Well the day finally arrived for me to set off for Scotland on a week-long nature adventure with Mark Battersby (MarkBee3) and Mark Bowen (MozBoz1), a couple of birding friends I first met on Flickr. Mark (yes, I know it's confusing so I'll call him MarkBee3 from now on) had booked a cottage in a remote area about six miles from Inverness back in January, and he offered me a room in it. Ever since then I had been anxiously getting my equipment sorted for a week of photography - midges were a real concern and I bought a full body midge cover, a head net, some surgical gloves and two bottles of the well-known midge repellent from Avon, Skin-so-Soft. I even bought a new camera rucksack and two new camera bodies to make sure I didn't miss any shots.
Taking two days to travel the 360 or so miles up to Inverness would allow me to stop at a couple of places on the way. So my first stop was at a Travelodge in Dunfermline, where I'd last stayed with my family on New Year's Eve in 2008 when we went to Edinburgh for Hogmanay. Doing this allowed me to spend a few hours at the Eskrigg Nature Reserve near Lockerbie before I got to the hotel.This reserve is a place I've been meaning to visit for ages, but one which I didn't fancy doing in a day trip from Manchester.
Eskrigg is a small nature reserve famous for being able to get close to Red Squirrels and it's run by Jim Rae who maintains a small but excellent visitor centre overlooking a lake. There are quite a few other species around in the pine woodland and on the lake, but I had only one target in mind, the squirrels.
After a short walk from the new car park I got to the squirrel hide and was met by a Great Spotted Woodpecker on one of the feeders. I had the small hide to myself and so could set up my gear where I wanted and soon a squirrel appeared on a feeder. I must say that I did expect more squirrels to be about, but I expect that at this time of year there will be a lot of natural food available in the woods.
I spent a good hour or so in the hide, but wasn't really happy with any of the shots I got - the light was up and down and the squirrels were a bit scarce. I did manage this one of a baby Red Squirrel though.
I decided to have a look around the visitor centre and lake but there wasn't too much about today, save for a Mute Swan family, a Grey Heron, some Mallards and the common Woodland birds. There was a Red Squirrel on a feeder, but I didn't want that type of shot. I had a nice chat with a lady outside the centre and she told me a little about Jim and all the work he had done here. She also mentioned a couple of other places including a Sand Martin bank which I may have a look at next time I come.
I then went back to the small squirrel hide and found it to be full with a family party inside - so I sat down outside and waited to see some squirrels. It wasn't long before one appeared, but I kept thinking I should put some peanuts on the stumps a little closer to us. Then, a lady came out of the hide, walked up to one of the feeders, took a handful of nuts and started to sprinkle a few in the very places I was considering! I told her I was going to do the same when everyone had left and she said she was a regular here and does this all the time.
It wasn't long before three squirrels appeared and I managed to get some of the shots I wanted. I'm not particularly keen on having peanuts in the photos, so next time I photograph Red Squirrels I'll be sure to have some hazelnuts and conkers for them to eat, as these look a lot more natural and appealing.
Mission 1 accomplished, I set off on the scenic route to Edinburgh to cross the Firth of Forth via the Forth Road Bridge and then to find a fish and chip shop for tea in Dunfermline. I ate my fish supper (which, I didn't realise when I ordered it, meant having two fish) on a hill overlooking the three bridges over the Firth: the iconic Forth Rail Bridge, the beleaguered Forth Road Bridge and the partially completed New Forth Road Bridge. And then back to the Travelodge for an early start in the morning.