To the woods…

There is something special about the woodlands of the UK and especially in spring when their freshness and vibrancy in terms of emerging plant life, the intense greens of fresh foliage on the trees and the stirrings of wildlife that becomes more visible as the days start to lengthen or because they have timed their return from further afield to take advantage of what the woods have to offer at this bountiful time of year.

Last Spring I was, like most of us, very restricted in terms of just how far away from home I was able to go and what was allowed in terms of activity when there too, as the pandemic was in it’s first phase. When this years Spring began it coincided with an emergence from the third wave here in the UK and so I was well and truly ready to check out a number of locations, both local and further afield, in this most vibrant of habitats.

The first involved a visit to an unassuming pocket of woodland on the outskirts of Telford, a few miles from my home, and where when working on my Wild Shropshire book project over a decade ago I had encountered a small but dense patch of these striking flowers – wood anemones. I had no idea if they would even be there still as I hadn’t had reason to go in all that time but a recce visit proved my fears unfounded and so a few days later when I thought more would be in full bloom and late in the afternoon when the light direction would be at it’s optimal for the site, I returned and had an absorbing couple of hours. They are such delicate subjects and throw up so many options in terms of working with the light to portray them in different styles.

As spring unfolded my focus moved away from the woodland floor and more into the canopy as it’s the time of year when it is at its most striking to work with when you find a suitable subject and setting. Although I had a number of ideas in terms of what I wanted to look for this year, finding a tawny owl sufficiently active in the daytime to offer more than a simple roosting image was not on my agenda. When I found myself back on the guiding trail with Natures Images and up in the beautiful woodlands to be found across the southern stretch of Dumfries & Galloway with the help of longstanding colleague and local Alan McFadyen, there was though an owl who was showing pretty regularly most mornings. Although there were opportunities for far closer encounters it was these more distant images that made the most of the woods themselves that were my favourites from the many hours patiently waiting for him to turn up.

Over the years, and especially last year when other options were severely limited, Alan has filled a number of woods local to him with nesting boxes for two of the most iconic woodland summer migrants who return each year to co-ordinate their nesting season with the richest supply of insects and caterpillars late Spring has to offer – common redstarts and pied flycatcher. These are both birds I have worked with in the past but a little like the wood anemones not for a good many years. It’s always healthy to re-vist things too as everyones photographic style changes over time and so in much the same way as I had managed with the tawny owls I wanted to place a great deal of emphasis on the woodland setting when it came to working with these beautiful birds. One afternoon when the hill in the small wood I was in was shrouded in low cloud, the setting took on an almost mystical feel that complimented the soft green colours and the male redstart looked simply fabulous in the way the soft lighting worked.

In these conditions the light in the gaps of the tree create a real sense of depth and when you find the right aperture to turn them into classic round spots of bokeh then it brings the scene to life even more.

On this occasion the female bird provided the best opportunity of all whilst the conditions allowed, the shape and patterning of the gaps in the trees working across all of the background really well. Mind you she also posed perfectly when the mist had cleared and more conventional and frame filling images became my focus too so maybe she was just more attuned to the camera’s requirements generally.

Pied Flycatchers have long been one of my favourite birds to simply sit and watch – they are one of the best signs of a healthy woodland and also that we are well and truly into the longer and warmer days of the year. Although just black and white, the male of the species is such a striking bird that it really stands out against the soft greens of the spring foliage, although they can be challenging to expose for accurately on a sunny day (as can all woodland subjects) and so overcast conditions are always of greater appeal to me and duly obliged for these couple of images – the second where there is almost an overload of green foliage but I just loved its intense colour.

The icing on the cake of any woodland in my opinion though has to be an active badger sett. They have, through no fault of their own, become one of the most controversial of mammals here in the UK but every evening or night over the many years I have spent watching them going about their business, has been both special and absorbing in equal measure. Alan has a couple of setts across a large area near his home and one of these has a family that are among the earliest risers of their kind that I have ever come across. The result is that, especially on an evening which offers same late low sunshine, it offers the chance to photograph these wonderful animals without fear of high ISO’s or the different challenges that working with flashlight bring.

The sett also had one of the boldest youngsters I have ever seen too – normally young of this size and age would restrict themselves very much to the opening of the burrow at best but although never straying far from mum this little one was out and about and fully visible.

It’s always a special moment in this game when you have your own personal eye contact with whatever it is your photographing: although it is probably only occurring in my imagination it always feels like there is momentary connection between you when it happens. It may have only lasted a split second but this was just such a moment with one of the badgers here and it was a highlight of this years Spring overall and a reminder why photographing nature will always be integral to my very existence as these are instances to be cherished.

The days are shortening now and summer is already fading the foliage but autumn in the woods has its own highlights and I’m already looking forward to them and the experiences they will no doubt throw up.

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