My eyes were stinging and tired as I scanned the hillside for hares. Normally I like to get to the Highlands, chill out for a day or so, and rest my eyes after the long drive up, but this winter, a late booking had meant I was working the day after arriving. Not that I minded of course, but tired, dry eyes and a strong cold wind don't mix.
With the direction of the wind, I decided against going higher up the hills for the hares, preferring to approach one on the lower slopes. Over the years, fewer seem to be around down here, possibly because of folks trying their luck with getting images, and spooking the hares away from their usual forms. Or maybe the unusually wet winters of late have thinned out the hare population.
So it was a real shame later during my stay in the Highlands, to hear from Andy that he'd found her, dead in her form. She was perhaps 4 years old, which isn't a bad innings for a wild hare. But she will be missed, not only by Andy and me, and I know Andy was especially upset with her death, as she features in his mountain hare book as one of his favourites, but by many other photographers and guides who spent time with her over the years.
This of course posed a problem for me as a guide, especially as most of my clients booked on to workshops wanted to see these enigmatic woodland birds. I believe in being upfront and honest with clients, so contacted them to explain the situation, and thankfully they didn't mind substituting other subjects in, instead.
One subject that wasn't affected by the mild weather was the red squirrels, and with over half a dozen individuals now visiting the woodland site, my clients at times didn't know where to point their cameras!
An additional benefit of the warm conditions was that the reflection pool wasn't iced over, so as well as portrait style, sitting, nibbling shots, and of course the jumping, action shots, we were able to enjoy the sight of the squirrels sitting beside the water too.
Another substitution was a day with the mountain hares. Without the snow on the ground, they were much easier to spot, but as with a previous visit, the wind was howling through the glen, and I again chose to look for ones lower down. After one ran off before we had even begun to approach it, I quickly found another, which was in such a sheltered form, it remained dry even when the rain was pouring down, and blasting in the wind.
The one subject that clients and us guides alike often miss out on seeing, is ptarmigan. The weather is key when attempting to visit where they can be found on the mountain tops, not only for the safety of everyone going up, but also how the ptarmigan will behave when we're with them.
So when I noticed the forecast for one of the workshops promised warm temperatures and barely a breath of wind, I offered my client the chance of photographing ptarmigan instead of the cresties, and he jumped at the chance. As it happened, Andy had also suggested the same idea to his client at the time, and we all headed off up the slope together, although they soon charged off ahead, both seemingly in a race to the top. We ambled up slowly, taking in the view and enjoying the wildlife along the way.
Later we found ourselves at the back of a beach, facing the setting sun, and hoping the waders that were feeding on mud exposed by the retreating tide, might venture close enough or create a silhouette for an image.
We had hoped to spend the Sunday venturing up the mountains for the ptarmigan, but high winds put an end to that idea, so we headed east to RSPB Troup Head instead, and caught up with the colony of seabirds there. I was surprised at the number of gannets already in residence, making nests, renewing pairings, and bickering over real estate on the cliffs.
With a multitude of feeders around their garden, it is hard not to notice the variety of birds visiting Andy and Lyndsey's garden, and one species that caught my eye was the lesser redpoll. Along with a few siskin, they were taking nyger seed and as I've not photographed any for ages, I thought I should take advantage when I could.
If anyone fancies joining me for a workshop in the Scottish Highlands next February, I am taking bookings now, and usually have a bit of availability left for those who wish to book last minute. Given the nature of recent winters, I can understand why folks might want to wait until the snow arrives before booking. But mild weather or not, the Scottish Highlands offer a wildlife lover a wide array of subjects to point their lenses at, so I always manage to enjoy my stay, come what may.