As a wildlife photographer I have always been interested in the species found in the harshest conditions, far away from most other life. When we set out on the Highland vision I wanted the chance to focus on a species that really captured the spirit of the highlands, an animals that was tough and well adapted to life on the hill. For myself the animal I had in mind was a subjects that has always been on my “To Do” list of UK wildlife photography so when I got the chance I was straight up into the mountains!
By now most of you from what I have said (and through the first picture) will know the bird that I am on about is the Ptarmigan. The Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus is a mountain bird and rarely is found below 1000m, in the UK they are pretty much confined to the Highest mountains in the Cairngorms and live above the snow line for most of the year. The Ptarmigan population is thought to be around 10,000 that is sue to a decline in numbers over the past 100 years due to less snow on lower slopes, however the current population seems to be stable in the Highlands.
As a species that lives in such a harsh and changeable environment getting to their habitat is the first challenge that need to be overcome. We watched the weather for three days waiting for an opening to allow us to get up and out in the mountains, these birds live in a challenging environment and it is important to always take your safety first. Never head out in bad conditions and make sure you have the right equipment for the time of year. In mountain environments conditions can change rapidly, so never take unnecessary risks to put your own life in danger!
Finally after a few days of poor conditions we got a brief weather window, we grabbed our gear and headed up into the Cairngorms! The visibility was good and the temperature was -4 (-14 with windchill) so not too bad for the time of year. We started out on our hike to the location trudging through 2ft of snow, none of us were looking around because we thought we had at least 2km before we hit Ptarmigan territory! After what could not have been more than 800m 15 Ptarmigan erupted from under our feet, flying off onto a rocky outcrop that was no more than 50m away! Throwing down our bags we ripped our cameras out, rapidly setting them up on our tripods ready to stalk the birds and hopefully grab a few images!
Slowly and steadily we walked towards the birds (with myself often falling down into snow covered ditches I hadn’t seen…), as we got closer we stopped to allow them to become accustomed to our presence before moving a little nearer. The Ptarmigan were sat on a gorgeous rock perfect for a wildlife in the landscape image and for myself the first image I took (below) is still one of my favourites!
After taking around 15 images the Ptarmigan moved off down into the next corrie so we ran back to grab our bags before pursuing them. As we got over and into the next corrie the weather changed, and not for the better. A light blizzard blew in dropping visibility down to about 20m making it very difficult to not only search for the birds, but see the other guys!
Amazingly ,when we all found each other again we noticed that the Ptarmigan were now everywhere we looked! They surrounded us, with birds nothing more than 5 meters from our position in every direction. Choosing a group each we all pursued our own flocks, working on different parts of the mountain. I followed mine up on the the sleeper terrain allowing to get a completely white background for my images, minimising distraction and giving a real sense of the conditions we were in. Below are three more of my favourite images from the fantastic day out in the field.
So after three hours up on the mountain we headed back, my hands were frozen, feet were wet and gear was covered in snow, but smiles were the headwear of the day. We had managed to see what was at least 150 separate Ptarmigan, conditions had been wonderful and I had finally fulfilled a goal I had held for a long time. My experience of photographing Ptarmigan is simply one of the best I have ever had and I am already planning to get back and see these wonderful birds again!
Stay tuned for the Final part of the highland vision blog for this year, Hopefully I will have it posted by the end of the week,