Caught by the River

Red Squirrels

Mat Bingham | 5th April 2018

Wildlife photographer Mat Bingham heads to the pine forests of the Scottish Highlands in pursuit of the perfect red squirrel shot

My ambition this year is to achieve a distinction with the Royal Photographic Society. I have been working on a portfolio of wildlife photographs for this purpose over the last few months. I need ten photographs that demonstrate my technical ability and artistic skills. They need to be a cohesive sequence of photographs that are good enough to convince a panel of judges that I am up to the required standard. Yet one photograph I need to complete the portfolio has proved very elusive: a red squirrel in its natural habitat. By natural habitat I mean showing this cute, furry red mammal in the Caledonian pine forest of the Scottish Highlands. So, in February I travelled to the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland to try and get the shot.

In the winter red squirrels are quite active, busily eating enough nuts to stay warm and stashing any surplus ones for leaner times in the weeks ahead. To increase my chances of getting the photograph, I rented an established hide for the day. Luckily, I had the place to myself, which gave me the flexibility to set up the shot I wanted without disturbing any other photographers. To start with I put out some hazelnuts on a couple of branches in front of the hide and waited to see what happened.

It wasn’t long before a red squirrel arrived. It was a female and she looked nervous. She did a smash and grab, snatching a nut and off up a tree like a rat up a drainpipe. A few minutes later a smaller male arrived, and he sat up on his hind legs scanning for predators. Once he had convinced himself there was no danger he picked up a nut, rotated it in his hands and sank his sharp teeth into the shell. He then proceeded to peel off the skin using his lower incisors. With his adept little paws he made removing the hard outer casing look really easy. In a few seconds he had consumed the soft innards of the nut and was on to the second one. He consumed the remaining third nut I had left out and then retreated to the cover of the woodland canopy.

By now it was raining, and the overcast sky and raindrops softened the light, creating a natural diffuser. Perfect for dreamy portraits of cute critters, but that wasn’t the shot I was after.

I waited for about an hour for the rain to stop and then clambered out of the hide. I set up a camera with a wide-angle lens on a tripod next to an old bleached tree stump. Lodging three nuts in some nooks and crannies in the stump, I retreated to the relative comfort of the hide. It took less than a minute before my furry friend was back. He climbed on top of the camera and jumped onto the stump. Snatching a nut, he dropped down to the ground and disappeared into the heather to stash it for later. I barely had time to get comfortable in my seat before he was back again, grabbing and stashing the second nut. It wasn’t long before he had disappeared with the third and final nut. He could obviously count to three, as having taken all three nuts, he reappeared from under the heather on a fallen branch, ignoring the tree stump where I had been placing the nuts. He sat up on his hind legs and looked directly at me in the hide, and I felt sure that he was pleading with me to give him some more nuts to stash.

I slowly got out of the hide and he retreated about ten metres from me. Again I stashed three nuts on the tree stump and then took the opportunity to check the camera’s focus and the battery status. All the while, he sat there watching me from a safe distance. I climbed back into the hide and he returned to the stump. I triggered the camera to see what his reaction would be. He paused, stared at his reflection in the lens and then leapt away with the first nut.

The photo I wanted was of the squirrel looking at the camera but I didn’t want a nut in the shot so I formulated a plan. Once he had taken the three nuts I replenished the stump with four; I would see how well he could count. He went through the same process he had with the three nuts, but after taking the fourth nut he came back looking for a fifth. He was on the stump searching when he glanced at the camera and I took the shot.

I left the hide later that day, content that the squirrel had a stash of nuts to see him through the winter, and that I had the final photograph for my portfolio. I also learnt that red squirrels (or at least this particular male) can only count to three!