Mountain hares - a long term love affair.
Some wildlife subjects are a constant itch that needs scratching and for me mountain hares fall into that category and irrespective of how many encounters I have enjoyed with them I want more. They may not be one of the worlds greatest megafauna but they have a distinct character and the more time that I spend with them the deeper I delve into the world. Over the past few years I have been fortunate to work with a local population of mountain hares and have got to know them well, often spending many hours in the company of a single hare on any one visit. And I’ve found that this is really the key to successful images. Again it’s a cliche but the longer I spend with a subject the luckier I seem to get. But of course luck only plays a small part and what is actually happening is that I am giving myself a better chance of observing hare behaviour. And equally importantly an individual hare gets more accustomed to me and therefore behaves naturally in my presence.
Hares as a species though are fickle. Some bolt even when I ‘m 100m or more away and give no chance of capturing a shot. Others will allow me to approach reasonably close, say to within 30-40m but then get twitchy and may wander away. And then there are the sitters. These animals tend to sit tight in their daytime ‘forms’ relying on camouflage and don’t budge until you’re right on top of them. The sitters can be hard to spot and may be tucked in against a rock or lying low in a snow hole and I’ve virtually trodden on some animals before they’ve shot out at high speed from my feet. But if I can spot one of these sitters from distance then these usually offer the best chance of photography.
The advantage of making repeated visits to the same location is that I’ve been able to build up a good knowledge of where I might locate individuals because like the rest of us hares are creatures of habit and will return to the same ‘form’ to lie up during the day. Most animals will have several forms that they favour so I tend to check these out first and hope to find one or two occupied. It’s then a matter of getting into position. This usually involves a slow approach stopping every few metres to make sure that the hare remains relaxed. I also try to avoid direct eye contact and don’t necessarily approach directly towards them but take a roundabout route. Once I’m close enough to start shooting I’ll take a few shots so the hare gets accustomed to the noise of the shutter but saying that I’ve not found this to be a problem.
Once I’ve found a hare I can work with, and assuming its in a photogenic spot, I’ll stick with it even though it may not do much for hours on end. The point is that sooner or later it will and only by being in position and ready to shoot will I be able to get the more interesting shots that I’m after. Spending extended periods of time with an individual also allows it to fully relax and this is when the best shooting opportunities begin to present themselves. Hares have the rather unusual behaviour of eating their own droppings during the day. This allows them to extract additional nutrients from their food that weren’t digested the first time. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily make for great shots it does mean that the hare will get up and move around every so often to do this. This may be followed by a grooming session which also makes for more interesting images.
Last winter was not the best for snow and I had to go higher up the hill to find suitable conditions to photograph the hares and this also meant that I was often working with different animals which were not quite as confiding as those lower down. At times I struggled to get close enough for decent shots but eventually I came across several hares that allowed me into range. On one occasion I was photographing one individual in its form when another animal suddenly approached it resulting in a bit of a scuffle as the ‘resident’ hare chased the interloper away. But undeterred it came back shortly afterwards and ended up siting just a few metres away from me. I was right out in the open kneeling on the snow and it was obviously aware of my presence yet seemed perfectly at ease and in fact I ended up following it around for about an hour before it finally sauntered back to it’s form lower down the hill.
With this winter just underway and the hares turning white once again I’m itching to get back out on the hill but first we need some of that all important ingredient - snow. It shouldn’t be too long to wait now.
LITTLE OWLS IN FLIGHT
The Seasonal Review: Red Foxes
by Tom Way
Every Spring I start with the intention of spending as many evenings in the hide photographing Red Foxes as I can. In reality by the time I have factored in the evenings where I am either giving talks, away on location or attending an exhibition, these days actually amount to fewer than I would like. However, I was keen to improve on my images from last season with the location of the new hide and using new equipment.
I began shooting back in April this year, as time is needed to give the foxes a chance to become accustomed to the sound of the camera shutters. As these are wild rural foxes they can be shy, so minimal lens movement is important aswell as not firing off a thousand frames! The activity was steady during April with two males coming back and forward in front of the hide but the busy vixens only coming onto the site after dark. It was not until early May in which the activity really started to pick up and where I opened the hide to the public in partnership with Nature Photography Hides.
Although I was consciously trying to achieve simple portraits this year, I am constantly thinking about new angles and settings. Having a few wild flowers in the foreground added a hint of colour and there are some exciting ideas for next year in the pipeline already. Whenever the opportunity arose this year with this particular male, I would use a 500mm lens and a 1.4x converter to try something different as he did not mind coming quite close to the hide.
Although traditionally during May this is too early for the cubs to be coming in front of the hide, I love shooting at this time of year as the grass provides such a lush green out of focus foreground and backdrop to the images. It was exciting news when I first noticed that vixens were lactating and felt reassured that this would be the third year in a row that I would be lucky enough to see cubs. From those three vixens emerged two different sets of cubs which kept me guessing on their arrival all the way up until the 1st week in July, a whole month later than last year, but finally they stepped out into the meadow for the first time.
All together I saw 5 different individual cubs, though three of them were very shy and so most of my photographic opportunities came from the smallest cubs of the group. With fantastic large marble eyes and beautiful black tear drops on their face they provided some perfect moments over of the 2 months. The cubs grow extremely quickly and there is only a relatively short window in which the cubs are at their cutest!
The height of activity is now over for this year but now the cubs are significantly larger I am hoping to keep working on a few ideas with autumn colours through the coming months. This is a long term project that I could never tire of doing. Each night is different, some evenings see far greater activity than others but that is the nature of wildlife photography. Those moments where the inquisitive young cub almost walks right up into your lens hood only happens once or twice in a season but is worth the wait! If there is any snow forecast for this winter, there will be a last minute booking option on the Nature Photography Hides Website. Bookings for 2015 in the hide will open early next year, so if you fancy taking your own pictures of rural red foxes you can click on the link to register your interest: Nature Photography Hides
Colin Townend is our weekend man at our Worcestershire site, a lot of you will have met him by now, and maybe you didn’t know he’s also a photographer. He has just spent a day in the Kestrel hide in Worcestershire and sent in a few shots. The male Kestrel is now in superb condition and moulted all his immature feathers from last year; he’s looking great and visiting every day as these top shots show. This bird has been with us over a year now; we guess the female is sitting on eggs as she hasn’t been seen for a few weeks. We have moved the hide about 200 yards further from the farm buildings and made it a three window hide, with new comfy chairs. The field behind the perches has been ploughed and is creating a nice clean background for us.
Red Squirrels - Cairngorms National Park
I've got to be honest; my red squirrel photography is in the doldrums. Despite a shed-load of fresh ideas, the Scottish winter, like everywhere else has been a constant diet of wind and rain followed by more wind and rain - not conducive to successful photography. But it’s 2014, we've fastened the hide roofs back down and I'm all full of meteorological optimism. The long range forecast includes its fair share of cold and clear conditions and I can already feel the adrenaline fuelled by running, jumping, flying, leaping...and of course, posing squirrels. If you've never been to the Highlands to photograph our squirrels (they're not really ours you understand), the clock is ticking, winter is waning and with luck, the snow is coming!
I had never previously had chance to photograph Osprey on a perch, but last week spent a couple of days in the hide in the Cairngorms. To say it’s exciting when this beauty lands on a perch in front of you is an under estimation, it’s truly amazing. Pete and Amanda Cairns have had to work very hard and make a few last minutes changes to the hide but it’s been worth it. It was a couple of hours wait for the female bird who landed first and was with us for a good while, wing stretching, having a shake, pecking at the fish before flying off, she came back an hour later for a brief visit before flying off with a fish. Male and female birds are always around the hide in the dry river bed and it seems that the perch is very popular with the male Osprey in particular; a couple of days after my visit the male were on the perch for over two hours.
I have hundreds of shots to go through but wanted to get a few up as there are only a couple of spaces left for this year and it’s a truly fantastic opportunity. I would like to say thanks to Pete Cairns who has created an amazing experience for us.
We have been feeding our Little Owls now for over two years and during that time they have rewarded us with some great photo opportunities. There is something really special about photographing wild Little Owls and when one lands it is really exciting. I have photographed them many times over the years but I still get a real buzz when one drops down. I have had mixed success in this hide and although I was really pleased with my winter shots, I wanted to get some more stuff on them during the spring. So once Mark rang me to say he had found some special perches I just had to find the time to go. I am so glad I did because Mark is an expert at finding perches and they suited this beautiful bird. Not only had he found some nice Ivy covered posts, he had also built a stone wall for the owls to perch on. We pride ourselves on finding new perches because that way our set-ups are not always the same and so people come away with different images.
I only spent a couple of hours in the hide and it was a very productive time. The male Owl was very busy as he was not only feeding himself but also the female who was incubating the eggs. The Owls have decided to nest in the tree right above our hide and so just drop down to feed when they need too. In the last couple of days the eggs have hatched and now both the male and female are dropping down. I wish I had the time to go back especially when the young are starting to fledge because once they have left the nest these bundles of joy will also visit the feeding site. If you are interested in capturing the young chicks then drop Liz an email or follow us on Facebook as we will update the page.
I also made the effort to spend a day in our new Kestrel hide too. I have been before and got some great stuff of the adult female which was in March. At that time the background was the ploughed field which was really complimentary to her. Now we are into late spring the crop has started to grow and so the background has completely changed. This vibrant green produces something different now. We had a nice surprise whilst we waited for the female to turn up. When she eventually landed for her free meal we realised it was a completely different bird. It was a young male and we are not sure if it is one of our female's youngsters, although it does seem a tad early. We haven't seen the female for a while so it is hard to tell.
It is always exciting when you attract wildlife in this way as you just never know what is likely to turn up or happen nature is so unpredictable. We hope he stays a little while because he is a stunning little male. We will also update on our female because we are sure she will come back soon too. What we really want is the adult male as they have got to be one of the most beautiful birds of prey in the UK.
Our site in Worcestershire has long been known for the Kingfisher hide, and the Little Owl but I have always wanted to add a classic farmland bird, the Kestrel. We have always had a pair around the area but they never came close enough to the farm to work with so a couple of months ago we started putting food out on posts in the fields around the outer edges of the farm to see if we could get one interested. Slowly but surely one post was having the food taken and we began watching to see what was taking the mice, and sure enough it was a male Kestrel. The task now was to get the post closer to the farm so again slowly a bit at a time we got the post and food where we needed it. Starting with a pop up hide it took a few more weeks to get the birds used to the hide then the camera and eventually the big step to build a permanent hide. I remember the first day in the new hide I had a fair but comfortable wait (with the heater) before the female came in, she was very cautious at first choosing to approach on the ground in the field but eventually settling on the mouse and then spending a good fifteen minutes on the perch, it’s so exciting and a really beautiful bird.
We are pleased to announce that Mark has got the front cover image for the first edition of a new magazine Bird Art & Photography on sale at WHSmith. If you would like to book on one of our workshops then please visit our Hide Workshops page.