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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