Falling in Love with Mountain Hares

Little did I know as I trudged up a mountain path in the Scottish Highlands last July that I’d be meeting an animal that I would fall in love with.  It had never occurred to me to even attempt to photograph mountain hares – I presumed that any attempt to do so would result in pictures of their backsides as they bounded away from me at high speed!

I was in the Highlands on a week long photography masterclass with nature photographer Laurie Campbell.  I’ve written about this experience in an earlier blog, so I won’t repeat myself too much.

Over the course of a couple of hours we found a couple of hares, that, quite incredibly, I thought, allowed us to approach them.  It was such a privilege to be accepted although it would be fair to say the hares did very little other than sit and snooze but it was enough to have me hooked.   As was so often the case on an Aigas day out we had to rush back to the field centre for dinner otherwise I’d loved to have stayed longer with the hares.

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In October I returned to Aigas to stay in the wonderful Illicit Still cabin (a dream of mine since my first visit in 2015).  Top of my to do list was to revisit the hares. Mountain hares turn white in the winter to camouflage themselves from predators (as do stoat and ptarmigan).  They don’t sleep in burrows like their rabbit cousins, so need some sort of protection.  By October they were just beginning to go white.  Again I was fortunate enough to find a hare unphased by my presence and I settled down to watch and photograph it, edging ever closer.  I was using a full frame Nikon D610 with the Tamron SP AF150-600 F5/6.3 Di VC USD lens so didn’t have to get too close to fill the frame.  I did however struggle when the hare stretched – I couldn’t fit the whole animal in!   It was a great day, marred only by the fact that I’d left my lunch and snacks behind so eventually hunger got the better of me!  (One of my favourite things about this October trip was the sound of the rutting red deers on neighbouring hillsides reverberating around the valleys – quite spine-tingling.  Sadly I never managed to photograph the rut, but the bellows of the stags will stay with me for a long time.)

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Having been bitten by the mountain hare bug, I was determined to return in late winter when the hares are courting “mad march hares” as I’d been told this was when the animals were most active.  I found accommodation close by and spent three days on the mountainside.  At this time of year the hares were higher up – it was quite a climb with all my camera gear and the many layers of clothing I was wearing to insulate me as I lay on the ground for hours – note to self, improve fitness level for next winter!!  There were many occasions when I had to stop to admire the view.

The first morning was glorious, beautiful blue sky but very little in the way of snow on the hillside.  This may not have been great for the hares, now white, but it did allow me to spot them with ease!  The light was incredible for the first hour or so, perfect for back-lit animals. Fortunately I was able to get close enough to a couple to take advantage.

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I was hoping for snow.  On my first day there were pockets of the white stuff, but much of the hillside was brown heather…

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the second day even less snow…

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…but finally on the Friday and Saturday snow fell.  On Friday morning I awoke to a thick layer of the white stuff, but it was overcast and soon turned to rain –  not an ideal day for the mountains, so I spent it photographing a red squirrel (Loch an Eilein carpark) and snow buntings in the Cairngorm Mountain carpark.

There was more snow overnight and although travelling back to Glasgow, I got the car packed early and headed back to the hares to finally be rewarded with a snowy mountainside – so much so I was glad I’d brought my crampons for the slog up the path!

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Quite a few other photographers also took advantage of the snow.

 

 

The conditions weren’t ideal if I’m honest, it was quite wet and very cold, visibility wasn’t wonderful, but I was finally able to photograph white(ish!) hares on white snow which had been on my check list.  Ideally I’d have liked a white hare, maybe next winter…

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My aspiration as a wildlife photographer is to try and observe and capture natural behaviours.  This takes patience and knowledge of the subject. Frustratingly I rarely have enough time to do this justice.  But I was determined to spend as much time with the hares in March and to photograph as many different behaviours as possible.  I was hoping for grooming, running and boxing.  First off I had to find hares willing to let me come close and all three days I was able to achieve this with a number of the animals.  The vast majority of hares behave exactly as you’d expect when approaching – they run away.  But with patience and a growing understanding of which ones look promising it is possible to locate animals who aren’t frightened.  I tended to start quite far away, edging slowly closer every few minutes until I could fill the camera frame at 600mm.  There wasn’t any need to get any nearer than that.  Due to the walk up to the hares and my appalling level of fitness, I brought as little equipment with me as possible – so no tripod or beanbag.  I was wearing full waterproof and thermal clothing (I can recommend the hunting department at Decathlon for wildlife clothing for those who spend all their money on new lenses!) as it got really cold sitting for extended periods of time.  This also allowed me to lie on the wet/snowy heather so I was at eye-level with the hares.

This was my favourite animal – I spent over an hour sitting close-by on day 2.  During that time it did a full groom and I captured a lovely series of endearing images.

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One shot this hare didn’t give me was the open hand – I’d seen similar images and loved them.  Finally on day 3 this animal obliged:

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It’s not perfect, but I was happy with the result.  This hare actually came so close to me as I sat watching it, that I couldn’t fit it in the frame.  It then proceeded to roll about in the snow – wonderful!

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Boxing hares were also on the wish list.  I wasn’t 100% successful in this but managed a few interactions…

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And, finally, some running images were also on the wish list.  This was easier!

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Photographing these amazing animals is a real privilege.  I can’t think of any other animal that has allowed me to share it’s personal space in this way.  There’s no better way to spend a day than sitting out in the fresh air, surrounded by stunning scenery watching these wonderful creatures go about their daily business.  I’m counting the days until I can go visit with them again.

Prints of my mountain hare images are available either via my website or by contacting me directly at karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk – I can also print A6 greeting cards on request.

It can be a tough life being a puffin

Puffins are amazing little seabirds – not only are they gorgeous to look at during the breeding season and certainly entertaining to observe, but they are tough!  When not nesting on land these hardy birds are bobbing about on the ocean withstanding the challenging conditions and predators.  When we see them on land, especially before they have young to feed, it’s easy to forget the alternate life they lead off-shore as they pop in and out of their burrows, billing with their partner or collecting nesting material.

I have so many photographs of puffins sitting…

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gathering grasses…

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flying…

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…and billing – the latter especially  I love, it looks so romantic.

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But, never satisfied, what I hoped to capture this year were a few of the other behaviours – fights between puffins and puffins having their catch stolen by gulls.  Neither of these are easy to watch, but it is life and natural and I suppose the gulls need to feed too, even if I think they should go and find their own food!

I have spent two days in the company of puffins this year, I’ll talk about the second trip in my next blog. But, in late April I visited Lunga, part of the Treshnish Islands off the coast of Mull.  I took advantage of the new Turus Mara Big Bird Trip with allows  four hours on the island – this seemed a lot when I arrived but it passed incredibly quickly.   Lunga is by far and away my favourite puffin spot and it had been three years since my last visit there.  It’s a good size, is scenic, there aren’t too many visitors and there are no restrictions other than an understanding you won’t stand on the burrows and will respect the birds.  Landing is a little challenging, and you have to be confident clambering over a boulder laden beach to reach the wildlife.  Not a problem for me, but some folk took quite a while to negotiate the rocks. The puffins apparently like the human visitors as they keep away predators (white-tailed sea eagles, or buzzards for example).  I saw a large corvid fly overhead, and within seconds there wasn’t a puffin to be seen although the razorbills were unconcerned so I took the opportunity to photograph those.

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Throughout the four hours I barely moved from the same spot. Most of the other visitors headed further up the island, but I settled down and observed the puffin behaviour on the initial cliff top.  Of course I took far too many photographs, using both my Nikon D7200 with the Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VRII lens + 1.4 TC or, because the birds came so close, the Nikon D610 with Tokina 100mm F2.8 macro lens.  There were some lovely moments of interactions between puffins, puffins struggling to land in the strong winds and others struggling to detach grasses for their nests.

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However what I was really hoping for was a full-on puffin fight scene that I could photograph.  Often when two fight they end up in a burrow so it’s not easy to capture.  However, eventually my patience was rewarded when two birds went for each other close to where I was sitting.  And boy, did they go for it!  There were feathers flying and at least one bird was quite bloodied by the end.  I don’t know how it was resolved as the birds disappeared over the edge of the cliff – hopefully ok for both.  One interesting thing to note was how other puffins gathered round to watch, almost like a school boy playground fight with friends cheering their favourite on.

You can watch a video (of photographs) of the fight on my facebook page, but here’s a selection:

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I’d highly recommend visiting Lunga if you are ever on Mull (you can go from Oban too).  You also visit Staffa which is great to see once, although personally I’d rather have more time with my feathered friends!

Puffin photographs are available to purchase via my website, if you’re outwith the UK or would like greeting cards, please contact me directly karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk

 

Landing on The Bass Rock

My parents live in East Lothian in Scotland, and whenever I spend time there in the summer I spend much of my time watching and photographing the many seabirds that frequent the coastline – I make at least one annual pilgrimage to visit the kittiwakes nesting in Dunbar Harbour (see below) for example, and always look out for the Eider ducks in all the harbours, but most especially a little further south at Eyemouth (I’ve seen an otter here too and there’s always at least one or two seals).

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I also like to visit with the gannets that nest on the Bass Rock, off the coast of North Berwick.  Every year I book a round the rock trip with the Scottish Seabird Centre to marvel at these magnificent birds crammed into every available space on the island. Photographing them is tricky from a moving boat and there isn’t really time to compose the shots adequately, it’s really just a case of spotting photogenic birds and hoping I can get the camera on them before we move on too far!

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I have often therefore toyed with the idea of the Seabird Centre‘s landing trip – the idea of actually setting foot on the Bass Rock and experiencing the gannets at very close quarters was appealing.  However, it’s expensive (currently £130), often fully booked far in advance and more often than not it’s cancelled before sailing or the fishing boat is unable to land on the island so I’d never been.  This year I checked again and there was availability on the Friday trip.  It was an early start, but the weather forecast looked promising, no wind to speak of and not too sunny, so I signed up.

Before leaving, Maggie, the knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide went through safety instructions – this included being provided with plastic chopping boards to protect our legs from nesting gannets on the path and also how to get from the boat onto the island – this involved shimmying along the side of the boat, climbing over a rail and then leaping onto the path!  We were also warned that landing might not be possible, and if that was the case we’d turn around and head back.

Before attempting to land on the Rock, we did some “chumming” where the boat crew threw fish in the water for the gannets – wow!  It’s hard to describe this part of the trip other than to say it was a little like being inside a snow globe, where the snow was gannets.  Looking up and all around we were completely surrounded by the birds flying, swooping and diving.

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It was incredible, and worth putting the camera down for a minute or two just to revel in the experience.  Photographing gannets diving is challenging though!  Even if lucky enough to press the shutter as the bird enters the water it’s difficult to achieve a good shot.  I was quite interested in the birds just under the surface.  I used a couple of different lenses, a wide angle 24mm on my crop-frame Nikon D7200 as well as my 70-200 f2.8 VRII on the full-frame Nikon D610.

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Once the fish ran out we headed to the Rock, and amazingly were able to land without too many problems.  I had expected the island to smell, but was pleasantly surprised on that front, the gannets were incredible noisy though.  We were told to just drink it all in initially whilst Maggie went up to the area she’s managed to reserve for island visitors and I took this time to observe the birds and marvel at how many of them there were!

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It was also interesting to note that although so very graceful in the air, the birds were quite ungainly on land, and when landing – I saw quite a few crash into walls, cliffs & other birds!  Many were sitting on nests (anywhere there was space including on top of the old ruins) whilst others gathered nesting material or hopped around pestering the other birds.

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The chopping boards were definitely a good idea, walking up the path the birds protected their nesting sites by stabbing with their beaks, but so long as I just kept walking and positioned the protection correctly it was fine!

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Once we reached our area we had plenty of space and could also go back down towards the landing area, but I chose to stay put for the first hour watching and trying to capture on camera the behaviours of the birds.

What amused me the most was after two birds had a squabble they would often turn back to their partner and have a reassuring cuddle. One bird wandered around for ages with a bill full of seaweed, apparently not knowing what to do with it – whether it had forgotten where to take it, or was just a young bird practising for parenthood, I don’t know, however it looked very pleased with itself!

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Experienced birds didn’t leave their nests unattended, but the first-timers sometimes made that mistake with disastrous consequences.

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I also spent a fair amount of time photographing the flying birds as they swooped over my head.  My favourite shots were when they prepared for landing with their feet sticking out. Fortunately it was a slightly overcast day which assisted greatly in photographing white birds.  It was bright enough that I could push the shutter speed up but was able to avoid blowing the highlights.

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One of the hardest things to do was isolate birds as there were so many.  It made clean images quite difficult.  A shallow depth of field helped with static gannets, but was less successful if photographing disagreements.

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Our three hours on the Bass Rock passed so quickly. Apparently the best time to land is July when the young are visible and active, but there was still plenty to observe and it was wonderful to learn more about these beautiful birds.  It’s definitely a trip I’d recommend whether you’re photographer or bird lover.  When it comes to lens choices I’d suggest a short wide angle and a mid-range telephoto – I had up to 200mm and that was more than enough.  I would love to visit with a fish eye lens although I’d have to buy one first!

More photographs of my trip can be found on flickr

If you’re interested in purchasing any of my photographs then please visit www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk or contact me directly karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk