Greetings from Dartmoor
I have just been reading “Your Support” a magazine for members of the Devon Wildlife Trust https://www.devonwildlifetrust.org of which I am a member. I joined them as soon as I moved down here into Devon. Previously I had been a member of the wildlife trust where I had lived. I visit their wildlife sites regularly to take photos of the wildlife there and being a member is my way of giving something back. I feel that without all the hard work the wildlife trusts do then the wildlife would not be there for me to photograph. I am also a member of the RSPB for the same reasons. Every wildlife / nature photographer should be a member of their local wildlife trust. Back to the magazine which I read, it had an article within it that really startled me but thinking about it really shouldn’t have. It was titled “Losing our a, b, c of nature?” and it stated that “in 2015 the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed a list of nature-related words from its entries. They included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow”. This, I feel, is another nail in the “nature” coffin along with building on Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Building on Greenbelt, Parents not taking their children out to enjoy and learn about the countryside, Schools not teaching kids about nature, Computer games and Smart phones. The question I would like to ask them is WHY? Is it because kids know how to spell those words? Is it because they needed space for the more “exotic” words kids use nowadays? Or some other reason, whatever it is I feel it is wrong because kids need to know about nature. I totally agree with Chris Packham when he says “get your coat on and get out there” there is so much wonder out there for you to see and enjoy, while it is still there.
On Friday 20th January, I’d heard that people had seen Dartford Warblers at RSPB Aylesbeare Common ( https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/find-a-reserve/reserves-a-z/reserves-by-name/a/aylesbearecommon/ ). This area is about an hour from my house and as I had never seen a Dartford Warbler I paid it a visit. It was easy to find, 6 miles off the M5 along the A3052. I wandered around for about 45mins and did not get very far, the reason for this is because I had a really bad back (more about this later) and it was hard going, feeling sorry for me? No! Thought not, you are a hard lot :-). Just as I was about to head back to the car I saw a small dark coloured bird with long thin tail and a red breast with white patches, my first Dartford Warbler. Close up it has a very stunning red eye. It was soon joined by another one, hunting on a different bush. Although I had my camera with me, they were moving so fast from bush to bush I did not get the chance to photograph them so for about the ten to fifteen minutes they were there, I just watched them do their work flitting from bush to bush. They appeared to stay, and hunt insects, in the top twenty five centimetres of the bushes which I found a bit odd because they are supposed to nest close to the ground. Southern England is the most northern edge of their range and because they do not migrate for the winter they are very vulnerable to cold weather. I will be back with my hide at a later date to get a photograph of them.
Since moving down from Bedfordshire to Dartmoor there is one thing I have changed about the way I carry out my photography. I have stopped listening to, or looking at, the weather forecast. In Bedfordshire I used to look up the local Metoffice 5 day forecast, which most of the time I found to be very accurate, to see if it was worth taking any annual leave to go out with my camera. Down here, Dartmoor appears to have its own climate and does its own thing. Not once has the local weather forecast been right. It might have been correct for the rest of Devon but certainly not Dartmoor. Whether it is because of the height of Dartmoor, I don’t know. Take for instance last year, from about the beginning of March we had a few days rain, who doesn’t in England, but most of the time it was dry with a lot of sunny days. Was that reflected in the weather forecast, no! Just this weekend gone by, the forecast stated Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be fine and sunny. Well it was on Friday, very grey on Saturday and raining on Sunday! So, the technique I use nowadays is that I wake up early and look out of the window. If I can see the moon and stars then it will be a sunny, if I can’t see the moon and stars then it will be cloudy, if there are marks on my window then it will be raining and if I can’t see the window then I’m still in bed asleep! The other technique I was told, in a pub by an Exmoor farmer, involves seaweed which you put up in the open outside your front door. You feel the seaweed and if it is wet then it’s raining and if it is dry it is going to rain!!!! The trouble with the first method, I’ll ignore the second one, is that I need to give a few days notice to get leave so it does not help with my predicament. Does anyone have any better techniques?
Over the last few weekends my wife and I have been very busy working on our nature reserve. The grassed area is now fenced to keep sheep out but low enough to still let deer in. The entrance has been widened so we can get our vehicle and trailer in and a new gate has been erected. Some of the stone wall had collapsed and we, with no building skills, rebuilt it, twice. Yes TWICE. The first time we built it up from the stones that were already in place but as soon as we walked away we heard it collapse behind us. The second time we took away all the stones and started from the ground up. It has been up for more than a week now and I must say it does look good but still keeping my fingers crossed. I have been busy with my chainsaw and coppiced a few trees although there are still a few to go. The cutting down of the trees is the easy part, although it still goes against the grain (excuse the pun) but stacking the wood in piles for wildlife and taking away the wood for our fire is a real slog because of the hill. This is where I have to go off at a tangent. When our bodies were made the “inventor” completely missed one organ. It’s an organ that would tell our brain that if we do any more hard workwe are going to suffer, a sort of warning light. I spent all day cutting, logging and moving these trees and although I felt tired I still felt great enough to take Murphy for a long walk when I got home. I felt great during tea and just as good sat watching TV in front of the fire. I went to bed still feeling great but when I tried to get out of bed in the morning Oh My Goodness. I had pains everywhere, even in places I didn’t know I had. My course of action was to have a very hot shower which appeared to work as long as I kept moving. As soon as I stopped for a little while I seized up. Just a little thought “inventor” would have solved a whole lot of pain. Now you know how I got my bad back that I mentioned above. Getting back to my blog. I’ve stacked big logs, small logs, twigs and branches for wildlife all over the nature reserve and so far the piles of branches seem to be working better than the piles of logs. I have seen spiders, frogs, mice and birds around these piles which is really encouraging. I presume the log piles will rot down and mosses, lichens and fungi will start to invade them which will encourage me to get my macro lens out. Dartmoor is nationally and internationally important for mosses, lichens and ferns. They have an action plan for them and for fungi. The action plan has four objectives: - 1 Maintain and enhance populations of key Dartmoor mosses, lichens, ferns and fungi. 2 Maintain and where possible improve air and water quality across Dartmoor. 3 Identify isolated trees and groups of trees of particular importance for lichens and mosses and promote their longevity. 4 Increase awareness of the unique value of Dartmoor’s moss, fern, fungi and lichen flora amongst land managers and the public. For more information please click on this link https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk .
On Saturday 28th I went back, because the weather was good, to RSPB Aylesbeare Common to, hopefully, photograph Dartford Warblers. I walked around the area for two and a half hours to no avail. The strange thing was there was hardly any bird activity or bird sound, in fact, in all that time, all I saw was one Blue Tit, one Robin and a distant Buzzard. It does look a very good area so I was very disappointed coming away with nothing but, that’s wildlife.
On Sunday 29th I went down to the location on the river Tavy to keep an eye on the Dippers. It was still dark when I got there, 7 o’clock in the morning, so I set myself up and waited for the light. “The light” never appeared for the four hours I was sat there but two Dippers did. They hunted in the water just a few metres away from me. Although I had my camera gear with me I did not take any photos. The best shutter speed I could get was 20th sec with an ISO of 6400. With the constant bobbing of the Dippers they would not have been sharp so I didn’t bother. They stayed in the area for about 30 minutes before moving off down river. I waited there for a little while longer but they never returned and the light did not improve. Whilst walking along the river I noticed that all bar one of the branches that I had put up, for Kingfishers to land on, had either fallen down or been taken down. I put up a couple more but my main one, in a good photography position, was still standing. Having said that out of all the times I have been coming here I have only seen a Kingfisher once. Starting in February I will be down in this location more often to photograph the Dippers before the leaves are on the trees blocking the light out.
Well, on my way home on Tuesday night, after a day of torrential rain, I decided to visit the river Tavy again as I wanted to go there at the weekend to photograph Dippers. At the Dipper location I have one position where I sit which is a grass bank about a foot or 30 centimetres above the water. My tripod sits in the water and I lay down getting as low as possible to the surface of the river. The other position is on a lot of pebbles, which I have increased to keep me dry, and my back rests against a large tree trunk which was uprooted some time ago. I stood on the bridge looking at the bubbling cauldron of brown and white. The water was well above both positions and the width of the river was nearly three times it’s normal size. My last Kingfisher stick was gone. It will take a few days for all this water to subside so I might have to change my plans for the weekend. Driving home a small female Sparrowhawk flew in front of the car and flew on down the lane with me directly behind her. After about a quarter of a mile she veered right and landed on a gate. As I drew up in the car I could see that she was very small and very wet, one of this year’s juveniles I expect. We watched each other for a few seconds before I drove on hoping that she will survive and won’t get too cold. This would mean maybe killing something, and getting some shelter to keep warm, but that’s nature.
On Friday 3rd I went down to the river Tavy again to see the state of the river and to see what damage it had done. The water had slightly subsided, you could see half of the tree although a lot of pebbles had gone and the position, where I lay down, was level with the surface of the water. There was no sign of the Dippers, in fact there was no sign of any wildlife. Do they know something I don’t? (They did, the rest of the day was continuous rain). I went past our nature reserve on my way back home and straight away my heart sank. Due to the large amount of rain we had last night the stone wall we had built was down again. It will have to wait for a dry day before we rebuild it again because it helps us grip the large stones.
The other evening I was looking back through some of my old photography magazines, I have so many I can’t remember the exact one. Within it, there was an article about different types of hide to use for wildlife photography. Not only the different types but it also had what camouflaged pattern to use in different field conditions. There was plain light or dark green, Advantage pattern, Timber pattern, English oak pattern, Reed pattern, Old army pattern (green and brown), Woodland green pattern, Hardwood green pattern, Realtree pattern, Realtree extra pattern, Realtree Advantage Max4 HD pattern, All terrain pattern, Desert pattern and Snow pattern. So many to choose from but do you really need camouflage to get you close to wildlife in order to take good photographs? Humans being typically lazy think wearing camouflage will get you closer to wildlife and you won’t have to learn about this mysterious thing called “Fieldcraft”. Sorry but if that is what you think then you are going to be disappointed. I, like a lot of wildlife photographers, have got camouflage clothing, jacket, trousers, leggings, hat, gloves and a hood which covers my face. Being sad I even had a camouflaged multi-tool, but lost it! I have also got Stealth Gear clothing which is just green in colour. Which is the best? To be honest, for me, they both work about the same, the only reason I change the clothing I wear is because one set is warmer than the other. This, I believe, proves that it is not what camouflage pattern you wear, it’s the colour of the clothing and you’ll need to wear dull muted colours like greens and browns, natural colours. The two things I do wear constantly whilst I am out photographing wildlife is my gloves, either black or camouflaged, which cover my white hands, and my camouflaged hood which covers my whole head. The two main reasons for covering my head is 1. I only have hair just above my ears and being white it sticks out like a sore thumb and 2. It covers my facial features, eyes, nose and mouth. Eye contact in the natural world is very important and just by looking at wildlife can scare it off, especially with my face! There are a few other things you should do, known as fieldcraft, which gets you closer to wildlife. If you wear camouflaged clothing and move fast towards wildlife it will just run or fly away therefore your “walk” has got to change. You have to think about each step you take and where you place your feet, think twigs, leaves and noise. I approach wildlife downwind, very slowly and get lower the closer I get to the wildlife first on foot whilst bending down, crawling on my hands and knees or even lower using my elbows and knees. If I make myself small, wildlife will think I am less of a threat and feel more at ease allowing me to get closer. You should learn to listen for wildlife because most of the time, especially with birds, you will hear them before you see them. I have already said you should wear dull muted coloured clothing but it should also be “rustle or noise free” and you should not wear clothing with Velcro pockets because each time you open one it will sound like tearing cloth. The clothing you wear must be comfortable and you should always wear a light layering system, a thing I stipulate on my wildlife photography workshops. What do I mean by a light layering system? Well you should wear a base layer, long sleeved in winter and short sleeved in summer, and made of a good warm material like merino, silk or coolmax which is also good at wicking sweat away. Your mid layer should be a fleece which, if it is warm, you could wear as an outer layer. Both of these layers are very light but they will keep you warm and comfortable. If it is really cold then I add another two thin light layers, one between the base and mid layer and another over the mid layer. The one between the base and mid layer is made by Paramo ( http://www.paramo-clothing.com/en-gb/explore-range/product/?pk=012E590E-375D-47A3-B685-D3DB49AF681B&attributes=5A01410B-7BF6-46CC-8A97-FFEA0A577F6E ) and is reversible, one side for warmth and the other for cold. The other layer is a very light quilted lining jacket I found in an army surplus store. Over the top of all this I will wear my waterproof jacket either camouflaged (Jack Pyke) (http://www.jackpykeshop.co.uk/?gclid=CPf1ro37h9ICFURAGwodJJAEpQ ) or green (Stealth Gear) ( I believe Stealth Gear are no longer trading, shame ). If I am walking to a location then I will carry most of these layers in a backpack and put them on when I get there. Do not wear cotton because although it is warm it will not wick away your sweat and when you start cooling down the sweat in the cotton will make you feel cold. If I am wearing my Stealth Gear trousers then they have built in knee pads which make a kneeling position more comfortable. I always carry two mats, one is a waterproof mat and the other is a very light but warm pad. Both of these make sitting and lying down more comfortable which stops you fidgeting and moving about. Remember you lose quite a bit of heat through your head so remember to wear a hat. As I have stated earlier I always wear a camouflaged hood but underneath it I wear a beanie hat made from merino wool. Last but not least I always take a fleece neck warmer so that the wind will not blow down my neck. This item is only worn if and when needed. If I am just sitting or lying down waiting for wildlife then I will keep really still and scan the area with just my eyes rather than my whole head. I’ll pick an area to settle down next to a bush or a tree that will hide my silhouette. It also acts as a back rest. I will also pick a comfortable spot to sit or lay down because if it is not comfortable then you will start to fidget and fidgeting equals no wildlife. The spot I pick will also have to suit the wind direction so my human smell is blowing away from the area I want wildlife to appear. Therefore to my question “Do you really need camouflage to get close to wildlife in order to take good photographs?” My answer would be a resounding maybe but you definitely also need FIELDCRAFT.