Wednesday 13 March 2019

An Unusually Mild Winter In The Scottish Highlands

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.

Thankfully my luck was in, and after spotting one, and carefully approaching it, I was able to get my client close enough for her to capture some images of the mountain hare. It was a bit of a tease. Over the years, I have learned the signs for when a hare is about to do something, but this individual kept doing such actions, but then failing to do anything else, and would sink back down into the form, and snooze again. We had to wait for quite some time before it sat up and took a pellet.

Sometimes the way with hares. Not all of them are "performers". Some will sit and stare at you, never moving for the several hours you're watching them for. Others, like the one named Mrs G, or Mrs Grey on account of her grey fur, would get up every 20 minutes or so, to groom, yawn, take a pellet or even move out of the form completely to graze nearby.

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.

That first day on the hills felt like winter, but within 24 hours, the mild weather that would become a theme had started to sweep in, and after a day spent on the moors with red grouse, and a wasted afternoon looking for crested tits, most of the snow had gone. This would be the first trip to the Highlands in February when I would not photograph a crested tit. They were around; I could hear them calling. But according to some of the land-managers Andy had spoken to, the ground simply had not frozen over the winter, and as a result, insect-life that hatches from the earth was able to continue to do so, over the colder months. Crested tits prefer insects as food to peanuts or other offerings from us, so simply don't visit the feeders.

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.

Unlike us. I had to be mindful that both of my clients that day were under the weather themselves, with colds, so I kept checking in with them that they were ok with the situation, and not getting too cold. The temperature might have been almost double figures, but the driving rain and windchill made it feel considerably colder, and I was not surprised when they decided to call it a day. Thankfully by then, this hare had put on a decent show.

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.

What was helpful though, was Andy and I having CB radios between us, and we could relay sightings of the birds to one another. As it happened, after a couple of initial encounters, we went our own ways, as spotting the birds was easy without snow on the ground, and with the birds mostly paired up, and with calm weather conditions, approaching them was reasonably straightforward.

By spending a great deal of time approaching one pair, we seemed to gain their trust, and we could get close enough for some wonderful images, as they climbed over the rocks, fed, and sat, perhaps enjoying the unusual warmth of the sun at that time of year. It was simply wonderful.

Great weather, cooperative subjects, stunning scenery and a very happy client. Certainly rates as one of my best days out in a long time.

In between the workshops, I spent some time with both Andy and Lyndsey. Andy was mostly working though, with this being a very busy time of year. Lyndsey though, with the stress of her job, was more than happy to accompany me out looking for wildlife on weekends.

With her local knowledge, we spent a few hours with a pair of dippers on a small stream in a woodland. It was fascinating to watch them building and lining a nest in the bank, and also zipping off along the water to fish.

We also popped over to see the red kites at RSPB Tollie. While there might only be a handful of these aerial masters that visit the feeding station, isolating them as they dive is a tad easier than at Gigrin, and the smaller feeding stations around the car park were attracting smaller birds, such as long-tailed tits, and even a few bramblings.

She also took me to a site along the coast from Inverness, a bay that seemed popular with sea ducks. Out on the water was a raft of common scaup, which was a treat to see. A site I would definitely have to revisit later in the trip.

While there was some snow left on the ground though, I chose to revisit the hares myself. In much calmer conditions than previous visits, I hiked up top, and spent several hours photographing individuals in forms, and those scampering around the hills. I was also testing out a new pair of boots that I'd received for Christmas. These fleece-lined Arctic-style boots claimed to be good for temperatures well below zero, and had been recommended by many friends. They were right. My feet remained toasty all day! Such a benefit when sitting or lying in the snow for hours.

I'd only taken up my 1DX and 100-400mm lens, as I wanted to ease the strain on my back (my 500mm is the original heavy version) and also to allow me to get a variety of shots, which only a zoom affords. And I have to say, the latest incarnation of the 100-400mm lens is incredibly sharp, and very fast at locking on.

As Andy was out guiding so much, on one of the days he invited me to join him and his client on the hills with the hares, which resulted in several hours of amusing banter between us all. The client was wanting more habitat shots, instead of close portrait images, which takes the pressure off as a guide, as the hares remain at a distance. By then though, most of the snow that had been on the slopes had melted away.

Among the many screes that line the sides of the glen though, were other mountain hares, and these were actually harder to spot than the ones on the grassy hills. Their fur, especially at this time, as the summer brown colour starts to grow through, make them almost impossible to spot at a distance.

Revisiting the bay Lyndsey had shown me, resulted in much frustration with the scaups, as they seemed to always remain distant. However, some of that disappointment was made up for by a smart-looking male pintail, that was feeding amongst some mallards.

I seem to miss these when they turn up locally, so it was a pleasant change to have one filling my viewfinder.

Other excursions included both red grouse and red deer. The latter being harder to spot lately, after much culling in the Highlands. I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it is necessary if we want the area to see a return of the woodlands that used to carpet much of the land, but they're becoming a rare sight these days, and one wonders if the cull needs to be paused. Maybe this is how it used to be though, and perhaps in the days when wolves, bears and lynx controlled their numbers, they were few and far between?

After finding a herd numbering towards a hundred, I watched some grazing, and others moving around the hills, crossing a river in the process, and one even decided to have a mud-bath. That was rather amusing!

Taking a step aside from the wildlife for a few hours, I headed east to RAF Lossiemouth, to watch the trio of RAF Tornados fly over one of their old bases. It was ridiculously warm, with some sightseers wearing shorts and t-shirts. Spotting the planes was made much easier, by having a friend constantly texting me the latest location of the jets, so I could be aiming the camera in the right direction in time.

While the planes never really passed over closely initially, one of the Tornados returned later, flanked by a pair of RAF Typhoons, the replacement fighter plane. That made for quite a sight.

With more free time, Lyndsey was able to spend another day with me looking at what might be lurking in the harbours along the coast from Inverness, diverting to look for a great grey shrike along the way. Stonechats were busy establishing territories, but when a mistle thrush flew past and along a fence line, our eyes were drawn to another bird, that Lyndsey spotted perching up behind. It was the shrike, and a scramble to drive the car along the road ended with some decent, if somewhat distant views of the butcher bird. And it was very apparent from Lyndsey's excitement how pleased she was to see one.

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.

To be honest though, the sunset itself was simply stunning, and any subjects sharing the limelight were a bonus.

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.

Also around were kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots and razorbills, and a few eiders and shags on the sea below. But the gannets stole the show for us, and again, I ended up ditching the prime lens for the zoom.

I also spent some time playing with panning shots, a slow shutter speed and a fast bird. Not easy in blustery conditions.

What we hadn't realised though, was how much stronger the wind had become over the time we had been there for. We were obviously very sheltered in the cliff-top spot we were sat in, and when we wandered back to the bags before leaving, we had a struggle to stand upright! The walk back to the car was brutal, and at one point, poor Lyndsey actually stopped making forward progress with the strength of the wind! I had to give her a push! And she wouldn't do the decent thing of collecting the car either, to drive back to pick me up...

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.

I tried a couple of set-ups, and both worked well, though the second, making use of teasels against a diffused background definitely had more appeal.

And after watching clients enjoy the antics of the red squirrels on numerous workshops during my stay, I felt I ought to use the site myself for a couple of days. So as well as adding to my collection of images of the squirrels leaping and posing, I also got some more types of images, such as running towards the camera, peering round trees, sitting at the back of the reflection pool, and climbing down a tree towards the camera.

And I even managed to get one of the squirrels to look right into the lens (on remote trigger, of course) which made for an effective shot.

My month in the Highlands raced by, and I found myself having to leave a bit earlier than planned, when my brother who turned 50 at the end of the trip, asked if I could make it back in time for a celebratory night out. I did, but after such a long drive, I felt almost as knackered as I did when I was looking for hares, and struggled to stay awake for the meal.

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.