Sunday, February 23, 2014

Morning Mountain Hares

My internal clock does not yet seem to have fully synchronized with the increasing length of daylight and still seems to be in winter 'hibernation' mode. So when the alarm burst into life at 6 a.m yesterday morning I must admit it was a struggle to drag myself out from the warmth of the duvet.  I stumbled around and into the multiple layers of clothing lying in a waiting pile in the spare room. I usually like to be at site at first light and so of course you need to factor in time to get ready and travel to the site, so often an early start becomes much earlier. The target for yesterday morning was a return visit to the Mountain hares. As I drank my breakfast coffee, out of habit, I  looked at the back door at the weather and the wind did not seem too bad, although of course the conditions at home would bear no resemblance to where I was heading.

The clock is ticking now for photographing these hares as they will soon start to change from winter white back into the brown fur of summer. So that was the first motivation for not rolling back over in bed. The other was that the forecast looked fairly similar to my visit last weekend, which was bearable despite the relentless biting icy wind. As I was driving to the site, my main thoughts turned to how low the cloud base would be and as I approached the foot of the hills, the high level clouds raised a smile. Once parked up it always takes a while to get moving as the next set of clothing layers goes on with waterproof jacket and trousers, gloves, gaiters, boots and something new to try for the day a balaclava. The difficulty with approaching hares the previous week had set me thinking about approach and I thought the concealing the face may be useful given that the rest of me was head to toe in camouflage. I also thought I was probably a little too enthusiastic in my approach to hares the previous weekend, probably due to the amazement of actually being able to get back on the mountain, and I needed to slow down and take a more careful and considered approach.

Before I knew it I was hiking across the marshy ground uphill to reach the plateau once more. The strong wind blowing up the slope sending rippling waves through the multi-coloured upland grasses. As I walked along I could already see three white blobs of hares in the far distance sat out and taking shelter from the brisk wind. I must admit I love the peace, solitude and wildness of this place. It was time to make a move close to the first mountain hare but I was stopped before I reached it by just catching sight of a hare resting in one of the peat gullies. I crawled up the ground to the side of the gully, downwind of the hare, until I thought I would be at about the right distance and very, very slowly pushed the lens to the gully side. There was the first hare of the day full frame in the viewfinder, just beautiful. With these sitting hares, they typically do not do much so I very slowly back away and went to find another.

The second hare was in a tricky position down slope surrounded by open ground and little cover. I maneuvered as close as I could trying to stay out of the hares line of sight but then had a long crawl ahead of me. I eventually got there and took a few photographs of the second hare of the morning. At this point I realised that the so called breathable balaclava was not and after the efforts of the crawl  it felt like there had been a light rain shower inside it.
I glimpsed another hare ahead and was sure it had not spotted me and crawled across the wet vegetation once more only to find it gone when I had reached position. I decided I would go and check a small gully with a rocky outcrop where I had seen three hares together the previous week. As I wandered across to the far side of the plateau I came across another hare resting in a peat gully and stayed with this one for a quite a long time and managed to get in really close. I spent quite a while very slowly moving myself to get more of a head on angle. After a while it must have got bored with watching me, turned around on the spot and disappear down a hole in the peat behind it.

Before reaching the gully I spotted another hare. Where this one was sitting would allow a close approach without me being seen and my plan to use the slight dips and rises in the landscape to my advantage worked perfectly.

I finally reached the gully and again there were three hares there and managed a few photographs of one of them amongst the rocks. The other two heading rapidly up slope shortly after arrival. The speed of a mountain hare going up a slope is very impressive.
This was to be my last mountain hare of the morning and despite walking around for a while longer, the hares had suddenly become noticeably absent as the sun broke through the cloud layer above. By now it was late morning and I assumed they had taken to resting up in deep cover. It had been a morning of hard work but good fun and was now time to head back to the car. The walk back always seems a lot longer but eased but having just spent parts of the last 3.5 hours with some amazing animals.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Tale of Two Hares

My local Brown Hare site has been ominously quiet over recent months and I was started to get concerned following reports that some youths had taken it upon themselves to shoot them for 'fun' last year. Given the apparent complete absence of hares I wondered if this sad activity had carried on and tipped the numbers over the edge, resulting in extinction of this small population.

I can happily report that over the last couple of weeks the hares have begun to return, although numbers still appear low in comparison to a few years ago. Whether this is the result of the alleged shootings, or a result of a natural cyclic fluctuation in numbers that is common in hare populations and partly driven by the rather atypical climatic conditions of the last few years remains to be seen. What I do know is it is great to see them back and it was a pleasure to put some in front of the camera for the first time this year on my brief session with them a couple of weeks. The sight of the hares reminds me that Spring is not too far off now and hopefully will see an end to the diabolical winter weather we have suffered this year. Below is a selection of photos from the session.

Very early in the morning in low light.
Incoming hare.
A shallow depth of field turning the long foreground grass to mush.
Up close and personal.
Running towards another hare nearby.
Still in their thick winter coats.
Last weekend saw a slight chink in the weather and saw me heading out once more looking for Mountain Hare in the Peak District. I thought it would be nice for readers to be able to compare images of the two hare species. Following a successful session with these upland hares in early January the weather has proved frustrating in preventing a return. I made one visit in the intervening period but the forecast proved very wrong and a complete white out blizzard quickly descended across the plateau. I was very glad I use a good GPS and plot my route as such conditions are incredibly disorientating and potentially dangerous with a steep valley to one side. The conditions cut the session short as I was concerned about the snow on the road where my car was parked. This is a good example if you are going to head off into the mountains always make sure your well prepared and also let someone know where your heading to. 

Wind the clock forward to last weekend, the mountain weather forecast indicated it was going to be windy but the cloud base would quickly lift in the morning. I figured that a 35- 40 mph wind and accompanying wind chill was just about bearable and headed off through the cloud to return to the plateau. The hares on this occasion were quite different in behaviour from my encounters 5 weeks earlier and were very skittish. Part of the cause seemed to be that many had now paired up and frequently when trying to approach one it was not possible to the second one lurking nearby. The second hare would take off taking the target hare with it. Despite the difficult conditions and hare behaviour I managed to get a few more photograph to add to the collection. I am very rapidly turning into a mountain hare addict, a condition for which I hope there is no cure.

A welcome sight at a long trek but difficult to keep the camera on the hare in the buffeting winds on an exposed slope.
Sheltering from those biting uplands winds
Sat amongst the red upland grasses
Starting to pair up for Spring breeding.
When sat in amongst the long grass, despite being white, they can be extremely difficult to spot. This is why on occasions a hare seems to appear as if from nowhere from right by your feet.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Down the Road to Purple Sands

I am sure the weather gets worse every winter. As a wildlife photographer the weather, and more importantly the effect it has on the quantity and quality of the light, is everything. Since the start of December low depression driven storms have been rolling continuously in off the Atlantic on an unusually strong jet stream with a day or two of more benign between them.  Occasionally a quiet weather spell has fallen on a weekend day and the camera has got an airing but so far such moments have been few and far between. With the days currently still short in daylight, my only potential camera time is at the weekend and it certainly gets you down when the Friday forecast predicts another weekend of very wet and windy weather to come.

What has been particularly frustrating for me is, having located what seems to be a reasonably good location for Mountain Hares, I have just not been able to get back there. If the weather is poor where I live then you can guarantee it will be doubly dire in the hills.

So given the general lack of action I thought I would delve into my hand drive and catch up with some processing of images that I never got around to sorting out last year. The folder marked 'Wirral Purple Sandpipers' looked a good place to start on the backlog and so this what this post is about.

I am fortunate to have some Purple Sandpipers present during the winter months about 2 minutes from my home.  The photography is undertaken at high tide when the birds sit out and roost on the sea defence rocks and groynes over the high water period. So it is easy when some free time coincides with a high tide and half decent light to pop down the road for a quick half an hour session. Having said that these rock areas are not as reliable for photography as they use to be after a large inaccessible floating pontoon for boating was installed on the local marine lake and where large numbers of waders, including the Purple Sandpipers, now frequently sit for their high tide roost. However, there are benefits for the birds, which is important, as they now have a peaceful place to rest and preserve their precious energy reserves in the winter away from careless dog walkers and kite surfers. Of course being so local it is no big deal if the birds are not present on a particular visit as you know will encounter them at some point on a future one.

A wing stretch

I would really urge photographers to try and learn the good photography locations for their local wildlife. Being local allows you to undertake frequent visits, even if they are brief sessions,  which helps develop a good understanding of the behaviour of a particular animal or bird species and how different photo opportunities present themselves with the changing seasons.  It also allows you to concentrate your efforts towards certain species which brings its own rewards and benefits and  is with time often reflected in the resultant images. The more time you spend with a particular species the more likely you are to capture a special moment or light conditions.

Anyway I digress, back to the Purple Sandpipers. These are a bird I love to photograph. There is something visually very appealing about these birds, the white edged feathers, the very slight purple shimmer to the in the right light, the orange beak and feet all packaged up in a slightly dumpy looking wader. They also share a similar trait to Turnstones in that they are not particularly bothered by the presence of a photographer, especially if you approach them slowly and carefully and sit with them quietly. I consider myself very fortunate to have these birds so close to home and it being relatively easily to spend some time with them during the winter months.
Over the last few years I have accumulated many Purple Sandpiper photographs but it is still a species I find myself drawn back to time and time again. I hope I will be able to spend some more time with them before they depart once again in the spring, assuming the current run of poor weather improves in time.


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