During my excursion to the Highlands in June 2014 we took a trip from Garten up to Inverness and down the north shore of Loch Ness before heading up to one the wildest places I’ve been to in the UK, Glen Affric.
It seems that Glen Affric is right in the midst of the back of beyond and I can imagine it’s a harsh place to live in the depths of winter. But often with remoteness comes undistrurbed natural beauty, and so it was here. On arrival we parked up at a car park on the bank of River Affric, and after fastidious application of insect repellent to deter the midges we ate lunch at a picnic table . And as we sat and watched the river a dipper was busy skimming to and fro. A closer look after lunch revealed that it had built a nest on the underside of a bridge and it was bringing insects back to feed the chicks.
Dipper – Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær – contemplating the next foray upriver…
This was too good a photo opportunity to miss and I hopped from stone to stone into the river and eventually perched on a rock a couple of inches above the water that was just about stable enough to keep me out the river. I wanted to get a picture of a dipper as it skimmed past low over the water and I managed to capture this series of shots as it took care of the crucial business of feeding the hungry youngsters:
… passing through at high speed…
… and heading back with a beak full of grubs. A successful mission.
I’ve never had the chance to photograph dippers like this before so I’m very happy with this series of pictures. I rarely see them because they’re birds of fast moving rivers like the ones found in the hills and mountains and consequently they’re not to be found in my part of the world. Despite the fact I see it very infrequently, the dipper is a resident breeder in the UK and is green listed and therefore not of concern. And unlike most waterbirds which hunt by swimming or diving, the dipper hunts by running along the bottom of the riverbed. Some years ago I watched one do this in a mountain stream in Betws y Coed in Snowdonia, it’s a fascinating thing to watch and it made me wonder how they diminish their bouyancy in order to avoid floating off the river bed.
The reason we went to Glen Affric was to see rare dragonflies, specifically, the northern emerald which is very local to the Highlands of Scotland and absent from England, and the downy emerald which can also be seen in some parts of England but is uncommon. For the record, we saw a lot of downy emeralds over Coire Loch at Glen Affric but no northern emeralds. As we were dragon hunting I only took my long telephoto lens and I didn’t take any landscape shots of the terrain (or none which I’m happy to share), but to get an idea of the place follow the link above and the two pictures on the first page labelled ‘River Affric‘ and ‘Looking down over Coire Loch‘ best reflect my memories of it.
I didn’t get any dragon pictures here either because I couldn’t really get close enough to them, so as it was a gloriously sunny afternoon I just enjoyed the silence and the views and the whole atmosphere of the place, which was utter tranquility.
Grey wagtail, Motacilla cinerea, Dansk: bjergvipstjert
Like the dipper, grey wagtail were also darting up and down the river. They are resident breeders and passage visitors with amber conservation status in the UK, but their numbers are not of concern in Europe as a whole and they are beautiful little birds to be seen hunting insects over fast running streams. I think the name ‘grey wagtail‘ suggests something a tad dull and uninteresting, which does them a huge disservice, something like ‘saffron wagtail‘ would be more appropriate!
The best sighting of all at Glen Affric was one I didn’t get a photograph of because I was driving at the time. And it was also the most unexpected. We had just left the parking place at Glen Affric to return to Garten at around 6.30pm when a dark brown/black creature approximately the size of a cat bounded across the road and ran along in front of the car for four or five seconds, and it was a pine marten (Martes martes). We had paid to sit in a hide two nights previously to guarantee a sighting of this most elusive creature, and here was one running down the road in front of us. It’s funny how a whole four day trip can be made by a four second sighting of an incredibly rare and charismatic creature.
Just getting out there, as you say, is the most essential part. I’m having some real knee issues and I long for a return of the flexibility that allows you to hop from rock to rock and crouch down so low. Still, we must make do with what we have, and I’m still trying my best. Wishing you very happy holidays, Finn!
Thank you very much indeed Gary, and a happy Yuletide and New Year to you too!
My joints are also very creaky due to decades of playing rugby, but I’m grateful I can still do things like crouching in rivers. I hope your gammy knee eases up, but if not I shall look forward to seeing your magnificent macro shots etc. All the best. Finn
I am not familiar with the dipper – but what a glorious chocolate colouring it has! It’s great to relive summer moments in the depth of winter, isn’t it? All the best 🙂
Thanks Pat, I keep trying unsuccessfully to catch up and get current with my posting, but I think I’m just going to have to accept that I’m not going to recover from being six months behind. But if I get another 6 months beind everything will be back in synch again, at least from a seasonal if not a calendar point of view.
Isn’t that dipper a beauty?
Lovely shots of that dipper. Wagtails are real characters. We have often had them buzz the dogs if we go to close to their territory and in the heat of summer when the flies and insects are looking for a free ride from A to B without expending too much energy and land on the dogs, wagtails are most interested in them. Its hilarious watching them buzz the dogs and then catch everything that flies up off them ;). Just downloaded that pdf. What a wild and wonderful place Glen Affric is. It also has a very interesting name. I wonder why it is called Glen Affric? (Maybe I should read the pdf 😉 ). I am really glad that you got to eventually see a pine martin and murphy’s law came into play with you driving and being unable to photograph it ;). Typical eh? Love this series on your Highland adventures with your friend. Some seriously gorgeous photos came out of it 🙂
Thanks Fran, I’m very pleased that you’re enjoying the Hisghland posts. We were only there for four days but we saw so much terrific wildlife, of which the highlight was the glimpse of the pine marten. Glen Affric was a really beautiful place, it had a real primeval feel to it, untouched and pristine, a rare thing in this day and age.
I’ve never seen a wagtail buzz a dog before, that must be highly entertaining to watch.
We have some bolshie birds on our property ;). It is highly entertaining to see them swoop down chattering away ;). The pristine beauty of somewhere that isn’t invaded on a regular basis by hoards of tourists is a magnificent thing. It’s usually hard work to get there or very cold or hot or something similar (to keep the masses at bay) but always well worth the effort it takes to find and document 🙂
Couldn’t agree more. IMHO the best places are the ones where there are least humans!
Lovely pictures of the dipper and the grey wagtail. We see dippers around here quite often but I have never seen one as close up as that. I didn’t know the colouration was so subtle.
We also see grey wagtails and I like your idea of renaming them “saffron wagtails”.
They are handsome little chaps when you see them up close.
Isn’t the ‘grey‘ in ‘grey wagtail‘ a shocking misrepresentation?! I’m glad you like the ‘saffron‘ idea – I may drop a line to the BTO 😉
A bird that runs along the bottom of riverbeds to find food. This is unexpected. Most everything about a bird’s design, particularly it’s skeletal system is intended to lighten the load so it can conserve energy during flight. The natural world is full of surprises!
Hey Rick, good to hear from you again. That is one of natures oddities but it seems to be a successful strategy for the dipper!
Delighted to see the dipper, he’s one of my favourite birds. I’m so glad you saw a pine marten, and it’s all the more special that you saw it so unexpectedly.
Hello Lorna, that wild pine marten was a terrific moment but all the wildlife we saw on the whole trip made it a wonderful time. And there was so much we didn’t see so I’m just going to have to go back!
Oh yes 🙂
Great photos and what a wonderful trip. The link you gave showed some images very much like a place 2 friends and I visited when we hired a car and toured England, Scotland & Wales staying in youth hostels in the late 1970s. The name Glen Affric doesn’t ‘ring a bell’ though.
How I wish I had the health and money to re-visit the UK again with my DSLR. I see a whole lot more wildlife now I have a decent camera and I’m so much more observant of the small details around me (although I can’t walk up steep gradients having a serious heart condition these days).
We were lucky enough to travel down mostly small country and coastal roads and visit really out of the way areas (as much as the usual tourist attractions). Of course the UK is much more expensive now and at the moment our Australian dollar is very poor. I seem to remember the youth hostels in the country cost about 1.25 pounds a night and reasonable hotels about 25 pounds a night in London (at that time). I think we stayed in one Bed & Breakfast which was about 3 pounds a night.
I really enjoy seeing the wildlife through your photos.
Hello Vicki, I’m glad you likee seeing our wildlife at The Naturephile! Staying in the UK is rather more expensive these days although myself and my friend hired a static caravan for our nstay there and the whole thing with flights, hire car and accommodation set us back around £600 so it can be done on a budget too.
It’s an intereting observation you make about the amount of wildlife that you see with your DSLR, I found the same when I started getting out and with my camera so I guess I must be paying more attention to what’s going on a round me.