Saturday 22 February 2014

Scottish Highlands - Part 1: Mountain Hares

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 ( 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.

While Kate and I were picking our way through the snow-covered ground, Andy was busy scanning the area for hares and amazed me with his ability to spot them. Even when he'd taken a shot of the area one was sat in, it took me several seconds to see the hare amongst the snow and rocks. I guess it's a skill you'd get after the time he's spent with these wonderful animals, much like I've learned with spotting otters on lochs etc.

One of the many benefits of Andy's guidance, is that he knows where the most tolerant hares will be. From experience he knows that these will sit and, while keeping one eye on you, pretty much ignore you, which is great for getting shots. We soon found one such "sitter" and listening carefully to Andy's instructions, crept ever closer up to a point where you'd not want to be any closer for photos!

They're such characters - I can't decide if they look content, sat amongst the snow and rocks, obviously warm from their thick coats, or a bit peeved at their hard life in the hills. I can't say the idea of eating my own pellets to gain additional nutrition is appealing, but we watched them licking their lips after doing so.

Andy explained the behaviour of the hares, even anticipating what they were about to do, which helped for trying for some different images of an animal that is often simply sat still for hours!

While we focused on the hare, Andy kept a watchful eye for other action nearby, pointing out a small group of goats feeding and also a distant golden eagle soaring overhead. What a fantastic place for photography.

Proving nothing is ever constant with wildlife, Andy discovered that one of his favourite hares had been displaced with his usual form by another male. This one also allowed us close, though he did take a brief scamper around the area when another hare rushed by us. We took advantage of him being out of the form, of course.

As I started to get my eye in, I found that picking up the hares against the snowy backdrop was easier, mainly because I knew where to look for them after listening to Andy explain where they preferred to hide.

Of course any that were moving around were very easy to spot, though not to photograph - they go like the clappers! Fabulous to watch as they glide effortlessly over all the bumps and ditches we'd struggled over, at speeds that almost defied belief.

Before heading back to the car, Andy located the displaced male hare, mainly to check that it was ok. The concern he had for its welbeing was obvious - he truly adores these animals. And it's easy to see why. They each have their own character, behaviour and being so close to them during the day was a treat, not to be forgotten.

We thanked Andy for his time and tried to convey how much we had enjoyed the experience. If you ever wish to see these fantastic animals in their wild and unforgiving environment, you could not hope for a better guide than Andy.

A brilliant day out and a cracking start to the trip.

Monday 10 February 2014

A Sprawk, Kestrel and Hawfinch Hunting

Since finally bagging the glossy ibis, I have been scratching around for places to go. The unusual weather patterns seem to have prevented a number of usual suspects from spending their winter in the UK, so I have been unable to get my fix of waxwings and short-eared owls, for example. I think suffering from the latter is called Withdraw-owl Symptoms. Ok, I'll get my coat.

I have been tempted to head back to the Wyre Forest for the crossbills, but along with the rain has been almost constant strong winds, and that makes seeing and photographing such birds nigh on impossible.

And the shrike is still very much a hit and miss affair. My good friend Max has tried several times to photograph it, resorting to a super-zoom bridge camera in a vain attempt to get a better shot at such distance, which isn't a bad option when the bird is perched. I used to have a Canon S2IS, which had incredible zoom capabilities for stationary objects, though the end result never got close to that from a proper D-SLR, which isn't surprising given the price difference.

But while the shrike stayed distant, I did catch sight of a sparrowhawk on a hunting mission, and despite being gloomy (a storm was rolling in), the camera (my 7D) managed to lock on as it hurtled by, and I ended up with a couple of pleasing shots, much to Max's disgust, as he'd missed it approaching!

Up in Coleshill, well, at Hams Hall, there is a Hume's leaf warbler, a rarity found by Dave Hutton, but despite 2 visits, I have failed to get a single shot of it. It seems to poke about in amongst brambles and only breaks cover to fly to the next set of bushes. Dave's spent over 20 hours there and only managed a couple of record shots. Hopefully his luck will change, though I definitely haven't the patience for that!

After hearing of Max's gymnastics at Marsh Lane (he attempted a backward roll whilst holding his camera, trying to photo the resident male kestrel) I thought I'd try there, and sure enough, spotted the kestrel hovering over the meadow near the car park. I soon worked out that he was returning to the same perch on a nearby tree after each hunting attempt, so I crept closer and waited.

Needless to say, he then caught a vole and headed over to the fence posts near the car park to eat it. I managed to get back to a reasonable distance, grabbing some shots, before the local corvids mobbed him, forcing him away down the concrete road to eat in peace.

Whilst waiting for him to return, I called into the Oak Hide and watched the lapwings and gulls scaring each other into the air every few moments; maybe just to keep warm. Was rather chilly when the sun went in.

When the kestrel returned, I again set up hoping he'd land on his favourite perch. He didn't, of course, choosing a new favourite just out of sight. However, with the light occasionally being decent, I grabbed a few shots as he hovered.

Then this last weekend, the forecast changed from the usual rain to offering a few hours brightness on Saturday morning. With the red-flanked bluetail on offer in Gloucestershire, I opted to avoid the crowds and hope my luck would change chasing hawfinches in the Forest of Dean. Thankfully despite the woodland being soaked, most of it is high up, so is clear of the terrible floods affecting many parts of the county currently. That said, many of the streams seem to be on the verge of spilling over and the lakes all looked very muddy and churned up.

So, did my luck change this year? Yes. I managed to connect with 4 hawfinches in the end, and come away with some half decent shots, even though they tended to hide amongst the branches mainly, and were always the last to feed from the ground, and of course, first to fly off.

They were hanging around with a flock of chaffinches and greenfinches, the latter showing acrobatic skills to feed on the fruits of the yew tree. The hawfinches simply broke off small branches and then helped themselves to what they wanted.

As they were so tricky to focus on, I had to use the spot focus point on the camera, and was glad of the rear-focusing button set-up I use, as I could focus, and release, and then take shots with the shutter-release, not worrying that the camera would refocus on one of the branches moving around in front of the bird.

Eventually it started to rain, and after predicting it would stop after a few mins, I gave up when it became torrential 30 mins later! Worth the drive out though - such fabulous birds.