This year in the southeast of England we have had a particularly warm winter. Around two weeks ago however, the clouds cleared leaving crystal clear skies. The resulting drop in temperature meant we got the first proper frost of the winter. Walking across a field in the first rays of light, my breath coming out in pink clouds, the grass crunched under my feet. Every tiny blade was fringed with frost. I was making my way to a local disused quarry. The land around it has been left wild and although it is a regular haunt of dog walkers the quarry is also a great place to photograph wild plants. Stone parsleys, with their black seeds, are perhaps my favourites in winter. I also love the rose hips. They brighten up the otherwise bleak hedgerows with dashes of brilliant red. Sloe berries, a fruit of the blackthorn bush and a rich chalky blue also add a splash of colour here and there along with the blood red berries of the hawthorn bush. Birds fluttered among the monochrome branches; mostly blue tits and great tits along with the odd blackbird. The only audible birdsong was that of a lone robin ringing out across the fields, as crisp as the frost itself.
The image above is of a European robin (Erithacus rubecula) that I photographed last December when the UK experienced heavy snowfall. There has been significantly less snow this year in Kent with only a few flakes falling and melting on contact with the ground.
There is nothing quite like waking up to find familiar surroundings transformed into suddenly unfamiliar terrain; untouched and new. Venture outside, and on closer inspection it is soon clear that the blank canvas is not completely flawless. Meandering trails made by foxes pockmark the snow. Mammals and birds alike leave both a narrative and a map in their wake.
I am keeping my fingers crossed for a good layer of snow before the end of winter. As well as taking photographs I will be keeping my eyes peeled to see how many different tracks I can spot.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Continuing with the autumn theme that has dominated the last few posts here on the blog, I thought I’d post some images of fungi I took earlier this month. I love autumn and in my opinion there is no better place to be at this time of year than in the woods. The air is rich with the smell of decomposing vegetation and splashes of fiery colours spill from the canopy. Crisp leaves and fallen acorns crunch underfoot making it impossible to pass through unnoticed. High-pitched alarm calls ring from the branches. The squirrels struggle keep pace, frantically digging holes in which to bury their stash for the winter. Jays squabble in the tree tops, dropping acorn missiles that bounce to the floor then come to rest among the leaf litter for another creature to find. Tree creepers inch their way up the rough grey bark of old oaks. Knarled, wrinkled and rough like the skin of an elephant.
The woods is also a great place to go looking for fungi. This year there has been a good crop of fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria) across my local patch. Though many of them appear to have gone mouldy or otherwise been eaten before they have managed to reach their best. Leaving me with about four decent specimens to photograph. Here are some images taken a couple of weeks ago……
The weather over the past few days has been brilliant. We are having an Indian summer with temperatures soaring to 29 degrees celsius in some places last week. It’s just as well really because the summer itself was rather dismal! I can’t remember the last time we had so many sunny days in a row with clear sunrises and sunsets. There are still a few butterflies flitting around – red admirals and speckled wood mainly, some bees and a few different species of fly but overall the amount of insect life has fallen dramatically. It is now time for the arachnids to surface.
Garden spiders have taken over the garden to such a degree that it is now impossible to get to certain areas without the risk of walking face-first into a web; some of which are the size of two dinner plates, though most average between 20-30cm. The most successful spiders seem to be the ones that have built their webs the highest, each acting as a sticky fly trap. Tiny silver insect wings glisten in the morning light. At first light the spiders set about repairing any webs that have been damaged during the night. I sat and watched one build from scratch. Working in a spiral from the outer edges towards the centre she made it look so effortless. After a couple of hours she was finished and took to the centre of her web where she remains dormant for most of the day. Seconds later a large fly met its end. She ran down and enveloped it in silk. I was pleased to see that she had been rewarded for her efforts.
It is not just the garden spiders that appear to be increasing in number. On a few occasions recently I have seen a shadowy shape moving at speed across the floor in the house. Although I can appreciate the beauty of spiders there is something extremely disconcerting about the way they move. House spiders can cover ground at an alarming rate.
Tube web spiders are another common sight around the garden. As their name suggests the main structure of the web is a tube/tunnel which the spider inhabits. At the entrance of the tunnel fine strands of web splay outwards from the entrance acting as trip lines. As soon as an unlucky insect touches one of the strands of web the spider feels the vibrations and pounces.
Over the summer I have hardly removed my macro lens from my camera. Bugs, beetles and butterflies were out in abundance. Passing any patch of long grass I could hear it humming with crickets and grasshoppers. Dragonflies and damselflies could be spotted dancing over ponds, their wings glimmering as they caught the sunlight and wildflowers contributed splashes of colour everywhere from meadows to roadside verges.
Since my usual location has been cleared for development I have had to look elsewhere to photograph insects. This year a field a short walk away from me which is usually used to graze horses has been left to turn into a wildflower meadow. The horses have been relocated (possibly due to the abundance of ragwort which is poisonous to them) and now the field is a haven for all manner of creatures. Pockets of land that are not being used for agricultural purposes or otherwise being earmarked by developers are becoming increasingly rare. Vehicles roar down the busy dual carriageway that runs parallel to the field. Over the traffic the yellow arches of McDonalds glow at the mouth of an industrial estate. Twenty years ago the industrial estate was marshland where my father and elder sister used to go birdwatching.
A public right of way runs right through the middle of the field though it is hardly, if ever, used. The majority of the tracks that weave through the waist high meadow are made by foxes. Indentations in the tall grasses reveal where they have pounced for prey. I happened across a couple of voles laying awkwardly in the depressed grass. Wasp spiders have found a little oasis here too. They build their webs low in the long grass to catch grasshoppers and crickets. Grasshoppers scattered in all directions as I trod tentatively through the field. It did not take long for the spiders to fatten up.
Most insects usually wake slightly later than mammals and birds as the temperature begins to rise, though it is always worth being out at dawn. At this time of day most insects will be lethargic and therefore easier to approach. On clear summer mornings there is also usually a sprinkling of dew which if photographed backlit will add some sparkle to your images.
Recently I have been experimenting with backlighting in my macro images. At first I used a home-made reflector made from a piece of stiff card with golden paper (crinkled to bounce the light more evenly) stuck onto it. It was quite effective but lately I have left the reflector at home to concentrate on silhouettes. Shooting backlit I feel, lends a more natural and slightly ethereal feel to images.
This blog entry was going to be about a recent trip to Scotland, but that will have to wait. Last night we had a very rare visitor to our garden. The creatures in question have become such an infrequent sight around here that the last time I saw one was over a decade ago. The next door neighbour’s cat (who seems to live with us more than them these days) was the first to spot it. He stalked up the garden eyes bright and transfixed. I looked out expecting to see another cat. There was movement near the pear tree at the bottom of the garden. It was raining and darkness had set in making visibility very poor. It couldn’t be, could it? The cat crept closer. Then, unable to hold his nerve any longer turned and ran. I went to have a closer look. A hedgehog! And quite a large one at that. It didn’t seem bothered by my presence; too engrosed in hoovering up the all you can eat buffet of slugs and snails out in force in the wet weather. It was strange to see one after such a long time. Thousands of spines covered its bulky body and short ashen tear stains ran down to its sooty nose.
Hedgehogs are mainly nocturnal and can be found in open woods, fields, and gardens, but garden fences are causing problems for them. The fences create a barrier and prevent the hedgehogs from moving between gardens to look for food. Slug and snail pellets don’t help either as they are poisonous to hedgehogs and other wildlife that eat the pellets or the poisoned molluscs.
Since I have had to take on the role of head gardener at home the weeds have proliferated. The wildflower meadow that I am planning to create at the end of the garden has yet to materialize and is more jungle than meadow. The stinging nettles are doing very well indeed. They have mangaged to surpass me in height. There are thistles which are seven or eight feet tall from a wild seed mix scattered last year and which I think are rather beautiful (my neighbours probably do not, though they have been gracious enough not to say anything). Red and white campion from the same mix grows in one corner. A tall weed about a metre high that I have not yet been bothered to identify occupies much of the rest of the space as well as the odd dandelion here and there. My sister and I are currently in the process of decorating the entire house so my excuse is that there is just not time for everything. And anyway, the front garden is reasonably respectable.
I have left the very edges of the lawn to grow wild to encourage grasshoppers, crickets and other insects . It seems to be working to an extent but unfortunately the cat seems to have a taste for them and they seem to disappear as fast as they arrive. We have a huge log pile that last year produced a mass emergence of stag beetles and for the past two years cockchafer beetles have been seen dancing around the tree tops on balmy summer evenings.
We have had woodmice nesting in the greenhouse and this April, for the first ever time, we had a brimstone butterfly stop to refuel itself on vivid yellow dandelions during its busy search for a mate. There has been a female ruddy darter dragonfly hanging around the pond area as well as a common blue damselfly. We’ve also had quite a few frogs this year.
A few months ago the climbing rose creeping up the front of our house was covered with aphids. It is a delicate lemmon yellow and I didn’t want to loose it. I was tempted to spray it but in the end couldn’t bring myself to kill thousands of aphids, so I just left it. Not long afterwards, a group of house sparrows came along and pecked it clean. Ladybirds, also a top predator of aphids, are doing very well here. Slugs and snails, the bane of every gardener have been left to exist in peace, in fact I rather like them, but now the hedgehogs are back to keep them in check. Balance is slowly being restored. Given time and a chance nature finds a way back.
I have updated my website with a selection of images taken in Scotland. As I have failed to publish them here you can find them by following this link: www.jodierandall.co.uk and selecting the gallery.
It has been a while since I have turned my lens to birds, having been rather preoccupied with all things macro i.e. flowers, amphibians and insects. Spending last Tuesday at my sister’s house, where she is lucky to get a good number of avian visitors to her garden gave me the perfect opportunity to dig out the long lens.
My sister moved to her new house a year ago. During one of my first visits I encountered a friendly robin in the graveyard next door. Sitting on top of a lichen flecked gravestone, he was quite relaxed in my presence. European robins (Erithacus rubecula) are among the most tame garden birds in the UK. Over the past year he has become a familiar and welcome sight in the garden and is bold enough to take food from one’s hand.
I watch him flitting around the garden gathering worms, caterpillars and flies, their legs protruding awkwardly from his beak. Earlier in the Spring he attracted a mate and now has his own family to feed. His daily routine is currently centred around gathering enough food to satisfy the shrill, gaping mouths of his chicks.
Eating lunch outside, it is impossible to get any peace. A free lunch that doesn’t fly, wriggle or run away is an easy meal for a robin and the cake crumbs on our plates prove too much to resist. He surveys the scene from a fence post, then almost as if he had teleported appears on the arched back of the chair next to me, red breast puffed out. In the blink of an eye he is on the table. He confidently steps onto the edge of the plate pecking the few remaining chocolate crumbs out of the white, frilly paper cases in an audacious act of daylight robbery.
The sun is hot so I seek shade under a small apple tree. I have put some raisins in a pot of pansies in the hope of getting a cheesy shot of him amongst the flowers. I sit quietly with my camera and wait…..
I am forced to duck as a small plump body swoops above my head. I look up and there he is, perched upon a branch in the apple tree, no more than a foot away. I have made the mistake of keeping the remaining raisins in a clear plastic bag next to me. The ones in clear view in the pot appear to have gone unnoticed. His beady black eye quizzes me optimistically.
I get up and show him the raisins in the plant pot. He hops onto my camera, peering down at the bag full of treats. The two raisins that I have put out are just not good enough. Who am I kidding? Why would he bother with two when there is a whole bagfull going spare? Eventually he gets the idea and I manage to snatch a few shots of him amid the pansies. A minute later he is back; an incoming feathery missile. I duck again. He lands beside me in the tree, then his head tilts back and he opens his beak wide emitting a burst of song. I’ve never been this close before, never heard the rich resonance of the notes at this volume. I listen in awe as the remarkable little soloist recites his vibrant song, far too close to get a shot.
I seem to have spent much more time than usual this year taking photos in my garden rather than venturing further afield. After building the new pond for the frogs in the hope of creating a perfectly level and highly reflective water surface to photograph the frogs against they have failed to inhabit it.
I have had to resort to taking photos of them in our old pond which has been there years and is well established. It was not built with photography in mind and has quite a few disadvantages, the biggest being that it is wonky, preventing me from getting completely level with the water surface. A close second has to be the smell which is more than a little off-putting.
Since the spring equinox the weather has been wonderful with temperatures of up to 24 degrees celcius just a few days ago. The sprinkling of white amongst the hedgerows, only a couple of weeks ago due to the blackthorn bushes along with the thick, sickly-sweet smell of honey and almonds in the air, is now thanks to the milky white flowers of the hawthorn. On a gusty day just as the blackthorns were going over and the wind coaxed the last petals from the bushes I found myself caught up in a blizzard, albeit a blizzard of blossom rather than snow.
In my local woodland the bluebells are out about two weeks early due to the fine weather. The wood anemones, lesser celandines and early purple orchids have died off or are passed their best. Spring seems to be speeding by at such a rate its hard to keep up. Many of the subjects on my list of things to photograph this season look like they will have to wait another year. The swallows have arrived and I have already heard both my first cuckoo and nightingale of the year. The blackbirds and robin flit around the garden with acid green caterpillars clutched tightly in their beaks. As one flower dies another blooms. Spring seems to be advancing at an ever quickening pace.
Back in the garden the list of butterflies is growing. A comma was the first back in the early days of March, flying off in a flutter of fiery wings, startled by my presence. Then there was the wide-eyed peacock and the first ever brimstone to visit my garden, a possible sighting of a common blue, and both male and female orange tips. The males, the only ones with the bright orange tips to their wings, career through the garden energetically never appearing to settle.
The skylarks in the field just across from us can be heard singing their optimistic verse throughout the day managing to raise their voices above the droning of the traffic on the busy road below. Not bad for a tiny speck in the sky. And in the evenings as dusk closes in clouds of gnats dance a dizzying dance, pulsating to inaudible beat above my head.
The English weather, in my part of the country at least, has been pretty dismal since Christmas. Over the last few days however, the sun has made an appearance and things are starting to look up. Green buds are beginning to appear on the trees and bushes, snowdrops are starting to open their white heads and a few crocuses have appeared in my garden – a sure sign of spring.
When the days are dull and the light is less than perfect for photography it’s the perfect opportunity to come up with future projects, to research new locations to visit or come up with ideas for interesting shots.
Over the weekend I am hoping to build a new pond in preparation for the common frogs to lay their spawn in. The new pond is in the form of an old Victorian sink that was lying dormant at the end of my sister’s garden and come next month, I hope, it will be full of frogs. This new pond should be a lot better photographically speaking. I have used a spirit level so that it is completely straight and I will be able to fill it to the top resulting in a smooth reflective water surface. There is just the small matter of blocking up the plug-hole and the overflow (more of an issue) with something completely water-tight that won’t harm the frogs.
Another of my plans for the garden is to turn the top half into a wildflower meadow. Having been dug up last year this part of the garden has regressed to mud and weeds. The flowers should attract a lot of insects right to my doorstep so I shouldn’t be short of subjects to turn my macro lens to. If you would like to plant your own wildflower meadow (even if it is just a miniature version in a few large pots) seeds are stocked at most garden centres or can be purchased online. All the relevent information about the type of soil the plants prefer, whether they prefer shady or sunny spots and what time of year to plant them is usually printed on the packet.
As I write the light is starting to fade. A murky fog that has lingered for days is hanging diligently in the air turning everything a sultry grey. There is something rather mystical about it, and the cawing of a crow coming from the silhouette of a near-by tree only adds further to the atmosphere akin to something out of a fairytale.
We seem to have had an invasion of crows this year. Where normally I would see only one or two a large mob has taken up residence in the neighbourhood along with a good number of jackdaws. I have even spotted a white individual among the latter that appears now and again, though it has no intention to be photographed and can spot a camera a mile off.
Flocks of redwings are busy plucking the last berries – the only remaining splashes of colour – from the bushes reducing nature’s palette to shades of black, brown and grey. Winter is a season full of muted tones, dusky shapes, shadows and silhouettes. There is something distinctly magical about the colder months. As we dress up to keep warm much of nature is stripped to its bare bones. This is most evident on the trees, their skeletal frames exposed to the elements. Although the landscape can seem rather stark in winter and potential shots my not reveal themselves so easily, it is often the less obvious images that make the best photographs.
Happy New Year and good luck to all for 2011!