So often, the best bet as a wildlife photographer, is to set up somewhere in the right habitat and wait for the wildlife to come to you, rather than chase great sightings.
However for whatever reason be it simple bad luck, climate change, local site human disruption or a combination of all 3, no matter how patiently we waited for the sight of Short-eared Owls quartering the wintery tussocky grass in the nearby Cotswold Hills, that view has been hard to catch in the last 3 or 4 years.
In response to this sad state of affairs, friend Ian concocted a truly cunning plan to address our wintery wildlife woes! The plan went like this ... If they aren't coming to us here in the soft south, then we will undertake a summer travel north to see them where they gather to breed in real numbers; and when I say north, I really mean .... NORTH!
So it was then, that we headed up (and up!) to Uist in the Outer Hebrides via a stop over at my friends Graham and Jan's house near Stirling to break the two day journey (thanks both!)
After a wonderful drive through Glencoe and a 3 hour CalMac ferry from Mallaig , we arrived on the group of 6 islands that comprise Uist. The Uist islands are linked by causeways, so we were able to spend a full week in a safari-like drive around the islands from our base at Griminish on Benbecula.
Uist has a remarkable landscape, with an extremely low human population (less than 5,000) and plenty of beautiful habitat for the ground nesting Short-eared Owls, not to mention Hen Harriers and a population of White-tailed Eagles. The ecosystem required to support such predators is key to their survival and whilst our cameras were pointed at the predators, we were constantly delighted to witness the diversity of flora and fauna as we 'hunted' for the hunters.
We used my trusty X5 (through Ian's eco-gritted teeth!) as our mobile hide, much as the safari LandCruisers traverse the Masai Mara in Kenya. Wild spaces are most perfectly observed when you are disguised as a rock; so that meant staying inside the vehicle so as not to disturb the wildlife. Sharing the driving and the relative luxury of a view from the back seats (shots left and right not obstructed by gear shift etc!), we drove until a shout of "stop" yielded views of our target species.
I can't quite find the words to properly describe the thrill of discovering that the Uist islands seemed to be full of Owls on our first evening drive up into North Uist.
A 'first night' Shortie above the waters of a small loch
The landscape each side of the road and indeed across all of the islands, was covered in thousands of small lochs, delivering a watery maze of fresh and brackish habitat surrounded by wild grass and the machair - a great example of how human land management through the crofting system has produced a 'semi-natural' beautiful landscape that positively aides and supports wildlife, rather than the damage we do in so many places elsewhere in the UK
Sunset on North Uist (iPhone pic)
Ian has been a regular visitor to the Outer Hebrides, so he pointed this island newbie driver in the right direction on that first evening. We had already experienced an extraordinary close encounter with a juvenile Shortie, which flew so close to the car that we thought it was joining us for the rest of trip .... one of 3 such encounters on our trip.
Juvenile SEO flies towards us
... when we headed up 'Committee Road', splitting a moorland-like area in the heart shaped north of the island. This area was reputed to produce sightings of Owls, Harriers and Eagles and each trip along that stretch over the next 5 days produced something interesting to see.
That first evening was bathed in a soft Hebridean sunset and as if by magic, we found a beautiful Shortie sitting on one of the countless fence posts that covered the islands. An inch by inch creep forwards finally brought us level with the bird, without disturbing it's peace.
Short-eared Owl (SEO) in the golden hour
Slightly bemused by this strange slow moving 'boulder' - the Shortie took time to scan both us and it's surroundings, revealing the incredible range and flexibility of its neck.
The days took on a regular routine: up and out around dawn, a whole morning spent looking for wildlife, back for the middle of the day wildlife lull break, a quick something to eat and then ... back out c 16:00hrs through to sunset and back tired but happy c 23:00hrs .... and repeat!
The first morning dawn start threw up something of a surprise ... to say the least!
We had headed south at dawn and had chosen a random turn off the 'main' road (as was the 'follow your nose' technique deployed throughout our stay). A few early sightings of Shorties on posts a distance away later, we turned back towards the main road and found another viewpoint over a watery inlet, next to a row of nondescript houses. Down went the car windows, out came the binoculars and UP went my eyebrows as I thought I could see .... surely not .... a Long-eared Owl!
Ian soon got onto the Owl and confirmed the sighting, cue frantic scrambling for long lenses and attempts to get a shot without spooking the Scooby Doo style spooky looking Owl!
Long-eared Owl (LEO)
It was grey, overcast, only c 5 o'clock in the morning, terrible light for photography, but we were both absolutely delighted. We spent almost an hour watching both the LEO and the local Short-eared Owls who seemed as surprised as we were to see one of their Long-eared cousins and began chasing it around as a consequence.
Temporary truce - Short-eared Owl (far) and Long-eared Owl (near) ... at dawn
We returned to the same spot every morning and afternoon in the hope of seeing the LEO again, but we never did .... still, they are extremely rare visitors and we were so lucky to get our timing right on the first morning!
Whilst Owls were our main focus, we had seen distant views of female and juvenile Hen Harriers (commonly known as 'Ringtails' because of their bandied tail with a white rump) and even more excitingly, the beautiful grey and black male Hen Harrier and there ..... lies a tale!
We'd both failed to capture any worthwhile pictures from those distant glimpses and as the week came towards an end, it seemed that we weren't going to be lucky, except ...... a quick middle of the day trip from our accommodation to a local Bistro for some 'Brunch' ("no need to tqke a camera" says Ian - "we'll be there and back in no time") yielded a surprise sighting along the road behind the Bistro. Fortunately for me at least, I had left a spare camera and lens in the boot.
Ian was both despairing at his lack of camera and generous in his help in keeping in contact with the Hen Harrier as I grabbed my 'back-up' camera and lens and tried to get some shots.
Male Hen Harrier hunts across the moorland tops
Far from perfect, heavily-ish cropped, but still delighted with that chance to capture such an elusive raptor in action. Ian was to get his 'revenge' for missing out on the Harrier at the end of the week, when I lost concentration for a couple of seconds and completely missed the 'money shot' of a Shortie rising just metres in front of us clutching its kill in its talons as it flew towards us!)
At 30 frames per second, Ian reckoned he had over 60 perfectly sharp shots v my total of .... zero - oh well, you snooze you lose in this game. I did manage a couple of shots of the Shortie flying away, but they won't really cut the mustard alongside the real thing when Ian shares his work on Flickr.
The weather was (relatively) kind for our stay and some of the views around the coastline were simply stunning. Fortunately the wonders of my battered old iPhone more than compensated for my lack of landscape photography expertise.
Long drives around the quieter roads occasionally yielded glimpses of wildlife that was simply getting on with bringing up their youngsters. We turned a corner on North Uist and spotted a couple of juvenile Swallows being fed by a busy set of parents.
Impossibly quick in flight and therefore a real photographic challenge, it was really satisfying to capture both the youngster with a bright yellow gape opened to encourage its parent to feed it, but also the parents in the act of feeding too!
Feeding time for Swallows
Later in the week Ian called a sudden halt to our slow crawl along the road searching for Hen Harriers, when he spotted a bird sitting on a fence in a small cottage.
Closer inspection confirmed that it was a juvenile Cuckoo, imploring its weary Meadow Pipit parents to keep bringing in the vast amounts of food required to build up its resources for the eventual long flight to the Congo Basin in Africa.
We spent some time hoping that the Cuckoo would relocate to a more photographic perch on the side of the road .... nothing doing there, but it did eventually fly up to land on a telegraph line. I opened the sunroof so that we could get some shots high above the car and were able to watch the huge Cuckoo bully its parents, who looked exhausted with their efforts to feed their bewildering huge 'offspring'.
Juvenile Cuckoo, fed by Meadow Pipit surrogate parent
From the small feeding the large, to a genuine avian giant!
We knew that there were White-tailed Eagles (WTE's) breeding successfully on Uist, indeed we had seen one in the distance almost as soon as the ferry landed and we had set of for Benbecula.
We could see one, sometimes two of these huge birds on a rock on a hill top around a mile or so from the backdoor of our AirBnB.
A pair of WTE's
One afternoon, we even caught sight of a WTE sparring with a Shortie and a male Hen Harrier, about 1/2 mile in the opposite direction - quite a view from your front door and no, you can't see a pic of that because they are all rubbish!
Ok .... well just to prove I'm not fibbing, here's the evidence with the distant birds highlighted.
White-tailed Eagle, Short-eared Owl and male Hen Harrier ... all in the same shot but ... at great distance!!
.... well I DID warn you it was a rubbish pic .... but a brilliant birding thing to see nonetheless!
It was on a long afternoon drive around the northern tips of North Uist, when I caught a glimpse of something huge and beaky on a rock in a field only around 50 metres away. Bringing the car to a quick (ish) stop and taking a peer through the bins confirmed, White-tailed Eagle !! No time to check settings (for this photographer anyway 🙄) and it took off, opened its huge wings and flew straight over the car. Ian has better pics than me of this, however I did manage the odd - nearly, but not quite sharp image - despite my shutter speed being too slow for the action.
WTE encounter - experience 9/10 .... photo quality 3/10
The days were long this far north, but there was so much to see that we could shake off the tiredness from such little sleep, with every sea view and wildlife encounter.
Feeling like Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island
It was of course, still mainly about those winter absent Owls and catching up with them when they were still engaging with their youngsters. In fact it seemed that we had timed our visit perfectly, as we saw lots of this years young Shorties, as well as their parents hunting around the islands.
It was on one of our long drives home at the end of a day that we found the youngest Owlet of the week.
The young Shorties have lots of black around the eyes, not developing the lighter whiter facial features until they're a little older.
Very young Shortie
This individual was still being fed by it's parent when we found it begging for food on a roadside post, near to a small loch.
An even more startling encounter was to be found at the south end of Committee Road, when we caught up with a slightly older juvenile .... as ever on a post, only to see it fly off over the Machair. We turned at the T-junction in hopefully non-intrusive pursuit, only to see the youngster flying directly towards us.
It was only with a graceful swerve that the huge Owl avoided joining us in the car through the open window, it's flight calm and collected compared to the over excited photographers spluttering in shock at the prospect.
Incoming Shortie at 12 o'clock captain!!
Mammals were present too, albeit visibly outnumbered by their avian cousins. We bumped into (not literally fortunately!) groups of Red Deer as the light faded. They gave us a wary, but ultimately disdainful look as we passed slowly by.
Although we found Shorties in seemingly all corners of the Uist islands, we returned to a spot, found on the first day near to Loch Bi, almost every day.
The Western Isles of Scotland are covered in history, not all of it happy, with the derelict remains of the Crofts that represent the times when a small patch of land, a few cattle and a scattering of crops, provided a bare subsistence living.
The patch that we found seemed to be home to a group (perhaps a family?) of Shorties, bordering the shores of Uist's largest loch. A scattering of newer but still modest farm buildings and cottages were sat next to some old croft remains. I set my heart on getting some 'environment' pictures of the resident Owls quartering on this ancient and distinctive landscape.
Short-eared Owl quarters a derelict Croft field
It's lovely to get close up shots of your subject and to see the beautiful detail, however I also like to set the wildlife in their natural habitat, in this case with the derelict crofts behind, leaving the viewer with a sense of what is was like for the photographer to sit and watch the scene unfold.
I also like this shot, captured in the middle distance and cropped, showing two of the Owls interacting with each other on the field far fence line.
After a few days observing of the activity and aligning the vehicle with wind and light behind, we were able to get some some super views.
One of the adults at this location had a striking pale face.
... and others showed the more typical mixture of pale and dark facial colouring, with those crepuscular specialist yellow eyes the most striking of all the UK Owl species.
Perhaps the most extraordinary encounters of the whole week was when one of the shorties flew directly towards the car, when we had just opened the sunroof. It held on the breeze no more a metre or two above our startled faces as we gazed directly into its piercing eyes, getting a real sense of what it must be like to be a prey animal in the process! No time even to raise a camera, but I think that particular image will stay imprinted in our minds forever.
Another early morning visit to this spot was rewarded by an incredible close encounter with this beautiful (if a bit soggy) Shortie. You can just pick out the blood on its right talons and leg from a recent kill, red in tooth and claw and all that!
Red in tooth and claw
Early dawn starts make you yawn!
It wasn't all posts and flyby's. SEO's are ground nesting birds, and hunt voles that scurry through the tussocks of the Machair on Uist. Not always easy to spot them when they pounce, but just occasionally, we caught glimpses of them considering their next move.
Even the rare unpromisingly wet evening drives, bore fruit from time to time, with another 'soggy Owl' find in the gloom of late evening on a slightly wonkily angled lichen covered fence post.
Soggy Owl - our favourite kind!
It was with a heavy heart that we readied ourselves for our last morning and the drive down to South Uist and the ferry back to the mainland. Even then, we couldn't have wished for a more miraculous session.
CalMac Ferries had sent me a text the night before as proper bad weather was forecast to disrupt or cancel the ferry crossing. It was howling and pouring with rain at dawn, however a further text reassured us that the weather would improve in time for the crossing.
We departed the AirBnB (highly recommended) hoping to grab a short session at our favourite location next to Loch Bi. We positioned the car in the perfect spot, pointed the cameras out over the Machair and hoped for the best. We were not to be disappointed, as right on cue and with the clock ticking down with minutes to go before we needed to leave for the ferry, the Owls obligingly, obliged .... with some perfect shows.
What a wildlife holiday!
I can't recommend Uist in the summer enough, albeit part of the joy was that we barely saw anyone else with a camera the whole time we were there.
Those freezing cold afternoons in the the deep mid-winter Cotswold hills are going to feel a horribly poor substitute for the avian cornucopia that was Uist in July.
I should record my grateful thanks to Ian for the great idea, the invite to join him, the sparkling non-stop debates on current affairs and the endless eco-barrage coming my way - thanks my friend!
Thanks also to Nikon Ambassador and jolly fine chap Richard Peters, who helped me set up my new Nikon Z9 before my travels. He helped me get the very best out of my first 'mirrorless' trip.
Best of all, this small handful of photos shared in this blog post, only represents a tiny percentage of the thousands of shots from the Uist trip, now stored on a back up drive. I know that there's a real joy to be had over the coming months from diving into that library of photo memories and finding a hidden gem I may have missed on my first mining for treasure expedition.
I'll be back to Uist one day that's for sure.
In the meantime let's hope at least a few of the summer Shorties from the north, make it safely to the south so that we can reconnect with them this winter.