2020VISION Assignment: Pine marten

2020VISION, Britain’s most ambitious conservation photography initiative, has just sent the first of its photographers on assignment - to the Scottish Highlands.

Pine marten in Caledonian Pinewoods, Scottish Highlands taken by Terry Whittaker

Terry Whittaker is sent on a mission to photograph one of the UK’s most attractive but elusive predators: the pine marten.

iWitness Assignment: Caledonian pinewoods
Location: Scottish Highlands
Wildlife photographer: Terry Whittaker
Pine martens have become fairly abundant in the Scottish Highlands but that hasn’t made them any easier to see, never mind photograph.
I wanted to get a series of images of pine marten behaviour in natural habitat. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy because every time I had tried to photograph marten at other locations over the past couple of years I had failed miserably.
Research (ie talking to people in the pub) led me to a local photographer cum pine marten enthusiast who had been watching a female from his car on a forest track. He kindly offered to show me the prized location. 
Over the next few days I saw the female marten a couple of times from my car, but she seemed uneasy and calls from the forest suggested she had kits that she had no intention of taking anywhere near a car. I needed a different approach.
I set a camera-trap deep in the forest and set bait around it*.
Camera-trapping isn’t easy. It rains on the lens. The lens steams up at critical periods. It fails to fire or fires when nothing is there. One day a woodpecker sat in the beam and took 200 self-portraits, all of it facing the wrong way!
But occasionally something magical happens. And one morning I found I had several images of the female and her three well-grown kits.
Pine Marten
The next step was to put up a hide nearby and wait. And wait. After a few days the female began arriving just before dark. She would collect the food and take it to her kits, lurking out of sight.
This went on for several more days with her coming a little earlier each time and gaining confidence until one evening I had an experience I will never forget.
Mum arrived first to check out the situation and suddenly it seemed there were martens everywhere - up and down trees, kits rolling and tumbling and leaping onto each other in a blur of activity.
Over the next few days I had kits bouncing off the hide. Once one pushed against the canvas with its paws. I gently pressed back and for a moment we were separated only by the thin material.
Occasionally mum would decide that this was all getting out of hand and regain control with a sharp alarm call that sent the kits scurrying into the canopy where they sat peering down, alert to danger but still eager to play.
*My rationale for baiting was that, as I was going to work with this marten over a fairly long period, I would only feed her the types of food she might find naturally and only enough that she would visit this part of her territory each day, but not enough to sustain her, so she would still have to hunt and forage, teaching her kits essential skills in the process.
Time and patience are the most important things you need to photograph such a shy mammal as well as being able to understand when you are causing disturbance and should back off a little. 
Keep equipment simple: One camera, one lens and follow the action in anticipation for a pause, however brief. Remember, pine martens move fast. 

2020VISION is a multimedia project that highlights the link between people's well being and the restoration of natural systems.

Uniquely, it pairs the talents of 20 of the UK's most skilled outdoor photographers with writers, editors, videographers, sound artists and scientists to make a compelling case for rewilding landscapes - for wildlife and for people.

To see some of the best images taken on 2020VISION assignments so far, click here.

To find out more about 2020VISION, click here.


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