Tag Archive: Cairngorms National Park

Control and Contradictions.

Management. That word really gets me going. Land managers of all creeds are obsessed with it. Managing nature – that is selectively controlling which bits we want and which bits we don’t – has become an industry; careers and reputations are built on it. ‘Management’ is of course, a polite euphemism for ‘control’ and there are endless organisations that have at their heart, a constitutional objective to control; to exercise their dominion over nature.

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Highland Odyssey

You can wax lyrical about the Scottish Highlands but the fact is that in autumn, it rains. It sometimes snows too but it always rains. OK, once we’re over that hurdle we can look at the positives. Rain brings discomfort it’s true; it also brings on premature insanity for landscape photographers (there’s only so many times you can wipe your filters dry) but very often, it brings spectacular light against spectacular skies. Continue reading

A.M.A.N.D.A. Sept ’13

Our vegetable garden is very special (just ask Pete). It’s been many years in the making and I’ve got to be honest, my tending it has been a bit hit and miss (just ask Pete).

It all started around 5 years ago when some friends helped us clear a patch to plant veggies. A year or so later I’d planted nothing and the patch was overgrown. I called in a ‘professional’ who did a splendid job putting in raised beds, a gravel path and even some rustic steps leading down to the now-spectacular stage for the planting of all manner of home grown food. He did charge us…quite a lot as it turned out (just ask Pete), but now I was set.

Well you know how it is, busy lives and all that. A year passed and then another and with the garden now overgrown (and still no vegetables) I had to call ‘the professional’ back to clear it once again. And once again he charged us. By this time Pete is calculating that a single potato or beetroot (still not sown) would costs us upwards of £30…each! He wasn’t happy.

This year was the turning point and after another visit from ‘the professional’, I planted my first crop and they’re doing just fine. I still haven’t harvested anything but I’m working on that. They will undoubtedly be the most expensive vegetables ever eaten – but they are organic!

So here’s the best bit. The other night as darkness fell I went outside and was flabbergasted to see not one, but three barn owls perched on my raised bed! I ran back inside and called Pete. We spent the next half hour mesmerised by the young owls cavorting around the vegetable garden. OK, I accept this wasn’t why we invested in it and I accept that it’s not been as productive as I intended but come on, three barn owls? That’s priceless isn’t it? Just ask Pete.

Ultimate Autumn Gold Photo Tour 2012

My feet are wet (still), my back is killing me but my heart is full. Now don’t worry, I’m not about to embark on some sort of deep-rooted emotional outpouring (as if) but having just wrapped up our Ultimate Autumn Gold tour – our last of the year – I’m feeling quite…well…if not happy, at least content (I’m told by one of our guests that men are only ever ‘happy’ in short bursts – she may be right).

The 2012 Cairngorms colours were – still are – splendid and although the light could have been kinder, we were given moments of pure magic alongside the inevitable landscape photographer’s curse of self pity when things are “just not quite right.” They rarely are and we’re rarely happy; it’s just the way it is.

Skye was predictably wet (does anyone have an answer to keeping filters dry in driving rain?) but as ever, with hard work and a little imagination, the island delivered. One of my favourite photography locations in Scotland is a remote(ish) beach on Skye’s west coast and if it wasn’t for the rain, I’d probably still be there. Another favourite, Elgol, was full of mood and as each year passes, increasingly full of photographers, which is no bad thing in my book.

We dropped in on Glen Affric along with a seemingly obligatory stop at Ffordes camera shop for coffee and in the case of one guest, an ornamental ceramic cockerel (a vital photographic tool).

So back to happiness…or rather contentedness. There’s something special in sharing photographic experiences with like-minded people. I always say this so forgive the repetition, but we are truly fortunate in the chemistry, dynamics, profile, mix – call it what you will – of our groups. Ultimate Autumn Gold 2012 was no exception. We’re deadly serious about our photography – I hope that goes without saying – but outwith time in the field, there’s nothing wrong with having great fun. And we did lots of that on this tour. It’s important.

These images are not prize-winners but I hope you enjoy them nevertheless. Amidst the wind, the rain and the cold I enjoyed taking them because there’s only one thing better than being in wild places and that’s being in wild places with people who share a sense of the privilege of…well, life really. A sense of humour helps too.

Another year of photo tours draws to a close and with many happy – yes happy – memories in the bank, my thanks on this particular trip go to co-guide Mark Hamblin and (in no particular order) to Margaret (and the pot cockerel), Robyn, Jasmine (check out her cool fashion sense below), Marie, Steve, Kevin, Roger, Mike, Bob, Don, (that) Duncan and Jan for your excellent company. And do remember, men CAN whisk eggs.

If you’d like to join us next year for more photography and frolics in the autumnal Scottish Highlands, our expanded 2013 tour can be booked here

Despite appearances I can testify to the sanity of this strange creature.

Fish Eaters of the North Photo Tour

0415hrs. I know, it sounds horrendous, but it is after all, just a number on the clock face and once I’d convinced our group that this was the optimum time to photograph fishing ospreys, it didn’t seem nearly as painful.

After a short drive in the gloom we split into two different hides overlooking a small fish-filled pool on Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore. The water was flat, the air was still and so it remained for several hours of watching, waiting…and then waiting some more. At the end of the waiting we were rewarded with a brief otter sighting followed by two successive osprey dives. Minutes of methodical chimping, several  ‘ooos’ and varied profanities revealed that results were mixed amongst the group. And so it is with this type of photography – it’s high octane, high risk and high rewards; it’s not easy but if you get it right, the images can be spectacular.

Image: Cheryl Surry

After a hearty breakfast and some time to relax, our group split again. This tour has one USP over its rivals: a private osprey site (sounds pretentious I know). Close to our base a pair of ospreys have bred for many years and this year have successfully added two more birds to the Scottish population. By siting a convenient perch far enough away from the nest to avoid disturbance but close enough for it to provide a handy ‘plucking post’ for the adult pair, our group were able to secure images that are simply not possible elsewhere. The hide is small, the chairs uncomfortable but the views are spectacular.

Image: Chris Gamble

Leaving two members of our group marooned in the osprey hide, the rest of us ventured north in search of the most northerly bottlenose dolphins in the world. It seems incredible but just 20 minutes from Inverness city centre is Europe’s best shore-based dolphin watching site. In the background the traffic races over Kessock Bridge and the Easyjet flight lands at Inverness airport; in the foreground a large and very impressive marine predator leaps clear of the water just 20 metres away. It doesn’t happen every time but when it does, it’s adrenalin-fuelled wildlife photography at its best.

Image: David Buszard

One of the biggest rewards from running photo tours over many years is seeing the images of long-standing guests improve beyond recognition. I’m not going to embarrass individuals but I hope the images in this post prove my point. Cheryl, Chris and David made up just half our group and each guest is to be congratulated on the images they secured.

And so our inaugural Fish Eaters photo tour comes to an end. We’ve had rain, wind and midges; we’ve had ospreys fishing, ospreys feeding and ospreys frustrating us by doing neither of those things; we’ve had dolphins leaping, dolphins lurching and dolphins out of focus, out of frame and ultimately, out of sight; we’ve had waterfalls, philosophical discussions, picnics on the beach and some rather nice flapjack with our coffee. And all in 3 days. Thanks to another great group and I’m looking forward to doing it all again this week (after a rest). If you fancy getting images like these and you enjoy shortbread, join us next year.

The best osprey photography location in Europe?

Around four years ago I stood with the owner of a local estate watching a huge JCB shifting dirt this way and that. It had been a few years before that, when initial discussions took place at Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms, about creating a dedicated photography pool for fishing ospreys. This against a backdrop of UK photographers travelling to such sites in Scandinavia and paying handsomely for the privilege. And so, the best part of a decade later, after much dirt shifting, a few false starts and not inconsiderable teething problems, the pool is open and the ospreys are fishing it!

Photographing ospreys at Rothiemurchus isn’t cheap – roughly £120 per session – and for those who have previously used the site, you’ll know that shots were by no means guaranteed. The birds could fish over an extensive area and it was hit and miss whether they would dive near enough to the hides to get a decent sized image. Shots are still not guaranteed but with the new pool, you’re in with a much better chance of the plan coming together. Two low-level hides look out over a small lochan and if a bird dives anywhere in view, there’s a shot to be had. The backgrounds are good, the hides are well positioned and what has never been in doubt is the staff’s enthusiasm to help you secure the best shots possible.

I’ve been asked about the merits of osprey photography at Rothiemurchus many times and I’ve got to be honest, I’ve sat on the fence for the most part. Now I’m not on commission (are you listening Julian?) but I do like to see hard work and a pioneering spirit rewarded, so I would now say with some confidence that this is the finest location I know of, even taking into account the well-visited Finnish facility, for photographing fishing ospreys; not just in Britain but in Europe. OK it’s early days but if you’re thinking about travelling to Finland, my humble advice would be to consider this facility first.

You can book directly with Rothiemurchus here but if I can be candid, I’d recommend our very own package which includes full accommodation, food, transport, tuition and an added bonus, exclusive osprey photography at our own private site. You can view the tour here and although this year’s dates are full, here are the provisional dates for 2013:

May 11-15; July 13-17; July 20-24. Drop us a line if you want to be put on the reserve list.

The images in this blog are a mixture between Finland and the ‘old’ Rothiemurchus set up. If all goes to plan with the new pool, there will be a whole new generation of osprey images appearing in the media taking the bar to new heights.

Winter Wildlife 1

It’s a fraught time of year if I’m honest and although we’ve been running our Winter Wildlife photo tours for over a decade, I still fret. Will the squirrels perform? Will the crested tits turn up? Will the damned weather hold? Will Rob Jordan ever refuse a full cooked breakfast?

Our intrepid falconer Alan Rothery with the latest in fashionable headwear.

I hope its not obvious to guests but there’s a whole shed load of behind-the-scenes preparation for these tours and it’s a constant round of topping up feeding stations, sourcing new perches, drilling fat holes for woodpeckers…the list goes on. The worrying is compensated by sharing this great part of the world with great people. The weather’s been less than ideal this week but everyone is still smiling and enjoying the opportunity to indulge in their photography.

Most of our hardy group spent yesterday trudging through icy winds and thick cloud in search of the elusive mountain grouse, the ptarmigan. Picking a day to head into the hills is always tricky and sometimes there’s a compromise to ensure we get up there at all. There were birds around but as I’ve found before in high winds, they tend to be twitchy and we struggled to get anything meaningful. Moving a tripod with a telephoto lens around on slippy rocks is another obstacle that takes some practice to overcome. Not every day spent in this unique environment is a great experience but I always maintain that each day provides great experience. The mountains teach you alot about yourself.

The mountain pioneers!

Thanks this week to Karen, Sally, Steve, Nick, Bert, Derek, Kerry, James, Claire and Nigel for once again making all the fretting worthwhile.

When the Skye is grey.

If you want dependable weather, you should think twice about booking one of our Autumn Gold landscape tours. But do you know what? The more I work in so-called ‘bad’ weather, the more I’m starting to enjoy it (see previous blog post). It’s not that I particularly like grey skies or pouring rain (and don’t get me wrong, it’s not like that all the time!), but I do relish the challenge of making something from nothing, It doesn’t always work, but if you persist…and more to the point, if you’re prepared to persist.

Our Ultimate Autumn Gold landscape tour has become an annual event and despite going through a number of changes over the years, the tour fundamentally remains about making the most of this melancholic time of year. I’ve got to say, I love it!

The Cairngorms is a mosaic of forest, moorland, river, loch and mountain. It’s a rich landscape with something for all photographic tastes. Skye is much more solemn and could be described as bleak, although I’d prefer brooding. The cocktail of 4 nights in each location does it for me thank you very much.

Much to the relief of several of our (not so) hardy group (mentioning no names) we only managed 2 early starts with little promise of a decent sunrise on most days. It always surprises me however that although deprived of the ‘classic’ conditions we all yearn for, there are shots to be had if you shun your creative straightjacket. Loch an Eilein at dawn would have been nice, ditto a misty Glenfeshie but it was not to be and we bravely persisted with what was on offer from the weather gods. Loch Insh was briefly majestic and our favourite beech forest glowed in autumnal splendour.

Moving to Skye via Glen Affric (where the sun shone) the forecast was for heavy rain. How come the forecast for rain is always right? Why can’t they forecast misty dawns with the same accuracy? An attempt at the Old Man of Storr was akin to a bad day on Everest with horizontal rain and gusts of wind that bordered on dangerous. Many of our intrepid group climbed the whole way, got their cameras out, immediately put them away and descended with dignity (and cameras) intact. Slighachan worked well though as did Trotternish eventually and although there is a thin line between edgy conditions and outright crap, we trod the right side of that line for the most part.

I’ve never been one for chocolate-box landscapes, preferring instead the moody and broody that Scotland delivers on, especially in spring and autumn. I hope our fantastic guests for this tour agree with me on that at least (we discussed religion, politics, marriage, divorce and birth control during the wetter moments when opinions were not always uniform!) October has been a golden month this year – in experiences if not always colour. Bring on 2012.

If you’d like to join us on the same tour next year (and Mark promises not to bore you too much with his Photoshop tutorial – see below – view details here)

Know what you want.

Picture the scene. The forecast for the morning is perfect and I have three or four  locations that I really want to nail this month – all in the same conditions. Which do I go for? What will work best? Location A or location B? For me these are the ingredients for a restless night riddled with anxiety. It’s the fear of failure you see; it’s a disease and I’ve been suffering from it for years.

In my mind, time has become so precious that every photographic foray must count; I cannot invest time out of the office without a productive return. This leads to a self-inflicted pressure that not only deprives me of sleep, but poisons what little creativity I can muster at five in the morning. Moreover, it lessens the enjoyment of the photographic experience – and that’s REALLY serious.

So the day dawns, I’m out of bed and turning on the car’s engine. But where am I heading – location A or B (and even C is starting to wager in with a good case)? Know what you want. Know what you want. I say it to myself over and over. I’m actually saying it out loud. Know what you want and stick with it. If you fail, look upon it as valuable research which will help your next attempt. I stick with location A and it pays off.

The fear of failure is treatable. I’m not completely cured but I’m starting to enjoy the rehabilitation process.