The mountain hare and ptarmigan are two of the most saught-after species in Scotland for wildlife photographers in the winter. Along with the stoat they are the only species in Britain that turn white for the winter so their appeal is obvious, and many amateur photographers make the trip up to the Highlands in the winter with mountain hare and ptarmigan images in mind. But what about in the summer?
I only started taking mountain hare photography seriously in March, by which point the hares were starting to show signs of losing their winter coats. The site I tried at first showed a lot of promise, with a very high number of hares in a small area on a hillside with abundant light for most of the day. However my success was limited. The bulk of the hares were close to the main walking route up a Munro and it was hard to approach them without them being disturbed by passing walkers.
My first attempt at photographing mountain hares yielded mixed results. This was taken in late March when the first signs of the hare’s spring coat is starting to show.
Much better results at a different location. This was in early April when the hares are rapidly starting to lose their white coat.
The mix of white, grey and brown fur is arguably more interesting than the pure white of the winter coat.
I’d also not appreciated just how slowly and carefully you need to approach a lot of hares. I was approaching them at a crawl but rarely managing to get as close as I wanted. There’s quite a lot of fieldcraft involved with getting really close to a hare, and I’d yet to learn some of the telltale (but not immediately obvious) signs that a hare is uncomfortable with your presence.
The hares were starting to lose their white coat quickly, and I found myself considering giving up until the next winter. However I’d become hooked and found myself spending quite a bit of time looking at hare images online. It didn’t take long to notice a distinct lack of really good summer mountain hare images on the internet compared to the number taken in the winter, and this stired my curiosity further.
Through her job as an ecologist my partner had worked at a site that had abundant hares and was only about an hour from home, so at the start of April I decided to go and take a look. Within about 20 minutes things were looking promising as I spotted a hare foraging in some heather a few hundred metres away. I spent a while just stood still and scoped the hillsides through my lens, and after a couple of minutes I spotted a hare sat very still in a ‘form’ about 200 metres away.
Some white still showing on the hare’s front in mid-May. I love this image for how striking the hare’s amber-coloured eyes appear.
The same hare in full summer coat a few weeks later. The blue/grey tinge on his side and belly is the reason behind the mountain hare’s other name – the blue hare.
Getting this close and not frightening a hare can take a great deal of patience. You can tell from the eyes that this hare is relaxed, whereas a frightened hare has very wide and alarmed eyes.
I decided to try approaching it using the same method as at the other site but more slowly than before. I spent over an hour approaching the hare, stopping frequently to stay still for a few minutes. On occasions I picked up some signs that the hare was becoming a bit uncomfortable so I stayed absolutely still for as long as it took for it to settle down again. After a while I got closer than I’d ever managed at the other site and I took dozens of images while the hare slept in front of me, occasionally opening its eyes to check I wasn’t posing a threat.
As the hare seemed comfortable with my presence I decided to see if I could get closer. I crawled forwards at a snail’s pace until about 5 metres away and although the hare showed me his was keeping a careful eye, it still seemed perfectly happy.I spent the next two hours there and left absolutely delighted with my images.
A rare day of hot sunshine. This is a side of the mountain hare’s life rarely photographed compared to the snowy and wet days of winter.
In the spring and summer mountain hares are much harder to approach than in the winter. They have leverets and so are constantly on the alert, and the warmer temperatures mean they have to spend far less time asleep.
Mountain hares are the masters of amusing facial expressions.
Amongst fresh green summer growth.
It wasn’t long before I got the urge to return, and on my second visit I found the same hare sitting in the same form. I approached with the same method as before, and again with a lot of patience I managed to get very close without disturbing it. At one point the hare stood up to stretch and revealed it was a male, and his coat had lost a fair bit of the remaining white since my last visit. Instead it was going towards a ginger/grey colour which looked lovely in the surrounding heather.
This time I wanted to try getting some behavioural images rather than just portraits, and I started to realise just how patient you need to be to get some of the shots I’d seen on the internet. The hare spent a very long time indeed simply dozing and hardly moved at all. At one point he screwed his mouth up in a very comical way, but I wasn’t ready for it and he was back to dozing before I’d got the shot.
Some photographers consider mountain hares to be drab in their brown summer coats, but the transformation between seasons is fascinating.
Shaking off rainwater on a very wet July day. This kind of shot can be pretty hard to get as it all happens in fractions of a second.
Feeding on fresh heather stalks on a wet July day.
Covered in water droplets from some very heavy rain.
I started to make almost weekly visits and now I still often return to the same hare. I also found another hare at the same site that lets me approach fairly close but not quite, so many of my images with the hare more distant are of this individual. There were certain images I wanted to get that took a lot of patience, and some I’ve still not got quite right.
I’m continuing to visit about once a week/fortnight and very soon the heather will be in bloom, so I’m looking forward to trying to get some images of the hares in the purple flowers. Watch this space to see my progress.