Posted on 3 September 2017, 14:00

Just back from a short week at the Cairngorm Guest House in Aviemore, a locale which has gone right to the top of my “favourite places” list (if I were to keep such a thing).

So – why Aviemore?

Well, simply put I’ve always had an affinity for high ground, and few places in the UK are better qualified on that score (although as it happens I didn’t actually go anywhere near the tops when I was there).

I also knew that the journey by train would be a good one – the scenery is spectacular for most of the trip (heading up we crossed the Forth Rail Bridge, so I got to see the new crossing just before it officially opened).

And once in the Highlands proper, I experienced something I’d never seen before.

The weather was a mix of bright Sun and showers – perfect rainbow weather – and sure enough, a rainbow appeared on the right of the train.

But this rainbow was like none I’d ever seen before: its was tiny.

Most rainbows seem to arc from one side of the horizon to the other, but this one – a full rainbow – seemed to be not much more than the size of the train carriage, and it was right there – seemingly only a few tens of yards away – not way over in the distance.

And best of all, it seemed to keep pace with the train for a couple of miles before the conditions that generated it changed.

What a cool thing to see.

The experience of the journey was also enhanced by the fact that I’d decided to treat myself to First Class travel there and back.

As an aside, did you know that in Virgin East Coast’s opinion, a choice between an apple and a banana constitutes a suitably “First Class” weekend breakfast offer?

Well, it fecking doesn’t! Not even if your meals are supposedly endorsed by James bloody Martin!

Finally, and back on topic, this is where to find Crested tits, a bird I’ve always wanted to get in front of my camera.

Spoiler alert: saw plenty of ‘em, could not do them justice. This being mainly down to not having yet adjusted to the ridiculously narrow field of view 700mm or 1000mm of focal length provides when I’m using my Canon 500mm f/4 Mk II and 1.4x or 2x TCs.

(In non-photographer speak, I couldn’t find the buggers in my camera viewfinder).

But do you know what? It didn’t matter. Not even a little bit. I enjoyed myself just being there, to an extent I hardly imagined possible.

The impact of the place was quite stark, really. I realised very quickly that perhaps my favourite place to be is in the middle of old-growth Caledonian pine forest on a beautiful late Summer/early Autumn day – heather in full purple flower, the Scots pines looking like they wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Jurassic Park; the bracken, odd Aspen and abundant Silver birches just starting to change to Autumn colours, all set against the vibrant green background of Junipers, Cowberry/Bird cherry/Lingonberry and Blaeberry bushes, with splashes everywhere of the bright red of Mountain ash berries.

And – a few miles in – not the slightest sound of humanity. A rare treasure which I always deeply appreciate when I experience it.

I don’t want to be unnecessarily hippy-drippy about it (too late, I know), but it does something good to the soul – it surely and unequivocally did to mine, anyway.

So onto the detail.

On day one (predictably, I suppose) I headed for the Loch Garten RSPB “Osprey Centre” – not for Ospreys, obviously.

Another prime example of the “WTF?” reaction that RSPB reserves seem routinely to provoke in me: with all the potential of (and fuss about) this place, I anticipated a lot more than two feeding stations and an Osprey-themed shed.

But then again, I suppose that’s exactly what I expect of the buggers, having seen the same sort of crap again and again.

This, and their refusal to do right by the north east of England (for perspective, there’s another RSPB reserve – Insh Marshes – within a few miles of this place. Now have a look at how many there are in all of Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, Durham, Teeside and North Yorkshire combined) is precisely why I refuse to join…

Oh – and as usual, the placement and design of the feeding stations was determinedly obtuse, too – the first of the two could not have been worse for photography.

Yes, I know that’s not their primary point: but the birds don’t care either way, so why not design feeding stations with their observers – which, whether the RSPB likes it or not is going to include photographers more and more – in mind?

For all that, the place was quiet for the most part (although there were just enough thick dog owners who either didn’t understand or just wilfully ignored the several and clearly-displayed “no dogs except guide dogs” signs – they were impossible to miss, and anyway you’d think that dog owners would be attuned to look out for such things – to maintain my prejudice against the ignorant sods), so I did at least have a relatively uninterrupted time on the second station, which was next to the glorified wooden barn that was the Osprey viewing centre.

Nothing exotic rocked up – no Crested tits or Crossbills came to the station while I was there – but I was happy to pick up some nice Siskins; Great spotted woodpeckers (both species that I’ve struggled with a bit in the past); Greenfinches; Coal tits – which I just like – and hoards of Chaffinches. Oh – and a handsome Chiffchaff in very fresh plumage.

Coal tit, Loch Garten

Chaffinch, Loch Garten

Chaffinch, Loch Garten – posted purely because I like the bokeh halo.

Great spotted woodpecker, Loch Garten

Great spotted woodpecker, Loch Garten

Siskin, Loch Garten

Chiffchaff, Loch Garten

Greenfinch, Loch Garten

I did find some Cresties, though – not as hard to do as I’d expected once I‘d dialled in to their calls – but see the above photographer’s excuse for how that went!

I also spent some time on the Bank voles living in the growth under the feeding station. Nothing special about these shots, but it’s nice to see dinner for so many predators doing so well – and photographically, it’s an indication that the Canon 7D Mk II is no slouch at high ISO, given that we’re up to 10,000 ISO with some of these (and 1000mm of focal length handheld too, for some of them) and there’s no additional noise reduction applied in post processing – only that from my customised default settings in my converter of choice, Photo Ninja.

Bank vole, Loch Garten 1000mm, handheld

Bank vole, Loch Garten 1000mm, handheld and 10,000 ISO.

Onto Day 2. I actually went to the Highland Wildlife Park, for no better reason than “why not?

Again, a mixed bag – zoos are generally no more designed for photography than are RSPB reserves – and a fair bit of this “zoo” is more safari park, and therefore ostensibly out of bounds for people arriving on foot.

To its credit though, the zoo does lay on regular Land Rover tours around that part of the estate, and I went on the first one of the day. I’d assumed that this would put me in reach (so to speak) of the Wolves, but no such luck, I did however get pretty close to Wisent (European bison); Przewalski’s horses; Red deer; and Bukhara deer (which are brown Red deer from Central Asia, as it turns out).

I even saw the ears of a European Elk.

Back in the zoo proper, I hit lucky a few times with a favourite of mine, the Wolverine. Looks very different in those movies, I have to say…

Wolverine, Highland Wildlife Park

Wolverine, Highland Wildlife Park

Wolverine, Highland Wildlife Park

Wolverine, Highland Wildlife Park

Wolverine, Highland Wildlife Park No, I’m not sniffing flowers – big, scary Wolverine, me..!

If it wasn’t for the arguably needlessly paranoid design (thank you so much, “Injury Lawyers For U”) of the Scary Critter enclosures, I’d have filled my boots with a gorgeous little Eurasian Lynx kit which, having seen me leaning on the barrier with my cap in my hand silently berating the designers (me, not the cap, doing the berating), decided to wander right up to the fence, intent on the cap, which I must have been flapping back and forth.

Very cute, and – there being barely a metre between us – very frustrating.

This was somewhat made up for by being able to capture some lovely Arctic fox (another favourite) images – obviously not considered dangerous, so I was able to get the lens (hood off) right up to the wire fence, rendering it invisible in the images. I particularly like these, where his(?) attention was suddenly grabbed by hearing something scrabbling around in the grass a few yards in front of him – straight from cuddly toy to predator, which you can clearly see in his eyes…

Arctic fox, Highland Wildlife Park

Arctic fox, Highland Wildlife Park

Arctic fox, Highland Wildlife Park

This uncropped close-up of grooming Japanese macaquesSnow monkeys – is interesting only as an indication of the sharpness wide-open of the Canon 500mm f/4 IS USM Mk II and Mk III 2x converter, handheld at 1000mm.

Japanese macaques, Highland Wildlife Park

Anyone who says it can’t be done, or that TCs unacceptably compromise sharpness, clearly needs to think again…

Finally, a young Markhor – just because I think it’s a nice image.

Markhor, Highland Wildlife Park

I also took umpteen images of the park’s male Polar bears. They’re technically perfectly good images, but they don’t really do it for me.

So what happened on Day Three?

Sod all.

Or rather: sod all photographically, But otherwise, it was a glorious, unexpectedly uplifting day…

I said at the top of this piece that the trip had done something good for my soul, and this was the day that really did it.

I dropped into the Rothiemurchus Estate (you pronounce it as anything other than Rothiemurcus at your peril!) visitor centre and asked for directions to some likely wildlife photography opportunities. It quickly became clear that you get the best out of the estate by advance-booking access to their hides or other opportunities (more about which in a moment), but that if I headed south for a couple of miles I might find something…

Ironically I’d already been heading in that direction anyway when I realised I’d lost my water bottle – getting replacement water was the only reason I’d gone back to the centre in the first place, to be honest – but one minor bombshell dropped during my chat with the extremely helpful and engaging staff was that despite my assumptions, the chance for hunting Osprey images on the estate trout fishery – something for which it’s famous the world over – wasn’t yet done. There were still birds about.


But I knew from my research before getting there that a relatively short lens was the order of the day – and I only had my 500mm f/4 with me. Annoyingly, I’d chosen to leave my Canon 100-400mm – which would have been perfect – back in the guesthouse, and going back to get it wasn’t really an option given that I was on foot.

Yes, It was “only” a mile in each direction, but I wasn’t guaranteed the shot; and given that it would cost a lot for even an “unguided” session, I decided against it.

In my defence, I am knocking on a bit (I’m 57 at the time of writing). I do very well considering – I’ll happily take pretty much anything on – but while my enthusiasm is undimmed, my energy levels are definitely not quite as boundless as they were a few years ago..!

But that’s fine – it just means that I know what I’ll be doing next Summer…

So instead I had a toddle (actually 10+ miles by the time I was done) around the estate, including in a walk around the very pikey (as in the fish: I’ve been a keen pike angler for most of my life, and there are some big buggers in this water!) Loch an Eilein.

And yes, the landscape of the estate is far and away the most beautiful, enriching, uplifting place I’ve ever spent time in.

Even taking the fecking midges into account…

Seriously: I’ve read up on and watched documentaries about the Highlands and the Caledonian forest, and knew (so I believed) all about the little baskets; I’d therefore made a point of covering myself with tropical-strength DEET based anti-insect spray; and soaked my clothes in a dedicated Permethrin treatment before the off, too.

And none of it helped…

At one point I was surrounded by Crested tits and more, having stepped off the main path onto a side trail, but the bloody insects bested me within 20 minutes – I went from silently mocking (hah!) the tourists poncing around on the relatively bug free footpath wearing face nets, to wishing I had one myself, in no time at all…

But it’s another lesson learned for the next time.

I never even scratched the surface (which is not a midge-related pun) when I was there, and the thing is that so much is doable without the logistical and planning faff that usually burdens my trips: there’s an absolute shedload of things I can do, all – literally – within walking distance or a short bus ride of the guest house I chose.

What a place. I’ve never been surer that I’ll be going back to a destination.

The guesthouse
Normally I don’t go into too much detail about where I stayed, but this time it’s different.

It’s like someone looked into my head, had a rummage around, and then said “let’s make this bloke his perfect holiday accommodation”.

It was immaculately turned-out; it was quiet (not only did all the doors have soft-close springs that eliminated the chance of slammed doors, but signage in every room said – basically – that you should “remember that you’re not the only one staying here, so don’t be a dick”); the bed was wonderfully comfortable; the wall sockets had built-in USB charging ports; and the view out of my bedroom window (which I spent so much time standing looking out of that the neighbours must have been creeped out!) was stunning – straight across to Cairn Gorm and the surrounding mountains, and the placement of the building was such that they were washed with beautiful Golden Hour light every evening that I was there.

I even liked that guests were encouraged to recycle: the side door to the building (which I used to and fro) had little bins in its porch for plastics, paper and glass, and I found myself making use of them without even thinking.

Apparently the breakfasts are the stuff of legend too – but although I love a fried breakfast, I’m never fry-up hungry at breakfast time, so I didn’t partake – but the owners are happy to prepare say, a sausage sandwich, if a guest prefers something to take with him for later in the morning.

Another gold star for that, then..!

And it has a fully operational drying room…

Not in itself the most picturesque village – it’s a long street full of shops, with housing and commercial estates springing off it – but it’s pleasant enough for all that (with a friendly, “all here for the same things” vibe) and it’s within a few hundred yards of scenery and countryside wherever you are: a nice enough combination of the practical and the aesthetic.

There’s even a busily active steam railway, if that’s your thing.

And I can’t recommend the food in “Ben MacDui’s Inn” enough: on the face of it, just another bar, but the restaurant behind the scenes is brilliant – I’ve paid two and three times its average (around £14) price for a main course, and had nothing like as good a meal.

So I highly recommend the oven-baked Sea bass; and Ben MacDui chicken, which involves a high quality chicken breast and a haggis stuffing, in a peppery, creamy sauce.


They even managed to persuade me to eat my carrots.

The “Happy Haggis” down the road (yes, really – apparently racial stereotyping is OK when it’s self-inflicted!) gets an honourable mention too. I had a delicious half roast chicken and chips there one night, and learned two things from it; one, they do the best chips ever; and two, I’ve been eating half pigeon and chips up to now, if the size of the thing I struggled to wade through on my visit there is what half a chicken really looks like!

Amenities aside, there are so many things to do in Aviemore – even as a travel-constrained wildlife ‘tog like me – that a month there would barely do it justice; but the public transport (mainly Stagecoach buses) goes a long way to making up for my lack of personal transport – cheap too – and I freely admit that I wished I’d had my mountain bike with me, given the availability of trails almost on the guest house’s doorstep.

I’m still not even close to summing up the impressions of my stay – and I was only there for three days.

It’s not all sweetness and light, though – ohhh, no…

On the first night the mini-market across the road from the guest house had run out of small bottles of semi-skimmed for my cup of tea (the nasty UHT stuff in the room being no solution), meaning a whole five minute stroll to the shops in the main village to buy the needful.

Oh, the humanity..!

(This of course ignores the fact that there’s a guest fridge in the guesthouse with which I could easily have kept a bigger bottle fresh for the entire duration of my stay..!)

The kettle in my room was comically loud on the boil – more like a diesel generator than a kettle, really…

And on my last evening, while snacking on a “chicken bridie”, I sat on one of the characterful large native boulders that surround the open space (OK, the parking – more pleasant than it sounds, honest!) in the village centre, only to find that I’d planted my backside on a lump of chewing gum that some chavvy shit had (deliberately, I imagine) parked on the rock.

But if these are the only negatives – and they really are – Aviemore is doing alright in my book…

This was my first extended outing with my new (to me) Canon 500mm f/4 Mk II.

What a thing it is!

I used it handheld exclusively (at 500mm only for the Arctic fox – otherwise routinely at 700mm, with 1000mm when the need arose) and it’s superb used in this way – no problem at all, as the image stabilisation is peerless, helped no doubt by my years of handholding experience (again – look at the monkeys up the page. I don’t like to boast, but I’m good at handheld).

At a combined weight of 11½ lbs for lens, Canon 1.4x and gripped 7D Mk II (with which the lens excels) it’s perfectly manageable for long days in the field: I continue to use and recommend the OpTech Sling Strap, which makes the rig surprisingly luggable, while minimising the perceived weight thanks to the give in the neoprene shoulder pad.

In short – it just works. I estimate a keeper rate (before culling on “aesthetic” grounds) of about 95% – I’m just not seeing those inexplicable OOF missed shots that I can blame on the kit.

With this said though, I do see a difference in the viewfinder between it and my 100-400mm.

With the smaller lens, the image in the viewfinder is always absolutely rock-solid under any shooting circumstances. With the bigger lens, I do sometimes see a bit of movement in the VF, especially with a TC in play – the stabilisation does occasionally jump around a little, usually when holding the lens at more difficult above-the-horizon angles where my arms are doing all the work (otherwise my elbows will be braced against my chest and midriff, as per proper handholding technique).

The heft of the thing compared with the 100-400mm must explain the difference, I reckon – it’s obviously tougher to keep a much bigger, heavier lens steady, so the IS has to work a bit harder (not at any observable detriment to image quality, I have to say).

But I’ve decided to see if a monopod and tilt head will make a difference, so I have a Sirui carbon fibre monopod and head on the way. I’m confident that these will find their way into my routine.

I should add that a prime motivation for this is that the lens (which I bought used) came with a replacement Really Right Stuff long lens foot already attached – this is Arca Swiss compatible by design, making the move to a monopod and head a bit of a no-brainer…

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