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May 2014

 

Image of the Month

 

 

European Brown Hare (Lepus Europaeus)
 
Having fallen in love with mountain hares in the Cairngorms in January, I have been obsessed with the idea of spending quality time with their long-eared brown cousins down in Norfolk.  I spent 3 days in May at Simon Litten's hare sites in Norfolk.  It was a fantastic experience.  Well, to be fair, lying full length on my stomach at the side of a field, covered in camouflage netting, isn't a exactly a comfortable experience.  In fact, it's bloody uncomfortable.  And, I'm talking about lying on the hard ground for 4 or 5 hours at a stretch.  It's back and neck breaking.  But, it's fabulous and it's addictive.  Within 5 minutes of photographing my first hare, I knew that I was lost and would be back.  
 
They are such gorgeous and aristocratic creatures.  Sometimes their facial expressions were hilariously human.  It's the way that they emerge from nowhere and lollop across a field towards the camera and then suddenly come to an abrupt stop.  They are clever, but not that clever!  They know that something is wrong but they can't work out what it is.  They can sense or see that something is not as it should be but with the camouflage in place, and the hare's forward vision being poor, they slam on their brakes, prick up their ears to listen and turn their heads so that they are looking with one 'pirate' eye straight down the barrel of the lens.  If nothing moves and the shutter button stays fairly quiet, they often start a little grooming.  Simon, who has studied these gorgeous beasts for hours and hours, explains that this is a method by which they restore a bit of calm.  A bit of meditation!  If you're lucky, they tarry a while but more often than not, they take off like rockets!  
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I'm not really much of a lark, I'm more of a night owl.  But, if there's wildlife to photograph, I seem to find that getting up at silly o'clock is not that difficult.  In May, the evenings are lengthening and the mornings start early and so it was that I ended up getting into bed at about midnight and then getting up again at about 4.30am to meet Simon and head for the fields.  It was a privilege to see the beautiful dawn light across the Norfolk fields and I remembered my stepfather Geoff who used to berate me for not getting up early.  "You're missing the best part of the day!"  he used to say.  He was a farmer and used to milking cows or feeding baby animals at early o'clock.  Poppa, you were right!
 
Sometimes, I waited for hours and hours without seeing a hare at all, and then just as I began to think that it was going to be a 'no show' session, one would appear on the horizon.  All too often they would gamble about out of reach but every now and then, one or two would set off across my path.  Hares seem to be animals on a mission.  If the mission is to get from one end of the field to another, they go at a determined pace and usually do their 'stop, pirate eye, groom, continue' routine.  If they're startled, the pace that they can manage is quite astonishing.  Usain Bolt would be in awe.
 
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After 'getting my eye in' and becoming slightly more in tune with their behaviour, I set about trying to capture a varied portfolio of images. I am happy that I've made a good start but there is so much more to do.  Hare in context, at the edge of the field, different crops, different seasons, boxing, mating, grooming, in pairs, in groups, just an eye, just the ears and so on.  
 
My last morning session was completely amazing and provided me with enough magic and inspiration to feed my addiciton with wildlife photography.  As we walked across the fields, I spotted a hare in the wheat.  She didn't move and over the course of the next hour, I slowly crept closer and closer and had the enormous privilege of watching her nibbling the ends of the wheat plant leaves.  They really don't seem to do any harm to the crop since they don't go for the growing points but the lower leaves.  It was wonderful to watch her reach for more leaves and then every now and then stop for a bit of ritual grooming!  
 
But, my time with the hares finished with an even more extraordinary encounter.  I was lying in a tractor furrow between the rows of wheat.  Covered with my camouflage netting and laid on the earth, the crop was growing above me and I waited in the hope that a hare would choose my furrow to run down.  After what seemed to be hours, I realised that I could make out a hare running towards me, zig-zagging down 'my' furrow.  I prayed that the auto-focus would lock on and I did my best!  Sadly, I didn't get the running towards the lens shot.  It would have been a prize-winner but I didn't get it!  I got a series of 'full speed blur' and 'damn nearly' images.  Too much wheat growing across the furrow and confusing the autofocus.   Here's a few from the sequence...  oh, so close eh?
 
 
The hare did an emergency stop just inside the minimum focus distance for my 500mm lens and, completely filling the frame, she stood up to assess what it was that was blocking her furrow.  She turned the 'pirate eye' on me for a better view and stood looking at me for a few magical seconds before taking off at top speed, kicking mud into my lens as she went.  Absolute magic!  
 
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Simon, I'll be back for more! And, I've bought a ghillie suit smiley