I think I’m becoming addicted to visiting the Ardnamurchan area…
A couple of months ago (yes I’m behind with my blog again) at the beginning of August, and for the second time, I made the long journey north to the Scottish Highlands. I was going to spend more than double the amount of time there compared to the previous year and was excited to see what opportunities I’d have.
I packed my car with a stupid amount of photography gear with a number of different photo ideas envisioned in my head… The usual camera and telephoto lens was packed, as well as a lot of kit for remote and nocturnal photography, the first time I had given it a go.
So armed to the rafters in camera gear I set off. Unfortunately the initial excitement of the journey dissipated when I reached Glasgow and hit heavy traffic, making my journey two hours longer than it should have been. Still, I had planned a short stop on the way at the Falls of Falloch (or Falloch Falls depending on which website you look at) just by Loch Lomond. Driving past Loch Lomond on the A82 is stunning. You’re transformed from the city of Glasgow to forest covered hills, the vast expanse of Lomond and the winding road taking you through beautiful forest.
I didn’t stay at the falls long as I was keen to get to the cottage where I was staying and get settled in, but in the interest of creating a story of my time in the Scottish Highlands and writing this blog I took the quick photo below.
To get to the cottage it’s quite simple - continue on the A82 through the Trossachs National Park and onwards until you reach Inchree.
Just as you leave the north side of the Trossachs National Park you drive through some beautiful hillside terrain which I thought justified another quick stop. The weather was beginning to take a turn as you can see from the clouds in the photo below so, again, I didn’t stay long.
On finally reaching Inchree I took the Corran ferry to the Ardgour side. It’s literally a 10 minute journey but it cuts out what would be a very long drive around Loch Eil. I have to admit when I reach the ferry I feel like the journey is over, despite having another hour and 30mins to drive to get to the cottage!
As you begin to descend into the valley in Glenhurich you enter what I like to call primeval forest of Pine Trees smothered in lichen and moss. The ground is thick with moss as well which silences your footsteps as if you’re walking on snow. There are only a few houses around this area so you really do feel cut off. There’s no WiFi, mobile phone signal or TV reception. It’s amazing how you take those things for granted. Without them you’re forced to make up your time doing other things. It ‘forces’ you to appreciate nature and your surroundings. Personally I find it liberating and what better place to appreciate it than in the Scottish Highlands.
Loch Doilean is right on the doorstep of the cottage and it lies at the bottom of a valley, each hillside covered in forest. Apart from snow I had just about every other weather form common in the area; heavy rain, cloud, sun and surprisingly hail. As the area is so thick with foliage it laps up the rainfall. Usually this would then evaporate off in the heat of the afternoon and evening sun, creating beautiful misty clouds floating through the forest, as you’ll see from the photos further down this blog.
Having unpacked all my stuff and settled into the cottage I went for an explore. I was mainly looking for fallen branches, rocks etc that would be good props to set up some photo opportunities with the Pine Marten. While I wanted to get the classic shots of them posing on mossy branches and in the grass I wanted to try and get something different.
There was a stream nearby and I noticed a fallen branch covering just about the width of the river. I decided to leave a trail camera there overnight to see whether the Pine Marten were using it to cross the river. They’re incredibly resourceful animals and, if you leave food out for them, they’ll find it wherever you put it.
I went back to the cottage at about 6.30pm and had my first tantalising glimpse of a Pine Marten. Out the corner of my eye I saw the swish of a tail at the bottom of the garden as a Pine Marten disappeared from view. Unfortunately this was my only view of them that evening, but at least I knew they were around.
The following morning I went to retrieve the trail camera. Sure enough, the Pine Marten had used the fallen branch over night to cross the river. My plan was to try and photograph them in the trees, like last year (see the gallery here), during the early evening in daylight and then leave a camera trap setup overnight by the river.
My plan didn’t work very well as, while the Pine Marten did show up, during the afternoon and evening they appeared very skittish. Unlike last year where I was able to sit in the garden without a hide or any cover and watch them, they seemed only to be comfortable coming out in daylight when I wasn’t around. However, I had managed to discover that there were at least two Pine Marten around.
So, having been outsmarted by the Pine Marten during the day I hoped I’d have better luck with my camera trap. Just as it was getting dark I started to set up… Camera on tripod well and truly wedged in the rocks so as not to fall over into the river, two flashguns on separate tripods left and right of the camera and motion sensor positioned on the branch to trigger the camera when the Pine Marten showed up. A few test shots and I was happy with the lighting. I went back to the cottage with anticipation of what I might find on the camera the next morning. I’m afraid to say anticipation got the better of me and at about midnight I went to check the camera to see if it had captured anything… Nothing.
Feeling like I had been outsmarted yet again I returned to the cottage, leaving the camera trap setup until the next morning. You can imagine my excitement when I checked the camera the next morning to find the two photos, amongst others, below. It had worked!
Following on from the excitement of some success with the Pine Marten I managed to find a Common Toadlet wandering around the garden of the cottage. Well, I say managed to find, it was far more luck than anything else. I had actually been looking for signs of the Pine Marten and, as per usual, any props that would be suitable when I noticed movement by my foot. It turned out to be this tiny little guy…
There had been heavy rain in the morning and the ground was saturated to the point where, in some areas, your foot would disappear into the grass and moss. This brought out the toads and frogs so I whiled away some time photographing this obliging Toadlet…
Once again the Pine Marten didn’t show up during the day so, before I set up my next camera trap plan, I went to photograph what was turning into an interesting sunset over Loch Doilean…
So I came to my next camera trap idea… I only had two nights during my stay where the night was clear of clouds. On the first clear night I had the camera trap setup in a very similar way to that over the river, the only difference was that the camera’s exposure would be 30 seconds.
Having posted one of the photos below online I’ve had some feedback asking how I managed to keep the Pine Marten still for 30 seconds. In actual fact the Pine Marten didn’t need to stay still for the 30 second exposure. As it was sat in an area that was pitch black, the camera only records the light in the image when the flash fires which is a split second, so the Pine Marten stays sharp during the exposure. As soon as the flash fires the camera records the Pine Marten on the branch. There is no more light hitting that part of the image and so the Pine Marten can move on without affecting the photo. The 30 seconds was purely to allow enough light into the camera to show the night sky. It’s kind of like taking two photos in one (i.e. a double exposure) which you can only do with flash…
The photos above were what I’d hoped to get. As each photo was 30 seconds long I wasn’t sure whether I’d be lucky enough to get the Pine Marten looking the right way when the camera fired. Considering the Pine Marten didn’t show up on the second night of clear sky I think I was extra lucky to have had this success on the first attempt!
Having only had about 2 hours sleep I had planned to go to bed after picking up the camera trap setup at 4am, but, the weather was dictating my plans… As the morning got brighter as the sun got ever closer to the horizon low-lying mist formed across the valley and the sky was turning yellow and orange. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
I quickly packed up the camera trap setup, sorted the camera for landscape photography and ran up the road back up the valley to get a decent vantage point before it was too late. Panting away I managed to take a few photos of the mist still lying in the bottom of the valley as the sun began to rise. Shortly after the photo below was taken the mist had burned off as the sun warmed the ground…
I went back to the cottage and crashed out for a while. I awoke around mid-afternoon and set about trying again to watch the Pine Marten in daylight. I had a plan to use my car as a hide… I covered the windows with camouflage material and set myself up inside with the camera positioned at areas in the garden where they had shown up before. Alas, I had been outsmarted again! Clearly I needed to think of a way around this.
Still, the camera trap was proving to be successful so I set about another plan, this time at the base of a tree near to where they emerged at the bottom of the garden. It proved to be the most successful setups with the Pine Marten coming and going all night, sometimes both of them at the same time. I’ve included some of my preferred photos as a collection below. It was great fun looking back on the camera to see what it had captured over the course of the night…
About half way through my stay the rain decided to hammer it down and the ground became more like a bog than a garden. Still, this brought out the frogs and the toads again so I spent some time photographing them, and getting drenched in the process!
I remember seeing a photo of a Grass Snake by a waterfall by an Italian photographer, Marco Colombo, in Wildlife Photographer of the Year some years ago. I was mesmerised by it. The snake was simply sat on a rock coiled in a figure of eight position but the stand-out factor was that the motion of the waterfall was silky smooth, achieved by using a slow shutter speed technique. Well, the photo below is nothing compared but I was still happy to capture a Common Toad sat by the same river from my first camera trap attempt, albeit much more swollen with the heavy rainfall…
As mentioned above the evaporation of heavy rain in the evening heat of the sun usually gave opportunities to photograph the mist floating through the forest. It was on my 5th day in the cottage that I finally had some, albeit limited, success with photographing Pine Marten during the day. I had decided to photograph from one of the windows of the cottage. I had watched them many times from the window in daylight but as soon as I stepped outside they were gone. By placing ‘midge-proof’ (very important!) netting across the window to stop any bugs getting in and tearing a hole for the camera lens to go through, I had turned the cottage into a hide!
I had a little bit of success on that evening but not quite what I was after. However, a little success was better than a complete lack of it from previous attempts so I decided to stick with it for the rest of my time there.
During quiet periods in the cottage I spent my time reading. Naturally I was reading up about Pine Marten and I think it’s worth mentioning a few things I had read from ‘Tooth and Claw: Living Alongside Britain’s Predators’ by Peter Cairns and Mark Hamblin, both passionate about conservation in Scotland and equally amazing photographers in their own right;
Most associate Pine Marten with an arboreal nature, yet they seem just as happy on the ground and often perform a ‘meerkat scout’ impression by standing on their hind legs to get a better view.
In the 18th and 19th centuries Pine Marten were regarded as vermin. Despite the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it’s efforts to fully protect them, it wasn’t until 1988 when an Amendment came to cover a loophole allowing an ‘authorised person to shoot a Pine Marten that was causing damage, but the same person could not trap it and take it away for safe release.’ It was this Amendment that gave the Pine Marten full protection.
Some people still consider Pine Marten to be a pest. As the human population continues to expand and put strain on our natural environment Pine Marten are brought more and more into conflict with us. A recent BBC 2 documentary called ‘Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart’ showed a Pine Marten family taking up residence in the roof of a carpenter’s workshop. While the carpenter appeared to be comfortable with their presence, in other circumstances they have been known to raid chicken coops which make them unpopular with some people. It has led to some people calling for the ‘management’ of the species. However, they’re not common. Current estimates suggest their population to be around 3,500. Considering they used to be Britain’s second most common carnivore this figure fails dramatically in comparison. As with most conservation stories, it is human encroachment on their habitat that is causing the problem, not that their numbers are reaching such a level to consider them pests.
Their breeding season is between July and August but, due to a delay in implantation, the female doesn’t usually become pregnant until January. The young, known as kits, are born in March and April. It is between July and September that they on occasion break from their nocturnal habits and venture out during daylight; the earliest in my experience 1.30pm.
However, while they have no natural predators in Scotland they remain wary in daylight, presumably through instinct over year’s of inherent predation when the British Isle’s harboured larger predators like Wolves, Bears and Lynx. I also presume they’re wary in daylight due to persecution from man as mentioned above.
I continued my efforts with the camera trap in different areas around the cottage. I found a tree covered in moss at the base so I decided to set up the trap there, tearing my trousers in barbed wire in the process! I think the photos below justify my clothing issues though!
As mentioned I continued with my attempts at photographing the Pine Marten in daylight. Over the course of 3 hours I had a couple of great encounters with them as they finally came to a prop I had set up in the garden. It was with relief that I, at last, had some usable daylight photos of them!
On my last night I was treated to a dramatic sunset. The sun sets at the far side of Loch Doilean so when you’re lucky enough to get clouds of mist forming as well as cloud formations in the sky it can make for some great photo opportunities.
I had one such night as you can see from the photos below and further on in this blog.
So it came to my last night with the Pine Marten at the cottage. Once again they showed well when I wasn’t around so the camera trap was set up in a different part of the garden. The photos below are the result, including one of my favourites from the week…
Just a couple more from the one dramatic sunset I had during my stay…
Thanks for reading!
If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog you can find more photos from the Scottish Highlands here.