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Cairngorm Trip 2014: Day 2

We awoke, this morning, to a thin covering of snow in the village, but a forecast that indicated the possibility of more snow later in the day, but a brightening picture. 

I have been looking forward to this day for several weeks, as we were meeting up with Andy Howard (@highland_andy on Twitter), who I have been following and chatting to on Twitter. Andy is a wildlife photographer and guide based in the heart of the Highlands. If you haven’t already, take a peek at some of the shots on his website and you can see why I was looking forward to this day so much! We had decided to concentrate on Mountain Hares, as it was a species that neither Pete nor I had photographed before and, with snow on the ground and a decent forecast, we hoped we would get some decent opportunities for photographs of this  amazing mammal. 

Pete and Andy, ready for the challenge….

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Unlike the Brown Hare, which is thought to have been introduced by the Celts during the Iron Age, the Mountain Hare is native to Britain. They are grey-brown with a blue tinge in summer and turn varying degrees of white during the winter, with only their ear tips staying  black. This is obviously an evolutionary adaptation, meaning they are more camouflaged on a snowy hillside from their predators, such as the Golden Eagle.  During the day, they shelter in small hollows in the ground, called forms or scrapes.

We met quite early and the skies were dark and heavy. With freezing temperatures and the prospect of the whole day on an exposed hillside, we were well layered up and I could not help but admire creatures who survive in such harsh conditions all year round. 

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We headed up the slopes, working our way backwards and forwards , looking for signs of hare. We spotted lots of tracks and evidence of where they had scraped away the snow to nibble on the grass and the heather, and we saw some distant individuals, but nothing close by.  Several times, Andy would stop us and point out a hare on the hillside… I could not believe he could spot them, as they are amazingly camouflaged when hunkered down! I would never have spotted them without his expert guidance.

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After several hours on the hillside, we headed down a little lower, at which point Andy once again stopped us and pointed out a hare tucked in against a gully. Carefully watching its body language, we edged closer. Whenever working with animals, it is essential that the welfare and comfort of the animal is paramount. We were within their environment and, if we were to be able to photograph them, it would be on their terms.

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 Their body language would indicate how comfortable they were. We were not creeping up on these hares, trying not to be seen… in fact, it was the opposite! The hares were very aware of us and had been well before we had spotted them. If they were comfortable with our slow advances and did not feel threatened at any point, then they would remain looking relaxed. If at any point, they raised their ears, looked to one side or looked uncomfortable in any way, we would stop and retreat if necessary. This particular individual looked relaxed in our presence and we crept close before just sitting still and allowing it to watch us. Placing my bags on the floor, I carefully extracted my camera. I had the 100-400mm lens on and had decided to leave the tripod at the cottage. I don’t like the restrictions of a tripod as I like to lay down and move about. I had a bean cushion and my rucksack as a rest. My heart was racing as this individual let me creep closer and closer….

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We stayed with this individual for a while and then headed back up the hillside. We crept slowly away, ensuring we did not disturb it. I was on a high after this first special encounter!

The light was lifting a little, but the wind was bitter…. I could see why the thick coat of the hare was so essential to their survival… I certainly would not last long in this inhospitable environment.

What was to happen over the next few hours far exceeded my wildest imagination, as we were treated to absolutely superb views of a number of different individuals. The degree of whiteness varies greatly, with some hares being almost completely white, yet others dusky grey and some still quite brown in colouration. We were treated to an amazing array of positions and landscapes, providing us with immense possibilities for shots. Photographing in the snow is a challenge as it is difficult to expose correctly. I experimented with different settings to create different images. I also tried to get interesting angles and these amazing animals often gave us plenty of opportunities to experiment both with positioning and exposures. I do not have any proper editing software on my laptop, so these images are screen captures of my images. when I get home, I will process these properly. Here are some of my favourites…

Andy was keen to locate a favourite hare of his… one he had had some very special encounters with over the last two years. He was surprised to find a different hare in the position that his hare usually frequented. We guessed that some forms were really ‘prime’ sites and there must be competition for these sites. Maybe a younger, fitter hare had displaced him? We found him further down the hillside in a very exposed area, out in the open snow. His dark colouration made him look quite vulnerable on the white landscape. 

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Again, we followed the same approach… slow and steady, ensuring he was comfortable with our approach at all times. I was able to lay down in the snow, almost on his level. The thrill of being so close to a wild animal, who is entirely trusting in your presence, is a very special feeling… one that is difficult to beat. It is difficult to explain how it feels to be laying in freezing temperatures in deep snow in the Cairngorms, with a wild Mountain Hare but a few metres in front of your lens. I could see every curved eyelash, delicate guard hairs and the intricate gradation of fawns, browns and creams in his thick winter coat. I was totally spellbound! I just hoped my images would do him justice. ….

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This has to be one of the most magical encounters I have had… you can probably tell by my smile…

We did not want to outstay our welcome and respected this hare for its amazing tolerance of our presence. We crept away, managing to get a few final shots of some distant hares. I was keen to show these creatures in their wider landscape and I feel these shots give a hint of this….

I took over 500 shots and I am going to struggle to choose my favourites… but I have a feeling that when I get home with decent software, I will be creating some artistic images as these shots are fantastic for high key, high contrast images… I am trying to create something a little different…

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 I cannot thanks Andy enough for today. His expert guiding and professional approach and obvious attachment to these mammals made for an incredible day. … it is one that I will never forget.

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