Fish Eaters of the North (Part 2)

More early starts, more late finishes, more highs (and in some cases very high highs) and the inevitable lows – this was the flavour of Fish Eaters part 2.

Image: Helena Spinks

We had lots of great dives at Rothiemurchus (thanks to Neil and Julian) and we had one unbelievable session with the dolphins (see image below) but I’m going to focus closer to home and make a bold and radical claim: 4 of our group have photographed something unique this week. Here’s the story. The osprey pair close to our base have two chicks this year, making four birds in total. As far as I’m aware, images of osprey chicks being fed away from the nest are, if not unique, rare indeed. The image below shows a recently rung fledgling being fed by its father. At one point, adult male, adult female and chick sat side by side on this perch – cool or what? This image took 1/250sec to produce but in reality, it’s taken nearly ten years to engineer a situation whereby our guests can get this sort of encounter and produce this sort of picture. A special experience for them and a very satisfying result for me personally.

Image: Chris Hatch

Well done to all of our Fish Eaters crew – it’s been a blast.

Image: Karen Hatch

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.