Special Trees

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

We were recently privileged to visit some friends in Devon.  While we were there, we were privileged to meet some wonderful tree people, including Pip Howard and Rob the Treehunter.  http://europeantrees.wordpress.com.  They are part of a wonderful European-wide project looking at trees, landscape and people called HERCULES.

We were already keen on trees – we really have to be since we own a woodland containing quite a lot of them – but this was a real eye-opener to the presence of and meaning of special trees in the landscape.

South Devon has some very special trees and landscapes.  First of all there are the amazing sunken old roads, now become paths or bridleways between steep hedge banks, with overgrown trees.  Then, in the fields and in scattered places around the landscape, we find the most amazing old pollards, hundreds of years old, growing slowly and magnificently, hollow and full of wildlife habitat.  Finally there are the trees that mark certain routes, or certain waypoints.  I was not aware, although I am now, how Scots Pine was used to mark roads and waypoints, making them easy to identify in the landscape, and thus helping drovers and others to navigate.

The challenge is to photograph these magnificent trees and show something of their character. I felt that monochrome images helped to keep the eye on the tree and its form, and avoid being distracted by colours.  This is a small series of monochrome images that I took while I was there.

Field Trees

Field Trees

Grand tree on bridleway

Grand tree on bridleway

Tree from below

Viewed from below

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Photographing Insects – my approach

Common blues

Mating pair of common blue butterflies – backlit

I love photographing insects.  Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too.  Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.

Equipment

Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens.  I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro.  I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens.  The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often.  I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily.  The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size.  It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish.  The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed.  The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is.  It is also harder to hand-hold.

A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake.  I don’t do this for three reasons.  First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good.  Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it.  Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint.  You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold.  Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.

The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures.  Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.

Southern hawker

Southern hawker dragonfly by our pond

Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.

Learn how to approach

The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!).  They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell.  You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them.  I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes.  It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush.  It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth.  Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind.  It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera.  It is worth practising this  without taking photos, until you can do it well.

Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.

Viewpoint and Background

Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that.  However you really do need to think more about it than that.  What viewpoint do you want?  Which bit of the insect do you want to feature?  Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect?  Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings?  This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly – dark damselfly, bright background

Likewise, how do you want the background to appear?  Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail?  Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour?  When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background.  Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor).  A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly in meadow


Lighting

Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging.  Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.

Common darter dragonfly

Common darter dragonfly on a cane


Exposure

Getting exposure right can be challenging.  You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting.  It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera.  This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision.  This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it.  As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust.  You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.

Banded Demoiselle

Banded Demoiselle – challenging exposure!

Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge:  butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure.  Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing.  Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).

Male common blue showing iridescence

Male common blue showing iridescence


Learn to see the picture in your head

Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it.  Visualise what you want to see.  What details do you want to see?  How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal?  How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture?    How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark?  Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on?  How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes?  Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed?  How do you want the viewer to feel?  How do YOU feel?  Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?

Common darter shelters from the rain

Common darter on willow leaf, sheltering from the rain


You may disagree

This is my approach.  Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach.  It works for me.  In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win.  I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners.  Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.

Common darter in oak tree

Common darter in oak tree

Betty’s Wood – Three Years On

Young woodland path

Young woodland path – trees 2-3 metres tall

In October 2010, we bought a 9 acre field to add to our 11 acres of ancient woodland. During the early part of 2011, it was planted with 6500 little trees, and we carved out wildflower meadows, hedgerows, ponds in the wet areas, open areas, and areas for natural regeneration to take place. In summer 2011, it was a field populated by canes and tree-guarded, the little trees just peeking over the top of those guards in places.

Planting young trees

Planting young trees

Seasons came and went. The little trees were subjected to a drought during their first year, an extremely harsh winter in 2012-13 with a lot of snow and freezing weather, and floods earlier this year, during which you could paddle in the lower part of Betty’s Wood.

Betty's Wood from adjacent field

Betty’s Wood from adjacent field

We were very careful to choose our species mix well. We wanted to improve the site for wildlife, but could see no advantage in planting species that do not grow well in the local area. We also took account of the lie of the land and microclimate – one of the reasons why we didn’t plant trees immediately, but took a few months to get the feel of the place. Wet-tolerant species went in areas inclined to be damp. Species that like fertile soil nearer the top, where the former arable site is quite fertile. Cloning willow already growing on the site. Using self-set seedlings of birch, willow, oak and ash. But also choosing species that produce seeds and fruits for wildlife, good shelter for wildlife, and will produce a sustainable coppice and timber crop in future – hazel, willow, alder, oak, ash, cherry, rowan and others.

Mowing the meadow

Mowing the meadow during the first summer

It has not been all plain sailing, but the woods are really starting to shine now. Instead of walking in a field with sticks, we are now walking along young woodland paths. We can stand in the shade of our own little trees. We can sit with our backs against the trunks of these little trees and enjoy the view. The little trees offer shelter from the wind for insects and people alike. The ponds are really coming alive, with 16 species of dragonfly and damselfly seen here this year. Target species of butterflies have come into our meadows. Little birds are now perching in the young trees, particularly goldfinches and blue tits. Long-tailed tits and other birds are using our hedgerow as a pathway between our own woods and another piece of woodland, just as we hoped. We are producing an increasing quantity of hay for local horses. This year we harvested hazelnuts from our young trees for the first time. Leaf litter is starting to build up in places under the clumps of trees. In the wet areas, marsh orchids and cowslips are spreading and increasing in numbers.

Young trees in the landscape

Young trees in the landscape a few years on

It is not often that you get the opportunity to change the landscape, and make something that is both beautiful and functional. We were very privileged to be able to do this and it is very exciting. Every year turns up some surprises. What is particularly lovely is to see the self-set regeneration areas merging with the planted areas, possible because of what we think is a good choice of trees and careful attention to the landscape, soil and microclimate. It will not be long before we can take our first coppice cut in some places, nor will it be too many years before we can lay the hedge. It is truly becoming a woodland, as we hoped it would.

Young trees with woodland ride

Young trees with woodland ride – trees now over 2 metres tall

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Haymaking – the Video

Our second year of making hay from our meadows at Alvecote Wood. Five days of very hard work, but very lucky with the weather. We got 153 bales this year (141 last year) and sold and delivered it all to the stables next door to the woods.

This is a video of the whole process. It gives you an idea of what we have been doing over the past few days.

Can insects be cute?

Damselfly on vetch

Damselfly on vetch

The phrase “cute” doesn’t usually apply to insects – furry and feathery creatures are often considered cute, but insects?  I think it is a question of how you view them, interact with them, and present them in your pictures.

Damselfly on vetch

It’s MINE – damselfly plays hide and seek, clinging on to vetch flower

Interact with insects?  Obviously, insects will fly off when disturbed, but can you really interact with them?  Certainly with damselflies, I’ve found it possible to play a game of peek-a-boo, the damselfly hiding behind a stem or leaf, and rotating round to try and stay out of sight, while peeking with one eye to see where I am.

Large Skipper

Large Skipper

Butterflies, too, can interact.  Perched on a flower, they may be trying to decide whether or not to trust you.  If you move a bit closer, the fore-wings may extend a bit, ready to take off, and then be tucked away again when you back off.  If they really trust you, they may go on feeding, allowing you to get pictures of their long extending proboscis and tongue.

Meadow brown butterfly on daisy

Meadow brown

Ladybirds are another interactive insect – again, often hiding just out of reach of the camera, stopping to assess the photographer, clean their face, and potter off on their business.

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

I think insects can be really very cute indeed, and that it is certainly possible to interact with them.  Try taking a closer look – you might be surprised!

Beautiful Dragonflies

Four spotted chaser

Four spotted chaser

Although I have enjoyed wildlife photography for many years, I have been mainly focused upon butterflies and birds.  It is only since we became the owners of Alvecote Wood and put in eleven ponds that my interest in dragonflies and damselflies has been ignited.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are really fascinating insects, belonging to a very ancient order of insects.  They also have a fascinating life cycle, with many species taking years to reach maturity, almost all of that time spent underwater in various stages of nymph, although some can complete a life cycle within a single year.  The adults that we see are thus the culmination of a long period of development, and their life span is rather short – just a few weeks at most.

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Although they need wet places, usually ponds, sometimes rivers, streams and canals, to breed, they can be seen a long way from those water bodies, and we often see them resting on leaves, trees, twigs and plants within our main woodland, some distance from the ponds. Most are predatory on smaller insects, worms, grubs and even small fish.

Damselflies ovipositing

Damselflies ovipositing

Our ponds have become home to an increasing range of species, although we have no uncommon species in our woods.  As with birds and butterflies, I take an interest in, and enjoy taking photographs of, the commoner species, as well as the rare ones – they are often surprising, with iridescent colours that glow in differing light, always changing, and always beautiful.  I could happily watch the numerous four-spotted chasers and emperors ranging over our ponds all day, defending their territories from all comers.  Most of them will perch and watch on dead stems of reeds and sedges emerging from the shallow water, although the common darter will also sit on a stick almost anywhere, including the canes that we use to stake our young trees.  The hawkers, too, will range into the woods where you can find hairy dragonfly, migrant hawker, southern hawker and brown hawker at different times of year.

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Damselflies are much more delicate – they usually sit with wings folded, rather than out to the side, and both wings are similar size, whereas the dragonflies have one large wing and one smaller one on each side, rather like butterflies.  In summer there is a small cloud of little azure and large red damselflies, together with the beautiful and delicate blue-tailed damselflies, hovering over the ponds, mating, and depositing their eggs below the surface on submerged stems.  The larger damselflies such as emerald and the lovely banded demoiselle will range more widely and are often seen perched in the meadows or on twigs and saplings.  The increasing population of dragonflies and damselflies have themselves attracted predators in recent years, including the Hobby, a small falcon that feeds on them.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are worth a closer look.  They are primeval, beautiful and always surprising.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Banded Demoiselle

Male Banded Demoiselle

 

We did it again – best in England

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring

A year ago, I reported that Alvecote Wood won the Royal Forestry Society competition for the best small woodland in the Midlands and North West of England, something that was honestly beyond anything we had dreamed of when we bought the woods in 2007.

http://alvecotewood.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/alvecote-wood-is-top-of-the-tree/

In 2014, all the previous winners and runners-up were entered into a champion of champions competition to find the Best of England, and we were entered in the small woodland category.  As the judges had visited us last year, we weren’t visited again but other woodlands were visited, to see what they had done in the meantime.  We had not stood still either – this winter we extended our coppice into the edge of Betty’s Wood to revive the hedge, increase light in the lower woodlands, and remove some very large holly that was blocking the light.  All of this should help regeneration in an area previously showing very little.  We also put up a QR code trail in the woodland so that visitors could use smartphones to scan the codes, bring up a web page with information about that location, with links to activities for all the family.

Evening bluebells

Bluebells near our coppice

At the weekend, we heard that we had won, and we are now officially the best small woodland in the whole of England!  We started from very humble beginnings, but tried to take a professional approach to ensuring that the site became as valuable as possible for wildlife, as quickly as possible.  We were novices, and we are still learning all the time.  To be acknowledged by experts in the field is a real surprise, and gives us the confidence to move forward, always with advice and help, to ensure our woodland is a resource for generations to come.

Read more about the Royal Forestry Society competition and this year’s winners using the link below.

http://rfs.org.uk/node/1193

You can also read our story, from the Quarterly Journal of Forestry (pdf) here

Irreplaceable means just that…

alvecotewood:

Yesterday I attended a meeting in London about Biodiversity Offsetting, and the idea that nature can be bought, sold, traded and moved around for the convenience of humans. In particular, the idea that it can be reduced to units that equate large amounts of low quality habitat with smaller amounts of high quality and irreplaceable habitats. The forum was the 2nd Forum on Natural Commons. You can follow it on Twitter under #naturenot4sale.

I wrote this blog last year, and it formed the basis of my presentation to that meeting. It still holds true. Our woods cannot be replaced by anything else, anywhere else. Nor can many other special places. Biodiversity Offsetting is a flawed concept in itself, and even more flawed when we consider how humans can, do and will implement it in practice. Nature will become something from which money is to be made, not something that has intrinsic value and that belongs to everybody. Please do read this again.

Originally posted on Alvecote Wood:

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

The Government recently published its paper on Biodiversity Offsetting, a scheme whereby damage caused by development can be offset by creation or improvement of habitat elsewhere.  On the face of it, this seems very reasonable.  You build a supermarket on a meadow, and make another meadow elsewhere.  Simples!

The problem is that habitats are not simple things, and this simple scheme is fraught with hazards for our wonderful wildlife.  Look closely at the document and you will see not all is well with this proposal, which proceeds on the premise that a small amount of high distinctiveness (i.e. high quality) habitat can be replaced by a large amount of poorer distinctiveness habitat, that this can be done in an area remote from the community of people and wildlife affected by the development, that developers can in effect choose the type and location of “offsetting” that they…

View original 2,165 more words

Meadows come to life

Meadow at Sunset

Meadow at Sunset

Meadows are very rich areas for wildlife, particularly if they are managed well.  Most of our meadows have only been in place for a few years, although the main meadow in our woods has been a clearing for a long time.  We are managing all of them to maximise wildflowers and to provide maximum benefit for pollinating insects, as well as to provide food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars.  In the last couple of weeks, these meadows have really started to come to life with buttercups, purple vetch, red campion and ragged robin appearing in ever-increasing numbers, to add to the cowslips and snakes head fritillaries of early spring.

In the last few days other plants have started to come out – in particular the spectacular southern marsh orchid, which is spreading in the damp areas of Betty’s Wood, and the first ox-eye daisies are starting to bloom.

Evening Buttercup

Evening Buttercup

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

In the ponds, too, the iris are coming into flower, and emergent stems of sedge, spearwort and iris are forming great vantage points for the four spotted and broad bodied chaser dragonflies staking out their territories.  Damselflies are also on the wing, roosting in the long grass, on the thistles and on the trees in the hedgerow.

Brown Argus Butterfly

Brown Argus Butterfly

Small Heath

Small Heath

Small Copper Butterfly

Small Copper Butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

With the blooming of the meadows come the first of the summer butterflies – brown argus, small copper, common blue, dingy skipper and small heath are now all on the wing in our meadows, as well as the large and small white, brimstone, green-veined white and the ever-present peacock and small tortoiseshell.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle

We manage our meadows in a number of ways.  One of the star plants is the yellow rattle, pictured above.  This marvellous plant is semi-parasitic and knocks back the grass, making it possible for more wildflowers to thrive.  We add to this by mowing and removing the hay, which takes fertility out of the soil – wildflowers generally thrive in relatively impoverished soil, and low fertility again keeps the grass in check.  It has taken a while to get the process of improvement started, but we are now seeing the results.

In the next few weeks we are looking forward to seeing large and small skippers, Essex skippers, ringlets and meadow browns.  Then the meadows will truly be in their prime, but for the moment, they are full of promise.

Evening Buttercups

Evening Buttercups

The value of ponds

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

If you want to improve the biodiversity of a piece of land, one of the best things you can do is put in a pond.  We are lucky that our woods are damp, there is water flowing through them, and they have a clay soil base which is eminently suitable for ponds.  We started out with one pond that was badly-designed and silted-up.  As part of our programme to improve the site for wildlife, and to rationalise the drainage, we put in three brand new ponds in the upper part of the woods, and divided the old pond into three new ponds, terraced along the ditch.  The first pond is a silt trap and the remaining ponds now keep free from silt, and drain properly back into the ditch.

Broad-bodied chaser

Broad-bodied chaser

Female Banded Demoiselle

Female Banded Demoiselle

When we had the opportunity to buy Betty’s Wood and plant it with trees, we also added ponds – it was a very suitable field, with lots of damp patches and a base of both red and white pottery clay.  There were already some natural ponds formed in tractor ruts, and we added 5 more ponds in a cluster.  This means we have 11 ponds on site, in three clusters.  There is another pond which is more of a pit that gets damp in winter – but these temporary ponds are also very valuable habitat.  All of them were put where a pond would naturally want to form, in areas that were already damp.  None of them are artificially lined – the clay keeps the water in place.  Some of them dry out in the summer, others stay wet.  All are connected so that wildlife has a refuge in the deeper water if needed.

Grass Snake

Grass Snake in our ponds

We were rewarded in the first year with a few dragonflies and damselflies.  As time has gone on, our ponds have brought more life to the woods.  The range of dragonflies and damselflies has increased, helped by the fact that we are adjacent to other pools and ponds, a canal and a river.  Birds regularly come and drink in the ponds.  We have a good population of toads and smooth newts, together with a few frogs.  We have some resident mallard who come back each year although are yet to breed successfully.  Last year we had a pair of lapwing in Betty’s Wood.  We have an increasing population of grass snakes who love to swim in the ponds and bask on their banks.  Swallows swoop down to feed on the insects that breed in the ponds.  Last year we had a Hobby, which likes to feed on dragonflies.  Mammal tracks show that all our resident mammals drink at the ponds – muntjac, badger, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, stoats.  Insects also come to drink at the ponds, particularly butterflies, bees and wasps.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Yellow flag-iris

Yellow flag-iris

Around the ponds are wet areas, in which we get wonderful plants – cowslip, buttercups, snakes head fritillary and a growing area with southern marsh orchid.  As well as the usual sedges, reeds, rushes, flag iris, ragged robin, teasel and figwort.

Ponds bring a place to life, and putting them in was one of the best things we have done for wildlife at the woods.

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Hairy Dragonfly

Hairy Dragonfly

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser