Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
I hope you all had a great Christmas and will have a Happy New year.
Well November 2017 has been just been as poor for me, wildlife photography wise, as the last few months. I got up at 5am on Sunday 5th to get into a position I had previously chosen whilst it was still dark. I was after Redwings and Fieldfare, two birds I do not have a great deal of images of. Last year there were several hundred in the area I was going to but this year they have not turned up yet. I say not turned up yet, they have, but not in the same large numbers. On Saturday morning I visited the area and had seen seven Fieldfare and three Redwings. Mind you just one of each would suffice my photography needs. The weather forecast stated that it would be a dry sunny day with a few showers later in the afternoon so I decided to go to the area, sit in my pop up dome hide and see what turns up. Although the dome hide is a bit more cumbersome to carry, the hide and a chair, rather than my single chairhide which fits in a backpack, I prefer it because you can change positions or move about whilst in the hide and the hide does not move. With the single chairhide every time you move the whole hide moves and this movement does disturb the wildlife.
On my journey to the area I saw two Foxes. The first one stood on the other side of the road and watched me. I stopped my car, wound down the window and “spoke” to the Fox (I know, I’m mad!). It moved away and jumped up onto the stone wall at the side of the road. It then just laid on top of the wall, its tail dangling down road side of the wall, listening and watching me. It stayed there until I decided to drive off and then it jumped down behind the wall, what a lovely encounter. The second encounter was totally different. The Fox was crossing the road in front of me and appeared not to know which direction to go in. It “dillied” and “dallied” in the middle of the road with its tail swishing this way and that finally deciding to go back the way it had come. I arrived at the area at about 5:45am with a clear sky; the stars and moon were shining brightly. I changed into my gear, loaded up my equipment and started walking. The position I had chosen was about half a mile away across open moorland. Once this moorland was crossed, the land then descends into a valley which contains lots of trees with berries on, which the birds like, a stream and lots of bushes which is good for the hide to blend in. I arrived at my chosen location only to find four single person tents! I immediately made up my mind to move to a location further up the hill. As soon as I started the assent it started raining but the rain also contained hailstones. I huddled under a tree which did not give me much protection because it had no leaves on it. When it had stopped raining I carried on with my assent. I got to my second position, which was in the open, and started putting up my dome hide. It then started getting very windy and half way through it started raining again but this time there was no cover. I carried on with the task and found to my horror that I had forgot to pack the metal pegs that would have held the hide down. I tried to find some stones in amongst the heather but, as it was still dark, this was like searching for a needle in a hay stack. Then a strong gust of wind took my hide and snapped one of the two metal support poles. I decided then that I was just going to sit on the ground with the hide material draped over me – bad idea as the wind kept on trying to blow the hide into the valley. I then made up my mind that when it stopped raining I would pack up and go home, which I did - two hours wasted getting cold, wet and totally “fed up”. An hour after I had got home there was a blue sky, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. It stayed like that until lunch time so I decided to go out with my camera again but to an area that was closer to my address. This time I was just going to wear my waterproof camouflaged clothing and not bother with a hide. When I got there I noticed fifteen Fieldfare and eight Redwings in a couple of trees. I made my way slowly towards them and settled myself in a shadow under a tree to wait until they get closer. Just as I did this the sky darkened and it started to rain and hail. It came down so heavy that you could not see the tree I was pointing my camera at even though it was only a few metres away. This time I did not give up, I persevered with the conditions trying to force myself to have a bit of luck. After about fifteen minutes the rain finally did stop and the sun started shining again. The light at this time was really good but there were no birds in sight. Then two Redwings landed in the tree next to the one my camera was pointing at, it was next to it but slightly further away. I started edging closer to the second tree taking photos each time I stopped. I was not happy with the composition because the tree’s branches were blocking some of the bird. That’s one of the problems on Dartmoor, because of the weather, that we receive, the trees near the open moorland are stunted but have lots of small branches and are quite thick in the middle of the tree. Wildlife photographers usually wait until the bird is on one of the outer branches as this is better compositionally but “my” birds were sticking to the middle of the tree. As I was making my way closer a Robin decided to show up on the tree closest to me so I took some images of that. Below are images that I took and I’m sorry for the state of one of them but I just wanted to show my wife that I had seen a Redwing and I took an image of it!.
The Redwings stayed for about half an hour but continued to feed in the middle of the tree before flying off. I was close enough, the wildlife was there, the light was good but the composition was not, never mind I will be back next weekend. A pre-requisite for real wildlife photography is perseverance. At times it really pushes you to the limit but as I have said the rewards, when you finally get some, are well worth the effort.
The following Friday I was back out to my first chosen location. The tents had gone so I set up my dome hide in my favoured position. Once it was up I settled in and waited for the light to come and the “action” to start. The weather was cold, clear but still windy. This time the wind was no problem as I was positioned in the bottom of the valley. The area I was facing contained two trees full of berries. They were quite thick in the middle but had a few branches on the edges which were very photogenic if the birds, Redwings and Fieldfare, perched on them. The light came after about an hour of waiting and it was superb but the trees contained no subject matter. Finally after about three hours one Redwing arrived and perched in the middle of the tree. This time I was not going to take any images until the bird was perched on one of the branches on the edge. The Redwing ate several red berries but stayed within the thick part of the tree. It stayed for about twenty minutes before flying off. During this time I could hear several Fieldfare in the distance behind me. I stayed for about three hours after the bird had flown. During this time not one bird landed on the trees I was viewing so I packed up for the day. It did not deter me and I would be back on Sunday as Saturday’s weather was supposed to be really wet and windy. On my way back home I spoke to “him” upstairs and stated that I would not give up. I do have a lot of perseverance because I wanted an image of a Fieldfare and one of a Redwing. The image in my mind was of them eating the red berries with a blurred background. The berry would be in their beak or they had just thrown the berry in the air and they were just about to catch it like Waxwings do. On my way home I just passed a field that contained several Fieldfare last year so I stopped to view the area but as it was clear I continued with my drive home. Just over the hill from this field I noticed several Starlings feeding in a field so I decided to stop and take some images of them. Whilst photographing the Starlings about fifty Fieldfare and a few Redwings arrived and started feeding in the bushes not far from me. The light was coming from the side rather than frontal lighting that I wanted but beggars can’t be choosers and I was as happy as could be. Although most of the birds were sat in the middle of the bush and obscured with other branches there were one or two that were perching on the edges which were just what I wanted. I’ve said it before that you need perseverance and if you do have it then it brings you luck. The more often you are out and about with your camera the luckier you will be. Below are a couple of images I took.
On Saturday 24th November I got up at about 7:30am. Yes I know it was a bit late for me but I had a late night last night because I went to the theatre with my wife and never got back home until about 11:30pm and therefore got into bed until gone 12am. Usually I’m in bed by 9:30pm at the latest. When I drew back the curtains the light was fantastic, everything had a pink tinge to it and I immediately thought SNOW! I looked across the valley to North Brentor and saw that the church, and the hill it was on, was white. I looked to the right and all the highest peaks I could see on Dartmoor were white. I looked out my other window on the opposite side of the room, behind my house, and Cox tor was white. Great I thought, I’ll change, get my camera and go out. I looked out again at North Brentor and noticed that the church had disappeared. When I say disappeared, it was still there, but a bank of “dark cloud” had hidden it. This “dark cloud” was moving across the valley towards us obscuring everything as it came closer. Within a few minutes the pink tinge had disappeared and down came the snow, hail and rain. It was so thick that you could not see the hedge across the road. It lasted for about ten minutes before it subsided, leaving hail stones and snow where it had passed. Behind this dark cloud was the good old grey day. I thought the photographers that had been up early will have got some great images of snow covered landscapes. The pink tinge reminded me of a certain wildlife photographer’s images I see on Facebook. The photographers name is Bethany Ogden ( https://www.facebook.com/bethany.ogdon?fref=ts ) and the light she captures in her photographs, especially her safari ones, is to die for. I have the pleasure of being a Facebook friend of hers so I can see her images every time she posts them. In this country the pink tinge usually indicates snow but in Africa, where Bethany goes, I presume it must be the sand, soil or dust in the air that is enhanced by the light and it turns pink. Whatever it is it makes the image superb and stand out for the norm. This is the same as Anna Curnow’s ( http://www.asc-photography.com/ ) images of Dartmoor and to me it proves that great light turns good images into great images.
Next year I am looking forward to retirement from my present job. My intention is to concentrate on my wildlife photography and to teach on more photography workshops, if people book them with me. With my retirement comes a small, and I mean very small, pot of cash and I wanted to spend some of it on a wildlife photography holiday. Years ago I saw a program on television which showed a wildlife photographer, with his camera and lens on his tripod standing in a river. They were photographing wild bears chasing and catching wild salmon only a few metres away. There was also a scene of two men sat on a tree trunk, which was horizontal in a river, eating their sandwiches whilst a wild bear was walking past, looking at them, only a metre or so away. These scenes have stayed in my mind ever since and they really appeal to me. I would love to attend a wildlife photography holiday in Alaska and be the photographer that is standing in the river with a wild bear rushing past, chasing wild salmon. My wife does not like the idea as she does not want to be attacked, or eaten, but this does not bother me as long as the bear is not shot because it eats me! I have been looking into this kind of holiday but there are a lot advertised on the internet and they are all different except for one thing – they are all expensive and I will only be able to afford to do it once. Most of them do not include the air fare to and from Alaska. Some of them state that you should book into a hotel just outside the airport a day or two before and a day or two after the holiday just in case of bad weather and this is not included in the price either. Most of them were for ten or seven days but when I delved a bit deeper some were only five days but cost the same as the seven! One five day workshop schedule stated that the first and last days were travelling days so you only got three actual photography days. I know there is a lot to pay for like the float plane to take you back and forth but only three days photography! Maybe the price has something to do with having 4 or 5 professionals showing you what to do! If you booked this workshop you are really limiting yourself weather and wildlife wise due to only being there three days. I know some of the seven day ones have five days of photography but they also include doing something photographic wise on the other two days rather than just travelling. Obviously as I have never been on one of these workshops I can only comment by reading the information on their websites. You normally get what you pay for but I would love to hear your experiences from anybody that has been on a wild bear in Alaska photography workshop or holiday. I have a Facebook friend, Lisa Langell ( https://www.facebook.com/lisalangell?fref=ts ) (http://www.langellphotography.com/ ), who runs wildlife photography holidays in America and I will be getting in touch with her to find out more about them and if they are the right one for me.
Because of the high cost of going to Alaska I have also been looking at going on a wildlife photography safari in Africa. Bethany Ogden (mentioned above) goes with Wild Eye ( http://www.wild-eye.co.za/ ) for her photography safari workshop, a company that appears to be quite good. Photography safaris in Africa appear to be a little bit cheaper so I might be able to afford to go twice. They are not my “dream” wildlife photography holiday but I would rather go to two separate safari locations in Africa than only one in Alaska. One of the things that bothers me is that, and I’m not boasting or bragging here, I don’t really need a “workshop” and all that a workshop entails. Some workshops include a Lightroom workflow presentation, a Landscape photography day and other “time fillers” which you are paying for and I don’t want. I don’t want to waste time and money, because you are paying for it, to be told what settings I should be using, what ISO I should be on, what auto focus setting I should set or what lens I should have on, I know that information. If you want that kind of workshop and information then great, go for it, I have no problem with that, but I don’t. All I want is a guide to put me into a location, not with hundreds of other cars with other photographers all taking the same image, where the wildlife is and then look after my welfare to stop me getting attacked or eaten. Therefore I might go down the route of just getting a good guide, rather than a workshop unless there are photography workshops that just do what I require. This is why I am starting to research this now, a year or eighteen months, before I want to go. It is no good rushing into this kind of thing because if you get it wrong then it will be a very costly mistake. As I have said earlier if you have been on a safari I would love to hear how you got on and what the workshop was like. I will expand the differences between a safari guide and a safari workshop in another blog.
Since writing all the above I have been struck down by man flu. Once I had got over it I had to go to work for a week in Hampshire before breaking up for a Christmas break. During this week I again caught another cold, sorry man flu, and I am just starting to get over it! Talk about hitting a man when he is down. Because of all this I have not been able to post this blog on my website and I am sorry for this. I have also not been out with my camera for the whole of December. 2017 has not been a very good year for me and photography. I normally take about 12,000 images a year and then edit them down to about 2,000. This year I have taken only 6,700 images and most of them are wedding and holiday images. I hope I have got some good wildlife ones and I just hope 2018 is a better year.
I got up early this morning, 28th December; the clock said 6:30am. It was still dark outside but the sky was clear. I could see that it was frosty so even though my nose was still running and head was still fuzzy, bloody colds, I was going to take Murphy out and enjoy the scenery, so I had breakfast and went out. The car was frozen solid so I decided to walk along the road and the bridle path to the moor. Once on the moor the scenery was stunning. All the bracken was edged with a white rim of frost. The sun was not up yet but the sky was blue, I love these kinds of mornings. I live half way up a hill which gives me a great view down into and across the valley. I stood on the moor viewing my surroundings letting Murphy mooch around and do his own thing. I could see some low lying mist in the valley slowly dissipating as the sun and heat started to rise. I could see a few signs of human life in the shape of smoke rising out of the tops of a few chimneys. A few houses and farms dotted around surrounded by small hedge lined fields which I love about Devon. In the distance I could see vehicles moving on the A386, is this road ever quiet? Across the valley is North Brentor Church standing on its own tor like a sentinel guarding the valley below. The only sound I could hear was water in the stream gurgling and whooshing its way down the hill. My eye caught movement deep in the hedge in front of me. It was a Wren, burring away, looking for its breakfast. We recently had a very bad day on Dartmoor, wind wise, and our climbing rose had been blown off the top of our lounge window. A lot of birds loved this bush which gave them warmth, food in the shape of insects and shelter. When I put it back up I found a dead Wren which had obviously been in it when it came down. A real shame because they are such lovely birds and work so hard at collecting food. As I have stated in other blogs their voice is so loud it hurts your ears if you are close to them when they are singing. I picked the bird up and studied it. There were no marks on it but I was surprised how long its bill was. Although a Wren is small, it weighs about 10g and is about 9cm long, it is not as small as a Goldcrest or Firecrest. I dug a little hole and buried it in it thinking nature can be cruel at times. The Wren just wanted some shelter and it was this shelter that killed it.
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