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Yellowstone winter

Having come to the end of the first of two Northshots photo tours to Yellowstone and the Tetons I’ve had a little time to reflect on our time in the white wild West of America and download my images. I’m out here with my esteemed (hmmm) colleague and co-guide Peter Cairns who will I’m certain, reflect candidly about ‘American absurdities’, over-specced vehicles, cappuccinos and the mountains of food thus-far consumed, so I’ll leave that to him!

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Springtime snow

To say I have neglected this blog would be rather an understatement. I could supply a host of lame excuses for the lack of activity but let’s just draw a line under the last 8 months since the previous entry and crack on! This week saw the biggest shift in weather patterns I can remember. From close to 24ºC just 9 days ago and signs of a very early spring here in the Highlands to sub-zero temperatures and more than 15cm of snow! It was of course forecast but somehow after the unusually warm weather of the week before I didn’t really believe it! It started on Monday evening and by Tuesday morning we were plunged back into the depths of winter. The daffs that had been nodding brightly in the sunshine were nowhere to be seen and my hide (set up for nesting jackdaws) looked more like an igloo!

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Svalbard August 2011

After a long day’s traveling, the jagged peaks near Svalbard’s ‘capital’ Longyearbyen lay beneath me as we made our approach to the airport. It was close to midnight but the sun was still up bathing everything in its path in a beautiful golden light. The ‘sign post’ outside reminded me of how I had come in the past 16 hours and the mounted polar bear inside the terminal that overlooked the baggage carousel of what was hopefully to come. For now bed beckoned although a midnight flight for aerial photography was very tempting!

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Roe shooting

With a good forecast I was out at dawn this morning on the hunt for roe deer amongst other things. Those of you sweltering in the south of the UK may find some comfort that the temperature reading in my car at 5am was just 2.5ºC as I ambled along one of the back roads close to home. In an area that is well blessed with large numbers of roe deer its not difficult to find them and the car serves quite well as a way of ‘stalking’ them. Early in the morning they are still feeding out in the open and will tolerate a car that is passing without alarm. The problem arises when that car stops and points, what could be construed by the deer as a very large ‘gun’ out of the window. This most often causes the deer to make a hasty retreat but sometimes there is a delay of a few seconds, just enough time to fire off a few shots.

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Hen harriers

The past few weeks have been exceptionally busy trying to juggle 2020VISION office work with several photographic assignments. This week alone I’ve photographed hen harrier, white-tailed eagle and black-throated diver and have spent a total of 59 hours in various hides. And I have the bruises to prove it! But its been great – really great and it’s what nature photographers live for – extended time out in the field in the company of wildlife.

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Nothing to grouse about

Black grouse or blackcock is a species with which I have a love-hate relationship. For the most part I love them. The hate bit comes in when the alarm goes off in the middle of the night and the last thing I want to do is get out of bed and drive for an hour and then stomp across a wet moorland in the dark to sit in a cold hide. It just isn’t very appealing and no one with any sense would do such a thing but then these people perhaps don’t know what they’re missing. To witness blackcock strutting their stuff on their display grounds (lek) at dawn is undoubtedly one of the greatest birding spectacles Britain has to offer. It is raw and often very aggressive animal emotion as males defend their turf near the centre of the lek where watching females eye up their suitors and eventually offer themselves for mating. Only the fittest, strongest males win this ‘right’ to mate whilst less able birds and younger males can only watch on the sidelines. It is really is dog eat dog out there.

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Naturally motivated

There has been a lot written and discussed about why we are motivated to go out and take pictures of nature – after all its a pretty pointless exercise in the most part. It perhaps satisfies a natural ‘hunter’ instinct in us – particularly for blokes! There is a sense of capture, something tangible to bring back and show to people – a trophy if you like. We can recount our experiences through words and this is an equally influential medium but a picture is somehow more real and can now be shared very easily and quickly through the internet. Once images have been secured there seems to be an almost irresistible urge to get back home and upload them onto online forums, blogs, Facebook and Twitter for the whole world to see. And even this may be too tardy a response for some – with images being beamed across the globe from mobile devices whilst still poised to capture the next trophy. Its all very bizarre but there must be something within the human psyche that makes many of us do it (although I haven’t got to this latter critical stage just yet!). There is of course more than an element of ego involved here and who isn’t bouyed by positive comments about their images from friends, colleagues and very often complete strangers through social networking sites? Should I really be bothered by what someone I have never met or even know thinks about my pictures? The point is I am but I don’t know why!

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Jackdaws – setting up home.

For the past few weeks the jackdaws in my garden have been very vocal with their loud ‘jack, jack, jack’ calls and there has been a frenzy of activity around the various nest sites as they, at first, squabbled over the prime des res and then began to build their nests. The story really began when we bought the house, which was then an empty old farmhouse, to find a massive heap of sticks in the two fireplaces – the work of jackdaws dropping would-be nest material down the chimneys. It took several barrow loads to remove them after which we fitted wire netting! Soon afterward, I erected a tawny owl nest box in the far corner of the garden in a large old tree, which was immediately commandeered by jackdaws and has been used by them ever since – so they were re-homed successfully!

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Finnish sky at night

Matters of the universe, space and other ‘unearthly’ goings on are, for the most part, well beyond my levels of comprehension. I guess I’m not alone on that one. I find programmes like ‘Wonders of the Universe’ currently showing on BBC, fascinating but when ‘the Prof’ starts talking about other sun’s that are millions of light years away it makes my brain hurt! We all seem fascinated by the ‘goings on’ beyond our own small world and especially so, for me anyway, those natural phenomenon that we can actually see and experience first hand without the need for the Hubble telescope. It sounds daft but I still really enjoy seeing the rising or setting of the sun or a full moon. Everyday occurences – well less so if you live in northern Scotland or indeed Finland in winter!

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Grousing around!

This morning I got up at the unearthly hour of 3.00am setting off under a setting half moon across the Grampian mountains to a windswept patch of moorland where I hoped to witness one of the spectacles of the birding world – male blackcock strutting their stuff in an attempt to impress the ladies. The display ground or lek is a traditional area of open moorland that has been used by generations of male blackcock. Some leks can be of more than 30 males but the one I’m working is around 8 birds which is a fairly typical number.

The moorland track was running with water from recent snowmelt and is was a slippery climb up onto the lek carrying two rucksacks – one with my tent hide, sleeping bag and two tripods the other with two telephoto lenses and camera bodies -  and a flask of coffee to keep me awake!

I soon found the lek site with the aid of my head torch and set about erecting my tent which I use as hide for the blackcock as it provides a good low viewpoint, plus I can get into my sleeping bag and catch forty winks whilst I’m waiting for the birds to arrive. With the tent erected I piled everything inside and pinned a camouflage netting across the tent opening and set up the tripods one for my 300 f2.8 lens the other for a 200-400mm thereby giving me some options for compositions. Cue mini-disaster – I had forgotten to put the tripod plate back on the 200-400mm lens so there was no way I could attach it to the tripod head! I manged to kind of balance it and then tried to tie in on with some cord I had with me. Not ideal and not exactly rock solid but it might just work!

It was just getting light when the first bird dropped in but it was nervous. I could several other birds lingering around further back and expected them to gather together in the main arena of the lek. It was a couple of weeks earlier than when I did them last year and maybe they weren’t in ‘full leking mode’. I was worried that maybe the hide was putting them off and this may have been the case but again last year and on every other occasion I have photographed blackcock, they have never shown any signs of unease about the hide. It was also quite windy and I know this does sometimes make them nervous or alternatively there may have been a raptor around that was spooking them.

A few birds eventually came onto the lek but didn’t display very much and soon departed for the pine trees lower down the hill. It had been a largely fruitless morning in terms of photography but I had learnt something more of their behaviour and also not to take anything for granted . As I packed up I spotted four mountain hares eyeing me suspiciously in the bright sunshine that was now breaking over the nearby hillside. I left them to it and turned by attention to red grouse which turned out to be more obliging and photographable from the comfort of my vehicle. Not in the same league as their close relatives for excitement and entertainment but enjoyable nevertheless.

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