August in the Highlands: Mountain Hares, Red Squirrels and Millions of Midges!

It really is so good to be out and about again, I’ve really appreciated it after all those months of lockdown. That said, so many places are mobbed with visitors so I didn’t venture far except to see the mountain hares.

I love August in the Cairngorm National Park as it’s the month the heather blooms. After a couple of poor years it was stunning this year. The hills and forest floors were carpeted in beautiful purples and pinks. Wonderful. I resolved to spend as much time as I could trying to photograph the mountain hares in it, until that is I was driven off the hill by millions of midges who attacked me even although I had insect repellent clothing, midge repellent spray and a midge net on! They love me!! Fortunately ticks don’t seem to feel the same way, so that’s a blessing I suppose.

In my last blog I shared a couple of images of a leveret my clients and I found (or to be more accurate it found us).

Well, I found him again a few times, a fab little hare, who is growing up fast. He has two forms and is generally to be found at one or the other. Very confiding which is wonderful especially when it’s so hard to find hares in the heather right now. The second time I found him we were just getting settled when a couple with a dog (a young lab) appeared. I hadn’t spotted the dog, but when it charged towards us it was hard to miss. Fortunately the wee hare was still pretty quick and managed to outrun it. I wasn’t best pleased to put it mildly. The signs at the bottom ask that dogs be kept on leads. The owners apologised profusely “our dog doesn’t usually chase hares” – Ha! It’s a dog, that’s what most of them do. Anyway, fortunately the hare was unscathed and I decided to name him (or her) Speedy.

I thought that this traumatic event might have put Speedy off hanging out with photographers, but fortunately not. We spent another couple of days together over the following weeks. At one point when grazing he came so close I was trying to shuffle backwards – not easy when that bit of the hill had quite a few jagged rocks embedded in it, but a lovely experience nonetheless.

The only image I have of Speedy the day he was chased away
A close crop – he didn’t come quite this close to me!
The uncropped version

I really hope he sticks around for the winter season and matures into an adult hare.

When I was up with clients at the start of August I spotted a tiny little leveret, but only for a second, it disappeared down a deep hole never to return. I don’t think the clients believed I’d seen it! Every time I’ve been back I’ve kept an eye on this hole and eventually I was delighted to see a hare sitting at the entrance. Still really small. Unfortunately this hare isn’t as confident as Speedy, in fact it was the opposite. On approach it disappeared, but did pop out a couple of times for brief periods. Pesky grass was in the way though! Smallest leveret I’ve seen.

Tiny Tim the little leveret

The other hare I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with is Fidget. She’s also the only one of the winter hares in that area who is still in the same spot. In winter she is very white and in the summer a lovely soft brown colour, quite distinctive. I’ve seen her a few times. Here she is playing hide and seek in the heather

Fidget

…and afterwards having a good shake

On the hotter days she was to be found by the river. One time she was sitting between two rocks panting, which isn’t good for hares. Fortunately she was able to have a drink of water although unfortunately she chose to do it in a spot obscured from me so I couldn’t photograph it!

I witnessed her leaping across the river a couple of times – very impressive! Sadly didn’t quite catch it on camera.

It’s just as well those hares were about otherwise I might have struggled. I’ve heard from quite a few people who have been up and had no success locating hares this summer. Mind you, given how difficult it is to find them if you don’t know where to look, that’s no surprise!

I haven’t been back for a couple of weeks now (since the major midge incident) but hope to soon.

Sticking with the heather theme I tried to photograph red grouse surrounded by it but struggled to find very many in good spots. I did find this one in some yellow grasses which glowed when the sun hit them.

Those were taken from the comfort of my car, but I also went for a walk along a river – not particularly easy as there was no path, but I was struggling through the foliage when I heard an angry buzzing. Transpires it was a massive female common hawker dragonfly laying eggs. I watched her for ages although photographs were tricky due to the location. Mind you, much easier to photograph an egg laying dragonfly than an airborne one!

I spent one final day at the Black Isle Nature Photography pine marten hide hoping for martens in heather. Sadly I was one of the very few visitors to have a no-show. Typical! However the squirrels were on form and it was lovely to watch them during the day. It’s such a lovely setting, and even more so with the heather in bloom.

Back on my local patch I fooled around one dull afternoon in the grain field opposite my house trying out intentional camera movement and slow shutter speeds. Something a little different for me. I’m not sure if they work, but I’m going to include here anyway! I was trying to capture and visualise the movement of the grain in the wind.

…and on the same theme I took this one in the garden

Whilst working on my wildlife pond I saw movement in the grass beside me – it was a grasshopper! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one before. Quite emotive looking for an insect.

I’ve also been enjoying the swallows and house martins that swoop over my house and the surrounding fields. Recently (or maybe I’ve just noticed) they’ve been perching on my roof and TV aerial so I’ve had a chance to photograph them.

Fab to watch! Whilst I was trying to photograph them in the field the other day an osprey flew over. Quite distant and I didn’t realise until I zoomed in on the image, but great so see as they too head for the winter residences.

I tried a few times in August to visit Rogie Falls, however the car park was always full. Finally at the beginning of September I squeezed in between two huge campervans, the only space available. My first visit here was July 2016 on the Aigas Photography Workshop with Laurie Campbell. We did quite a lot of jumping fish that week (maybe a tad more than I’d have personally chosen, but it is a good technical challenge). I remember I didn’t have a cable release at the time which made it a little more tricky. The best way to photograph the fish is to use a tripod and pre-focus on a spot the salmon regularly use and then press the cable release as soon as you spot one in the approximate area. There’s a lot to delete afterwards but it is entertaining although I don’t really find the resulting images particularly interesting or emotive (watching them try and ascend the falls is emotive though, it’s incredible!). On this occasion there were a few jumping, but it was slow. I therefore found a spot at the side of the river and attempted to photograph the fish leaping out the water as they waited to try and climb the waterfall. I had a very limited view through my camera lens (I love prime lenses but at times I do yearn for the flexibility of a telephoto, I was using the Nikkor 500mm pf 5.6 with Nikon D850). I managed a couple of images though, nothing spectacular, but I may try again with a different lens.

I have of course spent a fair amount of time with my red squirrel clan too. After accidentally partly destroying my existing set-up I decided to create a new area alongside the original one on flatter, slightly more open ground. This involved removing quite a bit of bracken but it was worth it. The squirrels found the nuts almost immediately and although slightly nervous about how close my hide was to the area most soon got over it and were behaving as normal.

What I love about my site is that, although it doesn’t have the beautiful tree root props of some of the others, or the heather that’s found on the Black Isle and in the Cairngorms, it’s very natural. I make use of the surrounding trees and a couple of fallen branches. The squirrels don’t just come down for food, but groom and hang out as well. They seem to tolerate each other a bit better in the open than they did at my previous spot too. Although when Patty was down the other day at the same time as 3 or 4 other squirrels there was a fair amount of chasing – she’s not the most tolerant of squirrels at times!

This branch is one of the spots where the approaching squirrels often pause to check out the situation.

Sometimes they sit in the trees before coming down or when they want to eat a nut in peace.

There’s a moss covered tree stump:

A piece of chopped wood I found close by:

And quite a young beech tree that I cut back a bit, but the squirrels often run up it and peer into my hide!

It’s funny to think that back in March I started out with 3 squirrels – Patty, Emmylou and Slaid. Then Wee Bruce appeared followed by the twins Marty and Gram. Now I have at least one other adult who I thought was a male, Sam (Baker) but is actually a female – the only blonde tailed squirrel, and yet another kitten – a boy again! I’ve called him Buddy (Miller). I don’t know where he came from as I’m pretty sure he’s too old to be one of Emmylou’s kittens. I presume she’s given birth now as her teats look quite swollen but there’s no way they would be old enough to come out as yet. Talking of Emmylou, she’s still a sweetie. She appears every day for ages and just sits and eats, totally focused. She rarely tries to chase the others away, and if it gets a bit too rowdy she goes and sits in a tree to eat her nuts. She’s also one of the few squirrels I can still recognise as, apart from her teats, she currently has a stripy tail. Almost all the others are black now with the exception of one golden one and Patty who has a blonde tip to hers.

This is Emmylou.

I included this one to show her beautiful tail

Slaid I presume is the one who stuffs as many nuts as he can into his mouth at one time – he always was a greedy/lazy squirrel! He and the twins looks pretty similar just now though so it’s hard to tell them apart.

Whilst Sam(antha) has a golden tail. She’s the most nervous preferring the squirrel or bird peanut feeders rather than coming down to where I put the hazelnuts. (There is still a possibility that this is two different squirrels and that I actually have 9 not 8!)

Little Buddy is recognisable too as he still has his ear tufts and is super-cute. He likes the bird feeders, probably because he’s still too little for the squirrel feeder lid. He does come down though if there are no other squirrels about.

I haven’t seem very much of Patty which is a shame, but she was down on my last visit. She was unusually tolerant of the other squirrels, up to a point anyway – I think she was too busy scoffing nuts.

Because the trees are a little bit further away and have fewer low branches than at my original spot, I can sometimes photograph more than one at the same time!

The squirrels still run away if they see me outside the hide, yet on my second visit to the new site, I’d just packed away my camera when I heard a scraping on the canvas at the side of my hide. Suddenly one of the squirrels squeezed under it and popped in – I think it must have smelt the 1 lone hazelnut left in my bag! It was running over my feet and everything before jumping out my viewing window.

The pine martens are still visiting overnight as well. Mostly my trail cam footage is just of one or other coming for nuts/eggs/honey, but every so often the kit decides to have some fun with mum. Wonderful when I discover this on my SD cards!

I also had a chuckle when one of them fell off the box!

So that was August / early September. I’m now looking forward to the leaves changing and falling off the trees. The squirrel site will be so much brighter and it’ll be lovely to have golden beech leaves too. Hopefully the midges will be gone soon as well and I can get back out without full body armour!

I am of course offering mountain hare guiding, all year round. I’ve just been on an outdoor first aid course so am now first aid certified. Something I’ve been keen to do. UPDATE: Oct 2020: There’s more information on this on a blog I’ve just written.

Also don’t forget I have calendars and cards available in my Etsy store. Christmas cards coming soon too!

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

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