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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