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.