Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
Today, 8th October 2017, I was up early. Well not really early because it was only 6:00hrs. Looking out of my bedroom window revealed thick fog, but I was still going out with Murphy. I drove to a part of Dartmoor that I don’t know really well but it is only a couple of miles away from my home in Peter Tavy and I’ve wanted to visit, and explore, it for a while. When I got there some of the fog had started to rise and the sun was peaking underneath. This low golden light created some stunning shadows, with the fog acting as a canvas, created by the trees, stone walls and bushes. The Land of Dartmoor was a golden misty haze looking towards the sun very similar to a photograph that I had seen taken by David Clapp called “There is Hope II” (http://www.davidclapp.co.uk/portfolio/view/latest ). As the fog kept lifting I just kept walking, to explore the area, without really concentrating where I was going. Not really a good idea in fog and on an unknown area of Dartmoor but I was going to stay out for quite a while walking and chilling. I love being out early in the morning either with my camera, with Murphy, or with both. This time of year “early” is about 6:00hrs but in the spring “early” is about 4:30hrs. I love the solitude, with only nature, and no human, as my companion. I have witnessed so many wonderful things involving wildlife during this time of day and also the light is great for photography. In fact sometimes it is the best light of the day. I cannot tell you how many times I have been out this early and the weather changes just as I get back home. Being out early as the sun is rising on a cold frosty day is magic, you just cannot beat it. I know that the light at dusk can be a special time as well but usually there are other people around. As you can tell I am a morning person. OK getting up at 4:00hrs to some people is the middle on the night but you know what I mean. Wildlife tends to act differently at this time in the morning. Maybe it’s because they are tired as it is nearly their bedtime, for nocturnal wildlife, or because there aren’t a large amount of humans around, I don’t know but they seemed more relaxed. I have witnessed the look of amazement in their eyes when they notice me at this time in the morning. If I keep still they look at me but normally go back to what they were doing. Apart from Foxes, they normally run a little distance, turn around to see what I am doing, and if I stay still then they go back to what they were doing but in the other direction.
During this walk I located a reservoir, Wheal Jewell, and walked around it as it had a very good path. I was a bit disappointed that there was no wildlife actually on the reservoir water but there were a lot of birds surrounding it. A lot of this area of Dartmoor is open grassland and, in my view, not very exciting landscape wise. I say not very exciting because I like looking at trees, bushes and walls mainly because there is more wildlife to be seen. Surrounding the reservoir were lots of gorse bushes and they were inundated with spider’s webs. They were, because the misty fog left dew on them, really easy to see. This has given me the idea of returning to this location with my macro lens to photograph them. There were so many beautiful webs with the spider stretched out in the middle of them as if on a medieval rack. As there was no wind to move the webs a slow shutter speed could have been used with a high f-stop to get enough depth of field to get the whole spider sharp. There is usually less wind at this time of the morning and it builds up as the morning goes on so it is a good time to get these types of images. Also the dew helps make the image and lets the web stand out but this will disappear as the day warms up.
The following weekend I went down to the leat to photograph Dippers. For those that don’t know a leat is a manmade waterway that takes water to a house, a village a town or a city for humans use; drinking, cooking, washing etc
I arrived about 9am after doing my “chores” feeding and mucking out horse, walking Murphy etc. Once I set up my camera and mats I laid there and waited for the birds to appear. I know the Dippers are in the area because I have seen them regularly. The only niggle in my mind was that I had only seen them very early in the morning from about 6:30am to about 8am and then they seem to disappear either up or down river, so at a 9am start I was hoping and keeping my fingers crossed they would show up. I laid there on my stomach for just over four hours before my back and neck said that they had had enough. The problem is that when your body has had enough and starts to ache you start to fidget and move. This is no good for wildlife photography as the wildlife will notice this movement and you will scare it away. With this in mind and because I had not seen any wildlife during this time I packed up. I would return to the same spot the next day but earlier. The next day I got up at 5am and left for the leat. It had rained quite a bit during the last 24 hrs but it had stopped as I was putting my camera equipment into the car. When I arrived, and exited the car at the leat, the noise of the water was incredible. Before I got my camera equipment out of the car I took my torch to see the state of the river. I looked at the water from over a bridge and it had risen considerably. I walked around the other side of the river to the leat and saw that the water had risen by sixteen inches or 41cm overnight. I could tell this because there is a water measure in the leat (http://www.stillwater-associates.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Measurement-of-Reservoir-Water-Levels.pdf ). The level of the water in July was at 8 and yesterday was at 10 on the measure and it was now at 14. If it rises by one more it would flow over the edges of the leat.
Whilst we have been living on Dartmoor in Devon we have enticed, by feeding and growing insect loving plants, quite a number of birds to our garden. Over the last two years we enticed a pair of Collared Doves. These would sit next to each other, cooing and cuddling, on the telegraph wire, occasionally coming down for some food. Today we arrived home from shopping in Tavistock and just as I got out of the car one of the Doves flew over me. Just then there was a blur and a really loud thump. Feathers started falling all around us and the Sparrowhawk flew just over the road with his talons buried deeply into the Collared Dove. By the speed of the Sparrowhawk and the loud sound as it hit, the Dove must have been killed instantly. Nature in the raw, but it’s sad to see just one Collared Dove on the wire now. I’ll keep my fingers crossed it will find another mate soon.
This wildlife photography caper can be really frustrating at times. Yesterday, Friday 27th, I was up at 4:30am to go down to photograph the Dippers. I looked out of the window and the stars were shining which, fingers crossed, meant that the sun would be shining at dawn rather than this think fog we have had for quite a while. I got ready, had breakfast, put my camera equipment in the car and drove to the leat. I examined, by torchlight, the stones I was going to be looking at and there was no issue with the amount of water as before. I switched off the torch and closed my eyes for a few minutes so that I can let them get accustomed to the dark when I open them. This is a technique that I learnt years ago and it is one that works.
How do we see in the dark?
Our vision range in varying light conditions comes from three parts of our eye:
The eye on the left is seeing in bright light and the eye on the right is seeing in low light or darkness.
How do I utilise your rod cells?
Your rod cells can take up to 45 minutes to adapt to a change of light. The quicker you turn off bright lights, torches etc. the sooner your eyes start to adapt. Closing your eyes for a few minutes will speed up this process. (If you don’t believe me try this at home. When you go to bed, turn off your lights and look around your room. Now close your eyes and relax for a few minutes. Now open your eyes and look around your room, you will be amazed how much more you can now see.)
Your ability to see in the dark depends on some things that may be out of your control, your age, an eye injury etc.
In order to see objects better in the dark use your peripheral vision and don't look directly at the object you want to see. Try to focus your gaze on the side of any object you think is there, or just off-centre of the direction you are going as you move forward through a dark area. This allows your peripheral vision to help detect movement and object shape much better than trying to look at something directly. Using your peripheral vision involves more rod cells being utilised which is key to night vision.
This image shows the area where there are more rods on the back of your eye. The first image shows why we need to let in more light so that the light hits the rods.
Geek time over.
I set my self up, got into a comfortable position, and waited. It was 5:30am, the stars were still out and I could just make out my surroundings in the dark. All of a sudden there was an almighty splash just in front of me. My immediate thought was that some of my camera equipment had fallen in the river but just as quickly dismissed it because it would not have made such a splash. I looked around me to see if there was anybody about. As I waited I saw a white shape launch itself out of the water and land back in the river making a loud splash, it could only have been a fish. I have seen quite a few fish in this river, Trout and Salmon. This happened several times during the next couple of hours and the later and lighter it got I could see they were quite sizable fish. There were a few flies and insects about how on earth could the fish see them, if this is what they were after. Once I knew what was happening I relaxed and watched the show. At about 6:30am the wildlife along the river bank and in trees started to stir. The first bird I heard was a Tawney owl hooting away to my right. Then a Pheasant started “Crowing” which they do all year round. During the next half hour there were a lot of bird sounds including two Herons “squawking” as they flew overhead on their way to their feeding grounds even though it was still quite dark. I hope the “feeding grounds” were not somebody’s prize Koi carp in their pond. At 7am I looked above and noticed clouds forming and coming over from a north-west direction. I was hoping the sun would rise and the Dippers appear before the dark clouds covered the sky. At 7:30am not one, not two but three Dippers appeared. It looked like two adults and a juvenile as one was much smaller than the other two. They were all perched on one of the stones I was looking at and would have made a great image. I viewed them through my camera but my settings were 2 seconds, f4 with an ISO of 3200. I looked up and the sky was covered in dark clouds. I thanked him upstairs and just watched the Dippers for about 45 minutes. They stretched, washed and even had a “sing song” together which sounded like a lot of bubble blowing, cheeps, clicks and whistling, in fact it sounded like short-wave radio. During this time the light did slightly improve, 0.5 seconds, f4 at ISO 3200 but even with these settings I was not going to take an image. Just after 8:15am they all flew off down river. I waited until 10am but they did not return. My assumption about the Dipper’s timings I mentioned earlier was correct.
On Saturday whilst I was taking Murphy for a walk on Dartmoor I spotted a tree full of bird activity. I’ve been waiting since the beginning of the month for Redwings and Fieldfare to appear and now right at the end of the month they were here. There were about 50 Fieldfare and 4 Redwings in the tree. The tree, which was next to a stone wall, was full of red berries, as were most of the trees on Dartmoor. They were flying from the tree to the field next to the tree and back again. I quickly examined the area surrounding the tree and was happy to see some quite close cover in the form of gorse bushes. This meant I could get close enough to get some good images. Therefore I hurried home, collected my camera equipment and dashed back to the area. I came in from another direction which was better for the wind direction, for the light and for the use of the cover, all good things that would allow me to get closer and a good image. On arrival I examined the tree and saw not a single bird. I examined the other trees with my binoculars and again saw not a single bird. I drove around looking at several places but apart from Starlings I did not find any Redwings or Fieldfare. I felt immediately deflated because since June, when I accidently knocked my camera over and it had to be sent away to be repaired, I haven’t had much luck. Normally September, October and November are the months I take a great deal of photographs but at the moment my total of images for the first two months is 22! It’s not that I haven’t put the effort in but mostly it is down to the really bad weather we have had on Dartmoor this year. From the end of August up until now the majority of the days have been thick fog or very misty rain. Yes we have had some great fine days but every one of these days have been when I was at work. It’s at times like these that I really appreciate the images I have taken over the years. Real wildlife photography is not easy but it is satisfying when you get a good image. I’m now keeping my fingers crossed that November will be a great month.
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Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
Life is a funny thing! How many times have you started humming a tune, turn the radio on and there on the radio the DJ is playing the song you were humming. The boffins say we have a sixth sense but have either forgotten, or don’t know, how to use it. Well the other day my wife and I were driving back from our nature reserve and she started telling me about a hawk that flew along the road in front of her car the last time she drove away from our nature reserve. She described what happened and what the bird did and roughly what it looked like. Then she asked me what bird it was. I replied that with the information she gave me it was either a Hobby or a Sparrowhawk. She then added that it was brown. So I changed my mind and said that it could have been a Kestrel or a female Sparrowhawk. With that a female Sparrowhawk flew off a gate post on our right and landed in front of our car. It then took off, as we got nearer, and flew in front of the car, about 100mm to 150mm off the ground, for about 400 to 500 metres before flying up into a tree, question answered.
The next morning I was up about 6am and went downstairs to get out and about with Murphy. I looked through the lounge window, to see what the weather was doing. I noticed that there were no birds around in the garden, but there, sat on one of the bird feeders, was a female Sparrowhawk. I don’t think it was the same one as the night before because she appeared to be a bit bigger. She was looking straight at me with those bright yellow piercing eyes. All I thought was what a fantastic sight and then I thought did I lead her back home to my bird tables!
Whilst pottering around in our garden the other day I found a caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk moth. It was about 80mm long and about as thick as my little finger. I did not want to squash it so I picked it up and as I did that it started contracting its head into its body. This made the head swell up and the two dots on the side looked like eyes. I was absolutely fascinated with this so I watched what it would do next. The only thing it did was wiggle its tail in the air. I put it down out of harm’s way and after a few minutes it relaxed and continued with its daily routine.
The image below is from inglenookery https://www.inglenookery.com/
Elephant Hawk Moth Caterpillar
Whilst walking Murphy on the moor the other day I started watching a group of Linnets that were flying around. This group landed on a gorse bush in a small clearing. This clearing contained two gorse bushes and a small amount of bracken. Observing this clearing with my binoculars I noticed that apart from Linnets there were a few Goldfinches and a couple of Stonechats. Then something happened that, once again, I have never witnessed before. Most of the Linnets took off and started hovering just above one bush. Then the Goldfinches took off and started hovering as well and finally the Stonechats joined in and did the same. After about ten seconds they all landed in the bushes. About a minute later they all did it again starting with the Linnets, the Goldfinches and then the Stonechats. It was not very windy so I have no idea why they would want to do this. If you know then can you please tell me via the contact button on this page or via my Facebook page. Nature watching is absolutely fabulous and proves that we don't know it all.
When I got home on Friday night I immediately grabbed Murphy and took him out for a walk. I needed to calm down after another nightmare journey home. I went for a walk on the moor next to the village I live in, Peter Tavy. The walk starts off quite steep but then flattens out at the top. When I got to the top I wanted to stop and admire the view behind me. OK, the real reason I wanted to stop was because I was puffing and blowing and I needed some air. Before we moved down to Dartmoor in Devon, England we used to live on the Bedfordshire / Cambridgeshire border and the nearest thing to a big hill was a mole hill or a sod of earth. Don’t get me wrong it was lovely countryside but it was very flat. Down here in Devon you are either going up a hill or coming down one. I don’t baulk at walking up them but it does make me puff and I’m not getting any younger. The best thing about being at the top is the fantastic view you get. My view today was looking down at the Dartmoor village of Peter Tavy. To my extreme right was the church at North Brentor. I could see a few cars travelling on the A386 but their sound was being silenced by the slight breeze that was blowing and the cries from the four Buzzards that were hovering above me. Although the clouds were slowly rolling in, the sun was still trying to dominate my view with a few shafts of silver light shining down, lighting some green fields below. The fields were coloured in several shades of green until they faded away off into the distance. I was looking into this distance, dreaming, when I got brought back to reality by a tug on the lead by you know who.
The other night I went to our camera club in Tavistock to listen to a speaker, David Clapp (http://www.davidclapp.co.uk ), a landscape and travel photographer. Although he says he is an “award waiting” photographer he has achieved a lot in the few years he has been a photographer. He works for Canon Europe as a presenter and has been commissioned by several companies including Canon to do video, and still photography, work around the world. He was involved in “Power of Photography”, a DVD that is included with any new Canon camera. He is a workshop leader with “Light and Land” which is Charlie Waite’s leading photography workshop company. He also has stock photography with Getty images, Robert Harding and Arcaid. I know what you are thinking, there are lots of landscape and travel photographers so what's different about him? Well David applies his trade a little bit differently to most. He does not go to places and stick his tripod in the same three holes as everyone else. He goes there yes, but he looks around and takes photographs of other objects and scenes by thinking outside the box and using his creativity. He thinks so far out of the box that he cannot even see the box and the images he showed the club proved this. This is a photographer who said he can make an image of a farm yard muck spreader look good and he showed us the image to prove it. His images were great and his manner of talking was right down my street. The tones of his voice, seriousness at times and joviality in his speech were great. It’s no wonder that Canon use him for lectures at shows like Photokina, the Photography show and the Outdoor show. If you ever get a chance to go to one of his talks and listen to him, snap it up you will not be disappointed. One of the things I liked about him, and his images and blog on his website, is his taste for Dartmoor and the surrounding area. Also his use of long lenses for his photography. He brought along Canon's new 100mm-400mm f4.5-5.6 L mkii lens which he uses.
Canon 100-400mm L mkii(C)KenRockwell.com (760) 931-9500
I had a look at this lens as I am thinking of buying one as a "walk about" lens, when I'm with Murphy, for my wildlife photography rather than my 500mm f4 lens which is too heave as a "walk about" lens.
Before my wife and I moved down here to Dartmoor we used to visit regularly and during one of these trips we visited Bearslake Inn on the A386. Whilst we were in there, doing what people do in an inn, I noticed that there were several photographs on the wall, by Anna Curnow (http://www.asc-photography.com/ ), of Dartmoor tors. I stood there admiring her work for quite a while and then visited her great website. It stated that it “currently features photos that are predominantly from Dartmoor and Devon” which drew me in even more. She states that she “really loves the scenery that South West England has to offer especially Dartmoor”. She loves “exploring its wild moorlands and dappled valleys and its remote wilderness has a special beauty that she tries to capture in her landscape photography”. As I have mentioned before I wanted to live on or near Exmoor but due to my job location I had to move south. Whilst viewing Anna’s photographs it really set me in the mood that living on Dartmoor won’t be that bad. As stated above she wants to capture Dartmoor’s “special beauty in her photography” and I believe she does this. She is not one of these landscape photographers that simply takes a picture, turns up the saturation and hopes for the best. I know some of her images do look slightly over saturated, especially the sunsets, but any landscape photographer will tell you that during this “golden hour” the light is so warm that the colours you see are saturated so she is showing you the scene as it was presented to her. This lady has a very good eye for spotting a good landscape to photograph. Her only downside is that she does not do workshops – at the moment! That's a shame because my wife would go on one (Think about it Anna). Take a look at her photography by clicking on the link above. It’s so good that I have included a link on my Links page.
Now I'm going to talk about clothing for landscape photography or wildlife photography. I know this sounds a bit silly because I bet you are thinking well any clothing will do to take a photo. If you just go out, take the photo and then go back home then I agree that any clothing will do but if you are going out for quite a few hours or days then you really need to think about the clothes you wear. If you are not warm, or cool, and comfortable then you will lose interest quickly, rush things, and not put your best effort into getting the shot or, you will pack up early and possibly miss a great shot. This does not just relate to clothing but also to dealing with all the biting insects. So find an insect repellent that works for you as we are all different and one thing that works for one person might not work for someone else. There are several products on the market and most of them have deet or citronella in them to keep the insects away. These include products that I use which are Jungle Formula, Avon skin so soft and Autan protection plus. Be aware that some of these products are so strong they will burn through plastic and rubber so watch where you use the stuff and don’t get it near your camera equipment. On one photography trip to Scotland I went into a hide waiting to photograph Badgers and I put some insect repellent on my hands but wore a thick knit balaclava, like the bank robbers wear black, with the slits for my eyes, nose and mouth, on my head. It was not a stocking or a pair of tights, it was a balaclava. I just want to say that I never have, or intend to, wear stockings either on my head or anywhere else! Mind you they do look good, sorry I’ve got to get back on track! With the little red hearts NO! NO! NO! I digress, I stayed in the hide from 7pm till about 11pm when I started feeling sick. I packed up and walked back to the house. When I got into my bedroom I took off the balaclava and looked in the mirror. It’s not a good reflection at the best of times but this time it looked horrendous. My lips and nose were inflamed by the amount of insect bites and looked like they had long thin balloons, like the clowns use to make balloon animals with, around them. My eyes were so puffed up I looked like I had a disease Gold Fish get called Pop-Eye. They did not itch but it did make me feel sick, no not the reflection in the mirror, the swelling. I went to rinse my face with cold water and as I tried to unfasten my watch strap it fell off into the water as it was made of rubber and the insect repellent had burnt through it. So the night and experience was not good, no Badgers, no photos, no watch, feeling sick and a blown up head. I’ve had similar experiences but usually after going to a bar! But what it did teach me is whether I am outside in the open or in a hide I will always put insect repellent on, well if I remember!
Clothing - Starting from the ground up I usually wear stout waterproof walking boots if I am walking around. I wear these all the year round as I do not like walking in wellington boots unless I am going to be standing in a river or sitting with my feet dangling in water. I have two pairs of boots one for dry conditions and one for wet. The ones for dry conditions are made by Merrell and although they are Gore-tex and supposed to be waterproof, they have leaked from day one but they are very comfortable so I stuck with them. The ones for wet conditions are made by Salomon and although only £12 more than the Merrell’s I feel they are better made and really waterproof. It’s no good me telling you the name of the actual boots I wear because your feet will be different to mine, wider, narrower, taller etc. Go into an outdoors clothing store, Millets, Go Outdoors for instance, and try on as many make of boots as you can because they are all different. Just remember if you are looking for waterproof boots then, like most things, you get what you pay for so don’t skimp on this item. If I am going to be in a hide for a long time then I wear something different. If it is a wooden hide with a floor then I will wear my Merrell’s but if it is some sort of “tent” hide like a pop up or chair hide and the floor is the ground then I will wear my snow boots. I bought these boots, made by Sorel, last year and have worn them a couple of times and my feet have not got cold. They look and feel a bit big and clumsy but they keep my feet warm and that’s all that matters.
There are several socks I wear from Thorlo padded running socks in the summer through Gore-tex Fat Face socks in the cooler months to merino socks in the winter.
Our bodies are amazing and can regulate the temperature on their own. Before we had clothes our bodies grew hair to keep warm and if it got too hot then it would sweat to cool it down. For years we have been wearing cotton next to our skin. This fabric does not let the body do what it can, in other words it does not let it breath, in fact it could stifle it and you could overheat. It will soak up your sweat but then it will keep it, and not take it away from your body, so when you cool down the moisture (sweat) in the cotton will make you feel cold. Once cotton is wet with sweat it will take ages to dry and it also retains the smell. Years ago a lot of the fabrics they invented were quick drying but still kept the smell. Nowadays they impregnate the fabric with silver and other metals that inhibit bacterial growth in the fabric so there is no smell. To help the body regulate itself you want to wear several thin layers. The reason for several thin layers is so that if you are walking then you should take some clothes off and only put them back on when you are still. Therefore you want to wear fabrics that are breathable, will wick sweat away from your body to the outside so that it will evaporate and light in weight so this rules out cotton only fabrics and thick woolly jumpers. Woolly jumpers are warm but can be heavy. This is not only for the item next to your skin but all the items you wear. This is not just great for when you are wearing the clothes to take photographs but also if you are traveling around abroad with your gear on say a photographic holiday. You will notice that your backpack or suitcases are a lot lighter. Great if you are going by air and paying for your luggage. There are several good makes on the market and my only advice to you is that you should read up about the items you want and look for items that are in a sale. There are bargains to be had and because you need dull colours for wildlife photography these tend to be in sales more often than the brighter colours. The minimum you should wear or take with you is three layers, a base layer a mid layer and an outer layer. I stick to this in the warmer months but increase it to four, five or more layers in the colder months or depending what I am doing, walking or sitting in the open or in a hide.
For my legs I usually wear trousers that are light, quick drying and have a bit of stretch in them if I am walking around. This rules out jeans because when they get wet by the “odd” shower they stay wet all day. These trousers are made by Craighoppers (https://www.craghoppers.com/nosilife-cargo-trousers-dark-khaki/ ) or Regatta (https://www.regatta.com/trj330-800-action-trousers-black/ ). I am quite hot blooded and am warm on quite cold days. When these trousers get wet they do tend to dry quite quickly due to the heat my legs produce. The only downside I have found is that the knee area fades in less than a year but then again I do a lot of crawling when I’m out in the field photographing wildlife. In the colder months I will wear my trousers made by STEALTH GEAR. I believe this firm has stopped trading which is a shame as they are really good trousers but only to be worn on a cold day. I will also take waterproof leggings just in case it rains, or more likely, that I will be crawling around in the vegetation. If I am in a hide then I will wear trousers and a pair of “long johns”. Before I go on these “long johns” are not the old, western type, itchy with the trap door at the rear. They are breathable and made with merino wool. Along with these items I will also take a pair of leggings just in case.
For my torso I start off with a cool-max t-shirt, then a Paramo Cambia shirt (http://www.paramo-clothing.com/en-gb/explore-range/product/?pk=FBFCCCC9-C324-4BDE-B187-0A97077359BE ) and then an outer fleece for the warmer months. I find any cool-max t-shirt works well. The Cambia shirt made by Paramo is very light and works well as a mid-layer this time of year. The outer fleece is made by Regatta. I have one with a full zip and another with a half zip for when it’s slightly cooler. For the cooler months I will wear a second, thinner, fleece and a breathable windproof, waterproof jacket. I sometimes swap the outer fleece with another shirt made by Paramo using a fabric called “parameta S” which is reversible. It has a fleece on one side, if it’s cold, and a shiny side on the other if it’s warm. It is slightly better than a normal fleece because it is wind proof. I’m afraid I could not find this item on the Paramo website so maybe they have stopped making it. I will also swap the cool-max t-shirt with a long sleeve cool-max shirt. When I am in a hide I will swap the Paramo shirt for a shirt made by Arktis called the Mammouth (http://www.arktisoutdoor.co.uk/arktis-mens-clothing/arktis-tops-and-shirts/a210-mammoth-pullover-shirt ). Although they call it a shirt there is no way you can tuck it into your trousers as it is so thick, but it is warm and very comfortable. The clothing is made for the Police and the Army and if it is good enough for them it is good enough for me. I have several jackets from a light Paramo Cascada (https://www.paramo-clothing.com/en-gb/explore-range/product/?pk=BB6B1BF0-8A46-4F00-AAB5-62AA82BC1DB8&attributes=5A01410B-7BF6-46CC-8A97-FFEA0A577F6E,82122064-D94F-4D04-808A-437AFF01F28A ) through one that is reversible with Deer Tex, brown one side and camo the other, made by Deerhunter (http://www.deerhunterclothing.co.uk/ ). To my latest jacket which is just for wearing in a hide. It is called a Montanna 5-in-1 and is again made by Deerhunter. You’ll have noticed that I have mentioned Paramo clothing a lot. I find this make of clothing very good. It is light, warm and the jacket, with lots of pockets, is very waterproof and if it does get wet then it tends to dry really quickly. The only downside is that you have got to be careful where you go with it because it pulls or tears quite easily which is no good for a wildlife photographer near gorse or blackthorn. The reversible coat does not have a hood which is a shame as it means I have to think about a hat, or my face & neck cover (more later on), but it is good on cold dry days. The Montanna is far too big for me to walk around in as it has three layers to it, all of which can be swapped around, but is perfect for when I’m sitting still. It is warm and very comfortable, with lots of pockets. The sad thing is that they appear to have stopped making it; maybe that’s why I got it cheap! All my jackets are noiseless when I’m moving around; the Deerhunter jackets are made of micro suede and the Paramo is Analogy fabric.
On my hands I wear a pair of light, see through camouflaged gloves. I bought these gloves on holiday in America. They do not have removable finger tips but are so thin that I can still feel every button and dial on my camera. I wear these mainly to cover up my white skin. They are similar to these made by Deerhunter (http://www.deerhunterclothing.co.uk/Deerhunter-Hats-Gloves?product_id=735&limit=100 ). In winter I sometimes wear a thin black pair of Polartec Cyclone gloves made by Lowe alpine (https://www.cotswoldoutdoor.com/p/lowe-alpine-cyclone-glove-A3214595.html?colour=124&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIo7mc6Niz1gIVloeyCh2iZA2pEAQYAyABEgL7T_D_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds ) I say sometimes because I have very warm hands and I still usually only wear my light see through camouflaged gloves.
Around my neck I don’t usually wear anything unless I am in a hide and then I wear a fleece neck cover which I was given free at the Birdfair a few years ago. I know what you are thinking – I cover my white hands but not my neck and face! Well I do because when I bought my gloves in America I also bought a camouflaged face and neck cover. You can get a similar one here (https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=camouflaged+face+cover&tbm=isch&imgil=oZolHzyr2yRiCM%253A%253BwaOERvXZ46FSnM%253Bhttps%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.amazon.com%25252FMossy-Oak-Full-Spandex-Face%25252Fdp%25252FB003UKVFUG&source=iu&pf=m&fir=oZolHzyr2yRiCM%253A%252CwaOERvXZ46FSnM%252C_&usg=__9gKiKtcdPUeMBztVQiRBo4lyiUk%3D&biw=1680&bih=881&ved=0ahUKEwjV29jt4LPWAhVMiRoKHXYvDIkQyjcIkgI&ei=7V3CWZWxEsySavbesMgI#imgrc=_&spf=1505910261426 ) Once again I might look odd but it covers the white bits and trust me there is a big white bit on my head!!! Bring back the old days when we had hair! Well ok “I” had hair.
On my head I will either wear a baseball hat if it is sunny or a beani made out of fleece or merino wool. If it starts raining then I use the hood on my jacket. When sitting in a “tent” type hide in the winter then I will wear a “Russian” style hat that can fold down on the ears. It is called a “tundra hat” and is made by Jack Pyke (http://www.jackpyke.co.uk/products/clothing/hats-and-gloves/tundra-hat.aspx ) Once again I might look silly, my wife thinks so, but I’m warm and that’s the main thing.
The colour of all my clothing is either dark or light green, dark or light brown, black, grey or a camouflaged pattern. All colours that help me blend into the countryside.
It is a lot of clothing but you need different clothing for different seasons and weather conditions also if you notice I wear a few light things when I am moving about and a lot more when I am sat still in a hide. Remember what I said earlier if you are not warm and comfortable, in other words if you are preoccupied by being cold, then you will lose interest quickly, possibly rush things which does not help your creativity, and not put your best effort into getting the shot or, you will pack up early and possibly miss a great shot.
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Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
What a strange month August 2017 has been weather wise on Dartmoor in Devon. Throughout the months of April, May, June and July the weather has, mostly, been sunny with a couple of wet days but August has been a really wet but warm month. In fact it rained so much during the first few days of the month that the River Tavy is still not back to its normal level 21 days later. I say it has been wet but very warm. You put a coat on to keep the rain out but you get wet due to sweating.
If you read the last paragraph of my August blog (read www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2017/8/why-take-photographs-linnets-sparrowhawks-manual-focus-and-roe-deer-on-dartmoor ) you will know that my camera and lens have been returned to me by Canon through my insurance company. Although due to work commitments I still have not taken any images this month and this will continue until I go on holiday in September.
One of the things I had to do with my 500mm lens for it to be sent to Canon for a check-up was take it in to a camera shop so they could send it. Whilst I was in there being served the salesman asked what kind of images did I take with the lens. As I had my IPad with me I started showing him a few of my images. Whilst this was going on a woman entered the shop, saw a couple of my images and asked “What kind of camera would I have to buy to get images like those?” Before the salesman could reply I said “Any camera in this shop will take an image like this as long as you have the same focal length lens.” Then I continued “But you will have to find the wildlife, get close enough to photograph it by using field craft skills, compose the image, get the right light, the right shutter speed, the right aperture, the right ISO and know when to press the shutter release.” “Then you will have to know how to post process it.” She looked at me bemused so I said “Have you got a car?” “Yes” she replied. “Does the car know the way to London by itself?” I asked, again the bemused look “No, you have to drive it there.” I said. “It is exactly the same with any camera, you have to tell it what to do and it will do it. In other words a camera will not take a photo until you set the settings and you press the shutter release. If you want to try this at home put the camera on a shelf and leave it there for a week then check the camera and see how many images have been taken!” The penny, or is it ten pence with inflation nowadays, finally dropped and we continued to have a very good conversation about camera gear, photography workshops and learning the art of photography. When she left the shop the salesman turned around to me and said “It is amazing how many people think it’s the equipment that takes the photograph rather than the photographer, it makes a change to hear someone like you explain it to a person.” It’s a bit like the Nikon v Canon debate. Some people get really irate about which camera manufacture is better. (Now there are certain cameras that are better at doing some things than others like full frame cameras are better for landscape photography because they can use wide-angle lenses at their proper width, but I am talking about camera manufactures here.) It is such a pointless argument to waste breath over. If you look on the internet it beggars belief that there are so many sites and forums on which people talk about this subject. When you look at an image how many of you immediately want to know what camera it was taken with? The answer will be none because you will be thinking what a great shot. Later on you might want to know what the settings were and the equipment used but not immediately. I went to a wildlife photography seminar once and the speaker was brilliant along with every single photo he showed us. When at the end there were the usual questions one person, you always get one, asked “What equipment does he use?” The answer was Sony which appeared to stump the person asking the question. Now just because it was not Nikon or Canon did that mean his images were now crap? NO, they were still brilliant. How many people have looked at a painting and said “That’s a great painting I wonder what brush the artist used?” or went out to dinner and said “That was a great meal I wonder what cooker or saucepans the chef used?” I know I have a bit of fun now and then with “digs” at people that have a Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Sony rather than a Canon, which I have, but really and truly it does not make any difference what camera make you have. As long as the camera accessories you can buy fit your type of photography you can get great images from any camera manufacture. A camera is a tool, a box, with a few buttons and a sensor; YOU take the image not the camera.
The date is 11th August 2017 and the time is just gone 8pm. I am sat on the ground, (no Murphy this time Craig!!! Lol) leaning against a stone wall just chilling. Watching nature either with or without my camera relaxes me. Although I do have my camera back I only have a pair of binoculars with me this time. I need to chill because a five hour journey from Essex to home, according to Jane my sat nav voice, took over eight due to traffic. Last week’s journey was the same and I expect the next few weeks journeys will be the same. When are they, the boffins, going to invent a transporter like on Star Trek? You just step on a circle and it transports you to another location in seconds, wonderful! Why am I travelling to Essex I hear you ask? Well my wonderful job has sent me there for the next few weeks, no end date given, with no time for myself or Wi-Fi conection – roll on retirement. I had plans for several shoots this year but because of my accident with the camera / lens and my wonderful employer sending me away they put paid to them – better luck next year. Looking forward to retirement is a bit sad really because you are wishing your life away and let’s be honest it is not a very long life no matter what the MP’s say but I digress. There is a Blackbird, a Chaffinch and a Song Thrush singing behind me. There are a few juvenile Wrens flying around my location. They could be from the nest that I found a few weeks ago and which I’m sat quite close to. But I’m not here because of them although they do add to the experience I’m having. I’m here because I am watching a doe Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, with a kid (the name of its young) that was most probably born in May. Their coats are a bright rusty red at the moment but they will change, turning into a dull slate grey colour, in winter. They are about forty metres away from me on the edge of our wood, their usual habitat at dawn and dusk, eating away. The other thing that is being eaten away at the moment is me! Midges, flies, ants and hordes of other “Robin Stanbridge” eating insects surrounded me as soon as I sat down. It’s one of the biggest banes of a wildlife photographer’s, especially mine, life. The trouble is that if it was not for these insects the other wildlife would not be here so I have to put up with it. I was sat here before the deer came out as I had the information given to me by my wife who had seen them on a couple of the evenings she was here. After a while I sneak off quietly leaving them to their feed.
The next day whilst walking Murphy I noticed that there were quite a few Linnets about on the moor. Although I looked on the internet and in my books I could not find out what a group of Linnets is called. As it is part of the finch family it could be a “Charm of Linnets”, if you know then please inform me via Facebook or click "contact" on the top or bottom of this blog. These groups were between 50 and 200 birds strong so nothing as big as my sighting last year.
On the Sunday just before I had to leave for Essex again I walked Murphy along the leat. For the first time ever I saw a Heron which flew off as soon as it saw me. After taking a few more steps I saw a Fox cub jumping and hopping around playing with sticks and vegetation. I could not see any others which is unusual. I stood watching it for a few moments until it spotted me and ran off into the wood. I love Foxes as they always make me chuckle with their antics, a bit like Murphy does, and appear to have a care free attitude to enjoying themselves. In fact they are learning to attack and deal with prey but it does look like fun. This walk was not very long as the good old rain started pouring again dampening my already low spirits due to facing another long, time wasting journey.
Hopefully I will be able to get out with my camera next month. Happy hunting, with a camera of course.
If any of you are, or know of any person who is interested in, thinking of attending a wildlife photography workshop then please see my workshop details on the top of this website. At the moment I am taking bookings for the Red Deer Rut, Wild Birds of Dartmoor and Post Processing workflow. I am also finalising a workshop for Beginners to DSLR photography which will be ready within the next month.
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Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
First of all this month I would like to ask you, and I’d like you to really think about your answer. Why do you take photographs? There could be several reasons or answers to this question but there should really only be one main reason or answer. This main reason is – for your own enjoyment. If you like a view be it, landscape, portrait, wildlife etc., you take an image of it and you enjoy the image you took because you like it, it brings back happy memories and the emotions it stirs up within you, then that is all that matters. A lot of people nowadays take images and because they are pleased with them they put them on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. Doing this hands the image to other people to see if they enjoy it as much as you do. But if they don’t get many “likes” then they get very disappointed, WHY. Some people look at the image and can’t be bothered to press the “like” button. The ways some of these social media platforms work restrict other people viewing your image until you pay for the right. There are so many images on there that people will ignore similar images. Some people will verbally “slag off” your image to get a reaction or jealously. When you look through your viewfinder you decide when to take the image and you will only press the shutter release when you, not other people, like the image that’s portrayed. Ignore other people’s views of your image and stop worrying about them, you can’t please everybody, it is your image, your creativity so as long as it pleases you, then the job is a good one. People not liking an image, especially a judge, is one of the biggest knock downs in camera club photography but it shouldn’t be. Just because one judge doesn’t like it does not mean every judge will not like it. There are some exceptions but there are good elements in most photographs and just because someone says they do not like it or they don’t click on the “like” button, might be for several reasons. Don’t get put off by the lack of “likes” get out there and carry on taking images, for yourself. After all you started taking photographs because you enjoy photography so stick with that.
It appears to have been a really good year for some birds on Dartmoor. Willow Warblers have inundated a certain area of the moor that I frequent and there are juveniles and adults all over the place which is great to see. I hope they return next year. Another bird that appears to have done well in this area is the Green Woodpecker. There are several families around and the largest I’ve seen on the moor is three juveniles with the adults. When I lived on the Cambridgeshire / Bedfordshire border I once saw five juveniles with the adults near my house. And I can tell you it was really loud when they all flew off laughing away.
Green WoodpeckerGreen Woodpecker
Other birds that appeared to have done well rearing juveniles are Robins, Bullfinches (there are three families right near our nature reserve), Magpies, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits, Linnets, Wrens, Jackdaws, Dunnocks and Blackbirds. There are, most probably, a lot more but apart from walking Murphy I have not been out with my camera because it is still at Canon being repaired. I was informed by my insurance company that it was only going to take fifteen days to repair, that was twenty seven days ago! On one of these walks towards Vixen tor the moor was alive with adult and juvenile Wrens which all seemed to be perching on top of the gorse bushes. This was nice because it meant that I could see them rather than them sitting in the gorse or in the bracken. As I neared some big slabs of granite I could see some Ravens perched on a lone tree. I regularly see these birds in this location so when I get my camera back I must come out here, set myself up and get some images of them as it is quite a picturesque, although slightly haunting, scene. Watching Hammer Horror and other horror films when I was young left a marked impression on my mind in relation to Ravens. The birds in these films might have been Crows or Rooks but Ravens are the biggest corvids so I relate the “graveyard and bird scenes” to them. It hasn’t put me off photographing them as they are stunning, very intelligent, birds. As I started to lower my binoculars I saw a shape of an animal sitting on top of one of the granite slabs. It was a Fox and it was sat scanning the valley below. It appeared not to have a care in the world and was chilling out. I know in reality things are different, because of all the sheep, if a farmer had noticed it then they would have shot it. Sheep farmers make me laugh. They kill Foxes, or don’t want them around, when it’s lambing time but if a ewe dies they want the Foxes around to eat the carcase so they don’t have to pay for it to be taken away which, proves it’s all about money and not the welfare of animals.
Whilst Murphy and I were walking another area of Dartmoor I noticed that the amount of Linnets has increased over the last few weeks. I hope that I will see another Linnet spectacle like I did last year (read www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2016/7/the-weather-on-dartmoor-in-devon-natures-greatest-sights-and-acorn-lodge-b-b-dartmoor ) but this year I will have my camera with me (if I get it back). I will keep an eye out on the field where they gathered last year because it is still down to grass.
Whilst trimming the climbing rose in our garden, a job I needed to do because our Acorn Lodge B&B guests might walk through the arch, which the rose surrounds, to get to breakfast, a Sparrowhawk flew straight at me and darted away at the last minute. It must have been chasing another bird but I did not see what it was. It happened so fast that all I did was bring my hands up to my face for protection and even then I would have been too late to succeed. It amazes me how fast these hawks really are and how they can react that quickly without getting hurt. Also how other birds can, with a bit of luck, escape them. This was not the only Sparrowhawk encounter I have had this month but more about this later.
When walking on Dartmoor you really have to keep your wits about you know what you are doing and be prepared (as boy scouts in my younger days said). The other day I was walking along, quite early in the morning, the sun was shining and there were only a few puffy white clouds in the sky. With fifteen minutes it was foggy and drizzling and you could not see ten metres in front of you. Luckily I knew the area well and headed back to the car but even so everything looks different in fog and at times I had to really think about the direction I was heading. People without this knowledge or without any forms of direction finder, compass or satellite navigation aid could easily get lost and with some treacherous bogs on Dartmoor that is no joke. I sat in the car for about an hour until it cleared and then recommenced my walk. On the walk I pass an area that has a small “cliff face” as the soil falls away into a very small valley. As I went past this a Peregrine falcon flew out in front of me and off to my right. I have never seen one in this area and the quickness of the descending fog might have forced it down. Seeing a Peregrine falcon three times in four months is great.
The next day I was sitting on top of Cox tor on Dartmoor looking west towards Cornwall whilst Murphy was mooching around the rocks around me. North Brentor church was to my right, Tavistock in front and Plymouth to my left. Viewing the green patchwork scene in front was spectacular with the sun shining and blue skies above. There were patches of fog or mist in a few of the valleys below and in the distance I could see numerous wind farms that seem to increase daily nowadays. There were a couple of areas with smoke rising out of them showing the sign of human presence. On days like this it’s great to just sit and ponder but sooner or later you have to get back to reality, shame.
After speaking to several people I am amazed that so many people either can’t be bothered or do not know how to focus their DSLR manually. I know that most cameras nowadays have a fantastic auto focus system so why learn to focus manually I hear you ask. Well there are several reasons why your autofocus will fail to lock on to your desired point of focus. Because of these reasons most camera manufactures have a switch or a button to turn your autofocus off to let you focus manually, Canons switch is on their lenses. Once you have flicked the switch to manual you then focus by looking through your viewfinder or by using live view on your rear screen. So why do we need to learn how to focus manually? The first reason that springs to mind for wildlife photography is when your maximum aperture is smaller than f8 on professional cameras or f5.6 for most other cameras. This occurs when you have say a 400mm f5.6 lens and you add either a 2x, taking it to f11, or 1.4x or 1.5x, taking it to f8, converter to get extra reach. Next is when the scene is very low contrast as most cameras autofocus systems works by the contrast. Next is when the light levels are low which is similar to the low contrast. Another reason is when the camera will not autofocus on the part of the scene you want sharp because something is blocking the view, for example, a Stoat going through grass where the camera will autofocus on the grass or taking photographs of an animal in a cage where the camera focuses on the cage. Next, for landscape photographers, is when you set your camera to the hyperfocal distance to get the maximum depth of field. When using accessories that only allow manual focus and finally when you have a lens that only offers you the choice of manual focus, yes there are still some lenses that only have one choice like Canons excellent tilt-and-shift lenses. So how do you focus manually? Before you do any manual focusing always make sure your cameras dioptric eye adjustment is set to your eyes so that all the display within the viewfinder appears sharp. One method is when looking through your viewfinder; rotate the manual focusing ring on your lens. The image will be blurred, come into sharp focus and then go blurred again. Once the image goes blurred then turn the focusing ring the other way. Keep going back and forth shortening the movement on the focusing ring each time and you will finally reach sharp focus. The more you practice this method then the faster it will become. When using Canon equipment I believe the autofocus points remain active during manual focus so line up the AF point on the part you want sharp and when you have achieved sharp focus the focus confirmation light will light up in the viewfinder. Remember by using this method you are using the cameras autofocus system, why? You are focusing manually because the cameras autofocus system failed. Years ago before autofocus was invented, yes there was a time it was after the dinosaurs and before mobile phones, the viewfinder had what was call a “split-image” focusing screen nowadays you just get a clear matte screen. This split-image screen helped you focus on your subject. This split looked like a Big Mac without the filling! (This description might sound odd to some of you but I am trying to relate it to today’s generation) You put the split, which was in the centre of the screen, on something and it looked broken as it was out of alignment. As you turned the focusing ring the alignment got closer and was perfect when sharp focus had been achieved. With today’s clear matte screen achieving sharp focus can be difficult for some people. A precision matte screen is better but still, I believe, not as good as a split-image screen. Canon makes interchangeable screens for their cameras. There are split-image screens available for all the 1D and 1Ds cameras but only a precision matte screen available for their “enthusiast / amateur cameras like the 5D and the 70D. As I stated earlier you can use your Live View screen at the rear of your camera to focus manually. This method is used a lot by photographers taking macro images mainly because you can use the 10x magnification facility to pin point sharp focus with accuracy. The downside of this is that it is better when you use a tripod as the camera is more stable. I hope this small tutorial helps you to learn how, why and when you should focus manually.
Our garden is still inundated with juveniles. I am thinking of digging out a small area in our garden for a small pond. Ponds, or water features, in gardens are great for attracting more wildlife to your garden. It would have to be a small pond because our garden is not very big but small is better than nothing. I don’t quite know which liner to go for but I expect I will end up with one of the pre-formed plastic liners which you can buy from a garden centre. That way I will have to stick to the size rather than make it bigger. The only downside of this is that I will have to take out the plants that are already established. The only area I can do this on is already occupied by a large “Hosta” which is inundated with slugs and snails. I often see a song thrush near this, picking up the shells before thrashing them against a stone to get at the snail. Being Dartmoor there are other areas in my garden with snails so the thrush won’t go hungry if this Hosta is removed.
Song ThrushSong Thrush
Although no work is being done to our nature reserve at the moment my wife and I still visit it regularly. It’s a good job we do because the other day we saw a male (buck) and a female (doe) Roe deer. They were in our field with the buck going round and round the doe. You could tell there was only one thing on his mind. The doe was leading him a merry dance and when he got too close she would turn to face him and say “NO it’s not the time”! Then she would lie down. A few minutes later she would get up, tease him, and it would start over again. The Roe deer rut is between mid-July and mid-August. Courtship involves this “chasing” between the buck and doe for some time until the doe is ready to mate. Although the mating occurs at this time the fertilised egg does not actually implant and grow until January. This could be to avoid giving birth during harsh northern hemisphere winters. Therefore the actual gestation period is nine months (four months with no embryonic growth and five months of foetal growth) with kids being born between the months of May – June. We actually got quite close to watch them. We were one side of the hedge / stone wall and they moved to just the other side of it. With still no camera I did not get a photograph of them but the memory will last for ever. They were on our nature reserve for quite a few days before they moved on. I hope they stay in the area and we get to see their kids.
On another occasion, whilst on our nature reserve, we saw a Sparrowhawk chasing a Magpie around the top part of our wood. They disappeared out of sight down into the wood. It reminded me of the time I once saw a male Sparrowhawk catch a Magpie and because it was still alive and flapping its wings the sparrowhawk dragged it to a pool of water and drowned it. Once it was dead it dragged it away from the pool and started to eat it. It was nature in the raw. I wonder how many of you feel sorry for the Magpie! I know a lot would if it was say, a Kingfisher or a Coal tit like I saw in Scotland (read www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2017/5/dippers-in-devon-heart-stopping-moment-and-wildlife-rich-scotland-in-the-cairngorms. )
Sparrowhawk with KillSparrowhawk with Kill
YEE HA! I have just got my camera back from Canon and it looks like new.
If any of you are, or know of any person who is interested in, thinking of attending a wildlife photography workshop then please see my workshop details on the top of this website. At the moment I am taking bookings for the Red Deer Rut, Wild Birds of Dartmoor and Post Processing workflow. I am also finalising a workshop for Beginners to DSLR photography which will be ready within the next two months.
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Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
I noticed a comment from somebody on Facebook the other day that stated that this was the quiet period for birds! I don’t know what he, I presume it was a he by his name but you can’t be 100% correct, meant by “quiet period”. If you look at my garden it is absolutely full of birds, both juveniles and adults, coming and going. I have never seen so many juveniles, there are:- Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Dunnocks, Jays, Rooks, Crows, Coal Tits, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Magpies, Wrens, Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Sparrows, Sparrowhawk’s, Grey Wagtails, Pied Wagtails and Jackdaws. Walking on Dartmoor is just the same with Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Willow Warblers etc. Because they have all had an early brood there is still time to have a second, which is great. I don’t want to put a downer on it but with all these juveniles about the birds of prey must be having a field day. It appears that our local Dippers are having a second brood because I have already seen the juveniles fledge over a month ago but the adults are constantly bringing food to the nest site again which is under a bridge.
Whilst watching the Dippers the other day I had a visit of a “squadron” of Blackbirds. It contained three adults and about fifteen juveniles which were making one hell of a racquet. I read the other day that most of our “English” Blackbirds that we see this time of year are in fact from abroad! How dare they! Come over here to have their young on our NHS, maybe this will change after Brexit! (Before you start I am only joking) It was great to see, and hear, the adults trying to keep them under control and failing miserably. The Juveniles all looked very similar brown heads and bodies with black tails.
I had a look back at the Redstart nesting area the next day, which is covered in bracken that is about 3 foot tall, to see if there were any juveniles or adults there. I stayed for about two hours but only saw a male Wheatear which came quite close and I would have got some great close-ups if I had my camera. (More about this later!)
From the nesting area I walked onto the moor. My walk took me on an open path that can end up on White Tor. This is a boundary for the Dartmoor Danger area and has a pole for a Red Flag to denote this. It is a Danger area because the Military have ranges and carry out training there. The training area is mainly situated on the northern part of Dartmoor and has been in existence since the early 1800’s. Military training is carried out on the ranges by the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army, and Royal Air Force. The area is supported by two training camps, one at Okehampton and the other at Willsworthy and there are three established firing ranges at Okehampton, Willsworthy and Merrivale. The area taken up with live firing ranges is 9,187 hectares (22,664 acres) and they are used on average about 120 days each year. To find out the firing times use this link https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/dartmoor-firing-programme They are used for small arms, mortars and artillery smoke and illuminating shells. The current leases run for many years, with Cramber Tor most recently being granted a further 40-year license.
The time is 7am and I am out on Dartmoor walking with my terrier Murphy and have been for the last half hour. It is the end of June, there is a cold wind blowing and it is raining, welcome to summer. It’s not heavy rain it’s that light stuff that leads you into a false sense of security. You think you can go out without a coat but within a few minutes you are absolutely soaked. The wind is blowing into my back so it’s ok but I know at some stage I have to turn around and walk back to the car. I am walking on a grassed area but I know and I can see that up ahead it turns into bracken. The bracken is nearly fully grown and in some places it is up to, and just above, my waist and I’m 6 foot tall or 180cm in new money. It’s strange that some people, including me, still stick to the imperial measurements. This is not just an age thing because some young people still talk in feet and inches. The decision to go metric in this country, England, was in 1965, 52 years ago, it was announced in Parliament at a time when the prospects of successful entry to the European Economic Community (EEC) were bleak due to General de Gaulle's famous "non" to Britain's membership applications (after all the help we gave them in World War 2)! Since then we joined the EEC and now we are coming out of it, how things change. I wonder if we will go back to imperial, never say never! This subject was brought up in a telephone conversation I had the other day with a nurse. She was trying to diagnose my symptoms, yes over the phone, and I had to tell her my height. I said 180cm and she said “What’s that in English!” so I had to tell her 6 feet. She then said “I don’t understand all this foreign stuff!” She sounded younger than me and this “foreign stuff” has been around for 52 years and I’m 58. How long does it take to change? Most people go to their doctors or their general practitioner (GP) to get a diagnosis but this nurse could do it on the phone by talking not video, maybe it’s the way forward as most people, including their dog, have, and stares at, their mobile phones these days. I digress, back to the bracken. This bracken has covered the ground and is really good cover for ground nesting birds. But what it also means is that it is harder to see wildlife apart from a little movement here and there, a quick glimpse of as they fly across a path and a quick dash of colour seen here and there. Today, due to the weather, I don’t see anything. Even the cows, Dartmoor ponies and sheep are all led down huddled against gorse bushes or behind large boulders of Dartmoor granite. In fact, as I look around me, I am the only nutter walking and moving on this moor! I look down at Murphy, he looks up and I ask him what he wants to do? He jumps up at my pocket, which contains a tennis ball, looks all excited and does not have to say anything as I throw it for him. He brings is back, looks up at me slightly jumping with his feet taping out a beat and I throw it again, he is as mad as I am!
In last month’s blog I spoke about Vixen tor and about possibility of why it was fenced off. Since then I have found this on the internet which has a much more plausible explanation of why it is fenced off.
The Legend of Vixen Tor
Between Princetown and Tavistock stands the largest mass of granite on Dartmoor, which is known as Vixen Tor. A long time ago Vixen Tor was the home of an evil wicked old witch named Vixana. She lived in a cave situated at the foot of the tor.
Vixana hated people and her only pleasure was in making people suffer. She was tall, thin and bent over as if she was walking against a strong wind. She had a large hooked nose, yellowed wrinkled face, no teeth except for two greenish yellow fangs which protruded over her lower lip like those of a wolf, and thin straggly hair which would have been grey had it been washed and combed. Her eyes were yellow and appeared to glow when she was angry or became excited. She always carried a gnarled stick, which she used for walking, knocking the heads off flowers and swiping at the honey bees which came within reach.
Every morning Vixana would climb to the top of the tor and scan the surrounding countryside looking for unwary travellers. If she spotted one she would become excited and her eyes would glow evilly. When the traveller came to part of the track that skirted the bog which lay at the foot of Vixen Tor, Vixana would call up a thick clinging mist which would envelope the traveller, causing him or her to lose their way and stumble into the bog where they would be sucked, struggling and screaming to their death. When she heard the screaming she would clear the mist back into the bog from whence it came so that she could see and gloat over the last terrified struggles of the unfortunate traveller. The last sound heard by the victim was the evil cackling of the old witch. The path that skirted Vixen Tor soon became known as a dangerous track and wise travellers would take an alternative longer route which wound over the roughest part of the moor.
At the time, on another part of Dartmoor, there lived a handsome your moorman who had wonderful powers. This moorman had two wonderful gifts. The first was the gift of clear sight, the ability to see clearly through the thickest mist or fog, a very useful ability on Dartmoor which is so frequently shrouded in mist. The second gift was a ring which, when placed on his finger, turned him completely invisible. When news of the missing travellers reached the young moorman he decided to investigate and set off along the track to Vixen Tor.
Some days later, the old witch was in her accustomed position at the top of Vixen Tor. She was in an evil temper, muttering to herself and swishing her stick at any insect which came within range. The reason for her temper was that, for weeks now, no one had come along the track and she had been unable to fulfil her evil ambitions. Suddenly she saw the figure of the young moorman in the distance and, cackling to herself in glee, she prepared for his arrival at the fateful bog. The moorman walked steadily and unhurriedly until he came abreast of the bog at which time Vixana called up the mist which completely enveloped the young moorman. The moorman, however, because of his gift of clear sight, was able to stick to the path and proceed normally. Vixana was waiting eagerly for the sound of his despairing cries, her eyes glowing and her bent old figure straining forward. When she saw the moorman appearing unharmed she gave an angry frustrated scream and started to weave another spell. Hearing her scream the young moorman looked up and, at once realising the danger he was in, slipped the ring on his finger and became invisible. Vixana was bewildered; she could see no one against whom she could direct her spell. She moved over to the edge of the tor and strained over, watching impatiently for a sight of her intended victim. Meanwhile the young moorman made his way round to the other side of the tor, crept up and, catching the old witch unawares, pushed her over the edge where she fell screaming to her death on the rocks below.
The people of Dartmoor were so delighted to be rid of the evil old witch that they presented the young man with enough money to buy a farm of his own. He settled down there and eventually married a beautiful young bride from a nearby village. Travellers were always welcome at his farm and when people became lost on Dartmoor, as they so frequently do, the young moorman was always the first to volunteer to search. He and his bride lived happily together for many, many years and performed many good deeds but none which is so well remembered as the destruction of the evil old witch.
So knowing that he was not going to live forever the moorman must have fenced off Vixen Tor to save travellers from the evil witch’s bog! Good job because I quite often walk along that path with Murphy. Only the other day I walked that path and saw two tents right next to the fence at the bottom of the valley. I bet the owners did not know how lucky they were! There are more true stories like this at http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/learning/dartmoor-legends if you care to look.
Later on during the day I visited another area and walked for about an hour. During this walk there were no sightings or sounds of any Cuckoos, but, being July, they could have left England for their journey back to Africa. During the couple of months they are over here they locate an average of 25 nests, laying an egg in each. Last year 107 Meadow Pipit nests were found in a certain area and only 7 contained an egg from a Cuckoo. Out of that 7 only 2 Cuckoos finally fledged. (According to a report I have just read.) Cuckoo numbers have declined dramatically in the last 30 years but so have Meadow Pipits, their favoured nests to lay their eggs in, in Devon.
Whilst on this walk I looked on the ground and saw what looked like an opal. It was in fact a Green Hairstreak butterfly and it looked absolutely beautiful. The “opal” colour is from the underside of its wings. Its top side is brown with a light coloured spot near to the leading edge. Its wingspan is between 27 and 34mm and its Latin name is Callophrys rubi. It is the most widespread of our hairstreaks. When it settles its wings are always closed and you will only see the brown top sides when it is in flight. As I often walk early in the morning or late in the afternoon / evening I often see a lot of butterflies and because of the times I can get reasonably close. This is one way of me taking my camera, with the appropriate lens, and get wildlife images when I am walking Murphy.
Work has stopped on our Nature Reserve at the moment mainly due to the amount of vegetation, leaves, grass, bushes etc. I have cut down some of the broken oak tree branch that fell in the high winds we had a couple of weeks ago. I say some because I wanted to leave some of the branch hanging to balance the weight of the tree. If I had cut it all then all the weight would have been on the other side. Apart from that I have been moving a lot of stones to the area that I want to build a small stone wall, as a “prop” for photographing birds and hopefully Stoats. Due to the long grass I have not started building it yet but come winter it will be up. Because we, my wife and I, visit our Nature Reserve regularly we are seeing lots of wildlife. We have seen Roe Deer on several occasions; they appear to like the far end of the field, Rabbits and one Hare. I have heard Frogs and Mice / Voles but have not seen them recently. We are inundated with several different types of Butterflies, Moths and numerous insects. From, what I believe was, a Speckled wood, a small Tortoiseshell to a Red admiral. Each time I see a different Butterfly, or a moth, I look it up and find out its name in the book I now carry in the car. This is one way to broaden my knowledge of these beautiful insects. The book is call “Field guide to the Butterflies and other insects of Britain” and it is by the Readers Digest Nature Lovers Library. I’ve had the book since about 1990, but never fully read it. Apart from images of both the top and underside of the butterflies’ wing, it also shows the caterpillars, the chrysalises, the plants it lives on and the type of land area it can be found in. So much information it’s really good. Bird wise; the Buzzards are still there along with the Jays, Ravens, Crows, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Robins, Chaffinches, Wrens, Bullfinches, Pied Wagtails, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Blackbirds and lots of LBJs that I have not identified yet. We also still have the Tawny Owl that hit my wife on her head, thankfully no injuries to either. Down by the river we still see Dippers and Grey Wagtails which both have had juveniles this year.
As we approached the gate to our Nature Reserve this morning we saw several Stoats running around playing and hunting on the road. This has confirmed to me that the stone wall “prop” is a must and I will get on with it as soon as I can. As we entered a Roe Deer that was situated in the middle of the grassed area ran off into the wood. I took Murphy for a walk along the road to the moor. I say road but this is Devon and at times I can stand in the middle of the road and nearly touch the hedges on both sides of it. After about a mile and a half the road comes to a gate that leads onto the moor. At times you can’t walk too far in this direction because it ends up very near the Danger area. At the weekends you are fine because there is no firing then. It being early Saturday morning I was the only person there.
If you are one of my friends on Facebook you will know that during the last few weeks I have been struggling with my broadband and telephone line. This all happened a few weeks ago when we in Devon had well over a thousand lightning strikes in one night. http://www.devonlive.com/huge-lighting-storm-lights-up-the-skies-across-devon-videos-and-pictures/story-30357295-detail/story.html and the phone lines went down in most of the village. Before this happened I used to get 2mbps broadband speed. For the last few weeks my broadband was either not working or I had 0.6mbps. BT were called out on several occasions, the last time this week and finally I have a broadband speed of 2.8mbps YEE HA! The last BT engineer stated that the government wants everybody in the country to get at least 10mbps, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Dartmoor seems to be alive with Stoats and Weasels at the moment. Everywhere I seemed to go this week I have seen them running along the road or crossing the road just in front of me, it is great to see as I love these little animals. I know they kill birds but that is nature, they are doing it to live and they are not doing it for fun, like humans do!
At work, I was in the same area that I saw Stoats last year as written in my blog (http://www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2016/12/stoats-slapton-ley-nnr-cirl-buntings-and-turning-a-photography-hobby-into-a-career ) for info. This time as I was teaching I saw a Peregrine falcon chasing a Skylark. On this occasion the Skylark got the better of the Peregrine and it got away. The Peregrine then settled on top of a lamp post, which was about 30 metres away giving us a good view of him. This area I teach on is not far from the Cornwall coast with its rugged cliffs so it is perfect Peregrine habitat. The cliffs being quite high gives the Peregrine a great lookout spot and they allow it to dive on its unsuspecting prey at up to 220 miles an hour. As Chris Packham would say “WHAT A BIRD”.
On Friday I walked out of the door at 5am to be greeted by a male Sparrowhawk that was sat on one of my feeders. It looked at me as if to say “well, where are the birds?” I stood watching it a while, mesmerised by its orange / yellow eyes, and it did not seem too bothered with my presence. It then looked down and saw Murphy, didn’t like what he saw, and so flew off. They are stunning birds, again I know they kill the little birds but that is why the little birds have such big broods and it is nature.
Sparrowhawk with Kill
Those of you who regularly read my blog will notice that I haven’t mentioned taking any images this month. In July and August I don’t take many images of birds because of the light and the amount of people that frequent Dartmoor at this time of year, but this year I have another reason. Last month I tripped over and as I did so I knocked my tripod which had my camera, converter and lens setup on it. I looked, and in slow motion, it crashed to the ground with my camera taking the brunt of the collision. Thank goodness it was insured. It is all with Canon at the moment and I will get it back near the end of the month once it has been repaired. Even though I do not have a camera at the moment I am using the time wisely. I am visiting different areas of Dartmoor gaining valuable information about them so that I can come back later and photograph the wildlife there.
Throughout our lives we have to make decisions some good and some not so. The other evening I was walking along a leat with Murphy. The leat was on my right and on my left was a wood. The land dropped away quite sharply from the path next to the leat. In fact the slope is so sharp that after only a few metres I am looking into the top third of the trees. After about half an hour I came to a gate and I was going to turn around and walk back but about 50 metres the other side of the gate was a small stone bridge. In fact the “bridge” was a large granite slab over the leat. I decided to carry on walking and I would examine the slab and turn around there. I’m glad I made this decision because on my way to the slab I saw a Tawny Owl sat on one of the bigger branches near the top of an oak tree. It was a large oak tree but the branch was at eye level to me due to the slope. After a few seconds it noticed I was there and it flew off silently further into the wood. What a great experience and decision.