Words by Dan Warden
Wildlife photographer, Dan Williams, offers an insight into the importance of fieldcraft.
Scrolling through my feed on Instagram, I find myself on autopilot. It’s not that I don’t like, or am not inspired by, the endless scroll of images that are posted from the planet’s farthest-flung corners. But I certainly don’t feel the same sense of awe as I did even just a few years ago. Maybe it’s just me. Don’t get me wrong, whilst my own interests are limited almost exclusively to fishing and lazing in a hammock (doing them at the same time is the dream), they are extremely well catered for; I can’t remember the last time I opened up my Instagram and didn’t get the chance to admire the apple-slice scales of a carp shimmering in the British sun. But there’s a lot of it, and whilst I love the subject of the content that my cookies have deemed relevant for me, I have, I think, lost an appreciation for the craft that lies behind a beautiful photograph.
Lucky, then, that a good friend of mine is a photographer. Dan Williams’ interests lie in the natural world. More specifically, he finds himself perpetually fascinated by the animals that live within it. To give you an idea, of the countless nights I have spent fishing with him, I could probably count on one hand those during which we weren’t accompanied by his whistle-trained springer spaniel, Jasper. Or, indeed, his Harris’s hawk Freya. Dan is a falconer, and Freya is one of two raptors with which he works. The other is a peregrine falcon named Loki, and outside of his day job hours, Dan can often be found patrolling the cliffs along various stretches of the coast, binoculars in hand with a camera in the bag, searching for Loki’s wild cousins who return every year to nest on Cornish shores. Treading lightly and keeping out of view as much as possible, Dan would much prefer to miss the shot entirely than disturb the birds from going about their natural behaviours. His priority is the protection of the species; in fact, he was recently issued a Schedule 1 Permit by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Natural England, specifically for peregrine falcons. This affords him the permission to observe protected peregrine nesting sites up-close, which in turn helps to generate information on their survival, productivity and movement, assisting the BTO and Natural England in understanding why populations are changing.
It is this level of respect and investment in the welfare of the subjects he aims to capture, that lies at the core of Dan’s photography. Back to my point earlier, watching his style develop and speaking with him at length about the craft and obsessive planning that sits invisibly behind each shot has given me a renewed respect for the medium. “I’ve always loved observing wildlife,” says Dan. “Now that I do it with a camera to hand, the ‘shot’ is just a by-product. I think for wildlife photography to be at its best, it has to be taken by causing as little disturbance as possible. To see and capture completely natural behaviours is only possible when photographing an animal that has no idea you’re there, which is impossible without fieldcraft.” He explains that fieldcraft starts at home – reading books, researching online. “You know, if you want to get close to a timid, shy and elusive species, you need to find out where it’s likely to be found, which means understanding their favoured habitat. You then need to try and understand everything about that habitat, including the other flora and fauna. As you research, you gradually become more familiar with the animals’ behaviour, breeding cycles, food, even the size and colour of their faeces, all of which is key to finding them. For me, it’s only once I’m armed with as much information as I can find, that I call it time to get out in the field!”
Even having learned all of this, as is nature’s way, Dan assures me that there are always other factors that will impact your ability to ‘get the shot’ without disturbing the creatures you’re trying to capture. At this stage, he explains: “You begin to learn the habits of individuals – many animals of the same species will act very differently, which makes them even trickier to understand. But it’s also when it gets really interesting, and when you start to see the individual characters come out in a way that you don’t usually see in pictures, or even on TV.”
It’s no exaggeration when I say that Dan has spent entire afternoons hidden in the undergrowth, downwind of a site he suspects might be visited by a particular species, only for the animal not to show up. “That’s how it goes sometimes, but by observing and getting yourself into a position that’s close, but not so close that the animal will see you, if you’re lucky, they’ll turn up. Then you can simply sit, observe, maybe get some images, then wait until they’ve disappeared to leave. All without them ever knowing you were there.”
Being a Cornish lad, the Duchy’s wildlife features heavily in Dan’s portfolio. But with family also living in Scotland, since childhood Dan has felt himself magnetically drawn by the diversity of life to the north. More recently, he has taken to making dedicated trips to areas like the Cairngorms, and the Isle of Mull, in a bid to try and capture the amazing and often highly elusive species that reside there. He tells me about one experience in particular that stands out in his mind. “I had never seen a wild Eurasian otter before, and it had long been an ambition of mine to observe them outside of captivity. They’re so charismatic. As I began my research, I learned that coastal otters in Scotland, although the same species as inland otters, behave very differently. Their feeding window, for instance, depends on the tide, instead of the rising and setting sun. At low tide, they can reach their prey on the seabed more easily, and spend more time foraging on each breath.
“So, on a trip a couple of years ago, I went searching at high tide when the otters were unlikely to be present, looking for signs like spraint (faeces) and prey remains. Having found a likely looking area, I returned at low tide and sat quietly, quite high up and away from the shore. Eventually a male otter showed himself, appearing from the rocks and making his way to the shore to go about his feeding routine. He would dive down for about 20 seconds, before surfacing with either a small crustacean or a fish. After about six dives he came to shore, rolled around on the kelp to dry off, then had a snooze. It was amazing.”
Dan returned for the next three tides to observe this same behaviour, and carefully began to hatch a plan to get even closer, without causing any disturbance. “I decided to get downwind of an area where he’d been coming ashore, hide in the kelp, and wait. I did this at the next low tide, and right on cue he appeared out of his holt and hunted down the coast towards me, before coming ashore to rest just 20 metres away. All the while I lay there, stinking of seaweed, soaked and sandy, but completely in awe. That,” he explains, “is hands-down one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had!”
Whilst incredibly important, particularly now, when our wildlife has never been under greater threat of disturbance and human encroachment, fieldcraft remains just one piece of the photographer’s puzzle. The right equipment, for one, makes an enormous difference, as does having an innate ‘eye’ for the shot. But without fieldcraft, the rest is compromised, not least the natural behaviour that it is surely every wildlife photographer’s goal to capture.