Nature-watching

Common Wasp

Common wasp on angelica

I love birds.  And butterflies.  And dragonflies.  And reptiles.  And amphibians.  And wild flowers.  I keep records of the species I have seen, and am as excited as anybody when I see a new species for the first time.  Lots of people do this.  They go round collecting lists of things they have seen, some travelling long distances to get a “tick” on their list.

But I’m not a birder, twitcher or any other kind of highly-travelled collector of “ticks”.  My approach to wildlife watching is different.

Years ago, I would get in the car and set off whenever there was a report that a certain butterfly had emerged in a particular location, and head off to well-known bird-watching haunts to see species I had not seen before and were known to be there.  But I found this very unsatisfying.  There was no real connection with the creature I was viewing, no really deep understanding of this creature and its relationship to other species within the ecosystem in which it lived.  Likewise, I found wildlife-watching holidays, in which we were conveyed round in groups to look at wildlife for a brief moment before moving on to the next location to be rather empty.  So I’d seen bee-eaters, or flamingos, or hoopoes – so what?  How much did I really know about the habitat in which they lived, and why they were there, and what pressures they face, and how they behave, and what interactions they have with other creatures in the local area?  Not a lot, really.

Also, I have a weakness when it comes to being a birder, or other type of “collector” in that I actually like watching all birds, all butterflies, all dragonflies, all wildflowers.  They are all fascinating, common or rare, frequently seen or rarely viewed.  I find it endlessly fascinating to watch common little brown birds, just as I find it fascinating to watch a rare species.  I love to watch how they behave, how they interact, what they feed on, where they nest, and how they fit in with the other species in the habitat in which they live.  A knowledge of, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for collecting rarities on a list can be a wonderful way of getting people involved in nature-watching, and protecting our diminishing wild places, but it isn’t the way I like to enjoy nature.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock butterfly – common butterfly, common ragwort, but very worth watching

Baby Wren

Little brown bird – baby wren

For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is in knowing the habitat well, something that gives each sighting of a different species some meaning and context.  Obviously owning a woodland is a wonderful thing, and allows me to form a close and deep connection with the land, the trees, the plants, the insects, the birds, the bats and all the other creatures that choose to live there.  New species are exciting, not just because they are new, but because they represent the fact that the ecosystem can support them.  They are there because they want to be there, because the conditions are right for them to be there.

I also like wildlife watching whenever I travel elsewhere for business or pleasure.  Wherever I may fetch up, I like to watch what wildlife is there, and what it is doing.  I like to travel to nice places with diverse ecosystems, and enjoy walking in other woodlands, countryside, hills and valleys.  But nature-watching isn’t only about going somewhere that you know is going to be populated by spectacular wildlife.  It is about learning what you can about the local habitat and then seeing what is there in context.

This year we went to Doncaster for our business.  We stayed in a hotel in a very ordinary edge-of-town retail and leisure development.  And yet there was great wildlife there.  Early purple orchids by the edge of the ornamental lake.  Long-tailed tits in groups flitting through the young amenity trees by the chain restaurant in which we dined.  Pied wagtails in the hotel grounds.  Wildflowers growing in profusion in the as-yet-undeveloped areas around the edge of the development.

It didn’t matter that the wildflowers and birds were common.  What mattered was learning about, and enjoying, what the habitat had to offer, even a very “ordinary” urban-edge habitat on a brownfield site.

Great tit in the snow

Great tit in the snow – common, but beautiful

In short, I like to learn about whatever ecosystem I find myself in has to offer.  I am sure that some “tick-collectors” like to do this too, but my experience is that quite a few do not – the tick matters more than anything else.  Maybe at heart I am an ecologist, rather than a birdwatcher, butterfly-watcher, bat-fanatic or anything else.  For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is about taking the pulse of the land and becoming part of it, so you can understand it in depth, and appreciate everything that is there, from the common to the rare, the plain to the flamboyant and the drab to the colourful.  There is so much all around us all the time and that is what makes being a nature-watcher so exciting – provided you don’t mind your birds being small and brown, your butterflies being white, and your amphibians being common.  I don’t.  I enjoy watching them all.

Photographing butterflies – know your subject

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

It is wonderful to capture the beauty of wildilfe on camera.  The thrill of seeing a beautiful butterfly and getting an image that really captures the spirit of that fragile little creature.  I started out, like most people, just snapping butterflies in our garden on the buddleia bushes.  At the moment there are clouds of butterflies everywhere, making the most of the hot weather.  There are lots of people with cameras out, enthusiastically trying to snap them as they flit and fly around, defying attempts to approach, annoyingly fluttering away just as the camera is raised.  Then when the photo is viewed, it is often competent but there is something lacking.  The knack is to capture the spirit of the butterfly, to show something of its soul, of the ephemeral nature of its life and the world which it inhabits.

Ringlet

Ringlet on cleavers

You may be lucky if you take the opportunistic approach, and there are many fantastic pictures out there from people who have done just that:  they have had the camera ready at the right time in the right place, and snapped a great image.

What can get better results, however, is if you know your subject.  Which butterflies can be found in which habitat at what time of year?  Which plants need to be present for caterpillars and adult butterflies?  Where do they alight to feed – on what plants, in what lighting, at what height?  Where do they roost?  At what time of day will they be active?  Are they territorial, and therefore if they fly off, will they come back roughly to the same spot?  Answer these questions, and you have a much better chance of getting something special with your camera, and a much better chance that you capture the spirit of the butterfly, and not just its physical form.

Speckled Wood on Bramble

Speckled Wood on Bramble

Then there is the lighting and background.  Speckled wood butterflies, for example, flit around the sunny patches in a woodland, alighting on sunlit spots on trees, shrubs, brambles and on the floor.  It isn’t usually very interesting to take a picture of the butterfly on the floor.  The background is often cluttered, and the beauty of the butterfly is lost among the leaf litter and grass.  The lighting is often full-on and harsh.  It doesn’t usually work.  But get the butterfly on a beautiful leaf or flower, with a clear background, or one that can be blurred by selecting a low depth of field and getting in close, and you have a much better chance of getting a picture that enhances the beauty of the little creature.

There are a lot of skipper butterflies around at the moment in our meadow.  Now these little creatures flitter and flutter in a very moth-like way – indeed, many people confuse them with moths because of the way they rest with their wings half-open, unlike many butterflies, which rest with wings closed.  They are very skittish in the bright sunshine.  They often rest low down in the grass, making it very hard to get an uncluttered foreground, much less an uncluttered background.  How do you go about getting a picture of them?  One thing I noticed yesterday was that many of them were coming down to the edge of the pond to drink.  Not a brilliant background, but then they flew up and perched on the grass and flowers adjacent to the pond.  So, stationing myself near the ponds, in among the grass, daisies and birdsfoot trefoil, I was able to get some pictures.  The fact that there were many about meant I could choose the direction of lighting, and wait until they arrived where there was a suitable perch and background, and take a picture.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper on thistle

Another good way of getting pictures is to wait until they are going to roost, late in the evening.  This has a number of advantages – the lighting is not overhead, and is often warmer in quality, and obviously the butterflies are less active as the temperature falls.  The disadvantage is that they may be harder to spot when not on the wing, but you can quickly tune your eyes in to spotting them in the meadow, as long as you know their favoured roosting points.  The same applies to the rain – butterflies will be there, roosting, and if you can find them, you can often get a decent shot without them flying off.

Comma butterfly on bramble

Comma butterfly on bramble

Some articles on butterfly photography advocate trapping them, putting them in the fridge to cool them down and make them less active, then setting up what is in effect a studio shot with the butterfly in optimal conditions of lighting, and with a nice plain background.  I dislike this approach.  First of all, it disturbs the butterfly.  For a creature whose life may be numbered in days to begin with, you are, by trapping it and cooling it, taking up a significant fraction of its life-span just to get a picture, and limiting its chances of finding a mate.  Then where do you let it go?  Just let it out of the door?  Or do you take the time and trouble to take it back exactly where you found it?  Failing to take that time and trouble means it may well be released in an environment devoid of its preferred food, without caterpillar foodplants on which to lay eggs, and without a mate.  Not really a nice thing to do, just for a photo.  But more than that, I often find these pictures to be very false.  There is something of the spirit of the butterfly missing.  The butterflies are often perched in a way in which they do not perch in nature, and often on plants that don’t occur in their habitat, or on plants that they don’t roost on, even if they are present in their natural environment.   They may look nice, but they give me an uncomfortable feeling.  This isn’t really wildlife photography – it is studio photography, treating a living thing as an inanimate object.  I do not, and will not, do that.

Butterflies are alive.  Their beauty exists in the context of where they live and how they live.  Their beauty is a fusion of the butterfly and the surrounding environment – the plants, the flowers, the light, the shade, the sun, the time of day, the time of year.

If you know your subject, and take the time and trouble to spend time in their world, learning about them, then I think you will be much better placed to get pictures that are special because they capture the spirit of the butterfly, that exquisite, ephemeral beauty that characterises these lovely little insects.

Small Skipper

Small Skipper on grass