January

On Salisbury Plain

The above picture is one of the first I’ve taken with my new iPhone. It’s replaced the old museum piece of a mobile which, over the years, has been working less and less well and falling further and further behind in terms of its functionality compared to newer models, particularly the ability, via WiFi, to connect to the mobile network in places where there is only the faintest of mobile signals. Like our house. And also there’s only so long you can go on using elastic bands to keep the plug attached to your phone when you’re trying to recharge it. Having such an old model had become a kind of badge of honour, but the cost in terms of its shortcomings had become too much: the bullet had to be bitten.

The transition to the new phone was surprisingly painless in terms of data transfer and stuff, but I hadn’t tried out the camera up until a particular crisp and frosty morning about a week ago. I knew the the software was capable of exposing different parts of an image in different ways, enabling you to get more balanced pictures in contrasty conditions. So I thought I’d see how it would handle capturing the sky and the more delicate colouring of the frosty grass in the foreground with the camera pointed directly at the sun. You don’t get much more potentially contrasty than that.

The colours are a little hazy, but I thought it did pretty well. And it was much easier than it would have been fiddling about with HDR settings on the Nikon.

It’s been a slightly sad nostalgic farewell to the old iPhone though.

Pretty much the last picture taken on my old iPhone 4: snowdrop buds poking though the leaf litter on Boxing Day (plus over-exposed whippet foot in top left corner).

Of course the Nikon has its own strengths, particularly when it comes to telephoto photography, but it’s been a bit of a struggle over the last couple of months when clear frosty mornings have been the exception to the gloomy norm.

In terms of subjects, there’s been little in the way of wildlife in the garden or the field opposite. And when wildlife has appeared, it’s either been passing through at high speed or been there in dull light. Or both. There was a female muntjac we spotted running through the mist the other morning and I had no idea they could move that fast. The mist was swirling in her wake.

We’ve seen Egrets on a couple of occasions, but they are rare visitors here and amongst the most nervous. They seem always to see you before you see them which means, generally, what you get to see of them is their rear view flying away very quickly. Another challenge for 2021.

I managed a few pictures of Muntjacks back in November when the days were a bit brighter, but since then I haven’t seen much at all apart from the local fox which passes through now and again looking for mice and voles. Nice to see them doing that prancing jump thing they do when trying to land on one, but it’s not happened yet when I’ve had the camera on them.

Below are a few of the pictures I have managed to get with the new 500mm lens.

And below is a slideshow of the fox trying to catch a small rodent: “Gotcha!”, “Well I thought I’d gotcha”, “I’m sure he’s here somewhere”, “Where’d he go?”

Like all of us, I’m looking forward to brighter, longer days ahead.

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.

Wider 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.

Photographic Cautionary Tale – yet another

And Some Late Season Surprises

When I did the regular dog walk on Friday I didn’t bother taking my camera with me as it was overcast and I didn’t expect much in the way of butterfly action anyway. And sure enough there wasn’t any. The days definitely have an end of season feel to them now. But then, when I arrived back home the sun popped out, I saw a couple of Small Whites fluttering about in the front garden and also, more interestingly, a Small Copper. It landed and stayed landed on a grass bank. I hadn’t taken a picture of a Small Copper in the garden this year, so I nipped inside to get the camera and when I got back the butterfly was, unusually, still there. The sun had gone in but it was sheltered in that particular spot and the butterfly was very still. I decided to try dropping the exposure speed down to 1/50 to see if I could get a sharp image with a reasonably low ISO. And I did. The result is below.

Small Copper on a tangle of grass

Fast forward a couple of minutes to the back of the garden.

I thought I’d have a bit of a walk-about to see if there were any other late season butterfly surprises. There was nothing, initially. And then Chantal, who was enjoying the warmth of the Autumn Sun with a cup of tea at the back of the garage, called out that there was a yellowish butterfly heading towards the garden from across the field. And she thought it might be a Clouded Yellow. As soon as she’d said it, the butterfly had turned round and landed somewhere in the thick undergrowth, so I didn’t get to see it.

I hadn’t taken a picture of a Clouded Yellow in the adjoining field – or the garden – before, so I thought it worth a try. I asked Chantal to keep an eye on where it had landed as I clambered down to cross the stream. I also had to get over the barbed wire fence on the other side which can be a tricky manoeuvre when you’re holding a camera, making you effectively one-handed for holding down the springy barbed wire while balancing on one leg to lift the other one over. But I managed it without any nasty rips in awkward places.

The field back in May. (The white of the Hawthorn Blossom at the back of the field has now turned to berry red.) The garage from where Chantal gave directions (bench just out of shot) is to the right of the stream

Once in the field I asked Chantal to direct me to the where she thought the butterfly had landed, which she did. “Left a bit, right a bit, keep going…”. It’s usually quite boggy ground in that part of the field and that’s what it felt like underfoot (it’s difficult to see where you’re treading with the weeds waist high at this time of year). I’d discovered previously, when following escapee whippets or stalking small butterflies in the field, that the best way to cross the boggy ground, when you’re not wearing  boots, is to try to step from tussock to tussock, of which there are quite a few. But searching for the next one through the thick undergrowth is not easy. You haven’t got much time to look ahead for butterflies. It was tricky.

“You’re just about there,” was the call from behind the back of the garage. 

I looked over and around the foliage in front of me and, sure enough, there it was: a Clouded Yellow. “You were right,” I called out. And then as I was manoeuvring into a good photographic position, the butterfly flitted off again. “Oh well, opportunity gone for another year,” was my immediate reaction. Clouded Yellows spend a lot of time flying quickly and not a lot of time landing and keeping still – in my experience – and I wasn’t expecting it to land again close by. But this time, to my surprise, it did. It landed almost immediately on another piece of vegetation just a few paces away. In my excitement I forgot the tussock to tussock rule and immediately felt a slip-on deck shoe splodge into the watery bog between them. A brief pause as I felt water seep in between the laces and then I was off again. And the slip-on deck shoe, predictably, slipped off. I’d never managed a shot of a Clouded Yellow in the field before so leaving the shoe behind didn’t seem like too big a deal, and within a few one-shoed paces the butterfly was in range. I manoeuvred into position – it still hadn’t flown off – and started taking pictures. Through the lens it looked like I was getting one or two nice shots. I managed to move round to the other side to get a couple of shots with the sun on the butterfly which would mean a nice variety and a few shots to choose from. Brilliant. And then the butterfly was off and this time it didn’t stop, disappearing behind trees at the edge of the field. But I’d got my pictures. I found my shoe, slipped it back on to a soggy-socked foot, and wandered back towards the garden. I have to admit to a small feeling of triumph at that point.

And then I had a thought: had I changed the speed back to my usual default setting of 1/500 from 1/50 which I’d set it to when I took the shot of the very stationary Small Copper.

I checked the setting on my camera. The answer was no. 

It had somehow got to 1/100, but with the breezy condition out in the middle of the field, and the way the butterfly had been moving about, it meant the chances of having a good crisp picture were low.

And so it proved. Below is the best of the bunch.

As you can see, the picture is not sharp. And it could’ve been a nice shot: the composition was okay; the background was nicely blurred; the wings had a little bit of illumination from the sun, which I like, and the rusty brown markings on the yellow wings nicely echoed the rusty brown markings of the fading leaves. What can I say? When it comes to taking photographs it’s a good idea to check the settings before, rather than after, you’ve taken them. Even if I was a bit excited at the time, it was a schoolboy error and yet another good opportunity blown. I stomped about in my soggy sock and waterlogged shoe for a bit before I stopped cursing.

The story does have a more positive ending though.

The next day, Saturday, I was walking towards the garage when I noticed a yellow butterfly beyond it, flitting about over the grass. I hurried back to the house to get my camera, and about half a minute later I was in the middle of the lawn, looking around for yellow butterflies and this time double-checking the exposure on the camera. And then there it was: high up, moving along the line of a tall hedge and flying at speed away from me. I went in pursuit, hoping against all reasonable expectation that it might just change direction and fly directly at me. And that’s exactly what it did. I couldn’t believe it. And it landed on a late flowering blue geranium a few paces away. I managed to get about a dozen shots and the best three are below. Simple as that.

The dead and dying foliage with the bright green background makes for a confusing image, but the contrasting blue of the geranium in a garden pretty devoid of colour in early/mid October was a positive. And this time the focus was pretty crisp.

I noticed a couple of things in the pictures when I saw them on the computer screen.

Firstly, judging by the markings on the wings (particularly the shape of the smaller of the two white dots ringed in brown) the one I saw on Saturday was a different individual from the one I saw on the Friday. Secondly, there were some blueish markings near the base of the wings of the Saturday Clouded Yellow, which I don’t think I’ve seen before. I’m wondering whether they are actually unusual markings or whether perhaps it’s been smudged with blue pollen on its travels. Do any flowers out there have blue pollen? Or could it be some kind of bruising? One to check out.

Then today, the sun came out again. After the last couple of days I had my camera (settings checked) with me while I enjoyed the end of a Sunday lunchtime beer behind the garage. I could see a couple of what looked like Small Whites flitting around some bramble bushes some distance away and was absent-mindedly wondering whether the butterflies might be sipping the sugary juice of the over-ripe blackberries, when another butterfly, a brown and orangey one, suddenly appeared and landed on one of the few remaining flowers of Catnip in the garden. I had a vague idea it might be a Gatekeeper, but were they about at this time of year?

As soon as I saw it through the lens I could see it was a Wall Brown, the first one I’d definitely seen in the garden. I managed to get a couple of shots before it was off again, landing twenty feet away on a tiny Herb Robert flower, and this time it kindly opened its wings. I managed to get a picture of it there too. And then it was off and away and the visitation was over. A look at the Butterfly Conservation website confirmed that Wall Browns are around until Mid October.

So there we are. I’d thought the butterfly season was pretty much over, and within the space of three days I’d seen two species I’d never seen in the garden before. And taken pictures of them too, even if I did fluff the first attempt. Lesson learned. At least for the time being.