Life After Lockdown – Venturing Further Afield

The 5 mile travel limit was finally lifted at the beginning of July which was brilliant. That said, I felt surprisingly nervous about venturing outside my little bubble, I was almost having panic attacks which was unexpected. It’s interesting how the lockdown must have affected me mentally without me even noticing.

Panic attacks aside, I was determined to get back to the mountain hares as a first priority. Last time I was on the hill it was still covered with snow and the hares were just beginning to switch from winter to summer pelages. Now the snow was gone, the hares brown and the midges had appeared! Mountain hares in the summer are a completely different challenge from the winter months. They are harder to spot and far more inclined to run rather than sit and allow you to approach. It’s difficult, but with perseverance an amenable hare can often be found, and they are just as beautiful and personable as at other times of the year.

I realised very quickly that my fitness levels had, unsurprisingly, plummeted during lockdown and having seen no hares on the lower slopes I reluctantly pulled myself up the path and onto the hill. I was pleased to see a fairly healthy number of hares running about but it took quite a while, and a lot more walking, before I discovered a fairly well developed leveret sitting in a ditch. I sat with him for an hour or so until he moved a short distance away and was spooked, not by me, but my bag which I’d discarded close to where he headed!

Mountain hare (lepus timidus)

A few days later once my aching limbs had recovered I returned to the same spot on the hill but sadly no sign of the leveret. I did, however, find this mature hare who was very active and groomed regularly – always something I enjoy!

Mountain hare (lepus timidus)

On my next visit I almost stood on a tiny leveret but it disappeared into thick heather and sadly never popped out again. After that I couldn’t get close to any hares, but I took a different route home and found a relatively young leveret sitting at the side of the road. Not a very photogenic location, but it was adorable!

Mountain hare (lepus timidus)

The heartbreaking thing about this little hare is that the estate it lives on “manages” its wildlife – which basically means it shoots hares (and other “problem” species). I and so many others, had hoped that with MSP Alison Johnstone’s resolution to make the mountain hares a protective species being passed and also the tragic fact that mountain hares have been classed as “near threatened” on the red list of UK species, that the open season would be, for lack of a better word, closed this year whilst legislation was drawn up. However, the Scottish Government decided to let it go ahead as normal. I say “normal”, but really it’s going to be a mass slaughter as (some) estates do their best to wipe out the hares before legislation does come in to force to protect them. Therefore the resolution has basically meant a death sentence for the mountain hares, and I really hope there are enough left to sustain the population once protected. It breaks my heart and makes me so angry that these incredible animals can be legally shot, both for pleasure and to (allegedly) protect grouse – which, I might add, are being bred to shoot! Honestly, I despair…

At least the estate that I, and many other photographers, visit to photograph the mountain hares doesn’t shoot them, and I commend them for that, I wish more respected the animals that live on their land. I returned on 1st August which is when the open season to slaughter (cull seems too mild a word) the hares began, just because I felt I should be with them that day. The heather was in full bloom on much of the hill, but I struggled to find any hares sitting in it and at one point resorted to photographing a couple a fair distance away as well as a meadow pipit that was hanging around in gorgeous flowering heather.

I then located, quite possibly the youngster from my first trip up post lockdown, on a wet, peaty, grassy part of the hill. He was sitting upright a little way away from me when I spotted him, and much to my surprise didn’t run, well actually, he did, but straight towards me!

He then veered to the left and proceeded to eat grass at the side of a ditch. He was obviously hungry, because we spent an hour together and he didn’t stop eating except to lift his head and look around every so often. My presence was completely ignored and I crawled around him in a circle as he shifted positions. Grass makes images a bit tricky, as does deep, water-filled ditches! I got quite wet, but didn’t really care.

Mountain hare (lepus timidus)

After an hour during which time the temperature had plummeted, I reluctantly bid the hare farewell and headed back down the hill. He just kept munching! Conscious of the fact it was my poor neglected dog’s dinner time and I was over an hour away from him, I didn’t intend to stop and photograph any other hares, but I did check out one part of the hill and spotted a hare, well hidden, in some pretty heather. I’m pretty sure given the location and behaviour that it was “Fidget” one of the hares I photographed regularly in the winter. She’s a beautiful hare, and was very white. Now, of course, she was brown!

Mountain hare (lepus timidus)

I had my first guiding workshop since lockdown ended a couple of days later. I was slightly apprehensive as the hares aren’t always easy to find, but I needn’t have been as we had a wonderful day with lots of hares, all in beautiful flowering heather which improves the images no end. Aside from those we photographed (which included an adorable leveret), I also spotted a tiny leveret who unfortunately disappeared into a very deep hole and didn’t reappear – but I’m going to go back and approach more cautiously.

Mountain hare (lepus timidus)

It’s been wonderful to get back on the hill, not just for the hares, but because it’s just lovely to be up there. It’s a special place for me, and it’s been so very quiet which is great. I can’t understand why more photographers don’t visit during the summer, however, I like that it’s so.

If you do fancy visiting the hares and would like a guide (I know I’m slightly biased, but it really is recommended if you’ve never photographed them before or don’t know the area) please do get in touch. Information here.

It’s not all been about hares since lockdown ended. I spent a few very enjoyable days at the Black Isle Nature Photography pine marten hide before it opened up to the public mid-July. The female marten has been wonderfully consistent at visiting during daylight hours this year and often brings one or more of her three kits with her. I’ve never had more than 1 kit, which actually is quite good, as it would be challenging to choose which to follow with the camera if there were more! I love these animals.

On one afternoon the light for a short period was amazing (it’s normally been a bit wet and overcast on my days). This really suited the squirrels who were out and about at the time.

I’ve also been to Chanonry Point a few times to see the dolphins. I’ve stuck to early mornings and evenings as there are so many people now visiting, few of whom are keeping to the social distancing rules. The dolphins have appeared pretty much every time but haven’t done a massive amount of breaching. I do love just sitting watching them though.

Even when the dolphins aren’t there, there’s other wildlife to photograph. This gull was trying hard to access meat from a fish head.

And, the common seals are almost always there desperately trying to entertain the crowds in the absence of dolphins, although for the most part, folk don’t really care.

I shared the above image on my facebook page and it was very popular – so some people do love seals! Therefore I went to look for some more and found these ones. Fortunately I managed not to spook them and spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching them lounge about on a sand bar. Not always easy to photograph as they tended to huddle quite close together so hard to isolate interesting behaviours but I know where they are now so will return once the tourists are all gone (the other groups of seals on the beach were all spooked by people getting too close, often with dogs).

In that last image a ringed plover flew down and hung around for a bit which was a pleasant distraction.

I’ve photographed a few birds along the coast too – here’s a juvenile pied wagtail and male stonechat.

I made the decision a couple of years ago not to visit the osprey fishing hides as it’s just too expensive and my images wouldn’t be anything different from the many you see from these hides. So instead I went to visit an osprey nest which is on an island overlooked by a public walkway. The birds nest and successfully fledge their young here every year – normally 3 chicks. When I went to visit them a couple of weeks ago the chicks had all fledged so there were 5 birds moving about. Frustratingly the wind direction was such that most of the flying was done with the birds’ back to me but I do love just sitting and watching them. It’s more interesting that just photographing birds coming into fish even if the resulting images aren’t as dramatic.

Finally – what about my local animals? No, I haven’t abandoned them now lockdown is over. Actually, I have abandoned the badger sett. It was proving too frustrating, and is now so overgrown you can’t even see it. I am enjoying the badgers visiting my garden at night, although I only see them on the trailcam. The female, sometimes with her cub, appear first and tend to scoff all the nuts, and the male later – he mostly gets only a few stray nuts she missed.

I put a trailcam back at my squirrel site and discovered I had at least one pine marten kit visiting. This footage is adorable and if I’d realised this was happening I’d have taken the camera off the badger sett a lot earlier!

I’ve never seen anything like this since, but I think 3 martens are visiting and the female (I’ve named her Honey and the kit I see most Peanut) has now started taking eggs I put out which she never did before.

The squirrels are still going strong. I didn’t spend time with them for a couple of weeks but when I did I was initially completely confused about who was who. The two kittens are indistinguishable from each other and looking all grown up, except that they still have mostly orange tails.

At least one of them is very playful and loves to pester the adults who chase him away, but he keeps coming back and doing it again. He was doing it with Slaid a couple of days ago when I was in my hide, it was very funny.

This is trailcam footage from earlier in the month. I think it’s the 2 kittens, one of which is determined not to leave the feeder box.

I have only seen Emmylou on the trail cam once, but she looked heavily pregnant and had very prominent teats, so she must be having kittens – hurrah. She’s so sweet, I can’t wait to see her little ones.

Patty doesn’t appear to be having a second litter which is a shame. She’s been around a lot, still chasing the others away. Her tail is black at the tip and the spine is also going black.

Slaid’s tail is becoming blacker and blacker, but he’s still lovely!

The blackest tail however belongs to “Wee” Bruce. Not so wee now though to be fair, he’s filled out a lot – must be all those peanuts he’s eating! If you look at this image you’ll see a black blob on his hip – that’s how I can recognise him.

There are plenty of birds at the feeding station and environ right now too, the loudest of which are the jays. They have youngsters and what a noise they all make – it really upsets my dog Murphy when we walk through the woods.

There are two juvenile great spotted woodpeckers appearing regularly as well. Here they both are, not a great image as it was too dark to increase the depth of field, but…

And here’s a better image of one of them

A fledgling robin has moved in too, although he’s beginning to look all grown up.

Also in the woods, but a little distance from my hide, I was finally able to photograph one of the many wrens that live there.

Here’s one final video showcasing some of the animals and birds at the hide in early August, all filmed on the Browning Recon Edge.

So it’s been a good few weeks, and it’s so great to get out again even if it is a bit different now. During lockdown I also had time to create and order my 2021 calendars. There are 3 different ones (Scottish wildlife, red squirrels and mountain hares) which are A4 and available via Etsy for £12 plus p&p. There are greeting cards for sale too.

Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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