Winter 2021/22 - In Review - The Most Challenging to Date
Winter is the time of year I look forward to the most, the winter conditions coupled with the low trajectory of the sun as it crosses the sky provides wondrous opportunities for wildlife photography. In an ideal world we’d have crisp snowy days, blizzards resulting in oodles of opportunities to photograph the wildlife, in reality this past winter had other ideas and proved to be the most challenging of my photography career. Winters in the Highland of Scotland can be very unpredictable and this winter proved no different. Consider for a moment that last winter we saw some of the most significant snowfalls for years, but annoyingly we were in lockdown and we weren’t allowed to go and play in the hills!
This winter proved to be the opposite with minimal snowy conditions, and this not only frustrates me and my clients but also upsets the equilibrium of the wildlife; a species in colder and snowier conditions is far more predictable, but this predictability is greatly reduced during a milder winter, and gives us guides a real challenge; it makes us think on our feet and use every ounce of our local knowledge. When the going gets tough...
Due to inclement weather this came into play during one of my winter workshops, I had to take a gamble to take my guests to the coast in search of waders, luckily for all involved the gamble paid off and I managed to get my guests to just within a few metres of a small flock of Sanderling. Phew!
On glorious snowy days the images captured were straight out of the top drawer, nothing beats the reflected light cast from a blanket of snow.
As a conscientious guide I take pride in my local knowledge of the mountains and its specialist species, this enables me to guide my guests to the best locations and ultimately increases their chances of success. This winter has pushed me (and other guides) to the limit. Who could have predicted what lay in store for us after a winter off due to lockdowns?
My pre-winter recce walks into the mountains made me realise what a challenge lay ahead. One nine mile walk to look for Ptarmigan resulted in me finding just three birds for the whole day, in previous years I would have expected to see upwards of thirty birds in that area. Saying that, I always prefer to have quality rather than quantity, and that's exactly what happened on this day when two of the birds posed beautifully for me right at the end of the day but in the most sublime light.
Within the past eighteen months there had been a significant collapse in the population of both ptarmigan and also mountain hares, especially in the most popular locations. This has seen a falling off of not only the number of guides working in this area but also the number of quality images of hares being shared on social media platforms.
I walked up and down and across many hills in search of a new location for mountain hares, during these searches I found a handful of sites but in most cases the hares were skittish and weren’t for sitting still, very much living up to their Latin name Lepus timidus! Good field-craft only works with a hare that will at least give you an opportunity to use your stalking skills, at one particular site the hares would race away from me, racing down the deep peat hags using the gullies like ‘mountain hare race tracks’. All I would see is a flash of a white bum as it disappeared at lightning speed. Eventually after many attempts I found a location where a few of the hares would sit and were a little easier to work with, the only issue being that this site is higher and further to access than in previous years, this made it particularly brutal in snowy conditions (see below).
Towards the end of the winter I had a client come over from Denver, Colorado to spend two weeks photographing just hares, and this gave me an opportunity to really drill into the population of hares at this new site, and because of the successes, it is this location that I’ve chosen to work at for the foreseeable future.
The first few days of this client's visit were challenging, as the hares weren’t playing ball but eventually we made progress and by the end of the trip we’d decoded their behaviour and established a few hares that were more obliging.
At my red squirrel site there has been a ‘changing of the guard’. Stumpy and Dodgy have disappeared, most likely they have expired due to old age, both were approximately seven years old. These wee bundles of joy gave me and my clients much joy and both will be dearly missed. Tippy who is/was the same age, was with us for most of the winter, but of late her visits to the site have become less frequent. The loss of a couple of members of the squirrel ‘gang’ coupled with a late summer and very mild autumn resulted in some less than productive and at times frustrating days, I’m glad to report that on colder days normal service resumed with the action coming thick and fast. I’ve experienced dips of activity at my photography sites before and usually it’s a blip, so I’m confident things will pick up as the newcomer squirrels settle in and establish a pecking order. My Crested Tit site proved to be as reliable as ever, providing my clients and me with great opportunities to capture images of these iconic specialists of the pine forests.
This winter was a difficult one, challenging and at times frustrating. I’d like to thank my guests for their patience, understanding and flexibility, and for putting up with my frustrations and the odd swear word!
I still look back on this winter with fondness but must admit I’m glad to see the back of the windy, rainy and unseasonably mild conditions, roll on next winter and whatever it has in store for us all.
All images on this blog were taken during the Winter of 21/22