Thursday 2 February 2017

Highlands For January...

As well as taking photographs of wildlife, an element of my new career as a professional wildlife photographer is to use my experience, knowledge and fieldcraft to help other photographers to get great images of species around the UK. As such, I am now offering workshops and tours around the UK either alone or with my friend and fellow professional photographer, Andy Howard.

At this time of year wildlife photographers generally look north, and are hoping to photograph some of the creatures that call the Scottish Highlands, home. The main targets are mountain hares, ptarmigan, crested tits and red squirrels, with perhaps red deer and red grouse thrown in for good measure.

After many visits to the Highlands, I am well versed with where to locate all of the above, and by working in conjunction with Andy, I have access to the sites he has set up specifically for some species.

However, I can't just turn up one day and expect to take people out the next. I have to put in some preparation, which is why I travelled up to the Scottish Highlands early in January, to remind myself of the locations, the effort involved to reach some of them, the equipment needed to ensure I can take clients along with me and also to help Andy prepare some of the more specific sites so they were ready for the first clients of the winter season.

First of all we headed up to see the mountain hares, and without any snow on the ground, the white blobs around the hills were pretty easy to spot. I still needed binoculars as some of the rocks there are also white, and like the hares, don't move.

Having Andy alongside was a help too, as he'd already visited the area and had a good idea of which hares were likely to sit still, and I made a mental note as we wandered along.

It was also nice to have Lyndsey accompanying us, as she rarely joins us for such days out, and she was as excited as I was to approach the hares, and take some images.

There were very good numbers of hares around; some that ran off if we just glanced at them, and others that didn't mind us being within a few yards of them, talking and walking around! NB, this requires the normal approach - you can't just walk up to one and expect it to stay still...

On the way back Andy bumped into a couple (Carol and Tony Dilger) he knew, who kindly invited us into their warm mobile home for a cuppa, choccie biscuits and a good natter - always welcome after a cold day on the hills. It was a lovely end to a productive day - many thanks for your hospitality!

The next couple of days were spent at the new red squirrel site, sorting out some jobs on the wooden hide Andy has installed, and then later, ensuring the feeders at the crestie site were topped up, and that the stars were still visiting.

They were, and in good numbers still. Plenty of perches around and angles to make use of any pockets of light on offer.

By midweek, Andy had to take a client out, so I had the day to myself, and with the forecast of stormy conditions, I drove east to Burghead harbour in hope of seeing some winter sea ducks, that were sheltering in the harbour. I was rather surprised when I parked up on the harbour, to find the seas so stormy that the waves were crashing over the wall and the water spraying halfway down the parking area. With a risk of pebbles in the water, I retreated to a safer spot, and headed round to the area above the harbour to take some shots of the dramatic seas.

As the tide ebbed away, the waves calmed a little, so I could return, and enjoyed great views of eiders fishing for crabs and langoustines.

Plus a lone long-tailed duck also finding plenty to eat in the harbour.

As the temperature started to drop, as forecast, the rain that was periodically falling started to freeze, and by the time I was parking back at Andy's house, it was snowing.

By morning there was a decent covering and we shot over to the red squirrel site, with the aim of getting some portrait images.

Halfway through the session, we were supposed to be collecting Kate from the airport, but I ended up staying put, using the excuse of "looking after the gear"; I know, selfish! I half expected the squirrels to vanish but they didn't, and I enjoyed some awesome entertainment as they leapt across to the feeding station, over and over again, and sometimes even jumped back to the launch-log.

Using my 100-400mm lens also allowed me to vary the shots, and capture not only close-in images of the squirrels in the air, but also some wider shots, showing their habitat too.

As soon as Kate rocked up, we all settled back into the hide and continued the shooting, with yet more individuals arriving on scene. It was interesting to note the different behaviour of each; they definitely had differing agendas!

More snow fell overnight, and we decided to give the squirrels another go, as we all have many images of hares in the snow already, and while I have quite a few images of red squirrels in the snow too, neither Andy nor Kate did.

Andy and I used the session to work out angles for shots for clients, modifying / pruning backgrounds to make them cleaner, and tried to note where the light beamed in from, during the morning.

By mid-afternoon we were all pretty cold and thought a trip over to see the crested tits might be wise, if only to warm up in the car! What a difference over there though, as it's on slightly higher ground and the snow was really deep.

As we climbed out of Andy's car, the sun was already starting to sink and for some daft reason, I chose to only take my 500mm lens to the site. Cue a glorious, vibrant sunset and no lens, other than my iPhone to capture it with. Muppet.

Knowing the conditions there, the next day's choice of venue was easy, and I made sure I had my 24-105mm for the return visit (even if the sunset failed to materialise that day).

The trees laden with snow all looked so magical, so beautiful. And with blue skies overhead and sunshine, it was a winter wonderland.

So you'd think getting images of the crested tits would be easy? Well yes, if we were after simple portrait shots, but we wanted backlit or wide-angle images, and that meant chasing pockets and shards of light, and with the sun's angle at this time of year, it was actually pretty tricky to get anything right.

Just as the sun lit up the perch, or provided the desired lighting behind, the crested tit would go missing, choosing to land just after the light had gone. I suppose it could have been frustrating had it not been for the location, the weather and what we were doing. Hardly a chore!

The final day ended with a great evening of pizza, drinks and good company, as we were joined by Neil and his partner Jackie. I always treasure moments catching up with friends in Scotland; it's one of many reasons behind my many visits up there.

The week had flown by, but I had taken as much from it as I could, and as I bid farewell to Andy, Lyndsey and Kate (who was flying back later that day), I was already starting to look forward to the trip in February, when I would be taking clients out to see the same wildlife delights I had enjoyed all week.

Next stop, Mull. Well, it'd be a shame to drive back and not pop over...

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