Just over a year ago, I posted a blog about photographing Mountain Hares in Scotland during the winter months. Last winter, I had spent two weeks based in the Cairngorms National Park working on several different animals, including Mountain Hares, in winter conditions. Whilst it was a very enjoyable and productive trip, the weather conditions were not ideal for winter wildlife photography: unusually wet and warm weather low down, very high snow fall on the tops and high winds making access and photography very difficult. The one component that was missing, and this is what makes winter wildlife photography so special, was snow and especially snow at relatively low levels.
Much has been written about global warming and the effects it will have. Whilst these effects are far from certain, for the wildlife photographer wishing to photograph the United Kingdom’s wildlife in winter conditions, global warming will have an impact. I can remember the stories my maternal grandparents told about the hard winter of 1946-47 when they were snowed in during their honeymoon which they spent in a small village a few miles from their home. Locally, they are friends who remember the winter of 1962-63 when it was so cold that, amongst other things, the sea froze. Whilst we still have cold periods in the United Kingdom during winter, it is clear that they are becoming shorter and less frequent. For the wildlife photographer, this means that it is essential to take advantage of any snowy conditions as and when they arrive, to be very flexible and work even harder.
This winter, I had decided to spend the first two weeks of January in the Cairngorms National Park and then return for the first two weeks of February. By splitting my time into two trips, I was gambling on having good conditions for at least part of my time in the Cairngorms. As luck would have it, this gamble played off and I was fortunate to have snow at low levels during both trips. The weather did have a sting in the form of very high winds that made for very difficult conditions at times. In between the trips, whilst back at home, I was unlucky to come down with a bad winter bug that literally knocked me off my feet and, as a result, I had to adjust my plans a little and stay low during the second trip. This is a key point, having a backup plan can save a trip and ensure that you can keep photographing whatever the conditions throw at you. In this case the backup plan delivered and I spent several days working with several other animals that I would not otherwise have photographed.
This year, my aim was to add to my existing image portfolio of Mountain Hares. I did not wish to simply repeat the images from previous years. Although I spent time at one of the same areas as in previous years, I deliberately sought out different photography locations and images within this area. This meant a little more leg work which had the benefit that I was on my own with the Mountain Hares for almost all of the time.
As well as standard portraits, I worked on more dynamic images of the Mountain Hares. Hares will frequently stretch and shake off any snow that has accumulated on their fur before moving away from their forms. Knowing this behavioural trait means it can be anticipated and more easily captured. The speed at which Hares can run should not be underestimated. Locking on to such a fast moving and relatively small subject, with little or no contrast with its background, is a challenge for even the latest autofocus systems,
One area I specifically wanted to work on was images showing the Mountain Hares in their environment. In particular, I wanted to give an impression of the mountainous terrain the Hares inhabit. Photographing in these conditions is never easy but it is very rewarding.
During the four weeks I spent in Scotland this winter, I was able to photograph in a variety of different weather conditions and light. From complete whiteouts to blue skies. Even the sun put in the odd appearance!
As winter progresses, Mountain Hares’ attention starts to turn towards to breeding. It is quite common to see one or more males guarding a female as the breeding season approaches. Whilst I was fortunate to watch two Hares mate, this behaviour being rarely seen, unfortunately I was not close enough to photograph it. Life is not easy for the male Hares, with competition from other males and the females frequently rebuking their advances. The sequence of three images below show one unlucky male approaching a female only to have his ears boxed before the female ran off with him in pursuit.
With good snow cover, I was able to make simple, clean, high key images of the Mountain Hares surrounded by the snow. The Hares are not pure white, ranging in colour and darkness, which gives them just enough contrast to stand out from the whiter, lighter snow when it is rendered as pure white or just off white.
Conditions in winter, especially at intermediate levels on the hill, can change very quickly with snow cover developing or disappearing in a matter of days or even hours. These changes afford opportunities to make different images, even of the same Hares in the same place. The contrast between a Mountain Hare in winter pellage and bare heather can be very pronounced especially in the right light.
Mountain Hares’ reaction to the presence of Humans falls into one of three categories. The first category of Hares will run whilst you are at a distance from them, sometimes several hundred metres, making a close approach impossible. The second category will allow a fairly close approach and, typically just as you are getting close enough to start photographing, will then run. The third category are known as “sitters” and will allow a very close approach. Behaviour is also influenced by weather, with Hares becoming more likely to sit in harsh conditions, and during the breeding season when the Hares are preoccupied with more important matters than photographers. Mountain Hares are fairly territorial and will frequently return to a location after running, sometimes this can be fairly quickly but at other times within a few hours or by the following day.
On one occasion, I was fortunate to find a female sitter with a make sitter guarding her. This male was the most tolerant Mountain Hare I have come across to date. He would not only tolerate an incredibly close approach, but whilst feeding he also approached closer towards where I was lying on the ground photographing him, making for some very tight images of him.
As one of the only three animals in the United Kingdom that develop a white pellage during winter (the other two being Ptarmigan and Stoats), Mountain Hares with the mountainous terrain they inhabitant, symbolise winter and its harsh extremes. Spending time with them in their environment is a real privilege. Over the coming years, I hope to continue my work documenting their lives and the world they inhabit.
For those interested in the technical side of the images, they were all made with a Nikon D4 using either a Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VR lens or 600mm f4 VR lens. The 200-400 lens was used for the majority of the above images, it offers fantastic image quality and flexibility. I mainly hand held the 200-400 lens when photographing the Mountain Hares (although I did carry and use a Gitzo monopod) as I find it offers the greatest flexibility and ease of use in challenging conditions. The 600mm lens was mounted on a Wimberley Gimbal Head on a Skimmer Pod. This lightweight solution allowed images to be made from a low perspective on the snow and the lens to be be pushed across the snow without sinking into it whilst stalking. I personal find stalking over snow with a camera on a tripod to be very difficult if not impossible. Waterproof covers from Wildlife Watching Supplies were used to protect cameras and lenses during heavy snow. After acclimatising back to room temperatures, cameras (including sensors) and lenses were dried and cleaned after each time out photographing the Mountain Hares.