Monday 19 March 2018

Winter Workshops In The Scottish Highlands

Since turning pro, each winter now means a trip north of the border to Scotland, to take paying clients out to see some of the wonderful array of wildlife to be seen there. And each year, I seem to be spending longer up there, which is great as it means I meet new clients, and also any excuse to spend more time in Scotland, especially the Highlands isn't a bad thing.

In 2019, I am planning to spend the entire month of February in the Scottish Highlands, but this year, I set off on the 9th of the month, with some trepidation, as my normally reliable car was struggling with an engine fault, something it had developed just a few days before the trip, leaving me no time to address it. Thankfully, it was an issue I could largely ignore, and had a means to correct it, should it manifest itself, which it did on several inclines during the journey north. But I got there, and didn't need to rent out any vehicles during the stay either, thank goodness.

Unlike the previous winter, there was a lot of snow around this time. Too much in some cases, and meant I had to abandon plans to take clients to see the ptarmigan. On the days when the road to the area was open, the snow was simply too deep to walk through, and often the wind at the summit was too dangerous to risk the client's safety. And from experience, I also know that the ptarmigan are very flighty in windy weather, so aren't approachable anyway. Hence my guiding this winter was with the mountain hares, red squirrels, crested tits and red grouse.

Of course, all the snow meant most of my clients enjoyed seeing the "classic" and "most wanted" white hares in snow when they came out with me, though it did involve a slippery ascent to the top of the hills, where most of the hares were being seen, and the majority of the snow remained. I think perhaps the cold conditions did limit the hares' behaviour, as it was simply too cold for them to be considering chasing any females around.

I saw some boxing action during the days spent on the hills, but mostly at a distance, and the only spat seen close by, happened behind a large boulder! Typical...

As with last winter, there were quite a few photographers wandering around, clearly having no idea of how to approach the hares, and displaced them constantly. This can actually work in your favour as some of the hares will scamper past where you're lying or sitting, providing images of moving hares.

But it can also be annoying, especially when photographers ignore the unwritten rules of not approaching hares with photographers already "on them", and end up spooking the hare away. Immensely frustrating if you have spent maybe an hour crawling closer to a hare, only to have some muppet scare it away in seconds.

After a few days of not seeing any, I was overjoyed to spot both golden and a white-tailed eagle soaring over the hills. These were about the only time I regretted not taking my 500mm lens up to the top, but this year, after suffering with back pains from the previous trips, I chose to just take my new 100-400mm lens up the hills, and hence not need a tripod either. It is such a good lens, focusing as quickly and accurately as my prime, and giving stunning images too. And it allowed me to compose different images of the hares without having to move myself around.

Perhaps the most remarkable and memorable moment with a hare came before any of the guided days had started. I was out with Andy Howard, just for an afternoon, to wander up the hills and learn from him about which of the current crop of hares were the best to approach, when we happened upon one in the car park. When it ambled across to some heather nearby, Andy and I followed, and it quickly became clear that the hare, busy feeding, wasn't concerned with us being close at all. So much so, we chose to abandon the usual telephoto lenses in favour of a wider view.

To be lying with a wild mountain hare, merely 50cm in front of me, was incredible. We assumed it wasn't well maybe, or exhausted from the cold, but it was feeding constantly, and there were no apparent injuries. When it finally scampered away from us, we left it alone, and it was still munching away when we drove off.

In addition to the guided workshops, I dragged myself up the hills to photograph the hares by myself, and on one day it was probably a bad idea. With howling winds, snow blowing around and a temperature of minus 17C, it was difficult to stand up on the exposed summit, and the cold made my face and hands go numb in seconds. Finding white hares against the snow is hard enough in good conditions, but these were diabolical. I eventually settled on the side of a hill that offered some shelter from the gales, and where most of the hares had relocated to. But even when I was relatively close to a hare, it was obvious to me that I wasn't going to get anything new from the experience, apart from frostbite. It's days like these that make you respect how hardy these creatures are. It was absolutely perishing up there.

As well as hares, I take clients to see both red squirrels and crested tits, making use of sites that Andy has created over time. The red squirrel site was worked on again back in December, when I helped install a 15 foot long reflection pool, so I was keen to make use of this myself on this visit. Of course the problem with a pool during the winter is the cold, and I had to time my personal visits to days when the temperature was above zero, and hope the breeze wouldn't be an issue.

Thankfully, one afternoon, the breeze dropped and the sun lit up the area at the back of the reflection pool beautifully, and my luck was in when one of the squirrels paid a visit.

My fortune continued on another visit when I had rigged up my camera on the tripod outside of the hide, to get the best line down the jumping area as was possible, taking images using a wireless trigger. This is very much down to luck and timing, and a group of squirrels that are happy to leap over for a hazelnut treat. The problem with this sort of remote set up is that you're never sure if you are getting a focused image. So I was overjoyed when reviewing images later that evening, when I spotted one where the focus was bang on, and the squirrel (Tippy) had performed a nearly perfectly symmetrical jump. Bless her.

A benefit of the cold weather is that insects are harder to find, so the crested tits rely more on food put out, and visit the peanut feeders more frequently. Most of the time when I am guiding clients on such days, I don't get out my camera, but when large flakes of snow started falling from the skies, I dug out my gear, and grabbed a few shots of the "cresties" as they perched up in the blizzard.

This also helped me to suggest angles for the client to try, showing them how my shot had turned out, to tempt them to go for a similar result.

When I first visited the Highlands several years ago, one of the sites I would always visit was Burghead harbour, as it was a fabulous place to see winter wildfowl. Eiders and long-tailed ducks, plus scoters occasionally. Sadly I fear the harbours all along that coast have been dredged, as these wonderful ducks no longer seem to be fishing in the harbours, and only catch food out on the open water.

With each visit, I constantly say that I must take advantage of the birds that visit the garden where I stay (Andy and Lyndsey Howard's house), so this time I did just that. Parking the car just outside their gates, I moved some of the feeders around and captured images of the less common birds visiting. I was particularly happy to see tree sparrows, which are a bird I never see at home in my garden.

A bird that I didn't expect to see one day though, was at a grouse moor where I rarely see any birds of prey other than buzzards and occasionally a merlin or kestrel around. It appeared from a wooded area, and flew towards me, annoyingly against the sun. So as it flew over the car, I blasted some shots off and in doing so recognised the flight of a goshawk! A juvenile, first winter bird, which quickly crossed the moors, and then circled over some trees on the horizon for a few moments. Hopefully it will move away from the area, as grouse moors are notorious for making such raptors disappear.

But the grouse are of course welcome, and they were starting to show signs of battling for the females. I found a spot where a male was defending his territory, and waited. Cue lots of strutting, posturing, a brief fight and a bit of flying. All of which made for an interesting couple of hours.

As well as the guiding, I managed to spend some time out and about with friends. On one day, Lyndsey Howard joined me for a walk around Farr where we were treated to some brief views of dippers on the stream that runs through the centre, and then even better views of a female goosander.

Laggan was the destination on another day, when Andy and I were joined by Derek, a retired headmaster who I have met before up there, and we all enjoyed several hours photographing red deer on the snow-covered slopes of the hills around there. After a pitstop for cake and coffee, we spent the last hour or so at the RSPB Insh Marshes reserve, and were treated to a distant view of a female hen harrier quartering the meadows.

Perhaps the best session with friends came at the end of the trip. With snow forecast, we joined up with a client who had been stranded by the bad weather and lack of trains, and visited the Alvie Estate deer feeding station. This is something I have wanted to do for some time, but never really had the chance to do so. So I was understandably overjoyed to be standing on a snow-covered track in a woodland, photographing majestic red deer stags as they approached through the trees, with snow falling all around. Magical.

And to share the session with Andy, Lyndsey and Sarah made it even better. Absolutely fantastic.

Alas it was time to leave, and with the railway network still crippled by the bad weather, I offered Sarah a lift back down south (which she eventually accepted) to Preston, where she could catch a train home from. Worked out well, as she was home and drinking some Yorkshire tea well before I got back to the Midlands. Despite a few more scares with the car, it made it back, and I'm now awaiting some horrendous bill to fix it.

As mentioned at the start, I will be running more winter wildlife workshops in the Scottish Highlands throughout next February if anyone would like to come along. Prices and details are listed on my website as usual.

Roll on spring now, and a bit of warmth...

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