As I say repeatedly, I’m loving living in the Highlands, best decision I’ve ever made, but boy do I hate the weather this winter. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been a fair amount of snow down in the Cairngorms although it often hasn’t lasted long, but the strong winds have been endless with only the odd one or two day lull. I’m finding it hugely frustrating as there’s little enjoyment to be had going out in conditions such as those.
All that said, I’ve done the best I can and have some lovely memories and photographs to show for it. I’ve also progressed in my search for local wildlife, but I’m going to keep that for a different blog other than to say I now have footage of pine marten, badger, roe deer, red squirrel and fox in the wood behind my house and there’s at least one badger visiting my garden most nights.
As my regular social media followers / blog readers will know, I try and spend as much time as possible with the mountain hares. This month’s been a bit different and, for the most part, I’ve avoided the hill. This is, of course, partly due to the weather, strong winds make it extremely challenging and at times impossible to even open the car door in the carpark, but it’s also because hare numbers are down, and photographer numbers up – it doesn’t help that with so few nice days everyone who is in the area heads to the hill. This is of course completely understandable, if I’d been here on holiday I would be doing exactly the same thing, but I don’t like it and yearn for the quieter months.
I have been up though, mostly with clients as I’ve started to do some guiding. My first February visit I referred to briefly in my last blog, when it was torrential rain all day and pretty windy. I was guiding for Black Isle Nature Photography and both James and I had a client each but decided just to stick together. We made a beeline to a reliable hare and sat with it for most of the day. We were all sodden and I really felt for the poor animal. It did give me the chance to try and achieve some shaking the water off shots, something I always fail at – partly because my shutter-speed is never high enough and secondly because for some reason my finger stops pressing the shutter every time a hare shakes – I don’t have any control over it! However, that day I was a little more successful although my shutter, due to the low light, still could have been faster.
The only slight downside that day, other than getting very wet, was that we were joined at the hare by another photographer, in fact this has happened to me every time I’ve been on the lower slopes of the hill this month. Obviously the hares aren’t private property, but there are certain things folk should bear in mind before approaching a photographer sitting with a hare:
It can take a long time to approach a hare, sometimes over an hour. Hares know you’re there so unlike when stalking other animals it’s not a case of hiding from them, but instead you need to let them know you aren’t a threat. This involves approaching very slowly, no sudden movements, and stopping regularly for a while so they get used to your presence. Eventually if you do it right (and even then more often than not the hare can be spooked) you can get within a reasonable working distance. Imagine the frustration if you’ve done this and another photographer walks up – this is a sure fire way to spook the hare even if it was comfortable.
My advice would be, if you cannot find a hare of your own and see someone (ideally not a group as there’ll be enough people there already) and you would like to join them, approach very slowly and low and try to catch the photographer’s eye. If the photographer is a decent person and if he/she thinks that someone else approaching won’t spook the hare, then you’ll be waved over. Do not just march up (please!!). If the photographer asks that you don’t approach he/she will have a good reason and please respect their request. Fortunately on 2 out of the 3 times it happened to me (both times I was with a client, and on one of those occasions the same person did it twice) the hares were relaxed enough that it stayed put, but the third time, when there were already 7 of us trying to approach a hare not yet settled, a guy, having been asked to stay back, walked up right behind me, and of course the hare ran – I could see that this was going to happen but I was powerless to stop it.
Okay, hare etiquette lesson over… back to my month.
I was up with another client and sat with the same hare a few days later. The hare, now known as Mario, after the first of the month’s uninvited guests (an Italian), looked considerably drier and happier, probably because it was an unseasonably warm, sunny and calm day. When it comes to guiding my focus has been primarily on field craft so that if my clients return without a guide they know how best to find and approach a hare and what behavioural signs to look out for. Given that this is a very popular spot now it is important that photographers know how to approach so that they aren’t stressing the animals out. Mario is a fantastic hare and a good subject! Even although, again, there was no snow, the light meant it was possible to achieve some nice backlit images.
I was back with the hares a week later. This was another calm day with the hillside carpeted in fresh snow, sandwiched between stretches of stormy weather. The hill was of course mobbed, so I gambled with sticking to the lower slopes, but had uninvited guest encounter no 3, so reluctantly headed to the top long after the mob had ascended the hill. Finally found a hare, but I don’t feel I got the best out of the day.
I had one more guiding trip to the hares in late February, a couple of days after another heavy snow shower, so the hill was once again carpeted in snow. This was my first time using the Nikon D850 with my new 500mm PF 5.6 lens and it was a bit of a dream team! The snow had frozen so was considerably easier to walk on without sinking down to our waists! We went straight up to the top and I immediately spotted a couple of hares high above us, so we approached them. Unfortunately the closer one decided that it wanted to go for a graze and to play with the other hare, so the two of them chased each other a bit, rolled in the snow and sat together. Wonderful to watch this as it’s been rare to see active hares other than those running from photographers, but a tad too far away.
They eventually ended up below us on the hill and we approached one who stayed put for a short while but didn’t do anything having already expended all its energy, then it ran off – darn it!
We walked further across the hill but suddenly the weather turned and visibility plummeted to almost zero. Some nice wide-angle images were to be had before that though, something I love and which the D850/Nikon 500mm PF combo deals with very well.
We sat with one more hare (Mario again) as he was gradually covered up in snow but conditions were challenging and we called it a day. Happy clients though!
Something I was keen to get this winter were decent images of red squirrels in snow, so, knowing there was low-lying snow in some areas of the Cairngorm National Park, I gambled and booked Mark Hamblin‘s hide near Carrbridge. I visited this hide last August and loved it. The hide is dug into the ground so that you are at eye-level with the squirrels, it’s in a clearing with a lot of light, the perches are natural and there are a whole lot of squirrels – too many sometimes! Fortunately my gamble paid off and although the snow was melting fast, there was still a fair amount in front of the hide. A very enjoyable few hours and I came away with many lovely images.
Nice to see a crestie in the snow there as well!
After some local snow (very unusual!) I popped along to the Black Isle Photography squirrel hide too…
I referred to them earlier, but I treated myself to a couple of new toys this month. The first of those I used at Mark’s hide, the Nikon D850. It’s been out for a few years now, but is still considered to be an excellent camera. I love my D500, but sometime it falls short and my full-frame, entry-level D610 was becoming a bit dated. One of the great things about the D850 is that the layout is exactly the same as the D500 so I could pick it up and use without having to think about where all the buttons were. It performed brilliantly with the squirrels and I’m excited to see what it can do. The only downside I have come across is my PC is struggling a bit to open and process the raw files – oh so very slow, so I might have to adapt my workflow a bit. My other new toy is the Nikon 500mm pf 5.6 prime lens. I’d never be able to either afford or carry the F4 prime, so this lens has been on my radar for some time. It’s not cheap but still considerably less expensive that the F4 and it’s a fraction of the size and weight. I haven’t really had much of a chance to put it through its paces as yet but I did head down the Moray Coast to Burghead (waders) and Spynie Loch to give it a go, and the results were pretty good.
I’ve also been trying out the lens with both my camera bodies (D500/D850) at Tollie Red Kites which is local to me. Red kites are beautiful birds, so elegant and also exhilarating to photograph as they swoop down to collect food scraps. They aren’t the easiest bird to photograph though as they move fast and exposure is difficult, especially at a site where there’s open sky and dark trees. I had some success though and the D850 dealt ok with flying birds although I’ll probably use the D500 for things like this as it’s faster with larger bursts due to the smaller file sizes. Most of these were with the D500, last three the D850.
Closer to home, in my garden in fact, I’ve spent a little time photographing some of the many birds that visit. I’ve set up some photogenic perches and am spending a fortune on bird seed! It’s worth it though as watching the birds is a great thing to do. So far I’ve had: goldfinch, siskin, greenfinch, chaffinch, blue tit, coal tit, great tit, long-tailed tits, dunlin, house sparrow, tree sparrow, blackbird, starling, robin, wren, great spotted woodpecker, sparrowhawk and most recent addition, treecreeper. In the hedgerow just outside the garden I’ve spotted yellowhammer and reed bunting. Oh, and that’s not to mention all the carrion crows, red kites, buzzard and geese that hang out in and over the fields.
Oh, and finally, spotted this stonechat on my wanderings one day, lovely background, sadly it didn’t hang around for long.
So that was February, frustrating in many ways, but enjoyable nonetheless. Early March will be spent with the hares as I’m doing a fair amount of guiding for Black Isle Nature Photography and I hope to progress a bit with the local animals too – I’ll get a blog written all about that over the next couple of weeks. Exciting times.
PS many of these images are available to purchase via my website and if you’re interested in hare guiding then please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org .