Scottish Photography Hides Workshops
Owned and run by Alan McFadyen Scottish Photography Hides are for me the premier wildlife hides in the UK. With a number of different hides in and around the beautiful borders town of Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway Alan has created wildlife photo opportunities that frankly still take my breath away every time I have the privilege to visit them. Less than ten minutes from Kirkcudbright you could find yourself photographing kingfishers from one of the two riverside hides or capturing a number of different raptors as they come in to feed at the hawk or buzzard hide. Depending on the season you could watch and capture daylight badgers, water rail or the tawny owl at night along with flycatchers, cuckoos, redstarts and numerous other birds and of course the Scottish red squirrel. Alan is working hard to make the pine marten and otter hides a real possibility for 2019 and knowing him as I do I have no doubts that sooner rather than later he will have both of these enigmatic, often highly secretive mammals regularly coming into his specialist hides. For those of you who would like to know more I've provided a link to his site below:
Why am I so effusive about Alan's hides?
Alan is a conservationist and world-class photographer first and foremost. He is passionate about the wildlife in his area and works tirelessly to ensure visitors to his hides have the best chances possible to photograph species that might take you years to find if you didn't use a hide. I offer two day workshops with full tuition for those of you who feel you would like to improve your wildlife photography techniques. My prices are particularly competitive given that you will have two full days in the hides plus I'll be on hand for any questions or support you might need. No client to date has ever come away from their time in his hides without images that continue to fill them with joy and a deep sense of connection to the wildlife that visits. For 2019 Alan has now added a huge reflection pool at the hawk hides along with other improvements to his hides. This gives participants to capture perfect reflections of red squirrels, jays, woodland birds and, knowing Alan as I do, sooner or later the fox and hawks will also use the pool.
Here's what a Scottish Photography Hides weekend will usually include:
Exclusive use of the hides we book. I keep groups to a maximum of eight participants (two groups of 4) which means you all have plenty of time for tuition with me along with a personalised look at how your camera is set up to ensure you have it running at optimum for the species we will see over the weekend.
Day One - We split into two groups with Alan meeting us in the small village of Ringford (usually at 0700 but this will be confirmed closer to the date) which is about ten minutes from Kirkcudbright just off the A75. Groups are usually allocated based around your skillset - I ask you to rate your level of skill prior to the workshop to make sure the group is appropriate for you. Depending on the season and high tide times group 1 will usually be taken to one of the two kingfisher hides whilst group 2 will start their weekend over at the hawk hide. Around midday groups will swop over with group 1 taking over the hawk hide then staying on for the night owl shoot which is at the same location. Group 2 will be in the kingfisher hide and go on to the daylight badgers for early evening. This is seasonally dependent and you will be made aware of any changes prior to the weekend. In the evening after you have finished in the hides I invite you all to join me in the wee annexe I stay in over at Kirkcudbright for a debrief and to look at what day two will bring.
Day Two - Group 1 begin their day at the hawk hide whilst group 2 will usually go to the kingfisher hide not used the previous day (subject to high tide times). We will swop over around midday with group 1 heading for the afternoon and evening to a kingfisher hide then daylight badgers and group 2 taking up residence at the hawk hide until the nighttime owl session has finished. We will then debrief with those of you needing to travel back on the Sunday evening leaving in good time. Those of you staying on are once again welcome to join me at the annexe for a chat and feedback about the weekend.
I will be shuttling between hides to ensure you get the right amount of tuition and support, and Alan and I will ensure you all get to the hide you should be in for the time of day. For those of you who haven't visited before here are a selection of images I've taken during my time in the hides:
Cost for two days of full tuition and use of all available hides including hawks, red squirrel, water rail, kingfisher, badger, fox, owls (there have been both tawny and barn owls at the hide) and many other species (subject to seasonal availability) will be £340. This does not include the cost of transport to and from Kirkcudbright or accommodation. I can recommend Anchorlee guest house in the centre of town - the bed and breakfast is comfortable, well priced, and more importantly they are prepared to offer an early breakfast to fit in with the workshop timetable. The link for Anchorlee is below:
What will I need to bring?
Let's clear something up right at the very start - this workshop is designed with everyone in mind. From the complete beginner right through to the seasoned photographer. Groups will be organised according to ability and I guarantee you will get enough tuition from me to ensure you feel confident of capturing what we've come to photograph by the end of the weekend. I've taken images on both my DSLR - usually my 100-400mm lens - and Sony bridge camera which has a zoom range of 24-600mm. Each hide requires a slightly different focal length to make the most of the photo opportunities you might get. I strongly suggest you bring a telephoto zoom if you own one along with as many memory cards as you possess and all the batteries (plus chargers please) you might have for your camera. I'll discuss each hide's requirements below:
The hawk hide - this consists of several natural perches where the raptors tend to land - although they've been known to try and grab a bird just a few feet away from the hide - and other 'mini perches' where red squirrels, jays and the other birds tend to congregate. I'd say anything around 300mm+ should give you reasonable images for the hawks and something around a 70-200mm+ for the closer perches. If you have an extender (especially a 1.4) please bring it as the extra reach can be invaluable. I personally use a 100-400mm plus extender a lot in this hide as it gives me a good degree of flexibility when different focal lengths are quickly needed. If you have any queries around kit please contact me. You don't necessarily need a DSLR but a reasonable bridge or compact camera with the focal range I've already mentioned will give you more success than say a smaller compact with a short telephoto. A tripod is very useful as it allows you to set up your camera and have it ready for the arrival of a species and lets you shoot at a slightly slower shutter speed. If you have a second body or camera then bring it as it's quite possible to run two cameras with different lenses. Finally if you own a cable release that too can be helpful as it allows you to sit back a bit and fire the shutter as you look through the hide windows. This hide comfortably seats three people with a single adjacent hide providing plenty of room for four people and all of their kit. Please make sure you bring everything you need for the session up to the hide - batteries, memory cards, flask etc as the group will see very little if there's too much external activity.
There are no toilets nearby nor is there any tea or coffee making facilities. I would bring in a flask and whatever food you need for the day which can often start at 0700 and not finish until late in the evening if you are waiting for the owl. We will be swapping hides around midday so there are natural breaks in the day. Your odds of seeing any of the species oddly go up the quieter you can sit. I've sat in the adjacent hide and listened to people banging about making very little effort to keep noise down to a minimum and strangely seen very little hawk action until they got bored and left. Less than half an hour later the main event has then turned up but I doubt there's a link! There is a no smoking policy in all of the hides and using a phone app to mimic birds will result in you being asked to leave the hides and not return. This weekend is about patience, alertness and good fieldcraft. Do everything right and you will be rewarded with some of the most amazing wildlife photography you can experience in the UK. The owl at night is particularly switched on and won't even come in if it can hear excessive noise. My best advice is to always let the hawk or owl land on the prey (usually hidden behind the perch) and start to eat it before taking any photographs. Keep your camera on its quietest setting and limit lens movement to an absolute minimum. If you have to take a comfort break it makes sense you try to coordinate it with other members of the group to keep disturbance down to a minimum. A good sign the hawks are around is either complete silence or alarm calls from the smaller birds who will scatter en masse if there's one nearby. If the place goes deathly quiet but you can't see anything it usually means one or more of the hawks is behind or to the side of the hides scoping out the perch before it comes in. It's not uncommon to have one sparrowhawk arrive on the perch only for it to be chased off by another sparrowhawk, a buzzard or the resident kestrel - be ready for that one!
I've added a few images from my last few visits to the hides below:
The kingfisher hides - Alan now has two kingfisher hides approximately half a mile apart. The original hide is affected by the tides whilst the new hide is not. You should therefore anticipate there will at least be mud and possibly the tide coming into the old hide - Alan and I will check the tide times and a Plan B will be in place should the tide look too high. Wellies are preferable to walking boots if you have them. Both hides offer unparalleled views of this often elusive and fast moving bird as they come on to the perches prior to fishing for prey. The hides are dual purpose as they offer a reflection/diving pool and several perches. My personal view is to run one or the other as running both seems to create too many options for the birds and you can end up not getting the images you want. Each hide comfortably seats 4+ participants but you may have to be strategically positioned to get all four of you maximising the reflection/diving pool. Once again I'd opt for a lens with a reach around 100-400mm to give you flexibility. If your camera lens has a minimum focal length of 200mm you stand a very good chance of getting some great images subject to the light and ISO levels. Directions to the meeting point for all the hides will be provided prior to weekend and you will be met by either Alan, one of his team or myself. The same advice for the hawk hide applies equally to these hides; these are wild birds who will only usually come into view if they think it's safe. Poking your lens too far through the apertures and moving it about, chatting on the phone or scraping chairs about will limit your photo opps and probably irritate the hell out of fellow members of the group. Speaking of phones I don't really have to highlight they need to be on silent or at least on a low buzz if you have a message or call you must take. I tend to ignore my phone completely if I can help it and rarely go through my images on the back of the camera as I know I'll miss future shots. A tripod is invaluable in these hides as you can prefocus on the perches and fire off the shutter via a cable release as the bird comes in to land or take off. You'll also need the tripod and probably a cable release for the diving pool although you can get away with a tripod only.
The daylight badger hides - these are seasonal but there shouldn't be a problem using them in April and probably October. Both are located above Kirkcudbright about 10 minutes from the town. These aren't physical hides as such but usually camo scrim and natural foliage. The badgers can be out as early as 1700 which gives you well over two hours in April and around an hour or so in October subject to the light conditions. Badgers have relatively poor eyesight but their smell and hearing is excellent. If the wind is prevailing in the wrong direction it's entirely possible the badgers won't emerge from their sett or hang around - particularly if anyone is wearing strong perfume or has recently washed their clothing in scented washing powder or fabric conditioner. With that in mind I would avoid either of the above for the weekend. I tend to wear old clothing with minimum rustle in low key colours that's not been washed in anything other than a mild detergent a week before. Get as much of your camera kit out of your bag before arriving at the sett and set your shutter to its quietest setting. Once the badgers start looking around for food you should be okay to start taking images. Rattling off twenty frames as they emerge from the sett is a recipe for not seeing them for the rest of the evening so try and relax and let them settle down. I've had the badgers come as close as 20 feet away when I've been on my own and knelt down behind the scrim. 100-400mm lens will once again be the best thing to use but 70-200mm is not unreasonable. A tripod is not usually necessary but bring it if you feel you have difficulty hand-holding your camera at lower shutter speeds. The ground in places can be uneven so if you have difficulty walking please bring it to my attention so we can discuss accessibility. Alan will make the decision which of the two hides we visit closer to the date and again one of us will make sure you are taken to the right location.
The night-time owl hide - this is essentially the hawk hide but at night. There are several tawny owls in the area - as you should hear as the gloaming kicks in. I've been sat in the hide on my own and heard four different calls so there are a few around. The key to seeing this amazing owl is purely patience and quietness. They have been known to arrive at dusk or as late as two hours into dark so the group need to decide a cut-off point where they want to call it a day. The hawk perch is lit by portable lamps - strictly no flash please as it affects their vision - which usually gives you around ISO 6400 and a shutter speed of 1/60th or so. A tripod is essential if you want to get sharp images. There is no sound when the owl arrives. You can literally look down at the floor and back up to see an owl staring towards the hide as it tries to work out how safe the area is. Please don't fire your shutter or make any sudden movements until the owl has landed on the main branch and begun to eat the prey at the back of the perch. You will have far more success if you selectively fire the shutter in a methodical and sparing way than you would 'spraying and praying' like some have when I've been next door in the single hide. If we have the time it's entirely possible to get an owl to come back in again for a second meal but this will need to be negotiated with Alan and depend in part on how much light the portable lamps continue to provide. The group in the hawk hide for the afternoon will be staying in the hides until the evening so please ensure you have enough battery power and memory cards with you along with food and drink to last you. A head torch would be useful as the hides are pitch black with the path back to the layby uneven in places.