Early Spring

Golden Tassels - Hazel Catkins

Golden Tassels – Hazel Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Birch Catkins

Birch Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Golden Tassels - Hazel Catkins

Golden Tassels – Hazel Catkins

I’ve seen hazel catkins out in January before (just!), but never seen willow or alder catkins at this time of year.  Yet that is what is happening at the woods right now.  The lack of a really harsh frost this winter has led to everything being extremely early.  We have buds on our daffodils, bud burst on elder, and a load of catkins coming out, producing pollen and giving me hay-fever!

These photos were all taken last week.  Hazel, birch, alder and willow catkins coming out.  It really seems crazy.  We have had frost, but not a hard frost, and no frost under the trees themselves.  I hope we don’t get a hard and late frost to set everything back now they have started to come up.

Mystical Winter Light

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

As a photographer, I am always interested in light.  So it might seem strange that I love the winter, because it tends to be dark and grim, at least in the UK.  However the quality of light at this time of year can be absolutely magical.  We all know of the golden hour near sunset and sunrise, when the light is warmer and more gentle, lighting subjects from a low angle.

Angled Shadows on path

Angled Shadows

However in winter in the UK, the light is always coming from a low angle because the sun never gets very high in the sky – and while it may not have the intoxicating warmth of a summer evening, it does have a lovely gentle and watery quality that simply isn’t available at any other time of year.

frosty-walk-102

As well as a low angle and gentle watery quality, winter light is also enhanced by the cold weather bringing mist, frost and occasional snow.  The other day I was privileged to walk round the woods at just the right time of day.  There had been a very heavy overnight frost which was melting in the sunshine, adding water vapour and mist to the sense of wonder.  There was also mist rising from the ponds and canal and settling in the flood plain where the woods are situated.

Sun on the boundary

Sun on the boundary

So we have the wonderful quality and angle of the light, frost, mist and the wonderful bonus of the trees without leaves.  The form of the trees can be clearly seen at this time of year too.  In summer, all is lost in the confusion of leaves, but right now, you can see every detail, every shape.  The shadows also have much more form than in summer.  The combination of light and form is quite intoxicating.  The beauty gives me a squeezy feeling in my stomach.

Winter light in the plantation

Winter light in the plantation

I took a series of landscape shots as I walked round, trying to capture that squeezy feeling – the mystical beauty of mist, light and trees.  You don’t get the mystical winter light every day, but when you do, it can take your breath away.

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Winter colour in the plantation

Winter colour in the plantation

Winter Wildlife Watching

Chubby Little Squirrel

Chubby Little Squirrel

Squirrel Approaching

Squirrel Approaching

Of course the birds are there all year, but you can see them much more clearly at this time of year, when the leaves have left the trees, and when they are keen to move in to our feeders for food.  This winter has been unusually mild so far, and there has been relatively little activity at our feeders, because there is still plenty of natural food around.

Robin

Robin

Nevertheless, on a sunny day in midwinter, there is nothing better than the low and slanting sunshine for spotting the little birds, and other creatures, moving in on the feeders.

Great Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

At the moment we are getting a huge number of great tits and blue tits, as is usual.  But we are also getting some reed buntings, coal tits, greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, robin and nuthatch, as well as the occasional great-spotted woodpecker.  Little mobs of long-tailed tits range along the edges of the woods and tops of trees in huge groups – eleven or more of them – finding their own food in the trees.  Underneath the feeders, any spillage is rapidly swept up by pheasants, mallard and squirrels (sadly we only have grey squirrels in this area). We are still awaiting the willow tits, which we usually see at this time of year, as well as yellowhammer.  We have heard both, but not seen them on the feeders.  Overhead, the buzzards are still active, and the kestrel is hovering along the woodland margins, looking for unwise mice and voles.

Chaffinch

Chaffinch

Chubby Little Blue-Tit

Chubby Little Blue-Tit

Occasionally there is a panic, and a sparrow hawk swoops in, or a magpie comes to try its luck.

Most of the birds seem to be able to use the feeder intuitively, but some of them just never get the hang of it – in particular one female blue tit who pecked at everything except the feeding port, and eventually resorted to finishing the spilt food on the ground.

Incapable Blue-Tit

Incapable Blue-Tit

There are also relatively few fieldfare in the trees, and I haven’t seen any redwings either this winter yet. This could all change if the weather gets colder in the new year.

It is a privilege to sit in my portable chair hide, with my camera and a flask of coffee, and watch these little birds.  I don’t really mind if they are common birds – I never tire of watching or photographing their antics.

Dunnock

Dunnock

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

Nuthatch on Feeder

Nuthatch on Feeder

Fungi – Every year is different

Little Fungi - on the bank of one of our ponds

Little Fungi – on the bank of one of our ponds

One thing I find really fascinating about the wood is that every year, things are slightly different.  We have the same trees, same paths, same meadows, same ponds, but what you see there can vary an awful lot.  Although we may see some of the same wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies and fungi, the relative numbers of different species can vary enormously year on year.

One of the few log fungi - a little tatty

Not fungi – but a symbiosis between fungus and algae – a forest of lichen on a log

Last year, we had a lot of little mycena fungi in the paths, and a lot of bracket fungi of various types on our logs.  We also had a lot of clouded agaric fungi and some fly agaric.  This year, although we had some mycena fungi, it was so dry during September and October that we had many fewer than last year.  Almost no ink cap fungi.  Very few bracket fungi on logs.  And I haven’t seen a single clouded agaric or fly agaric this year.

Fungi on Log

Fungi on Log

Last year, however, we had almost no parasol and shaggy parasol mushrooms, but this year there are enormous numbers.  Not just here, either – I’ve seen them growing in lots of places around this locality.  They are one of my favourite toadstools.  They can grow very large, but also they just look rustic and woody.  They look like they belong.  They look like proper fairy toadstools, perfect little parasol shelters for the fair folk.

This year the fungi have come late, and we may yet see other species, but for now, I’m enjoying these wonderful fungi – and next year I’m sure it will be different again.

fungi-103

One of the few log fungi this year – a bit tatty

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushrooms

Parasol Mushrooms

Toadstools on Path - not many this year

Toadstools on Path – not many this year

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushroom

fungi-119

Parasol mushrooms

Scrub is Special – Save our Scrub

Scrub habitat in Betty's Wood - home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub habitat in Betty’s Wood – home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub, as a habitat, is nearly always followed by the words “clearance” or “eradication”. How often do we read the words “it’s only scrub,” as if this is some kind of second-rate habitat to which we must do something.

A brief Google search reveals countless pages relating to wildlife groups, country parks and nature reserves, all talking about “scrub clearance”. Not to mention countless contractors offering their services, machinery, manpower and chemicals to clear scrub.

Scrub has a bad name. It has become something to be controlled, eliminated, pushed to the corners of our fields and woodlands. It doesn’t seem to be wanted, valued or loved.

Scrub is usually regenerating woodland, although in certain special situations, it may be the final, or climax, plant community. Woodland may be regenerating on a woodland site that has lost its trees, through felling, coppicing, or natural disaster, or on a previously open habitat which, for some reason or another, has ceased to be managed and is reverting to woodland. In pre-history, areas of woodland were cleared by humans, used for a while, then the people moved on, leaving the woodland to recover and regenerate via a scrub stage. Before humans made their mark, woodlands were cleared and reverted to scrub after grazing by large mammals, such as elephants. Wildwood has areas that become denuded of trees, and which regenerate. Scrub is always present, although not always in the same area, but there are always patches of scrub into which wildlife that prefers this habitat can move.

Regenerating scrub in Betty's Wood

Regenerating scrub in Betty’s Wood

Scrub will also form rapidly on almost any land that is left for any length of time: heathland, fen, coastal dunes, uplands, bogs, agricultural land and even on urban or rural habitation or industrial sites that have become abandoned.

The problem we have now is that people are not itinerant – they lived in fixed communities. Almost all land has an owner, and a defined use. Woodland is not free to regenerate where it will because land is almost always designated for a purpose – be it generation of timber in woodlands, or preservation as high forest as a nature reserve, or be it arable farmland, pasture, heathland, moorland, bog, fen, coastal dunes and other habitats deemed also to be of great value. There is precious little room for scrub to squeeze into, and people don’t want it. Because other habitats have become vanishingly rare, encroachment of scrub onto these habitats becomes something that threatens them. In towns and cities, we don’t want scrubby parkland, with ever-changing areas of wood, clearings and scrub – we want nice tidy places for people to walk, sit and play – manicured habitats, effectively over-sized gardens. Scrub is perceived as providing cover for anti-social behaviour. So it must be cleared. It doesn’t look pretty.

Even in woodland, there is little room for scrub. Coppicing produces a scrub-like regrowth from the cut stems, or stools, albeit with a more uniform height and species structure. Most of our woodland species are not species of the deep forest, they are species of the forest edge, and of scrub and coppice.   Our wildlife is adapted to the cycle of clearance and regrowth. But this is a cycle that we have broken. Coppice management has disappeared from many woodlands, leaving over-stood coppice and high forest – the familiar woodland that many of us visit and many think is the only way a woodland can or should be. We manage timber-producing woodland by clear-felling and re-planting in dense, ordered stands that produce a uniform structure. Scrub has barely a chance to grow before being overtaken by the faster-growing, more useful and more profitable softwood conifers. It is relegated to small strips around the edge and along woodland rides, if it is allowed to grow at all. Coppicing does survive, as does continuous cover forestry with natural regeneration, both of which help. But many woodlands are simply unmanaged.

Scrub in Betty's Wood

Scrub in Betty’s Wood

If this were wildwood, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Areas would naturally fall in high winds, succumb to fire or grazing, or be felled by itinerant humans or large animals. But it isn’t wildwood, and hasn’t been since humans appeared on the planet. Even worse, most areas of woodland are such small remnants of our forest cover that they are simply too small to support a mosaic of habitats, including scrub, as they stand. They are left to become high forest, with no mechanism to support regeneration, no mechanism to support a cycle of regrowth.

In addition, scrub is not allowed to develop anywhere else. Pieces of woodland are simply not allowed to “contaminate” farmland, river edges, heathland, moorland, fenland or urban and suburban parks and gardens. They are cleared up – sometimes with good justification but very often without. Agricultural stewardship schemes usually require the removal of scrub. Woodland schemes also fail to recognize the importance of scrub, or allow for its management.

So does this actually matter? Well, yes it does, because many important, declining species are actually species that prefer scrubland, and enjoy the variety of species, height of vegetation and density of vegetation that scrub can provide. These include plants themselves, lichens, bryophytes, insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, the adder and common toad, mammals such as dormice, and birds such as blackcap, bullfinch, linnet, reed bunting, song thrust, willow tit, yellowhammer, dunnock, goldcrest, nightingale, tree sparrow and turtle dove. Many of these are disappearing as we over-clear scrub habitats and under-manage woodland.

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

The problem is that scrub does need some kind of management, whether you want to keep it or not. This can include resumption of coppicing within woodlands or at the woodland edge to create scrub, cyclical cutting of scrub to ensure a steady supply for scrub species, selective conservation grazing of low intensity by relatively hardy livestock, or by leaving small areas of scrub to develop around the edges of other habitats. Keeping scrub as scrub, and developing a good mosaic requires management, or it will revert to woodland or coppice – so attention needs to be paid to ensure that a wide variety of species, density and height are achieved. This is not easy to do, and there is a lot of debate about how to do this, or whether to do it.

In our own woods, we have some good areas of regenerating scrub at the edge of Betty’s Wood. And into this scrub we have attracted willow tit, whitethroat, yellowhammer, bullfinch, linnet, song thrush, goldcrest, dunnock, woodcock and others. Coppicing will, in time, produce a rotation of scrubby habitats for species to move into, as well as allowing the next generation of mature trees to emerge, and producing a sustainable crop of wood for crafts and firewood.

Our Coppice - varying ages and densities

Our Coppice – varying ages and densities

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The problem is that management of scrub has been seen as synonymous with clearance or eradication, despite it being quite clear in the Scrub Management Handbook, and the JNCC Report, that this is only ONE option, and even then, where possible a patchwork of scrub areas should usually be allowed to remain. Maybe this is because the focus has been on removal of scrub, so there has been more research into, and thus the handbook provides more information on this aspect of management. Certainly the other options given in these documents – create, enhance, preserve – seem to have been forgotten.

In addition, on woodland nature reserves and other public wooded spaces, the public perception is that these should be left alone, and that high forest is best. There is undoubtedly an argument for leaving some areas wild, and ancient woodland and veteran trees undoubtedly support a very biodiverse ecosystem, but leaving everything alone will result in a closed canopy woodland with lower diversity than a managed woodland that includes ancient and veteran trees.

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring – ancient and diverse high forest habitat

People don’t like to see trees being cut down, so managers of public land don’t cut them down – it is the easiest option. It would be lovely if areas of woodland were extensive enough to allow natural processes of regeneration to take place – but few sites are large enough. The average size of a piece of woodland in England is about 8ha. So the management methods that create scrub are not being carried out, nor is scrub being created naturally. At the same time, people are receptive to the idea of clearing scrub – the combined effect is that scrub is reduced in extent and diversity, and often confined to margins of roads and railways, and to derelict urban sites awaiting development.

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

High Forest – the popular perception of what woodland should be like

We hardly ever see the word “scrub” in management plans for nature reserves unless it is followed by the word “clearance”. There are clearly habitats where scrub needs to be cut, or it will overwhelm other valuable and vanishing habitats, but it is really important to ensure that an area of scrub is left, and managed on rotation, so there is always somewhere for scrub species to go. There is a need to question whether complete scrub removal is required. Areas of scrub also need to be left in urban and suburban green spaces. They are amazing places for children to explore, and learn, as well as being repositories of wildlife. They may not look tidy, but neither do uncut road verges – yet many councils are taking up Plantlife’s campaign to leave some area of verge to grow wildflowers, so why not take up the cause of scrub, and leave some areas of urban parks to develop as scrub habitat?

There seems to be a real need to educate people as to the value of scrub, and the related woodland coppice habitat, so that they can understand the need to keep some scrub, and to create coppice. To do this, the mindset that cutting down trees is “bad” and clearing scrub is “good” needs to be changed. In addition, there needs to be support for scrub habitat – not just the specialised communities in rare scrub habitats, but good old-fashioned lowland scrub – within stewardship schemes, woodland grant schemes and within urban and suburban green spaces.

Not all scrub is bad. A lot of species depend on scrub, and on an ever-changing and evolving patchwork of vegetation from open meadow to high forest, and everything in between. The in between bits are important. Scrub is important. Save our Scrub!

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species that depends on scrub habitat

Resources:

JNCC Report 308: Mortimer, S.R., Turner, A.J., Brown, V.K., Fuller, R.J., Good, J.E.G., Bell, S.A. Stevens, P.A., Norris, D., Bayfield, N. and Ward, L.K. – (2000) – The Nature Conservation Value of Scrub in Britain – Available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2445

FACT in conjunction with English Nature (2003) The Scrub Management Handbook – ISBN 1 85716 745 7 – Available from http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/72031

Fuller RJ and Warren MS (1995) – Management for Biodiversity in British Woodlands – Striking a Balance – from British Wildlife (1995): 7; 26-37 – Available from http://www.britishwildlife.com/classicarticlesview.asp

Fuller RJ and Warren MS – Coppiced Woodlands: Their Management for Wildlife (1993) – available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2640

Gough SJ and Fuller RJ (1998) – Scrub Management for Conservation in Lowland England: Practices, Problems and Possibilities

BTO Research Report No. 194 ISBN 0 903793 96 2 – available from http://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/u196/downloads/rr194.pdf

See Also

A great album of photos of scrub regenerating on Exmoor – by Hen

 

Meadow Maintenance – Part 1

Cambridge Roll

Cambridge Roll

Our wildflower meadows were originally sown in 2010, as part of Betty’s Wood.  We used the best wildflowers and grass mix that we could afford at the time, but there have inevitably been compromises and setbacks along the way.  First of all, we had a drought in 2011, which meant that not only did the meadows not grow well, but we didn’t have much time to attend to them, as we had to spend all our time watering the 6000 little trees planted at the same time.  In 2012, everything grew quite well, but we were unable to find anybody who could cut and bale the hay for us.  We were only able to cut properly and bale the hay in 2013.

This year, unusually warm spring conditions combined with lots of water in the soil led to a massive growth of grass – so tall that it was actually taller than me (OK, I’m not very tall, but even so…over 160cm tall).  The wildflowers were struggling.

Some plants have done well – clover, birdsfoot trefoil and knapweed.  Some patches of yellow rattle are keeping the grass in check.  The meadows have been successful in attracting a good variety of butterflies and moths to our site.  But overall, we felt that the meadows needed improvement.

Using the chain harrow

Using the chain harrow

This year we decided to top-seed the meadows.  We got as much advice as we could before starting.  We cut the re-growth from haymaking to about 6 inches /15cm.  This would allow the harrow to get into the ground and create some bare patches.

We then harrowed with a chain harrow.  The aim of this is to chew up the grass, create some bare areas into which wildflower seeds can be sown, and to give them a chance before the grass comes back next spring.

Using the chain harrow

Using the chain harrow

We top-seeded with a wildflower mix that we had specially recommended by Butterfly Conservation and designed for our soil.  This includes wildflowers that should bloom from March (cowslip) to September (daisies, yarrow and knapweed), giving a long season for pollinators.  Our meadows are fairly small (between 2/3 and 1 1/2 acres), so we used a hand spreader – obviously if they were larger, we’d need a mechanical spreader.

Spreading the seed

Spreading the seed

We then harrowed again, to ensure no seed was left on top of the leaves.  Finally we rolled the seed in with a Cambridge roll.  This will push the seed into the soil and stop it from blowing away.

Using Cambridge roll

Using Cambridge roll

You’d normally do this maintenance earlier in the year – usually in September. However with the very dry weather, the clay soil was like concrete.  Conditions are just about right now – warm, but also damp enough to prevent the harrow jumping off the surface and allow it to do its job.  The soil is also still warm enough for the seeds to germinate and start to grow before winter, thus giving the wildflowers a good start on the grass in the spring.  At least that is the hope!

We also have a video, demonstrating the process.

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

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!