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Nature photography by John Langley ARPS & Tracy Langley ARPS

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Ptarmigan & Mountain Hares - March 2017

Because of the fickle nature of the British weather we had a strategy this year of visiting the Scottish Highlands a couple of times during the winter to spread out our chances of snowy conditions. On our January trip there were just a few patches of old snow remaining so we were happy to have another opportunity in late Feb/early March. However, when we arrived there was very little snow cover and again the mountain hares were sticking out like sore thumbs. The lack of snow was demoralising at first but we worked hard to take some different images in these conditions and tried to make the most of brief flashes of colour as the winter sun lit up the surrounding hills.

Luckily, after a few days, some light snow began to fall

Then more snow fell overnight and the hills were white at last. The only problem now was seeing the hares - they no longer stood out against the heather. But there were plenty of clues.

Then we started to see a few distant hares.

We saw one hare running towards us from a fair way off so we sat down and let it amble towards us.

Some of the hares were in pairs, with a male guarding a female waiting for her to be receptive to mating.

Boxing bouts occur if the male tries to push his luck too soon.

On some days there was blue sky and sunshine. The hares seemed to enjoy basking in the sun and we returned home with a tan.

Mountain hares are very fastidious and will often groom themselves for lengthy periods of time to keep their fur in good condition.

On several days we visited the same area we explored last year and wondered if we were seeing some of the same hares. It’s hard to know if they look the same each winter as they change from their grey-brown summer coats. However, we did find one of our old friends who looked very similar to the previous winter.

On the days it was too windy or too wet to venture into the hills we either took a scenic drive up the glens in search of red deer or we sought the shelter of the Caledonian pine forests looking for crested tits.


We also had a return visit to the Red Squirrel hide run by Northshots. This time we took our usual longer lenses but also added some smaller lenses to our camera bags to include more of the lovely Caledonian pine forest habitat. All the images were taken from within the same hide but by varying the focal length used we were able to obtain not only close up images portraying the character of the squirrels themselves but also images that placed them within their environment.

Later in our stay the weather calmed down enough for us to explore some of the higher mountains in search of our other prime target for this trip - ptarmigan. In the snowy conditions walking was difficult at times and we fell down plenty of hidden holes & gullies. Finding the ptarmigan can be tricky - a white bird in a snowy white landscape - but often the bubbling call of the male gives it away. We spent 4 days with these beautiful birds and the weather varied from blue sky sunny to white-out blizzard.

The males have a red comb above the eye which they inflate when giving their rattling call.

The female birds were much whiter. They gave a soft mewing call if the males strayed too far away.

The ptarmigan’s feathered feet help with insulation and act like snow shoes so they can easily walk around, even on soft snow.

Many of the birds were changing plumage from their snow camouflage white winter feathers (all white with a black tail & eye patch) to the mottled grey, brown & yellow of summer which helps them to blend in with the lichen-covered speckled rocks.

Sometimes we found the ptarmigan high up on the steep corrie walls.

On other days they were sheltering in the bottom of the corries.

In windy conditions the ptarmigan sought shelter on the lea sides of rocks, resting in snowy depressions.