Raw Beauty – The Cairngorms

Filed in Wildlife, Workshops on Feb.02, 2019

The Cairngorms National Park in Scotland is a place that is truly stunning, with spectacular landscapes, snow capped peaks and breathtaking scenery. The Cairngorm plateau is the highest and coldest in Britain. You can still see snow in places in the summer, and in winter it is a place of raw beauty. The Cairngorms, known as Am Monadh Ruadh in Gaelic, are mountains that form part of the Grampians and are the most famous of the mountain ranges.

It is home to some of the UK’s most specialist wildlife that live in this tough and testing environment. BBC Wildlife magazine online site went through some of those species that live in this amazing place, using some of my favorite images from the Cairngorms. The magazine also celebrated the BBC Winterwatch team that set up its base in the Cairngorms recently with an online article to give more information on the show.

I’ve just returned from this spectacular place having run my Scottish winter wildlife tour there. Before my clients arrived though I spent several days on my own work and also checking out the places I would take clients during the trip. The following images are a few taken during this time.

Our base throughout the time there was the lovely stone built Grant Arms Hotel, nicknamed the “UK’s Wildlife Hotel” which offers modern comforts whilst retaining a traditional character. The staff, food and service there are second to none.  After meeting and greeting my clients on the first day and introductions we headed out to a nearby red squirrel sight for the afternoon.

The hotel places food out for them during the winter months and this is the reason they visit this area. You still have to work out where and in which direction they will appear though. Making composition a little tricky but giving a real and natural feel to the images.

These enduring mammals are wonderful to photograph, more smaller and shier than their grey cousins. Sadly though in England their numbers are low due a disease passed onto them by the Grey Squirrels known as “Squirrel Pox”. Scotland is their main stronghold and its nice to see them doing well here.

We were also looking for Crested Tits, these beautiful little birds only live in this part of the UK and so are very ionic to this area. With their punk style crests they use on top of their heads to communicate with each they are truly a wonderful little bird to witness. These birds can only be found in these Scottish Caledonian forests and it was so wonderful my clients got chance too see them.

The next day we were up early and after breakfast we headed out for our first day of the tour. We decided to head to Ptarmigan site as the weather looked really kind. These amazing birds in their natural environment are hard to see,  true specialist of this environment that carve out a life in one of the toughest habitats in the world.

Sadly we spent all day looking but we didn’t get a single opportunity to photograph them showing just how hard it can be locating and finding them. It was the first year we’ve not manage to see them on my trips to this amazing place.

My clients did get some lovely snow bunting images, these small lovely birds live in and around the base of the Cairngorm mountain. These images of snow buntings were taken alongside my clients.

On Wednesday we headed to a mountain hare site and had some great encounters with them. The walk up was tough due to fresh snow failing overnight, causing large drifts on the path up to the top, a great effort though by all my clients.

I went through fieldcraft with all my clients and helped them with all aspects of moving and approaching these wonderful mammals along with camera settings. All designed to help cut down on any stress we may cause to these sensitive creatures due to our presence. It had been snowing recently so there was fresh snow on the ground so at first is was hard to see them with their almost white coats. We then found a couple of mountain hares and the following images were taken with a long lens and wide angle lens alongside all my clients, all of which got some wonderful images.

On Thursday we visited a place where you can see Red Grouse and clients got some wonderful images using the car as a hide. After that we then headed to one of the best sites for Crested Tits. These beautiful little birds only live in this part of the UK and so are very iconic to this area.

With their punk style crests they use on top of their heads to communicate with each they are truly a wonderful little bird to witness. The local RSPB run this site and place feeders out for these birds during the winter months to help them.

They are attracted to this area because of the food but it was very hard to judge where they would come from , land and stay stay long enough to take an image.

The RSPB have asked those that bring their own food to feed the birds to only bring natural food and nothing with sugar or salt in like peanut butter that some photographers are bringing and placing all over the perches. Food containing these ingredients will kill the birds. We also got lucky at the same site with the beautiful Red Squirrels.

This years BBC Winterwatch was being filmed from the Cairngorms this year, at a little place not too far from where we were staying. We visited the production site too have a look around and then headed to a location where hundreds of Brambling were feeding.

They’d come over from their Scandinavian homes to gorge on their favorite food. Clients got some fantastic images and I have to admit it was the first time I’d ever seen this gorgeous little bird.

On the Thursday evening at the hotel I did my talkTiger Tiger  Ten years ago I saw my first wild Tiger, my first words were “Tiger Tiger” sitting in a small jeep on a dusty dirt track in India as female Bengal Tigress walked towards me. A decade on and my heart still misses a beat when I see these amazing big cats in the wild.

My talk covered my work during that time, the ups, downs and conservation work I have seen to save these amazing big cats. Many Tigers have also been poached and gone missing in that time. My presentation brought nature’s most beautiful creature to those who attended.

It was an incredibly week of sightings and photography opportunities for all my clients as our time in the Cairngorms had come to an end. I’d like to thank the Grant Arms Hotel for their help and looking after me, the food, service and general helpfulness was brilliant.

I’d like to thank John Poyner once more for all your help, he has been a guide in this area for 20 years and his help, guidance and general knowledge was brilliant. Lastly I’d like thank all my wonderful clients for your company and all your efforts throughout the week.

The Cairgroms National Park is a truly amazing place, next year I’m running my Scottish Winter Wildlife trip again. Staying in the same hotel on full broad and visiting all the places we visited during our time there. If you’d like to join me then please see this link, many thanks.


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