Monday, 15 May 2017

A Spring Trip To Norfolk?

Normally the annual trip east to Norfolk coincides with my Dad’s and my own Birthday, but Easter gatecrashed the party, so we had to delay the trip by a week. I had secretly hoped that this might break the cycle of us being there a week too soon for anything interesting to show up in terms of rare birds, but what actually happened was quite different.

Winter made an unwelcome return during some of the week, and put an end to any ideas of rarities showing up as the winds were yet again from the wrong direction, mostly from the north, and bitingly cold.

Still, at least I would be able to get out to see the resident attractions, and after recent years, I half expected to see barn owls each day. Not so. In fact the only opportunity I had for getting a shot was when I’d decided to put down the camera, and go for a walk, to relieve myself. I was just zipping up when I caught sight of something white moving nearby, and a barn owl floated by, looked at me and landed on a fence only a short distance away. I backed off, scuttled away behind a wall and grabbed my camera. When I returned and I was pleased to see the owl was still sitting there. I lined the camera up, and it flew off. Damn!!!

Brown hares were thankfully still plentiful, and my dawn drives around the lanes proved fruitful. Despite it being late April, there were numerous boxing bouts going on, along with adrenaline-fuelled chases across the crop fields.

The females had a real job to fight off the advances of all the males, and one I watched in the shimmering light one morning, seemed to have accepted a pursuer, and allowed him to mate with her. Now I was interested to see if brown hares have the same amusing trait as mountain hares when copulating, in that as the male reaches a climax, his ears shoot forwards.

So do they? I can’t answer that, as just as that point in proceedings was about to happen, the female hare decided she’d had enough, and booted him up in the air! I burst out laughing - nature can be highly amusing at times.

One pair of brown hares I spotted close to a convenient viewing point from the road seemed to be fairly content with one another, though each time the male tried his luck, he’d be put in his place.

He was very defensive of her, and any other males that strayed too close were chased away.

Being able to sit and observe these two allowed me to learn more about their behaviour. I was somewhat surprised to see these hares, like their mountain-dwelling cousins, eating their own droppings. I understand that the mountain hares have to do this to get additional nutrition from the droppings, on a second pass, but surely the food the brown hares are eating is more nourishing?

Also even more revealing was the sound made by the male hare. Every so often he would make a strange mewing call - hard to describe, a bit like a duck whistle. I wasn’t sure it was him making it at first, but with nothing else around, and watching him closely through my binoculars, I could clearly see the sound was coming from him.

On one morning, the pair were sitting, as hares often do, almost motionless. There’s only so many shots you can take of something just sitting there. With the view through my new Kite binoculars being as sharp and clear as through my expensive camera gear, I also found myself watching them more this way - the view is certainly easier on my eyes. I wished it would rain, so as it might make the hares do something, anything!

The skies behind darkened. My wish was to be granted. A short shower would be perfect. Lesson learnt… be careful what you wish for! Over the next hour, I saw rain, then sleet with flakes of snow, followed by a horrendous hail storm, thunder and lightning and a drop in temperature of about 10 degrees! The track I was on became a river of slush and hailstones. And yet the hares sat still, ignoring the grim conditions.

When the weather finally moved over, the hares moved, and I was treated to them grooming, shaking off excess rainwater, and stretching.

Two hares sitting beside each other. Both seemingly content with each other’s company. The male stood up, stretched and approached his partner. Perhaps he was hoping for a sign of affection from her, after enduring such horrid weather together? He inched closer and… soon backed away when she stood tall and raised a paw! Definitely a waiting game here!

Another target when in Norfolk is the marsh harrier. But as we were a bit later than usual, the birds had already paired up and the females were on nests, deep in the reed-beds.

At least the Wherry ale was still present, and we made sure we sampled it each evening (and the occasional cheeky lunchtime pint) at the fabulous pubs around the area. I have to say that the meals in the Bowling Green Inn (Wells-next-the-Sea) are superb. Such a homely pub too, and of course Wherry on tap! And the sandwiches in the Dun Cow at Salthouse are worth the trip too. Ghost Ship on tap there as well as Wherry. What a dilemma!

I often go to these locations (Norfolk, not the pub) with a preconceived idea of what images I will return with, and of what subjects, but more often than not, I come back with something else entirely. And true to form, this was the case once more.

On one warm afternoon during the week, I decided to go for a stroll around the marshes at Burnham Norton. I popped the camera on the monopod, to travel light, and set off on the circular walk. I was about a third of the way around it when I spotted a different-looking bird feeding in one of the creeks. A spoonbill!

To get closer, I had to retrace my steps back and continue along the coast. Was worth it to try to photo one of these birds, especially as it was in full breeding plumage.

Just as I thought the spoonbill was approaching me, it decided to relocate to elsewhere, and I had to face facts it had been a wasted walk. Or was it? As I returned to the original route, I clocked the spoonbill feeding from a small pool beside the raised pathway, and by approaching on the other side, out of sight of it, I was able to peer over and grab some shots.

Again the spoonbill then decided to fly away, and again I followed it. Which became a theme for the next hour or so.

At one point, I was only a few yards from it, as it fished in a shallow creek, and I crept along, hiding in gorse bushes. Funny looking birds, and ungainly when seen next to the elegance of a little egret.

And even funnier when they decide to ruffle their feathers up!

When the spoonbill flew further into the marshes, away from any pathways, I had to give up the pursuit, and head round the route back to the car, and a very patient father, who was sitting enjoying some spring sunshine on a bench. On the way I stopped beside a small pool to photograph a group of avocets, and enjoyed their antics as they chased each other, running and splashing through the water, occasionally taking flight.

On my return, I was curious to see how far I’d walked, and my iPhone app reckoned I had covered 4.5 miles chasing the spoonbill. A long but very worthwhile walk.

Of course visiting North Norfolk isn’t just about the wildlife. We both love the scenery, and that was made more dramatic with high tides and stormy skies.

Watching the clouds build and roll in behind a windmill was something to behold.

Alas the cold winds meant we didn’t get the chance to visit the Sculthorpe Mill pub, which is somewhere very special to sit outside on a warm day. Perhaps next year?

As we left Norfolk, we diverted to Cambridgeshire to catch up with old friends who have recently relocated there. They’re renting a gorgeous, secluded cottage which may yield some wonderful encounters with wildlife, and if there are any owls there, I might have to find a reason to call round again.

Back home, and I had to pack my bags once more, as I was heading north… to the Highlands again, but that’s for another blog post.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Mull For A Family Break

Mull again? I know, I am visiting this isle quite a lot of late, though this latest trip was different in that it was my brother's idea, and Dad had, after some hesitation, decided to come along too. Rather than being a visit focused almost solely on the wildlife, this would be more of a family break, and as such, we had booked a place in Tobermory, so we'd have access to more tourist-type attractions. We would also have Rob's dogs with us, something I wasn't overjoyed at, but he'd promised they would be no problem...

The drive up was wet, and as the ferries were busy, we didn't arrive in Tobermory until early evening. After settling in, we made our way down into the town and straight into the Mishnish pub, where we had a good meal and a couple of pints. Amusingly, the walk down the steep slope had convinced Dad (who is still recovering from cancer treatments) that he'd never make the return trip, so we grabbed a taxi up the hill again after - something that became a regular thing for the week!

Our first full day was blessed with sunshine, and I was keen for Rob (who had never been to Mull before) to see as much as possible while the weather was fine. Unsurprisingly he was blown away by the beauty of the isle, the variety of vistas, the peace and tranquility of it all, and of course the wildlife. That first day yielded views of two golden eagles, six white-tailed eagles, loads of divers, wheatears, waders and an otter. Not a bad introduction to Mull!

As is typical with Mull, the next day was a polar opposite in terms of the weather, and neither Rob nor Dad fancied going out in the monsoon-like weather. Rob enjoyed a liquid lunch, and I was left to my own devices in the rain. I did on several occasions, when failing to see much of anything, consider if perhaps I should have joined Rob instead!

It wasn't a total write-off though, as I saw another golden eagle battling the vile conditions, and giggled at some of the sun-loving birds looking somewhat unhappy with the spring weather.

A group of skylarks were making the most of what the water cascading down from the hills, forced out of hiding, and were picking off insects from the grass near the loch's shore.

An overcast day followed, and I had said to Rob that this sort of weather tended to lead to better sightings of wildlife, at least in my experience. And after he'd mentioned that he really wanted to see a white-tailed eagle a bit closer up, one obliged as we drove through the glens. Rob spotted it, and after we parked up, the eagle kindly flew right over the car! Certainly didn't need powerful binoculars to see it, though the downside of having dogs in the car meant my camera was in the boot, and I didn't have enough time to get it before the huge raptor had gone overhead.

More eagle sightings continued throughout the day, with both white-tailed and golden eagles showing well. Then, late afternoon we spotted a couple of tour buses watching something in the water of a loch. Parking up some way off, I scanned the water and soon realised they were watching an otter.

I said to Rob and Dad that there was a good chance that the otter might come our way if it saw all the folks from the tours, though it didn't seem to mind and came ashore not far from them! I decided to climb down on to the rocks to hide and wait. As the tours continued on their way, the otter returned to the loch and promptly brought ashore a large crab, right next to where I was hiding!

Thankfully both Dad and Rob could see the otter from the car, and we watched as it munched through the crab, before going back out for another, which it brought ashore to the same spot again to eat. Fantastic, and so close I could hear the shell being crunched through.

When the otter brought another crab out, I moved further along the shore, and crouched down to watch.

Presumably full from all the crab meals, the otter then spent about half an hour grooming on the seaweed, providing us all with amazing views.

Eventually, when it curled up into a ball to sleep, I carefully crept away to leave it be.

A fantastic day, and one that confirmed my statement about the weather and seeing wildlife!

One of Rob's dogs is knocking on a bit and has trouble walking on rough surfaces, so he was keen for them to perhaps visit a beach. I suggested Calgary, and when he wandered off with his happy hounds, I went for a walk along the path that runs alongside the water. I had spotted it from the shore, and was keen to get a bit closer... a great northern diver, and it was almost showing breeding plumage.

Needless to say, with their keen eyesight, it soon moved away from the shore when I crept towards it, and I could only watch as it dived for small crustaceans from the sea bed.

Being based in Tobermory meant we generally explored the northern side of the isle, so on the penultimate day, I suggested we travel right down to the other end, to at least see Iona, and let the dogs run about on the beaches. Several common seals were playing in the shallow waters beside the beach, so I set up to watch them in some rocks, and was beginning to get some images when I noticed Iona had vanished behind a wall of cloud, and I got soaked as I made my way back to the car!

Despite seeing a white-tailed eagle fly over the cottage garden one afternoon, Rob wanted to see them closer still, and when Martin (Mull Charters) confirmed he had space on his boat trip during the first week of tours of the season, we jumped at the chance to go along. Dad stayed behind as he didn't fancy the cooler weather for the trip, and that helped as he looked after the dogs at the same time.

Sailing down into Loch Na Keal, we were soon watching one of the resident eagles approaching. Alex warned us that this individual, the male of the pair, was very proficient at taking the fish, and he wasn't wrong. No messing, just fly over, dive down, take the fish and off again!

We were all enjoying a chat during the drinks break when the male eagle returned, and as before, took the fish thrown out in a matter of seconds. I never tire of seeing this, and judging by Rob's comments and smile, he was suitably impressed with the show too.

After a good natter with both Alex and Martin, we left the Lady Jayne, headed back to base to collect Dad and the hounds, and spent the last few hours scanning the area for wildlife. A drive along Glen Aros yielded good views of a golden eagle, and as ever, masses of buzzards, and a tour of Loch Na Keal gave me another attempt at photographing a great northern diver, though this one was less advanced in terms of plumage, and the conditions were so grey when I saw it, the images could just as well be in black and white!

While the boat trip for the white-tailed eagles undoubtably provides about the best opportunities for images of these magnificent birds one could ever hope for, seeing them hunting in the wild is something else. Some years ago I was fortunate to watch a pair hunt and take a grey heron, and have seen numerous attempts to catch prey since.

The white-tailed eagle caught our attention as it circled fairly high up over the hills beside the loch. As we considered driving closer, it went from a slow glide into a steep and very rapid dive, hurtling down towards the hillside, and at the last second angling back towards the roadside, where it swooped down on to something in the vegetation. Incredible to see, and as it took off, it started to fly towards us. I jumped out and grabbed some shots as the eagle flew around us and up towards the hillside once more.

Driving down towards where it'd taken the prey, another observer informed us that he could see it on the hillside perched up, and that "if we had a big lens" we might have a chance of a shot. Whoever that was I owe you a drink, as we were soon scrambling up some slippery rocks and over a marshy mound to look across at the eagle as it fed.

It's only when you see one perched next to another large bird like a hooded crow that you realise just how massive they really are. And as we watched on, it made light work of the prey, ripping it to pieces and wolfing them down.

A quick look around for any scraps, and the eagle took off again, and was within just a few moments, almost a mile away down the loch! Awesome birds.

Rob and I climbed the slope to where the eagle had been eating to work out what prey it had taken, and judging by the bits of fur, it had been a rabbit. Which figures, as there are quite a few of them along that stretch of the hillside.

What an amazing end to a week of exploring Mull, and something we will all treasure in our memories. Though the week had also provided me with some great evenings spent in Tobermory, with fantastic meals in the Cafe Fish, Macgochans, Spice of Mull and Crystal Palace restaurants. Cafe Fish was exceptional though, and despite being so early in the season, we had to book a table. The Mishnish pub was where we ended most nights, and had a good atmosphere, decent beer and was always welcoming. I'm certainly missing the view from the window looking across Tobermory harbour.

And as usual I'm already missing being on Mull. My next visit is during the summer for the first of four weeks of tours there this year, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Back For Spring Treats

When I left Scotland there was still snow on the hills and the snowdrops were in bloom. When I arrived back home in the Midlands, the snowdrops had been and gone, and the daffodils and crocuses were providing the colour; Spring was well underway.

Being north of the border at this time of year meant I had missed out on one of the local delights, watching the goshawks displaying in woods in Shropshire. That said, after checking the dates of previous years' images, I thought I'd give it a go a couple of times - maybe the season was delayed and I'd get a view anyway?

As is the norm for such days, there is a lot of waiting and listening - the birds were very vocal, but showed very rarely.

Thankfully the woodlands birds were busy preparing for the breeding season, and the woods were alive with their calls. While I try not to be distracted from my vigil on the treetops, I couldn't resist taking a few shots of a goldcrest nearby. They're such delights to watch, though not that easy to photograph, as they rarely keep still.

On my first visit there was a juvenile female goshawk around, hunting and making lots of noise. I had assumed that last year's young would have been seen off by the adults, but this one hadn't, and was possibly begging for food from the adults after failing to catch anything herself that morning.

And at the end of that day, I got a great view as she and the adult male goshawk circled over the canopy, briefly flying side-by-side, clearly showing the size difference between the genders.

A return visit saw even less action, and the juvenile seemed to have left. I could have had a great view of the adult female when she perched in a tree, had there not have been another tree right in front of her! Such is life. I did however hear what sounded like the adults mating, so I thought it wise to leave them be for the season.

With a sunny day forecast, I headed out to another woodland, this time in Worcestershire, in the hope of seeing some adders or common lizards. Having spoken to a local beforehand, I had been warned not to see much, after he'd spotted some muppet poking a stick around in the woods, trying to find the adders. If you want to see adders, the last thing you do is start poking a stick around in the vegetation. These shy snakes are ultra alert to any movement or vibration near them, and will vanish in seconds.

As I mooched around the clearings of the woods, I was rather surprised to spook a short-eared owl from the ground, but equally frustrated when it flew off into an area of woodland, never to be seen again. I think the local jays took offence to it, as they were making a terrible sound for a while. And later on, I saw a woodcock burst up from beneath a small tree, and also fly away.

After an hour or so, I did find a couple of adders, but they were partially hidden beneath the dead bracken, and the cloud cover at lunch made things worse by hiding the sun, and in turn encouraging the sun-seeking snakes to move back underground.

I stopped for lunch, and watched a couple ignore the clear signs all over the area about keeping dogs on a lead, as they strolled by, with their dog free to go where it wanted. Thankfully it didn't encounter an adder and get bitten. I wish dog owners would accept that these signs mean all dogs, even their "always well behaved" pets!

I was about to wander off to look elsewhere, when I saw in the corner of my eye, that another adder had slithered out into view, and was soaking up the sun again. I have recently invested in a new pair of binoculars (Kite Lynx HD 8x30) and unlike my old pair, these allow for close focusing - down to 1.3m in fact. So here, I was able to sit near the adder, and look at it in detail through my bins - something I could only do before, after I had left and processed any images taken. I love the detail of their scales, like armor almost, and also the colours of their eyes. Stunning creatures.

I grabbed a couple of shots, before I backed away and after failing to see any others, headed home for the day. Maybe it was a touch too early in the season to see that many. I will return later in Spring.

Speaking of Spring, there's a bird that puts on a special performance at this time of year, and thankfully there are a lot of them in the Midlands; great-crested grebes, and a number of my friends on social media had been posting wonderful images of them already. I know of many locations to see them, but I wanted to go somewhere I could possibly get down low for a shot or two.

To cut a long story short, I found a spot and within minutes of me setting up, I had two pairs nearby, both showing signs of dancing.

One pair were in beautiful light, but kept teasing me as they faced each other only to swim away once more, while the others were somewhat backlit, but further ahead with their courtship.

As such I needed eyes in the back of my head as I watched and tried to shift the camera round for shots of whichever pair were performing. Time was tight though as I had an appointment elsewhere, but typically just as I was about to leave, the backlit pair dived, and surfaced with some weed.


It was fantastic to see, and hear.

Dancing high up on the water, swishing the wet weed this way and that, before continuing their courtship display by mimicking each others' actions.

Then they headed back to the new nesting site to continue construction, and was my cue to leave, though I hope to be back again soon...

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Scottish Highlands For Photography Guiding

Following my trip to Scotland in January, I spent a couple of weeks at home before returning to the Scottish Highlands, only this time the visit focused on working. I had, after huffing and puffing up the slopes in January, hoped to spend these interim weeks getting a bit fitter, but instead was laid low with a stinking cold, and I just knew the hills and my legs wouldn't get on.

Before the guiding started though, I had a couple of days to spend with friends, and with a light dusting of snow, we called into the red squirrel hide, to catch up with the local inhabitants' antics.

The "running down the log" shot proved trickier than I thought, but the squirrels repeated the process enough times for me to get my eye in, and get a decent shot or two.

Sunday was spent up in the hills with the mountain hares. It was tough going as there was deep snow on the ground and it was powdery too, blowing around in spin-drifts which were most unwelcome as they blasted our faces. After watching one hare get spooked by the wind, we moved higher up the slopes and found a few gathered in some rocks.

As usual, a steady approach paid dividends, and soon we were lying in the snow, with our cameras trained on two of the hares. Understandably, given the temperatures and conditions, the hares were keeping low, and not doing much at all. In the end, the weather got the better of us, and we retreated back to the shelter of the car.

After a trip to the supermarket for supplies for the week ahead, and to the hiking store for a mountain first aid kit and survival shelter (essential gear for my guiding), I had an early night, ready for the first day of mountain hare guiding.

The majority of the first week was to be spent taking photographers up the slopes, to see mountain hares. Each day varied in terms of the hares we saw and approached, which made for an interesting and challenging week. It was also pretty painful at times, as the slopes which appear to be carpeted with heather, are actually littered with hidden rocks, and bruised knees and shins became the norm. The mornings also got a fair bit earlier by the end of the week when the 10:30am restriction on walking up the hills was lifted, when the deer stalking ceased.

The snow that had fallen over the weekend had all but gone from the hares' hill by midweek though, but I had a day up in the Cairngorms planned, with a client for ptarmigan. It was supposed to be a joint effort (of sorts) with Andy and his client, but when we discovered how icy the ascent was, Andy headed to a different slope instead. The walk was arduous and at times very slippery - I impersonated Bambi on ice several times, though thankfully my client had better grip on his boots. Once up top though, I managed to spot a ptarmigan quickly, and we were soon photographing it.

A male, with some of his summer plumage starting to show already was being quite vocal amongst the boulders nearby. Higher up the slope was another male, though he was even more white. I suggested to my client that we perhaps make a move towards that one, but he saved us the trouble, by fluttering down and landing right in front of us, to strut his stuff with the other male!

Perfect timing. We stayed put and watched them both calling and posturing, before they both chased a third male across the mountainside. My client was understandably delighted and jokingly suggested we head back down the hill after such success. We didn't, spending a few hours watching other ptarmigan on what was a gorgeous day on the mountain.

The forecast (which has to be used as a guide when going up the mountain) proved to be bang on, with the expected stronger winds arriving within minutes of us wandering back to the car park by the ski centre. Rejoining Andy and his client, we watched the snow buntings for about an hour before heading home.

The weekend provided me with a day off, and Lyndsey and I took the coast road along to the harbours, to see if anything interesting was about. Not much, alas, apart from cormorants, gulls and a few seals, making the most of the scraps dished out by the returning fishing boats.

Further along the coast, we called into Lossiemouth, and enjoyed fantastic views of huge flocks of wintering wildfowl, including teal and wigeon. A passing sparrowhawk put the whole flock up at one point, except for a pair of knot that I was photographing near the shore.

Sadly a dog walker eventually spooked them, and we called it a day.

Hares again for the Sunday, though this time I was able to hook up with Andy and his clients, who were also on the hills photographing these wonderful creatures. Settling around a jill (female hare) we were able to observe her behaviour, whilst watching the antics of other hares on the hills.

A wise move, as when things were quiet with the other hares, the one we were close to was often doing something, cleaning, grooming or taking a pellet.

As the day wore on though, the other hares on the hill, some displaced by other folks up there, began to head in our direction, and that meant they came into contact with one another... and that occasionally led to some action.

Perhaps the milder weather had encouraged the hares into believing spring had come early, but there was definitely some boxing going on, and some of the female hares were relentlessly chased across the slopes. They're feisty creatures though, and the pursuing males got a paw to the face if they got too close. And the fur was literally flying, carried on the breeze right past where we were sitting.

The second half of my Highlands guiding trip was to be spent with one client, a friend from back home. While he wanted images of hares, he was mainly hoping to get shots of an animal he'd never seen before; red squirrels. Amusingly, within moments of him seeing one in the flesh for the first time, one was sat next to him in the hide, only a few inches from his arm!

And it was good to see the local great-spotted woodpeckers visiting the feeders too that day. Common, but such striking-looking birds.

Another first came when we visited the crested tit site, and he enjoyed his first (UK) sighting of the star itself. They're such wonderful birds, and even though the light on that first visit was pretty dire, we used pockets of brightness through the woodland canopy to make use of the distinctive silhouette shape of the crested tit.

I think most visitors to the Highlands secretly want to see some of the white stuff, so it was good timing when we saw it falling from the skies midweek, and we were sat watching the red squirrels again. Of course it has its downsides, as the cloud means less light (before the snow settles and reflects it) and that means ramping up the ISO values to get any shutter speed, which is essential when trying to freeze the action of a leaping squirrel.

The squirrels have become so used to people already, that the hide serves more as a shelter to us now, than allowing us to hide from them. As such, towards the end of the day I relocated to a seat outside of it, to attempt to get some images of the squirrels leaping from a different angle. I have to admit though, when it started sleeting and there was no sign of the squirrels, I did question my decision...

The resident star named Tippy, on account of the colour of the end of her tail returned, and provided me with a few attempts at the shot.

After a joint evening out with Andy and our two clients, I joined them at the red squirrel hide for one last morning, before dropping them at the airport. It signalled the end of my guiding, and I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the working experience. I'm sure it's not everyone's cup of tea, given the cold temperatures, the backache from the heavy rucksack, the bruises and aching muscles from the hiking, and the challenge to put the client in the right spot for the wildlife, but it was an improvement on my last role, and I'm glad I have taken the bold step into a new career.

The squirrels continued to perform for an hour or so after the airport drop off, and I managed to get a cracking shot of Tippy in an almost Superman style leap.

Not wanting to head south immediately, I extended the stay for a few days, which allowed Lyndsey and me to take in some of the amazing vistas around Glen Affric. I had wanted to photo some deer, but in the end we found ourselves using stopper filters and wide-angle lenses, to capture the rivers and waterfalls in the area.

A most welcome night out at a local pub followed, and Sunday was spent walking in a beautiful reserve on the Black Isle, where Lyndsey and I spotted dippers on the stream.

When the rain finally arrived, we retreated to a coffee shop for shelter and millionaire's shortbread. Never a bad move.

After all the walking up the hills, I had joked that I wouldn't go back to see the hares during my stay, but overnight there was a fall of snow, and by morning clear blue skies greeted me as I opened the curtains. I knew I would regret it if I didn't revisit them, so made the effort once more, and after approaching and settling down near a hare, I waited patiently in the snow for some action.

I wanted to get some more "small in frame" images of the hares, so didn't bother getting too close to the one in front of me.

With handwarmers and a flask of hot coffee, I was well prepared to sit it out. And it did take a while to see some action; not much in the way of boxing, more of hares scampering around the slopes.

Late in the day, one hare, spooked from its form by a photographer, relocated near to me, and dug out a new form from the snow. It was fascinating to watch. Digging with its front paws, then kicking the snow out the back with its rears, and occasionally peeking out to check who was watching!

And just as I was starting to pack my gear away, after the sun had dipped behind the hill, a couple of hares scampered down towards me, and just stared at me for a moment! Definitely worth a few handheld shots!

My final day was spent watching snow buntings (failing to hover or fight as hoped) at Cairngorm, followed by a tour around Findhorn Valley, hopeful of an eagle sighting. That never materialised, though I did see signs of spring, with a group of mountain goats, and one springy kid!

A drive through a nearby grouse moor resulted in a sight I hope not to see again, and an image that won't be aired on here. It's had enough coverage elsewhere. But it was a stark reminder of the darker side to the countryside up in Scotland.

My last images taken were of a calm and partially frozen Loch Farr, though the sunset never really summoned any colours to add to the scene.

As is always the case with Scotland, I left with a mountain of images, many, many fabulous memories of both wildlife and amusing banter with friends, old and new, and of course the determination to return again, as soon as possible.

I will be adding 2018 dates to my website soon, if you would like to join me for a guided day out in the Scottish Highlands.