Red Squirrels in England, Jays, a Selfish Hobby, a Dartmoor Landscape photography project

December 19, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon

Last month I left off telling you that I had trawled through the internet and found a location to photograph Red Squirrels in England. Like I said I have been to the Isle of Wight and to Brownsea Island but never had much luck with photographing Red Squirrels mainly because I’ve never seen one for any length of time to actually press the shutter button. I know I could go on a workshop and tick this box but where is the pleasure in letting somebody else do half the work? It’s like taking an image and letting somebody else doing the post processing. I can understand going abroad on a photography workshop to photograph certain wildlife because we have not got that particular wildlife in this country but I get so much pleasure finding the wildlife, waiting for it to appear, photographing it and then doing the post processing that if I miss any part of the process I am not getting the full wildlife photography experience. I digress, the location was north of where I live, well let’s face it living down in Devon everywhere in England is north of where I live, apart from south Cornwall. Carrying out a lot of research about the area meant that I could take only the camera equipment I actually needed not everything I “might” have needed – I need to think about the weight I can carry in Isla. My wife wanted to go to a show in Harrogate, Yorkshire, so we could combine the two especially as it is getting near winter and the squirrels will be looking for food. I got Isla packed up with my camera equipment, clothes, food, drink and all the other necessities including all of my wife’s and Murphy’s bits and pieces. The camera equipment I took was 2 x DSLR’s, my new 100-400mm lens, 70-200mm lens, 1.4 converter, monopod, gimbal head, Linpix mat, and a few CF cards (keeping fingers crossed). I took my camouflaged clothing and I even went to our nature reserve and picked up some acorns filling a bag quite quickly. Some of the information I read on the internet stated that “monkey nuts in their shells” can be given to the squirrels but I prefer a more natural enticement especially in a photograph. There were oak trees where I was going so acorns were the natural choice. I checked the weather, dry and cloudy, and on Wednesday we set off. My wife’s show was on Sunday so I had 2 days to get lucky and see / photograph some wild Red squirrels. All the time I was driving up there I kept thinking, please be lucky, and keeping my fingers crossed. We arrived early, parked up, and I immediately saw a Red squirrel just behind Isla (sorry no pic of the big grin on my face). With warm weather gear on, camera in hand, nuts in pocket and in hand (don’t get smutty), mat clipped on belt and I was off. There were several squirrels running all over the show so I inputted the settings on my camera, but even with 800 ISO @ f5.6 I could only get 40th of a second which was a bit disappointing. I needed more light or the squirrels to stand still (no chance). I walked around the area and found a slightly lighter area but this only took the shutter speed up to 50th sec. After taking a few images, of blurred squirrels, I had a rethink. I wanted a better background, something for the squirrel to get in or on, the squirrel to stay still and for me to get on to the floor for a more intimate image, so I started looking for this criteria and if I could tick more of the boxes then I would be happier with the images I took. I did find some of the criteria but the biggest problem was slowing the squirrels down. I know I am good at reducing camera shake, by getting into certain positions. The image stabilization of the new Canon 100-400mm mkII is 4 stops so that helped as well. The way I got around it was to put the camera’s drive into high speed and took several shots at a time of the squirrels. As soon as I started shooting most kept doing what they were doing, one or two of the squirrels ran away, and then came back, but some of them stood still and looked to see what the “new” sound was, perfect.

Red SquirrelRed SquirrelRed Squirrel

Apart from going back to Isla for food I was with the squirrels all day, it was absolutely magic.

The second day I moved to a different position where there was a tree stump I could use as a prop. The dull light was still a problem but I persevered. During the day I met a few of the volunteers that look after the place. One of them informed me that there were about 200 or so red squirrels in the area but most of the time you saw none so I was quite lucky seeing about 10 throughout the 2 days. Another one tried to help me attract more squirrels by throwing a lot of sunflower seeds on the tree stump! I informed him that that was not natural looking so would ruin any images I took. I then had to spend the next half hour or so picking up this seed and throwing it elsewhere.

Red SquirrelRed SquirrelRed Squirrel

I had already used up 3 CF cards (the downside of taking several images at a time) and was down to my last card when I noticed that up to 4 Jays, a bird I have struggled to get a good image of in the past, were flying down and pinching some of the acorns. At times they were so close they were filling my viewing screen. This was too good an opportunity to miss so I started taking images of them.


Getting towards the end of the day a couple of women came and stood next to me watching the squirrels. Along with the Jays there were a couple of Magpies now in attendance. They were not interested in the acorns but were hoping for some other food, like the sunflower seeds. Whenever the birds landed the women would either clap or shout to scare them away. I asked them to stop as they were scaring the wildlife but they replied that they only like the squirrels. I replied that they were scaring the squirrels as well as the birds, but this flew over the top of their heads and they kept on doing it. It was a bit annoying as at one time I had just framed a beautiful shot of a magpie looking around the side of a tree only for it to fly off before I got the shot. As it was getting dark I packed up. I cannot understand some people at times.

The place was a really good place for red squirrels as long as they are in attendance and I will be back and hope for better light.

Just the other day I noticed that one of my Facebook friends, I’d love to meet and get to know him, was advertising his big wildlife photography lens for sale on Facebook. I asked him if he was giving up, he answered no but he does not get much time to do photography since moving to Devon. He still had a slightly smaller lens but with wildlife photography focal length is everything especially when photographing small birds. I can fully understand not having much time as wildlife photography is a very selfish hobby as well as time consuming. I’ve found that you cannot concentrate on doing it properly if you are with someone else. This is one of the reasons I do not take a camera with me when I’m tutoring on a workshop the other main one is that I want to give the person paying for the workshop my full attention. I’m one of these people that think that if you are paying for a tutor then he or she should not be using that workshop for their own photography as well. Other forms of photography can be done at any time, even landscape photography only takes time at dawn and dusk the rest of the time is yours. Yes I know you can use this other time to hunt out locations but you can do this with your wife, husband, partner, dog etc. you don’t have to do it by yourself. Whereas to get the best out of wildlife photography you have to be by yourself, waiting for the subject to appear, for sometimes very little reward. Most of my best Kingfisher images have been taken between 05:30hrs and 07:30hrs. I had to leave home at 03:30hrs because the location was just under 2 hours away and don’t forget I had to get up, have a wash and have breakfast before I left home and would not return until late in the afternoon. This meant that I would not be able to carry out any chores at home, leaving everything, including walking the dog, to my understanding wife.  I have also often been out in, or out of, my hide waiting for wildlife to appear and gone home after hours with nothing on my CF card. That’s why when you do see something and capture it, it’s a great feeling. Speaking and listening to, several professional wildlife photographers, they find this a problem because they are away from their family’s, working. You could say being in exotic places photographing wildlife is not working, but they have got to get different photographs of other wildlife for any chance of an image sale. The Facebook friend has also just got a beautiful dog, now you don’t have to tell me how much of your time a dog takes up. Again it’s no good taking a camera out with you to do wildlife photography if you have a dog with you. I’ve tried with my big lens and with my, recently purchased, zoom lens to no avail. We try to do as much as possible in our short lives but you still have to make choices. You’ll never know whether it’s the right choice or not but as long as you are happy with what you are doing then who can say different. I hope he does not give up wildlife photography completely as he is a very good photographer and I, amongst others, enjoy looking at his images.

The last four mornings I have been up and out on the moor before sunrise to get in position to take an image of a landscape, YES I did say landscape and four mornings, but I still did not take any images due to the weather, grey skies and misty rain meant no sunrise. Living on Dartmoor I thought about doing a landscape project where I photograph all the stone crosses on Dartmoor. According to several websites there are 132 stone crosses on Dartmoor. There were more but surprise, surprise, some have been stolen! This project will take a bit of time completing, especially if the light is not stepping forward, but I will keep you informed about my progress.

I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year.


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