Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
I was on leave for the second week of February 2018 but I didn’t know quite what to do. The only thing I did know was that I was going away from the South West of England. Last year was not very good for my wife and I mainly due to two family members dying of cancer. It is a horrible disease and even though you know they are going to pass away it still hurts a lot when they go and we miss them a lot. This, along with the weather (it has been raining on every day I have had time to go out with my camera since August) and work, has put a stop to my photography. Usually I take in the region of about 12,000 images a year before I sort them out to about 2,000. Last year I only took just over 6,000 images, I hope I have got some good ones. As you know I intend to retire later this year and my wife and I are thinking of getting a campervan. As we have never used one, we did not know if it was our kind of thing. Therefore we decided to hire one out for a week. Our destination would be Scotland and we thought that if we can put up with living in a campervan in the harsh conditions that the Cairngorms can throw at us then we can put up with anything. I picked the Cairngorms in Scotland because I wanted snow, not the skimmed stuff that we have down here, snows one day and it’s gone the next, I wanted the full fat stuff that stays around for days. My aim of the holiday was to get my mojo back, start taking images again and photograph Crested tits and Red Squirrels. I had images in mind, which is a great way to be creative, and I hoped that these images in my mine would turn into reality. Like I say it is a great way to be creative with your wildlife photography. Think of an image or images that you would like to take of some wildlife and keep it locked in your mind until the said wildlife appears in your lens, then try to capture your unique image. There are lots of ways to think of an image but a good way is to examine other people’s wildlife images and try and combine two, three or more images into your one.
We went to O’connors Campers based at Okehampton to hire a VW California called “Blackberry”, don’t ask! We were dealt with by Zoe, a very pleasant lady who answered all my questions. We picked “Blackberry” because we wanted an automatic with cruise control. It also had a quiet heater that we could leave on overnight “IF” it was cold. On the day we picked up the campervan early because nobody had hired it the week before, I wonder why, and took it home to pack. As we did not know how cold it was going to be so we packed four sleeping bags and four blankets. At 12:00hrs we started on our journey. I had planned our journey so that about half way, Lancaster, we would have a stopover that way we did not have to rush up there. I set the cruise control to just over 60mph and left Dartmoor and the rain, I hoped, behind. As per usual the first part of the journey, which should have taken two hours, took over four but I had taken this into account and was not bothered. It rained for the whole journey up to Lancaster and we arrived there at about 21:00hrs enough time to arrange the bed for us and the bed for Murphy, well you didn’t think we would leave him behind did you? Our bed was is a seat during the day and then you pull it out to make the bed. There is another in the roof, when the roof is up, but we did not use it. I put the heater on but switched it off after about 20 minutes as it was too hot, even though it was on its lowest setting. In fact we hardly used the heater apart from when the roof was raised during the day, as the sides are cloth, and 20 minutes first thing in the morning. After a reasonable night’s sleep and a good breakfast we continued on our way. The weather was still raining but with another 300 miles to go we were hoping it would turn to snow. The journey to the Cairngorms was eventful as just after we passed Glasgow the rain did turn to snow. Just after Perth the snow that was falling made it very difficult to see and the road conditions reduced our speed to about 30 mph but we ploughed on or should that be “snow ploughed on”! We arrived in Grant town on Spey late afternoon all set for a photographic session in the morning the next day, if the snow let up. After another reasonable nights sleep I looked out of the window to see a cloudless sky, perfect. I drove to my first location to try for some Crested tits. Within a few minutes they arrived at my branch and away went my camera shutter. Cole tits, a Treecreeper, Chaffinches, Great tits, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker and a Wren also put in appearances and just had to be photographed, my mojo was back.
The next day, with similar weather, I stayed photographing the Crested tits hoping that a Red Squirrel would make an appearance. Throughout the morning the same birds as the previous day appeared but no Red Squirrel. In the afternoon we decided to go to an area we had seen Red Deer last year. When we arrived we saw 2 Kestrels and several Red Deer. The Kestrels were too far into the valley for me to photograph and the Red Deer were on too steep a slope for me to climb with my camera gear so we just watch them through our binoculars. At the end of the valley we parked up and took Murphy for a walk. During this walk Murphy played in the deep snow hunting for mice under the snow next to each tuft of grass and we looked for Mountain Hares. Looking for something white in a white background is like looking for a needle in a haystack. In the very strong wind I looked high and I looked low but all I could find was Donalds troosers! (Scottish people will know what I am talking about, check this link if you don’t https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yw0bLHTOb0 ) but no Mountain Hares. Having said that we had been looking at quite a large area and not seen a thing. We walked another ten spaces and all of a sudden we spotted a couple and then spotted three more. The sun seemed to pick them out of the snow and showed them to be a brighter white. As the sun was setting I decided that I would return tomorrow to try and photograph them.
The following day we woke up to heavy snow falling from the sky. We stayed in the campervan for a couple of hours before deciding to go to the area that we saw the Mountain Hares. On the way there the snow stopped and the sun started to shine. We had a few slides in the slush with the campervan on the way but I just took it steady. When we got there my wife said that she would take Murphy for a walk while I went off with my camera. I walked to the same place as yesterday and spotted one straight away. I edged closer trying to keep down wind of it which was hard work as the wind, which was still very strong, was constantly changing directions. I don’t know much about Mountain Hares but I do know that if they are frightened they tend to run uphill. Keeping this in mind I edged closer to the Hare coming in from the side so that if it ran uphill I would try and get a running shot. At about 40 metres from the Hare the wind changed direction, it caught my scent, and it was off running uphill. I panned and took a few shots.
At the top of the ridge it stopped to have a final look at me before it disappeared over the top and out of my sight so I began to look for another. It did not take me long to find another which was sunk into the snow. For the next couple of hours I edged closer taking a few shots each time I planted my tripod. When I was about 10 metres from it I stopped as I was getting too close for my liking. Also I did not want to scare it away as it did look very comfortable in its snow hole. I stayed with this hare for another couple of hours and learnt another thing – they don’t do a lot! Every 15-20 minutes it would yawn, stretch or clean it paws but other than that it would just sit there. In wildlife photography it is bad enough to wait for your subject to arrive but when the subject is in front of you, then you still have to wait until it does something before you press the shutter release. This wait seemed to take an eternity mainly because you have to be ready for the action and it was absolutely freezing. My body and feet were fine but my hands were shutting down. After another hour the sun had dipped below the mountain so the light had gone and I packed up. In reality when the sun dipped below the mountain the wind got stronger and the temperature got even lower. On my walk back I was looking forward to switching on the heater in the campervan.
This night we decided to eat out so we went to Aviemore to seek out a restaurant. I fancied pasta so we looked for an Italian restaurant that would allow Murphy in with us. We found one, La Taverna Restaurant, Pizzeria and Bar, but they did not allow dogs into the restaurant. They did takeaways so we each bought a meal. We then sat in the car park, in our warm campervan eating it looking out at the lights of the mountain ski resort, life just does not get any better than this!
The next day we were on the way back to Lancaster and the snow was falling again. Due to the amount of snow falling the journey to Perth was slow going as the long traffic cue snaked along behind the snow plough. This was great for my wife in the passenger seat because she was admiring the large amount of Red Deer on the side of the road, the A9. She stopped counting when she reached 300, all of them stags, and that was only on the left hand side. When you see that amount of deer I can understand that some people say they should be culled. If there were less deer then Scotland would have a lot more trees. Maybe we should bring back the Wolf in some areas, what do you think? Just the other side of Perth the snow was thinning out and in fact by the time we got to Glasgow it had turned to rain. This rain continued until we reached Lancaster. We parked up and slept just outside Lancaster again and made an early start for Dartmoor the next day.
If you have never been to Scotland for wildlife photography you are really missing out. The sad thing is that a lot of people are killing a lot of wildlife just to “protect” their game birds. Please don’t get me wrong this is not just happening in Scotland but all over England and Wales as well. I am sure there is more money to be made by tourism, to see the wildlife, then by shooting game birds.
Overall the holiday in a campervan was great. It was great parking and being near to where I was going to do my photography that day rather than having to wait to eat breakfast at a hotel or B&B at 7:30hrs then drive to the area and have to pack up early to get back for dinner. This loss of time would have curtailed my photography but with the campervan I had freedom of choice of when to start and when to finish. I will definitely purchase one when I retire. The only thing I will change is the layout inside the van. “Blackberry” had what they call a “rock and roll bed”. This bed was not wide enough for us as I woke up a lot of the time during the night with my nose touching the side of the van which 1, made it cold and 2, very claustrophobic. Other than that it was all plus points. One way of getting the van you want is by buying an ordinary panel van and getting the inside custom built. That way you can build it how you want it and not how the manufacture wants it.
Weather wise we seem to have brought the sun back to Dartmoor from Scotland which is a good thing as it can start drying up the moor ready for Spring.
As my regular readers of this blog will know that, at the beginning of each year, I pick a few species of wildlife that I try and concentrate my photography on. It does not always work because wildlife does its own thing but I like having goals to aim for. Crested tits were one of the species for this year. Two others have been nipped in the bud before I even started Dippers and Wrens. Last year I located a good, different, Dipper nest site, in a hollowed out branch of a tree, which I was going to return this year to photograph. I took several images last year but none of them, for one reason or another, turned out to my liking. I said I “was” going to return this year but Dartmoor National Park authorities have put paid to that. I used to park in a car park about half a mile away from the nest site which was great. Now the DNP authorities have closed it and put double yellow lines all down the road for some unknown reason and the nearest car park now is over 5 miles away! There is no path over the moor to my nest site so I would have to walk along a narrow winding road which is very steep downhill going and uphill coming back with all my camera equipment. The cars go very fast along this stretch so I will not be chancing it. One other downside of the DNP doing this is that there is no close car park for visitors to visit one of Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserves. The other wildlife subject I chose was a Wren. The particular Wren I was after nested in the stone wall a few metres from our gate to our nature reserve. I located the nest last year and I was going to concentrate on getting some good close ups of this Wren with food in its beak. But somebody in a vehicle must have hit is as it was flying across the road because I found its little body lying in the road not far from the nest. With luck another Wren will take its place but it might not be this year. My other wildlife species for this year are Cuckoo, Redstart, Cirl Bunting and Dartford Warbler. I know I got some good images of Redstarts last year but this just wetted my appetite and I want more. If I just get a good image of one of the other three, I will be happy and if I get more than one then I will be over the moon.
On Friday 16th February, the day after we got back home, I took Murphy for a walk along the lane which passes our nature reserve. As I reached our boundary I looked over the stone wall to see what was about and there standing about 30 metres away were 2 Roe Deer. They were happily munching the grass ignorant of the fact that I was quietly watching them. After about 5 minutes I quietly and slowly walked off, or so I thought. As soon as I started moving their heads popped up and they started watching me. I carried moving away and when I was some distance away from them they carried on eating. Being that close to Roe Deer without a camera finally made up my mind and when I got home I went on to the internet and ordered a “walk around” lens. I plumped for the new Canon 100-400mm zoom lens as I have been informed by several people that it is a really good lens. When it arrives I will pair it up with my Canon EOS 1D mk VI. The reason for this is that it is lighter than my Canon EOS 1DX and it has a 3x crop factor. The downside is that I cannot push the ISO up as high as I can with the 1DX which therefore does not give me high shutter speeds. With the 1D mk VI I will only set the ISO up to 800 whereas with the 1DX I will go a lot higher.
The next weekend I was out walking Murphy with my camera and the new lens which arrived during the week. I was itching to use it but do you think I could find any wildlife? The sun was shining but the birds were too far away from me to get a decent image but I enjoyed walking around with it as it was not too heavy. Now all I need is a bit of luck and my luck will improve as I will be out with my camera a lot more.,
OK, I’ll put my hands up, me wishing for some snow similar to the conditions in Scotland has well and truly bitten me in the backside. It seems that the county of Devon has come to a standstill due to the amount of white stuff that has fallen. I am stuck at home today, Friday 2nd March because there are large snow drifts outside our doors and just outside our drive gates. Murphy can only go for a walk in our field which he enjoys and then returns home to lie in front of the woodburner. The best thing about a complete blanket of snow is that my garden looks as good as next doors! All I want now is the cold but sunny days, not much to ask! I have been up in the loft to get my suit and I’ve been in the garage to get my skis, now all I need is for somebody to carry me up to the top of the hill, any volunteers?
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