How to Photograph Red Squirrels
Long before I had even considered taking up wildlife photography, red squirrels intrigued and fascinated me. As young boy, I had to cycle a mile and half along a narrow, wooded, single-track lane in Scotland in order to catch the school bus. On these twice daily bike rides in the morning and late afternoon, I would frequently catch sight of the red squirrels as they went about their daily business.
I would often stop and watch them get up to some fantastic antics, chasing through the trees or scurrying around to gather food. On a couple of occasions, I watched for too long and ended up missing the school bus, which was not easy to explain to my mother!
As a result of witnessing the squirrels’ shenanigans I was hooked and, a few years later, when I started getting into wildlife photography, they were right at the top of the list of species I wanted to spend time with. So, I continued along a similar vein as with my school commute, basically relying on chance encounters as I wandered around. As before, I saw them and got some photos of the squirrels.
At first, I had no expectations and was happy just to get some shots of them. However, after around a year following this approach, as enjoyable as it was, it was becoming obvious that simply relying on chance encounters would not equate into the quality and depth of images that I wanted, as my expectations as a wildlife photographer grew.
Albeit not a total waste of time, as I learned a lot about red squirrels following that approach, but I needed a new tactic to produce the images I now envisaged in my mind. What was required was closer interaction and longer spells with the squirrels, compared to the more distant, fleeting encounters from past experiences.
Learning to bait red squirrels
‘How do you do that?’, I asked myself. Why not try the complete opposite and, rather than go looking for the squirrels, bring them to me?
Food (nuts in this case) would be answer. A visit to the local green grocers and some bags of hazelnuts purchased, I went about placing the nuts in their shells around a couple of locations I knew held good numbers of squirrels.
I kept away from these spots for a few days to avoid any disturbance, and just to let things happen if they were going to. After three days I couldn’t wait any longer, so off I went to visit the sites with eager anticipation. Upon reaching the first area my high hopes were immediately dashed, not a single nut had been taken. Somewhat downhearted, as I had positive feelings about this approach, I headed the half mile or so to the second location, expecting the same disappointment.
With about twenty yards to go, I could clearly see that one of the fallen tree stumps where I had placed some nuts was clean. With eager excitement, I went around all the fallen logs and stumps to find the same result: not a single nut remained. I was over the moon, but I had one nagging thought: were the nuts eaten by squirrels, or by mice or shrews? These animals also gather up nuts, after all.
With no shells around I had no way of telling. Squirrels split the shell in half cleanly. Mice tend to chew a hole to reach the nut. There was only one way to find out, so I returned home for a pop-up hide which I then placed nearby, so I could return in the morning and watch what happened when I replenished the nuts. With the food scattered around various vantage points, I settled in for what I expected to be a long wait.
How wrong I was! I had not even been in the hide for thirty minutes when I could hear a familiar scraping noise that a squirrel makes with its claws on the tree bark as it descends down a tree. Seconds later it was right in front of the hide, turning and gathering a nut in its perfect little hands before bounding off to bury it.
As it continued with this busy behaviour, a second squirrel also appeared and, for the next hour, these two kept me transfixed with their capers. Magic is the only word to describe what I witnessed this day, and the prospect and anticipation of what I could now possibly achieve image-wise was hugely exciting. Since that day, red squirrels have played a massive part in my daily life.
Using red squirrel feeding sites
It is worth mentioning at this point that all of the above took place thirty years ago, and red squirrel feeding sites are now a lot more common than back then. There are now several commercial red squirrel hides scattered around northern England and throughout Scotland. If you don’t have access to your own site, it’s certainly worth considering visiting one of these.
I used that original site for around twenty-five years, and my current one has now been in use for around five years. Some people are not keen on baited sites and that is a choice I totally respect. However, I have tried different techniques to try and photograph squirrels, and having them come to you due to you providing a food source has been by far the most productive and satisfying.
How you set up and work these sites is very important: first and foremost for the squirrels, and secondly for the photography.
The food is clearly the priority for the squirrels, so providing it comes with responsibility. By this, I mean you need to get the balance right between how much food you need to entice them in and to keep them around, and putting out too much, meaning that they get too reliant and stop foraging for themselves, which you do not want to happen.
Basically, you just want to subsidise what they eat naturally. Another important consideration is whether you can commit to keeping this going on an ongoing basis. It’s not fair on the squirrels to just dabble when it suits you. It does not necessarily need to be every day, but several times a week is certainly ideal. Furthermore, the more that visiting the feeding site becomes ingrained into the red squirrels’ daily routine, the more reliable and predictable their visits will be.
How to choose a red squirrel feeding site
When choosing a feeding site, there are several key photographic factors to consider.
The first is how the background will look. Wherever possible, I like to have a clean, diffused background. To achieve this, you want some separation between where the squirrels will be, and what is behind them.
Choosing a more open area or the edge of the forest will make this more achievable, rather than a thickly wooded area. Also, shooting from a lower level will help you get better backgrounds.
Light is another important consideration. Again, choosing a more open area, or a forest edge, will allow more light into the shot, so avoid thicker areas of forest where the trees are just a few feet apart. Think in advance if you want backlighting or front lighting, and what times of day the light suit these and other types of lighting.
Once the squirrels get used to your presence, which will happen the more time you spend with them, there will be no reason why you can’t move around more and experiment with a variety of lighting conditions. This is the ideal scenario to aim for, as it gives your images a far wider range of moods and ambience.
My last point to consider when selecting a site is easy to overlook, and is not directly related to photography. Be aware of accessibility and how far you need to travel to reach your location.
If you are serious about keeping the site regularly supplied, it’s not feasible to be walking miles to a remote location multiple times a week. So, look for somewhere that is quiet and tucked away, but is also within a sensible walking distance to reach regularly.
I would recommend starting with a pop-up hide and, once you get a good idea of how things are working, you could think about a more permanent structure. But don’t rush into this: you might find the squirrels in and around the feeding area will become used to your presence and tolerate you just fine, as long as you sit still and move cautiously.
How to set up your photographs
Once your feeding site is established, you can start concentrating on capturing some images, and indeed just watching and learning any behaviour patterns. You will be surprised how invaluable simply watching can be, and how it will give you new ideas and allow you to anticipate events and behaviours more easily.
1. Arrange your scenery
If you have chosen your location well, there should be plenty scope for nice natural pictures around the various standing trees, and branches of any fallen trees. If you have any areas with gaps, there is nothing wrong with placing in the odd tree stump of your own.
Just make sure they look natural and fit into the surrounding environment: the more gnarled and twisted, the better!
2. Use food to assist with tracking
Red squirrels are speedy little mammals, so it may take a short while to get your eye in when tracking them with a camera. But be sure to persist, and I am sure you soon will. A little tip to get them to stop and feed is to crack the nut open, and nine times out of ten they will sit in place and eat it. With nuts in the shell, they will certainly eat some, but a lot of the time they will grab the nut and scoot off to bury it somewhere close by, for leaner times.
By placing the food in the same spots, like on top of any fallen trees or any perches you have placed, the squirrels will very quickly get into a routine of checking these places out, which will at least allow you to semi-predict where they will go next, or where they will appear.
Having the squirrel sitting in a nice, settled pose is great and works perfectly for certain shots, but also be aware of the spontaneous, brief poses they make as they move around: keep following them with the camera, even before they reach any feeding spots. Some great, unique images can be captured if you do this.
Read more: How to Photograph Fast-moving Mammals
3. Appreciate the different seasons
As the seasons change, so do the red squirrels. This can be a nice aspect to document throughout your squirrel portfolio. In winter you have them in their more brown, slightly silver coat, with the large, very distinctive ear tufts, and of course the chance of capturing them in some snowy conditions. Once May comes around, you start to see the red summer coat appear and their tails become lighter.
By mid June most are in their full red coats, but now without their characteristic ear tufts, which they lose over the summer months. October sees the next change, when coats become darker again and the ear tufts begin to regrow. This is a great month as the squirrels are extra busy stashing food and are therefore very active, plus you have the added bonus of beautiful autumnal colours to include in the background.
Camera settings will of course depend on the light but, if possible, try and achieve a reasonably fast shutter speed of around 1/250th sec for any static shots. If you want to capture any faster moving or action type shots, you will need considerably more speed.
For example, if you attempt to photograph a jumping squirrel, the shutter speed needs to be around 1/1600th sec to ensure you can freeze the action. Keeping your f-stop wide open, or close to that, along with pushing the ISO up, these fast speeds are achievable.
Again due to how fast they move, be sure to have your camera’s frame rate on high rather than on single shot. Things can happen very quickly and out of the blue with squirrels, so you want to be ready when it does.
I mentioned light earlier and, for most of your shots, the ideal type of light is typical of what you want for most types of wildlife photography: a bright, overcast day. It certainly suits the squirrels, and every hair and whisker detail can be picked up.
Plus, being in a wooded setting, the backgrounds can be kept clean and even with overcast light, rather than the harsh, blotchy shadows with white hotspots that you would get in bright, sunny light.
However, the exception is if you want to create some backlit images, or get the squirrels rim lit. For these, you require a bright, sunny day, ideally in the early morning or late afternoon to catch the low sun.
Winter is best, as is autumn and early spring, when the squirrels have their large, prominent ear tufts. Sunlight is less harsh over these months, which can also help achieve the desired effect. With some backlight, the big, bushy tail and ear tufts look wonderful when illuminated, and really make the squirrel stand out from its surroundings.
You will possibly need to under expose by at least one full stop to get the desired result, and by even more in some cases. It’s certainly worth trying various levels of underexposed settings to create a variety of different looks.
Choosing your lens
The lens you use will of course vary with the type of image you want to achieve. This is one of the most invaluable advantages of a feeding site: it will, or should, allow you to use a range of lenses. As is normal for close-ups and portrait type shots, and indeed many others, a 500mm telephoto or zoom lens will very much be the go to choice.
Switching to a 300mm or a 70-200mm zoom, for example, is great to get a picture of the squirrel in its habitat. Wide angles are also an option, which you can set up and fire remotely.
In a nutshell (pardon the pun), any lens and type of image will be possible if you use your imagination. Keeping your mind open and visualising new ideas is very important, or you might find things can get a bit repetitive. It is up to you to stop that from happening.
It’s hard to think of a more charismatic little animal than the red squirrel, and they are joy to photograph and spend time with. If on some days the photography side of things doesn’t work out, don’t get downbeat. Just be glad you had the chance, and tomorrow is a new day.
Always remember that any time you spend with these cheeky, alluring creatures is never time wasted. We all have our good days and bad days, and some squirrel therapy always makes the worst of days seem that bit brighter.