Excuses Excuses Excuses and starting Wildlife Photography in your garden

January 13, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon

Well Happy New Year to all of you. I hope you had a great time over the festive period.

During the festive period I was thinking about going out with my camera but there was always something else to do, visit family’s, walk Murphy, visit friends etc. Don’t get me wrong, lots of these excuses that stop me doing something are genuine but some were a bit weak to fully justify me not doing it, but it still stopped me. Humans are a funny breed we like doing something but we tend to stop ourselves doing it after a while by making up feeble excuses instead of just telling the truth which is we don’t feel like doing it, take New Year resolutions for example. We don’t make up these feeble excuses when we are going out for a meal or a drink! A few years ago I used to really enjoy running in the New forest, where I lived. I would get up at 4:30am and go for a minimum run of about 5 miles to a maximum run of 12 miles and I would be back in time before most people got up to go to work. I really enjoyed these runs because I would be out on my own, with nobody else or traffic around, and I would see a tremendous amount of wildlife. But there were several times I would get up and then think up an excuse not to go out the door. Sometimes it wouldn’t work but most of the time it did and I would just go back to my nice warm bed. This changed slightly when I started entering half marathon races as I had a goal to aim for. But after a few years and so many races the excuses started again.

Over 40 years ago (YES I am really that old!) I worked for an insurance firm and the excuses that people wrote on their claim forms were to die for. Here are a few of the excuses I can remember:-

A tree/bush/lamppost bumped into my car, damaging it!

There were plenty of on-lookers to the accident but no witnesses!

I swerved several times before I struck the tree/bush with the front of my car!

The pedestrian had no idea which direction to run so I ran over him!

The other car collided with mine without giving warning of its intentions!

The accident happened because I had one eye on the lorry in front, one eye on the pedestrian and the other on the car behind!

We received so many we all had a good laugh reading them. These are not the same excuses as the ones that stop us doing something but they are along the same lines as all humans are still trying to justify an action or inaction:-

Weather Person – After months of a dry spell we get a day of rain but their excuse for the reservoir not filling up is that it is the wrong sort of rain!

Trains – Trains not running, their excuse is that there are leaves or is snow on the track!

Missed train – Announcement at Bournemouth station "The train now arriving on platform one is on fire. Passengers are advised not to board this train."

Missed flight – Could not find a car park space, did not hear the boarding calls, fell asleep after arriving at the airport on time!

Of course at this time of year people think of some wonderful excuses to stop their New Year resolutions. Most People will choose the main two resolutions to work on, these being to lose weight or to get fit. The saddest thing is that most New Year resolutions are broken or stopped before the 10th January so they don’t even last 2 weeks! Here are a few excuses:-

Weight

My New Years resolution was to lose weight, so far I have only lost my motivation to lose weight!

I wanted to lose weight so I started by eating all the junk food in the house so that it won’t tempt me, that’s why I gained 4 pounds!

I haven’t got enough time to eat healthily!

The kids will only eat junk food!

Eating healthy food is too boring!

My Doctor told me I’m the correct weight; I just need to be 3 foot taller!

I lost 20 pounds, trouble is I gained 30!

Fit

Can’t afford to go to the gym – even though you bought a years membership!

Not enough time to go to the gym ("No time" seems to be a big excuse for everything!)

I’m too tired to get fit!

I can’t go to the gym because there are too many fit people there!

I’m busy with work (I used to use this one!)

It’s too cold in January to run outside so I’ll start in the summer!

When I get home from work and eat tea my stomach is too full to run!

Humans can think of some wonderful excuses I wonder what excuses you thought of this festive period?

Photographing Wildlife in Your Garden

Throughout my blogs I have always stated that the best place to start Wildlife Photography is in your garden. The main reasons for this are:-

It is easy to get to, just step outside your door.

The wildlife gets used to you so can be approached closer than in the wild.

You can set up the perches how you like and change them often.

You can entice the wildlife with food and places to live.

You can set up a hide and control the foreground and background.

The hide can remain in situe so the wildlife gets used to it.

You decide when you want to photograph the wildlife.

You might have different habitats all within a small space.

Basically, you control the environment and the wildlife comes to you to be photographed.

So how do you entice wildlife to your garden?

Before you start take notes on some of the wildlife you find in your garden. Look and listen at what is happening in your garden. See how wildlife interacts with each section of your garden and what you think might benefit that area in the future. Invest in this time and let nature present its opportunities to you, it will be worth it in the long run. This helps you not to make any costly mistakes and to put the changes in the right area of the garden. Think about the photographs you want to achieve and plan your garden around this. Once this is done then it is time for some DIY and improvements to make to your garden / wildlife area. The best way to start is with a plan of your garden on paper. Think of where the sun is positioned throughout the year and remember that it changes over the seasons. The next thing is to consider where you will be doing your photography, so you can plan your backgrounds and foregrounds and think about what to plant in these positions. To improve your backgrounds, think about using raised beds or even planting flowers in pots, which can be moved to a better position or can be changed to vary your photography when you want to begin shooting.     

1. If you can plant some trees or a hedge.

Native trees like silver birch, crabapple, alder, elm, beech, ash, oak etc. will help attract birds and insects. Don’t forget some of these trees will be very slow growing. They provide nesting places for birds, bats and insects. Rowan trees will attract several birds to feed off the berries. You might even be lucky enough to attract Waxwings to these trees during the winter. If you have a large garden then you could plant a few trees near each other which will create a small woodland type habitat which brings in a wider range of wildlife. If you do this remember where you want to photograph the wildlife and do not block off the light.

Hedges also provide additional nesting and refuge or safe areas, when hawks are around, for birds and small animals. They also help to shelter your garden from strong winds. A hedge or bush near your feeders will give the birds an area of safety to fly to if a predator appears whilst they are feeding. Suitable hedge plants include blackthorn, hawthorn and hazel. You could also plant some climbers and creepers to provide extra foliage to increase the insect population and help attract more birds. Clematis, dog rose, ivy and honeysuckle are a good choice.

2. Grow Flowers

Butterflies, bees, moths, hoverflies and other insects are attracted to areas of flowers. Buddlea is a good choice if you want to attract butterflies. You want to plant flowers that produce a source of nectar and/or pollen throughout the year. Planting wildflowers is a good choice like sunflowers, teasel, forget-me-not, cornflowers, foxgloves, bluebells etc. Do some research and select the wild flowers that will attract the subjects you want to photograph. If you don’t have a preference for a particular subject, a standard UK wild flower mix will provide an excellent starting point. 

3. Nurture a wildlife area

Leave an area of your lawn to become wild to impersonate a wild meadow. This will entice mice, shrews, voles and other mammals that feed on grass or insects. Stacking a pile of logs in one corner of your wildlife area will encourage beetles, frogs and grubs to them and this will encourage larger hunters. It will also encourage snails and slugs which are food for thrushes and hedgehogs. Leave weeds to grow in this area, weeds like nettles are great for red admiral and peacock butterflies. Have an area of sunny bare earth, which you never dig, just weed occasionally for tawny mining bees. If you have any bare walls then you could add a trellis and plant a cover plant like ivy which will provide cover for birds and is excellent insect food.

4. Put up nest boxes

Nest boxes will encourage birds to breed in your garden. There are different types of boxes to suit different birds. Search the internet to read about where the best place is to site these boxes. Remember they should be sheltered from the elements and installed before spring so that you do not disrupt the breeding season. Do not site them too close to where you want to set your feeders up, remember the area around their nest is their domain and there will be fights if other birds get close to this area.

5. Set up a Bird Feeding station

Setting up a bird feeding station using different feeders filled with proper bird safe peanuts, different types of seed and other bird food like fat balls will attract birds. You can get squirrel-proof bird feeders to ensure the squirrels don’t steal all the food. You can also pin up bacon rind on a make shift feeder and slices of apple placed on the floor will attract blackbirds and thrushes.

When setting up a bird feeding station remember to also include a bird bath to provide a water source for them to drink and wash in. During the winter remember to make sure that your bird bath does not freeze over. You can just replenish the water or you can pour hot water over it to melt the ice.

A word of warning, if you have a cat then put a bell on it as it will kill a lot of the birds you attract.

Male BullfinchMale Bullfinch

6. Attracting Mammals to your garden

You can build or buy a hedgehog house to keep them safe when they are hibernating. Hedgehogs like worms and slugs and they might find some of these in your log pile. Please do not leave out Milk or Bread as this causes digestive problems and can kill them. To get these into your garden you need to make sure you have a way for them to enter and leave so your fence needs to have a hole in it at ground level that is big enough for them to come and go. Foxes and Badgers are attracted to bird safe peanuts so put these out on the ground just after dusk. Foxes also like dried dog food. Be warned that Badgers also like worms and will dig big holes in your lawn to get them. I had this problem a few years ago, I loved watching them eat the nuts but the lawn was such a mess that I had to stop attracting them. Foxes will cache some of the nuts which might mean they will dig up your lawn as well. I was lucky living next to a wood because the foxes I used to attract would take the nuts to the wood and cache them there. Foxes are also attracted to road kill but be aware so are rats. Again apart from food remember to leave out some water.

FoxFox

7. Build a Water Feature or Pond

If you have the space then building a water feature in your garden or building a pond in your garden, no matter how small it is, is great as this will vary your wildlife area environment. A water feature or a pond allows you to entice frogs, toads, newts as well as dragonflies and other water based insects. You can also plant things like water lilies and pond weed to help your underwater habitat. These can be bought from your local garden centre.

FrogFrog

Along with a pond, a sheet of corrugated metal on a bit of rough grass provides a home for many creatures and is an excellent place for grass snakes and common lizards to warm up in the morning.

Once you have attracted the wildlife how do you go about photograph them?

Building a hide

Having your own hide can be a great way to shoot wildlife in your garden and there are a couple of options, depending on how permanent you want the hide to be. If you only intend to photograph on the odd day, then a simple pop-up hide will suffice. You might want to put it up and leave it in position for a while until the wildlife gets used to it. A good point about a pop-up hide is that you can move it about as the light changes and being in your garden means that it is less likely to "go walkies". The bad point is that you will get cold especially early in the morning and in winter also most of them are not very comfortable. If you want a more permanent solution then buy a small shed and place this in your chosen position. You can remove a window or cut a hole in the wall and place scrim netting over it. You could put a heater in it to keep warm, put carpet and insulate the walls to deaden any sound you make. Because of the comfort you will be more inclined to stay longer in this type of hide which will mean you will not miss many photo opportunities especially when the mammals turn up. You need to be quiet in a hide so you need to be comfortable and warm. The world is your oyster, any fool can be cold and if you are cold then you will fidget. Remember fidgeting = no photos.

When setting up your hide think about the foreground and background. To get a good bokeh your background needs to be at least 3x the distance you are from your subject. In other words If you are 2m away from your subject then the background should be at least 6m away from the rear of the subject or 8m away from you. Try photographing it with your favoured lens and see what the results are like. Think about the light and the direction it will be coming from. Think about distractions from things like branches, flower stems etc. and avoid any plants with shiny leaves, like holly, which can create horrible hot spots in your images.

Birds tend to be more active early in the morning, when they get up, and later in the afternoon, just before they go to sleep, but they are active for most of the day. Mammals on the other hand are a bigger challenge. They do visit gardens on a regular basis but because they rely on scent and hearing the “not fidgeting” statement becomes the number 1 rule. You also need to spend a great deal of time in your hide so that you will be there when they do attend your setup. An alternative approach to this is to use a remote shutter release that you can fire from the inside of your house. Regular contact will also help habituate many species and over time they will learn that you are no threat and behave naturally when you’re around. It took me about 6 months before the foxes got used to me and after that they used to be there waiting for me to bring them food. They used to wait just behind a bush, about 2m away, watch me put the dried dog food out and then come out when I had taken a couple of steps away. It was fantastic seeing them so close. I often had Foxes, Hares, Rabbits and Muntjac deer visiting my garden during the day.

RobinRobin

Frogs, toads, and reptiles are becoming more reliant on gardens as a place to feed, relax and breed because their natural habitats are in decline which is good news for wildlife photographers but bad news for the actual wildlife, that’s why everybody needs a water feature in their garden. Once your water feature or pond is established then frogs and toads will find it, where do they come from, who knows. They travel great distances to return to their breeding grounds in spring and this is the time to photograph them as they will be active during the day and at night. Outside of this breeding season you might find them in damp places, like your log pile. If you don’t have a log pile then very early or at dusk is good at other times of the year. Have a walk around your wildlife area and look in your pond with a small LED torch during the night and it might reveal them out on their rambles. If you catch it right your pond could be full of mating toads just like I witnessed a couple of times in my life. In the morning they were gone and only the spawn remained as evidence.

What camera equipment do I need?

To capture a medium-sized bird at a decent size in the frame, you’ll need a telephoto lens of at least 300mm. A 100mm to 400mm zoom is a better option as this will give you more options when creating your composition. This is also a good choice lens for photographing mammals. If this is coupled with a camera that has a cropped sensor, which effectively increases the magnification, then it is very helpful when photographing birds or mammals at a greater distance. You’ll need a camera that is capable of shooting at 5 frames per second or faster which will increase your chances of capturing action shots. You might need a flash or two as many mammals are most active when light levels are low. For amphibians and insects then you can fit extension tubes to your zoom, which enables the lens to focus closer or fit a proper macro lens instead if you have one. Buy a lens that is close focusing to achieve a good image size.

Lighting

Timing your photography to correspond with peak bird activity at dawn or at dusk will also mean catching the attractive golden sunlight that will bring out the rich colours in a bird’s plumage. The direction of the light depends on your creativity. Don’t discard soft overcast light as this is great for revealing detail in the plumage. The golden sunlight also suits mammals but beggars can’t be choosers and when the mammals appear then that is the best time to photograph them! If the light is dull then you could use flash to enhance the light and if it is too strong then use flash as a fill-in and fill in the deep shadows. At night, try to use 2 flashguns one as a main light source and the other as a fill-in. Indirect natural light is good for photographing subjects that are wet or have skins like frogs and toads as it helps to reduce problems caused by contrast. If you are using flash as your main source of light then try and diffuse it by putting a diffuser on it, like a Sto-fen (www.stofen.com/index.asp), or bounce it onto the subject so it creates a softer light. Lighting can be an issue when working up close to a subject. If you are not keen on flash, like me, or don’t own a flashgun, then think about buying a fold-up reflector to throw light on your subject. These are purchased for about £20, or look up Ebay for even cheaper ones. They are light, fold flat and are very handy for those occasions when you need a little extra fill light. I use a set of Lastolite reflectors (www.manfrotto.co.uk/lastolite/reflector-and-diffuser) ones. They are a bit more expensive but are very good and light which means that they can be held with one hand. 

Blue TitBlue Tit

This image of a Blue Tit was taken at 5:30am. It is worth getting up early for the dawn light.

What settings should I use?

For photographing birds you’ll need a fairly fast shutter speed to prevent any blurring from of the subject due to movement. Therefore a shutter speed of at least 1/250th sec is needed. When photographing fast moving action then you should aim for 1/1000th sec or faster. Setting a wide aperture, such as f5.6, will give you enough depth of field for the subject but will blur the foreground and the background as long as you stick with the info I stated above when setting up your hide. If you set up your camera in aperture priority mode and increase the ISO setting to obtain the required shutter speed only the shutter speed will change if the light does. Setting up to shoot with the widest aperture setting of your lens helps generate the fastest shutter speed. To photograph mammals and get your images sharp with no noise then you need to learn how to hold your camera properly, mount it on a tripod or stabilise it some other way to prevent camera shake. By doing this you can reduce your ISO setting and get a sharp image using a very low shutter speed. With amphibians, some will remain very still so as long as your camera is supported properly you may be able to shoot with very low shutter speeds using natural light. Don’t forget your depth of field, the closer you are to the subject then the smaller your depth of field will be so you might have to change your aperture to f8 or f11. If you are using flash then change your settings to manual mode and set your shutter speed to your flash’s sync speed (look up this in your manual, It's that little book that came with your camera!!!!!). For insects then you will require a fast shutter speed, minimum of 1/250th sec and an aperture of f8 or more to get the depth of field. Remember no matter what wildlife you photograph you will need the eyes of the subject in sharp focus. Of course these settings are only a guide as your creativity will dictate which settings you choose. One big tip to save your knees when photographing amphibians is to purchase a kneeling mat. You can pick one up from your garden centre for about £5 and it will save your knees.

Building setups

Instead of taking images of birds on a feeder you should think about building your custom set-ups for specific images that you think of. Consider placing an aesthetically pleasing twig close to the feeder, to provide a perch for the birds. Position it between the feeder and a bush and the birds will come and settle on your branch before hopping on to the feeder, giving you a chance to make some excellent, natural looking, images. Once you’ve taken all the images you want on a particular twig you can simply change it for another to get a whole new set of images!

Using a custom set-up can be a great way of creating excellent wildlife images in your garden and is only governed by your creativity. By attracting wildlife into your set-ups that you have pre-visualised means that you can create stunning images that could be almost impossible in reality. If you work hard to create a mini garden studio and are patient then the image possibilities are truly endless!

My Garden SetupMy Garden Setup

This is an image of my garden set-up at my last address. The visitor is a hen pheasant. Every image in this blog was taken on this set-up area. The tree branch was on a garden bench. It had plastic underneath and soil around it. The two branches to the right were stuck into the ground and could be changed whenever I wanted to because I dug two drain pipes into the ground to make the change easier. You don't have to go to this extreme but it shows what can be done with a little imagination.

SquirrelSquirrel

This image of a Squirrel was taken on the branch on the bench.

Once it is all set up and running don’t try and rush your wildlife photography. Relax and take your time, trust me it will happen. When it starts happening then you can experiment till your heart’s content.

If you like my blogs then please sign and leave a comment on my Guestbook page www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/guestbook.html and Subscribe by pressing the RSS button at the bottom left of the page.

Also available are Digital Photography Tuition Including Post Processing Workflow, Dartmoor Bird & Wildlife Workshops (Please see the Workshops Tab at the top of the website).

If you choose to stay at our Holiday Cottage / B&B www.acorn-lodge-dartmoor.co.uk at the time of the workshop then you will receive a discount on your tuition and accommodation. 

THANK YOU.


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