The Red Squirrel is one of our declining native species here in Britain. Only pockets of reds remain around the UK, with the majority in Scotland. It is estimated that 140,000 Red Squirrels remain under threat by the invasion of the grey squirrel where there is now believed to be over 2.5 million!
To have the opportunity to photograph them close to the lens was an uplifting experience. They're fantastic creatures to watch and once they're comfortable with their surroundings (and the clicks from the DSLR!) they will happily continue their daily business.
This was my first experience of photographing wildlife from the comfort of a woodland hide. My past experience of photographing wildlife was capturing hares and was getting low and crawling on the ground or sitting in a hedgerow, but now I had a roof over my head and I'm glad we did!
Poor visibility and showers was the forecast for the day with chance of it clearing later in the afternoon. ISO was set as high as I dared whilst still getting a quality photo, in this case ISO 2000. I set the camera to Aperture priority mode, and set the aperture to f5 - the largest aperture to allow the most light to reach the sensor. I kept an eye on my shutter speed, somewhere around 1/100 second mark, as my main focus was portrait shots.
With hazelnuts in place by the bird feeder we settled in the hide to await our first squirrel. Phillip our host and guide was our eyes and ears. For 10 years Phillip has watched and studied the red squirrels and other wildlife in his local woodlands.
After a wait of around 30 minutes, our first squirrel appeared. The first time I've seen a red squirrel in front of my eyes. It casually walked along the branch, made the jump to the platform and picked up a nut and off it went. Wow, that was easy I thought. Phillip told us it will be back soon, just hold tight and not to fire the shutter until it grabs a nut. Sure thing, minutes later the female re appears but this time takes a nut, facing away from us, and makes a leap to our right and gone.
Then we had a third squirrel visit to the hide, but this time we were made aware with a satisfying thud of a squirrel jumping onto the tin roof above our heads. Now the squirrel is completely comfortable with its surroundings and we are urged to snap away. After the squirrel has scurried and buried a few nuts away it cracks on with tucking into some nuts in front of us. We get plenty of time (around 5 minutes) of squirrel munching. It allows me to try some settings, reducing the ISO for clearer images, and different shutter speeds. It also allowed me to zoom in and out and try different orientations - landscape and portrait.
After devouring a couple of hazelnuts the squirrel (who we now know is female) returns to her dray to probably sleep off her feast. We sat in wait for our next visitor as rain begins to rattle the top of our tin roof.
The feeders are also a magnet for local song birds. Mainly Great Tits, Coal Tits, Robins and Chaffinches.
This became one of our longest waits in the hide, but what we were to see was worth it.
A female squirrel arrives again, and takes a nut. Not sure if it's the same squirrel as previous. It returns and we take a few shots. Then to our amazement a male squirrel arrives too in a nearby tree, in view of the hide. He's being amorous, tail wagging immensely, he hops around the female, trying to get her attention. Phillip our guide tells us in a hush excited tone that the squirrels behaviour is interesting. We were seeing squirrel courtship in front of our hide! Phillip tells us, this is the first time he was seen this in 10 years of watching the local squirrels. Amazing!
It was clear the male was interested in the female who continued to feast on the nuts. He gave us plenty of opportunities to photograph him as he tried to 'woo' her. The male was priming himself up to mate (beware for X-rated photo of male squirrel!).
However, as he approached the female she decided to play hard to get, and ran off into the growth. They did return very briefly, and another male arrived too. But we tend to think this male was a young squirrel, possible one of the females previous kittens.
The rain continued to pour and the light was too dark for any action shots so I continued to work on red squirrel portraits. I wanted to use the rain to feature in the background. Using a slower shutter speed (60/1 second) it just about captures the movement of the rain and is quick enough to snap the squirrel.
Conditions were beginning to improve. We had our own comfort break and allowed ourselves to have a stretch outside the hide. Hours in the hide had passed quick!
Satisfied with my Squirrel portraits, I set up the camera ready for some action shots. To do this the camera was set up at the end of the nut platform, with the focus set to platform and switched to manual to fix the focus. I switched the camera to Shutter Speed priority mode. This allows me to set a specific shutter speed and the camera to set the aperture. The shutter speed was 1/1600 of a second. This is fast enough to freeze frame fast movement, but 1/2000 and faster is more suitable. I also set the ISO to Auto, not something I normally do. Because of the dull light higher ISOs were required, up to ISO 8000. I trust my camera to make an acceptable image at ISO 4000. I plugged in a cable release, for rapid fire shooting. The final check on my camera was to set to continuous shooting mode. This allows me to fire 6 frames a second, increasing my chances of a top photo.
Whilst we waited for the squirrels to make a return, the birds gave us chance to practice!
Not too bad, but I was disappointed to cut the end of the squirrels tail.
Bah! Too slow this time!
** In post processing I merged 2 images together **
I reset the camera, more to the right hoping to catch the squirrel in mid air. I was limited to frame space because my zoom was as far wide (150mm) as possible.
Wahey! Got a mid flight squirrel! And lucky I did, as this was the last time it jumped onto the platform. For the remainder of the time it was with us it sat eating the nuts.
By now the squirrel had dried off by the chilly breeze blowing off Loch Awe which was now visible from the hide. I took some more portraits, hoping to catch its tufty ears blowing in the wind. Also, as the day had brightened up a tad, my ISO was able to lower and produce much sharper images and some video. (Apologies for the dodgy focusing!, still learning video feature!)
Our time in the squirrel hide was coming to an end. We had been in there for a mammoth session, from 8am until around 1pm with 1 break. We were ready for some lunch so we headed back to studio for a cuppa and sandwich. After lunch the weather had brought in another shower, we decided that a walk along the local brook would be a good way to finish the remaining light of the day. Phillip told us about what to listen for in the trees, and other signs of Dippers. I haven't seen a Dipper before, and to be all honest I don't know much about them at all. They're a bird that love fast flowing rivers, can interesting feed underwater. Although we didn't see a dipper, Phillip found us a Goldcrest in a nearby conifer. I was lucky enough to get the Goldcrest in to the frame and snapped a couple of shots. I say I got lucky. Phillip says I've done well to get a good quality shot of a Goldcrest.
They are the UKs smallest bird, and forever moving and fluttering around. So I guess I did alright!
A huge thanks to my wife for booking this photography experience for my birthday and also for supporting my hobby and making it a future career.
Thanks to Phillip Price of Loch Visions for a fantastic day. I learnt a huge amount from animal behaviours to camera settings. I would hugely recommend a photography day with Loch Visions for beginners and advanced photographers. You won't be disappointed. I think next time I'll like to photograph the Otters which Phillip also excels in observing and recording. You can find more on Loch Visions and the packages he offers on his website:
For accommodation in Argyll, we stayed at the newly refurbished Kilchrenan Inn, Kilchrenan. It's a 10 minute walk to the Loch Visions studio and a fantastic base to explore around Loch Awe, and relatively short drive (20 miles) to Oban to explore the Isles. We visited Glen Orchy and Glen Etive too but that's a little further. It was refreshing to see a young couple (Jordan and Lesley) take on a pub lease and look to be really making a good fist of it, putting lots of hours in. I hope they reap the rewards this summer season. They couldn't be more helpful hosts. They're doing a great job serving hearty food, with lovely clean rooms and best of all they're dog friendly!
Rooms from £85 p. night with a Scottish breakfast. (Loved the square sausage!)
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