I have just got back from spending some time up in the Ardnamurchan peninsula of Scotland watching Pine Marten. It is a breath-taking landscape of mountain peaks, Caledonian pine forest, fresh water lochs and heather moorland.
It was a little daunting working out that the journey would take around 7 hours. Travelling from North Yorkshire, through the Lake District and further north into Scotland, my drive eventually took me along the A82 and through the Trossachs National Park. This was where the scenery really became a feast for the senses. The road twisted around the edge of the largest body of freshwater; Loch Lomond. Equally as awe-inspiring as the Ardnamurchan peninsula further north, the Loch dominates the landscape here with forest covered hills surrounding it. Regrettably I didn’t have time to stop and take in the area – something for next time. However, I was still able to catch a glance every so often on the drive and it was enough to make me feel I was well away from the hustle and bustle of normal life and immersed in the beauty of the Scottish Highlands.
Onwards and upwards the road climbed into the hills, passing Achallader. Particularly impressive was the peak of Bidean Nam Bian, domineeringly staring down as you drive down the valley towards Glencoe. I finally reached my first stop at the Corran ferry from the Nether Lochaber side. The weather hadn’t been too kind at the beginning of the journey, driving through an aquaplane for the first two hours, but by the time I reached the Corran ferry the rain had stopped, albeit the clouds were still imposing. Once I’d crossed the ferry I had a bit of time to soak in the surroundings. I was able to watch black guillemots fly over Loch Linnhe, so close to the Loch that they were practically skimming the water. Life felt very peaceful here, the only noise coming from the ferry making constant crossings across the Loch and the occasional gull calling.
From here it was a short drive further west to reach my destination in the hope of watching and photographing the elusive Pine Marten. It is an animal native to Northern Europe belonging to the mustelid family, which also includes otters and badgers. It is roughly about the length of a domestic cat, although much more slender and looks like an overgrown stoat; chocolate brown in colour with a cream yellow throat.
When Britain and Ireland were largely covered in forest, the Pine Marten was the second most common carnivore in Britain. Unfortunately, the clearance of this woodland together with predator control has had a devastating effect on the population of this charismatic mammal and by 1915 this species was confined to just a few of the more remote areas across Britain and Ireland. The Scottish Highlands remains its stronghold, with a population of around 4,000, in areas where habitat is suitable for Pine Marten. Encouragingly there is now conclusive evidence of a Pine Marten having been seen in Shropshire; the first sighting in over 100 years. Plenty of trail cameras have been placed around the area in the hope of more sightings. One day I hope they will regain their status as a common mammal in England, but for now I’m happy to make the journey north to the Ardnamurchan peninsula to see them.
Pine Marten are predominantly nocturnal although in some areas they show crepuscular behaviour, especially when kits are young. This is what I was hoping for on this journey. I was lucky enough to encounter Pine Marten from as early as 3.30pm on some days. While there were periods of inactivity which could last hours at a time, whereby sitting still with midges relentlessly trying to get at you is very difficult (!), they would remain active long into the night.
An adult male and two kits frequented the area where I was staying. They were very entertaining to watch. During the day they would be quite tentative in exploring their surroundings looking for food. If any food was found they’d hold it in their mouths and dash off into the safety of the undergrowth, presumably to stash it for another time. However, once dusk had arrived they became incredibly bold, often coming within meters of me, completely unperturbed by the torch light to watch them. The two kits would constantly play fight with each other, squabbling for minutes at a time and making shriek cries not too dissimilar to a cat squealing. This would then be followed by the two comically chasing each other around on the ground and up in the trees. Photographing them was a challenge due to low light conditions and their inability to stand still, but this challenge is always half the fun of wildlife photography and makes the photos that you take all the more worthwhile.
Obviously there is a wealth of wildlife in this area aside from Pine Marten. While my main focus was on these mammals I did spend some time exploring the local area and managed to find an obliging Golden-Ringed Dragonfly. It was sunny itself after a day of heavy rain so it could dry off. It allowed me to spend some time taking some macro and wide-angle shots before I left it be.
I also spent some time setting up a couple of perches around a nearby bird feeder which attracted Chaffinch, Great Tit and Blue Tit. I had been told there were Crossbill in the area but sadly they remained high up in the trees out of view from my camera. Still, I had fun watching the birds that did visit the perches as well as the woodland around the area. The moss and lichen covered trees made for great compositions of the birds in their primeval looking habitat.
As is famous in Scotland, the weather was ever changing from cold winds and thick cloud to bright sunshine and heavy rain. This created a great opportunity to photograph dramatic landscapes. On one distinct day it was constantly alternating between bright sunshine and warmth to heavy rain and cool temperatures. When the sun came out after a downpour of rain the water would begin to evaporate in thick clouds of mist. The landscape was particularly striking at this point with the setting sun as it cast a golden glow across the hills.
As already mentioned once darkness had fallen the Pine Marten, especially the kits, were out in force. It was difficult to keep up with them despite the tell-tale sounds of their claws scratching against tree bark and their strange green eye-shine by torch light. As they were so active and so bold it was a great opportunity for some night photography.
I was also lucky to have a clear night sky on one night to try some star gazing…
Once I’d gone back inside the cottage I was staying in you’d often see them wandering around. On one occasion a young kit even hopped up onto the window ledge from where I was watching. You could easily spend months here.
I can’t wait to go back next year with more time to spend there.