Retirement, Our Nature Reserve, Red Deer and My Ways of Getting Closer to the Wildlife

November 03, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon

Well the day has finally come, I have signed along the dotted line and on September 3rd, a day after my 60th birthday, I have retired. I could not retire on my birthday as this year it fell on a Sunday and I was informed by my job that I can only retire on a weekday. So even after working for them for nearly 40 years they still wanted more blood and I still had to go in for an extra day! Still it is done now and I look forward to a happy and relaxing time – NO CHANCE! Since I have retired I’ve been taking over the “chores” at home, gardening, cleaning, washing, cooking etc. I don’t know how you women cope with all of it, I still haven’t found out how you have the time to watch This Morning or even Loose Women!

Along with my retirement we have decided to buy a Motorhome which we will take possession of at the end of September. This purchase will give us the freedom to get up and go anywhere. I will be taking my camera with me most of the time so the slogan “Have camera, will travel” will be apt. Yes I know it should be gun but I would rather shoot wildlife with my camera than with a gun. I am really looking forward to going to some far off places and getting images of wildlife without having to rush back home because the holiday is ending or because I have to go back to work. Also along this line if the weather is bad we can either move to another place with better weather or wait it out because we don’t have to rush anywhere. The other good thing about this is that Murphy can come along with us and we won’t be worrying about how he is doing in the kennels. At the moment I am like a big kid waiting for their Birthday or Christmas present and I can’t wait to get it, so many plans in my head.

This year I was going to really concentrate on working on our nature reserve and carry out several jobs that required doing. One of them was clearing an area of bracken so that other smaller plants can grow up. I asked several of the Dartmoor farmers how they do it and all of them had different ideas about it but mainly all amounted to continually, for several years, bruising or cutting it to stop it growing. Some use rollers, some drag tyres, some iron bars etc. The only problem with me doing this is that I will crush the other plants as well as the bracken. Therefore I thought I would start pulling it up early on in the year as soon as it started growing. So in March I started doing just that and started pulling up the plants within that area. As the ground was wet it was quite easy albeit a bit painful for my back – the downside of being 6’ tall. After a few weeks the area was cleared of bracken. The second job was coppicing the far end of the wood on the reserve to let more light onto the floor of the wood. This job had to wait a few weeks as I did not get back to the reserve due to work and the bad weather. When I did I had to recommence pulling up the bracken as some plants had started growing again. I knew I would have to do this as I was not under the illusion that it would be as simple as that. I knew that this was going to take quite a few years to clear the area. Once it was clear again I went to the far end of the wood to select and mark the trees that I considered needed coppicing. This is when I discovered a really sad sight. In a previous blog I informed you that within our nature reserve I had an enormous majestic Beech tree. This tree was absolutely stunning, it was so big it ruled the roost and a Buzzard had nested in it the year before. When growing up the beech tree had split into two about 15’ above the ground and grew up from there. When I arrived the scene in front of me was of total devastation. Over the last few weeks we had a lot of snow and I can only assume that the snow had lain on the branches and was too heavy for them so the tree had broken off at this split. One side of the tree was still standing but the other was laid on the ground. The length of the fallen branches was about 60’ to 70’ long which is about the size of a normal tree. The width of the biggest branch was about 5’ in diameter and when it came down it took several other smaller trees with it. This solved a problem for me in deciding which trees to coppice as it had let in a lot of light in this area. The main trunk that is on the floor will remain in situation because it makes a great perch and cover for wildlife and because I do not have a chainsaw big enough to tackle it. This is the case for some of the branches coming off it. The smaller branches will be logged and taken home for next year’s fuel or will be stacked within the reserve for use by wildlife. I have already started stacking some of the bigger logs for wildlife but it is hard work mainly because they are on a slope of about 60 degrees and the ground is mainly made up of leaf litter. It is hard just standing on the ground working with a chainsaw let alone keeping piles of logs from rolling downhill but I will figure a way and clear the area before next spring. Once cleared, I will come here often with my camera as the lower branches, of the fallen tree, are perfect for birds and wildlife to perch and walk on, also I am hoping to see a nice bloom of Bluebells.

At the moment, on 20th October, I am about half way through. Whilst working in this area I have had constant companions, a buzzard family, which nested in another tree nearby with its young chick which I can let you know fledged successfully. I expect it is the same family which nested in the big Beech tree last year. Another regular visitor is a Roe deer which, although keeps its distance, is stays just in the shadow of the wood. The noise of the chainsaw does not seem to bother either of them; maybe they don’t see me as a threat which is just what I want. The work on this tree is taking up quite a bit of my spare time and the bracken is still growing but I will carry on with the bracken clear up early next year. The very thin branches are being stacked up to give some cover for wildlife. When it dries up it will reduce but wildlife; spiders, slugs, snails, frogs, mice etc. will use it before this happens. Several types of Fungi have already started growing on the fallen branchs. It is amazing how quickly nature populates a new resource.

My wildlife photography has nearly come to a standstill with just not enough hours in a day for me to do everything I want to do. I thought I would get more photography done when I retired but him upstairs thought otherwise. Therefore when we took possession of our motorhome we decided to head for Exmoor and spend a few days there trialling it out and watching the Red deer rut. I did not want to go to my usual place so we had a drive and a walk around and located a herd of about 60 deer. Within this herd there were several stags and hinds of all ages. We located a flat area where we could park, wild camp and watch the deer at the same time. That evening whilst eating our tea, tortellini pasta in tomato sauce, in our motorhome we were watching red deer on the hill through the window and were surrounded by 15 Exmoor ponies, several pheasants and a few Golden Plover, does life get any better? In the morning I could not go out and photograph the deer because a thick fog had come down during the night and it is easy to get lost in this weather. Sadly the fog lasted most of the day but the deer were still around because when I had taken Murphy out for a walk I could still hear them. The next day the fog was not quite as thick so as it was clearing, at about 10:00hrs, I went for a walk with my camera equipment. I did not know exactly where the herd was but I headed in a general direction of where I thought they could be and because I had been eating pasta and just sitting around I needed the exercise anyway. After walking for about a mile I entered a valley where I thought the deer could be and I was right (Stanbridge 1 Deer 0). I noticed the deer about 500 yards away and they were all sat in the sun in a grass field. Apart from some couch grass, about 250 yards away, there was absolutely no other cover (Stanbridge 1 Deer 1). I slowly inched my way closer to the herd on my hands and knees but had to stop several times because; with this many pairs of eyes, the hinds are very watchful, the herd would be off as soon as they spotted me. It took me a while but I finally got to the couch grass and then settled down hoping they would come to me. (Read further on about how to get closer to wildlife) At this time the light and wind direction was in my favour so I just relaxed, watched and waited. The main stag kept on getting up, strutting around and sniffing all the hinds to see which one was “ready” to mate. As it happens even if the hind is ready it is she who decides who she is going to mate with, not the stag. On other occasions I have watched hinds sneak off into a wood with another stag. I could only tell what happened when the music of the violins got louder and all the birds flew off as it used to happen in the old movies, nowadays you don’t have to use your imagination!

As the stag got closer to other stags they would get up and walk away from him. A couple of them got up and had a little shoving match but as soon as the main stag got near them they were off running away from him. During the couple of hours I was there the herd did move a bit but mainly from side to side keeping the same distance away from me. After this time the sun had moved around and was now to my left. I had to be a bit picky with my shots as the side lighting created shadows on the deer’s face which I did not like. I could not move around because my scent would have been caught in the wind and the deer would have been off. They chose this spot for some reason; food, warmth, safety etc. and I did not want to disturb them just for a photo. So after a few hours I decided to withdraw quietly and leave them to it.

Red Deer Stag & HindRed Deer Stag & Hind

My Ways of Getting Closer to Wildlife

One of the most often questions wildlife photographers get asked is “How do you get close enough to get the subject big enough in the image and get a good photograph”? Well I use four different ways, apart from lens choice, to achieve this but before I do any of them I find out about the subject I am after. It is no good just turning up and hoping it will be there, you have got to be extremely lucky for this to happen.

The first thing I do is find out if the terrain suits the wildlife. It is no good going to a desert to look for squirrels!

The second is I find out if the wildlife has been seen in the area and where it was seen. You could look on the internet for some help with this or you could ask the local people. The latter is a bit hit and miss because some people might not tell the truth or they might exaggerate the truth – they’ve seen hundreds of deer when in fact they have only seen 4 (I know it is easy to do this because I used to go sea fishing and the fish that got away were always the big ones!, The annoying thing was they were big!). They might also tell you a lie to keep you away from the wildlife because they want to take photos of the wildlife. The thing is to keep an open mind or know the person you are talking to. Wildlife photography workshops help with this because you are letting the professional wildlife photographer do most of this work.

The third is to roam the area and look for clues, but remember to ask the land owners permission before you do this. By asking the land owners permission could be good because he / she might point you in the direction of the wildlife you are after (then again remember point 2). This I find is better than talking to lots of people. Then again he / she might not want you on their land for some reason or another, it’s their choice.

The fourth, and I think most important, is that when you do find the wildlife you are after, observe it / them for quite a while if you can. See what they do, where they go, what actions they do before they do something else. Doing this will give you information and know when to anticipate an action to get a really good image. A lot of wildlife carry out similar patterns, walking the same routes, be in an area at the same time of day, do an action before they do another action. This gives you a lot of information about the creative side of wildlife photography. By doing this you will know where you need to be for the right light, background, lens choice, f-stop choice etc.

Once this is all done then I will choose the one of four methods I use to get closer to the wildlife.

The first way to get closer is to find out how used to humans it is or they are. If you are after ducks at a park in town then they will be used to humans milling around so you could wear just your normal clothes and act normally. If you wear camouflaged clothing and started stalking the ducks then they would notice that something different is going on and possibly fly off. This is the same as deer in a park in the middle of a city. Another way for this type of getting closer for wildlife photography is to use your car as a hide because they might be used to traffic but not to the human shape. Don't chase the wildlife, just park up and wait for the wildlife to come to you.

The second is if the wildlife is not used to humans then you should resort to wearing camouflaged clothing or dull coloured clothing, lots of green or brown colours, to blend in with the countryside that surrounds the wildlife. Remember your face, your hands and your big white lens need cover as well. You should then look at the area that surrounds the wildlife and plan a route to get closer using the landscape; hedges, trees, ditches etc. all help to cover your shape and approach to the wildlife. Biggest thing to remember is wind direction because you might not be seen but you will be smelt so keep down wind of the wildlife. To help with this always keep the wind blowing in your face, getting on your hands and knees will keep your scent lower to the ground. Getting closer can take time but don't rush as the movement will be seen by the wildlife.

The third is used if the wildlife are really scared of humans. It is using a hide and the fourth point above helps with the positioning of this. Remember the background and the direction of light at the time of day you will be using the hide.

The fourth is only used either at night time or if I want to see if the wildlife is still using the area, it is using a camera trap. Do not bait the trap, especially in winter, because you are forcing wildlife to that area for your food and once you stop baiting, because you have your photo, the wildlife will have to expend energy and look elsewhere to find it, whereas, if there is food already in the area then they won’t have to go looking for it elsewhere. So try and use a camera trap where there is already food for the wildlife.

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