Dippers in Devon, Heart stopping moment and Wildlife rich Scotland in the Cairngorms

May 08, 2017  •  1 Comment

Greetings from Dartmoor in Devon 

I am a bit miffed at the moment because the other day I missed what would have been a really good shot. I was out on Dartmoor with Murphy and my camera and I could hear a Chaffinch singing away quite close to me. I stopped, turned around and there he was sitting on top of a gorse bush in great light. I quietly called Murphy who was on his lead, because of the sheep and lambs, to me. I set my camera up to take a photo of the Chaffinch when I noticed a female Chaffinch about half a metre to the male’s right. It too was in great light and had better background so I focused on her. I did not take a photo as she was looking head on to me. I then had a premonition that something was going to happen. It’s funny these moments in life that you know what is going to happen. People call it a sixth sense and I just wish I could have more of them. Years ago I was with my mate walking to college (shows how long ago that was). It was a sunny day and we had to walk past this high wall that was shading us from the sun. I said to him “I bet the other side of the wall would be a great sun trap, great for sunbathing. You could even take all your clothes off because nobody would see you”. We stopped and jumped up, as the wall was about 8 foot high, and peered over. We immediately dropped back down again because there were two persons sunbathing on the other side. The downside was that they were two elderly men and they were both naked! Not a pretty sight and I was scarred for life, but I digress. As the male was so close and it is mating time I hoped the male would come to her (females never go to males do they!). Whilst I waited for something to happen Murphy had started to wander and pull on the lead. How come no matter what length of lead you buy it is always a metre too short! As I pulled Murphy back it happened. The male flew towards the female hovered just above her, (the decisive moment); I thought they would mate, but the female was playing hard to get and flew off. I did not take any photos because I was pulling Murphy back. They say “Never work with animals or children”. I don’t have any children but I totally agree with the first. To be honest Murphy is usually quite good and this is the first time I had a problem with him. I can still imagine the image; both birds were looking at me head on with the female on the branch and the male hovering just above her. Both birds would have been in focus, as I had set a good depth of field, with the males wings would have been slightly blurred. C’est la vie.

In my last blog (http://www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2017/4/problems-photographing-brown-hares-white-bums-weather-forecasters-and-killing-things) I informed you of a Devon Wildlife Trust site I have visited for the last three years. Each time I took Murphy I saw Dippers and each time I just took my camera I saw nothing. On my last visit I spotted something that, I hope, would change my luck. The chance sighting I had spotted was two Dippers collecting food and taking it to their nest site. Their nest site was not the usual “hole under a bridge” but it was situated in a large tree overhanging the river. So the next day I went there with my camera, set myself up and waited. I was sat between two trees and a large bush behind me. My monopod was in the river as were my wellington covered feet. I was wearing camouflaged clothing to suit the area. I must admit if you do not have the patience to do a lot of waiting then real wildlife photography is not for you. But on this occasion the wait was only about 5 minutes. One of the Dippers appeared with food, settled on the rock, which was just protruding out of the water, looked around and then flew up to the nest. Spent less than 5 seconds in the nest and flew back out again to land on the same rock before flying off down river to collect more food. I did not take any shots because I wanted to gather more information about what they do and not scare the birds away. Gathering this information can be risky, photography wise, because the bird might not return and you don’t get any photos but with this valuable information you can see where they land, their favourite perches, the direction they like to enter the nest, their exit etc. Therefore you can adjust your camera’s position to get a better image. I let this happen several times before satisfying myself that a better position would be slightly further to my left. So I waited for the Dippers to fly off and then moved. This position gave me a better background and lighting of the birds. It was in between another two trees, closer this time, but the bush behind me was a bit smaller. I stuck my monopod in between some rocks in the river, dangled my legs in the water and waited. Again I did not have to wait long before the Dippers returned and I started taking images. The light was not great and I had to overexpose my images due to the glare on the water. With the settings set at f5.6 and ISO of 2000 I could only get 250th sec shutter speed. I was hoping it would brighten up later so that I could try some flight shots. I must admit I do not like taking flight shots using a monopod as it “wobbles” about too much, I prefer using hand held or my tripod. Throughout the early part of the morning the birds kept returning to their nest with a good supply of food nearly every 2 to 3 minutes. After I’d filled a memory card up I stopped just to take in the glorious sound and view. During this lull the birds kept returning but I was looking for something different. A Red-Breasted Merganser flew by and landed on a rock further down the river. After I had been there for about three hours I decided to pack up as my bum and legs were going to sleep due to sitting on one of the tree roots and the light was getting worse. Before I moved I saw a female Sparrowhawk flying down the river about thirty centimetres above the waterline. I just hoped that Dippers were not on her menu.


I returned to the same position the next day because the light was slightly better, I was now getting 640th sec with ISO 2000. Once again I had brought my monopod so flight shots were going to be dodgy and in fact they turned out to be just so. I would not remember today for photographing Dippers though, it would be for something totally different and unexpected. Whilst sat watching the Dipper I heard, quite close to me, the high pitched call of a Kingfisher. I slowly turned my head to the left and saw it perched on a branch not three metres away from me. Too close for me to photograph I just looked at this magnificent bird. After a few seconds I caught a glimpse of another bird out of the corner of my eye. The Kingfisher screamed and flew further into the trees and bushes on the riverbank. It then screamed a couple more times and flew directly at me. As I sat still the Kingfisher flew between me and my monopod, which I was still holding, under my arm, its wings brushing the sleeve of my jacket and over to the other side of the river. My heart was in my mouth as I have never been that close to a live Kingfisher. Thinking about it the other bird might have been the female Sparrowhawk I had seen yesterday. I have asked a couple of friends, both great Kingfisher photographers, and they both agree that Sparrowhawk’s regularly take Kingfishers. What an experience for me and one that I doubt will ever be repeated. Can you ever beat real wildlife photography?

Well I have just returned from my wildlife photography visit to Scotland and had a great time. Even though it was five days and four nights but due to the flight times it turned out to be only three days. During these three days we had snow, rain and bright sunshine. This time I did not visit the Isle of Mull but I went and stayed in the Grant Arms Hotel ( http://www.grantarmshotel.com/ ) in Grantown-on-Spey near Inverness in the Cairngorms National Park. I have wanted to stay and visit this hotel for ages because it was supposed to be really good for wildlife enthusiasts, whether watching or photographing. I looked it up on several sites on the internet and most people gave it a reasonable review apart from one person who complained that there were too many “wildlife type people there”! The hotel has several wildlife breaks with celebrity presenters like Iolo Williams and Nick Baker. It runs talks with guest speakers, walks and other wildlife events including the red deer rut. The Bird Watching & Wildlife club BWWC (http://www.bwwc.co.uk/ ) run the above events from this hotel. They have an extensive library, DVD collection, a notice board with what’s been seen and where, leaflets with walks / areas to visit to see wildlife and even a small book shop. I decided on a four night stay rather than seven nights because I wanted to trial it, bad choice. I also decided to go for a standard room, rather than a superior room, because I wanted a room at the rear of the hotel away from the main road and traffic noise, I needn’t have worried as there was hardly any traffic. Although the hotel states that it “has been recently refurbished and upgraded to offer modern comforts whilst retaining a traditional character”, I found the room I was in to be a bit dated and surprised that there was no clock/alarm. Having said that they had all the amenities I required. All the staff at the hotel were very helpful even though the hotel was fully booked. Finally the food, this was outstanding from a massive breakfast, if you wanted it all, to a fantastic choice for the superbly cooked three course dinner with coffee served in the lounge. All in all this is a fantastic place to stay for “wildlife types” and if you do stay, then stay for at least a week as there is so much to see and do, I can guarantee you’ll want to come back, I certainly do.

One of the main reasons of going there was to get images of Crested tits and Red Squirrels. A couple of days before I went I found out that winter is the best season to see Crested tits as they come down to feeders. The rest of the year they are up in the trees nesting and rearing young. I should have done more research but never mind there was still more wildlife on my list.

On the first day I went to RSPB Loch Garten to see the Ospreys. On my way there I drove through a place called Nethy Bridge. Just as I was driving over the bridge I noticed a flock of Siskins, about 30, flying into a garden next to the bridge. So I parked up and took some images.


When I finally got to RSPB Loch Garten I got out of the car and noticed some birds on the feeders in the car park. I viewed the feeders through my binoculars and the birds were…….. Crested tits! It had snowed a lot the day before my holiday and so the birds returned to the feeders for food. I did not take any photos because I do not like feeders in my images but seeing a Crested tit for the first time was a great experience. There was also a Red Squirrel on another feeder, good viewing but again no images. I set off into the reserve at my usual wildlife watching walking pace, two steps forward stop one pace back, and after a couple of minutes I noticed a Wren with a beak full of moss. I watched it fly down to the bottom of a tree and enter a hole under its roots. After it came out I set up my camera and waited for its return. This is one of the images I took.


After visiting the Osprey centre I went for a walk in an area, about a quarter of a mile away from RSPB Loch Garten, called Loch Mallachie. It was a circular route from the car park to the loch. On my way round I could hear Crossbills but could not see them. What I did view were several Treecreepers.


Near the edge of the loch I spotted a Common Sandpiper.

Common SandpiperCommon SandpiperCommon Sandpiper

Whilst photographing the Common Sandpiper the Crossbills were in the top of the trees above me. I took some images but with a grey sky background and looking up to them they were just record shots.


Whilst photographing the Crossbills two Crested tits flew past, why does it all happen at once.

After lunch I drove on to a place called Avielochan, just north of Aviemore, where a Slavonian Grebe had been seen. There is a hide here that is owned by the BWWC and guests staying in the Grant Arms Hotel can use it. You have to get a pass from reception which I did. To the left of the hide there were some feeders with Siskins, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Coal tits on them. I saw the Slavonian Grebe, a dot on the horizon, but it never came close enough to photograph. Whilst I was looking at the Slavonian Grebe there was a big commotion around the feeders. A Sparrowhawk had flown in, caught a Coal tit, and had settled under one of the bushes. I managed to get a couple of images but not good ones. The image below was taken handheld, leaning sideways out of a window and I had to use manual focus, very awkward.  After a few minutes it flew off and all was quiet. A couple of minutes later a single Coal tit came back and kept calling out, I really felt for that little bird but that is nature.


The second day, which was nice and sunny, I went to a place called the Findhorn valley which is just outside the Cairngorms National Park. I must have seen over 250 Red deer as I drove to the car park at the end of the valley. I also saw Wild Goats, Oystercatchers, Dippers, Grey Wagtails, Pied Wagtails, Lapwings, Buzzards, Kestrels and, the best of all, a Golden Eagle. In the afternoon and as it started to rain I decided to drive to a place called Lochindorb which is an estate which again is just outside the Cairngorms National Park. I was hoping to see if I could get any images of Red Grouse. Once I had got to the single track road I drove really slowly, so slowly you could overtake me by walking. The reason for this is that I was trying to spot a speckled brown bird in a speckled brown area whilst driving, not good. The reason I was staying in the car was because of the rain and snow. It was coming down so hard and being blown all over the place I did not want to ruin my camera equipment. In the end it was so hard my windscreen wipers could not cope so I had to park up. Finally it relented a bit so I carried on. Once I had got my eye in I spotted several birds and took several images from the comfort of my car. I stayed in the car because when I opened the door the birds would either run or fly away. It was nothing to do with the cold and rain, honest. I love the image below because of the atmosphere the rain and cold give it.

Red GrouseRed GrouseRed Grouse

The morning of the third day it was slightly raining so I dressed appropriately, it’s never bad weather just wrong clothing, and went for a walk along the river Spey at the rear of the hotel. Straight away I spotted a Dipper on a tree trunk. I watched it for a while from a distance. It would fly off down or up river but return to this tree trunk every now and then. When it flew away I moved in close, placed my mat and pad, and waited for its return. I did not have to worry about the light as this part of the river was quite open unlike the rivers down on Dartmoor in Devon. When the Dipper returned I could be fussy about the types of images I would take. I waited till it was doing something and then take the image.


At one time it flew off and a Common Sandpiper took its place. When that flew away a Grey Wagtail took its place. It was a very good spot. After a while I carried on with my walk but had no other photo opportunities. After the walk I drove to RSPB Loch Ruthven which is supposed to be the best place to see Slavonian Grebes. Just outside the entrance there were three Roe Deer which have such pretty faces. As soon as I got close with the car they disappeared into a wood. There is a hide there but as usual with RSPB hides it was no good for photography. I managed to see a few Slavonian Grebes, much closer than yesterday, and a Red-throated Diver. I also saw some Willow Warblers but they would not stay still for me to photograph and after twenty minutes I gave up, not very long I know but I was also being eaten alive by the midges. I then drove back to Lochindorb as the rain had stopped and I wanted images of Red Grouse that were dry! I did get a few but I feel that the rain and wet birds give the images a better atmosphere. Later I drove back to the car park at the end of the Findhorn valley. On the way there I saw no Red deer at all but I did see a Buzzard attacking a Golden Eagle and a Kestrel attacking a Buzzard. Good views but not close enough to photograph. When I finally reached the car park I spent a little while looking for Mountain Hares, a brown and white thing in a brown and white area! If it sat still you would think it was a rock. The sun was shining really brightly now and it was very warm. After two and a half days of driving and walking I was getting a bit jaded (that’s what I’m blaming and not old age!) and I wanted forty winks, a power nap, you call it what you want. The car park was empty so I put the seat back and closed my eyes. After less than ten minutes I woke up looking into the face of the Springwatch presenter Iolo Williams. He was grinning away as he greeted me with a hello. The rest of his 12 strong party turned up in another minibus. With peace and quiet gone I continued with my scanning for a Mountain Hare. One of the party spotted a Hare as it was running from left to right. I viewed it but as soon as it stopped it turned into a rock! Iolo spotted a male Merlin which was some distance off. He had a scope and I had 8x binoculars so all I could see was a dot. I spoke to a few of his party, who were staying in the Grant Arms hotel, and they wanted to see a Golden Eagle. I informed them that I had seen one being attacked by a Buzzard further down the valley and informed Iolo of the exact position. After a while I started my slow drive back down the valley. I again encountered the Wild Goats and spotted about 100 Red Deer at the bottom of the valley. I parked up, got out to have a better look and immediately spotted a Peregrine falcon dive bombing and attacking a Lapwing. This was then joined by a second, slightly smaller so most probably the female, Peregrine. They would take it in turns to dive bomb the bird which was doing a grand job of dodging their attacks. When the rain started to fall again the Peregrines gave up and headed for shelter on the mountainside, what an experience to end the day. Back at the hotel I was going to tell Iolo about the Peregrines but he “trumped” me by having a Capercaillie come within a couple of metres from their minibus.

Three days was definitely not long enough. Scotland is a great place for wildlife and the Grant Arms hotel is a great base for your holiday. I will certainly go back but for a longer time. Get rid of the midges and I might be tempted to go there in the summer time.


Craig MacInnes(non-registered)
Hi Robin, once again thank you for taking the time and trouble to write this blog - I look forward to every new episode and this one had particular resonance for me as I was lucky enough to stay at the Grant Arms for a week last November. The BWWC facilities there were amazing and it was a great base for exploring the Cairngorms, Black Isle and Moray Firth areas. Like you said though you need longer, but at least now you have some idea of where to go to find the wildlife you're looking for. My only gripe with you is that you didn't tell us you were coming north - so next time let us know as it would be great to meet up and chew the fat - maybe get a bit of photography in too :-)
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