02/02/2010
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Photographing Scottish Highland specialities: Crested Tit

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The Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus is one of the most endearing of all the birds confined to relict Caledonian woodland in the Scottish Highlands. This pine specialist features high on the wishlist of many birders and photographers making the trip north. Rightly so: even though I am now lucky enough to watch 'Cresties' virtually daily, they are a bird that I love seeing, hearing and photographing.

Understanding behaviour can help you to get the right shot

Crested Tit
Crested Tit, Grantown-on-Spey, Highland (Photo: Marcus Conway — ebirder)

Whenever seeing and (hopefully) photographing any species it can pay to try and understand a little about behaviour to maximise your opportunity. Here are some handy tips on using behaviour to find and photograph Crested Tits:

  • Understand feeding patterns. In winter, Crested Tits feed on lower branches and descend more frequently to the ground — for up to a quarter of their time. From April/May through to autumn the Cresties stay higher up, feeding on invertebrates in the cone crop and pine- needle crowns. This means winter will afford much better views, often at eye level.
  • Crested Tits have small territories (typically just 0.15 km²). Therefore, if you see one it pays to hang around, as it is likely to come back along a familiar feeding route. This is far more effective than trying to keep up with them, and means you can take the time to set up for a good view or shot.
  • In early winter Crested Tits cache food for use later in winter. If you see one feeding between January and March, there is a good chance that it will keep coming back to a familiar spot at or near a cache.
  • Crested Tits holding territory always seem to be active as a pair. If you see one the chances are, like buses, that another is just around the corner.
  • Learn the call: a cheerful trill that brightens the soul! It carries a relatively long way, is very distinctive and is easy to remember.
  • Crested Tits are very active, so make sure the camera is set up to give you the fastest shutter speed.

It is worth remembering that many of the Highland forest-dwellers nest on or near the ground and at no point should anyone leave marked footpaths. The Crested Tit is also a Schedule 1 species: it is an offence to disturb them intentionally or recklessly at, on or near an 'active' nest.

I have set this guide out into two sections: seeing and photographing Crested Tits. This is because, in my experience, the best sites for guaranteed views are not necessarily designed for photographers: they are mainly feeding stations that Crested Tits frequently visit. However, if you want to get a good view, and quickly, then well-stocked feeders are an ideal stopping point. The photographic sites all meet the key criteria of good light, supportive habitat and limited disturbance to other species. They are places that I have visited a number of times with positive results.

The best places to see a Crested Tit

For many birders visiting Speyside and other Highland areas, just seeing a Crested Tit can become a bit of a mission. One of the main reasons for this is that most visitors come in April/May when feeding habits change and the Tits move to feed in the canopy and are hence more difficult to see. There are, however, a number of sites where viewing is possible at this time of year, although it is without doubt that autumn and winter offer practically guaranteed viewing. This is because birds will visit feeding stations and forage nearer to the ground. To see a Crested Tit the following sites offer the best odds:

Loch Garten RSPB

Crested Tits use the feeders placed near the visitor centre between October and March. You are also likely to see and hear them along the surrounding paths, along with Red Squirrel and Great Spotted Woodpecker. The area around the car park can sometimes produce more natural-looking shots. The placement of the feeders and the lack of natural light make photography at this site tricky, but I have never failed to get good views throughout winter — although snow can sometimes be several feet deep on the way to the feeder!

Crested Tit
This stunning shot from Loch Garten by Pauline Greenhalgh is an example of what can be produced for those with the patience and the skill to wait for that exact moment to take the shot. (Photo: Pauline Greenhalgh)

Loch Mallachie

As this site is located so close to Loch Garten, it is best to try and make time to visit both sites. A relatively narrow strip of woodland that runs along the edge of Loch Garten to Loch Mallachie regularly produces good views of Crested Tits. The path forms a loop and the point on the loop furthest from the car park (only a 15- minute walk) is the most productive in my experience. I have mentioned this spot to a few birders who have tried all the other spots and have finally managed to connect on the loop path. The birds are often high up, but this site does have the bonus of being one of the most reliable all year round. There are also some interesting Wood Ant nests along the path.

Loch an Eilein (and the Rothiemurchus estate)

Loch an Eilein is a small loch on the Rothiemurchus estate about 5 km south of Aviemore. As well as a very useful visitor centre, toilets and information point at the site, there are a number of well-stocked feeders visited in winter by a variety of birds, including Crested Tits. The lighting is much better here but the landscaping unnatural. However, in winter this is another good place to check. If you have the time then a walk round the loch should produce Crossbills of some variety with a chance of something more special — again please keep to footpaths. The rangers on the estate also have a number of wildlife photography hides that are available to hire. Check at the visitor centre for more information.

Crested Tit
This superb shot by Robert Askew is an example of the views possible. Remember though good technique and patience is still required to get a super-sharp shot in the split second they visit the feeder. (Photo: Robert Askew)

Boat of Garten

This is another site where the feeders are well stocked, and Crested Tit a frequent visitor. As you head out of Boat of Garten towards the A95 there is a small car park overlooking some flooded fields. The car park was built to view Slavonian Grebes, but I have not seen them here in recent years. Instead turn 180° away from the fields to view the feeders and a Crested Tit may call in after a short period of time.

There are of course many other sites, but I have tried to outline some of the most accessible and most likely to produce. There are other productive sites listed in the guidebooks recommend below — particularly Best Birdwatching Sites: Scottish Highlands.

The best places to photograph a Crested Tit

Crested Tits are charismatic birds, but their constant activity, though charming, can make getting a shot tricky. When looking for a good site to take photographs, a number of criteria should influence the choice:

  • Habitat: Crested Tits love to look for invertebrates in the pine needles. Using sites that have much smaller trees and new growth in clearings helps with getting a shot at eye level. The sites below all have large clearings with lots of new growth.
  • Light: In many of the sites mentioned above there is so little light entering the forest it can be hard getting a nice sharp shot even with a high ISO. Also the light hitting the undergrowth in the background can create some pleasant environmental shots and should be an important consideration when selecting a location.
  • Location: I like to visit sites where there are marked paths. This way I know that I am not likely to disturb a ground nester or do any other damage. It is still possible to find a quiet spot to get in position for some shots.

Anagach Woods, NJ045284

This magical forest lies just east of Grantown-on-Spey and has a very special feel due to a mixture of ancient trees, diverse undergrowth and high sandy banks. I find the best route is to enter from the north (just after the golf course) and take the path southeast. After about half a mile the path forms a loop and the forest opens out a little. This clearing is perfect for Crested Tit photography as the trees are low and the dune banking can often give a really handy vantage point — though I have found that many of the clearings nearby produce also good opportunities so keep searching. These forests also have Capercaillie and Scottish Crossbills so keep your eyes peeled (especially in the tall pines surrounding the stream) and camera ready.

Crested Tit
This shot shows a Crested Tit feeding in a sapling pine. This has brought the Crested Tit much lower than the mature canopy and enabled a shot at eye level, Grantown-on-Spey, Highland (Photo: Marcus Conway — ebirder)

Culbin Forest

At 14km long Culbin can seem a bit overwhelming, and looking for Crested Tits can feel like mission impossible. On the contrary, I have found that most visits produce good views, often within five minutes of leaving the car park. Again the varieties in height and tree growth provide plenty of opportunity to get a good well-lit shot, often with a nice background. Take the path east (signposted Sandlife) from the Wellhill car park to the first area with shorter trees. The Crested Tits normally make an appearance within 10–15 minutes. If they don't show, continue to explore and you are bound to find some. Light is best after midday and it should be easy to shoot north into the clearings with the light over your shoulder. I have also photographed Bullfinch, Scottish Crossbill and Accipiter species here.

Crested Tit
Using the height to get above the subject has helped create a colourful background for this 'environmental' shot. (Photo: Marcus Conway — ebirder)

Blackfold

Hidden away on the north side of Loch Ness is this small woodland on the Great Glen Way. For some reason, I've never seen anyone else at Blackfold, despite the quality of the habitat. Take the path north from the car park and continue up the hill. Soon enough you will reach heather undergrowth with sapling pines. This is an excellent spot to try and get some shots. Continue up the hill, beyond the loch, and as you approach the crest the light improves and this is another area to get some shots. There are also Red Kites, Redstarts and Red Squirrels in the area. If visiting, please note that parking is limited and the road is steep and can be icy.

Crested Tit
Shooting in a clearing, in this case slightly below the subject, means the subject is well lit and the sky can create a less cluttered background; Blackfold, Highland. (Photo: Marcus Conway — ebirder)

Abernethy Forest

Finding Forest Lodge is the hard part (maps in the books below or ask at Loch Garten) — once you have, then getting the Cresties should be more straightforward. Some prefer the loop south towards Ryvoan, but I have found the loop east and then north to be more productive towards Lyngarrie. There is no specific point on this path that is best for photography, but as the canopy is quite open there is normally ample opportunity to get a sighting. I have found the light in winter to be best after 10am as the sun is not high enough to penetrate the woodland before then, and in spring entry is forbidden in the morning to try to reduce disturbance to Capercaillies. The other advantage of this path is that it is quieter than the main walkers' route. It's worth mentioning that this is another site that can often produce results from April onwards when the other sites are trickier.

Hides and professional feeding stations

A number of operators, photographers (including ebirder) and landowners offer specialised services enabling you to take shots at landscaped feeding stations. For the serious photographer, when getting a shot is paramount, these are well worth considering. The advantages are guaranteed shots of Crested Tits in a controlled and landscaped environment, lichen-covered branches, interesting perches and the chance of other visitors, especially Red Squirrel. The disadvantage is that sometimes being stuck in a hide limits the enjoyment of searching and exploring many miles of Caledonian forest. There is a limit to the type of shot possible — often of the bird perched on various forms of branch. Photography is very subjective so decide what is best for you and what you want to accomplish photographing this charismatic bird in an outstanding habitat.

Further reading

If you only get one book then I highly recommend Best Birdwatching Sites: Scottish Highlands, by Gordon Hamlett. Even though I am now living in the Highlands I know I can still turn to this excellent guide to discover something new. An absolute must for all birders and photographers.

Other good books I have used for reference include:

  • The Birds of Scotland. Scottish Ornithologists Club, Edited by Ron Forrester, Ian Andrews et al., 2007
  • Where to Watch Birds in Scotland. Mike Madders, Christopher Helm Publishers Ltd, 2002
  • Birds in Scotland. Valerie M Thom, T & AD Poyser, 1990
Written by: Marcus Conway, ebirder

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