Another summer of pine martens

Taken at my pine marten hide near Inverness.

It has been the longest and one of the most successful seasons ever at the Black Isle Nature Photography pine marten hide. I’ve had people in the hide almost every day from the end of April until mid August! So I thought I would give you all a bit of insight into what goes into running the UK’s most popular daylight pine marten hide.

The success rate for guests photographing martens in daylight was high – around 80%. Our ‘resident’ old female marten has continued to visit, and for yet another year she provided many dozens of people with their first ever sighting and photos of pine martens. Additionally, her kit from 2 years ago has also visited on and off throughout the summer.

It is wonderful how much joy these animals bring to people. One guest told me they had their best ever experience with wildlife at the hide – something that meant a great deal to me. Pine martens are breath-taking animals to see up close, and it is hard to describe the magic of seeing your first ever marten pop up a few metres away in the heather.

The season started very early indeed. The old female always starts making daylight appearances in March, but usually only when there’s nobody in the hide. This year I first caught a glimpse of her on the 22nd March – the earliest I’ve ever seen her. She went quiet again for a few days, and then on the 4th of April she made her first visit of any real length. She was very shy, but she looked incredible in her thick winter fur and I was ecstatic to see her properly again.

The first two weeks of May are usually some of the best of the season. It was a bit different this year, with both martens becoming more elusive for a while. Things rapidly started to pick up however, and I was on tender hooks waiting for the first sightings of this year’s kits.

Then, a spanner in the works.

A fox started to make occasional fleeting visits during mid May. This is the precise time that the mum usually starts bringing her new kits to the hide! The martens and fox largely avoided each other entirely, but I suspect the fox’s presence was enough to dissuade the mum from bringing her kits to the hide.

So whilst the kits didn’t appear as they have every other year, the good news is that the mum continued to visit in daylight almost every day. The fox never became a long-term problem thankfully, and June and July were good months at the hide. Eventually I came to accept that either the mum hadn’t had kits, or she was simply not bringing them into the heather in front of the hide.

Finally on the 10th of July the kits were heard yelping only a short distance away, but they never actually appeared. Around the same time the mum got a large bite mark on her neck – a tell-tale sign that she had mated again! So I’m very hopeful for kits again next year.

With the mum still visiting consistently during the second half of July, I decided to extend the hide season for another few weeks. I’m glad I did, as she is sometimes still popping up in mid-afternoon during the middle of August!

As with every season at the marten hide, this year has had its share of ups and downs. Inevitably, some people left disappointed without any sightings. I always feel so bad when this happens. However, I can’t state strongly enough how much effort I put into giving the best possible chances of seeing pine martens in daylight. From the middle of March until late August, pine martens completely take over my life. In early spring I spend up to 12 hours a day, almost every day, just sitting in the hide and waiting for those first glimpses of a marten. I study the animal’s behaviour exhaustively to give guests the most accurate information possible as to when and how the animal’s will visit. I examine every photo I get of the martens, both mine and those sent to me by guests, to look for any possible injuries or signs of illness on the animals that might affect them. 
I make sure there is food out for the martens every day – no exceptions.

The simple truth is that, sometimes, the animals just don’t visit whilst it is light enough for photography. Who knows why? I can give educated guesses when it happens, but that’s all. There is a reason why there are very few daylight marten hides in Scotland – they are a difficult species!. In the end, pine martens are almost mythically elusive creatures, which allow us only brief, privileged glimpses into their lives.

I’m delighted to say the old female has mated again for another year, so I’m expecting (hoping!) for kits to make an appearance next summer as usual. I’ll keep you posted!

I will also be running a night-time pine marten hide this autumn/winter, so I will be releasing more details soon.


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