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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