My fourth week at Woburn started with more sunrise visits. One thing that makes me feel autumn is on its way is sunrise getting later. Some of the trees at Woburn have started to turn, some nice background colours started to appear. The weekend's weather forecast was looking really good midweek. By the weekend that had changed to overcast cloud and some light rain, not exact the weather photographers are looking for.
Before I left home in the morning of Saturday 30th September I checked the forecast for Woburn. The forecast had changed from the previous night, it wasn't looking great with cloud then some light rain around 0800/0900. Undeterred I made may way over and met up with my friend George in Woburn and we made the long walk in. Sunrise came and went. If it wasn't for knowing the time of sunrise I wouldn't have noticed it had happened. The light wasn't great as it was quite overcast. Walking into the park it was quite silent, definitely wasn't what I was hoping for. There wasn't any deer close to the footpath so it was a case of walking around hoping to find some deer close enough for a good encounter. A comment on my previous week's blog post mentioned the pot luck nature of Woburn without local knowledge. It's an interesting point that local knowledge should help, but at Woburn I find you can't guarantee where the deer will be. One morning they may be in one place and the next morning be nowhere near that place. The footpaths are the biggest problem as they can be quite restrictive and it can be time consuming to change areas once you have taken one path. My plan is usually to head to where I know the light will likely give me the images I'm hoping to get. Usually where the light is good isn't where the deer actually are! Another plan during the rut is to listen and head towards the noise, following the noise usually will lead you to deer. It does help to know what your chosen deer species sounds like as they are quite different. The Red Deer have a deep throaty sounding bellow, whilst the Sika's have an eerie high pitched scream. One thing you need for Woburn is a willingness to walk, you can walk miles trying to find the deer as the footpaths can take you a long way out of your way to change areas. Last year in one day I covered 12 miles walking back and forth within the park, sadly with little results as it just didn't work out. You do need an element of luck during the rut, I'm hoping that luck increases proportionaly with the amount of time spent walking about, though I'm not sure if that actually the case! Knowing deer behaviour also helps you anticipate what the deer are going to do so you can be a step ahead ready to capture the action. They doesn't't always work out.
Saturday morning was just one of those days, the deer didn't seem to that active or anywhere close to the footpaths. As the hours past the light unexpectedly started to improve, the forecast rain didn't appear and the sun actually made an appearance towards the end of the visit. With the improving light the deer started to get more active, and the bellowing started to increase. Around two hours after sunrise we came across some stags that were within range of the footpath. We decided to follow them as no other deer were about. One stag was bellowing a little way out but still within range for a more environmental image.
When I look at this image it reminds me of one thing, the sheer number of metal tree guards that are prevalent across the park. In one area I could count over 40 visible guards. I can see the need for them as the deer do cause damage to the trees during the rut, but they don't help photographers trying not to get them in the background. The image below shows how there can be so many in one small area.
Over the next fifteen minutes this stag started to get closer and closer to us, standing and bellowing towards us.
The stag then decided to lay down and roll about rubbing itself against the grass. I've never seen a deer do this before in this way, not outside of a wallow. It reminded me how my dog rolls about like this, seeing a huge stag do this so close up in this way was unreal.
The sunlight was getting stronger as the stag took interest in a nearby tree, rubbing its antlers against the tree to scent mark it's territory. The scars at the base of this tree can show how much damage the stags can do to a mature tree. It's easy to see the reason why the tree guards are placed around the younger trees, even if they made photos harder they are doing a valuable job.
Finding these stags made some good encounters over a 30 minute period that made the morning worth the 4 hours spend to Woburn. There are signs, such as scent marking and rolling around to cover themselves in mud, that appear to show the rut is not far away. Hopefully it should really get started over the next few weekends.
Sunday 1st October started very overcast and the light was extremely poor. The forecast wasn't good but it was supposed to get brighter as the morning progressed. Considering the previous day's forecast and how wrong it was I was hoping it would improve more than it was expected to. The two screenshots of the BBC Weather App below shows how I really shouldn't rely on weather forecasts when considering whether to visit or not. The screenshot on the left shows the forecast as checked at 6am and checked again at 9am.
It's interesting how much the forecast changed for 10am and 11am even though the forecasts are within a short three hour period. Unfortunately the weather forecast was correct on the left screenshot between 7am to 9am and correct on the right screenshot at 10am and 11am. As the light was so poor, and the deer were not anywhere near the footpaths it took me quite a while to take the camera out of the bag. The deer park was very quiet, much quieter than I was expecting at this point of the rut. There was hardly any bellowing early on and only a few later in the morning. I spotted this stag sitting under a tree quite a distance away. By this point it had started to lightly rain but the rain wasn't hard enough to be any good for photography.
Having no chance to visit any other evening until Friday I made a quick evening trip on Friday. The weather during the day had been great but by the evening the clouds had rolled in. Unfortunately that meant the light wasn't great but it was still worth seeing what was going on. Making my way into the park it was quite silent which didn't seem like a good omen. I soon met this Sika under some trees, it was quite interested in me and didn't seem at all scared of me. It stood still for quite a while, so long that after I took some photos I moved on and left it where it was.
The further I walked into the park the noise started. It was soon apparent the rut had started, there were a few stags with harems that were all quite active. I was watching this stag from a distance walking back and forth bellowing and posturing around it's harem. I was able to frame an image from a safe distance as it bellowed under a tree.
All of a sudden it rushed to chase off another stag that had got too close to its harem. The other stag soon turned around and quickly left in the opposite direction. This stag still wasn't too happy so it continued to chase the other stag having charged about 60-80m from its original position. I was expecting the stag to stop then bellow and posture but that didn't happen, it turned straight around and started to run towards me. Thankfully it stopped running at around 30m away but continued to slowly walk towards me. I started to back off as it felt too close for a stag full of testosterone. It was the first time in quite a while that I've felt threaten. I was actually thinking of ways out and if would be able to climb the tree guards as a last resort. It was a good reminder how quickly situations can change, even if you initially feel you are a safe distance away.
I thought I would end the blog with a link to Elliott Neep's 'Everything you need to know about photographing in deer parks'. I've recently found this guide and feel it's an excellent guide to photography in deer parks. It's a great read for anyone thinking of trying to photograph the rut this year.