Just back from a 3 day trip at Rothiemurchus fisheries near Aviemore on a tour run by excellent wildlife photographer and guide Jo Mcintyre, trying to capture Ospreys fishing in a trout lake, something I had booked up about 18 months ago and counted down the days for!
Monday: Up at 5.30 AM to catch flight to Inverness from Luton, after half an hour delay, arrive at midday. After battling my way through the golfers up here for the Scottish open, I got a taxi to the train station, and then a train for the 30 minute journey to Aviemore. Jo kindly offered to pick me up from the station (not part of the tour!), and I loaded my packed bags full of tripod, camera bodies and lenses into her car for the 10 minute trip to the hotel. We stopped on the way at the ‘Rothie’ fishery so that I could have a look at the location and whet my appetite even more as I looked at the 4 hides in different locations around a big pond with around 300 Rainbow and Brown Trout in. After I had checked into the excellent Boat hotel at the nearby Boat of Garten village I had a couple of hours to kill, so went for a walk through a wooded area to see if I could see any wildlife.
It was a very quiet and peaceful wood with not much about, but as I got to the end of the track I was aware of a movement in the trees and saw a Red Squirrel run up a tree. I got a couple of backlit pictures with my 100-400 before it ran off, then returned to the hotel for dinner with the other guys and Jo on the trip. After a nice ‘ice breaker’ meeting with 4 of the other guys, we retired for an early night before our 3.30 AM alarm for the first hide session.
Tuesday: All of us up and ready to leave at 4 AM, with Pro photographer Tom Way joining us after arriving late in the night, all struggling to control our excitement of the first ‘shoot’ at this early hour. We got to the hides at 4.15 and met John our ‘spotter’ who sat in a hide in the field and warned us of birds in the area and when they are diving, something you need as from the hide you cant see anything much more than the pond, as they are all at water level to get great angles for photos. Jo used her vast Osprey experience to check the wind direction and decide which hide should be best, and we all set out kit up. Everyone had a variety of lenses etc, but it soon became apparent that around 300mm was about what was required, any longer and you were in danger of clipping the wings, so keep them for the ‘Arty’ shots! As is the normal case with Ospreys, there was a dominant bird around perched in a tree not far away, and as soon as a new bird drifted over there would be a lot of chirping but no diving to start with. Johns’ Scottish accent would crackle on the radio ‘bird overhead, circling’, then ‘chased away’! We could just see the birds through the hole in the hides overhead, and the anticipation was immense as we waited for a dive. There was plenty of other birds to keep us occupied, Herons kept coming and going, ducks with young, Sandpiper, Oyster catchers and a Hooded Crow and we all snapped away to get used to the ever changing light as dawn broke so we would be ready for the Osprey. Eventually at about 8.30 AM, John’s voice crackled on the radio ‘bird circling, getting lower’ and we all held our breath like a group of fighter pilots waiting for the ‘scramble’ call, before the magic words came through ‘DIVING’, and in a second the bird appeared at top speed and crashed into the water fully submerged, then flew off towards some trees and disappeared, all over in about 5 seconds! It was an impressive spectacle to witness, but in and out so quickly it was going to take a while to get our eye in to get some good shots. Most got a couple of ‘bum shots’ as it flew in over us and turned the wrong way to fly out away from the dominant bird, but it was a start. It became obvious that we were going to have to work hard to get a decent picture, but Jo and Tom were very good offering advice on settings etc, a big help having their experience when you get so little time to get a shot. We had a couple more ‘fly pasts’ but no more dives, so went back to the hotel to get breakfast before it closed at 10PM, all a bit more experienced in Osprey photography and the patience required to get the shots. After time to download the images, get an afternoon nap and sort some food out for the evening, we were back in the hide again around 4 PM. The light was really nice, but unfortunately despite a few fly pasts no dives, got some shots with the 7D and 500mm lens of Oyster catchers mating and a family of ducks, but a bit frustrating to get no more dives to practice on, but thats the way nature works, the week before they had had an average of 4 to 5 a session.
Wednesday: Up at 3.30 AM again and ready for action at 4.15. Once again a few birds in the air but no dives, and then about 7.30 the fateful words on the radio, ‘circling, circling…….DIVING…No aborted!’ the tension was killing us as this bird kept starting a dive and aborting as we were ready then stood down, talk about adrenalin, and we are only taking photos! Eventually we got ‘circling, circling…….DIVING!’ and we got the splash as the bird came in but it missed and didn't get a fish. We got some more shots as we honed our technique and waited again. Once again at about 8.30 we got ‘circling, circling…….DIVING!’ and another bird crashed in with violence and majesty all at the same time as it plucked a trout out and took it off away from us and the dominant bird again. After this one Jo moved us to a different hide as she could see what was happening as well as the wind changing and reasoned we would be in a better position if we got another dive. We all settled down and around 9 AM we got it again, ‘circling, circling…….DIVING!’ and another bird crashed in towards us, and after wrestling with the fish for a while it dropped it as it left the pond. I got my best shots so far, (although lost my focus as it flew away!) as did some of the others, so we were feeling more confident for the evening and day 3 as we retired for breakfast. Back at 4 PM, and despite a couple of birds flying around, no dives, just a shot of a Mallard couple mating. We amused ourselves trying to get a shot of a trout leaping from the pool, but with the light fading we retired at 8.30.
Thursday: Once again up at 3.30, and as we got in the car 2 Ospreys were circling high above so that was a good sign! When we got to the hide there was a dead fish on the side of the pool, probably the one dropped in our last dive yesterday, and before long the Hooded Crow came and started pulling it about and eating it, then the Heron drifted in as well. Suddenly around 6.30 there was a bird around and then ‘circling, circling…….DIVING!’ and a bird came in and took the dead fish off the edge of the pool to our left. A couple of guys got shots, but I couldn't get round fast enough to the left and just got out of focus shots, a chance missed! Jo had got us in a great position again and at 6.50 it came again, ‘circling, circling…….DIVING!’ , and another bird splashed in and took a fish. I was getting more used to how they come in and move in the water which was helping get focus, and I got my best shots to finish on, just a shame the light had dropped a bit so we had to have the iso up and shutter speed down to get exposure, but gave a nice blur to the wings etc, and my new Canon 1 D X handled the iso quite well so glad I pushed the boat out to get it! Nothing else came in, and at 9.30 it was ‘game over’, we all left with some good pictures but as ever, wanting more!
A stat from our trip that illustrates how difficult Osprey photography can be is that we spent a total of 25 hours in the hides over 3 days, for a total of about 30 seconds of Osprey action! Even though we were a bit unlucky with the frequency of dives, I think a good trip would probably be about a minute of action over the same hide time, so not a lot of time to hone your technique. I must say in the long spells between dives we had a great camaraderie between the 6 photographers and Jo, with plenty of fun as we passed the time. A big thanks to Jo and the others for making it a very enjoyable trip, and I've defiantly got the appetite for more, and a special thanks to Ron for giving me a lift each morning.
Now its a mad rush to Silverstone for the GP2 support race at the British Grand Prix, another busy few days ahead!