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Wildlife photographer Andy Howard on the secret life of the Cairngorms

Wildlife photographer Andy Howard on the secret life of the Cairngorms

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WILDLIFE photographer Andy Howard has spent years capturing breathtaking images of the animals and birds in the Cairngorms National Park. Here he shares some of his favourites with Susan Swarbrick.

I have always found that responses to the Cairngorms are many and varied, from Nan Shepherd’s lyrical The Living Mountain in an era when they were much less trod than now, to John Allen’s pragmatic but sensitive mountain rescue memoir, Cairngorm John; from Adam Watson’s terrestrial ecology to Affleck Grey’s history and legends, not forgetting the incredible blind poet Sydney Scroggie.

All have their emotional element that goes deep, but not deeper than real experience in the mind of a10-year-old boy from the north of England who had recently relocated to the Black Isle. I was that boy.

There are 55 Munros in the Cairngorms National Park, including four of the five highest mountains in the British Isles. More than half the surviving Caledonian forest is here, and native species are plentiful, as are designated Ancient Woodland Sites. The many large wetlands are havens for wildfowl and some of our most successful breeding populations of wading birds are located here. Data is easily found, but this is not the place to present it.

My latest book is a selective record of my encounters in and around Cairngorms National Park, giving special attention to a few species that have captured my heart.

These encounters have all been emotionally charged and memorable. Indeed, as I selected images from the many hundreds captured over the years, I felt myself transported back to the precise location, the exact weather conditions, and the details of the subject’s actions and expressions.

Here are a few of my unforgettable moments.

The tale of the osprey and the duck

The osprey circling the hide gave itself away by its distinctive call, putting me immediately on the alert. Moments later, a blur of feathered menace hit the water in front of me like a missile. Frantically, I searched for it through my viewfinder because, believe me, such occasions take only split seconds and have to be acted on immediately.

The osprey was in the lochan with its claws in a trout, wrestling it to the surface, when something happened so quickly I couldn’t comprehend its significance. Instinct, though, told me to concentrate on the mayhem developing in front of me. Something wasn’t going to plan, but my concentration had to be on working the camera. Only when the water was returning to its mirror-like calm and I was reviewing the images did I understand what had happened.

A female mallard had taken umbrage at the osprey’s intrusion, not because she was fearful of it taking her ducklings: she had none. Perhaps she had simply been startled, but where another duck would have flown away, she launched an attack so powerful that the osprey dropped the fish and beat a retreat.

READ MORE: An artist, a farmer, a nature writer and a gardener on the joys of autumn

Later in the morning it returned to collect another trout for breakfast, perhaps the same one, but didn’t linger to resume the fight.

A perfect storm

My favourite conditions in which to photograph wildlife always include snow. It may be lying on the ground or falling from the heavens… but always snow.

On a day I had earmarked for black grouse, the weather forecast suggested a high likelihood. Metaphorically rubbing my hands, I began an arduous slow drive on treacherous minor roads.

The lek I was heading for was close to Balmoral, in the less familiar (to me) eastern Cairngorms. Ideally, I should have been in the hide an hour before sunrise and, to compound matters, the unseasonal snow, clear skies and a full moon brought the birds half an hour earlier than expected.

I was literally closing the door to the hide as they arrived, a close call that could have ruined the day if I had been slightly later. Instead, the morning was as close to perfection as possible with the male birds on top form, scrapping and posturing to impress the females.

Crested tit

Crested tits, or cresties as we affectionately call them, are a genuine treat to be around. The size of a blue tit they nonetheless have one of the loudest trilling calls found in the Cairngorm forests.

Their habit of perching on a nearby branch before visiting a feeder renders them highly predictable which, in turn, makes them a relatively easy subject, and their cheeky and gregarious nature makes them a favourite with all visiting photographers.

READ MORE: An artist, a farmer, a nature writer and a gardener on the joys of autumn

Through the winter months they gather with other tits in larger groups of mixed species, but in the summer retreat upwards to the forest canopy to feed on insects and grubs.

Common name: Crested Tit

Gaelic name: Cailleachag-chìreach

Latin name: Lophophanes cristatus

Size: 12cm

Wingspan: 17-20cm

When to see: all year

Where to see: pine forests

Estimated UK population: 1500

Black grouse

After the lek, there is no pair bond between the two sexes. The males do not participate in nesting nor in the rearing of their young. All of this is left to the females, for which I have a great fondness. Called greyhens (grey bird is the literal translation of the Gaelic name), they are slightly smaller than the males with delicate, pleasingly, marked plumage.

Nests are no more than shallow scrapes on the ground lined with grass and moss, although they will seek the shelter of nearby bushes and scrub. Six to 11 speckled eggs are laid over two days in late April or early May, to be incubated over about 25 days.

The young are able to feed themselves from day two and capable of flight at 10 to 14 days. They are independent at about three months but remain together into the autumn when several families might form a small flock.

Recently, I was so fortunate as to photograph a pair mating in the golden minutes just after dawn.

Common name: Black Grouse

Gaelic name for the male: Coileachdubh (m)

Gaelic name for the female: Eun-liath (f)

Latin name: Tetrao tetrix

Size: 40-55cm

Wingspan: 65-80cm

When to see: all year

Where to see: moorland, heath and forest margins

Estimated UK population: less than 5100 males

Red squirrel

Nowadays regarded as the darling of the forest and a favourite of all ages, in earlier times red squirrels were wrongly blamed for damaging woodland and forests and a bounty was paid per tail.

READ MORE: An artist, a farmer, a nature writer and a gardener on the joys of autumn

Populations are regarded as stable but the charity, Trees for Life, has recently been repopulating the Caledonian pine forests in Wester Ross with animals translocated from the more densely populated areas of the Eastern Highlands. They live happily in proximity to humans and, with regular contact and compassionate behaviour, their trust can be earned.

My wife Lyndsey and I are privileged to have them visit our garden near Inverness daily and have come to recognise certain individuals by their behaviour as well as their physical characteristics.

Somewhat threatened by the American grey squirrels that have colonised their habitats across the British Isles, red squirrels in the Highlands have the natural protection of mountains and rivers that the greys find difficult to cross.

Common name: Red Squirrel

Gaelic name: Feòrag-ruadh

Latin name: Sciurus vulgaris

Size: 18-24cm

When to see: all year

Where to see: woodlands and forests

Estimated UK population: 160,000

Mountain hare

Mountain hares are native to these islands and have been so since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Smaller than their brown cousins they live on different terrains but do sometimes meet and hybridise.

In the winter months the Jills will, more often than not, have darker backs than the slightly smaller Jacks. Although solitary in the colder months, groups known as ‘droves’ will gather on the leeward side of a mountain or on ridges where the wind has exposed food.

Like ptarmigan, their population exists within a boom and bust cycle depending on weather conditions and their vulnerability to wind-driven rain. Peak populations can be as high as two hundred per square mile.

READ MORE: An artist, a farmer, a nature writer and a gardener on the joys of autumn

Sadly, still, tens of thousands are culled every year in the Highlands by the grouse shooting industry. More can be read on this beautiful native species in my earlier book, The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare.

Common name: Mountain Hare

Gaelic name: Geàrr-gheal Latin

Name: Lepus timidus

Size: 50-60cm

When to see: all year

Where to see: forest margins, moorland and mountains

Estimated UK population: not known

The Secret Life of the Cairngorms by Andy Howard is published by Sandstone Press, priced £24.99








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