Sunday, 3 October 2010

Autumn is Just Around the Corner

Throughout its journey the river Tees passes though some incredible scenery. From the crashing violence of High Force through quiet and gentle wooded farmland to the industrial heartland of Teesside some 70 miles to the East, the Tees valley has much to offer the photographer.

In Upper Teesdale the area around Low Force has lots of photographic potential regardless of the season. On this particular visit though I planned to catch the early autumn light bathing not necessarily the trees as you would expect, but the ferns surrounding an old drystone wall I had identified during an earlier visit. On the previous occasion heavy rain and low cloud had not been conductive to successful, and to be honest, enjoyable photography and I wandered around without enthusiasm making a mental note of possible future subjects. The camera however stayed firmly in the rucsack and I had to resist the temptation of giving up and heading home.

Over the following days I kept one eye on the weather and eventually a frost was forecast. The following morning I made it to the area around Low Force waterfall well before sunrise. I was pleased to note that the ferns had now undertaken their seasonal transformation and were now resplendent in their rich autumn colours, which despite a coating of frost seemed to glow warmly in the pre dawn light.

To produce the image below I moved my camera equipment into position just as the sun turned the ferns into russet flames which appeared to engulf the end of the wall nearest the camera. I therefore decided to use the ferns as the main focal point to anchor the image while the wall itself was used to lead the eye into the frame. Balancing the strong early morning light reflecting off the frost covered grass was important to avoid overexposing the sky and losing the richness in the colours of the ferns. To balance the sky and the foreground I used a 0.6 ND graduated filter. This was coupled with a polorising filter to help retain the colours of the ferns. A series of images were then created using both a horizontal and portrait format.

07-3730 Autumn Ferns and Drystone Wall Holwick Teesdale County Durham

Using a graduated filter prevents the sky from becoming over exposed - Image Copyight David Forster

Happy that I had captured the ferns in their autumnal colours and that the best of the light had gone, I then turned my attention to the river and the surrounding woodland.

07-3797 Low Force Waterfall in Autumn River Tees Teesdale County Durham

Low Force Waterfalls - Image Copyight David Forster

What a contrast to the day I wandered around in the rain without enthusiasm making mental notes for future visits. To use a military saying “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted”. How true.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Adder (Vipera Berus)

The Adder (Vipera berus) which is also known as a Viper is our only native venomous snake. Adders are a part of a family of snakes "Viperidae" which contain names you may recognise such as Eyelash Viper, Pit Viper and Rattlesnake - all of which are highly venomous and do kill people across the world every year.

09-0995 Male Adder Vipera berus Sensing with Tongue Teesdale County Durham

Close up of a male Adder (Vipera Berus)

Our own Viper while it is venomous it is not particularly dangerous to a fit and healthy human. That said a persons size and state of health matters and children are at greater risk from being envenomated, as are elderly people and those with underlying health problems. Allergic reaction to the venom is also a serious risk, but then again people die every year from severe reactions to bee and wasp stings.

Despite posing little danger to humans adders do get some seriously bad press and are often portrayed as killers who attack for no reason. In reality though adders are shy creatures who will not bite without a very good reason. The vast majority of those who do get bitten have either accidentally trodden on one, or more commonly tried to handle one.

In the UK around 100 people a year get bitten by adders and since the late 1800's there have been 14 reported deaths. The last death occurred in 1975. There is an interesting report here on the effects of a bite from someone who knows first hand what its like.

Click here

Distribution and Habitat
Adders occur throughout England, Scotland and Wales but are absent from Ireland, Isle of Man, Orkneys and the Shetland Isles. In some areas they are locally quite common while in others they are thought to have declined significantly, usually as a result of habitat loss. They can however be found in a surprisingly broad range of habitats such as high moorland, heathland, pine and deciduous woodland, in rocky dry areas such as quarries and in wet areas such as reeds and bogs. During the course of the summer they are known to move from one area to another to feed and breed before returning to their original area to hibernate (technically its really Brumation) during the winter.

Being ectothermic adders are only active in the warmer months from say early March through to October. I have however observed and photographed adders basking in the sun in late February only feet away from a snowdrift. At this early stage adders tend to stick close to the hibernation sites basking in the sun and preparing to shed their skins prior to mating.

Mating takes place in May and is often preceded by the "dance of the adders" where males spar with each other and with bodies interlaced try to force each other to the ground. The winner - the strongest then goes on to mate with the female who later gives birth to live young in August.

As ambush predators they feed on small mammals such as mice and voles as well as reptiles and amphibians such as lizards and frogs. Being well camouflaged and having a fast acting venom the adder is a classic ambush predator which bites its prey and then releases it. The unfortunate victim reacts by running away however the venom soon takes effect and the snake simply follows the scent trail left by the fleeing animal. Once caught it will swallow its meal whole and will not need to feed again for some time.

How to recognise an Adder in the wild
If you have binoculars or a long lens and can see the eye clearly, the pupil is simply a vertical slit whereas all of our other native non-poisonous snake species have round pupils.

When viewed from a distance and despite the fact that the adder is quite variable in its colouration which ranges from dark brown to light grey, it has a very obvious dark zigzag pattern down its back. The only rare exception are those adders that are "melanistic" and known as "Black Adders". In reality however they are rarely completely black and the dark zig-zag pattern can often still be distinguished.

02D-0506 Male Adder Vipera berus Teesdale County Durham

A dark zigzag pattern can be clearly seen running down the adders back

So what should you do if you find an adder while out walking? The best advice is to simply enjoy the encounter and observe it. Don't get too close and don't try to pick it up. The latter point may sound blindingly obvious but only recently someone out for a walk in the Riverside Country Park at Rainham in Kent decided to pick one up and was bitten, while another individual visiting the Caswell Bay area, Swansea. was stupid enough to try and catch one and was bitten 3 times. Typically some of the press presented the Caswell Bay incident as an attack on a walker which led to claims adders were a menace and requests for signage to be put up. Those on scene however pointed out that the casualty had actually been trying to kill the snake so he could eat it. Perhaps this individual should also have been prosecuted as Adders are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it is an offence to kill or harm them in any way.

In short seeing an adder should feel like a privilege, not a cause for alarm.

Text/Images - Copyright David Forster

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Viewpoints - Article Published in Outdoor Photography Magazine

Scales Moor feels like a bleak place before dawn in winter, especially so when a bitter wind is streaming down from the north. Cold aside with a dusting of overnight snow coating the bare wind scoured Karst, it was still a truly inspirational landscape.

A quick check of the map using a sunset/sunrise calculator the night before suggested that the sun would rise just to the right of Ingleborough and this morning in the pre-dawn I could see the sky was lightening just where I predicted. For the main image I wanted to use the shape of the Karst formations as the main focus of interest with the fissures leading the eye towards the mountain of Ingleborough. Ideally I wanted to obtain the maximum depth of field possible and stopped down to f22 on my 18-40mm wide-angle lens. Also to give me the greatest control, I prefer shooting on manual and as the sun was not yet visible, I had to wait until it was close to rising before I set the shutter speed and choose the correct graduated filter to retain some detail in the foreground

The colour in the sky was increasing in intensity and I removed my gloves to fit the filter holder only to find the wind sucked the heat from my hands in seconds. With numb fingers it was nigh on impossible to do such a fiddly job and I dropped the holder, which simply broke in two. There was little I could do to carry out a repair in these conditions, so with the sun almost visible and the sky now suffused with red and yellow bands of soft light, I began taking a series of shots bracketing up to 2 stops either side of the meter reading planning to merge them in photoshop later. A quick check on the camera screen and it was clear that all of the initial shots were very soft. Typically as is often the case when everything appears to be against you it is simply a case of stopping, thinking and working out how to solve the problems. The slow shutter speed coupled with such a strong wind meant that even on a tripod with mirror lock and a remote release there was some movement. By reducing the aperture setting from f22 to f14 I was able to use a faster shutter speed and despite the compromise in depth of field was able to get shots that were acceptably sharp. Importantly, as I like to avoid sitting in front of a computer screen I decided to try using the 0.6 graduated filter hand held. Confident that hand holding the filter had worked and that I had some acceptable images I began to relax a little and enjoy the picture making process. The result was the image below.

07-0810 Dawn Winter Light on a Karst Landscape with Ingleborough as a Backdrop, Scales Moor, Yorkshire Dales

Fortunately creating the next image was not so fraught with problems. The attraction here was the shape of the limestone rocks coupled with a lone tree that despite the inhospitable conditions was able to survive here. The composition I felt emphasised the bleak nature of this landscape in winter. Again I set up the camera using the fissures between the rocks to lead the eye into the picture and as the sky was now much lighter I used a polarising filter to saturate the pale blue of the sky and highlight the clouds more.

07-0851 Dawn Winter Light and Tree on a Karst Landscape, Scales Moor, Yorkshire Dales

Despite the conditions, the cold fingers and the broken filter holder I was happy that I had managed to create some images that while not perfect, I still felt captured the feeling of such a bleak cold landscape. People often say you must suffer for your art - sometimes it's true.

Text/Images - Copyright David Forster