The quest for red-backed shrikes continues, but not without a few distractions along the way.
Day 4: Tuesday 15th July
After the success of last night with the farmer, I realise that the best time to erect my tent hide will be in the morning, before the shrikes are most active. I cycle off, without the tent, at 7:30am to properly view the locations. I now have a good idea of what perches the male birds like to use, and the bonus of one of these perches doubling up as a lizard larder. There is a turtle dove purring near the first site and, as I approach it through the woodlands, a flutter of black and white wings shimmers through the canopy - a White Admiral butterfly! I don't stop long to look at it, as I have much to do and know that these insects are creatures of habit, favouring small stretches of woodland for feeding.
It's now 8am and virtually broad daylight, yet still there's a slight damp chill in the air. I tuck my bike in a ditch and continue by foot up the short track to the second site. The track is bordered on both sides by a ditch and hedgerow, with the shrike site and woodland to the right and a large crop field to the left. Sometimes I see hare in this field, or hear the cry of a buzzard overhead, but today it's eerily quiet.
Suddenly - and I do mean suddenly, as in this calm I was not expecting such a frantic movement - I see a grey blur cross my eyeline. It trundles into the left ditch with amazing speed - or maybe it's my heart racing that gives that impression. I go closer, and see the vague spectral shape take form. To my surprise, what initially looked like fur turns out to be sharp spines. It's a hedgehog, in broad daylight, and as I approach cautiously it's now barely inches from me.
Shrikes will have to wait. I can't neglect this amazing, beautiful chance encounter. I softly tread alongside the hedgehog as it ambles with precision through the ditch in search of juicy worms and earwigs. All this time I'm thinking whether I should risk cycling back to get the camera gear, which I have left at home. The hedgehog moves with a clear mission, but slowly. I have time and, as long as it keeps going along the ditch, I'll be able to find it again.
Cycling the fastest I've ever pedalled, I'm back in ten minutes and find the creature with ease. Next decision: macro lens or wide angle? I opt for wide angle - the ditch and the trees, combined with the low angle I'll need when in the ditch, call for a wider habitat shot. Oh yes, I didn't say I'm getting down into the ditch, and soon I find myself covered in mud, nettles, mosquitoes and horseflies, all small nagging details which suddenly make the task a little bit harder. Another thing I hadn't considered: the hedgehog can move very quickly when it wants to, and I'm lying in its path!
I have to stifle a few laughs as it wanders straight towards my lens, past my cheek, over my foot and onwards down the ditch, happily unaware of the giant human sharing its path. As long as I keep still and quiet, things will stay that way. I am aware though that there isn't much light in the ditch and I have to add a diffused flashgun to light the scene without disturbing the hedgehog.
I spend the next hour or so following the hedgehog, and predicting where it will go next. For such a narrow ditch, there are a surprising number of places it can go, and when I'm so low down, I'm suddenly aware of grass obstructing my view. I flatten the grass in places to allow for a cleaner shot, but there's only so much I can do before the hedgehog approaches me (see top shot, and below).
There's no doubt this is one of the most difficult and most enjoyable animals I've photographed. I'm not used to using flash with animals (above, I've used a ring-flash and very wide angle to get an in-habitat view), and rarely photograph true habitat shots. Also the biting insects and thick nettles are giving my bare arms and legs much discomfort. But beside that, I can't stop grinning, even when I write this two months later. To share the world nose-to-nose (literally) for two hours with such a remarkable, and elusive, creature is the kind of moment that I dream for, as a photographer and as a nature lover.
It's nearing 10am and I'm slightly concerned the hedgehog is still active, so I decide to leave it and head home. The shrikes aren't around yet, and as a shrew scurries across my path, it still feels bizarrely like night-time. I have however identified a couple of places to erect my tent, and this will be discussed in my next blog post.