Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Last Minute Highlands Trip

At the beginning of February Social Media was awash with images of mountain hares in snow, crested tits in pine woods and ptarmigan sat upon sun-drenched rocks, all from the Cairngorms region of Scotland, and I have to admit I was desperate to be able to return to the area. Dad's treatment had been a long slog since getting back from Mull last summer, and I was waiting for news of what he had to face next. The answer was a break from it for a couple of weeks, giving him a much needed rest, and me a window of opportunity to head away.

A call to my dear friend Andy in Scotland followed, and within a day I was packing and making a very early start, to travel up the motorways to cross the border once more. Usually I plan these excursions for weeks in advance, but this was such a last minute decision, I had absolutely no agenda for the trip, other than making the most of some time away from Birmingham and its hospitals.

First stop after reaching the Highlands was to an area great for seeing red grouse, and amusingly as I tootled slowly along the road leading to the moors, I spotted Andy going the other way, busy guiding one of his clients. The light across the moorland was pretty decent and red grouse were typically easy to locate. I also clocked the first red squirrel of the trip, as it scampered across the road behind my car.

Most of the grouse seemed to be paired up for the season, with the males occasionally leaving their partner's side to chase off a rival that might have strayed too close. I stayed until last light before driving the last few miles to Inverness to join up with Andy and Lyndsey, who were as welcoming as ever.

My first full day in the Highlands was spent with Andy and a friend from overseas, firstly enjoying the charms of the woodland birds at Andy's crested tit site, and later, hoping for a visit from the large flock of snow buntings frequenting the car parks at the Cairngorms ski resort.

The latter was a real treat to see in such numbers, and in some snow too. Andy was up to his usual antics, and hurled his friend's thermos flask off into the snow. His friend laughed too, and then pointed out that it was actually Andy's flask that he'd lent him! That brought on some laughter which helped keep us warm, as being sat in deep snow waiting was rather chilly!

With a completely free day, Andy and I took the chance to make the most of some calm sunny weather, to head out to the West Coast, to the Bealach na Ba (Pass Of The Cattle) road leading to Applecross. We wanted to scope the area for ptarmigan with the hope that we might also glimpse an eagle out that way. Greeting us as we left the small snow-covered car park area was a pair of ravens, but I'd barely managed to ground the tripod before they flew off!

With glorious views across the nearby lochs, and out to the mountainous Isle of Skye, it was a wonderful place to be walking around. Expecting it to be colder, both Andy and I were soon unzipping our coats and mopping our brows as we searched the snowscape for ptarmigan. Plenty of signs, with footprint trails around the exposed boulders, but no birds. Then some movement gave one's location away and not surprisingly it was Andy who spotted it. It was then a case of trying to get close enough for a photo, but not spook it with our approach.

Using the ridges and slopes as cover, we were soon in a position to get at least some images and Andy commented how far into the moult this individual already was.

The ptarmigan seemed pretty wary and we wondered if we might have just missed an eagle passing overhead before our arrival. Unlike us, the ptarmigan could cover the snow very quickly, and even more so when it flew a small distance away to some more rocks. However, as we started to close the gap once more, it became clear that it had strayed into a rival's territory, and in flew the owner, pausing at the top of the ridge above us to call out, before chasing off the trespasser just out of sight of us. By the time we'd climbed the hill, both birds had cleared off!

The remainder of the day was filled with stunning views around the area, and a very cold attempt to photo the sunset, which was obscured in the end by clouds over Skye.

With Andy busy on the weekend, I was joined by Lyndsey at the crested tit site. The sun was out and the increase in temperature meant the crested tits were harder to photograph, as they were ignoring the feeders in favour of searching the vegetation for insects to eat. We did find that their curiosity provided some opportunities, and by moving the feeders to a new location, we could generally expect the first birds investigating it would be the cresties.

I even tried some wider-angle shots with my 24-105mm lens, but with the cresties playing hard-to-get, it was a bit of a challenge. Perhaps a marmite shot...

Lyndsey left me to it after a while, as she was heading out that evening and wanted to be ready, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon playing with the light and various perches. I was so tranquil though, and you could hear the birds' wings as they flew over - something I've not noticed before around home, perhaps from the ambient noise from the road network? Woodpeckers were particularly noticeable.

With both Lyndsey and Andy free on the Sunday, we chose to explore what the harbours along the north coast had to offer, firstly stopping off at Nairn to see if anything was on either the river or around the harbour walls. We spied a group of turnstones and redshanks enjoying the warmth of the sunshine in a sheltered spot, but with little else around, it was on to next harbour. Again, as with my last trip, there were no long-tailed ducks to be seen, and eider numbers were down too. More turnstones sat on the walls, and they were enough to keep us interested.

More so when Lyndsey spotted a purple sandpiper amongst their numbers, and being a new bird for me, I was soon pressed up against the wall hoping for a clear view of it.

The light wasn't great, but I was pleased to finally see one. Loch Spynie was our final destination, but ice meant the birds were too distant in the main, and sadly no sign of the bittern or water rails, so we opted to head back home instead.

With a breezy day forecast on the Monday, I stocked up on nibbles for the car, and headed out into the glens in search of red deer. Last winter I had enjoyed little success with finding some; expecting to see far more on the mainland after leaving Mull, so I hoped for better luck this time. After driving for a few miles with the car's heater off and the windows down (to eliminate any heat haze worries) I spotted a group of stags on a hillside, and slowly brought the car to a halt nearby.

One issue of photographing the deer at this time of year is that many of the stags have lost their huge antlers, or parts of them from battles in the rut a few months earlier. So I tried to locate individuals with decent sets still present, and concentrate efforts on those.

I had to laugh at one point when my usual curse with other vehicles hindered me once more. Having not seen a soul for hours, as soon as I abandoned the car in the road for a shot of one impressive stag amongst the woods, from out of thin air seemingly, appeared a car and a truck! So no chance of the shot, I had to return and move it. Where do these people materialise from?

After a while I opted to head elsewhere for exploring new pastures, but the light was pretty dire for scenic pics, and I returned back to the Inverness area, initially checking a site Andy had suggested might be good for otters, and then heading over the airport to see what might be around the fringes of the site.

Saw a pair of stonechats and also a buzzard, which was using the high wire fences of the airport to perch upon and hunt from. Makes a change to see something else taking off from an airport!

Tuesday was an early start to spend a morning with Neil McIntyre's red squirrels. Neil mentioned that he thought at least six individuals had been visiting, so I had high hopes, and after only a few minutes of setting up, a couple appeared from the trees, bounding almost weightlessly over to see what had been laid out.

In the past, I had thought the cropped sensor camera and 500mm lens were too much, cramping the squirrels in the shot, so having a full frame camera this time helped, as did the weather, with sunny intervals.

While I didn't see as many as Neil predicted, I reckon at least four different squirrels came in, possibly five. And all were great subjects.

I dug out my 7D mk2 coupled with my 100-400mm lens, for some more images, and even played with the 24-105mm for a few shots too, but by then the subjects were full of their hazelnut breakfasts, and coming in less and less.

Feeling vaguely energetic, I thought I ought to go look for the mountain hares that afternoon, so filled my Paramo coat's pockets with essentials, and hoofed off up the hills. After seeing the fabulous snowscape shots from friends before the trip, it was a bit disappointing to find much of the snow had melted, leaving patches in shaded areas. Made spotting the hares easier though!

With a few groups of photographers already on the slopes, I aimed for somewhere away from them and managed to find Bagpuss, sat looking typically grumpy in a shallow form. Was nice to see him again, even if he didn't seem to share the sentiment.

The following day had a forecast of snow, so again I set off at a reasonable time to return for another go with the hares. I drove virtually all the way there in glorious sunshine, but noticed clouds looming between the hills. By the time I was approaching the slopes, it was completely overcast, and as the incline increased, so did the wind speed, and then followed the snow. Or should I say frozen rain.

Crossing the areas with old snow on was as tricky as before, but it was a real challenge to remain upright in these conditions. If the ice-covered snow beneath my feet didn't give way to make me lose my balance, then a gust of icy wind would do it for me, and I found myself face-down in the snow a couple of times. Definitely one of those mornings where I questioned my sanity.

Sitting down, I set the tripod low and scanned the area for hares. There were a couple up the hill, but they like me were hunkered down in the vile conditions. I tried for a shot and realised my lens was full of snow. And no tissues to clean it. Idiot. So out came a pair of dry gloves, and their fleece-lined insides did the trick.

Even when the ice had cleared from the lens, it was damned near impossible to focus on the hares as the falling snow was being blown along at ground level, making everything look misty. I had to just sit and wait. The blizzard eased a bit, and the hares became more active. I suppose to them it's just another day. To me it was a freezing hell.

Amazingly the camera managed to focus on the hares as they scampered by, chased one another and fed. But the wind, cold and ice-bullets in my face eventually forced me to retreat to the shelter of my car. And even then it wasn't safe, as one of the rear doors slammed into my shoulder as I tried to put something in the back seat, with the gales blowing down the valley. Grim, summed it up. There's always tomorrow, I thought.

And indeed there was, and what a difference a day made. Sunny and calm, and once again, a blanket of snow over the area. With helpful advice from Andy on where to aim for, I was soon back on the slopes, and sitting admiring the glorious views. Admittedly the hares weren't to be seen near me, but I had been told to be patient, and readers of this blog know what I'm like on that score.

After about 40 mins, a group of hares appeared over one of the ridges near me, and from that point on it was action all the way. I saw chases, boxing, attempted mating, feeding and relaxing. By not moving about on the hillside, the hares soon accepted that I wasn't a threat, and at times came over to look at me!

While the boxing didn't take place right next to me, I did have a great view of it, and laughed out loud a couple of times when their fighting moves led to comical results.

Plus I got to see a couple of hares running at full speed, something I hadn't seen before. Sure, they scamper off quickly if they've been disturbed by people, but running from other hares meant the pedal was down and they were flat out. Incredible speed across the snow, and able to change direction in the blink of an eye too.

By mid-afternoon my toes were starting to freeze and even pressing my Zippo handwarmer against my boots failed to warm things up. On my way down, I noted that some of the hares from the area below had gathered on some rocks high up the hill, and later Andy said that this is often where they go when they've been displaced by people approaching them.

Visitors wanting to photograph these hares should really consider making use of a respected and recognised guide in order to get close, rather than scaring them off accidentally when trying to do so alone.

My penultimate day was spent touring the harbours along the coast, east of Inverness. While the sea ducks never materialised, I still got to see a couple of grey seals eating flat fish, something enjoyed by the local cormorants too. How they eat something so huge is beyond me.

The odd eider was around, but not being in rafts meant they were being mobbed by the harbour's resident pirates, the gulls. Safer fishing out at sea, perhaps!

Saturday meant Lyndsey was off, and we again visited the crestie site. With sunshine and the recent fall of snow, it was an obvious choice of venue, and the colder weather meant the stars were searching for insects less, and visiting our feeders more. Great news.

One of the many joys of photographing these birds in Scottish woodlands is the abundance of fabulous perches available. A quick search amongst the undergrowth and we had a branch smothered with lichen to use, which was almost worth a picture on its own.

The final act of the trip was a return to see the snow buntings up on the Cairngorms, where we joined up with Andy. As before, the area was covered in deep snow, and it wasn't long before Lyndsey and Andy were chucking snow balls at one another! Bizarrely their activity brought the flock of buntings over to us.

But by that time of the day, the trace of warmth from the sun had gone and it was freezing being sat in the snow. A brief glimmer of a sunset had us reaching for our landscape lenses on the drive down, before heading back in convoy to Inverness once more.

I had planned for an early start back home, but I ended up dragging myself away a bit later, and had a fairly uneventful drive home. As ever, a massive thank you to Andy and Lyndsey for their wonderful hospitality, and the trip was just what I needed. A tonic for my soul.

2 comments:

Ann Pallas-Bentley said...

Pete your tenacity to do these trips primarily on your own and the way you describe them, makes it feel as though the readers of your blog are truely there with you and experiencing the trip, great account of a great trip, well done !! and glad the batteries are recharged.

David Butler said...

Great read and photographs as always and best wishes and thoughts to your dad.