Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
In life it is funny that you never see something, or don’t acknowledge it, but then all of a sudden you see lots of them. This doesn’t just relate to wildlife but to everything. For instance when you want to buy a different car, you pick the model you want and then you see lots of that particular model every time you are on the road. Whether it is because it is on your mind and you notice them or something else at play I don’t know. Recently I have been seeing lots of owls; on my way to and from work, on my way to and from taking Murphy for a walk or just driving around the wonderful county of Devon. Tawny owls are the one's I have seen the most and it is lovely seeing them. But recently, on two occasions, I have seen a Barn owl the first was flying through some trees in front of my car and the second time was perched on a signpost very close to where I live. This viewing would have made a lovely photograph, especially if I had taken the image just as it took flight, except that it was 4:30am and apart from it being dark it was raining (What a surprise!). As I watched the owl, it took off, flew up hill and then turned left over the hedge and into some fields. This poo pooed the idea that Barn owls don’t fly, or hunt, whilst it’s raining. This was such a thrill for me as I think they are such superb birds and I cannot get enough of them. After the viewing I carried on my way to work remembering a viewing I had a few years ago in Cambridgeshire. I was informed that there was a rare “brown breasted” or “dark coloured” Barn owl seen at a reserve not far from where I used to live. So I packed my camera equipment into my car and made my way to the area. I wanted to get there a couple of hours before dusk so that I could set up my camera without rushing and then forgetting to do something which would entail me not getting the image I wanted. I was dressed in my camouflaged clothing rather than taken a hide so that I could be more mobile. When I arrived I drove / walked the area to set up my equipment in a spot that would give me several options. The setting sun was to my back as was a reed bed. The reed bed continued to my left ending with open fields. There were open fields to the right and to the front and at the end of the field to the front was a bit of woodland. Surrounding each of the open fields were large diches filled with grasses and weeds. They were so large that if I fell in one I would not be able to look over the top and I’m six foot, 182cm, tall. There were several wire fences all around which would be hard to omit from any image but that is wildlife photography, you cannot always get perfect areas for wildlife, they pick the area and you have got to do your best to rid your image of “eyesores”. This “ridding” process is done before you take an image, so think before you press the shutter release, and not afterwards in Photoshop! I waited until the light had gone and then packed up. I returned several times that week all to no avail. The following week was also a no show by the Barn owl. Then on the Friday of the third week I saw it. It was a “dot” on my left but there was no deigning it was a Barn owl with its familiar slow wing beat. It was flying from the open fields making its way straight for me. As soon as it got onto the reserve it flew down into one of the ditches and started hunting along them. I was standing a couple of metres away from a ditch and it flew along it looking down for food. I was so mesmerised by the encounter that I completely forgot to take any images. Once it flew by I let out my breadth which I did not realise I had been holding. I watched it fly further along the ditch and then started to return in my direction. I gathered myself and started taking images. It stayed on the reserve for a while but the light had gone and it was no good taking images. This would be the case for the next few days. It would fly in from the same direction, I would take images for about twenty minutes and then I would just watch it until it got too dark to see. After about two weeks of viewing it, it never returned. I treasure that encounter but I always wonder what happened to it.
Brown Breasted Barn OwlBrown Breasted Barn Owl
The Tawny owls seem to be everywhere and I’ve seen them even when walking Murphy. Bridget, my wife, was “dived bombed”, which actually hit her head, by one in our wood last year. Although we used to see and hear them nearly every day at our last house in Bedfordshire they seem to appear bigger down in Devon. I have had several encounters with them flying over the bonnet of my car and their wingspan seemed to cover the windscreen. According to the RSPB their wingspan is between 94cm and 104cm so maybe in Bedfordshire they were only juveniles I saw. About twenty years ago, when I lived in Hampshire, I was driving up a steep hill on my way to work when a Tawny owl flew out of a tree, downwards, and hit the side of my car. I immediately stopped, got out and walked over to where it lay. It was on its back stretching its neck up looking at me. I picked it up, examined it, put it in a box I had in my boot and then took it to the Weyhill hawk conservancy ( https://www.hawk-conservancy.org/ ), which is located just outside Andover. I dropped it off there and was informed that they would look after it for a couple of weeks and then, if everything was alright, I could return to take it and let it go in the area I “bumped" into it. I kept my fingers crossed and received a phone call later that day informing me that it was OK except it was a bit light in weight. Over the next two weeks they kept an eye on it and fed it well. I went and collected it and it appeared to be a bit livelier scratching around in the box. I took it to a wood which was situated at the top of the hill of our meeting place. I walked to a track within the wood, put the box on the floor and with the open end away from me I opened the box. For a few seconds nothing happened then I heard some scraping and it flew out. It flew along the track and then doubled back and settled in a tree a few metres away. It stayed there viewing its surroundings for a few minutes before flying off over my head and went deeper into the wood. For the next couple of weeks I went back to the wood to see if I could see it again but to no avail. This Tawny owl encounter made me feel good because I saved a beautiful bird and I got a very close encounter.
The image below was taken using a captive bird. If you look close enough you can see the Jessie's.
Tawny owlTawny owl
A bit of really good news is that our Collared Dove has got a partner at last. If you remember a few months ago a Sparrowhawk swooped down, attacked, and killed one of the Collared Doves that used to “live” in our garden. The other Collared Dove did look a bit sad sat on the telephone wire all by itself. But it is sad no longer as it has a partner that follows it around our garden and cuddles up to it on the telephone wire. I hope they “get together” and have some little ones.
On Sunday 14th January I went for a walk, with Murphy, along the leat. I spotted the Dipper on its usual rock. This rock has been underwater for the last few weeks due to the amount of rain we have had. It was nice to see and reminded me that after the next couple of weeks I will be down here regularly trying to take images of it. One image I am after is a decent flight shot. This is going to be hard to achieve to get a high enough shutter speed due to the lack of light in the area but I will try. Other shots I am after are the adults feeding a juvenile. I was close to getting this type of shot last year but the juvenile fledged the nest when I was at work and when I returned to the area it had moved too far down river into a privately owned area.
Whilst walking along the leat Murphy suddenly stood still and started staring at something. That something turned out to be three Roe deer which were about forty metres away from me. The leat is quite high up in that area and I was looking down on these Roe deer. I was surprised by the number because I only usually see one on its own most of the year or two together during the rut. Although they knew we were there they did not seem too bothered and just kept mooching around. They only moved off in the opposite direction when I called Murphy to carry on with our walk.
On the way back home I spotted a male Sparrowhawk that was hunting in the same manner as a female Sparrowhawk my wife and I had seen back in September http://www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2017/10/a-sixth-sense-elephant-hawk-moth-david-clapp-anna-curnow-wildlife-photography-clothing . This one was flying very fast just above the verges next to the bottom of the stone walls either side of the road. This, I would think, is a very good hunting method if you wanted to catch small birds. Both my wife and I drive very slowly through these lanes because there are always birds; Robins, Dunnocks, Sparrows, Chaffinches, Wrens, Blackbirds, Thrushes, Bullfinches etc. mooching around looking for food on these verges. The Sparrowhawk is trying to scare one of these birds to fly off so it would catch it or sneak up on it to pounce on it. Either way it would catch itself a meal. I do not know if this male is with the female we saw a couple of months ago, either its mate or a juvenile, but it’s in the same area and it hunts the same way so logic says it is.
Yesterday when I drove out of my drive and before I got to the first corner I spotted the Barn owl perched on top of the hedge just down the road from our house. According to the RSPB Barn owls are between 33cm and 39cm long but this bird was no bigger than about 20-25cm so I presume it might be a juvenile. I would love to know where this bird is living. I know there is a Tawny owl living in the barn just up the road but I can’t imagine a Barn owl would live in the same barn so it must live in one of the other numerous barns surrounding the area. It must be close because I am seeing this Barn owl every few days on my way to work now. IF the sun ever appears I will walk the fields, as I have permission from the farmer, looking for it.
This week Charlie Hamilton James, a great wildlife photographer and wildlife film maker, Tweeted a comment which I don’t agree with. The Tweet stated “I’ve never understood the landscaper photographers obsession with tripods. Shooting wide angle lenses usually set to infinity with the ability to shoot decent ISO these days kind of rules them out for most things.” I totally agree that carrying a tripod, either for wildlife or landscape photography, is an absolute pain because it is heavy. Also if you want to change positions quickly they can get caught up with the vegetation. I especially find tripods a nightmare with macro photography. I cannot tell you how many times I have hit, with a tripod leg, the plant that had the subject on it, whilst trying to get the right composition. So there are downsides with a tripod but, I think, they are outweighed by the upsides. The upsides are 1) You don’t have to hold your camera and lens all the time when you get to your favoured position. With landscape photography you set up the shot, get the composition you want and then wait for the right light. With wildlife photography you set up your camera and wait for the wildlife to appear. Also this stops a lot of movement which could scare the wildlife. 2) You can use lower shutter speeds, in other words long exposures to be much more creative with your image. 3) To stop camera shake when your finger presses the shutter release you can use a cable release instead. 4) You can use lower ISO’s in low light which will give you a less noisier image. I know that cameras nowadays are great for handling noise at higher ISO’s but there is still more noise at high ISO’s than low ISO’s. 5) You can use filters to lighten or darken certain areas of the image and keep it set until the right light appears. 6) You need a tripod for HDR landscapes. I know some images don’t look too good, in other words “real” but it a process that some photographers like doing, we are all different so let them do it. But the best thing about using a tripod, especially for landscape photographers, is 7) it slows you down and you can concentrate fully on the image you want to take. So with these in mind Charlie I think you are wrong but we are all entitled to our own opinions.
When I lived on the Bedfordshire / Cambridgeshire border I was a member of the St Neots and district camera club. It was a great camera club with the right ratio of speakers / competitions / practical evening’s and on top of that my wife and I made a lot of friends a few of which I still keep in touch with today. When we first went there we were greeted with a very friendly atmosphere which settled us down as we were very nervous due to it being quite a big club (about 90+ members). For the first few competitions we sat and watched other people’s work being judged. I made notes on what the judge said so that I would not make the same mistake on my photographs when I entered the competitions. In the first competition I entered, my images were absolutely slated by the judge but I took notes on what he said. I corrected the “errors” on some new images and entered these in the next competition. Once again these images were slated by the judge for different “errors”. On this occasion I started to get a bit miffed as the same sort of “errors” were being done by other photographer’s images and these were not being picked up by the judge. It was on this occasion I started to befriend a chap, Hugh Spence http://hughspence.me.uk/ , who would turn out to be a big influence on my photography. He was trying to calm me down because let’s face it nobody likes their work slated especially when others are not for similar errors. Read this for a good view on judges http://hughspence.me.uk/judging.html He was telling me that all judges were different and would pick on different errors. If the judge liked portraits then landscapes were out and if they liked landscapes then portraits were out. It does not mean that it is a bad image it’s just that “THEY” don’t like it. I collected my images and went home cursing all judges (my view of judges has not changed only mellowed a bit). After the next competition I entered, more slating, Hugh spoke to me about my photography and started giving me tips. One of the biggest things I learnt at this club was that photography alone would not win things, in this digital world; you had to learn about post processing which I did by reading and spending hours on my computer “doing”. The next year, taking everything into account, I entered all the competitions and won the league 2 title which promoted me into league 1, the top league. It was about this time Hugh told me about the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain (PAGB) http://www.thepagb.org.uk/ . The Photographic Alliance of Great Britain (PAGB) is a membership organisation that co-ordinates activities for photographic Clubs in England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland (including the Channel Islands and Isle of Man). It does this through 15 geographical Federations.
The PAGB has strong links with similar organisations. In the UK, it has cross-representation with the Royal Photographic Society. It liaises throughout the world via its membership of FIAP (The International Federation of Photographic Art).
The PAGB organises photographic events for its Federations and Clubs. It offers services such as Recorded Lectures and its own photographic Distinctions, known as Awards for Photographic Merit.
The Awards for Photographic Merit (APM) are open only to members of Clubs affiliated to the PAGB through their Federations and are at three levels
•Credit (CPAGB) – Blue badge and certificate
Standard: Good Club Photography
•Distinction (DPAGB) – Red badge and certificate
Standard: Open Exhibition Photography
•Master (MPAGB) – Yellow badge and certificate
Standard: Highest Standard of UK Amateur Photography
The awards are held for life without any annual fee, unlike the Royal Photographic Society, and holders are entitled to use the designated letters after their name.
I liked the idea of getting an award as it gave you letters after your name and it shows to others that you are a bit more professional about your photography. In this world where people are not allowed to say "FAIL, BAD, RUBBISH" etc. so that you won't hurt somebody's feelings (a thing I do not understand), I wanted to prove to myself that my images were good and attaining an award would say this. (I will write a blog on giving feedback at a later date) At this time Hugh was going after the CPAGB which he attained.
During my first year in the top league my images were again knocked by several judges and I ended up mid table which I was pleased with. At this time it was Hugh that kept me going and he stated that I should enter for the CPAGB award. I went and viewed an awards competition just to give me an idea of what level of photography was required. That year I was out and about taking photographs a lot and as luck would have it, great for wildlife photography, I took several really good images. To enter for the CPAGB you need 10 good images and I actually had a few more than this so I entered the competition. Before I sent the images off to the PAGB I entered some of the images in the clubs competitions to see how they fared. As it happened I won the projected images league with 9’s and 10’s for the six competitions and I came third in the prints league. I was hoping that the judges would be kind, which they were, and I got my CPAGB with well over the 200 points mark. Two years later Hugh convinced me to enter for the DPAGB which was a big step up from the CPAGB. For this award you needed 15 images and I had to pick from 35 images I thought were good enough. Once again I used the clubs competitions to see if my images were any good and once again I won the projected images and came second in the prints. I also received top marks on some external club competitions so I was keeping my fingers crossed for the DPAGB. As the award got nearer I started getting doubts and once again it was Hugh that kept me going. On the day I got my DPAGB, just, but that’s all that mattered to me. You can see my DPAGB entries using this link http://www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/p210853256 . A lot of this award should go to the large amount of "nagging" I got from Hugh. If he had not kept on at me I would have given up as I did not think my images were good enough.
Recently Hugh has been after other awards AFIAP (Artiste) which he attained in 2016 and EFIAP (Excellence) which he got last year (WELL DONE). Both of which are distinctions related to the Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique https://www.fiap.net/distinctions.php Attaining these awards takes a lot of time, money, effort and very good photography. Hugh is the ideal type of person to be at a camera club as he is very knowledgeable on the subject and he is willing to help other people with their photography. Not all camera clubs have a person like Hugh but if they do then being a member of that club is an enjoyable experience.
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