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.
IF YOU LIKE READING MY BLOGS THEN PLEASE CLICK ON THE SOCIAL MEDIA BUTTONS AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE AND/OR CLICK ON THE RSS BUTTON AT THE BOTTOM TO SUBSCRIBE, THANK YOU.
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.
IF YOU LIKE MY BLOGS THEN PLEASE CLICK ON THE SOCIAL MEDIA BUTTONS AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE, THANK YOU.
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.
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Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor, Devon.
I am sitting on a pile of stones, which used to be part of the wall I am leaning against, waiting. All around me is a carpet of bluebells, most of which are being visited by some sort of flying insect from bees to butterflies. In the valley in front of me lies the beautiful Devonshire village of Peter Tavy. From where I am sitting I can see the medieval church tower and behind it the excellent 15th century Peter Tavy Inn (http://www.petertavyinn.co.uk/ ) with its great ales and fantastic food that everybody, including me, raves about. I’ve been sitting her for nearly three hours, my bum has gone to sleep, I have been bitten by ants from a nest not far from me, the sun is shining brightly and the wall is shielding me from the strong breeze. Thinking about the inn is making me hungry and thirsty. If ever you visit this great area of Dartmoor in Devon make sure you visit this Inn for its great hospitality, a drink and a meal, you will not be disappointed. When we first moved here three years ago everyone we spoke to, from the estate agent to work colleagues that live in Devon and Cornwall, mentioned how good the Inn is. We and our Acorn Lodge B&B (https://www.acorn-lodge-dartmoor.co.uk/ ) guests have visited it several times, because we informed them, and have never been disappointed, but I digress. I am waiting for a visit from either a Redstart or a Cuckoo both of which I have seen a few times in this area recently. Within a few minutes of me sitting down a Black Redstart, early this year as everything is, flew past followed a few minutes later by the common Redstart but since then, nothing. I say nothing but there are several birds flying this way and that but not the ones I want to photograph. Swallows are quartering the field flying a few inches above the bluebells catching insects. Robins, Wrens and Blackbirds are singing in the trees and bushes to my left. Then it goes quiet and this silence is broken by the laughter of a Green Woodpecker flying from one tree to another. I then notice a Cuckoo landing in a tree a distance behind the one I want it to land in. I don’t move but take some photos, they are only “record shots” to prove to the wife that I have seen one. In the next couple of hours the Cuckoo lands in every tree except the one I want! Never mind I enjoy watching and listening to it, an image would be the icing on the cake. This seems like a good spot so I will be back, for now though its home for tea, maybe we will go to the Peter Tavy Inn this evening.
After tea I decide to take Murphy out for a walk in an area I have just started visiting. During this walk I saw three Cuckoos and heard another in the distance. Two of them started chasing each other and flew close to and directly over my head giving me a spectacular view of them, where’s my camera? At home! When they are diving around like this with their wings swept back you can easily mistake them for Sparrowhawks.
In the morning I returned to where I had seen the three Cuckoos and just as I drove into the car park there was a Cuckoo sitting on a mound of earth not three metres away from me! Before I could even get to my camera it flew off. I saw it land in a tree quite some distance away and start calling. So with my camera in one hand and Murphy in the other I set off after it. The distance was about four to five hundred metres away and all up hill. As I was getting close to “photographing distance” it took off and flew all the way back to the car park. I was not going to play its game, as I don’t chase wildlife, so I just carried on with my walk. On the top of the hill there are a few gorse bushes, in full bloom and quite a few big rocks of granite. Have you ever noticed that when the gorse bush is in full bloom it smells a lot like coconut. My wife loves the smell but it’s not for me. I sat on one of the rocks to admire the view which was Vixen tor in the valley and Merrivale behind it. Vixen tor is one of the odd Tors on Dartmoor because it is in a valley rather than on top of a hill. It is a hard place to photograph because it does not stand out as there are hills all around it and its usually in shade. If Dartmoor had a lot of snow it might be a different matter. You cannot get close to it because it is fenced in. I was informed that it was fenced by the land owner to keep people out because people used to climb up it. The land owner was told that if they fell off then she would be liable so she fenced it in. I don’t know if this is true but in this day and age where nobody accepts responsibility for their own actions, in other words it’s everybody else that is wrong, it could well be. On another note along the same lines I was informed that a person I used to know tripped on a tree root whilst walking along a lane on a well known RSPB site. He is now thinking of suing the RSPB, REALLY! The countryside is not smooth and flat, just look where you’re going. Whilst sitting on the rock, putting the world to rights, a female Wheatear flew into my view. I sat still, slowly bringing my camera to my eye and waited till it came closer, which it did, before I took a few shots. I had to underexpose slightly because the sun was shining on her. The female is buff coloured, not as pretty as the male but still pretty. After it decided to fly off to another area I looked down at Murphy who was looking up at me giving me the “How much longer are we going to sit here?” look, so I got up and carried on our walk. Apart from one distant Buzzard, a few Meadow Pipits and a couple of Crows I did not see any other birds so I started my journey back to the car. On this particular walk there are several patches of bluebells and violets carpeting the floor. They will not be around for long as the bracken has started to push through and that covers the floor when it is in full bloom.
On my way back to my car the light was fantastic and I was itching to find something to photograph. If I were a Landscape photographer instead of a wildlife photographer I would have been in heaven. I know I do take some Landscapes from time to time but what I mean is that I was carrying around a 500mm lens and not a small telephoto or wide-angle lens. No I am not going to start taking other lenses and filters with me, my camera, lens, converter, spare battery, monopod and gimbal head is enough weight for me to carry. There were images everywhere except wildlife ones, the light was so good I would have even taken an image of a Pigeon!
On my way to work the other day I saw a baby Hare, known as a leveret, near the area I had tried to photograph two Hares a couple of months ago. I stopped the car and it ran off the road and onto the moor. I thought, well that’s one more Hare for me to try and photograph. The next day there was something dead on the road and by viewing its back leg I believe it was the Leveret. My hopes for a photograph were very short lived.
The next weekend I was back after the Redstarts. Through an image I had seen by a Facebook friend, Andy Brown (https://www.facebook.com/abphotosUK?fref=ts ) I located the nest in a telegraph pole. According to all my books these birds are supposed to frequent woodland habitat. There are a couple of trees and bushes in the area but I would not have called its location woodland. It was 6am and I settled down with the sunrise behind me. Both the female and the male Redstarts were visible within minutes but as the area was still in shade I just watched and let them get used to my presence. As soon as the sunlight lit up the area I started taking images. I had to underexpose the image, by about a third of a stop on occasions, because of their white forehead. The colours of these birds, especially the male, were stunning. They were coming and going from their nest to areas surrounding me catching all sorts of food for their young, from spiders, caterpillars to flies and other insects. The average time away from their nest catching food was about a minute for the male and about two minutes for the female. One thing I did notice was that it appeared to be only the male that did the house cleaning (taking out the poo sacs). At one stage he took out three sacs within a few seconds of each other which gave a big hint that there were at least three young in the nest. As the Redstarts were so obliging I made the most of it and I took lots of images, some with food in their beaks and some without, some portraits and some landscapes, some front lit and some side lit, some on rocks, some on grass, some on ferns, some on moss, some at the nest and some away from it. I even took close-up shots when they were nearly filling the screen. The Redstarts were so obliging I had to keep challenging myself to come up with new image ideas. The hardest were flight shots as it was so windy it was blowing them everywhere. I only had my monopod so I could not do my usual trick, locking the camera in a position and using a cable release. Just before 08:45am I ran out of memory having filled two cards with images which equated to over seven hundred images. It sounds like a lot but after sifting through them I expect to keep just a handful. Thank goodness for digital as I could never afford to do that with film. I stayed for about another two hours just watching and learning their movements. I noticed that the male would land on two favourite perches, wait there a while, and then fly on to the nest, whereas the female would fly straight to the nest. Upon exiting the nest the male would fly off but the female would fly up to the telephone wire and stay there for a while before flying off. The male flew to the nest with ease but the female seemed to struggle flying due to the wind.
Redstarts 1Change over
I know I have said it before but I love watching nature. I have just started reading a book titled “How to Watch Wildlife” by Bill Oddie. I have had it a while but never got around to reading it until now. It starts off by asking “Why watch wildlife?” It then gives a few answers and finally it gives his answer. The answers given are “Because it is: enjoyable, relaxing, therapeutic, calming, exciting, challenging, fascinating, mystifying, satisfying, solitary, sociable, amusing, dramatic, important…”. You might agree with all of them, which I do, but some might wonder about “important” and Mr Oddie goes on to explain. He states that there are lots of things in our lives that are important like: music, drama, sport, entertainment, comedy (he would wouldn’t he), love, kindness, understanding, beauty and peace because they enrich our lives and make them more enjoyable. What he doesn’t say is if people didn’t watch wildlife they would not find out things about our planet and certain technologies would not exist, planes flying for instance by examining birds in flight and the cone on the front of jet engines comes from studying Peregrine falcons. They have a cone in their nostrils to affect airflow and not damage their eyes. Jet engines need it to stop air pockets forming in front of the engine and stalling it. The other thing he doesn’t mention is that by watching wildlife it helps improve your wildlife photography. It does this because by watching wildlife you gain information: where they prefer to stand or sit, where they eat, where they meet, what they eat, how they scratch etc. and this all helps you to anticipate any action, that is about to happen, for you to photograph. Along with watching wildlife you should always listen. You could learn more by your ears than by your sight. Whenever I go out with my camera I always start off by listening to what is about. I listen to birds singing, for example, and if I hear a new song I try and investigate and get an image of the bird singing it. On the moor I always see a lot of birds but if I did not rely on my hearing, then I would be chasing every bird I see, mostly Chaffinches and Meadow Pipits.
On Sunday I finally got my chance to go to the Island of Lundy, an island 12 miles off the coast of Devon in the Bristol channel and owned by The National Trust. My two other attempts were scuppered, first by the weather and the second time due to my wife being ill. The trip was being organised by Devon Birds which I am a member of. We started boarding the ship at 08:00hrs at Bideford which meant leaving Peter Tavy at 06:00hrs. The crossing over was quite rough due to the strong wind and I’m surprised I kept my bacon butty down. Yes, OK, I had a bacon butty! As soon as I stepped onboard and went inside the cooking of bacon hit my nose and I could not resist it. For any meat eaters out there is there any greater smell than bacon cooking? When we arrived on Lundy, at 10:00hrs, we could have stayed on the boat as it was going to go around the island, for about an hour, to see what wildlife was about but my wife and I had had enough of sea travel. The sun was shining, there was not a cloud in the sky but it was windy. I was hoping that some clouds would turn up as I do not like taking images in bright sunshine as they turn out to be too contrasty but this never happened and my images suffered. Lundy is not a big island, 5km is the maximum length and covers just over 1000 acres. Most of the houses, including a lighthouse, are rented out but you have to book a couple of years in advance due to its popularity. Reading a few leaflets on the boat warned us of “biting horses and attacks by gulls” so do not feed them, “falling rocks” so keep a look up “and “cliff edges giving way” so keep back! After talking to a local it appeared that the falling rocks hitting people and people falling off cliff edges were mainly at night due to there being no light as the electric is turned off! For me Lundy is all about walking and looking for wildlife. Apart from the normal birds they tend to get rarities here but they also have a small herd of Sika deer on the island. Within minutes of walking up to the residential area we were being buzzed by Starlings and House Martins. Without looking too hard I located a Starling nest in one of the white painted stone walls. I took a few images of them feeding the young but dark coloured bird against a white wall with the sun shining on it! I was not hoping for too much and when reviewing the images later I was not disappointed, they were rubbish. I later found a Starling, beak full of food, on farm implements and the images I took were a little bit better but not much as they did not show the true beauty of these birds. The next bit of “wildlife” was the horses which were surrounding a small pond. Fresh water is always a good place for wildlife to gather, especially on an island. I sat down, to lower myself, and waited for some wildlife to appear which did not take long. Pairs of Linnets arrived at the pond and the males would bathe whilst the females watched! When the male finished they would fly off and another pair would fly in. I clicked away for about half an hour before moving off. We then walked over to the other side of the island to see the Puffins. Although I can say we “saw” the Puffins they were so far away you needed a scope to see them clearly. Speaking to other people they informed us that this was the only place to see them on the island, very disappointing. I was hoping it was going to be like Shetland, with Puffins around your feet, but far from it. Moving on I spotted a male Wheatear on some rocks and moved slowly towards lowering myself the closer I got. I love these little birds with their “bandit masks” faces. I had to overexpose the images because of the white rocks to get a reasonable exposure of the Wheatear. On the way back I spotted a juvenile Starling being fed on the ground. It was next to a footpath but the field had cows in it. Now I’m not scared of cows but when I’m lying on the ground engrossed in taking images they always get closer to have a better look at what I am doing and there are lots of reports of people being trampled. I took a few images but I could not concentrate properly as the cows were very close. My wife tried to scare them off by waving her hands in the air but that did not work, they just started jumping around and with that we moved off. We then went and sat in a field which sloped down to the sea. The sun was behind us and there were Linnets and House Martins flying around us. I was hoping they would settle in front of us so I could get at least one decent image, a Linnet did just this. At 16:00hrs we returned to the ship for our return journey. On the way back we had a really good view of a Peregrine falcon perched on the cliff face near the jetty. The downside of it was that it was in shadow so I didn’t bother taking an image. On the whole I was disappointed with the day’s photography results mainly due to the bright sunshine. It has not put me off coming back to the island again because there are wildlife photographic opportunities there if the weather and light is right. I found Shetland and Mull better but I was there for more than one day. This might mean a few days stay on the island to capture the opportunity when it presents itself.
Starling with foodStarling with food
My wife’s cousin, Julie, and her husband, Mick, were staying in our B&B, Acorn Lodge, and as they are interested in wildlife photography I took them for an evening session with the Redstarts. I observed the area from a safe distance and when the Redstarts flew away from the nest we all moved in and lay down quietly. I informed them of the camera settings and then we waited for the Redstarts to return. A few minutes later they returned and they started clicking away. After a while we all witnessed a wonderful sight. One of the juveniles was perched at the entrance of the nest. It looked very much like a juvenile Robin all brown and speckled with the usual yellow bill. A few seconds later we were all distracted by a close visit of a male Wheatear which we all took images of. While we were distracted the juvenile Redstart must have jumped out of the nest as it was walking / hoping / flying along the ground. Whilst it did this it flicked its tail and you could tell it was a Redstart by the red colour underneath its tail. The parents were there in a flash trying to entice it, using food, over the road and into the crevices of a dry stone wall. They would fly up to the juvenile with a beak full of food, pretend to try and feed it and then fly off in the direction they wanted the juvenile to go. After a few scary moments crossing the road they succeeded in achieving their aim. It was at this point that Andy, who had been watching this pair of Redstarts for the past two weeks, joined us. About fifteen minutes later we had to leave the Redstarts to Andy as we had booked a meal in the inn, lovely jubbly.
The next day I took them to another part of the moor to photograph Willow Warblers and Stonechats. On arrival I heard Willow Warblers singing away to my right, the usual spot, so I made my way towards them. As the sun was shining quite brightly I informed them that they will need to underexpose their images by about one to two thirds of a stop so as not to blow the highlights on the Willow Warblers chest. Once we got into position it was not long before they were both clicking away getting images of Willow Warblers with their beaks full of grubs. It was obvious where the nest was but we did not get close to this because we did not want the birds to desert it. Before the sun got too high we packed up and because Julie wanted an image of a Dipper I took them down to my favourite Dipper location. When we got there the Dippers were not to be seen. We stayed for a few minutes and just before we were about to leave one turned up and Julie got the image she wanted. Both Julie and Mick came away from this short break in our Acorn Lodge B&B with some very good images. Mick had a stunning image of the male Redstart feeding the juvenile at the nest hole, an image I missed because I was catching up with them, but I’m not bitter. I’m just glad they enjoyed themselves and, with my help, got some good images. Just a reminder that I do take Wildlife Photography workshops on Dartmoor and Exmoor if you are, or if you know anyone that is, interested. For more information please click on the workshops tab on this website.
Willow WarblerWillow warbler
During the last week this area of Dartmoor seems to be inundated with Stoats and Weasels. My wife has seen a couple near our nature reserve and I have seen several crossing in front of me either when I’m in my car or when I have been walking Murphy. In fact if Murphy had not been distracted by smelling some leaves he could well have caught a Stoat as one decided to cross only a couple of feet, sixty centimetres, in front of him. By the time he reacted he only just missed its tail as it dived into cover. This has given me an idea for our nature reserve. I want to setup two hides on the reserve and I’m thinking of building a small dry stone wall as a setting for one. If a Weasel or Stoat wants to frequent one then I will be more than happy to take its photograph. I will have to find out more information about this to see if it is feasible.
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Greetings from Dartmoor in Devon
I am a bit miffed at the moment because the other day I missed what would have been a really good shot. I was out on Dartmoor with Murphy and my camera and I could hear a Chaffinch singing away quite close to me. I stopped, turned around and there he was sitting on top of a gorse bush in great light. I quietly called Murphy who was on his lead, because of the sheep and lambs, to me. I set my camera up to take a photo of the Chaffinch when I noticed a female Chaffinch about half a metre to the male’s right. It too was in great light and had better background so I focused on her. I did not take a photo as she was looking head on to me. I then had a premonition that something was going to happen. It’s funny these moments in life that you know what is going to happen. People call it a sixth sense and I just wish I could have more of them. Years ago I was with my mate walking to college (shows how long ago that was). It was a sunny day and we had to walk past this high wall that was shading us from the sun. I said to him “I bet the other side of the wall would be a great sun trap, great for sunbathing. You could even take all your clothes off because nobody would see you”. We stopped and jumped up, as the wall was about 8 foot high, and peered over. We immediately dropped back down again because there were two persons sunbathing on the other side. The downside was that they were two elderly men and they were both naked! Not a pretty sight and I was scarred for life, but I digress. As the male was so close and it is mating time I hoped the male would come to her (females never go to males do they!). Whilst I waited for something to happen Murphy had started to wander and pull on the lead. How come no matter what length of lead you buy it is always a metre too short! As I pulled Murphy back it happened. The male flew towards the female hovered just above her, (the decisive moment); I thought they would mate, but the female was playing hard to get and flew off. I did not take any photos because I was pulling Murphy back. They say “Never work with animals or children”. I don’t have any children but I totally agree with the first. To be honest Murphy is usually quite good and this is the first time I had a problem with him. I can still imagine the image; both birds were looking at me head on with the female on the branch and the male hovering just above her. Both birds would have been in focus, as I had set a good depth of field, with the males wings would have been slightly blurred. C’est la vie.
In my last blog (http://www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2017/4/problems-photographing-brown-hares-white-bums-weather-forecasters-and-killing-things) I informed you of a Devon Wildlife Trust site I have visited for the last three years. Each time I took Murphy I saw Dippers and each time I just took my camera I saw nothing. On my last visit I spotted something that, I hope, would change my luck. The chance sighting I had spotted was two Dippers collecting food and taking it to their nest site. Their nest site was not the usual “hole under a bridge” but it was situated in a large tree overhanging the river. So the next day I went there with my camera, set myself up and waited. I was sat between two trees and a large bush behind me. My monopod was in the river as were my wellington covered feet. I was wearing camouflaged clothing to suit the area. I must admit if you do not have the patience to do a lot of waiting then real wildlife photography is not for you. But on this occasion the wait was only about 5 minutes. One of the Dippers appeared with food, settled on the rock, which was just protruding out of the water, looked around and then flew up to the nest. Spent less than 5 seconds in the nest and flew back out again to land on the same rock before flying off down river to collect more food. I did not take any shots because I wanted to gather more information about what they do and not scare the birds away. Gathering this information can be risky, photography wise, because the bird might not return and you don’t get any photos but with this valuable information you can see where they land, their favourite perches, the direction they like to enter the nest, their exit etc. Therefore you can adjust your camera’s position to get a better image. I let this happen several times before satisfying myself that a better position would be slightly further to my left. So I waited for the Dippers to fly off and then moved. This position gave me a better background and lighting of the birds. It was in between another two trees, closer this time, but the bush behind me was a bit smaller. I stuck my monopod in between some rocks in the river, dangled my legs in the water and waited. Again I did not have to wait long before the Dippers returned and I started taking images. The light was not great and I had to overexpose my images due to the glare on the water. With the settings set at f5.6 and ISO of 2000 I could only get 250th sec shutter speed. I was hoping it would brighten up later so that I could try some flight shots. I must admit I do not like taking flight shots using a monopod as it “wobbles” about too much, I prefer using hand held or my tripod. Throughout the early part of the morning the birds kept returning to their nest with a good supply of food nearly every 2 to 3 minutes. After I’d filled a memory card up I stopped just to take in the glorious sound and view. During this lull the birds kept returning but I was looking for something different. A Red-Breasted Merganser flew by and landed on a rock further down the river. After I had been there for about three hours I decided to pack up as my bum and legs were going to sleep due to sitting on one of the tree roots and the light was getting worse. Before I moved I saw a female Sparrowhawk flying down the river about thirty centimetres above the waterline. I just hoped that Dippers were not on her menu.
I returned to the same position the next day because the light was slightly better, I was now getting 640th sec with ISO 2000. Once again I had brought my monopod so flight shots were going to be dodgy and in fact they turned out to be just so. I would not remember today for photographing Dippers though, it would be for something totally different and unexpected. Whilst sat watching the Dipper I heard, quite close to me, the high pitched call of a Kingfisher. I slowly turned my head to the left and saw it perched on a branch not three metres away from me. Too close for me to photograph I just looked at this magnificent bird. After a few seconds I caught a glimpse of another bird out of the corner of my eye. The Kingfisher screamed and flew further into the trees and bushes on the riverbank. It then screamed a couple more times and flew directly at me. As I sat still the Kingfisher flew between me and my monopod, which I was still holding, under my arm, its wings brushing the sleeve of my jacket and over to the other side of the river. My heart was in my mouth as I have never been that close to a live Kingfisher. Thinking about it the other bird might have been the female Sparrowhawk I had seen yesterday. I have asked a couple of friends, both great Kingfisher photographers, and they both agree that Sparrowhawk’s regularly take Kingfishers. What an experience for me and one that I doubt will ever be repeated. Can you ever beat real wildlife photography?
Well I have just returned from my wildlife photography visit to Scotland and had a great time. Even though it was five days and four nights but due to the flight times it turned out to be only three days. During these three days we had snow, rain and bright sunshine. This time I did not visit the Isle of Mull but I went and stayed in the Grant Arms Hotel ( http://www.grantarmshotel.com/ ) in Grantown-on-Spey near Inverness in the Cairngorms National Park. I have wanted to stay and visit this hotel for ages because it was supposed to be really good for wildlife enthusiasts, whether watching or photographing. I looked it up on several sites on the internet and most people gave it a reasonable review apart from one person who complained that there were too many “wildlife type people there”! The hotel has several wildlife breaks with celebrity presenters like Iolo Williams and Nick Baker. It runs talks with guest speakers, walks and other wildlife events including the red deer rut. The Bird Watching & Wildlife club BWWC (http://www.bwwc.co.uk/ ) run the above events from this hotel. They have an extensive library, DVD collection, a notice board with what’s been seen and where, leaflets with walks / areas to visit to see wildlife and even a small book shop. I decided on a four night stay rather than seven nights because I wanted to trial it, bad choice. I also decided to go for a standard room, rather than a superior room, because I wanted a room at the rear of the hotel away from the main road and traffic noise, I needn’t have worried as there was hardly any traffic. Although the hotel states that it “has been recently refurbished and upgraded to offer modern comforts whilst retaining a traditional character”, I found the room I was in to be a bit dated and surprised that there was no clock/alarm. Having said that they had all the amenities I required. All the staff at the hotel were very helpful even though the hotel was fully booked. Finally the food, this was outstanding from a massive breakfast, if you wanted it all, to a fantastic choice for the superbly cooked three course dinner with coffee served in the lounge. All in all this is a fantastic place to stay for “wildlife types” and if you do stay, then stay for at least a week as there is so much to see and do, I can guarantee you’ll want to come back, I certainly do.
One of the main reasons of going there was to get images of Crested tits and Red Squirrels. A couple of days before I went I found out that winter is the best season to see Crested tits as they come down to feeders. The rest of the year they are up in the trees nesting and rearing young. I should have done more research but never mind there was still more wildlife on my list.
On the first day I went to RSPB Loch Garten to see the Ospreys. On my way there I drove through a place called Nethy Bridge. Just as I was driving over the bridge I noticed a flock of Siskins, about 30, flying into a garden next to the bridge. So I parked up and took some images.
When I finally got to RSPB Loch Garten I got out of the car and noticed some birds on the feeders in the car park. I viewed the feeders through my binoculars and the birds were…….. Crested tits! It had snowed a lot the day before my holiday and so the birds returned to the feeders for food. I did not take any photos because I do not like feeders in my images but seeing a Crested tit for the first time was a great experience. There was also a Red Squirrel on another feeder, good viewing but again no images. I set off into the reserve at my usual wildlife watching walking pace, two steps forward stop one pace back, and after a couple of minutes I noticed a Wren with a beak full of moss. I watched it fly down to the bottom of a tree and enter a hole under its roots. After it came out I set up my camera and waited for its return. This is one of the images I took.
After visiting the Osprey centre I went for a walk in an area, about a quarter of a mile away from RSPB Loch Garten, called Loch Mallachie. It was a circular route from the car park to the loch. On my way round I could hear Crossbills but could not see them. What I did view were several Treecreepers.
Near the edge of the loch I spotted a Common Sandpiper.
Common SandpiperCommon Sandpiper
Whilst photographing the Common Sandpiper the Crossbills were in the top of the trees above me. I took some images but with a grey sky background and looking up to them they were just record shots.
Whilst photographing the Crossbills two Crested tits flew past, why does it all happen at once.
After lunch I drove on to a place called Avielochan, just north of Aviemore, where a Slavonian Grebe had been seen. There is a hide here that is owned by the BWWC and guests staying in the Grant Arms Hotel can use it. You have to get a pass from reception which I did. To the left of the hide there were some feeders with Siskins, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Coal tits on them. I saw the Slavonian Grebe, a dot on the horizon, but it never came close enough to photograph. Whilst I was looking at the Slavonian Grebe there was a big commotion around the feeders. A Sparrowhawk had flown in, caught a Coal tit, and had settled under one of the bushes. I managed to get a couple of images but not good ones. The image below was taken handheld, leaning sideways out of a window and I had to use manual focus, very awkward. After a few minutes it flew off and all was quiet. A couple of minutes later a single Coal tit came back and kept calling out, I really felt for that little bird but that is nature.
The second day, which was nice and sunny, I went to a place called the Findhorn valley which is just outside the Cairngorms National Park. I must have seen over 250 Red deer as I drove to the car park at the end of the valley. I also saw Wild Goats, Oystercatchers, Dippers, Grey Wagtails, Pied Wagtails, Lapwings, Buzzards, Kestrels and, the best of all, a Golden Eagle. In the afternoon and as it started to rain I decided to drive to a place called Lochindorb which is an estate which again is just outside the Cairngorms National Park. I was hoping to see if I could get any images of Red Grouse. Once I had got to the single track road I drove really slowly, so slowly you could overtake me by walking. The reason for this is that I was trying to spot a speckled brown bird in a speckled brown area whilst driving, not good. The reason I was staying in the car was because of the rain and snow. It was coming down so hard and being blown all over the place I did not want to ruin my camera equipment. In the end it was so hard my windscreen wipers could not cope so I had to park up. Finally it relented a bit so I carried on. Once I had got my eye in I spotted several birds and took several images from the comfort of my car. I stayed in the car because when I opened the door the birds would either run or fly away. It was nothing to do with the cold and rain, honest. I love the image below because of the atmosphere the rain and cold give it.
Red GrouseRed Grouse
The morning of the third day it was slightly raining so I dressed appropriately, it’s never bad weather just wrong clothing, and went for a walk along the river Spey at the rear of the hotel. Straight away I spotted a Dipper on a tree trunk. I watched it for a while from a distance. It would fly off down or up river but return to this tree trunk every now and then. When it flew away I moved in close, placed my mat and pad, and waited for its return. I did not have to worry about the light as this part of the river was quite open unlike the rivers down on Dartmoor in Devon. When the Dipper returned I could be fussy about the types of images I would take. I waited till it was doing something and then take the image.
At one time it flew off and a Common Sandpiper took its place. When that flew away a Grey Wagtail took its place. It was a very good spot. After a while I carried on with my walk but had no other photo opportunities. After the walk I drove to RSPB Loch Ruthven which is supposed to be the best place to see Slavonian Grebes. Just outside the entrance there were three Roe Deer which have such pretty faces. As soon as I got close with the car they disappeared into a wood. There is a hide there but as usual with RSPB hides it was no good for photography. I managed to see a few Slavonian Grebes, much closer than yesterday, and a Red-throated Diver. I also saw some Willow Warblers but they would not stay still for me to photograph and after twenty minutes I gave up, not very long I know but I was also being eaten alive by the midges. I then drove back to Lochindorb as the rain had stopped and I wanted images of Red Grouse that were dry! I did get a few but I feel that the rain and wet birds give the images a better atmosphere. Later I drove back to the car park at the end of the Findhorn valley. On the way there I saw no Red deer at all but I did see a Buzzard attacking a Golden Eagle and a Kestrel attacking a Buzzard. Good views but not close enough to photograph. When I finally reached the car park I spent a little while looking for Mountain Hares, a brown and white thing in a brown and white area! If it sat still you would think it was a rock. The sun was shining really brightly now and it was very warm. After two and a half days of driving and walking I was getting a bit jaded (that’s what I’m blaming and not old age!) and I wanted forty winks, a power nap, you call it what you want. The car park was empty so I put the seat back and closed my eyes. After less than ten minutes I woke up looking into the face of the Springwatch presenter Iolo Williams. He was grinning away as he greeted me with a hello. The rest of his 12 strong party turned up in another minibus. With peace and quiet gone I continued with my scanning for a Mountain Hare. One of the party spotted a Hare as it was running from left to right. I viewed it but as soon as it stopped it turned into a rock! Iolo spotted a male Merlin which was some distance off. He had a scope and I had 8x binoculars so all I could see was a dot. I spoke to a few of his party, who were staying in the Grant Arms hotel, and they wanted to see a Golden Eagle. I informed them that I had seen one being attacked by a Buzzard further down the valley and informed Iolo of the exact position. After a while I started my slow drive back down the valley. I again encountered the Wild Goats and spotted about 100 Red Deer at the bottom of the valley. I parked up, got out to have a better look and immediately spotted a Peregrine falcon dive bombing and attacking a Lapwing. This was then joined by a second, slightly smaller so most probably the female, Peregrine. They would take it in turns to dive bomb the bird which was doing a grand job of dodging their attacks. When the rain started to fall again the Peregrines gave up and headed for shelter on the mountainside, what an experience to end the day. Back at the hotel I was going to tell Iolo about the Peregrines but he “trumped” me by having a Capercaillie come within a couple of metres from their minibus.
Three days was definitely not long enough. Scotland is a great place for wildlife and the Grant Arms hotel is a great base for your holiday. I will certainly go back but for a longer time. Get rid of the midges and I might be tempted to go there in the summer time.