Filming Wildlife in the Cairngorms

James Stevens is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, born in Gloucestershire he now lives and works in the Cairngorms National Park.  James is the official cameraman at the BIG Weekend you can see some of his work on his website.

 

Veined with rich rivers, wind-beaten mountains, ancient Caledonian forests and enchanting lochs, the Cairngorms is one of the wildest places in Britain. A quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered wildlife calls this place home. From the small pine hoverfly, to the majestic red deer, the Cairngorms is teeming with life. This is what drew me here.

Cairngorms

 

May 2016, I packed my car with camera gear, clothes, and a bed. I would spend the next two months roaming the Cairngorms, with my car as my home. The first day filming I came across red squirrels collecting mosses to line their dreys, crossbills pealing bark to make their nests, and goldeneye moving back and forth from the nest boxes, incubating their eggs. All the while the forests of Abernethy echoed with the sound of thrushes, crested tits and great spotted woodpeckers. As I perched on the banks of Loch Mallichie filming the goldeneyes dive, I see a large figure loom over the hills. Quickly turning my camera and zooming in to see this huge bird, wings like planks, long finger-like wingtips. It was a golden eagle, the first I had ever seen. The second largest bird of prey in the UK. It was breathtaking. It seemed that everywhere I looked there was life. Violet ground beetles on the forest floor, and raptors soaring in the skies. This was just day one!

Every year since I first came to the Cairngorms, I have seen and filmed something new. Every season brings changes to the landscape and wildlife. Winter sees the mountains covered in snow as the ptarmigan and mountain hare change their colour to blend in. This is a time to get close to birds such as snow bunting as they make their way down the mountain. Crested tits come to the fringes of the forest to make the most of the food provided by the public’s hand. The weather may be unpredictable, but that’s testament to the wild nature of the Cairngorms. Strong winds batter the mountain bringing heavy snowfall. One moment I’m filming sunshine, blue skies, and crisp frosts, then suddenly the clouds roll in, dumping fresh snow on the ground. Timelapsing the changes in weather in the Cairngorms makes for great imagery.

As winter gives way to spring, the land changes again. The snow recedes up the mountain and the lochs thaw. Birds turn their attention to breeding and the air fills with song. Wood warblers sing proud amongst the silver birch, and redstart echo in the pine forests. For me however, it’s the ospreys that steal the show. Arriving from Southern Europe and Africa, these summer visitors are a sight to behold. With many nesting throughout the Cairngorms, ospreys can be seen hunting on the lochs and rivers, before returning to their nests. Using a long lens, it’s great to observe their behaviour and even more special to film them dive for fish. Another sign of spring is the emergence of insects. Early butterflies such as peacocks and small tortoiseshell are a delight. Ferocious looking green tiger beetles scurrying on the ground hunting other insects. Ants, big and small, patrol the forest floor looking for food and materials to add to their nests. It’s the season of new life, one which is amazing to film.

Moving into summer more insects come out. Butterflies aplenty, including northern brown argus and large heath. Dragonflies both common and rare such as white-faced darter take to their wings. Filming these insects is challenging, but incredibly rewarding. Using a macro lens I see details you just can’t see with the naked eye. Watching dragonfly nymphs emerging from the water to then develop into an adult is an amazing thing to see. The temperatures in the Cairngorms can be some of the highest in the UK. Times of which see visitors take to Loch Morlich to bathe in the sun and take a dip in the waters. But away from the people, wildlife is also making the most of the loch. Wagtails fleet amongst the shores picking up insects, goldeneye dive in the waters with their young. Crossbills come down the the waters edge to take a drink before returning to the treetops. Signs of otters can be found in the form of spraints, proving the loch is healthy and full of life. Flowers and orchids brighten up the landscape with heather turning the hills pink and purple.

The Cairngorms turns into a sea of orange as autumn brings changes to the landscape. Silver birch and larches make up the majority of colour with other deciduous trees adding splashes of yellow, orange and red. Colour bounces from the lochs creating a scene of orange reflections. It is one of the most spectacular seasons for filming landscapes, with the added bonus of migrants moving over in mass. Flocks of geese, swans and thrushes turn to the lochs, forest and fields of the park. Waxwings, a particular highlight of mine, make the most of rowan tree berries and move around in big numbers. The bird song may be quiet, but different sounds now fill the skies. Looking up and witnessing pink-footed geese in V-formation whilst they gabble away.

 

The Cairngorms is my favourite place in the world. I am privileged to live and work there not only as a filmmaker, but as a guide also. I get to explore the wild habitats here throughout the year. It’s a truly special place, one which has grabbed my heart, captured my imagination and piqued my curiosity