Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part three)

Crested tit, Abernethy
Crested tit, Abernethy

I’ve just returned from a 1300 mile road trip which took ten days, and culminated in a couple of days in the Caledonian pine forests of Speyside. If that sounds excessive you’re right. I probably spent more time driving than enjoying the landscape or wildlife!

I spent quite a few happy days on Speyside during the 1980’s when I worked for the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland for a short while. At the time I felt that, more than anywhere else I had experienced, the pine forests of the Spey valley had the “feel” of the primeval past. Each individual pine tree seem to speak of the ages (a far cry from the commercial plantations of mid-Wales and elsewhere) and the overall impression was more than the sum of its parts. So it was a bit of a pilgrimage for me to go back .

I had a day in the Abernethy forest near Aviemore, which is now owned by the RSPB. Much of the management work they have done has been with the aim of allowing the forest remnant to regenerate naturally and it was quite noticeable how successful this has been. It is sometimes said that we feel most comfortable in a parkland-type landscape because it is similar to the savannah which was our ancestors’ home when they first emerged from the African forest. Well, I think my ancestors must have emerged into the pine forest somewhere…….

Birdlife in the forest was, I think it is fair to say, pretty sparse. I regretted that I had not returned in spring; but then I always want to be everywhere in spring! Just occasionally one would encounter a mixed flock of small birds as they passed through high in the forest canopy. These flocks consisted of coal, blue and great tits, goldcrests and willowchaffs, with the odd crested tit mixed in. The presence of one of these Speyside specialities could be inferred from its trilling call and as soon as I heard it out would come the long lens. But in most cases the birds passed by high overhead.

Pine seeds seem to take root along the sides of tracks where loose bare soil is exposed. This leads to the formation of what is, in effect, a narrow barrier of young pine trees. Out towards the edge of the forest I came across a couple of “cresties” moving along such a row whose maximum height was only about six feet. This looked more promising! But the birds kept their distance and could barely be seen. Then I remembered a trick which I had read about in a book called “Sharing nature with children”, but never really tried. Probably too embarrassed…… but what the hell, there was no-one else around!

The trick is to make a “p” sound with pursed lips, then open the mouth and make a sssshhhhing sound, and end with a “t”. “Psssshhhhht” . That’s it!  Repeat over and over again as necessary. Perhaps any similar sound would do but it seemed to work. It attracted a willowchiff and a wren appeared from nowhere to investigate. Rather than moving ahead of me along the track  the cresties came closer and closer until one paused in full view just a few metres away. And I was well equipped and prepared to make the image. It was a relief to open up the file and discover that the bird is sharp and looks good amongst the pine needles. These opportunities don’t come along too often, especially when you live in rural Wales.

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Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part two)

Preening dunlin, Ynyslas
Preening dunlin, Ynyslas

In my last post I described how I managed to approach a flock of small waders to within just a few yards. I used my knowledge of the location, the season, the time of day, and the species. I approached them slowly and carefully over a period of time. It’s what is described as “fieldcraft”. It was also my good fortune that there were no freelance dogs on the beach that day…….

I’m planning to photograph red kites over the winter  for my birds/landscape project and on the way back from south Wales recently I called in at Gigrin Farm near Rhayader to check out the facilities. Gigrin Farm was one of the original red kite feeding centres (if not THE original) and charged a modest fee to visitors to watch the spectacle. I was surprised to see that hides reserved for photographers were priced at £10, £17 and £22. For the latter you get access to a 2nd storey “hide” with low front and no roof.  I thought this was a bit steep, but in comparison with other locations it is still a bargain.

There is an burgeoning trend these days for enterprising photographers and landowners to set up feeding stations for particular species, each one complete with a hide for photographers. The cost of one of these pay-to-enter set ups is typically £100 – £125 per day, although if you want golden eagle at the nest that can stretch to £200 – perhaps understandably in view of the unique nature of the spectacle!  At the extreme end you can pay £795 for a three-day, all-inclusive holiday to photograph pine martens.  So more and more of those rather wonderful images of red squirrels, crested tits, little owls and an increasing number of other species will have been taken at a pay-to-enter hide. The close-ups of ospreys catching fish which are so  popular at the moment will almost certainly have been taken at a single location on Speyside. Reflection pools are also popular at some of these hides but in my opinion that type of image is already so hackneyed that their shelf life will be very short  indeed!

It is perhaps understandable that this situation has arisen. Many wildlife photographers – particularly the part-time pro’s and amateurs – are pretty well off and will probably possess many thousands of pounds worth of equipment. A hundred quid is neither here nor there. At the other end of the spectrum are the fully professional nature photographers who have seen their earning power plummet over recent years. It’s a match made in heaven! The nature photographers who know their stuff set up the opportunities for those who have little time but an adequate income from elsewhere. And yet……….

It’s becoming increasingly obvious when a wildlife photograph has been taken at a pay-to-visit hide. I have already mentioned ospreys. Many of the bird/mammal portraits taken at these sites are just so “perfect”. The perches look real (you can take your own…..) and the backgrounds are blurred out and natural looking – even if they are not. What about the creature’s environment? Is that not part of the picture? Some of the images could have been taken at the zoo. The photographer still needs good light but in these set-ups wildlife image-making is more of a technical exercise:  shutter speed, aperture, fast reactions and split-second timing. Even the latter is no longer the problem it once was with 10 frames a second motor-drives.

A recent article in Outdoor Photography (August issue) illuminates some of the issues more clearly. In “Nature on demand?”, the author bemoans “an over-reliance on industrialised photographic opportunities” and “the potential loss of creativity and connection with your subject”, for example. He tells us what a shame it would be “if the photographic teachers of today, for the sake of a quick buck, taught the new wave of wildlife photographers not to think for themselves”. And yet he himself, as well as being a prominent wildlife photographer, is one of the big names in wildlife photo-tourism, and must make a significant  percentage of his income from the activities he criticises in the article. Where is he really coming from?

Last week I went on a boat trip out to Grassholm island to photograph gannets. Eleven bird photographers were crammed on to a RIB with barely room to move; it proved to be a little frustrating –  for me, anyway. Amongst the other “punters” was a friend and skilled bird photographer, Janet Baxter. After the trip she described how earlier that day she had spent quite some time successfully habituating a family of choughs to her presence so that she could photograph them. Then along strode a group of birders who frightened the birds away and accused her of disturbing them. It was Janet who used the phrase “whatever happened to fieldcraft?” in response to this incident so I hope she doesn’t mind me appropriating it for my blog.  In reply I would suggest that there is still room for fieldcraft, but that instant results are increasingly the name of the game these days.

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Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part one)

Curlew sandpiper, Ynyslas
Curlew sandpiper, Ynyslas

There have been some very high spring tides this week. At low tide, wading birds feed in the sand and mud of our estuaries and are more or less invisible. But at high tide they are forced onshore by rising waters. During the hour or two their feeding grounds are inaccessible they tend to rest and sleep, and can be quite approachable. This is particularly the case in autumn, when large numbers of juvenile birds are pausing on their long migratory journeys southwards. They seem to have less fear of humans than their parents. So on a visit to the high tide roost at Ynyslas, mid-Wales, on Wednesday I took advantage of these conditions to get some close-up images.

Ornithologists these days all seem to have telescopes and their preferred method of bird-watching is to stand well back above the tide-line and watch the birds as they arrive. This allows reasonably accurate counts to be made and population trends can be identified over a period of years. Photographers prefer to be nearer the action, and we do run the risk of flushing the birds from time to time as we attempt to get that bit closer. There is a certain amount of tension between the needs of one group and the other. So I let the birders do their counts before edging closer to the birds which were resting amongst areas of cobbles on the beach.

Over a period of time I gently approached them until the nearest bird was less than five metres from me! At first they appeared to be absolutely exhausted. They nearly all had head beneath wing and I watched one dunlin’s head and beak visibly drooping is it nodded off. Gradually they become more active and preened, stretched their wings and chattered amongst themselves. It was marvellous to be up close and this personal with these delightful wild creatures. One doesn’t know how much one’s own presence affected their behaviour. Were they excited to see me? It’s impossible to know. When the time came for me to leave, however, I just stood up and walked away without disturbing them in the slightest. I had been completely accepted by them.

As it happened the bird that remained closest to me was a curlew sandpiper. This species is very similar to a dunlin but a little taller and more elegant. There are minor plumage differences in autumn but the white rump is distinctive. It is an annual passage migrant to our shores in small numbers and is usually found amongst large flocks of dunlin. It can provide quite an identification challenge unless one is quite close; in the picture above the white rump can just be seen between the folded wings.

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