It was somewhat of a bonus, a kind of two for the price of one if you like, to discover that my chosen location in the French Alps, where I hoped to film the mating behaviour of the successfuly reintroduced Bearded Vultures, was also home to several Stoats or Ermin as they are known in French. As an aspiring wildlife cameraman looking to increase the diversity of the species on my showreel, I decided some quality time in the mountains would be a good move, so after 13 years of glorious weather in Andalucia, Spain, I opted for the climbing and skiing mecca of Chamonix, as it would serve well as a base fo filming the regions wildlife, allow me to earn some money working as a ski trsnsfer driver, and give me a chance to rekindle my passion for skiing after 20 years of snowboarding and brush up on my climbing techniques.
A little research quickly revealed several nesting sites for the Beraded Vulture, all within an hours drive, including one not far past the Italian side of Mt Blanc, a short drive through the nearby tunnel. In order to maximize the amount of material I could shoot in the free time I had, I chose to concentrate my efforts at the nesting site located on the face of Grand Bargy, just past the village of Le Reposoir, in the Grand Bornand Region. The access was easy, the scenery stunning, and it was an hours drive from Chamonix. There is always a down side, and in this particular case it was quite a big one, and it came in the form of rockfalls in the summer and avalanches in the winter, food for thought when your climbing up the face that in places is 45-50 degrees, loaded down with camera and tripod and there is barely a place on it where you can open the tripod and stand without falling backwards as you are attempting to film the huge soaring leviathans gliding past you at high speed. The whole cirque is littered and scared with what has dropped from the high wall above, and I was warned by a few locals to remain vigilant, as the natural erosion problem is exacerbated by the Ibex that traverse the slopes year round and often send material crashing down. I had several close calls with rock fall in the Sierras of Andalucia when I was filming the nesting Griffon Vultures and Bonelli's Eagles, the senses are snapped to attention when your ears detect that nerve shattering cracking sound of rock on rock, which hopefully are well off to ones left and right as they plummet down to their eventual resting place.
By the time I arrived and taken my fist exploratory treks to get my bearings, the resident Ermin population had begun to show signs of aquiring their white winter coat, which covered all but the last inch or two of their tail. It soon became apparent that this little community on the lower slopes of the Bargy face was going to provide endless hours of material, so I set about dedicating a period on every visit to focusing on their mischievous activities, little did I know how much effort would be involved in persuing this little mammal, especially when the snow came. I often crossed paths with a wonderful elderly French lady, who would put most people half her age to shame as she wandered the forests, valley floor and slopes armed with a DSLR and telephoto zoom set up, worth more than my previous 2 cars, and besides producing stunning stills images, was adamant in assisting me in anyway possible in my filming efforts. Sometimes we would be together in one location shooting then she would trudge off in knee deep snow to another, and return some considerable time later to tell me she had found another Ermin and would I like to join her, it was like having my own local guide, an amazing woman and top class nature photographer, her instagram ..... chantal.castella is well worth a look.
The arrival of fresh snow in this landscape is a blessing in many ways, besides the obvious aesthetical impact, it provides people like myself with a fresh canvas with which to track the local wildlife. The Stoats on the Bargy face however have the ability to turn a trackless slope of virgin powder into one that a war has been fought on in under 15 minutes. It has to be seen with ones own eyes to be believed, how fast this short legged hyper active little mammal can rocket around his neck of the woods. I soon realized I was fighting a losing battle trying to pan and focus on them when the twin turbo they obviously posses is activated. I had no option, armed with the camera I was using at the time, other than to sit the tripod and camera in the snow, open the lens wide and wait until this white fury projectile blasted in and out of the frame, well it worked and the results can be seen by clicking or copying the link below. I plan to return with a phantom camera at some point in the future and attempt to slow the whole process down, which I must admit I am really looking forward to, but that little challenge, will for now, just be added to a growing list of things to do.
Sadly, this winter 2017/18, I will not be returning to the Alps, it appears my long held desire to return to Patagonia and film the elusive Patagonian Puma, has just piqued the interest of a producer, so I will have to concentrate on getting that off the ground, but I am most certainly looking forward to returning to the slopes of the Grand Bargy where beautiful soaring leviathans put on an aerial display that leaves one breathless, and far below a little white rocket is tearing up the countryside at close to the speed of sound, remember there is fast-faster-fastest---- then there are Stoats in the snow !!