Wednesday 22 November 2023

Ptarmigan or Bust.

Waking up on the morning that we were to start the journey back south we were somewhat surprised to see the sun shining. We should really only be thinking about the long journey back to Ormskirk, but the dream of perhaps finally catching up properly with the Ptarmigan was drawing us back towards a final climb up Glen Shee. After all, we knew there had been at least 3 of the birds in the area the day before.

So, instead of driving south straight away we drove back to the ski centre car park with all the gear in the car!! The sun was still shining, although it wasn't long before we found it was still very breezy, especially at the top of the mountain. 

At the start of our holiday the Ptarmigan had been at the top of our most wanted list, and we had climbed several mountains in search of them, so this was almost a make or break for the trip.

On reaching the top we immediately came across several Red Grouse. The search around the whole area followed and the nearest we got was amazingly 3 Ptarmigan feathers, that had somehow stuck to the rocky outcrops. Considering how breezy it was they should have blown miles away!!

We tried in desperation other areas near the summit, seeing a few more Mountain Hares but still no Ptarmigan. We should now have been nearing Glasgow in the car with our original plans for the day. However, we battled on. 

It was now getting really frustrating after over 2 hours of searching, and I was now about to accept that we just were not going to see any Ptarmigan. As we started a slight descent something caught my eye amongst another outcrop of rocks. I quickly and quietly called to Lisa, as there in front of my eyes were 3 feeding Ptarmigan. It was such an amazing moment to realise that our really long search had in the final moments come to fruition. We both started to take photos of them, although the wind made it difficult holding the cameras steady. After several minutes the birds flew a short distance, but we managed to creep back up to them a couple more times. After watching them for 30 plus minutes we decided to leave them in peace, and we were able to glow and celebrate our success!!

My first ever Ptarmigan.

All 3 birds were changing to their white winter plumage, but one of the birds was quite a bit further back, with only a little white showing, and this one was very well camouflaged when it was amongst the rocky terrain.

We heard, and saw them calling a couple of times.

Check out those feet!!

The least white bird of the three.

Instead of now starting to climb back down to the car, Lisa decided she would now like to try and get some more Mountain Hare photos. Well, I suppose we felt we were on a roll now, so I quickly agreed that we could hang on a little more time. Lisa quickly spotted one Hare basking in the sunshine. I hung back a little to give her a better chance of getting close. The Hare really looked half asleep, although, of course it wasn't. However she got reasonably close before it ambled off.

A Relaxed Mountain Hare.

As with yesterday, we noticed the Hares were changing to their winter coats too, with some much whiter than others. One day I hope to photograph them once they have fully changed to white.

The beautiful Mountain Hare giving me a final pose before we leave Scotland.

We just couldn't believe how well this final Scottish session had gone. Not only seeing the Ptarmigan so well, but also getting our best Mountain Hare photos of the trip.

We now had 2 days of travelling south, back to Sussex via Ormskirk and Martin Mere. The trip south however was made much easier as we were still basking in our final day success.

Monday 20 November 2023

Mountain Hare Hunt.

 One of the creatures that I was really hoping to photograph on the Scotland trip was the Mountain Hare. I've always enjoyed watching the Brown Hare in southern England, but up until now, I've never managed to photograph the Mountain Hare. In fact, the only one I have ever seen was during the short trip a couple of years ago with Matt, when I saw a single Mountain Hare in torrential rain. 

On that trip we visited Findhorn valley, a valley that was always a well known site for them. Despite rumours that the numbers at this site have suffered in recent years Lisa and I still decided to go back there. Even with poor numbers, it is still a wonderful area, and there is always the chance of a Golden Eagle there too. 

We had already tried Carn Ban Mor, mainly here hoping for Ptarmigan, but we didn't see either the Ptarmigan or the Mountain Hare at this site, not helped by the dreadful visibility near the top of the mountain, although plenty of Red Grouse were seen on the way up. So it was off to Findhorn for a concerted effort of finding Mountain Hare. It wasn't very long before Lisa spotted the first Mountain Hare, sitting on the mountainside in the heather. We then hatched a plan to try and get closer to it to get some photos. Unfortunately, we made a silly error finding we had overshot where we thought it would be. Not ideal, but a couple of shots were taken, and it was good to see that it had started to turn into it's winter white coat. With this early semi success we were confident of seeing several more, but alas, it was not to be.

Mountain Hare in the heather.

Higher up the track we did however see more Red Grouse and even managed to get close enough for a few half decent photographs. 

Male Red Grouse.

Female Red Grouse.

Red Grouse Group.

We did feel a little frustrated not managing to get that close to the Mountain Hare, so the following day we did it all again. We followed the same path up, scouring the hillside for the Mountain Hares, but once again, it wasn't looking too good for them. We did hear some Red Deer stags bellowing nearby, and then looking through the binoculars we saw them on the next slope over. There were several large herds of Red Deer there. They were very skittish, even though we were some distance away. They were obviously well used to being hunted here.

Red Deer.

We then decided to head back down the hill and try over the other side. On the way down I spotted a Merlin which was after one of the many Fieldfare. With another scan of the hillside I then spotted a couple of long ears which were just poking out the top of some heather. At last, I'd found a Mountain Hare. We decided to try and creep up closer to the Hare, keeping it in sight all the way, so as not to scare it. A very slow and gentle approach worked really well and we got close enough for some nice photos without disturbing it. Although it was still well tucked into its form the head showed nicely, and we were then able to walk away from it with it not having moved away.

Mountain Hare tucked into its form.

We were now 2 weeks into our trip and we still hadn't managed to see any Ptarmigan, a species that I was desperate to see. Unfortunately, time was running out. The day after the Mountain Hare hunt we were starting to head back south, with a couple of nights near Glen Shee. This area is meant to hold the biggest number of Ptarmigan anywhere in the World, so we felt we really should at last get lucky. The main problem now was we only had 2 days to find them and the weather was looking particularly bad!! After the drive south we arrived at the ski centre in rain that was falling almost horizontally in the high wind. We very nearly climbed the mountain that afternoon, but as we were about to set off the heavens opened and we decided we would be mad to go up. The forecast for the following day was even worse, however, when we got to the ski centre again on the 2nd day, it was marginally better so we risked the climb up. Not surprisingly, we were the only 2 to go up there on that day. The visibility at the top was not at all good. With lots of wandering about we did actually see lots of Mountain Hares and some of them were nearly fully white. However, the Ptarmigan remained a dream, well, at least for me. Lisa did manage to see 3 and as she photographed them they flew. All I saw was 2 white looking birds flying away. I could hardly say from that, that I had seen a Ptarmigan. It looked as though our main target for the trip was going to allude me. I did manage a couple of atmospheric photos of the Mountain Hare though to remember the very wet day by!!

Mountain Hare in the rain!!

A whiter Mountain Hare in the misty conditions.

The following day we were starting our way back home, stopping again near Martin Mere. Perhaps the Ptarmigan would have to wait for another trip unless we were extremely lucky and the weather allowed a final chance the following morning.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Red Squirrel Encounter.

 The day after our climb of Cairngorm Mountain, we had a much easier day sitting in a hide!! As Lisa had been to this part of Scotland before, in which she had been to this Red Squirrel hide, she was very keen on using it again, and as I had not even seen a Red Squirrel before, apart from a fleeting glimpse many years ago in Norfolk, I too was keen to give it a go.

As it was, it was actually the best day for weather during all our time in Scotland, which was in a way a shame to spend most of it in a hide, however, at least the light was a little better even though it was in a woodland setting.

The sun was shining with no wind and a heavy frost sitting on the Heather around the hide, which meant our feet and hands also got very cold!!

All the time in the hide we were entertained by lots of Coal Tits which were enjoying the peanuts that had been put out. 

It wasn't long before I spotted the first Red Squirrel. I think I had just poured out a cup of tea, when I looked up and spotted it sitting there as it munched on a Hazelnut. After a short while it was joined by a 2nd Squirrel and a fabulous chase developed as they chased each other around the trunk of a tree. We then enjoyed several more sightings as they came back occasionally to eat more Hazelnuts, although every time they became two the chase started up again.

The Elegant Red Squirrel.

After an hour or so of occasional visits the Squirrels vanished and we were left to a few birds. As well as the numerous Coal Tits we also had Great-spotted Woodpeckers, Great Tits and a Treecreeper. However, the Coal Tits provided most entertainment, even landing a couple of times on my hand when I put a few crushed peanuts on them.

Coal Tit.

As the sun got a little lower in the sky, and it got even colder, we decided to call it a day for the hide. However, it was still a lovely day outside so we headed to Loch Garten for a stroll. The water on the loch was as still as a millpond and there was a fabulous reflection in the water of the autumnal colours, with a snow topped mountain behind it. A simply stunning day!!

Loch Garten.

Saturday 11 November 2023

Cairngorm Mountain and the Mouse.

 After arriving at our base for the week at Boat of Garten, and seeing snow on the top of the Cairngorm Mountain, we decided to have a day searching for the Mountain Hares and Ptarmigan.

Parking at the Cairngorm Mountain car park we put on the extra layers we knew we would need very quickly, as it was pretty chilly there, and with a steady breeze and more snow a possibility it was only going to get even colder.

With no Snow Buntings showing near the car park we started the long climb up, heading up one of several footpaths towards the summit. With the snow being quite deep in places it was quite easy seeing tracks made by the Mountain Hares and probable Ptarmigan.  However, as hard as we looked, both the Hares and Ptarmigan remained out of sight.  There was however, some stunning scenery on offer.

A view with plenty of animal tracks!!

A well wrapped up Lisa, and Lisa tracks!!

Family gathering high up!!

We had just made it to the Ptarmigan restaurant when the weather suddenly changed to almost blizzard condition. Although the building was closed we still managed to shelter from the elements until the worst had passed over. It was then back to a mix of sunny intervals so we then climbed a little higher in our quest for the Hares and Ptarmigan, following some of the tracks and checking in lots of areas that seemed just right for them. After what seemed like several hours of climbing and searching we decided we had better head back down as time was moving on and it would be dark by the time we got back to the car if we were not careful. It wasn't much lower than the Ptarmigan restaurant when I suddenly spotted 2 Ravens attacking a Mountain Hare. The Hare was defending itself by standing on its back legs and kicking out with its front legs, and then running and swerving as it headed to a rocky outcrop. Fortunately, it made it to cover, and although the Ravens sat on the outcrop for a minute or so, they eventually gave up and flew away.

Raven chasing the Mountain Hare.

At least we had now seen a Mountain Hare, although not quite in the way we had expected or hoped for.

Just a little further down the mountain we suddenly saw what at first I thought was a small bird moving about in the snow. My immediate thought was that it was a Snow Bunting. However, looking through the binoculars we saw it was a Long-tailed Field Mouse. We crept a little bit closer and saw that it was feeding on some of the grass that was sticking up through the snow. As we stood there watching it, the mouse ran from a grass clump to more grass much nearer to us. It did this several times, so we were able to observe it and photograph it at very close range. It was certainly the highlight of the day!!

Long-tailed Field Mouse feeding at Cairngorm Mountain.

After several very enjoyable minutes spent watching the mouse we then carried on down, only seeing a Red Grouse before getting to the car. The elusive Mountain Hares and Ptarmigan were still proving to be very difficult!!

Certainly, at the beginning of the day we would not have expected the highlight of the day to be a mouse.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Red Deer in Scotland.

 After leaving Loch Arklet just as Storm Babet hit the east coast was very fortunate for us as we were heading to the west coast. Not long after arriving at our next base at Loch Kishorn we had several messages from friends and relatives to make sure we were okay. As it was, the west coast was not hit too bad, although we did have some pretty strong winds whilst we were there, especially on the top of   the local mountains.

We were actually really lucky to have had our original accommodation cancelled as Lisa then found another much better self catering lodge at Ardarroch with wonderful views over the Loch. A place we would both love to return to one day.

The view from the lodge on our first evening.

Lisa had been in this area once before when she had a guide lead her on the mountain looking for hares and Ptarmigan. Our hoped for siting of both at this destination was hindered by the strong winds at the top of the mountain. However, it did appear that we stood a good chance of seeing some Red Deer. In fact we saw one that first evening when we went for a stroll along the beach below the lodge and we stumbled across a Red Deer stag on the beach. By this time it was nearly dark, so we didn't get any photos, but we did have some great views of it.

Due to the extremely strong winds that were still with us the following day, we decided to go over the Applecross Pass to the village of Applecross. At times it was quite hairy going over the single track pass in the high winds. Fortunately, there were plenty of passing places, but it was still a relief to make it to the other side without getting blown off the road. 

As we drove down the pass into Applecross we saw a small herd of deer in the field, so we stopped for a while to watch them. 

A Young Red Deer at Applecross.

Just through the other side of the village we parked the car and started to wander about. The guide had also brought Lisa here before and shown her where deer are often found, so we went to the same area, seeing several Hooded Crow, Oystercatchers and Fieldfare on the way.

We soon came to the area where the deer had been on Lisa's last visit, and once again there was a decent sized herd there. It looked as though they were encouraged to the area by some feeding from the locals, so they were a little more approachable than some.

A Young Red Deer Stag.

Red Deer Stag Resting.

After spending some time with the deer we headed back over the pass. Applecross had been quite sheltered from the wind, but as we hit the top of the pass it once again hit us as to how powerful the wind was. As we reached the bottom of the mountain and approached the tiny village a Red Deer stag was spotted in the field next to the road. We couldn't stop the car where we were, but we parked the car a little further along the road and walked back. The stag was still nearby feeding and we just about managed to get some views of it as it fed in the undergrowth. 

Red Deer Stag

Although it had been a really good day, we were both keen to get some photos of the deer high up in the mountains. However, the wind was not going to go away anytime soon!!

The following day, we once again decided to go over the pass to Applecross and perhaps carry on along the coast road for the tremendous views on offer. On the drive up we had some tantalising views of some deer on the mountain, but it wasn't easy to stop the car on the pass with a few other vehicles also using the pass. We did manage to stop briefly though for a stag that was bellowing loudly high above us. He had several hinds with him too and going by his actions there was another stag not far away. He was a little too far away for good photos, but it was still good to get some shots of him as he paraded about.

A Big Red Deer Stag.

 At the viewpoint at the top we stopped again, and was surprised to see a couple of walkers walking back down from the mast right at the top of the mountain. At that point we thought that maybe it wasn't as bad out there as we had thought. Well, either that or the 2 walkers were totally bonkers!! Lisa actually went and spoke with them to find out how they had got on up there. The girl only had normal leggings too, so we decided we were probably more equipped than they were so we may as well attempt the walk up. After all, it was our chance of perhaps seeing Mountain Hare and Ptarmigan.

On the walk up it was actually quite difficult standing upright when the biggest gusts hit us, and I was a little worried that a gust at the wrong time could lead to a leg injury. However it was also quite exciting walking around up there in the extreme wind. Of course, any sensible Ptarmigan would never venture out into the open in those conditions so it wasn't a surprise we failed on that count. as we headed back to the car, Lisa suddenly spotted a Red Deer hind and youngster. It was quite hard holding the camera steady in the wind, but we at last had some photos of the deer high up in the mountains.


Red Deer Hind.

As the walk had taken quite a bit of time we then decided to head back to Ardarroch instead of continuing to Applecross. Another good decision as we had 2 lovely encounters from the car on the way back down the pass. The younger one, below, was just above one of the passing places so we were lucky that we could observe the deer for a few minutes.

A Young Male Red Deer.

As we approached the bottom of the pass another car had stopped just by a slightly older stag. Thinking that the man was photographing the deer we pulled up carefully behind him. However, he seemed only interested in photographing the scenery. We couldn't work out if he had even seen the deer, but how he could have missed it? The deer here looked fabulous in the autumnal colours of the vegetation.

Young Male Red Deer.

The following day, it was time to move on to our next destination. The weather had now really deteriorated with constant rain. Although, the wind had actually dropped a tiny bit. It was also a bit colder, shown by the snow on top of many of the mountains. Once again we went over the Applecross pass and headed around the coastal route for many miles seeing some great views, as well as some Gannets over the sea.

After driving for many miles we pulled into a car park in the middle of nowhere!! There were a few other cars in the car park too, but as we drove in we couldn't believe our eyes as there was a stag standing amongst the cars. It had obviously realised that if it stayed there it would be fed by the people from the cars. At one point a lady started to stroke it. A very bizarre moment!!

Red Deer Stag.

We then continued our journey over to Boat of Garten where we were to spend the next week. On the way we managed to avoid most of the flooded roads. At one point I had a case of Deja vu as I suddenly realised I was photographing the same view as I had back a couple of years earlier when Matt and I were in the area.