The dog days of summer.

Little grebe, Minsmere
Little grebe, Minsmere


The phrase “dog days of summer” has come to mind recently. It refers to a period during mid-summer, roughly from July 3rd until August 11th, when the northern hemisphere tends to experience sultry and muggy weather. The phrase dates from ancient times when it was noticed that Sirius, the Dog Star, rises and sets in conjunction with the sun between these dates. Although we now know this cannot possibly be true, it was believed that the heat emitted by Sirius added to that from the sun to raise temperatures in our latitudes. Interestingly the phrase has also come to mean the period of stagnation or indolence which may also occur during mid-summer. That kind of rang a bell with me.

There will be other ways in which the dog days of summer can trouble the nature photographer. Green is the predominant colour in the landscape which tends…….well… be a bit monotonous. So a July day with a cloudless blue sky can be one of the most challenging of the year. It may look and feel lovely but the results will usually be flat and uninspiring. That wonderful burst of energy and activity which characterises wildlife in spring and early summer is over. Most bird species will have finished rearing their young and will be lurking in the undergrowth, moulting their feathers and growing new ones.

Personally I need to visit all my postcard stockists during late July and early August. My priorities tend to be focussed on dealing with customers and making sales. I find it less and less easy to change my mindset from doing that to doing anything creative. Nevertheless on my recent Pembrokeshire circuit I planned to overnight close to the Elegug Stacks near Pembroke so that I could photograph the nesting seabirds. I should have known better but with the exception of a handful of kittiwakes the season was over and the birds had already left. The night I spent on a hilltop in north Wales, close to what I thought might be a chough roost in old quarry buildings, was fruitless. I knew it was a long shot but I had found them roosting there in the past. And so it went.

The lack of inspiration I tend to experience during midsummer is partly due to external factors such as those mentioned above, I feel sure.  But I was so fascinated to discover that the dog days of summer can be experienced internally too. The feeling of stagnation might not be so intense or long-lasting as that commonly felt and widely recognised  as occurring in mid-winter, but it does exist. It’s not just me! This year I hadn’t taken a decent photograph for six weeks and it was beginning to feel a little bit more than temporary.

Through many years of observing and photographing the seasons I have felt that there is a turning point in the year around the middle of August.  The change seems to happen quite suddenly. In an average year here in Wales the vegetation starts to die back and autumn colours start to appear. The nights are that much longer and there is more time for fog to form overnight. And there is a chance to get a decent nights sleep between sunrise and sunset!. It is also worth noting that the ancient Taoist philosophers identified a fifth season: “late summer”, lying between true summer and autumn . It is strongly associated with harvest and the bountiful produce that nature bestows upon us. Blackberry jam anyone?

It is also worth noting that at this time of year sunset is two minutes earlier each day than the previous one with a corresponding change at sunrise. The day is almost half-an-hour shorter altogether than it was one week earlier. I find this an astonishing fact, and of course the change would be even greater the closer to the poles one is situated.

Well, last week I headed over to Suffolk to do some bird photography. I had a nagging feeling that it might not be a profitable time of year, but off I went anyway. My day at Minsmere was a disappointment. Birds were largely noticeable by their absence. Bearing in mind that twelve “pairs” of bitterns had reared young there this year, and that there might have been something in the region of 40 or 50 individuals present, I saw just one. There was hardly a whisper of birdsong in the air. There were a few migrant waders to be seen but nothing like the numbers or variety that would be present later in the year. The reedbed – the whole place really –  had a tiredness about it that was hard to put into words. Late summer? Perhaps. But  it is no surprise that the BBC broadcasts “Springwatch” from there and not “Augustwatch”!


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Lovely weather – but spare a thought for the landscape photographer.

What little colour I could find above the Dyfi Valley.
What little colour I could find above the Dyfi Valley.

After what seems like an eternity most of us are enjoying some warm sunny days. Living up in the hills as I do it is several years since I’ve been able to wear shorts and a tee shirt all day long for several days in a row. And I’m finally getting some serious wear out of the flipflops I rashly bought one September several years ago…….

But for the landscape photographer these conditions are the pretty close to the bottom of the barrel. Wall-to-wall sunshine with barely a cloud in the sky do not a happy photographer make, especially in mid-summer. Sunrise is so horribly early that an enormous effort is required to get up in time and without cloud disappointment is often the result. This week the sunsets have hardly been any more interesting and the disturbed sleeping patterns don’t help either. The predominant colour – often the only colour – in the landscape is mid-green.

I’ve recently been commissioned to provide some images for a footpath promotion project in the Dyfi Valley, just north of Aberystwyth.   They aren’t the most spectacular locations but they are very pleasant mid-Wales landscapes. However one is normally judged on one’s best work, and that is often made at the right time of year and in the very best atmospheric conditions. Most photographs I produce during the next month will, I suspect, be disappointing for the client.

My first efforts last Sunday morning made me realise that this wasn’t going to be an easy job at all. The best ‘views’ from just this one walk were in several different directions. They will need to be photographed at different times of day to make the most of the polariser which I usually use. And this uninterrupted sunshine really doesn’t help at all. Partial cloud cover acts as giant diffuser allowing gentle light to penetrate into the nooks and crannies that direct sunlight cannot reach. Without it the landscape looks harsh and uninteresting.

But I love mid-August onwards, well into September. The landscape seems to come alive as wild grasses wither, bracken begins to turn golden and all sorts of other subtle changes take place. And if you visit the right parts of the country the senses can be assailed by the intense pinks and purples found in heather moorland. It almost seems like a different season, and in fact, according to the Chinese Five Element theory, there IS a fifth season, rather uninspiringly translated into English as ‘late summer’. Some of the other characteristics of the season include ‘earth’ as the relevant element, ‘afternoon’ as the time of day, and ‘spleen-pancreas and stomach’ the bodily organs. But maybe we don’t need to go there…….

Back in the present,  I’ve been able to pack a few postcard and calendar orders off to customers in the last couple of days, so some progress has been made. But it feels so desperately wrong as a photographer to be hoovering the office, spring-cleaning the van and making marmalade, while outside the sun is beating down.

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