Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon
Well I hope you have been making the most of this fantastic weather we have been having. It does not make sense to me after eight months of nearly constant rain we now have had only two days rain in over four months. Still I am glad of it as it makes taking Murphy out for his walks easier.
Life is a funny old game and it throws things at you when you least expect it. You plan things that you want to do then life throws something at you and forces you to change your plans. Wildlife photography is a bit like that, you plan things and then you have to change them due to things out of your control. This year I had planned to get images of mainly two birds, a juvenile Dipper and a Cuckoo. The year started well because I knew of two Dipper nest sites and both areas were good for photography with the light coming from a good direction (depending on the time of day of course), I could get low to the surface of the water, it was off the beaten track so not many people around and I could hide, or blend in, well but be close enough to get a good image. I had sorted out those areas by late February and would be back now and then to check their progress. I would be back to film them later on in the year.
I spotted my first Cuckoo of the year on April 19th as it flew over my car bonnet. I’m glad I was just “pootering” along looking for wildlife at about 10 to 15mph otherwise it might have been a dead Cuckoo and I would not have wanted that. It is the closest I have ever been to a Cuckoo and this happened not far from my house. I often “pooter”, drive around slowly, looking for wildlife when I have the time. I have to keep my wits about me, be aware of other traffic and pull over when a vehicle comes up behind me. The very next day I saw and heard a Cuckoo in another area of the moor, whilst out walking Murphy, and that made my mind up that this was the area I was going to concentrate on to get my Cuckoo images. After viewing the Cuckoo several times last year I already knew where I was going to site my hide.
So the juvenile Dipper and the Cuckoo image attempts were already a year in the making. I know what you might be thinking. I could go to hire somebody else’s hide and get an image without all this work. But to me that would not be right, please don’t get me wrong these kind of hides have their place in wildlife photography for people who don’t have the time to find the wildlife, but I feel you are missing out and I want to experience the whole process of finding the wildlife, getting close to it and finally getting a good image of it. If you use somebodies else’s hide you have missed out on two thirds of the whole experience. Plus the image you take will be very similar to everybody else’s that has hired that hide. It’s a bit like landscape photographers that see a good image in a magazine and want to stick their tripod in the same three holes and use the same lens for them to get the same image! Doing things for yourself lets you, be the creative one not other people, we are not sheep! Also you will only improve your photography by learning and being creative not copying other people’s work.
I returned to my Cuckoo area that evening and placed a sheet of camouflage netting just in front of the area I wanted to site my hide. I did this so that I would leave it in place to let the Cuckoo get used to it. It was in an area, between two gorse bushes, away from a track that people walk so I was hoping that it would not be seen and go “walkies”. If it did then it was only a small sheet of camouflage rather than leave my hide and that goes “walkies”. So sad that people can’t leave other people’s property alone. For the next couple of weekends I returned to the area, replaced the camouflage with my hide and sat in it for a few hours. On several occasions the Cuckoo, accompanied with two Meadow Pipits or a Chaffinch, would land in the large bush that my camera was looking at. The bird was close enough for a reasonable image but apart from facing away from me it always landed with twigs or leaves blocking its head which made it impossible to focus on its eye.
Images like these are disappointing for me but they show that wildlife photography and getting a good image is not easy. Never mind I will persevere and be back in the same spot next year.
One time it was in the bush with the Meadow Pipit blocking its head and on another time it was the Chaffinch! I stayed in the hide for about four to five hours at a time, from about 05:30hrs till 10:00hrs or 11:00hrs. I would leave then replacing my hide with the camouflaged sheet. On the way back home I would check on the Dippers. I said I did this on the next couple of weekends but then my plans had to be change due to things that life threw at me. Since then I have not been back apart from collecting my sheet of camouflage.
Due to the same problems I have not been able to photograph the Dippers either so this plan will have to wait for another year.
For the last two years I have watched Wheatears nest in a barn on Dartmoor quite close to where I live. So today, 17th June 2018, I am sat outside the barn waiting to photograph the birds. In fact I am sat in amongst a few granite boulders on the moor that are surrounded by “poo”! There is poo everywhere, sheep’s, horses and cows, you name the animal and it seems that it has pooed here. I never mentioned that wildlife photography can be let’s say “different” than other types of photography (unless you are a poo photographer! The world is a strange place and I bet there is someone out there that specialises in it). My leggings are already covered in the stuff and I’m not even going to describe the smell. The poo might be the reason that the birds have nested here previously because it attracts the flies and insects in other words food. As long as I get a good image I will be happy. In fact I will be as happy as a pig in….. you know the rest. There is only one slight problem in me getting a good image and that is, I have been here for over an hour now and have not seen the Wheatears at all which is unusual. This bothers me because as I have said they have nested here for the last two years, I hope nothing has happened to them. Near the end of the second hour I have decided to pack up and go home as the Wheatears have not shown up. For the next two weeks I have visited this area to walk Murphy (The walk is only a few hundred yards and he is doing really well) and to see if the Wheatears have returned but up to this date they have not. I only hope they have nested elsewhere and nothing has happened to them.
Changing photography plans because of what happens or does not happen is not a new thing. About eight years ago, whilst living on the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire border I was invited by a friend to a nature reserve his “club” had made. He informed me that the club had put together four hides and a wildlife pond in an area away from the public. He showed me a few of his images which were quite good especially one of a Jay on a branch drinking out of the pond. (As you know I am still after a really good image of a Jay) He asked me if I had a couple of chairs for us to use. I told him that I only had a couple of small aluminium fold out chairs, with cotton seats, that I used when I used to go beach fishing. I had not used them for a few years but would bring them along. He drove me to this “secret” place and then we had to walk for about a mile before entering a wood. Then we had to delve into the bushes to find the hides. When we finally arrived there was a small pond, with a branch sticking in it, surrounded by four hides. I call them hides; in fact they were four double tea chests with a hole cut out of the front. Two of the roofs had guttering which fed a couple of water barrels which in turn could top up the pond. The branch going into the pond could be changed and there were several others around. It appeared to be a very good setup. Although the hides were double tea chests there was only enough space for one person including their equipment inside each hide. Therefore I took one hide and my friend another. I gave him one of my chairs; we entered the hides and started setting up. My first problem was that the hide was only about 4 feet, 120cm, high. Me being 6 feet, 180cm, in height meant that I had to enter on my knees. There was not enough room for my tripod so I had to use a monopod. I opened my chair, sat down, and settled to wait for the wildlife to appear. It was not very comfortable as the chair was quite low down and my knees were around my ears (not a pretty sight). Every time I moved I would touch the front or back of the hide. I folded my coat to use as a cushion to sit on but then my head would touch the roof! I tried to stay still for as long as I could but, being uncomfortable, it was hard work. After about 15 minutes a Sparrowhawk landed on the branch and was going to have a drink when all hell broke loose. As I was slowly moving my camera to focus on the bird I heard a loud yell from the hide my friend was in. I turned to face his hide when I fell to the ground falling backwards and out of the hide. I was on my back looking up at the sky seeing the Sparrowhawk fly off. I got up and noticed that the cotton seat had torn and as I fell backwards the aluminium chair legs had buckled. I looked over to the other hide and noticed that my friend was outside on his hands and knees with my other chair still attached to his backside. He started cussing and blinding at me and was moaning about the chair. Apparently both chair seats had torn at the same time because the cotton was rotten due to me using it near the sea. (Before you say it, it was not because we are both FAT!) We tried to stay on our knees in the hide but it was too uncomfortable and we were moving all the time so the wildlife did not appear therefore we gave up and went home. I never did return to that “secret” place 1, because my friend did not ask me again and 2, because I could not find it again.
Finally for this blog I just want to ask, “Are we too clean with our gardens?” What I mean is that usually my wife and I go round our garden tidying and picking every weed we see to let our flowers grow up but is this being too clean and taking away food from wildlife. This year, due to my wife, Murphy and I having health problems, we have had to leave most of the garden to its own devices. Yes it looks overgrown due to the little bit of rain and a lot of sunshine we have had, and a bit messy, but the amount of insects and birds has easily tripled in number. We have got so many nests around the garden, including 3 x Blackbird, 2 x Wren, 4 x Robin, 1 x Collard Dove, 1 x Pidgeon, 1 x song Thrush, ? x Sparrow, ? x Chaffinch, 1 x Pied Wagtail, 1 x Great Tit, 1 x Blue Tit, 1 x Long Tailed Tit, 1 x Bullfinch and maybe a few more that I have not found, it’s great. Just outside our lounge window we have a low, 3 feet high, wall with several plants as our lawn border. Because we have not weeded it, it is visited by Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Wrens, Bullfinches (male & female), Goldcrests, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Willow Warblers and several other birds that I only catch a glimpse of. I can just sit in my armchair and let the wildlife come to me. They often stay quite a while either looking for insects to eat or picking out the buds or seeds as in the case of the Bullfinch and Goldfinch.
This is an image of the Bullfinch through our lounge window, shame that the double glazed windows don’t open wide enough which meant that I got white borders on the image.
As stated above it is not just birds that are numerous in our garden there is also a tremendous amount of butterflies, moths and other insects. We have a Buddleia 'Lochinch' or as people call it a butterfly bush. The plant is called a Lochinch because it is an old hybrid cultivar raised from a seedling that was located in the garden of the Earl of Stair at Lochinch Castle, in the mild west coast of Scotland. At the moment, 14th July, it is covered with all sorts of different butterflies, moths and bees. It is about 12’ high and about 10’ wide with loads of flowers and there appears to be a butterfly or two on every flower. This is the same area that I usually have my bird feeders but this year I have stopped feeding them through the summer. There are several types including Commas, Peacocks, Painted Lady’s, Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Large Whites, Small Whites, brown ones and light blue ones (sorry, I am ignorant of these butterfly names. I looked them up in a book and online but they all look the same). We even had a fleeting visit by a Dark Green Fritillary. There was a Comma butterfly and it must have been in a bit of a mood. All the other butterflies were going about doing what they do on the flowers but this individual kept on chasing away all the butterflies that came too close. I sat in my garden and watched their shenanigans for about half an hour with Murphy asleep by my side and I must say it brought cheer and peace to my thoughts and I found it very relaxing. They were not just on the Buddleia, they were also on a lot of the weeds and nettles within the rest of the garden. Whilst watching these insects on the Buddleia I had several visits by a Spotted Flycatcher that would land in the tree next to the bush. It would then fly up or out, catch an insect, and then return to the same position. It would stay for a few minutes and then fly off to return later.
A week later I sat again for about an hour having a rest watching the butterflies. This time I identified the brown butterfly as a Meadow Brown but the light blues still remain a mystery ( Andy Brown I need your expertise ). The Dark Green Fritillary was in attendance the whole time I was watching. I tried to photograph it but it would never settle for long enough. There was another butterfly, in fact a few of them, which turned out to be Brimstones.
Our field behind our house is in the same state. Because our horse died earlier this year we have let the vegetation grow up and the amount of Butterflies, Dragonflies, Damselflies, Moths and other insects is amazing. Maybe we should all leave part of our gardens alone and let the weeds grow to encourage wildlife. We moan about farmers not doing their bit for wildlife and we forget that we could do our little bit. So pick an area in your garden and leave it alone, let the weeds grow and seed and watch your wildlife grow. You might not like the view of the weeds but the amount of extra wildlife you will see far outweighs this. Plus on the other hand it will save you a bit of hard work weeding and maybe money because you don’t have to keep buying weed killer! I will certainly be doing this in the future.
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