Wildlife photography preparations

30th May 2017

By Colin McClean, Wildlife Manager

From previous blog entries you may be aware that much of my May is devoted to creating wildlife tourism opportunities using the abundance of nature found at Glen Tanar. The main market for us so far has been photography. Lots of people have the digital gear but don’t necessarily have the time or the skill to find the subjects. That's where we come in.

And that is also why I found myself in an office full of mealworms. Feeding birds in the garden is a traditional British pass time but nobody seems to feed birds on the hill. Yet we have a beautiful set of small, insect eating birds on Highland moors. Stonechats are proper-handsome wee chaps and a male wheatear is about as colourful as British birds get. Ring ouzels wear dinner jackets and white shirts and even meadow pipits have a certain dull, speckled charm. I thought if I could get them all coming regularly to a picturesque spot then it would make an attractive spectacle for photographers. So I invested in a kilogramme of live mealworms. You get a lot of worms in a kilogramme. I know that as there was a hole in the bag which they seemed to discover just as I locked the door behind me on Friday night. They had 48 hours to explore the office and they grabbed the opportunity with both mouth parts. It was Mealworm Apocalypse.

Stonechat Male With Caterpillar
Stonechat male with caterpillar

Once rounded up, the mealworms were marched out to their place of reckoning and its now a case of seeing what the moorland birds make of them. Four years ago some friends of mine moved to a remote corner of Spain where they promptly made a bird table in their garden. There is no culture of feeding birds in Spain and the locals thought they were trying to trap birds  for lunch. Possibly the Spanish bird population thought the same as they have never made any use of the free food. That is a cautionary tale I am conscious of, but its got to be worth a wee try.

Species two on my list for 2017 is merlin, which is Britain’s smallest bird of prey and which feeds on all the small birds mentioned above. Merlins have proved a tricky and unreliable photographic subject in the past as they are undeniably nervous and suspicious of shutter clicks. Modern digital cameras are amazing but it constantly surprises me that with all the advances in technology no one ever seems to develop a quiet, non- clicking shutter. It seems so obvious for wildlife photography. The only way to find a merlin is to go to a traditional nesting area and watch and wait. Sometimes for a very long time. Merlins nearly always nest on the ground, although occasionally they will utilise an old crow’s nest. They don’t build much of a nest but usually select a stand of tallish heather and make a small scrape. They tend to use the same corrie or hillside each year but they move about within that local area and when you are searching a hillside the nest can really be anywhere.

Merlin Two Chicks
Two Merlin chicks

Once incubating, the female sits tight and only reveals herself when the male comes in with food. On hearing his approach she soars up into the air and there is much cheery calling between the pair. The food can be passed between the birds in mid-air and its then crucial that the watcher doesn’t take their eyes off the female. She may fly around for a while or take the food to a perch to eat, but at some point she will shoot back to her eggs and give the location away. If you miss it then you probably have at least another 3 hours to wait before the next meal comes in. After much pfaffing about this year, our female finally revealed four beautiful eggs and a nest location in the vicinity of her favourite perch. It looks like a good set up this year but we will have to very cautious. We positioned the first hide about 150m from the perch on which I hope she will pose for an admiring, snapping public. We will gradually move the hide nearer over the next two weeks until it’s in its final position. Hopefully she is ready to star.

merlin photography
Merlin adult
Wildlife Photography

Find out more about photographing the wildlife here at Glen Tanar, or feel free to contact us.

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