Sunday, September 28, 2014


During this summer I have spent a fair amount of my time photographing Little Owls which will be the subject of a couple of future blog posts. The owls were resident in an old farm building which had a gravel track running down its side which separated it from a field with a potato crop. As Little Owls are most active during dawn and dusk and it was inevitable that during these sessions I would also encounter some other birds and animals which show a preference for these times of day.
Whilst sitting waiting for owls I would see the occasional brown hare coming down the track and cutting across the grass verge and into the potato plants.
During July three leverets appeared briefly for a couple of weeks and not only gave some good opportunities for photography, which does not happen to often,  but were also a great deal of fun to watch. Leverets always seem slightly comic in appearance with their ears and feet which they always seem to need to grow into. They also always seem slightly uncoordinated in their movements as if someone above is pulling strings attached to the legs in the opposite direction to that which they want to go. These mini hares are also highly unpredictable, sitting still one moment and then bouncing around all over the place the next as if they are receiving repeated electric shocks.

They are actually fairly difficult to photograph given the apparent randomness of their movements, u combines with their small size and impressive speed.  Sometimes they have the appearance of a turbo-charged guinea pig. The world must seem a very large place to a small leveret.
It was interesting to watch the three of them interacting and most of their time was spent chasing each other in circles among the potato plants. Important 'playtime' training to avoid future predation. There was another interesting moment when one approached a rabbit and seemed to be trying to provoke it into a chase although the rabbit was having none of it.

My brief moments with these leverets was very enjoyable especially when combined with the Little Owls and provide a useful and entertaining distraction whilst waiting for the owls to appear. I hope these hares are all still around and fairing well as this declining species is currently afforded no statutory protection in the UK. In my view this is one of our most enigmatic small mammal species and deserves a higher legal conservation status to ensure that future generations can enjoy the spectacle of the 'mad' March hares running around the fields.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Red Grouse in Purple Haze

About three weeks ago I had to head up to Durham with work. As I was driving across some winding roads through Teesdale it struck me that it seemed to be an exceptional year for flowering by the moorland heather. The rolling landscape draped in a blanket of rich purple and and pinks. As I continued my journey, I would occasionally see a Red Grouse perched near to the road or speeding across in front of me in straight low flight. On my journey home the grey matter started ticking, and I was thinking that this exceptional bloom of heather was just to good to pass-by and and allow to fade into autumn.

A couple of days later and I was speaking to my good friend Andy and  a visit to our favourite grouse site in Yorkshire was quickly arranged. So last week, after a very early start and a long drive, I managed to get myself to the site soon after sunrise and was happy to be slowly driving up the track that leads on to this upland moor. I had not even reached the moor before I encountered the first Red Grouse which was perched on a dry stone wall with the fields behind  glowing a golden yellow. I had a good feeling about this trip already.

I gave Andy a quick call who was on the far side of the moor and we agreed we would slowly work across and meet somewhere in the middle. There was a urgent need to get photographs quickly before the sun got too high, the light too harsh but more importantly given the conditions before the focus destroying haze started.

There were a lot of grouse around and the setting was just beautiful in the early morning with the flowering heather, some of which was already starting to fade to orange. We had timed our visit well as much later and we was would have lost the colourful benefit of the flowers. Many of the birds were still in family groups with the male on sentry duty over looking the female and two or three well grown young as the grazed on the fragrant heather.

I was finding plenty of birds and the memory card soon started gathering images.

I even managed to get a lucky flight shot.

By 10am you could already see the first shimmer of haze starting to develop and grouse activity had significantly nose dived. By this time I had met up with Andy and we decided to try one last bird, sat in amongst a mound of heather, before heading off for breakfast. We started taking photos and Andy wandered left  and found a great angle on the bird which produced a pleasing darker background from the dark hills in the distance.
We took a lot of photos of this bird but the majority ended up  in the computer waste bin due being soft in focus due to the haze of wobbling air that had developed just above the heather. Under these conditions all you can do is take a lot of photos and hope you get a moment where there is a 'gap' in the haze. You will inevitably end up with the odd photograph that is sharp but you should also be prepared for a lot of disappointment.

It was late morning before we got to the hotel and breakfast turned into an early lunch sat outside a pub in some warm September sunshine. The food combined with an early start, long drive and some fairly intense concentration were beginning to take its toll. A siesta was needed to recharge the bio-batteries before heading out again for a late afternoon and evening session.

As we headed back to the moor at around 4pm, a layer of cloud had gathered overhead creating some fairly 'flat' light. I worked hard through the session to build up the increasing collection of grouse images, always being on the look out for a bird in a different setting and trying to make the most of the heather. In some locations the palette of hues around the birds were amazing and using a shallow depth of field blended them into a techni-coloured haze. On occasions the scene through the camera viewfinder seemed like some kind of psychedelic experience. I wonder if Jimi Hendrix ever photographed grouse in flowering heather? Probably not but I am sure he would have certainly appreciated the purple haze.

The day was finished with a very enjoyable curry.

The next morning was overcast and misty and as we headed out towards the moor again the mist turned to thick fog. Fortunately the very top of the moor was just high enough to take us above the swirling white layer. We had to move around quite a bit of the course of the morning as patches of the fog lifted up the hillside rendering the area we were useless.
It turned out to be a fairly productive morning. We found one very accommodating bird that would allow very close approach but insisted on sitting on top of a post.

A good opportunity though to get a nice frame filling head photo of the bird.
We both decided we wouldn't wait around to the evening and finished our trip late morning. On the way home I found one last bird to photograph sat on a  boulder surrounded by bracken.

It turned out overall to be another very enjoyable and productive trip with Andy. We tend to do these outings a couple of times a year when a gap in our busy lives coincide. It is always a pleasure to have a couple of days out with the camera, away from the pressures of modern life and spend time enjoying the wildlife in a beautiful area with good company. The next day I was back in work looking somewhat 'groused' from my exertions of the previous days.


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