Saturday, October 19, 2013

Water Vole Education

With the skies a leaden blanket of grey outside and the rain beating against the window, its nice to turn the clock back a couple of months to think about the long warm days of summer. After putting in a bit of effort in photographing water voles in the spring, I decided to return to them once more in the mid to late summer period. My water voles photography is a long-term project (possibly lifelong!) but I felt that I really had not spent enough time with them to learn about their behaviour and habitats.

Why bother? Well for two main reasons firstly out of personal interest and secondly once you can start to get an insight into how an animal behaves then the photography often becomes easier. The other purpose for this concerted effort was also to look at experimenting with techniques to get around the significant constraints on photography at this particular canal site. Overall these sessions proved to be very useful and I have now formulated a clear approach for photographing the water voles at this site next year. Importantly I have also learnt a great deal about the voles which will hopefully be readily transferable to other sites.

Timing is all in wildlife photography, afterall it is impossible to photograph what isn't there. Many animals have regular daily routines and it is only be frequent observation that you can start establishing patterns. Once your have worked out where and when they are likely appear, which can take some time, then you can actually start pursuing an approach of short targeted but productive photography sessions. This has a real benefit if you only have limited camera time to fit into an otherwise busy life. People often say to me  that I must have a lot of patience to photograph wildlife but with this targeted approach minimises the waiting around and staring at fresh air.

Water voles have cycles of routine - eat, clean, sleep, eat, clean, have a dispute with the neighbour, sleep and so on. Often several will become active feeding at the same time and then it will go quiet again as they go back to sleep. If you arrived in a sleep period you could easily be forgiven that there are no voles there at all except for the typical vole signs they leave in their wake. After a few first light visits it quickly became obvious that one particular activity period occurred between around 8:30 - 10:00 am. A very early start would just see me sat for several hours with no activity and  quickly ruled out the need to set the alarm clock to a very unsociable hour. I ended up spending a good deal of time photographing one particular vole which I could almost predict. It would appear in a particular spot on the far side of the canal and feed for a while, drop into the water with that characteristic 'plop', swim to a patch of common reed to feed there for a while, drop back in the canal swim back to original spot to feed some more before disappearing (presumably for a sleep).
Sitting by the side of a canal in camouflage clothing (although this is actually probably unnecessary as water vole eyesight is not great) with a long lens pointing towards apparently nothing on the far bank inevitably draws attention and enquiry from every passing boat, jogger, cyclist and dogwalker. Typically the response is 'oh water voles' and inevitably their eyes avert to where the camera is pointing in the hope of a glimpse of this rapidly declining mammal. I remember one particular jogger who stopped and asked. I indicated that there was one currently in the patch of reeds and if she looked at a particular stem she would see it disappearing which is was rapidly in short 15cm movements as the vole pulled it downwards. The jogger stood transfixed by the rapidly disappearing vegetation.

I very rarely record video, and this is a blog first, but thought you may be interested in this short clip of a Water vole feeding, not very sensibly on stinging nettles as you will see towards the end.

Water Vole feeding from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

The water vole photography season is now over but I am already looking forward to putting what I have learnt and trialing of different techniques in to action. So here wishing the colony a safe and mink-free winter.

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