Cresties

Little did I know when I headed to the Scottish Highlands in early March that I’d spend quite so much time photographing crested tits. When I visited in March 2017 it was considerably milder and although many hours were passed at RSPB Loch Garten the cresties were few and far between (sociable place to hang out though), this year with the snow and cold weather this wasn’t an issue!

Monday was a difficult day. It was supposed to be a full day with the mountain hares but it had snowed heavily since the Sunday and although the main roads were clear I had real trouble finding anywhere I could park the car and was concerned about access to the hares. I visited RSPB Insh Marshes and spent a bit of time in their hides plus walked one of the trails through deep snow. Only photographs I came away with though were sheep!

I then braved the road up to Cairngorm Mountain thinking I could find the snow buntings in the car park, but the drive up was terrifying with snow drifts and the car park didn’t look great for my car, so as soon as I arrived at the top I went straight back down again!

Finally I found myself at Loch Garten. Surprisingly there were no photographers in the car park, nor a bird feeder to be seen – last year this was a hive of activity (even although there were few cresties). I met a woman who told me that all the photographers were gathered on the path up to the visitor centre, but also informed me of a different spot where I could see and photograph the cresties without disturbance from others. I walked past the huddle of men in their camo gear with 500mm F4 lenses and soon found where she was talking about. There were regular visits from a couple of crested tits and although the conditions weren’t great it was lovely to see them and good practice for my official crestie session the following day.

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They seemed to enjoy the fat ball I brought with me too! This one looks really cheery.

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I awoke to yet more snow on Tuesday morning but managed to get the car out the drive and onto the A9 to travel to the Black Isle for a day at the Black Isle Photography Hides crested tit site. I was amazed to discover that as I approached Inverness all the snow completely disappeared – there was none falling or on the ground – just rain. I met James Roddie, one of the two James’ involved in BIPH at Munlochy and followed him up to the site. As we got closer the rain turned back to snow and I thought great! Cresties in snow!

James showed me the perches the birds liked and then took his leave. I got myself set up, but my initial optimism soon disappeared as I realised just how wet the falling snow was. It didn’t take long before my waterproofs were completely drenched and although I stayed dry under them it really was quite miserable. I found myself asking why on earth I was paying to stand outside in such conditions – why didn’t I go somewhere warm and sunny for my holidays??? However… I braved the weather for 4 hours and managed a few images I liked although the ISO was really a bit too high.

These were all taken with the Nikon D500, Tamron 300mm F4, tripod mounted with gimble head. You can tell from these images just how wet it was!

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I did take a few nice shots of other birds visiting the site including a dunnock, robin and coal tit (there were hundreds of coal tits!)

 

I returned to my cottage, changed into dry clothes then scattered some seed on the patio and proceeded to photograph the chaffinches & starlings in the snow from the comfort of the lounge!

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James Moore (the other Black Isle James) was kind enough to offer me a second go with the cresties on the Thursday. And although part of me would have loved to spend the day with the hares, I couldn’t refuse as I really felt I hadn’t achieved what I had set out to.

This was a much better day, weather-wise. Still some snow lying (which was very useful otherwise I’m not sure I’d have found the site again without the footprints) but sunny. Based on my experiences on Tuesday I decided to switch to the Tamron 150-600mm lens and a monopod which made my ability to move about (or swing round) much easier. No sooner had I arrived than I heard a buzzard overhead – looked up and there were three of them. No photos but nice to watch whilst I awaited the arrival of the cresties. It took about half an hour for them to appear, but once they did I had regular visits all day. I felt a bit like the gunner on a fighter plane, swinging the monopod and camera round to try and capture them!  Crested tits don’t tend to hang around for long in one place – easy enough to spot especially as they have a distinctive call, but more often than not by the time you get the camera to that spot the bird has disappeared! But this was my 3rd day of cresties that week and I had had a lot of practice so had a fairly high success rate.  One advantage of the tamron lens (with a max focal distance of 900mm on the D500) was that I didn’t have to physically move much (other than spinning round) as I could zoom in from quite a distance.

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I’ve seen many images of crested tits taken at this site and others where the bird is perched on a photogenic bare branch with attached pine cones. They look great & I’d be delighted to have a few like that, but I couldn’t see any of these branches (and if any were lying on the ground they were under the snow) and, also I quite fancied doing something a little different. I decided to use the branches and pine needles to frame the cresties – adding a completely natural soft green vignette to the images. I was relatively pleased with the results.

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I put a lump of suet-ball in the v of a tree stump. All the birds loved this, including one of the crested tits (the other preferred the peanuts).

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One of the two cresties was having a bad hair day (as you can see from some of the images above). This final image of the bird has quite possibly been my most successful post on twitter!

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James told me on Tuesday that there had been regular visits from long-tailed tits. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I was possibly a little more excited by that news, than the opportunity to photograph the crested tits! I realise for many people these gorgeous little birds are regular garden visitors, but I’ve only ever had one in my garden a couple of times at the tail end of spring 2017 (and for about a second a week or so ago), and I’ve tried everything to encourage them to visit! Sadly on the Tuesday what with the dismal weather, they didn’t bother to show up, but on Thursday, pretty much every time I decided to take a time-out and have a sit down or snack, a pair would magically appear at the feeders/fatball. I’d therefore have to throw down whatever I was eating and try for a few images before they disappeared again.  These birds stay still for even less time than the cresties so shots away from feeders are really tricky to achieve!

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I also spotted a couple of treecreepers.

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and at least two robins.

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My favourite series of image of the day were actually of one of the long-tailed tits. I’d like to say I intentionally composed this so that the background would mirror the colours of the bird, but that would be a lie! Very pleased with these though!

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Thanks to James and James for having me back for a second, far more enjoyable day. If you are looking for a lovely, natural setting to photograph crested tits over the winter months, then do check out hide, now booked by James Roddie.

A selection of these images are available to purchase via my website. If you’d like one that isn’t there please get in touch and I can sort for you.

March (2018) Mountain Hares

Readers of this blog or followers on my social media accounts will be aware how much I love spending quality time with mountain hares. The setting is stunning (especially this year when coated in a thick blanket of snow) and it’s wonderful just to sit with a hare as time passes by – even when the hare does little more than twitch and do a half-hearted groom in 3 hours whilst we survive a blizzard and biting cold winds together!

I booked this year’s March trip back in August and had been counting down the months and days ever since. In recent months I’ve bored friends and colleagues with my worry that there’d be no snow (hard to believe now!). It has seemed to me this winter that every single UK wildlife photographer (and all their friends) have been photographing the hares, probably due to the aforementioned snow. So I was a little concerned that I’d be fighting for a spot in the car park and on the hills. For me, one of the joys of the hares is sitting alone on the mountainside, just me and the hare as one. I do worry that the “hare hill” might turn into another Chanonry Point with photographers jostling for a good spot, getting too close to the animals and causing unnecessary stress. I suppose all the people keep the raptors away, but still…

Initially I thought my holiday was jinxed. First my dog sitter cancelled due to illness, then the “Beast from the East” struck Central Scotland. Glasgow was shut for 3 days – we were told not to travel into work (a first) – my car was parked on untreated roads, would I be able to move it? My parents kindly agreed to take Murphy (the dog), but although the “beast” was a bit late arriving in East Lothian, their village was snowed in by Friday and inaccessible…. So I spent a frantic hour or two on Friday trying to find new dog sitters. Fortunately I came across Dog Buddy and found Corey who was free, so on Saturday morning Murphy was dropped off with complete strangers – it worked out though! I wanted snow, I got snow!

My drive up was without incident and I had a lovely walk around Loch An Eilein to stretch my legs. The snow was falling and it all looked very pretty.

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However… when I arrived at my cottage in Tomatin (3rd stay there, it’s lovely), I rang my host’s doorbell and my middle right finger went wonky.

Transpired I’d damaged the tendon and so spent Sunday morning at A&E in Inverness to have a splint fitted. Fortunately, it didn’t hurt and as I’m left-handed it was less of an inconvenience as it might otherwise have been. I was initially concerned I’d be unable to operate my camera with a heavy lens, but although hand-holding wasn’t really an option my monopod made it easier. I do have to wear a splint for 6-8 weeks though…

Sunday afternoon I made it to the hares. As I only had a few hours, and because there was plenty of snow, I stayed on the lower slopes where I soon found a wonderful hare which was quite content for me to hang out with.

(I took all my mountain hare images on this trip with the Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm lens which gave me a maximum focal distance of 900mm meaning I never had to get too close to the hares. Now, it is possible with some of the animals here to be considerably closer than that, but I’d rather give them as much space as possible to avoid any unnecessary stress.)

This was a brilliant hare, and we were to spend a lot of time together during my week. It was still in its winter pelage with little brown marks above its eyes. On that first afternoon I took some of my favourite photographs as it groomed & grazed…

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and stretched its legs.

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I also took my favourite paw image that afternoon, and it was after posting this photograph on social media that I named the hare “Rafa” – see if you can work out why!

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It was fairly heavy snow on the hillside and I was quite glad to be on the lower slopes.

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A feral goat started bleating loudly down by the woods which caught my attention. On looking more closely I noticed another hare at the edge of the trees grazing (it’s quite small on the left-hand side of the second photo below).

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I parted company with Rafa and moved slowly down the slope so as not to spook the hare and spent some time photographing it, pleased to have a subject in slightly different surroundings. Suddenly there was a flash of orange in my viewfinder, I was so surprised I forgot to press the shutter – it was a red squirrel! It would have been fab to have an image of both together, but I only managed this one in focus picture of the squirrel just before it darted up a tree.

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After this I called it a day, but did grab one quick shot of a feral goat kid, of which there were quite a number.

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When I opened the curtains on Monday morning I was quite relieved I’d visited the hares the day before as I was greeted with deep snow which was still falling. It continued until Wednesday morning, and although I managed out and about on both Monday and Tuesday the road to the hares was frustratingly not an option.

Wednesday afternoon though, after a morning in Neil McIntyre‘s red squirrel hide I decided it was time to stand up to the weather and I tentatively drove along the single-track road hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone coming in the opposite direction as all the passing places looked inaccessible without a 4×4 and / or winter tyres. I made it without incident but as there was really only a couple of hours of light left I stuck to the lower slopes again. There were quite a few cars in the car park but I had this area to myself (how I like it) and it didn’t take long to spot Rafa who was sitting in pretty much the same place as before – such a beautiful hare!

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I was treated to some more grooming. In order to wash, the hares wet their front paw and use it to clean their bodies as can be seen in this series of images.

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Rafa then had a yawn and lolloped off.

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There was another hare sheltering in a snow hole (I think this is Ginger who I spent more time with on Friday). So I took a few photographs of it and then headed home.

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Friday was my only full day with the hares which was a shame, but I made the most of it arriving at the site early and staying until the sun went down. A hare ran past behind me, and then there was another sitting right at the side of the track only feet away which had a great face.

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Although it started off as a beautiful morning by the time I’d climbed the hill (hard work in deep snow), catching up with Andy Howard, as he was also heading up with a client, the blue sky disappeared, replaced by a white-out. Andy went off to see if he could find Mrs Grey and I located a hare hunkered down a little further on. I settled down and for the next three hours during which time a snow storm passed through I sat with this hare as it did almost nothing at all. It was freezing! I don’t blame the hare for its inactivity, the wind was bitter and visibility reduced to almost nothing. No hares were moving at this time. The sun eventually reappeared and the hare did a half-hearted groom and a bit of snacking then moved down the slope a little to feed some more.

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I decided to go and look for a more active hare and spotted three a little further up, but they were quite skittish. I photographed a few from a distance – it’s always nice to get some wide-angle shots especially when the hills looked so stunning.

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I found a couple more hares and took one of my favourite images from the week

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At this point I decided to go back down the hill and check in with Rafa. Not long after I’d got myself settled I heard a noise – it was 2 men on snow mobiles who zoomed down the hill close-by. Knowing this would upset Rafa I was ready for some running shots. Fortunately he didn’t go very far and I followed him up a slope and discovered he was with a second hare (known as Ginger apparently). So I spent the last couple of hours of daylight, when there was some great light with these two animals. Here’s Rafa

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…and Ginger

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As the light fell I spotted an opportunity for a back-lit image of Ginger

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Saturday morning before returning to Glasgow I had one final visit to Rafa. The weather was horrible though, blizzard conditions. I sat facing Rafa, which meant facing into the snow – very unpleasant! Rafa did absolutely nothing and my camera lens kept getting snowy, so I walked down to the woods and tried to photograph a feral goat with the most brilliant face. I failed though as it went too deep into the woods. I returned to Rafa for another half and hour or so, still nothing, and called it a day.

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So… brilliant to spend time with the hares again, especially Rafa. The enjoyment I get from being with them is unabated, and I soon forget the freezing conditions and difficult walking as I look back on my experiences. It is such a privilege to spend time with these hardy animals. It was disappointing not to see any boxing, chasing or rolling in the snow this time around, but I traded that for the stunning snowy hillsides, so I can’t really complain.

I hope to be back up for a quick visit in April and am already looking forward to that!

A selection of my new winter hare images are available for purchase via my website.  If you’d like one you don’t see there please get in touch and I’ll add.  Greeting cards also available by request.