Photographs: Wildlife at Dawn

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard - Credit: Archant

Wildlife in ‘that golden moment’ – the despair and the delight

Honey fungus

Honey fungus - Credit: Archant

There are many magical hours of the day but few can surpass the moment when the sun makes its first appearance every morning.

As a wildlife photographer I must spend at least 50 per cent of my photographic time during this single, golden hour. Dawn can be frustrating, especially when you work in the Peak District. Getting up in the dark is never easy and I usually have to drag myself out of bed. A quick brush of the teeth, clothes rapidly pulled on, then I head for my van and drive to whichever project I am working on. This can be red deer during the rut, singing spring birds or butterflies roosting in the dew-laden grasses of a summer meadow. I always try to plan my arrival for at least an hour before the sun breaks the horizon so that I can find whatever I am looking for. I then move into position so that I can either get a silhouette or take advantage of the sun’s first reddish rays as they bathe the subject with new light.

This all sounds fine in theory but it can be incredibly frustrating. I estimate that about 70 per cent of the time I never even switch the camera on and find myself heading home an hour later, pictureless and ‘well cheesed-off’.

The most obvious problem is that I live in the North of England. I am never one to criticise our weather forecasters (I must admit that I live by them), and their accuracy has improved immensely over the last few decades, but they don’t get it right all the time. Often, on arriving at my chosen place I find that the sky has already clouded over.

Red deer at dawn

Red deer at dawn - Credit: Archant

Now comes the first big decision. Do I turn round and head home or do I give it an hour and wait to see if things improve? The flask of tea in my pocket has often been my decision-maker – if I am not sure I give myself brew-time to decide. If, after the cuppa, it looks as though the sky will stay a leaden, dull, uninspiring grey, I will head back to bed. If however (and this is usually the case), it looks to have a hint of promise, I will give it an hour. This is where my frustration often starts. I watch the clouds as their base starts to turn a lovely faint rose colour. Over the next ten minutes this intensifies and the whole cloud base starts to burn and flame. I now watch the horizon with the intensity of a hawk, and a particular dread fascination. Is there a thin layer of cloud that will block out the sun? Or will the sun rise, initially as a deep red ball, and turn into a blinding white, sweeping the heather and grass with an intense, yellow light. If it does I am in nirvana. The silhouettes are now punchy, the colours amazing. My camera burns as I keep adjusting the settings to try to maximise the fading colour because this moment is incredibly fleeting. The deer’s breath glows against the misty effect when I shoot into the sun, the roosting butterfly now attains a beauty that you can never see or imagine for the rest of the day. This is THE moment, it is everything I have waited for.

Unfortunately the moment is rare and in most cases the cloud blows in just before the sun makes its appearance. If I had a pound for every morning that showed promise, tantalised me and led me foolishly out of bed, then dashed all my hopes with streaks of such ill-positioned cloud that I would have bet it was pre-ordained, I would be a rich man. Yet I keep returning because when it’s good it’s the best thing ever!

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Dawn is the magical hour for another reason. It’s the time when the night and day shifts change over. You can easily come across owls returning after a good night’s mousing and as they clock off, the day shift clocks in. Buzzards and kestrels use the warm air to stretch their wings and sail out to take over from the owls. The poor mice and voles never get a stress-free minute.

Dawn is also the time when the day workers are most active. The birds sing louder and longer and, with caution, they let me get closer than later in the day. During the rut the deer bellow forth their primeval roars in the dark and keep this up for an hour or two after the rising sun has started to warm the air. Within a few hours they lose interest as their females head back to the sanctuary of the woods or wilder, less dog-walked tracks.

Starlings greet the day

Starlings greet the day - Credit: Archant

The winter roosting starlings leave the safety of the warm reed beds and head out to the fields across the White Peak as the red sun tickles the reed heads. The butterflies, now bathed by the warming glow of the sun, start to wake and become more alert, and as they get hotter the risk of them flying increases.

In the autumn I even get up at dawn to photograph fungi. The first streaks of light playing across the woodland floor can be incredibly photogenic and if they graze across a mushroom they add an amazing colour to what is normally a dull grey-white. If (and I would usually have planned for this), I can get the sun to backlight a thin fungus it can make it look as if someone has spent hours putting millions of minute electric bulbs into its body. It can really look as if it is illuminated from within.

So, even though on most mornings I return home frustrated, as long as the weather forecast has shown some promise, I will still drag my weary carcass out of bed and into the Peak District, because when it does work it is simply the best moment ever!