Taunted By Curlews

PART ONE

 

There are several, inter-related reasons why I am not a wildlife photographer, but the main one is that I don’t possess a decent telephoto lens with enough magnification to pick out the sorts of things I’d like to photograph. Living in the countryside, we are surrounded by a lush, vibrant ecosystem – and lots of sheep – that should be a haven for the wildlife photographer. Birds on the wing, rabbits and hares dashing pell-mell across fields – and in between the sheep – and at night we hear the cries of owls on the hunt and the tiny screams of their prey. And sheep.

But what I would dearly love to photograph is a curlew. These large wading birds are a common sight in the Dales and their long, warbling cry is a herald of spring. Now, as I said, I am not a wildlife photographer. Living in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, I tend to photograph the countryside itself, rather than all denizens great and small.

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Semerwater (also written Semer Water on local signs) is the second largest natural lake in the region. Earlier today I packed up my camera, tripod and peanut butter sandwiches (it was either that or ham and I felt like something crunchy) and drove over to the lake and parked on the shoreline. No sooner had I got out of the van, than I heard my first curlew, warbling somewhere up in the clear sky. I hunted around, but wherever it was I had no chance of getting a photo.

I snapped a few shots of the lake before noticing a sign reading “Have You Paid And Displayed” in chipped paint. The price was £2.70 and I didn’t have any change. I drove back the way I had come, wondering if the aged van was going to get up the hill without assistance, and followed the road into Bainbridge. It’s a lovely little village and I’ve walked from the village green over to the lake before and I wasn’t put off by the extra distance: it’s only a couple of miles each way and my boots are old and comfortable.

The road meanders up from Bainbridge and the views of the surrounding hills were particularly beautiful today. I saw a pair of Hawks in the distance – the RAF jet trainers, not the birds – and, not for the first time, lamented the fact that the only lens I have is an 18-55mm zoom that came with the camera. It’s a perfectly good bit of kit when you’re just starting out and I’ve taken some lovely pictures with it already, but it’s frustrating when something’s just that little bit too far away.

Anyway, the road meandered and so did I. Birds were whistling in the hawthorne bushes lining the road and I felt the eyes of wary sheep following me in the same way that certain paintings seem to follow you round the room. It’s no less disconcerting when you know they’re sheep, either.

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Countersett is a pretty hamlet just past the half-way point between Bainbridge and Semer Water. Farm vehicles sit amongst dry-stone walls with sheep and cow muck covering the rust and dents. Another curlew warbled in the trees away from the road and I was damned if I could see where it was lurking – apparently speckled plumage helps when hiding from blundering great idiots who want to take your picture, “celebrities” of the world take note.

The only other soul that I encountered before I reached the lake was an elderly lady walking a small dog on a lead. “Lovely day!” I called with a cheery note in my voice. The woman grunted and the little dog sniffed my boots before it was dragged off with a muttered “Get away.” I’m not sure if she meant me or the dog.

Birds continued to whistle and call in the trees and bushes and I saw a lot of varieties, but had no idea what they were. Greens and greys and browns flitted from branch to branch and chirruped their merry little songs. I made a mental note to buy a book on British birds so next time I might actually know what I’m looking at. Apart from curlews, of course; I know what they look like.

Leaving Countersett, the road joins Marsett Lane and you have a choice of left or right. Left takes you down to the lake shore and the Pay and Display sign and right takes you, predictably, to Marsett. I went left and received a pair of curt nods and a grunted ‘A’right?’ from two passing cyclists as they laboured up the hill with red faces, swigging from water bottles and sounding as if they might keel over at any moment. I’ve never understood the concept of ‘cycling for pleasure’.

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The road leads down a small hill and over a single bridge. The last time that I came here it was snow-bound and I had been wearing several layers to compensate for the fact that the van’s predecessor had very inefficient air conditioning. No matter where you set the dial, the car became a sweat box in five minutes and it was simpler just to put an extra jumper on. I’d risen early that morning and driven over to photograph the sunrise because I thought it would make a lovely picture. Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked the weather forecast that morning and I was rewarded with thick grey skies and an icy breeze. I still took my pictures, but they weren’t exactly the stellar, award-winning shots that I had hoped for.

However, today the sun was shining and the sky was a clear blue as far as I could see, though there was the small matter of a very stiff breeze trying to bowl me off my feet. I was beginning to wonder just why did I bring my tripod and my waterproof jacket with me; they were stuffed in my bag, but it was extra bulk I could have done without, especially when you consider how thin some of the stiles around here are.

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Just before the bridge I turned off the road and went through a small gate where a sign read ‘Marsett Lane’. Yes, this was the road I had just been on, but I knew what I was about because I had looked at a map before I came out – I just hadn’t brought it with me. The lake was to my left, but screened by a line of low trees and bushes filled with the noise of birds chirruping and chirping and otherwise making a bloody racket. And above, somewhere in the expanse of blue, I heard another curlew cry out of range of my camera. I was beginning to notice a pattern emerging.

The walk was over uneven terrain and I didn’t see much of the lake again before I rejoined the road about three quarters of a mile down from the junction with the road to Countersett. Frankly I didn’t see much apart from the ground because it was so boggy in places that I thought I was going to land flat on my backside. Back on the road it was easier and I made quite good time, even at my normal leisurely pace. There were plenty of sheep in the fields and, above the bleating of the ewes and their lambs, I heard a small bird calling what sounded like ‘shiiii-it!’ I’ve since done a bit of research and discovered said bird is calling ‘Pee-whit!’ from which it gets its name. Personally, as I watched them trying to fly into the wind and getting nowhere as the breeze held them almost stock still, I think ‘shiiii-it!’ was a more accurate interpretation. I won’t be applying for David Attenborough’s job anytime soon.

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Marsett Lane, like the road from Bainbridge to the lake, meanders and walking along it I felt no need to rush. Once you get passed the end of the lake you can look over the fields towards the far hills and the expanses of trees that I would love to explore at a later date. I could take my time and enjoy the scenery and snap away to my heart’s… ooh, curlew!

I brought up my camera, amazed that this bird was flying so close; dare I even to hope that it might be close enough to be more than a little speck in the viewfinder? Yes! It was right above me and if it had chosen that moment to soil itself as it passed over my upturned face, I probably wouldn’t have complained because my finger was pressed firmly over the shutter button and my camera was clicking away with a sound not unlike one of those old-fashioned football rattles you see in archive footage. The bird flew true and I was so excited that I decided to break my cardinal rule which is never look at the photos until I get home. I scanned through the dozen or so shots I had taken and my face fell from a look of rapture to one of naked horror and dispair…

They

Were

All

Blank

In my haste to get the perfect shot I had left the lens cap on the camera. The birds in the bushes and the trees and the sheep and lambs in the fields witnessed the sort of expletive-laced diatribe that Gordon Ramsay would be proud of. I called myself every kind of name under the sun and stopped short of throwing my camera on the ground and jumping up and down on it.

No.

I would be grown-up about this and accept that I had ballsed up. I would carry on with the walk to Marsett and down through the nature reserve so that I could see the little ruined chapel that I had read about. I would get some lovely photos of the ruins and the shoreline and the various flaura and fauna that came close enough. I’d photographed bees and other insects with my camera. They were not as shy as the birds. And there are always sheep in the Dales, if you fancy a subject that isn’t too skittish as long as you stay your side of the wall. No, I would carry on and spend an hour or two looking through the results when I got home. Who knows; the RAF use the Dales as a training ground for jets and they’re alway flying low. Maybe a Hawk or a Tornado would pass just close enough for me to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot. I would carry on.

If only that bloody curlew would shut it’s bloody beak!

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