Greetings from a Wildlife Photographer on Dartmoor in Devon, England
I hope you are all safe and well, and bearing up with what is going on. So, what have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this “Lockdown” period?
I had planned to visit two main areas to photograph wildlife on Dartmoor this year, a third was ready just in case I had to change my plans last minute due to some unforeseen circumstance like the Dartmoor rangers setting fire to one of the areas, which has happened before. I, and I doubt anybody else, could foresee what was going to happen when the coronavirus, covid 19, hit our planet. Therefore I have been catching up with all the jobs that needed doing, and some that didn’t, around the house and garden. My wife writes the list and we do the jobs together, but I can’t understand why the list never seems to end!
Wildlife photography wise I have finished all the post processing of my photos from 2016 and am well into my 2017 photos. As you know I leave the post processing of my photos for a while to get rid of the emotional tie I have with them. Normally it is six months to a year but I hate post processing and have left it a bit longer this time so this lockdown has given me the time to do a few images each day and I am slowly getting through them. I just hope it is over before I get to my 2020 images.
I have made several bird boxes from spare wood in my garage and have put them up in my garden and in our field. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they will be used either this year or next. My garden is not very big, but it is alive with birds, butterflies and other insects. It has a mixture of flowers, bushes, a couple of trees (one dead), a hedge and a host of other plants. OK the “host of other plants” are weeds like brambles, nettles etc. but these are needed and lots of wildlife use and eat them. A lot of gardens these days are too “clean” and void of wildlife so set aside an area in your garden, leave it and let it run riot, then watch the birds and insects flock to it. As the weather has been great on Dartmoor I go out into my garden, sit, watch, listen and learn. We have several nests within it including:- several Goldfinches, two Robins, at least two Blackbirds, a Songthrush, a Sparrow in a House Martins nest but it has now been taken back over by House Martins, a Chiff Chaff, a Willow Warbler, a Great Tit, a Blue Tit, a Dove, a Pigeon and for the first time a Blackcap. I noticed the Blackcap when he landed in the tree above me and started singing his beautiful song. The Chiff Chaff and Willow Warbler are sometimes in the same tree and I still can’t tell the difference between them until they start singing.
Chiff-Chaff (Dark coloured legs)
Willow Warbler (Light coloured legs)
We have a Greater Spotted Woodpecker’s nest in a tree just over the road and a Tawney Owl just up the road. We have other birds that visit the garden:- Chaffinches, Dunnocks, Magpies, Goldcrests, we did have two pairs of Bullfinches but they seem to have disappeared, maybe they went to Andy Brown’s (https://www.facebook.com/abphotosUK) garden, not far away, who will get some great photos of them on his garden setup. Recently we have had a male Sparrowhawk visit the garden looking for a meal and a Jay looking for a nest to raid. I hope they don’t get any birds from my garden but then again they have got chicks to feed as well.
When I am alone out in the garden there is one Robin and a Dunnock that come really close, well within a metre of me. They look for food or just stand there and sing. It’s a real privilege to watch and listen to them. But when Murphy is out with me then it is a different matter as he seems to think nothing else is allowed in the garden except us, little scamp!
My wife and I were lucky enough to have had some of our holidays before all this lockdown business started. For one of them we had driven up to the Isle of Mull in Scotland in our motorhome, to get my yearly wildlife photography fix in this country and were going to stay for seventeen days before moving on to other parts of the British Isles and then back home but after ten days we heard that the government wanted nobody to travel, a bit late, and we should stay at home. As we were in a field, on our own, in our motorhome and self-sufficient, we debated the issue. But as we were going on to main campsites later on we decided to make a few telephone calls. After the second call it became clear that the campsites were closing down and so we decided to leave and head for home. I can’t complain because at least we had a great few days up there with some very good weather.
Whilst at my favorite loch, I walked along the loch shore several times a day looking for Otters to photograph. The area was void of other humans and the peace and quiet was tremendous. I saw Red Deer, White Tailed Sea Eagles, Golden Eagles, Oystercatchers, Curlew, a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, Lapwings and numerous waders but Otters were hard to locate. Eventually, after three days of looking I spotted the telltale signs of one hunting at the water’s edge. I waited until it dived and then I moved closer as I was using my Canon EF100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens which is a fantastic walkabout lens but obviously does not give me the same reach as my EF500mm f4 lens. Then again the EF100-400mm weighs more than 2000g less, that’s two bags of sugar! As I got closer I noticed something strange was happening. The Otter appeared to dive but was up straight away rather than disappearing for about ten to twenty seconds. I stayed put as I thought I had spooked it and it was checking to see what I was doing. But whilst watching the Otter it seemed more occupied with something that was happening further along the shoreline where a group of waders were splashing about at the water’s edge and after a while it resumed its normal hunting. When I was close enough I settled down behind a rock, watched and waited and after a while it came ashore, rubbing itself on the seaweed. It was only a few metres away from me and I struggled to keep my emotions in check as I really love these intimate moments with wildlife. After it had rolled around it climbed onto a rock, dropped off a little “sample”, looked around and then jumped back into the water. It swam out a little and then dived down into the water. This is where I lost it and was perplexed to wonder where it had gone. I know Otters can hold their breath for several minutes underwater but no matter where I looked I could not relocate it; therefore I called it a day and slowly walked back to the motorhome for tea.
Over the next few days the struggle to locate any Otters continued. I found plenty of evidence of their presence in the form of spraints but no actual sightings. It did not deter me looking as there was still plenty of other wildlife around but I wanted Otters as I find these animals absolutely delightful both to watch and to photograph.
The day before we left for home I finally located another Otter and once again I started the routine of getting closer each time it dived. It seemed to be catching a lot of fish just a couple of metres out from the shore in amongst the seaweed. Once I was in position I settled down to get some photographs but this Otter had other plans and started swimming along the shoreline. I waited a while to see if it came back but as it kept on going I started following it. After a few minutes it started hunting again and I closed in. Once again just as I settled down and got comfortable it started swimming along the shoreline, this “cat and mouse” chase game continued for a while but I persevered and was close enough when it stood half in the water and half out of it right next to a big rock. It looked around for a minute or so then swam behind the rock and disappeared. I waited and observed but once again this Otter disappeared like the other one. I even got up and looked behind the rock to see if it was sleeping there but to no avail, so frustrating. For the next few hours I walked up and down the loch again looking for it but to no avail, I would love to know where they go when Otters disappear like this. It’s very frustrating when you are only a few metres from one and they just dive and you miss them resurfacing, never mind there is always next time, hopefully! The next day we headed for home.
A couple of miles from our home, luckily I was driving slowly, then again you can’t do anything else but drive slowly on Devon’s roads with a motorhome, when we had a fantastic encounter. It was warm so our windows were fully open when we heard a commotion in the shape of a lot of squawking and wing flapping on our left. I stopped and immediately a large Tawney Owl flew out of the hedgerow in front of our windscreen followed by two Blackbirds chasing it. The Tawney Owl landed in a tree on the other side of the road with the Blackbirds near it but just out of its reach. I could not see anything in the Tawney Owls talons but I would assume it had either raided the Blackbirds nest or flew close to it and the Blackbirds were chasing it away. After about thirty seconds the Tawney Owl flew off with one of the Blackbirds following it. What made this encounter special was that it was in broad daylight being only about 1pm, which goes to prove that you never know what’s going to happen with nature involved.
Whilst out for my daily exercise, taking Murphy along for his walk, I have noticed that wildlife seems to be less “scared”, because there are less people and traffic about I would think. I know I go out early each day, six in the morning, but I have seen several Hares playing about on the open moor and different birds on the ground letting me get really close, less than a metre away, before they either fly off or just walk away. They are not even bothered with Murphy’s presence. The two main birds doing this are Skylarks and Yellowhammers. I know I can normally get close to Skylarks but Yellowhammers are a different matter. I don’t break the government’s rules by taking my camera with me but if I did all I would have to do is lay on the floor with my camera and 100-400mm lens and the bird would nearly fill my viewfinder. The other thing I have noticed that there seems to be more birds making nests in amongst the gaps in the stone walls. This might be because Dartmoor National Park have cut all the brambles, gorse and other vegetation in the area that I walk. The Skylarks and Meadow Pipits are still nesting on the ground which is a bit precarious as it is very open, but I’ve seen Stonechats, Wrens, Robins, Goldfinches, Chaffinches and several tits using the stone walls as nests. One bird that is back in this area at the moment is a Cuckoo which I have not seen here in four years. I would love to hope things would stay like this when “life” gets back to normal, whatever “normal” will be from now on, but I am a realist and know they won’t. Still it’s great while it lasts.
Take care and stay safe.
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