Loch Garten is an RSPB reserve which has a visitor centre opening only when the Ospreys are nesting; however, when it’s closed the area is still very busy with many wonderful walks through the ancient woodlands attracting people from far and wide. This has got to be one of the best places to see and photograph crested tits. In fact there have even been a few instances of them taking food directly from people’s hand!
I visit this place every year specifically to photograph these birds and the views are just breathtaking every time I go. Timing is important! Get it right and and you wont be disappointed. During the summer months the birds tend to be deeper in the forest. As we enter autumn, the birds come out of the woodland areas in search of food available in the feeders which are replenished regularly around the centre. I find late September and October have always been productive: especially if you can choose a reasonably dry day with light winds.
The two best places to easily find them are in the centre car park or next to the visitor centre a short walk away next to the benches. The birds will also come into the open for a light scattering of sunflower hearts and peanuts. Unfortunately, some irresponsible photographers have been tempted to break off branches to set up what they consider to be the perfect shot. This is so annoying and unnecessary; it’s an abuse of nature plain and simple. Similarly the use of spreads like peanut butter to attract the birds isn’t good for birds and can damage the waterproofing properties of their feathers.
We travelled up late on Friday evening and spent the night in Grantown on Spey. That allowed us to get to the site on Saturday morning just as it was getting light and the birds were getting active. We brought our own food and sprinkled a little strategically around. We waited at the car park for 30 mins. Although there were plenty of birds around there was no sign of any crested tits. We decided a change of location was needed! As soon as we went round the the visitor centre area we had regular views of two crested tits, both feeding within a few metres away. That was the start of the day where we spent hours just immersed with the nature all around us: it was brilliant!!
Photographing birds at this location can be tricky. The heavily wooded location means that lighting can sometimes be poor and a bit more attention is required for camera set-up. The ‘cresties’ tend to feed in spurts with perhaps 3 or 4 birds feeding for a period of 30 mins or so before taking a break. I’ve found the best strategy to get good photos is to study the movement pattern of feeding birds. Specific birds tend to follow a particular route when coming to the feeding area. After a few circuits, it’s possible to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, where certain birds will land before and after collecting food. That creates those extra few important seconds to compose and take the shot as these birds don’t hang around!!
The area is not just a haven for Crested Tits; there are a whole range of other birds including, great spotted woodpecker, treecreeper, great tit, blue tit, long-tailed tit and coal tits. The coal tits will come down readily to take food from your hand. Red squirrels are also a common site in the area and are surprisingly tolerant of humans. For most people, the close connection with a wild bird feeding from the hand is something they have seldom, if ever, experienced. Although I can appreciate the reservations associated with this, I think something that improves our connection with nature and increases our appreciation of wildlife is acceptable, provided that a sensible balance is maintained.
During our visit, at about 2pm the feeding frenzy was interrupted by a sparrowhawk that came out of the woods like a bullet to take a small bird before retreating back into cover. Not surprisingly things stayed quiet for about 30 mins after that!!
Unfortunately, I was short of time this year and wasn’t able to go for a longer walk in the woods alongside the loch; however, this is a wonderful experience if you want to test your skills for locating the cresties through proper fieldcraft! Their call is quite distinctive and a real thrill when you first hear it.
At 3.30pm we had to start our 3 hour journey back home, with a stop for some dinner along the way. I arrived home about 8pm, tired, but once again thrilled to have spent some quality time in a beautiful area of the Highlands in the company of some amazing wildlife.