I was given the opportunity to spend a few days working in Aberdeen, so used that as a great excuse to spend the earlier part of the week back in the Scottish Highlands to visit my favourite furry friends, the mountain hares. On my last visit to the Highlands in October, back in 2016, the weather was glorious. I stayed in the Aigas Illicit Still cabin and it was really quite idyllic. This time, no such luck – wind and rain were the order of the day which wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t let it stop me getting up to the hares as often as possible.
Mountain hares are incredible creatures who brave all that the British weather can throw at them, sheltering not in warm burrows like rabbits, but by digging out holes in the snow, or finding indents in the ground in which to spend their days. I have so much respect for them, especially in winter as I sit huddled in many layers still feeling the cold and they hunker down with only their fur to insulate them. Respect! They do no one any harm and are a joy to watch – their facial expressions are wonderful. It angers/pains me that these creatures are shot to protect an industry that involves shooting other animals for sport and hopefully at some point in the not too distant future they will be given the protection that they deserve. On the positive side, the estate I, and many others, photograph the hares on does not cull them and in fact encourages wildlife and should therefore be commended.
I probably wrote this in my July blog, but if you missed that, I’ll say it again, both locating hares in the first place and then finding one that will allow you to get reasonably close outwith the cold winter season (bearing in mind I have a 900mm max focal distance) isn’t easy. They are both more mobile (so flighty) and also well camouflaged. Obviously if you’re up there every day, or regularly, you figure out where to find individuals which helps, but the first day or two can be a challenge. You can’t creep up on a hare, they have almost 360 degree vision, so it’s a case of locating one who is already settled and approaching slowly. After that it’s a case of sussing out the average distance at which the hares are comfortable and not pushing it. However, I like a challenge and I love the hares, so none of this stops me! What I hate is the walk up the hill. I really do need to work on my fitness!
I arrived at the hare hill early Saturday afternoon after the drive up from Glasgow. Although a relatively sunny day with the odd shower, the light was really tricky. At this time of year the sun lies low over the crest of the hill where the hares hang out. This means that looking up the hill (the best angle from which to locate hunkering hares) is nigh on impossible as you’re blinded by the glare. So I walked further up, avoiding the cluster of three photographers who obviously had found an obliging animal. For some reason the higher hares always seem to be the most active, and suddenly I saw one leap dramatically into the air, really high! Over far too quickly to photograph, but great to see. Then, to my surprise it had a brief box with another hare – they aren’t supposed to do that at this time of year! – I managed to photograph that as they were on the horizon and therefore worked as silhouettes, I would have liked a bit of back light, but you can’t have everything!
The other one then demonstrated that it could leap just as high in the air as the first and ran off down the hill. I followed and managed another silhouetted image which I quite like.
I did find one semi-obliging hare during the afternoon which was one of the whitest I saw during my days on the hillside. Frustratingly it eventually chose to sit with a few long strands of grass in front of it which was a shame as it had a lovely face, and kept twitching its nose which was enjoyable to watch, but reading the signs I was pretty sure if I attempted to shift position it would run off.
The forecast for Sunday was for very strong winds, but it’s the only day of the week you’re permitted on the estate before 11am so I drove along for 9am where I discovered that yes, the winds really were very strong! As I walked along the initial level track I was lost in thought trying to decide what I should do, as walking up the hill against the wind was less than appealing. I therefore paid very little attention to a squealing noise until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something brown being flung up in the air. Transpired it was a rabbit being attacked by a stoat. Unfortunately for all concerned, at this point the stoat clocked me and ran off for the shelter of a nearby wall, stopping for a few seconds to look back, which I managed to photograph. If I’d been more observant I’m pretty sure I could have stayed put down wind and captured the action on camera, but as it was we were all losers – no photos, dead rabbit and hungry stoat. I did sit downwind for a bit waiting to see if the stoat would return but it didn’t and in fact hadn’t even when I passed on my way back to the car.
I decided to try walking up the path on the other side of the river, but seeing no hares crossed back over and traversed round the side of the lower hill on the left. No hares here either, and quite hard going in the wind especially as I clambered up quite high through the heather. I did find the feral goats grazing amongst some gorse bushes (no photos) but other than blistering my big toe I came away with very little. On the walk back to the car I saw a few crossbills, but I couldn’t hold the camera steady enough in the wind to photograph them.
It was still early and I was reluctant to waste the rest of the day, wind or no wind, so I drove down to RSPB Loch Garten in the hope of seeing the crested tits. There were few people about up near the visitor centre and hundreds of chaffinches…
also coal tits plus a few blue and great tits and a number of great spotted woodpeckers.
I love watching little birds and even although the cresties were few and far between I spent an enjoyable afternoon there just sitting observing. Can’t say I came away with any good crestie images, this was about the best it got. But it’s not all about photographs.
Monday although heavy rain was forecast the wind was a bit less blowy so I was back up the hill at 11. Truth be told I found the walk up really hard work, my legs felt a bit lifeless and my big toe hurt, but I eventually made it. There was one other photographer who had bounded up ahead of me and he was already settled with a hare, so I went up to the right of him and soon spotted a hare hunkered down above me. I dumped my bag by a shooting butt, and slowly edged closer. Hunkered hares tend to be the easiest to approach as they are quite settled, but you still need to move carefully so as not to startle, and also keep an eye on the animal to see how it’s reacting, pausing if it begins to look a little wary. Patience is the key in situations like this.
The hare reacted well to my appearance though and I got within a reasonable working distance. I tend to spend as much time as I can with one animal as it’s then possible to witness a wide variety of behaviours. This hare wasn’t the most active mind you. It sat for a long time treating me to a few different facial expressions and just shifting position ever-so-slightly. It’s never until I look back at photographs of situations like this that I realise how many expressions I captured on camera, which always make me smile! I had a hare, I was in my favourite place, and I was happy!
It eventually had a mini-groom and nibbled at the heather before moving up the hill slightly, looking about, then bounding off to pastures new, so I did the same.
I then wandered up to the left and saw a couple of hares grazing close to one another. There was no way I’d get close to these two, so I settled down at a comfortable distance to see what they got up to. One treated me to the most wonderful grooming session, with some gorgeous poses that make me smile whenever I look at them. This is where it pays to familiarise yourself with hare behaviour, if I’d tried to get closer to it, this hare would have scarpered, and I’d have missed these photographs.
The rain was coming down quite heavily by now and due to the wind, almost horizontal. I took a time-out and the other photographer on the hill came over to say hello. It was Kevin Morgans, who takes some brilliant photographs, so nice to meet him. He asked if I wanted to join him at a confiding hare, the one I’d spotted him with when I arrived. We are pretty sure this was the female known as “Mrs Grey” because she was completely unphased by our appearance. She’s the hare that always delivers, so it was good to know where her current form was.
Both Kevin and I were keen to try and photograph a hare shaking the rain water off and given that it was now pretty wet had hopes we might be able to achieve that. Sadly we never quite got it. This was the closest I got.
She did however treat us to some other lovely behaviours though…
We then moved on, hoping to find other hares with a more photogenic backdrop, but struggled to get close to any. The light was constantly changing, one moment it was sunny then overcast, often with the driving rain. At one point a rainbow appeared but I wasn’t able to get a decent shot featuring it and a hare.
I photographed one hare which briefly allowed us to approach. You can see the rain coming down in this image.
As the light began to fail again we decided to return to Mrs Grey before heading back down the hill. Good decision, these are my favourite photographs of the week. Initially it didn’t look good as she was eating long grass, although it was interesting watching as the blades disappeared into her mouth.
But then she moved and started nibbling at the heather, which in this spot was still flowering. Lovely!!
A few minutes later she moved back to a less photogenic spot and we called it a day. Without a doubt, the best of my trips up the hill on this visit.
Tuesday was wet, very wet. I wanted to go to the hares and maybe get the elusive shaking shot, but my legs told me in no uncertain terms that they were NOT walking up the hill that day, so I gave them the day off and drove up to Rogie Falls which aside from being a very pretty location is also a good spot for jumping salmon. To be honest, much as I enjoy watching the fish attempting to scale the falls and the challenge of trying to photograph them, I don’t find the actual images hugely exciting, or emotive – the visual experience is far more emotive than the photographs. But… given the weather it seemed like a good thing to do. Unfortunately there was so much water coming over the falls there was absolutely no way any fish were going to make it up, and I only saw three attempts in an hour or so. However, it really was quite mesmeric watching and listening to the water tumble over the rocks so I stood watching for quite some time. There was a lone dipper trying to work the river, but it soon moved downstream. Eventually I returned to the car and switched camera and lens with plans to try and take a few photographs of the amazing colours. I’m no landscape or macro photographer, but these should give an idea of how pretty it was.
I had to drive to Aberdeen on Wednesday, but it was sunny and almost warm, so I decided to make one last trip up the hare hill. I found the walk up much less strenuous, so the day off was probably a good idea! The carpark was full of birders, apparently there was a peregrine falcon hugging one of the hillsides, and I heard mention of a white-tailed sea eagle, but by the time I was ready to have a look I just caught a brief glimpse of one of them before it disappeared and I headed up the hill which I had to myself for the day.
I made a bee-line for Mrs Grey who was sitting in her usual spot. We spent an hour or so together. She had a short groom and then hunkered down, none of which was in a photogenic spot. The 3rd of these images really shows just how massive and powerful their hind legs are!
The advantage of repeated visits to the hares is that you begin to figure out where to find individuals as they do tend to have their favourite forms. So I went to see if the first hare I’d photographed on Monday was in the same place, it was. Again, not exactly active, but after a short groom it had a brief snooze and then treated me to a full on yawn, sadly I was side on, but still…
Once it settled back down again, I returned to Mrs Grey who immediately treated me to a full groom – she really looked as though she was enjoying it!
This first picture shows how the hares clean themselves. They wet their hind paw and use that to clean their fur and behind their ears.
I think this was the first time I’ve seen a hare sitting in this way whilst grooming, with all four paws in front. Looks quite sweet especially in number 5 below!
She settled down after this, so I decided to see if I could find one more hare before I had to head for Aberdeen. As luck would have it I spotted this leveret (my first of the year!) and edged closer. It sat in one position staring back at me for about 20 minutes and then decided enough was enough and disappeared off.
And that was it, I had to go. Slightly traumatic drive back along the road though as I met a bus on one of the worst stretches and the driver, even with 2 visible passing places behind him, of which one was definitely big enough for the both of us, refused to budge, so I had to reverse a long way with the sun blinding me out the back. Horrible! So I took as long as I could just to annoy him, not that it worked, he just gave me a smug smirk as he drove past. But, aside from that, it was another lovely day with the hares and it was sad to say good bye to them again. Maybe I’ll be back later this year, but if not, I’ll definitely be there in Feb.