Tales of a Wildlife Photographer (David Chapman)

Saturday, 11th December 2010

Is that a pin-tailed duck? No, it’s a long-tailed duck. Isn’t that a gannet? No, it’s a black-tailed godwit. We were trying to identify birds on David Chapman’s jumper, knitted by his mother who had produced separate jerseys for different talks. His outdoor gear depended on conditions, one photograph showing military-style camouflaged top and trousers, plus a back-pack to carry a tripod, camera and lenses and a chest-pack containing a portable hide. When erected, the last looked like a camouflaged igloo, just large enough to accommodate David and Adrian Langdon for several hours bird watching at the Walmsley Reserve. His account of that outing was returned by Adrian with the comment that the phrase “the mud came nearly to the top of our wellies” had a typographical error in the final word!

A couple of photographs followed, pin-sharp, beautifully composed, with no background clutter. One showed a house sparrow with a spray of pampas grass in its beak, the other was of a goldfinch clinging to the stem of a dandelion clock. One could sense that the audience was beginning to despair. How many years does it take to produce photographs like that? And is David blessed with an inordinate amount of luck? Then we learned of the preparation. Because the sparrows had kept darting from one clump of pampas grass to another, David had cut off all the sprays (with permission from his wife Sarah) and inserted one in a frame on a table, on which the camera was focussed. For the second photograph, the dandelion clock was fixed to a length of wire stuck in a block of turf resting on the table. Niger seeds had been scattered on the turf for a week to attract goldfinches. Incidentally, as the camera and tripod were inside the house, the kitchen window had to be removed for these shots.

Hides are important. Once he erected a hide on his garage roof to photograph a pied wagtail on the neighbour’s garage. Birds are not perturbed by motor cars and so these are good hides, as long as the occupants remain inside. For off-road locations, inaccessible to cars, David has experimented with a 3-wheeled, pedal-powered buggy with the tripod attached to the frame, all enclosed by a black mesh curtain. Another version, which folded up for carrying, had the drawback of a low seat which was unpleasant when the tide rose.

Depressing images of a dead common dolphin on Gunwalloe beach brought home the dangers faced by these animals. A close-up showed monofilament strands in its mouth, suggesting that it was a victim of fishing. Pair trawling for sea bass gives rise to one dolphin death per two trawls, on average, as dolphins follow the fish into the net, but in one horrifying incident 150 common dolphins died. The next image was of a grey seal pup, about a day old and with a cream-coloured coat. It would not be able to enter the water for two weeks, until its coat had become waterproof. Abandoned pups that have been rescued and cared for by the Seal Sanctuary are released at Godrevy and elsewhere when they have reached a weight of 50-55kg., although after weeks of being provided with daily fish some are reluctant to leave.

We were puzzled by the next photograph, a bush hat on the grass at Caerthillian Cove, until David explained that it alluded to the Rev. Charles A. Johns, a former teacher at Helston Grammar School and a highly regarded botanist with exceptional knowledge of the Lizard, who claimed that he could cover 8 species of clover with his hat. It appears that the underlying rock type, serpentine, creates only a thin layer of poor soil, but clovers can thrive on it because of their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The cliff tops here, at Kynance and around the Lizard are haunts of the chough, which returned to the area about 10 years ago when a land management programme, including grazing by Shetland ponies, resulted in the short turf that they favour in searching for food. Currently four pairs are nesting and there are two males on the north coast, presumably hoping for mates. Choughs are best viewed around mid-June, when the young are being fed. Wildlife photography is not without its odd moments. On one occasion at Porth Joke David was questioned by police following a report that someone ‘was behaving suspiciously and appeared to have a ground-to-air missile launcher’.

A picture of a dormouse triggered “Aaghs” from the audience. They are not the easiest of subjects because they have a limited range, around the fringes of Bodmin Moor, with none west of Truro, and are a protected species. A licence is required to handle them and it is forbidden to look in a nest box if they may be present. During the long hibernation period from October to May (when their food starts to appear) their metabolic and heart rates become very slow, to the point that it takes the animal about two minutes to become mobile when disturbed. Another creature with wide appeal, the puffin, was photographed at Sanday in the Orkneys. David noticed that it stayed in one position in the water and, wading to it, found that its legs had been caught by fishing net. While he was freeing it, Sarah dutifully waded out carrying a camera and wide-angle lens, with a film in her mouth.

Some excursions give little return for a lot of effort, for example a rough 15 mile trudge on Westray in the Orkneys to a site where black guillenots should have been — but were not. Similarly, a £10 boat trip from St Ives to Seal Rock was fruitless, until the boat returned to Smeaton’s Pier where holidaymakers were enjoying the sight of a seal in the harbour.

A food lure can sometimes be an effective way of bringing a bird to the right place for a photograph. It was worth trying for the ravens nesting at Prussia Cove and so a dead rabbit was placed at a strategic point and David sat in his hide waiting. After 4 hours, with no sign of birds, he packed up and walked off. Glancing back he saw the ravens attacking the rabbit with gusto. The same thing happened the next day – a 4 hour wait and the ravens only appeared when he left. On the third day, working on the theory that birds cannot count, Sarah accompanied him into the hide and then walked away. The ravens were not fooled!

One of David’s long-held ambitions has been to take pictures of a buzzard swooping on prey and tearing it open. His early efforts involved a camera with wide-angle lens positioned on the ground close to a dead rabbit and triggered using a long cable release from a nearby bush hide. However, the framing was unpredictable and the slide film took days to process and come back. Subsequently, changing to a digital SLR, the results were immediately available, but in each case the bird’s wings were part-open on the verge of taking off. It had taken fright at the sound of the camera’s mirror flipping up a millisecond before the shutter opened. In the current arrangement the camera is partnered with a CCTV camera, both linked by long wires to David’s sitting room where he can view the action on a monitor screen and take pictures between sips of coffee!

The HMCG would like to thank David very much for an enthralling and stimulating evening.

© Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area