July/August has been a good month for me, with plenty of opportunities for wildlife photography, particularly dragonflies and birds, of which herons have been a major feature. Covid 19 has quite obviously been an ever-present threat, with all of our forays being taken with very considerable thought. It’s depressing to talk about it, but it is nethertheless important, as I cannot stress enough how careful we are in our trips out, especially as my wife and I are both furloughed, to which we feel immense responsibility to our employers, who will be trusting we remain safe, otherwise, what’s the point in not being at work? With that in mind, trips are only for an hour or two, at quieter times, with our adventures only taking us to fairly open, visible places. There’s no point in doing all we can to protect our family from this dreaded disease if we’re simply going to let our guard down by being out.
Anyway, Covid talk over and the two places I’ve found myself the most the last month has been Edenbrook in Fleet, Hampshire, or Thursley Common, in Surrey. Other trips have included Naishes woods, (Church Crookham, Hampshire) and Bourley Lake, which is also in Church Crookham. Weather-wise, it has been extremely dry and very hot, at least for the UK! We’ve had a couple of small thunderstorms this week, but prior to this it has been dry, dry, dry, with temperatures up to 37 degrees celsius. On a more sobering and sad note (again), it has been hot enough to see fires break out at Thursley Common and Chobham Common, two of the finest examples of heathland in the UK, and some would even say Europe, with the fire at Thursley Common proving to be an absolute ecological disaster, with 25% (20 hectares) being destroyed over a period of 3 days, while the board walk used to guide visitors through the bog area being almost completely destroyed. As I write this there are tree cutting contractors on site, removing completely burnt out trees to make it safe again. I will put a link down at the end if you would like to give anything to the appeal. This was very sad news, as I actually planned to go earlier that morning, of what would have been a first ever visit for me. Why did I want to go? I bought an excellent book by the RSPB, (Where To Go Wild In Britain) with Thursley being included for its excellent heathland, with it being noted as being one of the very best places for dragonfly/damsel fly species, as well as reptiles (very rare here in the UK) and heathland birds.
During the early part of lockdown I daren’t have gone anywhere, with a visit to a farm shop once a week being my limit, which meant that my only photography came from the back garden, of which I felt immeasurably blessed to have given the times we were in, but it did mean I was restricted to what happened to be in the garden. Fortunately, I have a love of plants and wildlife, so though it’s a typical, long, narrow terrace garden, I do at least have reasons for wildlife to visit. However, I did wonder if I would ever get anything other than feral pigeons, or house sparrow ever again! With lockdown beginning to be eased, we decided it would be good to discover some new wildlife places and get the kids out for some much needed air and adventure. This part of Covid has been an absolute joy. I know for some it has been devastating, but I will look back on this time with real fondness, being grateful for not only the time apart from work, but also for the time with family, camera and nature. I realise that for some this could be deemed as very insensitive, but I also think I needn’t apologise for being able to make the most of this time. For example, this month alone has seen me get first sightings of a peregrine falcon, great white egret, reed bunting, a number of different dragonfly, more encounters with lizards than I’d ever had in my life, but perhaps most importantly, a real excitement in both my boys to see nature. The oldest boy, aged 6, has been lifting logs for sightings of his new favourite animal, the toad, as well as newts, lizards and slow worms. In fact, he has found so many toads and reptiles recently that I find myself having to temper his enthusiasm, reminding him that he won’t find them every time he goes out.
From a personal point of view, I have liked being able to build up a mental map of the wildlife at both Thursley Common and Edenrook Nature Reserve. From a photographic point of view, it’s been great to roughly know what I might find and where. The curious thing is that I now feel I’m going from just ‘taking pictures’ to ‘making pictures.’
What do I mean by this though? Well, early doors, and even at times now (I’ll explain when) I was/am so grateful to see wildlife that I just took a photo of it. Sure, I still thought about composition, direction of the light, Etc. but in terms of behaviour, or pose, I just took the picture. Certainly this was the case early lockdown in my garden where I had little room for fussiness, though I did try a few creative things to capture some different images, however, I’m seeing certain wildlife, such as herons, more than I used to, with Edenbrook proving to be excellent for these large fishing birds and as a result I’m now finding that I’m at a stage where there are only so many photos of the same thing you can take.
So, what to do? Well, in the case of the heron, I find myself thinking about what I might like to get. A certain flight shot, or maybe some fishing, for example. Having more time has obviously been the biggest factor in the images I’m getting now, but so too has knowledge of the nature reserves, planning, and a lot of patience! I can see now, that building up a good knowledge of particular reserves is very important and can get you in the right places to get the shot. That being said, if there is one bit of advice I could give, it would simply be this. If you are out and about and you encounter something new, familiar place or not, for goodness sake, just take the picture! I nearly didn’t take a photo of some red kites because it was a similar pose to what I’d been getting recently, but I thought I could see a ‘kestrel’ near them, as there had been one not far from there earlier. Once again, in the case of the kestrel I nearly didn’t take the photo because even with a 200-500mm lens fully zoomed, on a Nikon D500, which has a crop factor of 1.5, which in effect makes my lens a 350-750, I still thought it was going to be too high up to get anything worthwhile, but I took the shots and thought no more of it. If nothing else, this was going to be remembered as a great wildlife moment. That said, when I got home and loaded the images on to the laptop, I honestly couldn’t believe it, for the ‘kestrel’ was not a kestrel, but a peregrine falcon! Wow!! So, in one day, I got not only my first ever sighting, but photo as well! Was it a spectacular photo? No! I’ve seen much better. The bird was high, needed a good crop and was not in a particularly great pose, but would I rather have the image than not? Yes, massively! Especially as I had assumed it was a kestrel!!
Whilst I appreciate you don’t want to fill your digital files full of the same thing, you should never let photography snobbery rob you of an opportunity. I nearly fell into this trap during the initial part of lockdown, with me finding myself feeling like I had to apologise for the house sparrow/pigeon photos I was putting up on instagram, as if I should have only been sharing something exotic, and whilst I have no doubt that they’ll never get the same likes as a lion, or a koala, they were nonetheless, what I had in my garden, so at that point, I had two options.
One – let snobbery and insecurity take away the chance of honing a skill, or,
Two – use it as a chance to think more about the photos and what I could do to make them different.
That though, is just one scenario, but again, If you know that you’re in a situation where you have never seen a particular species of wildlife/moment before, then rather than worry about the perfect picture, just take the picture and think about the rest afterwards. If you’re fortunate, or clever in your planning, you may get another chance, in which case you can take a better picture then, but, if that was your ‘once in a lifetime’ shot, then guess what, you’ve not got it, and at that point, for me at least, I’d rather have a record of what I’ve seen, than none at all.
Well, what about the trip to Thursley? It was a sad sight for the most part, with only a map giving me a rough idea of what it may have looked like before the fire, but I am still glad I made the effort to go. The carnage is obvious. The air is scented heavily by smoke, whilst the trees are mostly charcoal towers, the heather gone and the board walk an odd patch of decking here and there, as opposed to what would have no doubt been a magnificent walk through the wetland/acidic bog before. There is hope though. For a start, the birch is already beginning to grow, albeit in a multi-stemmed way, which, ironically, might actually be better for some birds, whilst the bracken is coming back (I don’t know if this is to the detriment of the heathland right now) but is at least a sure sign that things can recover. Now, I’m sure a controlled fire probably takes place there anyway, as some birds need both new heather shoots for food, and older plants for breeding/hiding in, but certainly not at the scale it was here. Dragon/damselfly sightings were like nothing I’d ever seen before, with a purchase of a book being needed (Britain’s Dragonflies – Published by Princeton) as I have no idea what species I’m photographing otherwise, while red kites, kestrel, great white egret, green wood peckers, stonechats, another first for me (though this time only a sighting) of a reed warbler, a yet to be identified bird, and, did I mention the PEREGRINE FALCON!!! I’ve also now seen more lizards than my whole life combined till now, and look forward to a first sighting of a shrike, a gruesome bird, otherwise known as a butcher bird, who dismembers and hangs its prey on sharp, spiky plants, which it uses as a larder! These I believe will be visiting anytime from now, though I’m only going by the visitor board on this one. Not at all bad for a place still feeling the effects of a devastating fire!
Edenbrook has been great. It’s fairly local to me, and my knowledge of it has grown tremendously. I first came across it in the winter just gone and had seen redwing and song birds in the clear trees at that time, with one or two heron, Egyptian geese, a family of swans, mallard ducks, Canadian geese, and another first at that point, a stone chat, which was pointed out to me when I asked for identification online. The stone chat has since become a frequent sighting for me (it’s like when you want to buy a dog, or a car, you suddenly seem to see them everywhere!) and is a very interesting bird. From a photographer’s point of view, they’re a dream, with them taking up visible perches to warn away other males, whilst at the same time announce themselves to the females. It was on another walk that a local to the area told me why they were called a stone chat. Do you know why? Well, it’s because they sound like they’re bashing two stones together! What’s funny, is that my three year old, and six year old sons, know more about stonechats at their age, as I do now aged 37! Oh well, we never stop learning!
A few months on, and I saw my first (yes, this really has been a year of firsts for me) great egret, while I now regularly see 4/5 herons and know where to look across the 4/5 distinct pools of water. I say 4/5 pools of water because one is a field that temporarily floods in the autumn/winter months. The Canada geese have moved off, as have the redwing, but song birds remain, albeit no longer as easy to photograph among the leaves, red kite can be seen, (my photo of the kite being mobbed by a crow was taken at Edenbrook) as can a kestrel, (No, really, it is a kestrel!) which I hope I can now find more often, a buzzard, (though sadly rarely) acrobatic house martins, as well as starlings, jackdaws, crows, magpies and the occasional pheasant in the fields of a farmer/horse owner, though not peasants, as this is a very affluent area! What I hope to see is a barn owl. The place looks ideal for them, with long clumps of grass no doubt hiding untold numbers of voles, shrews and mice, but it is my most recent find, a couple of fields, that have got me most excited, with one still to be explored! How exciting! On the topic of the two fields, I haven’t seen a barn owl there yet (I’ve only visited twice) but I have seen a kestrel each time, so I suspect it lives/hunts there and that could, I hope, present some amazing opportunities to photograph a bird I’ve rarely ever seen, let alone photograph, with my only good encounter coming at my sole visit to Bushy Park, in Hampton Court, London. With regards to wanting to see a barn owl, this is another bird that I have only seen once before in the wild, so that really would be a ‘Bobby Dazzler!’ of a sight.
On a bizarre, and final note – I managed to get a photo of a buzzard and a peregrine falcon at the same time! I know. Amazing! Especially given I’d only recently just seen my first ever wild sighting. But, and here’s the bizarre part, not in the air, but on the arm of two sons with their dad, out on an evening walk, or flight, depending on who/what we’re talking about. It turns out the dad is a falconer and so, with darkness falling, I put my camera to the test at ISO 12,800, and got a couple of the birds on the boy’s arms. So maybe now, when I refer to seeing a ‘peregrine falcon’ I may have to refer to wild or captive!
Till next time stay safe and do make the most of this time if you have it!