March began as a great month for me. Not only did we enjoy a few more wind-free, sunny days, but the first signs of spring arrived, coupled with copious amounts of snow in the Cairngorms (and even a tiny amount where I am too!)
Until the world changed due to Covid 19 I spent a whole lot of time on the hills guiding for mountain hares / recovering from guiding for mountain hares (I’m not as young as I used to be), and although it’s ever-so-slightly stressful with the lower numbers, I’m familiar enough with the hill and its residents now that I have provided all my clients with memorable moments and photographs. Some of these memorable moments have been truly magical, and even although I have been up that hill many times over the past 4 years, quite a few of this months excursions rank amongst my favourite ever – not something I was expecting!
During March the hares’ hormones go into overdrive, and no longer do you find quite so many hunkered down animals. Instead they are racing across the hill looking for, and chasing, prospective partners. Much as it’s lovely to see, it’s incredibly difficult to photograph, primarily because the hares move so fast they so often box/chase at quite a distance away, or, choose to act behind a hillock where I catch mere glimpses of the action. One of my clients and I however had some success. I wanted to introduce him to Mario and in looking for him I spotted two hares doing a spot of boxing – behind a hillock! They moved up the hill slightly and settled down, grazing close to one another. We sat for half an hour or so in the hope that they would go at it again and our patience was rewarded. Not exactly boxing, but I call this series of images “the mating dance”. I’m happy to report it did indeed culminate in extensive mating and hopefully we’ll have the much needed pitter-patter of tiny paws in a couple of months time.
Neither of these hares was Mario, but the female was an individual I know as “Fidget” – I could tell this by a tuft of hair that was working its way loose. Mario was grazing further down – the most active I’ve ever seen him!
Fidget got her name because the day before the mating dance my client and I had sat with her for a few hours and she barely sat still for long. To be fair, this was unusual behaviour from her, she’s normally quite inactive, but beautiful so I’ll forgive her!
I spent the majority of my time with the hares in March up at the top of the hill, partly because all the lower-level animals went AWOL (hormones again I presume!), and it so happened that forcing myself (and my clients) up to the top reaped so many rewards.
Before I share some of my close-up images here are a couple of wide-angle shots I took. Personally I find these as satisfying as the others, I do love to see a mountain hare in its environment, especially when there’s snow on the hills.
And here’s a wide-angle red grouse – there seem to be a lot of them about here this year.
Rather than include images from all my trips up the hill I’m going to focus here on my favourite days. The first was the day on which the mating images were taken. That was my client’s 3rd fantastic encounter on a day when everything went brilliantly. The hardest thing about guiding this year has been that due to the lower number of animals and the high number of photographers I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing which animal we should sit with, it’s really a case of find what you can. Of course, I know the hill and its residents as well as anyone this year and so I have a better chance than most to at the very least find my client a hare, but on occasion the animal is happy to just sit and watch the world go by, or isn’t in the most photogenic location. On other occasions everything goes right, and I do so love those days! On previous trips I’d noticed photographers sitting in a certain spot on the hill and it looked as though the hares here were pretty good, added bonus being it was a part of the slope carpeted in thick, smooth snow. Finally I was on the hill before anyone else had gone to this location so my client and I approached the hare sitting there very slowly. I didn’t want to get too close partly because it was such a great spot I’d have hated to spook it and also we both had prime 500mm lenses and if the hare did anything we might find ourselves too close. Thank goodness we stopped when we did! I thought we’d lost the hare when it hopped out of its form but no, it travelled a very short distance and did some grazing and stretching before returning to its original spot. It did this again a bit later and then again! The third time it sprinted for a mere second and then halted right in front of us. What a moment!
Awesome! The hare eventually decided to go forage further afield, but we were very happy. We headed a bit higher and sat with another hare for a bit which treated us to this yawn before our mating encounter. A brilliant day and one I honestly didn’t think I’d equal this winter.
However… the following Monday my client and I buddied up with James Roddie (many of my hare clients this month have been in conjunction with Black Isle Nature Photography) and his client and returned to the same section of the hill where I’d had that amazing animal. This time there was another hare sitting a few meters higher up as well. The initial hare did a spot of grooming then ran up the hill and we thought that was it…
However suddenly another hare appeared running directly towards us – it was the one from the form above, and our first hare was now sitting where it had been! This hare came so close to us I couldn’t fit the whole animal into the frame. A stunning hare.
Love that little brown button nose!
It didn’t stick around for long though, and soon ran off…. only to be replaced by a third animal. Surreal experience!
Once this one had finished posing for us and disappeared we moved along the hill a bit and spotted 3 hares sitting together. Hoping for some action we approached cautiously. One went away and we sat watching as a very silvery hare did its best to pique the interest of a stunning white animal. However she wasn’t having any of it and resolutely ignored the poor guy who ran off down the hill to cavort with a few others. We moved a bit closer and hoped he would return which he did! A number of times. Yet another hare running towards us – what a day!!
Surely after those two amazing days (and happy clients) on the hill I couldn’t have another one? But yes! This time I wasn’t guiding and had planned to spend the day on the hill alone. There’d been a fresh dumping of snow and it looked amazing as I trudged up the path. At the top I was greeted by Andy Howard and his hare workshop clients. Andy invited me to join them, which I was happy to do. We struggled through the snow up to a spot we knew hosted a fair number of hares, seeing very few en route. So much for my hope of photographing boxing hares, there were none running about other than a couple spooked by photographers. We spent the day with 2 individuals. The first was enjoying the winter sunshine and did very little other than shift position or glance up now and again, barely ever opening its eyes.
We shifted to a second hare we’d spotted close by and it immediately sprung to life. Grazing close by and posing beautifully in the gorgeous winter light. This hare is well into its change from winter to summer pelage and was a lovely gingery colour.
As the light faded we returned to the first hare who sat near our bags. It immediately treated us to a full-on yawn
It then started to graze coming ever closer… so close in fact I am surprised my camera was still able to find focus! Fortunately I could just fit enough of it in for the images to work. Love these!
…and this is my favourite
I made two further visits to the hares before the lockdown. The first was with my parents and I was able to introduce them to Mario, Luigi and Fidget. All three were back in their regular forms which was great! Mario, was looking super-cute with his patchwork face, didn’t do a whole lot, but there again he never does…
Luigi was much more accommodating and treated us to grooming, grazing and a roll in the heather. Fab to watch!
I returned for one final trip and headed up to the top. I had the hillside to myself and although there was a bitingly cold wind, there was still plenty of snow and in fact the whole area was frozen. I saw quite a few hares on the way up but left them be and returned to the area where I’d been with Andy and his workshop. I sat with a couple of animals, one of which I think is the same one as I had taken those close-up images of before – it’s a lovely soft grey colour.
Here’s the other, who posed beautifully!
I realise I say this, or something similar over and over again when it comes to individual mountain hares, but this next hare is quite possible the most beautiful hare I’ve seen! It was the third, and final animal I sat with that day and all credit to the hare for not being spooked by my somewhat dramatic appearance.
I’ll set the scene… I was at the top of the hill, between me and the path was a massive, frozen snow-field. Seemed to me the best way to get from A to B was to slide down – great fun and certainly quick and seeing as I was the only human on the hill there was no one to watch me do it! However, I was about a third of the way when I shot past a hare sitting on a patch of heather. After an emergency stop I managed to crawl back up to face the hare, who was completely unphased by this strange human being . I completed my slide down the hill a little later. I was a little concerned as I was lying on the slidy stuff that I might suddenly find myself heading downwards unintentionally!!
Of course, on the day I took these images I had no idea that two days later I’d be under lockdown. The timing is such a shame as I love the hares at this time of year, but hopefully there’ll be some left on the hill in 2021. In the meantime I have many many wonderful memories of this winter up there and I’d also like to thank all my clients and other guides for making these trips as good as they were.
It wasn’t all about mountain hares, although if you’ve read this far you might think so! I also spent a few days down near Aviemore with my parents and we had a day on the Alvie Estate photographing red squirrels and red deer.
It was my first visit to their red squirrel hide. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’ve seen few images online from there, but I’d heard good things. It’s a lovely setting with a backdrop of pine woods and mountains. Decent light, 4 person hide with beanbags provided and plenty of squirrel action. The squirrels were obliging enough to sit and eat many of the nuts in front of the hide rather than dash off with them. I’ve updated my “Where to Photograph Red Squirrels in Scotland” blog with more info.
In the afternoon we photographed the deer feeding. Sadly no snow on the ground although there was a brief flurry. Light was tricky but wonderful to see the stags up close. We even had two stags practicing their rutting skills!
We rounded off the day with a brief visit to the snow buntings. Again, no snow, but their colours work well in the setting.
We also visited the Highland Wildlife Park. It was my third visit here this year and by far and away the most enjoyable. Almost all the animals were active and entertaining especially the arctic foxes who were chasing each other around the enclosure, and Hamish the young polar bear who entertained himself in the pond.
Many of these images are available to purchase via my website – if there’s one you love and it’s not on there do let me know. There will be a delay in orders going out due to the virus but it is possible to place them. I am also offering mountain hare guiding gift/prepaid vouchers at 10% off my regular price to be redeemed anytime (virus permitting) before the end of 2021. This is a limited time offer for the duration of the UK lockdown. If interested drop me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org). Full details on guiding & pricing can be found here: https://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk/Mountain-Hare-Guiding
I’m going to leave it there. It’s still only the 24th March, but it seems a logical end. My next blog will be all about wildlife on my doorstep, and therefore I’ll sign off with this image of a red kite photographed from my garden – I’m incredibly lucky to live where I do at all times, but especially so now. Stay safe everyone xx