The Elusive Mountain Hare

In part 2 of this series of posts about photographing (mainly wildlife) in a recent return to old haunts in Scotland, I'll cover a very enjoyable day spent tracking Mountain Hares in the Glenlivet Estate. A number of people operate Mountain Hare 'safaris', including James Moore and Andy Howard – both come very highly recommended but on this occasion we used Dave Newland from Glenlivet Wildlife and we can also personally recommend him and his Land Rover!



Sal and I met Dave at the village of Tomnavoulin, leaving our car with a slight sense of trepidation as it was snowing heavily and were slightly nervous about getting back out again, let alone about heading up into the mountains. Dave was reassuring though and we boarded his Land Rover and soon we were off-road for the trek across to the base of a beautiful snow-covered juniper hill.

After leaving the Land Rover we hiked in the blizzard up the hill and to be honest, visibility was so poor that I didn't think we'd see anything at all. Fortunately though, the snow quickly thinned down and we were even rewarded with some sunshine and wonderful light. The hares were in their perfect camouflage environment and so we weren't able to spot any from a distance and work towards them slowly to get those great face-on pictures. Perhaps next time. However, there were plenty of Hares and their method of running is to sprint swiftly for a spell then pause and reassess so it was possible to get several shots of them.


I used the 500mm lens throughout and without it, I wouldn't have got a single useable shot. It's a big lens and had to be carried and hand-held as the photo opportunities were pretty fleeting. To ensure I avoided camera shake and to stop these swift beasts in their tracks I went for a shutter speed of 1/3000s for every shot with an aperture of f4, leaving the auto ISO to work its magic although the snow meant that I never saw more than 1000.


Hares weren't the only animals on the hill – the grouse were plentiful and several Deer made an appearance too, sometimes the Deer vs Grouse standoff was quite funny!


The hike was reasonably tough in about a foot of snow and the blizzard at the start 'interesting' but the subsequent light, the view, the diversity of wildlife and of course an incredible chance to see Mountain Hare were all worth it. The Mountain Hare is a nocturnal animal (we saw a Golden Eagle prowling several times) to avoid being chomped – they sleep deep in the juniper bushes then move uphill to feed late in the afternoon. When they get a move on, they can reach 60mph uphill so it's certainly not worth chasing them! If you know where one is, it is possible to very slowly approach and get within 20ft or so if its a tolerant animal but if like us, you encounter perfect conditions for the hares, it won't be possible to see them apart from when they make their move up the hill.


I hope you enjoyed this post and it maybe gives you the urge to investigate this elusive animal – the guided tours are definitely the way to go!





A Tale of Two Squirrels

500mm, 1/320s, f4, ISO 3200

Recently, Sal and I returned to Scotland for a holiday and it provided a fantastic opportunity to photograph some of the stunning Scottish wildlife in full festive mode. The weather was extremely kind to us, including snowing on cue for Mountain Hares! To start though, a couple of encounters with the iconic and completely lovable Red Squirrel. The first was thanks to James Moore, who has established a hide on The Black Isle and runs a variety of accompanied wildlife tours as well as being an accomplished photographer himself.

500mm, 1/250s, f4, ISO 2500

We didn't have long to wait for the first squirrels to arrive and they kept coming all morning. It was my first time up close with red squirrels and they are even prettier than I thought! They were much more intent on caching food than eating it, although they did spend a little time munching too.

500mm, f4.0, 1/200, ISO 5000

Last summer I took the plunge and invested in a 500mm lens so I was keen to improve my skills with it. The light wasn't great and the forest is quite dense so I was constantly balancing speed, depth of field and ISO but that's what I was after! I found that they are pretty swift movers – lots of fast, sharp movements then completely still so had to keep the shutter speed up at about 1/320 or so. For most shots I used f4.0 and the ISO cantered between 800 and 3200, mostly towards the top of that. I always shoot in RAW and the latest update to adobe raw offers great noise reduction which offset that high ISO! Other than a little cropping, sharpening and exposure tweaking, I try not to tinker too much with the images.

After a brilliant but freezing morning in the hide, the second red squirrel experience of the week was courtesy of Pete Cairns and Northshots down at Loch Insh in the Cairngorms.

70-200 at 200mm, 1/400, f3.0, ISO 1250

The weather had obligingly changed so we had a blanket of fresh snow, first to get through as the Northshots location is delightfully remote set amid stunning scenery! This was a really well set-up hide in a clearing with a beautiful backdrop. Pete walked us into the location and set us up with a few creature comforts in the hide before sealing us in and wishing us luck!

Once again we didn't have too long to wait before we had a furry visitor – because the forest here was thinner, we could see as well as hear him approaching and I was lucky enough to get a shot of him jumping between the trees on his way. This critter stayed with us a while, munching the hazelnuts and seemingly much less interested in stashing them away like the Black Isle squirrels! The noise of a squirrel stripping away the outer layer of a hazelnut is really pretty loud and only adds to their appeal.

For this shoot, I had left the 500mm in the bag and was using a 70-200mm lens to try to capture a little more of the habitat as opposed to a close up of the squirrel and this was ok, but in hindsight I wish I had put the 1.4X tele converter on to just extend the reach a little.

70-200 at 200mm, 1/500s, f4.0, ISO 500

Pete had given me some tips on how to catch squirrels leaping between the platforms and this little critter obligingly made his way up then leapt across the gap. I had locked the focus on the platform, zoomed out to make sure I caught the action and set the shutter speed to 1/1000s. The Canon 70-200 is a fast lens and I opened the aperture right up to f2.8, accepting the risk of the shallow depth of field. My 1DMk4 has a really fast shot rate of about 17 pictures per second which means lots of throw away images but at least I was likely to capture the action. Fingers crossed that this would be ok – at least there was plenty of light thanks to the thinner forest, clear sky and reflections from the snow. I'm pleased with my first attempts at squirrel jumping, although it's not at all up to the standards that I've seen from others so it's just given me a great reason to try again!

70-200mm at 148mm, 1/2000s, f2.8, ISO 800


Unfortunately the snow had obviously made the squirrels want to stay snug somewhere so this was our only visit of the morning but it was really worth it for the snow and of course the jumping. I learnt that I need to be a little less protective over my ISO figures and probably accept numbers up to at least 1600 in order to allow a sufficient depth of field. Also, I think I tried too hard to reduce my shutter speed, especially on the first shoot. This led to a lot of blurred pictures due to the sudden and swift movements of the cute furry chaps and in future I don't think I'd go below about 1/320s and probably aim for a bit higher. I was reminded of the importance of really working at getting the focus right on the animal's eyes, the importance of patience and of shooting lots and lots of images – I was rewarded with a few funny expressions for my trouble. I think I threw away well over 50% of the images I took because they were blurred! out of focus or had some other major drama. I don't get disheartened by this reject rate – squirrels are a very difficult subject and when shooting at high rate, there are bound to be lots of very similar shots. All in all, the 2 hides were brilliant – a chance to get up close to some rare and very attractive wildlife and also to try to hone some of my photography skills. I hope you enjoy the images – any feedback or tips to be better gratefully received!


Technology and Photography

Technology continues to evolve quickly but its probably the software more than the hardware that is currently moving quickest. I have recently started using an augmented reality app called Sunseeker to help me plan the best time to take images.

This is a screen shot of the app, taken from the reception venue at my brother-in-law's wedding. It's telling me that to get a decent shot of the front of the hotel, I need to wait until at least 1400, when the sun will have moved around enough to light the front.

Sure enough, it did! But the app does much more – you can point it at the sky and it will physically show you where the sun will be during the day and you can predict the sun's movement at any location at any time of day in the future too, so the changing seasons (particularly relevant up here in the north of Scotland) can be accounted for. Match this up with a location that really needs the light from a particular direction (Stonehenge anyone?) and you can reliably plan for a perfect shot.

I hope this was helpful – the app has really been good for me as I don't have a lot of time to sit and wait for things to happen so it has helped me plan my photography more effectively!


Photographing Aircraft

Obviously you have to be interested in the subject, but I think aircraft photography is a brilliant way to increase your photography skills because: they move quickly, they make demands on exposure settings, they require different shutter speeds depending on the action (eg a propeller) and they offer fleeting chances of a great picture!

Taken at Kandahar Air Base

Taken at Kandahar Air Base

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