their feathered feet then act as snow shoes, enabling the ptarmigan to walk on soft snow. 

I have never seen Ptarmigan, so was excited about seeing them and if I could get a good photograph, it would be a bonus. At this time of the year, when they are turning white and the ground is not covered with snow, they are very obvious on the landscape. This can often mean they are quite ‘flighty’ making them difficult to get close to, to photograph.

With a long day on the mountain, we headed to ‘Simpsons’ – the Garden Centre where Andy is the Manager. There, we were treated to one of their amazing breakfasts and it also gave us the chance to have a look at the 2020 Vision Exhibition that was gracing the Garden Centre’s outdoor space.

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The images here are truly inspirational and we showed our appreciation with a few light-hearted shots to start the day!

They breed them big in The Highlands…

Andy

Kate

Lyndsey tames a Giant Adder…

Lynsey

… and the best place for Pete??!!!!…..

Pete

 

Although the mist was on the lower ground, as we headed up to Cairngorm Mountain we rose above it and the clearing skies looked very promising.

We took the chance to take a few shots of us with the spectacular backdrop…

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We met Neil McIntyre ( whose website can be accessed via the link below) and took the Funicular Railway, which takes you up to 3500ft .

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Emerging onto the mountain side, we were blown away with the views! The light was gorgeous and the mist was still drifting over the lower hollows. The wind was a tad chilly, but for November, the conditions were incredible. 

We started scouring the landscape for the ptarmigan and they were pretty easy to spot in their white plumage. They were hard to get close to, though, and we had to creep along the hillside and boulders to try to get close enough to get a shot. Eventually our patience was rewarded…

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With the Ptarmigan  heading further up the mountain, we decided to call it a day, but the mountain had more to offer! As the sun sunk lower in the sky we were treated to a totally magical sunset of constant changing colours. It was truly amazing and no photos will ever really do it justice…

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The light was constantly changing, but the last Funicular was leaving and it was a long walk down in the failing light. We headed down to the car park and started the journey back to Andy and Lyndsey’s, but stopped at Loch Morlich to catch the last rays…

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What a totally incredible day…. wonderful landscape, wildlife and great company!

Cairngorms Break – Day 3 Red Deer & Red Grouse

With the weather forecast looking decidedly grim, we chose to use the ‘mobile hide’ today…. the car! Usually low light conditions like this would render photography almost impossible with the Canon 7D, as I could not shoot above ISO 800. With my new 7D MrkII, the ISO capabilities are far superior. For those who are not photographers, this means that the camera has a sensor that is much more sensitive to any available light. Subsequently, you can achieve a faster shutter speed at low light levels. Today the light was so poor that I would never have been able to get the kind of shutter speed necessary to get a sharp shot. This new camera allowed me to photograph in conditions that I would not have normally even got my camera out of the bag!

We decided to head up to the Glen Affric area to look for Red Deer. The driving rain and low cloud can actually make for a pretty dramatic and atmospheric shot and the wet ground can enhance the wonderful colours that are present at this time of year. As we drove up to the area, the sky darkened, yet every now and then, the cloud would clear and the rain would ease…. we were confident that we could get some shots even in these conditions. The great thing about digital photography is that you can experiment and attempt shots and, even if they are a little dark, levels can be raised in processing if you are shooting in Raw.

Meandering up a series of windy roads, the landscape was truly dramatic and very much epitomises the Scottish landscape… I knew the Red Deer were going to look amazing in this environment… if we could find them!

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The deer are incredibly difficult to spot as they are exactly the same colour as the landscape! With the rain, many were also sitting, hunkered down, in the bracken. Often it was only their antlers that gave away their presence.

We soon spotted some and started to take some shots…

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They just look fantastic in this landscape… very majestic!

I played around with some shots as I wanted to show the expanses of grass and dried bracken and how well these deer blend in with their surroundings…

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On a couple of occasions, some individuals came quite close, meaning that Pete and Andy, with their larger lenses, struggled, yet me with my 100-400mm was more manoeuvrable (doing gymnastics on the back seat to get the shot out of the window!)

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This individual came up behind the car, posed a few times and actually crossed over the road behind the car!

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After driving around for a couple of hours, with varying degrees of success, we were treated to a couple more views, before we decided to head off and see what else we could find….

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We decided to head up to the moors to see if we could find some Red Grouse. With the rain now seemingly set in for the day, the light levels were deteriorating and we wondered whether our quest to get an ‘atmospheric’ shot was a little too ambitious!

I had to knock the ISO up to 5000 to achieve 200th of a second shutter speed , but the wet weather had made the colours really vibrant and I was actually pretty pleased with the shots I got. These are just screen captures and it is only when I look at the full RAW files, that I be able to see how much ‘noise’ there is on these images, but they look fine to me and WAY better than the 7D could have achieved.

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By half 3, it was like dusk and there was hardly any light. We had a quick drive up to Berghead Harbour to see if there was anything in on the high tide, but in the gloom, we could see nothing. It was time to head back after another superb day in the highlands!

Cairngorm Break: Day 2 Mountain Hares

The day dawned brighter than yesterday and the view from Andy’s house was spectacular… over looking the Black Isle and the Moray Firth… a wonderful scene of pastel colours as the sun rose.

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With the weather looking quite promising, we decided to go and see if we could find some Mountain Hare. Pete and I came up in February and photographed them in the snow and it was incredible. We were very keen to go back as the hare are just changing from their brown summer coats, into their white winter ones. They all change at different rates and you get some lovely variations.

Although it felt quite mild at Andy’s, by the time we were on the mountain, it felt considerably colder and when the wind blew, I was very glad of my windproof gear. 

It was good to see this landscape without snow. The mixed muted colours of heather and grass beginning to turn created a great colour palette for the hare…. we just had to find some! We began to make our way steadily across the hillside, regularly stopping to scour the land for the hare. They are incredibly difficult to spot. Using a hollow in the ground, called a form, they ‘mould’ themselves into these hollows as a form of camouflage and to protect them from the harsh conditions they are going to face on this inhospitable mountain environment. Andy’s knowledge and expertise meant we began to spot them dotted around on hillside. Those that were already well into their winter coat meant they stood out more on the autumnal landscape.

We spotted an individual that looked relaxed and that was in a suitable place to photograph. Following Andy’s lead, we crept slowly toward the hare, ensuring we moved steadily, watching the hare at all times. It was essential that the hare’s welfare was paramount… if it showed any signs of unease, then we would back off straight away. Stopping at regular intervals and sitting quietly allowed the hare to relax and become accustomed to our presence. We did not start photographing until we were sure the hare was completely comfortable with us being there. This individual was just starting to change…

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We stayed with this individual  for about an hour and a half. They sit incredibly still and then about every 20 minutes, they actually eat their own droppings because there is lots of undigested goodness in them, so they eat them for a second round of digestion! They then chew on those and that makes for some good shots of their cheeks moving! They then often groom their feet and ears …….

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We left this hare to its day and found another further up the hill. The shot was not as clean and the hare was not comfortable with our presence, so we moved on.

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Our next hare we located was the one that we were most excited about, as we think it is the same individual that we photographed last February in the snow. He is very comfortable with human presence and we were able to creep pretty close. I was able to position myself to get a shot where the background was completely blurred and also I experimented with getting low and using the foreground to create a blur. Andy let me try the Canon 500mm MrkII lens…. WOW!!! This lens is SO sharp! A prime lens such as this is the stuff of dreams… and that is about all it will be for me! Great to try it though!

As you can imagine, I took rather a lot of shots… these are just a few unprocessed images as a taster….

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What a day! I will be dreaming hares tonight… a very special experience….

Cairngorm Break: Day 1 Crested Tits

Driving from the Midlands to Inverness is a pretty epic journey….. even doing it in 2 stints, which is what Pete Walkden and I did last night and this morning… but believe me, it is worth it. I absolutely love the Cairngorms… it is a very special place, totally incredible landscapes and truly wonderful wildlife to photograph. We are staying with Andy and Lyndsey Howard .. check out Andy’s amazing photos at www.andyhoward .co.uk

We met Andy and headed straight to photograph Crested Tits. When Pete and I last came up to this area in February, it was the first time I had seen these birds and very quickly, I fell in love! I think part of it is that I photograph their garden relatives so much in my own garden, I feel that I sort of know them. They behave like a rather boisterous blue tit and but their great crests give them a punk-like appearance and make them very expressive! They are really great characters and offer endless possibilities for shots.

This private site is stunning… beautiful natural Caledonian Pine woodland. The colours are phenomenal… a moss and lichen rich landscape, with the lichen hanging like candy floss from perches….all very conducive to getting great shots! The only problem is that Crested tits are incredible quick! They are barely still for more than a second and flit from one place to another, meaning you have to be quick!

I have recently bought a Canon 7D MrkII, so was keen to give it a good trial up in Scotland for these 4 days. Having only had a quick ‘go’ with it in the garden over the weekend, today was going to be a brilliant place to put it through its paces. The light was not very good, so the ISO capabilities meant I was able to achieve a high shutter speed, in a way that would have been impossible with the 7D… many of the shots you see here were shot at ISO 4000-5000 to achieve 1/500 sec. You really need a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement of these high-speed acrobats.

I have not uploaded any of these properly, so these screen shots are pretty much unprocessed and straight out of the camera and, being screen shots, they are not as sharp as the original image,  but will give you a flavour of what I achieved today. I am really pleased with some of these shots and can’t wait to get them on my PC at home and process them properly.

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I also set the Bushnell up on a perch and tried to get some close-up footage of them but they alighted for only  few seconds at a time and I am not sure how much I captured. I left the trail cam up at the site as we set it up on a fallen log where we found some Pine marten scat!!! We put some peanuts and honey on the log and have our fingers crossed for some cool footage! 

A fantastic first day… there is just SO much to photograph up here, I just know that coming home on Sunday, we will be planning our next trip up!

 

Yew View Kingfisher Joy!!

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I now have a new ‘patch’! …. not strictly ‘mine’… but I am now working with the owners of a beautiful 7 acre site in Worcestershire. I am working with them to set up a comprehensive camera system, along with the great team at icatcher (www.icodes.co.uk) so we can monitor the wildlife that visits. A collection of Bushnell trail cams are also helping! You can find out more about this wonderful project on the website I built, by clicking on the link below:

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Over the next few months, we will be setting up lots of cameras, in nest boxes, on feeding stations, bird baths, mammal boxes… in fact all over the place and we hope to bring you some exciting footage and possibly some live streams in the future!

Within the site is a large wildlife pond. It has a small ‘jetty’ which has a number of wooden posts. I spotted a kingfisher on one of these, so set the trail cam up a few weeks ago, to see it was a regular visitor. I was delighted with the initial clips which showed that a kingfisher was, indeed, hunting from the pond.  We were not sure what it was eating as there are no fish in there, but we did think some visiting ducks may have brought some in as eggs possibly.

This is one of my initial clips….

I was thrilled with this as I have never captured a kingfisher on my Bushnell! After collecting those clips, I decided it would be pretty amazing to try to capture some clips using the 46cm close-up lens. I knew the kingfisher was about the right size to be full frame at this distance. I built a horizontal connector between the two end posts, so I could mount the Bushnell at exactly the right focal distance and ensure it was at the correct height. After some careful adjustment, I left it there and hoped for the best. I knew if it did come back and I had set it correctly, then we were going to get some really good footage.

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Last week, I returned to the site and the first thing I did was go down and collect the trail cam. Looking quickly at the playback screen, I could see immediately that the kingfisher had visited! To say I was excited was an understatement! Rushing up to the PC, I put the SD card in and loaded up the clips….. WOW!!! I could not believe it! I had captured lots of clips of it visiting and the light and focus looked spot on. I had a quick look through, tweeting a few excited screen captures and texted the owners of YewView to let them know what I had captured. As expected, they were as excited as me!

It was only that evening, when I sat down to look at them properly that I realised how super the clips were. Using iSysoft Video converter, I was able to play the clips and then choose a frame to take a screen capture…. here are a few as a flavour and you can see them all on the Yew View Flickr account in Album HERE

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It is truly wonderful to be able to see these stunning birds up close… and to realise that we have at least 2 individuals! The male has a black lower mandible of his beak and the female has orange on hers. Also, we were able to observe them eating dragonfly nymphs and water boatmen.

There are lots of videos that can be seen on our YewView YouTube Channel, but I am posting a couple on here, to give you a flavour! These have to be some of my most favourite Bushnell clips so far and they really show what these great cameras are capable of!

 

 

 

Obviously, this has whetted my appetite and I want to try to get some more clips! I set the Bushnell back in the same position, but with the post in the centre, as I lost the kingfisher’s beak sometimes if it sat facing to the right.  I also wanted to try to get some footage of it perching… so I hunted around for a nice lichen-clad perch and screwed it into the opposite post. Setting a 2nd Bushnell up on the post using a tree bracket, I attempted to position it so it was exactly the right distance away and trained on the perch….. now this WOULD give a cracking clip….

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So, this last week, there have been two Bushnell monitoring the area and I just can’t wait to get back on Wednesday to check them… fingers crossed!

It was not only a kingfisher who took advantage of the post though….. I was amazed to have captured a Sparrowhawk land there as well… the close-up lens meant we only saw his feet… but you can’t have it all!  

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Keep an eye out on my Twitter feed (@katemacrae) next week or on the YewView website, where my comments appear… I am dreaming of a beautiful clip of a kingfisher on that lichen perch! :o)

Polecat or Polecat Ferret?

Every now and then I capture something surprising on my cameras! Last night, I was working at my desk and I suddenly noticed something appear very briefly on my Fox cam. It was a fleeting glimpse. Luckily, I have iCatcher running on all my cameras, which means they are recording. I can play back the footage. I did this straight away and was amazed to capture this clip!

It is very difficult to tell whether this is a polecat or a cross between a polecat and a ferret. The IR burns out his face as he turns, so it is impossible to see if there is a mask… this is the characteristic face markings of the polecat.

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This predator may account for the apparent drop in rat numbers in my garden….. so I would quite welcome this hunter to keep numbers at bay. I will be placing a series of Bushnells around the area to see if I can capture some more clips.

BBC Autumnwatch hits our Screens… and my Mammal Box HD!

You may have been following the story of my new Mammal Box HD, where I have created little removable sets that slip inside the box, meaning I can change the environment that the mammals interact with.  You can find out more about it by visiting my website page. On here are all the images, videos and the information about how I made it. Click the image below to find out more.

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With Autumnwatch due at the end of October, I had the idea of creating an Autumnwatch scene, with the aim of getting the mice and voles to come in and look like they were guests on the show! Contacting Tina, from the Lichfield Dolls House Club, who has been working on this project with me, we discussed what might be possible. After much research and Google Image searches, we came up with some ideas of things that might be possible and Tina set to work.  

This amazing creation is a testament to Tina’s fantastic skills….. the attention to detail is incredible and she made all the props here, even down to a cup of tea and tiny biscuits on the table! 

We gave the set a few trail runs to get the camera position right and to see if the mammals would perform as we required them to…… they did!!

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This camera view will  be LIVE on my website for the duration of Autumnwatch; 28th – 31st October. Watch out for it on the show too… it may make an appearance!

 

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