Philip Price of Loch Visions is one of Argyll’s best known specialist wildlife photographers. He is also unusual as one who made a strategic decision early in his career to focus exclusively on the species to be found here in Argyll.
The usual pattern is to tour around the world’s various wildlife hotspots – which can be like zoos, trotting out their specific collections of species, more or less to order, for the waiting lenses.
The thinking behind Philip Price’s decision is based on a cool-headed situation assessment, given that as a professional, he has his living to earn from what he does.
- Argyll is famously rich in biodiversity so specialising in local wildlife species offers him some rare examples and a wide spectrum of variety.
- If he were to take the traditional routes like the African game reserves and the Galapagos islands, he would have heavy upfront travel costs – with no guarantee that any of the shots he took there would prove the unique cash cow every photographer hopes of bagging.
- The alternative of focusing on the local wildlife spectrum, on his doorstep in astonishing variety, offers more time to spend watching and getting to know their behavioural patterns – and in the photography.
Two of us booked ourselves in for a workshop last Saturday with Philip Price on the Knapdale beavers – which he has studied closely from an early stage in their reintroduction trial here – and about which he is both highly knowledgeable and close to besotted.
It’s not hard to see why – and during the session we were lucky enough to see for ourselves what it is about this species that makes them extraordinary.
Beavers and humans share a unique capacity – as the only species that strategically alter their environment for their own advantage. The phrase ‘beavering away’ pays often unconscious tribute to the work ethic that appears to drive them.
The Loch Visions workshop involves a preparatory session on photographing wildlife – from which one of the things we took away was a basic piece of wisdom: ‘If you’re going to photograph wildlife, always be comfortable – so that you can stay out long enough to see the species you’re looking for, in enough forms of behaviour to get an interesting and worthwhile selection of shots’.
We had already sussed out for ourselves and had it confirmed by Philip that dark and ‘quiet’ [so not heavy duty sailing kit] waterproofs are the best choice – but ‘being comfortable’ involves creating the certainty of being able to stay warm, dry and cushioned from hard or sodden places in sitting or lying. Philip carries spares of midge hoods, bean bags [for bedding down cameras in spy positions], groundsheets, foiled reclining pads etc.
He has established tented hides in strategic places where the activity from the beavers is relatively assured – but when you go on any such session, you can count on the opportunity to see them, not on actually seeing them. That’s in the lap of the Gods – although Philip Price knows their movements and rhythms [and does put advance treats out for them nearby to encourage shore visits – they love apple and carrot].
Before we set off to settle in to wait, we were briefed on wildlife photography issues like spot metering, continuous focus and ISO levels – all relevant to the nocturnal, brown coated and sleekly active beavers. [Workshoppers are also welcome to use Philip’s sets of Canon cameras and long lenses.]
We met at the Barnluasgan car park for the briefing on wildlife photography and the beavers – and a chance to fuel up on some of the food we’d brought [advised – and to be recommended as part of the wisdom quoted above].
After that we set off with Philip for a lochan well into Forestry Commission territory off to the south, with a walk from the car park in the woods [which has a portaloo] to the short off piste trek to the lochside hide.
The tranquillity of waiting patiently in this place is meditative. You hear only the breeze in the trees and occasional outbursts of bird chatter. Time passes and thoughts leave their own trails. A bright boat in the rushes on the far side of the water summons attention.
A few feet below the hide, Philip is lying on a slight incline below a scrub tree, face up and with his feet almost in the loch. He’s on patient lookout for any signs of activity from the beaver lodge – which is about 12 metres away from him.
If you didn’t know what it was, you would see only a raised mudbank mingled with roots and sticks, projecting into the loch and with a tumble of slender branches on top of it. This one is pretty big – about six metres by four metres according to he who knew, it’s size best appreciated from the far side of the loch – as we were to discover later.
Scientists monitoring the Knapdale beaver re-introduction trial attempted, according to Philip, to insert an endoscope into the lodge to see its structure and the activities going on in there – but even a steel spike leading the endoscope could not penetrate the lodge.
Entrances to the lodge are underwater – for security – so specific arrivals and departures are visible only in appearances and disappearances from the surface of the water beyond. Beavers can evidently swim below the surface for up to fifteen minutes – but cannot eat submerged.
Philip was to send a finger-clicking signal as soon as he spotted a beaver on the move – and when it came we threw ourselves to the ground outside the tent hide as quietly as possible, pushing cameras and heads out below the camouflage netting.
Philip’s arm pointed the position on the loch to scrutinise. In the middle, well out from the lodge, there was a ripple on the surface of the water. Then it vanished. She had submerged. And that was it. Where she had surfaced – or whether she had returned to the lodge, we saw no more of her, after a substantial wait.
Philip crawled up for a whispered suggestion – that we should follow him around to the far side of the loch as she sometimes went to feed in the rushes over there. We’d need to hurry.
We cantered off, with no talking – and a small humorous thought that on a slow night, perhaps towing the punters off on a brisk trot is a strategic move. In any case, we were quite happy, regarding any sightings as a bonus.
On the other side, we went off piste again to the lochside – to a wonderfully powerful location below a large grass-topped rocky mound, with trees growing out of boulders, a wide spectrum of vegetation and, in a little inlet beyond it, rushes and the glint of water in the dimming light.
Personally, I felt privileged enough to be in a rather mythical place like this and would have been happy if this were to have been the highlight of my experience.
Philip and John took up position as look outs while I sneaked some shots of them and of the mound.
Nothing moved in the rushes.
We were then signalled to make our way back out to the lochside track and to start heading back to the hide near the lodge – with Philip to catch us up after he had made a few more sweeps of the far side of the loch with his binoculars.
We hadn’t gone too far on the track before he came up behind us fast, gesturing to stop. He pointed to the shore on the far side, to a brown patch near a tree – and kept saying ‘Wow’. He said she was out of the water and well up the hill from the lochside – further than he’d ever seen her go – and was gnawing at some vegetation.
Philip’s eyes are supersharp and he also knows just what to look for. I could see nothing. I did identify the ‘brown patch’ but could make nothing if it. He took my camera and did what he could for me. The lens was working beyond its limits at the distance but he got her – it’s very blurred when blown up enough to identify her – but there she was.
We stood silently and waited for the narrative from the one holding the Gorgon’s eye. After turning back to look at the far side of the loch again, he became galvanised, grabbed out shoulders and pointed to the far shoreside: ‘Do you see that patch of green on the water near the shore? It’s moving. That’s her. She’s taking it back to the lodge.
A clump of bracken eerily moved steadily back towards the lodge. The distance makes my shots of narrative, not photographic value – but here she is, manfully pushing forward through the water against the drag of the substantial bunch of brackens she was towing home – for food or building neither we nor Philip knew.
Philip took off briskly and purposefully back round to the hide and we followed, diving back down to the ground to take up camera positions.
She was easy to see because the bracken was so proud of the surface. Again my shots are narrative nor photographic, showing the way she had tethered the bracken plants in her mouth. She had gone out to the middle of the loch before turning to approach the lodge – perhaps for security?
She kept on trucking, nose above the water, pulling away and as she got closer she presented less of a challenge to the lenses.
She came in to the lodge on the far side from us and we saw no more of what she was getting up to.
Philip was ecstatic – he had not seen this behaviour before. It was good for us that the night we had spent with him had proved rewarding for him as well. Sadly, it’s his honourable policy not to take photographs himself when he’s guiding, so he had none of his serious kit to catch the beaver’s unusual initiative.
We caught our breaths with the magic of it. That was it – we thought.
In minutes, Philip was clicking his fingers again and gesturing to us to get to our camouflage positions. He pointed to the loch – and there she was, swimming up the loch towards us – across the front of the hide – round through some water lily beds [beavers eat lily roots] and straight into the shore to a little inlet feet away.
This was where Philip had earlier put out some treats – carrots and apples – which they would locate by smell if they came up this way.
Beavers have very small ears and eyes – their hearing and sight are poor – but they have proportionately gigantic noses. The sense of smell is central to how they live and work. Just as well that she couldn’t hear too well as my camera sounds like a AK47 in so quiet a place – and we were clicking furiously.
John’s great shots of her during this phase tell the story and hit the target, photographically speaking.
She came in and out to the shore for a snack several times. She spent time chilling out in the lily beds to give a captive carrot a decent send off – her astonishing black leather fingers managing the operation with smooth control.
Finally, she just swam away to the rushes on the far side of the loch and fed there, too distant to get the detail of her but plumply visible in her concentrated attention to the job in hand.
While we were guilty of no ‘pettiness’ of the sort the writer DH Lawrence describes himself as thoughtlessly committing in this account of his meeting with a snake, his poem catches all of the wonder and privilege we feel in covertly witnessing the detail of how other species manage their lives.
Note: The last four photographs above are © John Hadfield.