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.

8 thoughts on “Falling in Love with Mountain Hares

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