New Photographic Opportunities

My new telephoto zoom lens has arrived. It’s huge and heavy and not for taking on dog walks. It’s a Nikon 200-500mm and it weighs in at nearly two and half kilos. Wandering around outside, strap on shoulder, hand on the camera grip ready for test-shot action, I felt like a paparazzi. A self-conscious one. This new set up will take a bit of getting used to.

I decided to shell out what was around twice the cost of the camera itself to enable me to get better shots of the various animals and birds that pass through (and sometimes take up residence in) our garden and the adjoining field. It should result in noticeably more detail than I’ve been getting with my 70-300mm lens. And it should mean less cropping generally.

View of the adjoining field, taken back in May

I’ve told myself that the expense is justified ‘A’ because of lockdown – what else you gonna do? – and ‘B’ because we do get quite a lot of wildlife – and resultant photographic opportunities – from Roe Deer and Muntjacks to stoats and water shrews. When it comes to bird life we’re lucky too. We’ve had Egrets on the stream and even occasional visits from Kingfishers, though with no fish to speak of in the shallow stream they’re only ever passing through (I’ll have to be quick and have the camera within reach if I’m ever going to get a shot of one). We get a few bird species you’d normally see in open countryside, as well as the more typical garden birds, but not too many of them. They all look bit nervous. I suspect it’s because we have a lot of Corvids here as well – particularly Magpies, Jays and Jackdaws – and Raptors too. Buzzards nest each year in a tall oak a couple of hundred yards away, and we usually have Sparrow Hawks nesting nearby.

The buzzards have had a tough time of it this year as the rabbit population locally was devastated by Myxomatosis. It was horrible to see the sickly things struggling blindly about in the field and finding their way onto the patio occasionally where it was my job to dispatch them. Within a week or two there were no rabbits left. It seemed to me the Buzzard fledglings, when they appeared, were squawking more loudly for food from their parents than in previous years. And for longer.

One of the squawking fledgelings, waiting for the next food delivery

There were two survivors from the nest and they sounded increasingly desperate as the days went by. On one occasion I saw a parent trying to teach them the basics of hunting with a tiny mouse – or at least that’s what I think was happening. Maybe she was just making them work for it. Whichever, it felt like an indicator of just how tough things were getting for them.

Hungry buzzard fledglings, desperate for that mouse. Hopefully sharper images will be get-able with the new lens.

Anyway, we’re hoping we’ve seen the back of the Myxomatosis – for now anyway. I saw a couple of rabbits chasing each other the other day and that’s as many rabbits as I’ve seen in the field at any one time for a few months now. 

Without rabbits we don’t see their predators so much. There’s always been a buzz of excitement when a fox wanders through the field or peers out from behind some undergrowth, or just sits there watching on.

Surprisingly – to us anyway – the rabbits usually seem pretty relaxed about it. Some of them behave as if they’re sentries, sitting up ramrod straight, watching, listening. It looks like they know when a fox is on the hunt and when it’s just passing through. They also seem to know exactly when they need to make a dash for their burrows – or the adults do. The carefree young ones, with their first days out in the open air, full of the joys of fresh grass and buttercups, are not so wary. You see the mothers shepherding the young back towards the safety of their burrows when they stray too far away. And they do it quite briskly sometimes. The young rabbits don’t always want to be told.

Spot the point of interest

In the winter the foxes can look a bit skinny and muddy, from getting in and out of their earths during wet weather, I’m guessing. But during the summer when it’s dry and there’s usually plenty of food about, they’re in peak condition.

Longer shots with animals seen in the context of their surrounding are possible with the 70-300mm.

The device you’re viewing this on may have cropped the ends of the picture which would defeat the purpose of it. Apologies if that’s the case.

And when you’re looking to emphasise distance between predator and quarry, the less strong telephoto lenses are also okay. In fact I seem to remember I knitted two shots together for the picture above, as the wider end of the zoom couldn’t capture both rabbit and fox at the same time. It will be nice, though, to have the possibility of closer shots.

The relationship between foxes and rabbits provide much of the wildlife drama here. And the rabbits provide a bit of humour too. Their chases and their crazy acrobatics in particular. Not sure whether the whirling backward flips that some of them do is to impress prospective mates or just the result of over excitement. Whatever, it’s one of the things I’m hoping I might be able to capture this year with the new lens. We’re hoping the rabbit population recovers more quickly than it did when Myxie passed through a few years ago.

Now that I have my new lens, there have been fewer opportunities to use it. The migratory birds have gone and there are fewer daylight hours than there were. We’ve had a Roe Deer appearing in the field now and again. But she’s always at the further most point – a hundred yards or more away – where she likes to lie down and watch over the valley (if you look at the view of the field at the top of this blog, she’s between the small copse and the hedgerow at the top left of the field). And we only ever seem to see her when the light is gloomy. Now the sun is out, she’s nowhere to be seen. Managed to get a few shots of her when she was here, hiding behind tufts of grass. I couldn’t see her with the naked eye – or my naked eyes anyway (it was Chantal who spotted her). Below is my first attempt – cropped a bit – with the new 200-500mm.

Promising, I think. But here’s hoping for some sunny days in the next few months with beautiful creatures doing interesting things. And for me to have camera to hand when I spot them.

First Ground Frost of Autumn

We had our first ground frost of Autumn a couple of nights ago. Our two courgette plants were the first casualties: we found them collapsed in a heap of bent stalks and damp grey leaves. I managed to salvage a couple of the remaining courgettes that were not frost-damaged and they are now marinating in olive oil and lemon juice (with a little crushed garlic and chopped parsley), ready to be seared in the griddle pan for supper. A last taste of summer, or one of them: the tomato plants, closer to the shelter of the house, are still holding out.

We’ve had a few sunny days since the official start of Autumn on the 22nd, and there’ve been butterflies about – at least in the shelter of the valley here, not so much up on the plain. It’s been a mixture of freshly emerged hopefuls and others that are reaching the end of the road. They still have a kind of tattered beauty about them though.

Below, a tired-looking Speckled Wood, a Large White on an almost over Valerian flower, and what must be pretty close to the last of the Meadow Browns.

Below, some of the freshly emerged hopefuls included a Green Veined White on Viburnum, in pretty good condition

a Large White, head buried deep in late-flowering clover

And a speckled Wood, enjoying the Autumn Sun.

There have been plenty of Red Admirals and Commas about, and a few Small Coppers, though they’ve only ever landed when there’s been no camera to hand. But still quite a lot happening. Took a few shots of a Large White on the remaining daisies. Against the shadows of the long grass in the background they have an almost studio look to them.

Hummingbird Hawk-moths were visiting the garden up until about a week ago. Most of their favourite Valerian and  Buddleia are over, so they’re been having to make do with what they can find. The Lobelia proved popular. Didn’t get any pictures of them but here’s one I came across on Tilshead Down a couple of weeks ago, taking a rest on a bed of soft moss. The first I’d seen at rest.

And here’s another from a couple of years ago, sipping nectar from Campanula flowers at the front of the house. I see from the date the picture was taken that they were still around on October 7th in 2018.

The sun just came out, as I was sitting here at my desk, so I thought I’d wander off up the garden with my camera to see what was about. There were one or two whites and several fresh-looking Speckled Woods, one of which I took a picture of as it rested on an ivy leaf (below). Muted colours but a beautiful butterfly. It’s been a good year for Speckled Woods.

It’s been a good year for quite a few species. Not a great year for Common Blues though, or Painted Ladies. Despite having seen my first one arriving a week or so earlier than last year I haven’t seen another. Just goes to show: one Painted Lady does not a Painted Lady summer make.

Exhausted Adonis

Addendum to previous post.

Pictures taken on August 28th, the day after the second storm abated.

This Adonis Blue still has its full set of undamaged wings, only a little frayed around the edges. His problem though was getting a good grip on the grass strand, pictured in the slideshow below. But then he’d been clinging on to strands of vegetation for days – and nights – while the storms raged around him. So if his grip was a little weak it was understandable.

“If I could just pull myself up here a bit”… “That’s better”… “Oops, slipping again”… “Maybe I should try some less challenging vegetation”

He flew off to find another perch. And this one, with its several seed-head fronds, proved more stable and easier to get a hold of. All six legs taking the strain.

But a nice flat blade of grass was better still.

Back to business and keeping an eye out for the next passing female.

After the Storms

Green-veined White on wild mint in the field next to the house, a couple of days after the storms

The sun was out for much of the dog walk up on the plain yesterday morning but there weren’t many butterflies about. During the course of the mile or so walk to our local Special Site of Scientific Interest, the total number of butterflies seen came to: one Small White, one Meadow Brown, a couple of Small Heaths and not a single blue. It looked like most of the species that were usually on the wing at this time of year had gone. Taken out, I was assuming, by Storms “Ellen” and “Francis”. It had been a stormy week or two.

The Adonis Blues at the SSSI had faired better. There were a dozen or more that I saw flitting about on the gently-sloping top of the escarpment.

One of the Adonis Survivors, a little faded and frayed around the edges

I’m guessing the Hawthorn bushes – of which there are quite a few there – would have given more shelter than on more open areas of Salisbury Plain. But wherever butterflies had ended up roosting it would’ve been pretty tough, clinging to a piece of vegetation for dear life – literally – with winds gusting to over fifty miles an hour. One can imagine they might easily have been battered by the other strands of vegetation flailing about – maybe thistles or scrub branches – or ripped from their stalk and thrown to the winds. And that would have been it. It was blowy enough in our sheltered valley at home. Up on the exposed Salisbury plain it would’ve been fierce.

On the way back to the car, I didn’t see many more butterflies – one or two – but I was pleased to see a Wall Brown that was still flying along one of the tracks.

Another intrepid survivor, it had a bit of its front left wing missing and a chunk of the right rear looked to be absent too, but it was still flying. Maybe it would find a mate with which to produce some of the next generation. He/she would have deserved it. But the chances – bearing in mind how few other survivors I’d seen – looked a bit slim. It struck me that it’s no good being the fittest to have survived if there are no others left to survive with.

Far more butterflies were about in our relatively sheltered garden, and in the adjoining field, the day before: Meadows Browns and Small Heaths, the odd common Blue and a few Green-veined Whites.

But Large Whites were the most prevalent. They were all over the place. And they all seemed to be in beautifully fresh condition.

It looked like they’d emerged that day – or very recently – and it made me wonder what had triggered it. Do their chrysalises know somehow that conditions are favourable? Are they maybe sensitive to temperature or levels of sunlight? But then again, some of the winds have been pretty warm and the skies had been clear while the wind was blowing fiercely. Could they be sensitive to vibrations caused by high winds perhaps? Is their an instinct in the dormant chrysalis that makes it wait until things have calmed down?

Whatever had caused the new generation to appear, it was like a Large White carnival: butterflies chasing each other and dancing and feasting on the nectar of flowers in our garden, and in the field too where there was a profusion of wild mint in bloom. 

And what about the Adonis Blues up on the Plain? I’d comes across one male on a walk during the last couple of weeks that was about quarter of a mile from where they were normally found. Perhaps blown there by the wind? But it wasn’t the location so much as the condition of the butterfly that I found intriguing. The worst of one storm had only subsided a day or so before, and this butterfly was in pristine condition. It had to have only recently emerged, perhaps that morning.

At the time I had wondered whether this was just a lucky individual who’d avoided the storm by chance – in emerging a day or two after it – while other butterflies had been emerging and perishing in the fierce winds. Or whether this was the tail end of the Adonis Blue emergence, and there was some innate instinct that made the chrysalises that were left wait. Instinct or chance, it looked like timing was pretty much everything, as usual. Though, having said that, there was no way the butterfly – or chrysalis – could have known that another storm, Francis, was just round the corner. But then there’s bad luck as well as good timing.