Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
Well it has been a while since my last blog. There was me thinking that I would have more time after I retired but it seems that I have a lot less time! I just cannot think HOW I fitted work into my heavy schedule. Having said that, I have been really busy doing lots more things. The good side of it is that the things I have been doing are for me and my family rather than for an employer, the downside of it is that I do not get paid for it. I have still had time for photography and am starting new ventures in this field. You will notice that I said photography and not wildlife photography and the reasons for this are that I have started being a “second” photographer at weddings and I have started taking more landscape photographs around Dartmoor National Park. The “second” photographer started when I helped a friend of mine at his wedding. He and his wife, well in fact quite a few guests as well, appeared to like my reportage style of wedding photography so much that they informed their professional wedding photographer, Jane Austin (www.romancephotography.co.uk/) that they wanted some of my photographs in their wedding portfolio. She agreed to this as long as I take my photos and she does the post processing, which suited me. Since then I have been her “second” for a few more weddings. It is hard work and I am really tired at the end of the day but I really enjoy it. None of the weddings have been the same due to weather, location, people etc. but my skills as a wildlife photographer brings something new to the party and I am learning a lot from her as well. The best thing about it is that due to our different styles of photography we really complement each other. Also all the brides and grooms and a lot of the guests have commented on our work ethic stating that we work so hard and are capturing some great images which is always nice to hear.
The landscapes started when I wanted to start a new project photographing Dartmoor’s stone crosses. It continued when I bought our motorhome as I’ve started writing articles for a motorhome magazine and they required some landscape photographs to go along with the article. It took me a few rewrites due to the way the editor wanted things done but I am having my first article published next year. The editor will let me know when and then I will let you know so that you can see/read it and tell me what you think. I still don’t enjoy waiting for the light for landscapes but it is the main factor that makes landscapes images great so I will have to persevere.
Another new venture in this field is that I have been booked as a speaker to talk to a camera club about my wildlife photography which is happening near the end of November. (For details please click on the Talks Tab on my website) The president of the club likes my work and asked if I would give a talk at his club which I accepted. I had given a talk about my wildlife photography a few years ago to my camera club as a thank you for their help. It was warmly received and I had some great feedback from it, in fact the president of the club asked me if I wanted to be entered in the photography speaker lists for East Anglia but I declined this as I was moving down to Devon. The presentation I will give has been updated with new comments / photos and will last about 2 hours; I just hope I don’t get first night nerves.
After several hours, or should I say weeks, of ruminating, cogitating and deliberating, I finally finished planning our months ( last week in March and the first three weeks of April ) expedition to visit several of Scotland’s western islands in “Isla”, our motorhome. The islands we chose to include were Arran, Islay, Mull, Skye, Harris and Lewis in that order.
The journey up to Scotland would take us to Androssan where we would catch the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to the Isle of Arran. We left Devon with the temperature at 14 degrees, sun shining and a bright blue sky and it was the shape of things to come. The ferry crossing to Brodick, the main town, on the Isle of Arran lasted just under an hour. Murphy enjoyed the trip as we had to sit in the “dog” area on the ferry and as there were several dogs on this crossing he wanted to meet and greet them all. The Isle of Arran is 20 miles/32 km long and up to 10 miles/ 16 km wide. Most of the population live on the coast which means that the rugged and mountainous interior is still in its wild condition, although there are several forests run by the Forestry Commission. The tallest mountain is Goatfell which rises up to 2,865 ft/ 874 m. Whilst driving through Brodick we looked across the bay and spotted Brodick Castle, associated with Robert the Bruce, standing majestically above the trees that surround it. There is a rumour that it was in Kings Cave, which is on the west coast, that he saw the spider repeatedly trying to make its web. Seeing this spider overcome its problems gave him the encouragement to do the same. For over 500 years it was occupied by the Dukes of Hamilton but was passed to the Duke of Montrose on the marriage of Lady Mary Douglas-Hamilton in 1906. In 1958 it was then passed to the National Trust for Scotland. Brodick has a few very good “local” shops but if you are into spending a day on retail therapy then this is not the place for you. After buying a few needy items from Wooley’s of Arran we continued on our way north. OK “Wooley’s” are bakers and the “needy” items were cakes and pies! We pulled into an area out of the town which was sited next to the sea to eat our “needy” items and watch seals lounging around on the rocks. Is it just me or do they remind you of a giant slug? Further on we came across a huge valley and spotted about twenty Red Deer on top of one of the mountains relaxing and eating in the sun. We continued to the ruins of Lochranza castle which is sited on the shore just before the ferry terminal. It dates back to the 16th century and is cared for by Historic Scotland. If you are lucky you might see Red Deer in the water by the castle at dusk and Golden Eagles in the sky during the day. Otters also frequent this area but we did not see any. But on our way to the campsite we did see several Brown Hares on the fields and on the beach!
Brown HaresBrown Hares
The night passed very quietly apart from the snoring from Murphy! The next day we started exploring the south of the island from Shiskine to Blackwaterfoot, which is described as a small, chiefly modern-built, community with the Kinloch Hotel, a gallery, grocer, post office and a repair garage. What it does not mention is that it has a superb sandy beach. We stopped and while my wife walked Murphy and picked up driftwood along the beach I took photographs of the wildlife there which included Seals, Turnstones, Oystercatchers, Rock Pipits and Wheatears.
After spending a couple of hours here we continued and just before we entered Lagg I spotted a Pine Martin crossing the road. As these mammals are nocturnal something must have disturbed it and that something was a person who had just started strimming his grass. We stopped hoping to see it again but to no avail. Carrying on we spotted Ailsa Craig, an island just off the coast and at the entrance to the Firth of Clyde. It rises to a height of 1,114ft/338m and is all that remains of an ancient volcano. Today it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is home to over 70,000 breeding seabirds most of which are Gannets. Rats had wiped out all of the Puffins on the island but the RSPB removed them and now Puffins are thriving again on the island. Driving along Whiting Bay, we sighted Holy Island. You can catch a ferry to the Island from Lamlash, which is further along the coast towards Brodick. Dogs are not allowed on the island and it is only a summer service so we missed out on that trip.
The next morning we caught a ferry, from Lochranza to Claonaig on the Mull of Kintyre and then onto Kennacraig, to catch the next ferry to Port Askaig on Islay which took about 2.5 hours. Islay is the most southerly island of the Inner Hebrides and is about 25miles/ 40km wide and 16miles/25km long. The land area totals about 600km2. On arrival we were greeted with a dark grey sky, sleet and blustery winds. The west side of the island is reasonably flat mainly peat bog with hardly any trees or hedges. The mountains are on the east side of the island, the tallest being Beinn Bheigeir at 1611ft/491m. We drove to Machir Bay where we saw some Choughs which I tried to photograph but the wind was taking them so fast that I could not focus properly. I walked around the sand dunes and located some Brown Hares and Lapwings. We took Murphy for a walk along the stunning beach which we had all to ourselves. Then again walking along a beach with very strong winds and sleet is not everybody’s cup of tea, but Murphy enjoyed it. The night was very rough with the wind buffeting Isla every which way it could and we got very little sleep apart from Murphy. I did not realise how loud his snoring was!
The next morning I again tried to photograph the Choughs but again the weather hampered my attempt. The sun was shining again but it was still very windy so we visited RSPB Loch Gruinart which has a couple of hides and two walks, a moorland trail and a woodland trail. We walked the latter because we could look in both hides. Through the first, Taigh Deas, we saw Greylag and Barnacle geese. We also saw a Wren, Greenfinch, Blackbird, Lapwings, Redshank, quite a few Snipe and a distance view of a Golden Eagle. Through the second, Taigh Tuath, we had close-ups of more Snipe. You can get Cuckoos and Corncrakes on this site later in the year. After lunch we drove on to Kilnave Chapel and Kilnave Cross which was built in the 13/14th century and belonged to the parish of Kilchoman. In 1598 the battle of Traigh Gruinart took place between the MacDonalds of Islay and the MacLeans of Mull. After the battle the surviving MacLeans took refuge in Kilnave and they were locked in by the MacDonalds and burnt. We then drove to Kildalton Chapel which was also built in the 13/14th century but the cross is a Christian cross that was built in the 8th century. At dusk whilst walking Murphy along the road we saw two Fallow deer but it was too dark to photograph them.
Kilnave Chapel and CrossKilnave Chapel and Cross
The next day we were back to the sleet, temperature was down to 3 degrees and it was still very windy. During Murphy’s walk we came across two Red deer in the woods, a stag and a hind, sheltering from the weather. We headed to RSPB The Oa, on the south of the island, which has Red deer, Golden Eagles, Corncrakes, later in the year, and Choughs. When we arrived the sleet was so thick visibility was down to only a few metres. We waited an hour or so to see if it improved but as it didn’t we decided to drive towards Post Askaig. Along this route just after Ballygrant there is the Finlaggan Centre which is the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles. 1500 years ago Islay was the centre of the Argyll/Ulster kingdom of Dal Riata and was a major staging post for Irish Christian missionaries. This kingdom was from the north tip of Lewis to the south of Ulster including most of the west of the Scottish mainland. It was owned by the MacDonalds but was taken by the Campbells when the MacDonalds were plotting with the English to take control of Scotland. The next morning we left Islay feeling disappointed as the island has some wonderful wildlife but the weather, while we were there, was horrendous and I could not tell you what the scenery was like.
The ferry took us back to Kennacraig and from there we drove to Oban to catch the ferry to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. This is one island I truly love and this is the third time we have visited it. The Isle of Mull has an area of 875 km2 and the highest mountain is Ben More at 3,169ft/966m. It is the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides. The two things it is most renowned for are the coloured houses in Tobermory and its prolific wildlife. Looking on Facebook and talking/listening to other wildlife photographers gives me the opinion that everyone has a different “hot spot” on Mull for wildlife. Craignure Bay, Loch Don, Loch Spelve, Loch Na Keal, Calgary Bay, Carsaig Bay and Loch Scridain to name a few. The three main animals/birds photographers are after are Otters, White Tailed Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles. There is an abundant of other wildlife on Mull but these are the “big three”. As soon as the ferry docked I was off to “my” favourite Otter “hot spot” and as we were about half way around the loch I spotted a male Otter lounging on top of a rock just a few feet away from the waters edge. I parked up, took my camera and that was the last time my wife saw me for a few hours. Later whilst walking Murphy around the loch we saw Red deer over on the other side and then whilst walking back to Isla saw a White Tailed Sea Eagle flying over the loch.
Whilst driving along a minor road to Dervaig we spotted what we think is a Wildcat. I excitedly jumped out and took some photos of it and will send them off to somebody that knows for it to be checked. Talking to some people about our sighting I got mixed reviews, some say yes and others no. What do you think?
Wild Cat?Scottish Wild Cat?
Further along my wife spotted a Golden Eagle perched on a boulder. After a while some crows started harassing it and it took flight flying right over our heads. We carried on to Calgary bay which is on the North West of the Island. Calgary Bay is a really nice sandy beach with rocky edges. Several people, including my wife and me, have seen Otters amongst these rocks but none were seen today. About half way along the road from Dervaig to Salen is a little road on your right which takes you to a small port which you need to take if you want to catch a ferry to Ulva, a small island off the west coast of Mull. It is also the port that you need if you want to catch the boat to see White Tailed Sea Eagles taking fish off the loch, Mull Charters ( www.mullcharters.com/ ). From here we drove to Craignure Bay, to our campsite which is situated on the shore and gives it uninterrupted views of the Sound of Mull and Loch Linnhe across to the Scottish mainland.
Touring the south of the island we drove to Knock where we stopped for a walk on the Benmore Estate, ( www.benmoreestate.co.uk ). You can walk up Ben More as it is on the estate but other activities can also be done here like pony trekking and mountain biking. Afterwards we drove along the south shores of Loch Na Keal looking for Otters with no luck. When you get to Balnahard the road turns inland, we looked down into the valley on the right and saw several Red deer. The views along the road to Loch Scridain are spectacular, Golden Eagles are sometimes viewed in this area. We arrived back on our campsite early because I wanted to try a get some images of Otters that frequent the area. I was extremely lucky because within 30 minutes I spotted a female otter with her two kits.
After taking several images of them playing, catching fish and eating I walked away to let them have some peace. Whilst we were eating our tea we saw a male Otter hunting, catching and eating just in front of our motorhome.
Back at my “hot spot” I walked along the shore looking for Otters whilst my wife relaxed and took care of Murphy and once again it was not long before I spotted one swimming along the shore edge. I took several photos of him before he turned around and started swimming the other way. At one point I sat down and just watched him hunting. During this time he exited the water and walked up the beach passing within 20 metres of me. The Otters eyesight is not great if you sit still, but its sense of smell is something else. It walked up under a metal pontoon and started rubbing itself on several things that were there. Then all of a sudden it dashed out and ran into the water to resume hunting passing even closer to me. These are moments I treasure as a wildlife photographer.
We caught the early ferry the next day as I had to drive to the Isle of Skye. The route I took veers left at Spean Bridge and there is a memorial to the commandos of World War 2. It is 17ft/5.2m high, and is of three bronze commandos, looking south towards the Nevis mountains, dressed in typical WWII uniforms. It is "In memory of the officers and men of the commandos who died in the Second World War 1939–1945. This country was their training ground." In 1942 the Commando Basic Training Centre was at Achnacarry Castle which is a few miles north of the monument but, Spean Bridge was the railway station they arrived at before marching to Achnacarry. In 1949 Scott Sutherland won a competition to design a memorial to the commandos and the bronze was cast by H H Martyn Ltd, of Cheltenham.
As we drove along we came to the end of Loch Duich and spotted Eilean Donan Castle, ( www.eileandonancastle.com ), sticking out on its own little island near the edge of the Loch where two other Loch’s, Long and Alas meet. The castle is one of the most recognised and photographed in Scotland. It was built in the 13th century as a defensive measure for protecting the lands of Kintail against the Vikings. Over the centuries, the castle itself has expanded and contracted in size. In the 14th century the area of the castle was reduced to about a fifth of its original size. Lt Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 and, with his Clerk of Works Farquar Macrae, he restored the castle to its former glory which was finally completed in 1932. We could have taken the ferry from Malliag to Armadale but we wanted to see the 500 metres long Skye Bridge, which spans across Loch Alsh, and was opened in 1995. This bridge connects the Isle of Skye to Eilean Ban and another bridge connects Eilean Ban to the Scottish mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh. The Skye Bridge is stunning, well worth viewing, and is a great optical illusion as the motorhome in front of us seemed to be going over the edge or up into thin air!
We arrived at the Loch Greshornish campsite just before 2pm and were given a pitch just in front of the shore giving us an uninterrupted view of the loch. Settling down with our tea we were greeted to a terrific sunset. Skye is 50miles/80.5km long, 25miles/40km wide and is the largest of the Inner Hebrides. The population is just over 10,000 and the capital is Portree. The highest point is Sgùrr Alasdair in the Black Cuillin, the only series of alpine peaks in Britain, on the East of the island at 3,255ft/992m. Skye is famous for its scenery which takes your breath away and is a landscape photographers dream. Landscape and wildlife photography was out of the question due to time restraints. We set out early to explore as much of Skye as we could because National Geographic list it as the 4th best island in the world and we wanted to see why. We picked a circular route heading to the East coast, to Portree and returning to the campsite along the West coast. This route would only let us see about half of the centre of the island.
Portree Harbour SkyePortree Harbour, Skye
The scenery along the A863 is stunning especially the view of Loch Harport from just before Drynoch and around Gesto Bay. On the way back I drove to Stein where there is the oldest inn on Skye. It is an eighteenth-century inn that is nestled in a charming hamlet on the shores of the Sea of the Hebrides. We parked up and walked along the shore with my camera in hand hoping to photograph any wildlife but none was at hand except gulls and Oystercatchers in the distance.
We left early to catch the ferry from Uig to Tarbet on the Isle of Harris. Whilst at Uig I spotted a bit of wildlife in the shape of a Highland cow in a little fenced off area! We arrived on Harris after a very calm crossing and our first stop was to visit the Harris Tweed shops, one with goods, the other with material, for sale, at the port. The inhabitants of Harris, Lewis, Uist and Barra have woven this beautiful and intricate cloth by hand from time immemorial. But the beginning of the Harris Tweed industry began in 1846 when Lady Dunmore, widow of the landowner of Harris, the Earl of Dunmore, chose to have their clan tartan replicated by Harris weavers in tweed. The result was so good that she began to market the tweed to her well-off friends and because of her passionate work, sales and trade of the cloth, with merchants across the country, was rapidly established.
Harris and Lewis are part of the same island, Harris in the South and Lewis in the North and over 20,000 people populate this island. Driving out of the port we turned left and drove along the coast road to Rodel via “The Golden Road” stopping at Plocropol and Grosebay to visit more Harris Tweed shops. The road is very narrow but the scenery is stunning as it is mostly lunar-like rocky plateaus with lochs and rugged coastline interrupting it. At Rodel we returned towards Tarbet and along this road are some spectacular beaches which you could not better even if you were in the Caribbean. Because the sun was shining, the sea was azure and the sand was white we stopped at the beach in Borve to get some sand between our toes, if you come to Harris this is essential. The tranquil atmosphere was only enhanced by the gentle sounds of the rolling waves lapping at our feet. It was pure magic as we were the only people on the beach. After a couple of hours of the free “spa” treatment we carried on through Tarbet, into Lewis to Stornoway.
Beach on Isle of HarrisBeach on Isle of Harris
In Stornoway we noticed more wildlife in the shape of a wooden highland cow on the roadside and in the town there was some groovy art on some of the buildings and statues around the docks.
Highland Cow at StornowayHighland Cow at Stornoway
After lunch we drove back to Tarbet to catch the ferry to Uig and start our long drive home. On the way we went to visit Lockerbie and pay our respects to the victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 air disaster. It is not until you examine the area surrounding Lockerbie, on Google Earth, you notice that there is a lot of open ground around this town and is was such a pity that the death toll, of this act of terrorism, increased by 11 people from the town, to 270. The Garden of Remembrance lies just outside of Lockerbie along the A709 to Lochmaben road. It is beautiful but heart rendering especially when you see the 270 list of names. We also had time to visit the Eskrigg Reserve, a Wildlife Trust reserve ( www.lockerbie-wildlife-trust.co.uk/ ). There are some outstanding Wildlife Trust sites around the country and this is one of the top ones. It is run by Jim Rae, the reserve manager, who seems to have his camera with him at all times and is always keen to impart his knowledge of the reserve and its inhabitants if you wish to learn more about the area.
Red SquirrelRed Squirrel
Scotland is a fabulous place to visit and although I love the place I would not visit in the summer months due to the dreaded midge. Apart from Islay, which did not show us her best side, I would love to go back to have more time to explore the islands. A couple of things we did notice through the whole trip was 1, there was hardly any water in the rivers in fact some had no water at all, who said it always rains in Scotland? 2, there was so much plastic on some of the beaches and inlets. Sifting through some of this plastic revealed that it was mostly from fishing trawlers: - net, line, buoys, polystyrene boxes etc. and not plastic bags from supermarkets but plastic bags from fishing bait. It’s really sad to see sights like this that you wonder about the health of this planet.
A last note to inform you that my photography workshop prices will be going up in the new year but if you book before January 1st then they will be at the old price, even if you book for next year.
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Also available are Digital Photography Tuition Including Post Processing Workflow, Dartmoor Bird & Wildlife Workshops and Talks (Please see the Workshops & Talks Tabs at the top of the website).
If you choose to stay at our Holiday Cottage / B&B www.acorn-lodge-dartmoor.co.uk at the time of the workshop then you will receive a discount on your tuition and accommodation.