by Andy Harris
Deep in the miserable depths of the post Christmas lockdown blues, I heard that a space had become available on one of Gary Jones' wildlife photography workshops. I was quick off the mark in putting my hand up to fill the gap, happy that it gave something to look forward to later in the year, when the shackles of restrictions might have at least been partially removed.
Months later and Spring properly sprung, I packed my kit headed (tortuously) up the M6 on a post half term Friday afternoon (aaaaaargh!), for a weekend in the beautiful Dumfries & Galloway countryside in pursuit of a Great British wildlife experience.
Gary is a great guy who has developed a busy photography workshop business and had booked a full and exclusive use weekend at Alan McFadyen's long established, Scottish Wildlife Photography Hides.
Alan has a wide variety of hides, placed in the beautiful countryside around his home near Kirkcudbright and the surrounding region. We could look forward to catching up with seasonal visitors, regular residents and some unusual opportunities to get close to mainly nocturnal creatures in the late Spring daylight (if we were lucky!)
After a quick visit to see an Otter at a quiet riverside location on the night of our arrival, the first day proper saw a handful of photographers positioned in Alan's famous 'Sparrowhawk Hide'. The exciting news however, was that the hide had been receiving visits from a Tawny Owl pair not just at night as might be expected, but in the morning light: highly unusual and a tantalising prospect.
Lo and behold, we had barely had time to settle into a hushed whisper, than one of the Tawny Owl pair swooped in to land and perch, with the bluebells in the background making for the rarest of picture opportunities.
We were then treated to the sight of over a dozen visits, where the Owl flew in to different spots, before claiming its mouse meal to take back to the Owlets nearby who were noisy, but not yet fledged.
I understand that the Owlets have now joined the adult pair outside the nest, so whoever is lucky enough to have timed their visit for late June, will be in for a treat before the young disperse to find their own territory.
Slightly breathless with excitement and yet still barely mid-morning, it was time for a climb up a bluebell carpeted hill to a spot to see the Cuckoo we could hear calling whilst the Owl and other birds were going about their business.
Regular Blog readers will know that I am extremely lucky to have Cuckoo's visiting our land and garden here in Warwickshire, but try as I might, I can't seem to encourage them to visit a particular spot to perch, to enable some classic 'Cuckoo on a stick' shots. That's where Alan's set up comes up trumps ....
These incredible and once common birds are becoming rarely heard or seen in the UK. Journeying from Africa every Spring, their long distance migration has become ever more challenging and suitable habitat now scarce here for the species on which they rely to host their parasitically laid eggs.
A few fellow photographers (quite often somehow, 'men of a certain age') were saying that they'd never heard or seen a Cuckoo IRL (in real life). Imagine then, the thrill for them to see this bird so closely for the very first time.
I've been lucky to see 'our' Harris Acres Cuckoos every Spring, but it was still a delight to get such close up views (and the odd half decent pic') to capture the view.
What a morning !
A return to the Sparrowhawk Hide provided a chance to catch our breath and watch some of the smaller woodland birds flitting from perch to perch by way of entertainment with a much needed coffee too.
Siskin and Redpoll make rare appearances on my feeders at home, but not for a couple of years now, so it was great to see them up close in action.
The hide is quieter in the midday to late afternoon period, as it is for wildlife generally wherever you are, but there still always something to watch and even time for a quick"I was just resting my eyes", 40 winks to recharge the batteries before the planned late night session higher up in the local area to see Pine Martin!
Although more plentiful and active in the colder Autumn and Winter months, there's always the lovely little Squirrels to watch too.
RED of course, albeit in classic 'rubbish photographer' style - I missed the one decent leaping-Squirrel shot opportunity 🙄
We were just about to pack up when the pale morph Buzzard that had been patrolling the periphery of our view all day, decided to venture marginally closer, allowing a quick capture of just how pale it was. Big crop in post editing here nonetheless!
So it was that a smaller group of 3 musketeers headed up into the hills, above a small Loch to Alan's Pine Martin Hide. Now .... I had never seen a Pine Martin, so this was (potentially) a real first for me.
The bad news was that a group the previous evening had spent a sad, midge infested and tiring night waiting for the creature to show, only to be disappointed (as often happens with truly wild creatures, whose choice it is to pop in to say hello, or not).
With a final spurt of Carpe Diem, I decided to give it a go and with a liberal coating of anti-midge Jungle Formula, barely a cm of skin revealed behind the camo clothing (oh dear 👴🏼) and the odd biscuit as sustenance, we descended into a quiet reverie of patient waiting.
We were in luck as this rare (certainly in my part of the world) Mustelid mammal, sprang into view in search of the egg treat it was expecting, but happy to settle for some broken custard creams and a lick of Honey as an appearance fee.
Bigger and even more nimble than I expected, it was great to grab a few images and an even more precious memory, before heading wearily back to our digs in the wee small hours, tired but happy.
A few hours sleep and another hearty Scottish Breakfast (thanks Helen) aboard and we were back in the woods and hills the next morning, ready for Day 2.
Dumfries & Galloway is a truly beautiful patchwork of different habitats and we headed up the slope to find a woodland full of bird boxes (literally thousands installed by Alan as his 'lockdown project') amid the birch and bluebells. Inevitably, some of these boxes were inhabited by busy pairs of birds, doing the whole Springwatch thing.
Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers this time and again ... only very rarely if ever seen in the rolling Warwickshire countryside, were performing beautifully in the Scottish sunshine as it filtered through to the woodland floor.
What a great morning to see such beautifully marked birds, in their natural habitat and at close quarters.
male Pied Flycatcher
If this blog is not going to turn into War & Peace, I've had to choose just a few pics.
Next stop was another trip to a different territory nearer the Gatehouse of Fleet, to see if we could see some Whinchat and perhaps some bonus Meadow Pipits and Stonechats.
Proper moorland birds, we could hear them call as soon as we wound down the windows of my car (how old am I .... 'wound-down' !!! 👴🏼). With the car as a hide, it wasn't long before both Whinchat and Meadow Pipit, popped in to the nearby perch to say hello.
A little further along the moorland, we found a perch just off-road favoured by some pairs of Stonechat, who clearly had ground nest nearby as we watched the too and fro, busy as bees. Great fun trying to capture the occasional hover above the post as they homed in on the tasty mealworms with were helping to feed their chicks.
male and female Stonechat
Mission accomplished and back at base back down the hill, we realised that we were unlikely to see the local Sparrowhawk whilst the much bigger Tawny Owl's were around, so we enjoyed the antics of the battling Pheasants and ever present squabbling Jays for the rest of the day.
Day Two was bought to a close with a trip just beyond Kirkcudbright, to visit a Badgers Sett, where the residents had a habit of showing well before the more usual nightfall timetable one could expect elsewhere.
One of Alan's most reliable small hides, it was nonetheless starting to look a bit unpromising for a while as the sun dropped lower in the sky, with no sign of the clan's appearance so hotly anticipated.
Never fear however, as clearly they were simply waiting for the glorious golden hour light to soften the view and first a Mother and cub appeared no more than 10m in front of us followed by 7 or 8 (that I counted) other family members ......enchanting!
What a couple of days!
Thanks must go to Gary Jones https://gjwp.co.uk/ for his support, advice and good company as ever; to Alan, https://wildlifephotographyexperiences.com/ for the ceaseless hard work and enthusiasm he dedicates to wildlife (does that man ever sleep??) and to my various Hide-mates, both previous and new acquaintances who are such an important part of a fun weekend with like-minded people.
Hide wildlife photography is not for everyone but there are some amazing set ups around the UK, each benefitting from the hard-work and wildlife friendly dedication of the owner. With the stars of Great British Wildlife on show, the photography almost comes second to the great experience of being so close to such amazing animals.
Having said that, it's always great to have a few memories captured and I hope you have enjoyed the few images I've shared here on this Blog.
Here's to the next time!