Breathtaking landscapes and beguiling wildlife make Scotland a spectacular destination for the keen photographer. Alan Ward shares a few of his favourite places to capture some of nature’s greatest spectacles.
When it comes to wildlife, Scotland offers the photographer – or, indeed, anyone with an interest in the natural world – an exciting playground to explore. Not only is it home to some intriguing and rare species, but the environment they inhabit is often also breathtakingly beautiful. Put the two together and you have a recipe for stunning images. But you must know where and how to look...
Doing your homework is key to successful forays with a camera. Of course, different species will reside in different areas throughout the calendar year, and some of these landscapes can be harsh and even dangerous if you are ill-prepared.
Dedication and perseverance are important if you are to succeed in capturing those special shots with any manner of consistency. Over the years, during my time visiting Scotland in pursuit of special photographs, I have learnt an awful lot, including the best places to find some of the country’s most photogenic wildlife. Here I outline several of them.
This village in the south of Scotland is famous for its starling murmurations. In late October, up to a million birds can be seen at dusk going to roost, swirling like waves on the ocean. Catch this spectacle at sunset and the shifting shapes of birdlife can be phenomenal to witness, providing the chance to capture incredible pictures. Red squirrels can also be found without too much difficulty in Dumfriesshire, not far away.
Rogie Falls, Strathpeffer
Head north from Inverness and you will come to Rogie Falls where salmon will make their leap to reach the spawning grounds. Catch it right when the salmon are running and it is truly one of the finest spectacles in the natural world.
The Outer Hebrides
Tranquil, breathtaking scenery with landscapes and seascapes reminiscent of the Caribbean, make the Outer Hebrides very special. No foxes or stoats live on the isles, which is a big bonus for breeding birds. A range of migratory and breeding bird species such as sea eagles, golden eagles, a number of owl species and hen harriers can be seen. As can otters and even minke, orca and humpback whales. I particularly love the sunsets over the sea, but there is a price to pay – when the weather is bad, it is bad! Drive along some of the winding roads and you will nearly always come across a short-eared owl out hunting, or a snipe sat on a post going about its daily business.
The Moray Firth
Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth can be a good spot to watch the bottlenose dolphins chasing and tossing salmon high in the air. Use local knowledge to establish the best times to visit. From here, the Black Isles are not too far away and a great place to photograph red squirrels.
The Cairngorms National Park
The Cairngorms is the largest National Park in the UK and a stronghold for endangered species. At 4,528 sq km, it accounts for six per cent of Scotland’s land area. The park is home to 25 per cent of the UK’s threatened species, including wildcats, capercaillie, ospreys, golden eagles, red squirrels and pine martens. Ptarmigan and mountain hares can be found high on the ridges of some of the mountains, too – as can migratory birds such as dotterel and snow bunting which frequent a number of the ski resorts in winter, feeding in great numbers.
Head over to Rothiemurchus near Aviemore if you want to see ospreys catching fish. Some of these hides can be expensive to use, but there is every chance of seeing other wildlife when using them; I have seen tufted duck, otters, goosanders, reed warblers, chaffinches, bullfinches, siskins and roe deer.
Black grouse are often seen within the Cairngorms. These majestic birds usually arrive on the breeding leks at first light, calling in the females. I have visited many of these leks, travelling across rough terrain at as early as 3am in order to get settled in a tiny one-man hide. Finding out through local knowledge where they are is sometimes difficult as many landowners do not want to be overrun by photographers upsetting the birds.
The Isle of Mull
The Isle of Mull is an exciting location for the wildlife photographer. Mull has more tree cover than many of the other isles, making it harder to find some of the wildlife. That said, with a bit of luck, you can see sea eagles, otters, hen harriers, ospreys, golden eagles, and red deer – to name a few – if you know where to go.
One local now offers trips out visiting the sea eagles and they will come close into the boat for a fish thrown into the sea. Capturing these birds travelling at 60mph can be difficult, but it’s not impossible.
The Isle of Iona
I often take the short ferry trip south from Mull to the Isle of Iona to try and capture a shot of a corncrake. Patience is key when photographing this migratory species. Often you will only hear these very elusive birds, which have a breeding call which sounds like a fingernail running down the side of a comb.
The Treshnish Isles
Boat trips are available over to the Treshnish Isles – an archipelago of small islands and skerries, lying to the west of Mull. Here you can visit Fingal’s Cave on the uninhabited Isle of Staffa, and watch puffins returning with sand eels to feed their young. Guillemots, various tern species and other seabirds also breed on the small isle.
Book your trip
Putting many years of experience and a wealth of knowledge to good use, Alan now runs photography trips to Scotland four or five times a year, helping novice and experienced photographers alike get close to a range of fascinating wildlife species in their natural environment. Alan’s photography workshops include tuition on the technical side of using a camera, through to the tracking and stalking of wildlife. Alan has had nearly 30 front covers on highly-regarded publications, and has been shortlisted for the British Wildlife Photography Awards and National Geographic Nature Photographer of the year. He was a runner-up in the Leica Fieldsports Photographer of the Year 2015.
Alan can be contacted via his website.