I decided quite late this time to spend a week in the Highlands of Scotland again, so finding a cottage available, especially during English half-term break ought to have been more difficult, but Kate managed to discover a gem in Boat Of Garten, which had suddenly become free after a cancellation, and we were sorted. Readers of this blog should know that I normally go alone at this time of year as not many folks want to spend a week in colder weather than at home, but after Kate's comments since my last trip, I had miraculously persuaded her to take a break from her many tasks at home and for work, and see the delights of some of Scotland for herself.
As with last year's trip, my targets were ptarmigan and mountain hares, but with Kate in tow, I also arranged a day with Neil McIntyre for the red squirrels and crested tits. If I'm being honest, I'd have done that anyway! With the cottage being a Friday-Friday booking, it meant more of a challenge to work out the best time to head up there, avoiding rush hour and a band of yet more vile weather rolling in, and even more of a challenge of how to fit Kate's luggage into the car. Hannibal's elephants would have run a mile had they seen what she'd decided to take.
I needn't have worried as the drive up was painless and we were within the Cairngorms National Park earlier than expected. Not wanting to waste a moment, I suggested to Kate that she dig out her camera, and headed up to Lochindorb for a mooch. While the light wasn't brilliant, we soon got to see a few red grouse which as usual were remarkably close to the car. They were obviously much closer than Kate expected, as I tried to point one out to her, and she was looking past it, saying "Where?" until she realised it was quite literally next to her window, maybe 6 feet away, posing!
I didn't bother getting my camera out, preferring to soak up the atmosphere and ensure Kate got some decent first photos of the grouse. As the sun dropped behind the hills, we headed back to the cottage to settle in. We had a full day planned for Saturday.
After seeing the snow falling late at night, we were rather pleased to have timed our trip out with Andy Howard (www.andyhoward.co.uk) that day. Andy is a good friend of mine and made sure he found time for us, and after seeing the weather, advised that while ptarmigans may be possible, hares would be far easier. After dipping on the ptarmigan last year, I was happy to chase something else and the hares would look great against the snow.
One advantage of the snow being on the ground was that despite the skies being rather gloomy first thing, there was enough light to photo anything else around that morning. I had decided to ditch the 1.4TC from the 500mm, as it then allows more light in and yields slightly sharper images. Besides, if the images on Andy's site were anything to go by, we'd not be shooting from distance.
Footprints in the snow told us that hares (and other animals) were around, and we soon spotted both red deer and mountain goats in the area. The deer were way off, but worth a couple of shots to capture the atmosphere.