Frustrations of the Wildlife Photographer

I like taking photos of wildlife. Since my first SLR camera in the 1970’s, I’ve been taking photos of butterflies and plants, although it is made a lot easier by the current crop of intelligent cameras than it was in the days of manual metering and focus.

Taking photos of mammals and birds, however, is new to me. You can snap the occasional photo of squirrels, and might be lucky with the birds on the seed feeders, but unless you want to invest in expensive equipment and then leave it overnight on an unattended site where it announces its presence by occasional triggers of the flash, then you are quite limited in opportunity.

First of all, you need to know where the creatures are, and when they are there. Where isn’t too difficult – the rainy summer means I know the tracks followed by the munjtac deer at Alvecote Wood, and can see the occasional print left by foxes. However I don’t really know where they are at particular times of day. I need to know this if I am to lurk hidden and get decent photographs.

So, we invested in a trail camera – one of those relatively cheap camouflaged digital cameras that you can strap to a tree and is triggered by an infra-red beam. It also takes night-time pictures. There have been some successes – we now know that muntjac visit one particular clearing at more or less the same time of day. I’ve had good photos of mother and kid at another location, and we know we also have a buck muntjac. I’ve had tantalising views of a fox disappearing into the distance. I’ve had any number of photos of rabbits and woodpigeons.

But what I’d really like to find are the foxes and badgers that we know are on site. We know they are there because we see their footprints, have heard foxes at night, and have seen dead badgers on site too.

The next step has been to try and identify places where the fox is marking his territory. A number of candidate sites with pungent odours have been identified, baited with food, and the camera left hopefully overnight for several nights, only to disappoint with plenty of rabbits but no fox. Evidently the rabbits know something that I don’t about the fox – maybe he has moved on.

As the undergrowth dies away in late summer, I was elated last week to identify a site where there is clear evidence of scent marking by a predator – lots of piles of poo, added to regularly, and obviously not that of a herbivore. I thought I’d get lots of pictures of foxes but sadly no. The first attempt yielded absolutely nothing – clearly the fox had moved on. The next site was more promising – visited on several evenings, there were fresh deposits. I duly placed the camera on a tree and went home, convinced that I would finally nail the wily fox.

I was wrong. The wind blew the branch on which the camera was attached and displaced it, so it now pointed at an elder bush and not at the more enticing area I was trying to photograph. Three nights, and all I got was a single retreating muntjac and a tantalising and blurred creature partly hidden by the bush that might have been a muntjac or fox, but I couldn’t tell.

I identified another potential bush for the camera, and used fallen pieces of wood in an attempt to be subtle about holding the nettles and brambles out of the way to get a clear view of the scent-marking site. I replaced the memory card, and hoped the batteries would last a few more nights. I have left the camera to it.

This has taken months, and I’m still not at the stage where I can camp out with confidence to try to get pictures with better cameras. I have been looking for the foxes for so long that I’ll now have to re-survey the muntjac site in order to check the timing of their appearances now the nights are drawing in.

All of this has given me a great deal of respect for those who sit for hours waiting for animals to appear, or more likely, not appear, or be the wrong animal when they do so! Even with plenty of technology, employed in what I hope to be an intelligent manner, the wily fox has proved elusive, and the badgers sadly only appear in their demise. I console myself with the much-easier to capture butterflies, but I really, really would like a photo of those foxes and badgers!

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