Problems photographing Brown Hares, white bums, weather forecasters, and killing things

April 16, 2017  •  2 Comments

Greetings from Dartmoor

Woke up at 6am this morning 12th March 2017, looked out the window and the weather was doing what it has been doing for the past week, it was raining. I still decided to get up anyway just in case it stopped, you never know. I wanted to get out with my camera today because, whilst taking Murphy on his last walk of the day, I saw two big hares. They are known as brown hares and their Latin name is Lepus europaeus. When I used to live near Andover in Hampshire, many years ago, there were hares everywhere but I did not have the camera equipment I do now. Now I do have very good equipment hares are like the hairs on my head, non-existent especially on the part of Dartmoor I frequent. So you can tell how excited I was when I had seen two. At 7am it was still drizzling but I thought so what, got my gear together and went out. I went to the area I had seen them, checked the wind direction and it was in my face, perfect. I collected my things and looked around the area with my binoculars, no hares. I started my very slow walk stopping every few steps to scout around with my bins. After only a few minutes I spotted an ear sticking up in the air and I immediately dropped slowly to the floor. I don’t know how I spotted the ear, pure luck probably, because it was some way off and there were dead bracken stems, grass and rocks everywhere. I could not see the body of the hare which was in a hollow in the ground, just the one ear which now was slowly being lowered. Hares shelter in a shallow depression in the ground, which is known as a form. I started the process, on my hands and knees, of getting closer to it. The ground was soaking wet but at least the rain had stopped. Every couple of metres I stopped and looked in the direction of the location of the hare which was now hidden in the form. March is supposed to be a great month for seeing hares because early spring is their breeding season and you can see them chasing each other in circles, fighting and “boxing”. Because they are rarely seen during the rest of the year and they carry out this activity in the open in March, people called them “the mad March hare”, although I have seen this activity in February, April and in May. The males chase the females and the females “box” to keep them off. In the end she will pick the fittest one to mate with. This used to be great to watch but as there are so few nowadays the females do not have much choice and pick the only male in the area. Half an hour had past and I was only half way towards where I wanted to be. All I was carrying was my camera with my 500mm lens attached and my binoculars but I felt so unwieldy that it was a bit of a struggle, because I did not want to damage either or make any noise. My movement through the bracken stems was making quite a bit of noise, due to them cracking, so I slowed down even more. The sun started to break through behind me creating some great light, with a big smile on my face I plodded on. Another fifteen minutes went by and as I slowly peered towards the hare I heard a woman shout “Henry, come here Henry”. She sounded like Mrs Hyacinth Bucket, pronounced “Bouquet” off the TV show Keeping Up Appearances and she was calling her dog from behind me. The hare, which was about 40 metres in front of me, shot off doing its usual zigzagging run away. I turned to look at her, dressed in her bright red jacket, and thought WHY! A few minutes more is all I needed. I stood up and she was startled by my sudden appearance. “Oh! Hello, I did not see you there, did you get anything good?” If looks could kill! The sun had gone in and it had started to rain again so I went home. This image was taken in Cambridgeshire when I didn't get disturbed.

Brown HareBrown HareBrown Hares

On Friday 17th I was up and out early as it was a fantastic Dartmoor morning. I went back to the area I had seen the Hares but there was no sight of them. I saw a few Skylarks fighting and chasing each other again, but they didn’t hang around for too long so I moved onto another area. Whilst walking towards the other area I came across a flock of over 200 Golden plovers. I have often seen these birds in this area and their flock size has been increasing every time I see them. I would have got down and stalked them but there were too many dog walkers (Henry's!) around so I just took a wide berth and carried on. When I reached the pile of granite I laid out my mat and settled down. Within minutes a Meadow Pipit landed within range and started hunting for grubs. I took a few images but I wanted something more exciting not bird wise but action wise like a fight over territory between two Meadow pipits. The bird hung around for quite a while and I took more images every now and then. A Pied Wagtail joined the Pipit and it too started looking for, and eating, food. After about 20 minutes the birds departed. I hung around for another half an hour but as nothing appeared I moved on. I moved to another spot in amongst some gorse bushes and settled down there hoping I’d see a Stonechat. After about 15 long minutes; how come time seems to wiz by at certain times and at others it seems to really drag? It’s a bit like when I’m at work the time goes really slowly and yet when I’m on annual leave or the weekend it fly’s by, but I digress. After about quarter of an hour a bird flew into view. It was a bird that I was not expecting to see quite so early in the year, it was a Wheatear returning from its African migration.  They are about the same size as a Robin and are ground dwelling birds. They frequent open rocky country, pasture, moorland and heath, so Dartmoor National park is perfect for them. It can be distinguished, when flying away from you, by its characteristic tail pattern which is a black 'T' on a white rump. This white rump gave it the nick name of “white bum” or white, well you think of the different names this part could be called.

WheatearWheatearWheatear

On 31st of March, whilst out walking Murphy on Dartmoor, I saw my first Swallow of the year. Later on I saw and heard something I’ve never seen before. I saw a Stonechat trying to hover which looked really awkward. Whilst flapping his wings he seemed to be “walking” with his legs. If you think of how you tread water then this is what it looked like, nowhere near as elegant as a Skylark’s hover. Whilst he was “trying” to hover he was also singing a different tune, a tune that is not in any of my bird books or cd’s. It sounded like the normal “stone tapping” but ended in a high pitched whistle.

Stonechat JuvenileStonechat Juvenile

To me wildlife photography reminds me of when I used to go sea fishing years ago, because I haven’t been for over ten years now. One of my mates got me interested in sea fishing and he’d let me use his rod to see if I liked it. He told me that the easiest fish to catch was Mackerel, just put some feathers on the end of your line, drop them into the water, jiggle the rod a little bit and pull them out. I did this and whilst everyone else on board the boat caught Mackerel I caught small Pollack and Bass. He took me to this sea wall and said if you put a worm on your hook and just drop the line into the water you will get a Wrasse. So I did this and I caught a Bass. The same thing happened when fishing for Flounders, I caught Plaice and when fishing for Cod I caught Ling. Nowadays I go out with my camera for certain birds and I come back with images of totally different ones. The other day I went out to get images of Dippers and Grey Wagtails and I came back with images of Robins! Yesterday I went out to get images of Stonechats and came back with images of Wrens. Now please don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, it is just wildlife doing its own thing.

At the end of last year I went out, several times, to a certain area looking for a rare bird that had been sighted, a Great Grey Shrike. This is a stunning bird that is the largest of the European Shrikes. A small number of these birds come to the UK in autumn and spend the winter here. They are very territorial so you're unlikely to see more than one at once. Shrikes are a medium-sized, long-tailed bird usually perched at the top of a tree or tall bush. The black mask and grey plumage are the distinguishing features. I never did get to see the bird even though other people had seen it on days that I was there. This year I got information that it had been seen so I shot off with my camera. After parking my car a woman saw my camera and rushed up to me stating that she had seen it thirty minutes ago. I rushed off like I was being chased by a swarm of bees. In the distance I saw a white object at the top of a big bush, I put my camera to my eye and there was the Shrike. It was a couple of hundred metres away so I had to get closer to get a photograph of it. I noticed that there were a couple of hikers walking the path that was close to the bird and the bird took off flying even further away. As you know I do not like chasing wildlife to get my images so I picked another big bush and waited there to see if it would come closer. I had several other big bushes and a couple of small trees in my view. After a few more minutes the Shrike flew even further away and disappeared out of view. I remained in position for about an hour and a half before moving off to another of his so called favourite haunts. Whilst walking to this area I noticed a Wren dip down into some dead tall grass. I positioned myself in some shadow and set up my camera just in case it popped out. After a few minutes the Wren flew to a branch just above the dead grass and started singing. I waited just that bit longer before pressing the shutter release, hoping it would turn to face me, When it did I pressed away with a big grin on my face. Sometimes the waiting pays off and sometimes it doesn’t but why take a photo of something when you know its not right and you will only delete it when you get back home. When the Wren finally flew off I carried on to the area. After an hour looking for the Shrike, with no luck, I headed back where I had come from. On my way back I spotted the Shrike and guess where it was, it was on one of the bushes just in front of where I had positioned myself earlier. As I said some you win some you lose.

WrenWrenWren

I want your help with this one! On my way to work the other day I was listening to the news which was followed by the weather forecast. The woman stated that the weather was going to be “drizzle in the morning turning to rain later on.” Now excuse me for being silly but I have always thought drizzle was rain because you still get wet. It’s not snow, sunshine, fog or hail is it? So if drizzle is not rain then when does it become rain? How much water has to fall before it’s called rain? Maybe it’s the same conundrum as mist and fog, how thick does mist have to be before it’s called fog? Weather forecasters! Money for old rope if you ask me. Take last night’s forecast, no rain for the next week and within five minutes it was hammering down and it never stopped all night!

Today, 14th April I went to an area that I first visited when I first moved down to Dartmoor, Devon, nearly three years ago. It's called Blackadon down and it's owned by the Devon Wildlife Trust ( http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/reserves/blackadon ) . It is sited next to the river Dart near Buckland in the moor. The very first time I went there I saw and heard so many birds that I thought it was a great place to visit with my camera. I saw Treecreepers, Nuthatches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Song Thrushes, Chaffinches, Chiffchaffs, Willow warblers, Dippers, Grey wagtails, Red-breasted Mergansers, Jays, Coal Tits, Goldcrests and a Kingfisher to name a few. In the paperwork I had downloaded from the Devon Wildlife Trust site it stated that Otters have been seen on this site although I did not see any. I watched two Dippers for nearly ten minutes which made up my mind that I was going to return the next day with my camera. The next day I did return with my camera and sat for about five hours. Although I could hear a lot I did not see anything worth taking a photo of, just a quick glimpse every now and then. I have returned several times to this site and whenever I just bring Murphy I see a lot of wildlife but if I bring my camera I see nothing. This has gone on for three years now but I keep coming back because  my luck has to change at some time. Whilst on today's visit I saw a superb photo opportunity and I will be back tomorrow to photograph it, keeping my fingers crossed. In the afternoon I went to our nature reserve, which is coming along really well, to stack up, in piles, a lot of the fallen branches. Whilst there a Hobby flew over, a sight that is great for me but not so good for Dragonflies, other flying insects and small birds like Swallows and Martins. 

People talk a lot about composition in photography especially judges at camera clubs. Composition does not just relate to photography but it also applies to music, dance, literature and any other kind of art. To begin with, the term “composition” describes the placement of relative objects and elements in any work of art. Therefore composition is a main characteristic of good art and any aspiring photographer should give it the attention it deserves. A good composition has enough elements within the image to tell the story the photographer wants to show. Too little is not good because it makes interpretation of the image hard to understand. Too many elements are not good either because all the elements can become distracting. This is one of the main problems with a lot of beginners to photography because they try to cram the whole scene in the image, especially when taking landscapes, rather than picking out, and concentrating on, the element that’s making the view great. A good composition requires a good balance in other words; only include enough elements to tell the story. Remember less is often more.

There are a lot of “rules” to aid you in your composition (please read previous blogs http://www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2016/3/ramblings-and-photographic-composition-for-a-wildlife-photographer-part-1) There are several types of photography where you can arrange the elements within the image yourself like portrait or still life photography. In Landscape photography you pick the elements you need and you move about, yes walk, until you get the composition you want.  Wildlife photography is a bit harder because wildlife does its own thing and you never know where it will appear. You have to pick the scene, take the image slightly wider than you want and then you will have to crop the image to get the composition you wanted. This only works if you need a tighter framing to remove unwanted elements.

Composition is a way of guiding the viewer’s eye towards the most important element, the focal point, in your image. You could use a branch on the left to guide the viewer into the image and it leads to the two fighting birds, the focal point, on the right. A good composition can make a masterpiece out of the dullest objects and subjects but, a bad composition can completely ruin an image no matter how interesting the subject matter may be. The composition of your image should be given plenty of thought prior to pressing your shutter release. With wildlife photography think about the image you want to take before going out with your camera. Set your camera up for this image, including moving your auto focus point to where you want the focal point to be, so that you are ready if it happens. This does not always work but when it does you’ll are ready for it.

Finally a note to ponder. Humans believe they are the most intelligent species on this planet. If that is the case then why, if another creature does something against us, is our first reaction to kill that creature. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and he stated that a Fox had got in his chicken pen and killed a few of his chickens. He was disturbed and ran off otherwise he would have killed the lot. His answer to this was that he was going to lay a trap to kill the Fox. I replied why don't you just fix the pen so that the Fox can't get in, you might kill this one but if the pen is not fixed others will come. Another friend has got Rabbits in his fruit pen but rather than patch up the fencing he catches and kills the Rabbits! Why are we killing Grey Squirrels to save Red Squirrels? Why are we killing Badgers to save cows? After saving the Common Buzzard why are we now killing them? Years ago I bought a gooseberry bush and planted it in my garden. When I went to pick the fruit it was all gone and there were several "fat" Blackbirds and Song Thrushes about. The second year I covered the bush with netting. When I went to pick the fruit again it was all missing and behind the bush was the fattest Song Thrush I have ever seen. It was so fat it could not take off and it just waddled away. I therefore secured the netting to the ground and to the wooden fence behind it. That year the fruit was still there but I still did not get any because we sold the house and moved!!! Not a great ending but I did not kill anything and I had solved the problem.


Comments

Craig Macinnes(non-registered)
Hi Robin, once again many thanks for an erudite, informative and very amusing blog. Loved the "Lady in Red" moment - we've all had our fair share of those I reckon and the hunt for the shrike. Was like a wee noddy dog reading that as these things are just part and parcel of photographing wildlife! Loved the fishing story too a good reminder that we may go out with a specific species in mind but nature will do her own thing in the end! Teaches a lot of humility does this hobby. But also the unexpected rewards more than make up for any times our plans "gang agley".
Steve Williams(non-registered)
Re: Drizzle vs Rain. In France the speed limit on autoroutes is 130kph in the dry and 110kph when it is raining. How many drops of water on the windscreen constitute rain? I came to the conclusion it was how ever many the gendarme who stops you says it is!
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