Scotland in February Part 1....The Wildlife: Mountain Hares, Red Squirrels and much more

22nd February 2014
Last year after my summer trip to the Highlands I promised myself I'd return again soon. There is something about the light and the landscape that is an ideal detox from the crowds and the noise of London and the South-East of England. So, with a smile on my face, I headed off at 0500am again on the 600 mile+ drive to the Highlands initially to be based at Glenfeshie near Kingussie at the excellent base run by Peter and Amanda Cairns at their "Northshots" HQ. 5 days there with access to Red Squirrels, Red Deer and hopefully some trips out in search of the elusive Mountain Hares and Ptarmigan. I was also hoping to add an extra 3-4 days on to attempt some landscapes to make the most of the long journey. Having negotiated all the joys of the Dartford Tunnel, the M25 and even Birmingham quite quickly (as I hoped at 0600am on a saturday morning!) next stop was breakfast at the best service station in the UK, Tebay near Penrith in Cumbria. Family run and a great breakfast though this time I was on the healthy option !

Enjoying a relatively straightforward run I finally hit snow on the high part of the A9 south of Kingussie which was a relief as the whole point of going in February was to take advantage of proper winter weather.

As always a warm welcome from the Northshots crew and after a hearty dinner and a decent kip awoke the next day to a pretty amazing view...and sunshine and snow on the peaks!

The weather of the previous two weeks had been atrocious with heavy rain and high winds and white out blizzards higher up but the forecast looked more favourably on us for the next few days with a real mixture which can be ideal for photography providing numerous options and opportunities. Meanwhile above about 1500 feet that relentless rain was falling as huge amounts of snow so the higher levels of Glencoe and Glenshee and the Cairngorm plateau were inundated with records depths of the white stuff and as the local news reports kept insisting was more than all the Alpine resorts, same as parts of Canada etc etc..which made me chuckle but who can blame them !

There are various locations around the Northshots estate with several hides and all providing potential for various species. I won't go on a long ramble here but here are few of the characters that popped up. Technically the problem unsurprisingly was often trying to get a high enough shutter speed without excessive ISO settings given the low light but when the sun did break through as always it transforms the image and can give it real zip. It's worth waiting around for hours for those few moments.

Great, Blue and Coal Tits were pretty abundant and it's easy to ignore them as I get plenty at home but they are still feisty interesting birds with the interaction between the species always good to observe.

The Crested Tit is a wonderfully elaborate Highland species found nowhere else and was the main reason to use one of the hides. They seemed to be, along with the Great Tit, top dog in any squabbling.

Chaffinchs, again a common bird but remarkably quarrelsome amongst each other as the breeding season starts to get under way.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker which, again I have nesting in my woods at home but you can never tire of when seen up close with their colourings and sheer power of that beak.

"Who you looking at?"

And so it was on to the Red Squirrels , an iconic species of the Highlands and one I had never photographed having only seen them once before running across in front of me the previous summer in the Highlands. The winter brings on their seasonal thicker coat with long ear tufts so definitely the time to try and capture them at their best.
Several places to try and get the images I wanted including the now quite famous "jumping" site that Peter Cairns has developed so well over the last few years. There are few guarantees in wildlife photography and this is no different but it does dramatically improve one's odds. But still the need for very fast frames a second rate, decent light and a good degree of luck in hoping the squirrels actually jump where you want them to to ensure an in-focus image.
I also spent a morning at the excellent location set up by pro photographer Neil McIntyre and here are just a few from both locations.

A typical bit of ancient Caledonian Pine Forest habitat the Red Squirrels like.

Catching the "leap" was tough due mainly to the very limited shallow depth of field created by having to use c.1/1500th+ shutter speed to freeze them which consequently requires a wide aperture and high iso and we also only had potentially anything from zero to 3-4 chances of them jumping in the 4 hours we'd be stuck in the hide when the light was realistically in a good direction. I never totally nailed it and even tried panning for a moody blurred effect once but this wasn't a bad effort and you need to accept there's a degree of luck involved regardless of camera equipment and experience. May have to go back at some point !! Of course it would have perfect if it could have snowed as well !

Here there was a brief moment when dappled sunshine broke through the tree canopy and suddenly lends an almost 3-D depth and clarity to the picture. I try much harder now than I used to and really look at positioning and background etc before I take a picture wherever I can and here everything came together with the catchlight in the eye, the light and the colours. I also have to thank Neil for producing such a great location as well

They do act and behave as cute as they look and there's a reason they do so well in competitions and postcard sales and to be fair it's justified. :-) Everybody say "Aaahh"

Next day we were scheduled to head up the hills on the Alvie Estate to see the Red Deer. In winter they come down off the high moors and hill sides to seek the protection of the lower forests and in bad weather the game keepers do supplement their feed with pellets to maintain their condition but again seeing them and getting decent photographs are two different things. We headed up about 600-800 feet above the road level and after watching the deer for about 45 minutes were then blessed with a proper blizzard and while creating some problems for the equipment did provide some lovely shots. The problem was trying to find viewpoints without trees/branches/stumps all cluttering up the photos whilst not spooking the quite jittery deer. All taken on a 500mm lens on my D4 and heavy tripod as again the low light was an issue and the heavy snow caused a degree of chaos for the camera's auto focusing so I switched to manual for quite a few.

Although this stag looked like he's roaring, I have to be honest and say it was a yawn !

After an hour we were getting "proper" snow !

Sometimes "less is more".......

There were two final species I really wanted to see in the wintry weather of the Highlands and one of my primary reasons for travelling the 600 miles up north. The Ptarmigan and the Mountain Hare. Ironically we had too much snow to get high up to the Ptarmigan sites with roads closed everywhere above the critical altitude so even with 4x4 cars we were stuffed!! but the Mountain Hares brought more luck. Heading an hour from our base we worked our way on foot for 1-2 miles up into the hills but we had driving drizzle on the first day in our group of 5 of us so whilst we did get quite close to a Hare it was tough to know who was more miserable and damp as we sat out the driving sleet as it progressively covered the front of our lenses. Still great to see though.

A sight many see as they come over the top of the hill..I call this one "A not-very-clean-pair-of-heels"

But not wanting to be beaten 3 days later I returned on my own and decided to go for it and climbed both sides of the valley in what came to feel a bit like an SAS training exercise as I lugged my 45lbs of kit plus tripod up and down the snow covered damp 45 degree slopes !!
Here is the (freezing!) river in the valley showing the mountain tops behind where I spent my day. Makes me feel cold just looking at it !

Here are a couple from my venture up the easterly slope which had less snow.
A pair play as they go through their bonding process as they head into spring. I was a long way off from them (so this is quite heavily cropped) and every time I crawled closer they saw me and moved up and over the next ridge. I was hoping they might box but though they didn't it was great to watch the interaction.

Can you spot the Hare ??... I wanted to show the dramatic landscape where these tough creatures eek out a living in temperatures that very winter drop to more than -10 degrees and much lower with howling gales and huge snow drifts.

After descending one side of the valley and then dragging myself up the other I did come across two Hares that over the next two hours let me closer. You wonder what they are thinking of as they let you slowly get closer and eventually I was within about 10 feet of this lovely animal.
Here are just a small selection of the many shots I got.

....and just as a small bonus I was lucky enough to have distant views of a pair of Golden Eagles as they soared well above the top of the hills, drifting across the valley. This was probably the best image to identify the Eagle as it is harassed by the smaller (though still large Raven). Golden Eagles wingspan is anything between 6ft and 7ft 8 inches to give an idea of scale.

. I would probably never have seen them but for the raucous calls of the two Ravens that proceeded to mob the pair of Eagles. Way too far off for a good photo and spotted as I was about to leave, I rapidly chucked my 500mm lens back on the tripod and scrambled 4-5 images but still stunning to see through binoculars and for me a very evocative end to my time in a stunning location.

And as a little finale I had the luck to watch some Red Grouse and here's one where it's good to see the feathery feet so essential in the winter conditions which are invariably obscured by the heather.

I was also fortunate with some gorgeous light on a late afternoon's speculative trip to the north Aberdeenshire coast at Burghead harbour with Eiders, Seals, Long Tailed Ducks and others all adding some interest. But what made it was the inky blue sea and the reflections of the buildings behind the harbour as the setting late winter sun hit them and created a myriad of colours and shapes.
Here a juvenile Lesser Black Backed Gull (I think!) steals a mussel that had been dived for by an Eider.

A group of Eiders make a noisy entrance.

A Grey Seal rolls in the liquid ink waters of the harbour and looks with distain at a bloke with a huge lens and tripod standing there in zero degrees !

I hope you enjoyed this little record of what was a wonderful few days in Northern Scotland and whilst fantastic in the summer I can not recommend a better time to go than February. Go prepared of course but no tourists, amazing light and scenery and the wildlife at it's best. Feel free to leave any comments on the website Guestbook area as it's always rewarding to get feedback.

And talking of amazing scenery and light, the next blog will be about my 4 days of Landscape photography which I tagged on the end of the wildlife trip.

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