According to the meteorological calendar, winter begins in the United Kingdom on the first day of December. Winter brings many changes to the natural world and with these changes, come opportunities for the nature photographer. With the weather forecasting the first snow storms of this winter to hit the Peak District, my focus turned to the wildlife that remains on the high moors in the Peak during the winter and in particular Red Grouse. Whilst not as hard as in Scotland, the first snow fell on the higher areas of the Peak including the Staffordshire Moorlands giving enough coverage to photograph Grouse in wintry conditions.

Male Red Grouse in Snow

With the snow falling, I returned to an area of high moorland where I had previously photographed Grouse. On this occasion, I was please to find that the Grouse were present in significantly higher numbers than in previous years. Speaking to the one of the local gamekeepers, he confirmed that the Grouse had had a good breeding year as a result of favourable weather conditions earlier in the year. In previous years, wet and cold springs had caused a high mortality rate amongst the young Grouse chicks.

Red Grouse on Snowy Moor

Red Grouse on Snowy Moor

Between snow showers, the sky would at times partially clear affording the opportunity to make images of the Grouse in their habitat under a wintry sky.

Red Grouse on Snowy Moor

Red Grouse on Wintry Moor

Photographing when the temperature is below freezing presents many challenges. When concentrating on making images, it can be easy to overlook personal comfort and safety. Equipment has to be protected to ensure that it continues to function whilst exposed to the cold and condensation does not form inside it when re-exposed to warmer air inside vehicles and/or buildings.

If you were to ask most non-photographers what they consider to be good weather, their answer would in all likelihood be a warm summer’s day with the sun high in a clear blue sky. For photographers, and particularly nature photographers, good weather means the opposite and what most would consider bad weather can present opportunities to make images that convey the raw beauty of the natural world. The key to photographing in snow storms is finding a strong subject that acts as the focal point of the image, Grouse make such subjects.

Red Grouse in Snow Storm

Red Grouse in Snow Storm

As well as making images of the Grouse in their habitat and during the snow storms, I also worked on making close up portraits of them.

Red Grouse Portrait

Red Grouse Portrait

Red Grouse Portrait

Red Grouse Portrait

With the high number of Grouse on the moor, I observed some large coveys forming and flying over the moor. Whilst photographing one such covey, they took flight directly over where I had set up.

Grouse Covey

As winter deepens, hopefully more snow will fall on the Peak and I will be able to return to the high moors to continue to work with the Grouse and the other animals that inhabitant these wild places during winter.

Red Grouse on Snowy Moor

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Red Deer have roamed wild throughout Staffordshire for centuries, with two notable populations on the Staffordshire Moorlands (on the edge of the Peak District) and in and around Cannock Chase. Over the past few years, I have photographed the annual autumn Red Deer rut in Bradgate Deer Park in Leicestershire and, outside of the rut, wild Red Deer on the Staffordshire Moorlands and in Scotland.

This year, as part of my ongoing work photographing the nature of Staffordshire, my aim was to photograph wild Red Deer rutting on or close to Cannock Chase but these deer can be a little elusive. However, after a tip off from a friend, I was put in touch with a local photographer who very kindly showed me a location on the edge of Cannock Chase where a group of wild Red Deer could be found. Whilst these deer are accustomed to seeing humans, albeit at a distance, they are nonetheless truly wild, free to roam without being confined or managed. As such, they are far less approachable than the deer in a deer park.

Red Deer viewed through trees

Red Deer HInd

Having found the group of deer, I was pleased to find that it was dominated by one large and impressive stag who had already established his harem of females. The rut was already well under way.

Early morning Red Deer Stag

Red Deer Stag and Hind at dawn

The area where the deer were in consisted of mixed open grassland and lowland heathland with heather still in flower all surrounded by deciduous woodland, consisting mainly of Silver Birch trees. This offered possibilities to make images that were different from the ones I already had made of the rut.

Red Deer Stag

Photographing the rut affords the opportunity to witness and document the behaviour of the deer at this crucial time of their life cycle. During this rut, I was fortunate for the first time to witness and photograph “bulling” – which is where a hind mounts a stag in order to demonstrate her readiness to mate and to encourage the stag to do so.

Bulling Behaviour

Another behaviour I hoped to photograph portrays the purpose of the rut, the dominant stag ensuring that his genes continue via the next generation. This has to be portrayed sensitively, with the low light when this image was made helping to achieve this purpose.

Red Deer Mating

One of the great advantages of digital photography is the ability to try different techniques and to have instant feedback on the results – all at no additional cost. One particular technique I will use – if the conditions are right – is to use a slightly longer shutter speed and to pan with a moving subject. The results are unpredictable but this adds to the fun! In this image, a young pricket is captured having been chased off by the larger dominant stag.

Young Stag running

In the last few years there have been incredible increases in the high iso performance of digital slrs. Together with advances in autofocus, this now allow images to be made in very low light without the use of artificial light. For nature photographers this has opened up many new possibilities to make images. For me, this is the most exiting development in camera technology and I cannot wait to see what the next generation of cameras offer. I now start to photograph before dawn as soon as I can see the subject and will continue to photograph at dusk, increasing the iso as the light levels drop, until I can no longer see the subject.

Red Deer Stag and Pricket

Red Deer Stag and Hinds

As the light levels drop, I deliberately underexpose in camera in order to more accurately reflect the conditions being photographed. Underexposing also has the benefit of increasing the shutter speed which further facilitates low light photography.

Red Deer

During twilight, with the pale bark of the Silver Birch trees reflecting the last light of the day, the deciduous woodland had an ethereal, almost magical quality. Being alone with nature in these conditions is a privilege that I am always grateful for being able to have and to share.

Red Deer in Silver Birches

Red Deer in Silver Birches

Red Deer in Silver Birches

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