The warming February sun beats down on two hares chasing each other round a cropped corn field in Norfolk, and I am reminded of how mild this winter has been.
I rest my eyes for a moment. The inside of my eyelids provide the stage for apparitions of dancing hares in various poses, their gangling legs and keen, pricked ears silhouetted against the sun-drenched fields.
The UK's top 10 endangered species
A challenging project for 2014 will be to capture (on camera obviously) the UK's top 10 most endangered species.
This will require quite a lot of dedication, patience and perseverance, given that many of these species are exceptionally shy, even animals like the brown hare which, although most of us may have seen, will be difficult to get up close to and in enough light.
Still, in this list there are some fascinating creatures and it has recently dawned on me how lucky I am to be able to cross off several of these by simply walking out of my front gate, with the likes of Adders, Bittern, Otters and Hares all in residence.
What prompted me to embark on this project, you may ask. When I returned from Zambia and Malawi in late-2013, I realised that, whilst Africa's wildlife is undoubtedly spectacular, the ecosystems in other, if not all, countries are highly important, and I wanted to discover more about my own country's wildlife.
Many species are indeed hard to spot in the UK, but it may help readers of this post to take their constitutionals with a bit more awareness of their surroundings and the next time you venture out, you may feel a tingle of excitement in wondering what may be lurking in the undergrowth.
It's also useful for me and other photographers that I keep this blog as I'll not only be publishing my best photos, but also some of the snaps which helped form my better understanding of these animals and their habits, as well as the journey I've taken to get what I hope to be some memorable shots. I don't by any means profess to be a wildlife photographer, and I'll be relying on lenses no longer than my Nikon 300mm F4-5.6.
So, without further ado:
Brown Hare - 'Shadows in the Barley'
Endangered species 1
Brown hares are indigenous throughout Europe, but populations are dwindling in the UK, with only a few areas left with sizable populations. One of it's stomping grounds is Norfolk, where there is abundant arable land as well as plenty of grassland and woodland nearby for cover.
Hare country - fields and woodland
Active from dusk until dawn and well camouflaged, the brown hare is tricky to spot, let alone get close enough to for a decent photo, and are particularly good at blending in with the drab browns of a winter meadow, going unnoticed to passers-by even at just a few feet, and there may be up to a dozen in a field which looks apparently barren.
A Norfolk hare in a ploughed field
Whilst they can be seen in the evening, my first attempts found me constantly battling against fast-fading light, so my only viable option was to get up before dawn and get in place with a small hide and plenty of coffee. Hare, as one might pronounce, are the results.
Attempt 1 (Buckenham Marshes)
No sightings, except this pair skulking around in the dark, taken from the car window. At least I know where they dwell.
Attempt 1: None spotted, except this pair on the drive home
'Sods of earth and camouflage'
Attempt 2 (Buckenham Marshes)
At first, there was nothing to indicate any hares in this field, except a few small brown mounds which I initially mistook for clods of mud. And then it stood up on its hind legs. All it needs is a walking stick and a hat.
Attempt 2: Hares spotted early morning but too far away for the shots I'm after
Europe's largest single population of rooks nests at Buckenham Marshes, and they make one hell of a 'rooket'!
Rooks at Buckenham Marshes, Norfolk
Attempt 3 (Buckenham Marshes)
Perseverance yields results, as this adult hare dashes for the safety of a large field. Large fields provide ample space to escape, if ever its near-360 degree field of view misses something untoward.
The sleek and gangling lines of a brown hare in 'full flight'.
'Children of the Corn'
Attempt 4 (Buckenham Marhes)
Concealed behind a thicket on the edge of a maize field, several hares ambled past me only a few feet away. However, by the time the auto-focus on my lens had stopped 'searching' through the stems of vegetation, only this young hare was left. Note to self: be ready to use manual focus when shooting through layers of foliage.
A young hare stops 10 feet from me
Attempt 5 (Ranworth Marshes)
I had long suspected there were hares in the fields and woods near my house. I had watched several amble tentatively out of a fenced off copse of conifers into the adjacent meadow. The wood was off limits, although I could glimpse the 'inner sanctum' through a clearing in the trees - I felt like Edmund on his discovery Narnia through the wardrobe.
A hare partially concealed in long meadow grass adjacent to the copse.
'An early spring'
Attempt 6 (Buckenham Marshes)
The closest encounter yet. Switching to a cropped sensor to gain a little extra zoom pays off, as I'm able to fill most of the frame with this hare tearing away into a thicket.
A hare disappears into a thicket
A rare moment of calm for this skittish of creatures.
'Leverets in the Mist'
Attempt 7 (Buckenham Marshes)
Another early morning start, although a thick fog had reduced visibility down to about 7 metres. Far from ideal conditions for my new teleconverter, although the frame is filled.
Thick fog made this hare as surprised to see me as I was to see it.
Attempt 8 (Buckenham Marshes)
On the promise of sunshine, I headed out extra early to catch some boxing between male and female hares which I'd seen a couple of days earlier. Unfortunately the sun never materialised and I was taking pictures in murky, low light, sacrificing both detail and sharpness in my photos. By the time the sun had risen, two tractors had appeared and commenced churning up the fields ready for sowing. Despite making it tricky to take photos, the hares seemed remarkably indifferent to the tractors.
A hare watches a tractor churning up its favorite field.
Male hare, more bedraggled and gangling than females
Attempt 9 (Buckenham Marshes)
The evening before another early start, I checked the weather several times to make sure the forecast hadn't changed from sunshine symbols across the board.
I was in luck, although I began to get slightly despondent when hares were nowhere to be seen. Then, after an hour or so of checking their usual haunts, I noticed eight hares in the middle of a large field, the only one left in the area which hadn't been plowed. I had resigned myself to watching them basking in the early morning sun from afar, when they started frantically chasing each other around the field, moving in roughly circular sweeps and almost coming within range of photos.
Hares in springtime exhibit quite animated behavior.
After a few minutes pause, all hell broke loose and five hares started racing towards where I was sitting, chasing each other as before. Covering several acres of land in what seemed like seconds, they reached the edge of the field and hopped over the bank out of sight. I stood to check behind me, and the track was a whirl of dust as two hares raced into the adjoining field. A few seconds later another hare bolted out from behind a tree within a few feet of me, so close that I struggled to zoom out enough to get it in frame before it disappeared round the corner.
This one caught me by surprise, and I had no time to focus properly or change to a higher shutter speed
The lessons from this excursion are that teleconverters are only useful for slow/zero movement portraits, as it takes too long to manually focus. Having said that, it's worth advising that you shouldn't come to rely on auto-focus, as it may fail you just when you need it, as it tends to do when you attach a teleconverter.
Attempt 10 (Buckenham Marshes)
I had an early glimpse of the next creature I intend to photograph on my penultimate hare excursion. Around 6am, passing over a brook in my village, I noticed three otters splashing around. These are the first otters in the wild I've ever encountered.
An early glimpse at my next quarry, the otter.
Back at Buckenham, what seemed like the same five hares from my previous visit were in the same position in the middle of one of the last remaining fields with vegetation, however I was reduced to watching from afar. Fortunately, just as I was about to leave, I noticed a tuft of brown fur protruding from the grass of another smaller field. I moved into position as stealthily as possible, concealing myself behind a tree. Preparing for the usual blur of hare bolting away, its ears stayed down and appeared oblivious, its whiskers still twitching as it munched on foliage. The click of my camera inevitably brought its attention, but I was able to get a few nice shots before retreating away.
A rare contrast against the green vegetation.
The eyes have it
A hare sitting in the grass
So they do just eat grass then.
'Where has all the grass gone?'
'The adorable couple'
Final attempt (Buckenham Marshes)
A very misty April morning marked my final visit, which was also one of the most satisfying. It was approaching 8.30 and I didn't have a great deal to show and successive early morning were starting to take their toll. Bleary eyed, I began to head back to the car when I noticed two hares crossing over the field some way in front of me. I took a punt that they were heading for the far side of the wood where they would spend the day concealed in the meadow where the shots above were taken. Aware that they tend to use man-made tracks to get from A to B, I decided there was a slim chance of intercepting them just before they entered the meadow. As I reached the track junction which sits in a depression, I noticed the tops of four hares' ears sticking up above the bank and I crouched down ready. My luck was in, as they climbed the bank towards me and I was thrilled to get a few shots of them both.
A handsome Norfolk hare
Two hares, female and male
It was disappointing not to get any shots of hares boxing. May be next year.
Now, about those otters...