Autumn and winter are the perfect seasons to see water voles. By November, the reeds and marginal vegetation, that hide the banks and water’s surface, have died back. Large stretches of clear water and marginal banks are exposed. Water voles now have to travel further across these open spaces of water to reach their sources of food. Result? You have a far greater chance of spotting them and photographing them.
The water vole has received limited legal protection since April 1998, through its inclusion on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended 1997) in respect of Section 9(4) only (recently tightened through amendments in the CROW Act 2001). Legal protection prohibits interference with places used for shelter or protection, or intentionally disturbing animals occupying such places. For example, it is illegal to disturb, alter, or expose the burrow of a water vole.
Correctly identify water voles
Perhaps one of the ‘cutest’ of British mammals, the water vole is often misidentified as a brown rat. So, from the outset, let’s make sure you’re not photographing rats! The water vole has a blunt snout, rounded face, short ears, with four toes on the forepaws and five on the hind. Unlike the common rat, the tail, paws, and ears of a water vole are ALL covered with fur. The ears are barely visible under their dense chestnut-brown fur.
Water voles are habitually associated with the countryside, but they are frequently discovered in urban streams and canals where the water quality has been considerably improved over the years. These waterways provide a wildlife corridor for these countryside characters to enter our towns.
1. Finding water vole locations
Water voles are found in any steady watercourses with steep banks and a water level that does not fluctuate significantly. Think canals and slow-moving streams that do not flood or dry out. Water voles consume a surprising amount of plant life, including berries and other fruit (227 species identified) in their diet) in order to satisfy their insatiable appetite and high metabolic rate. So you’re also looking for banks with lush vegetation and reed beds.
Water voles will either graze on the spot, or harvest the plants and return to their burrow either above the water’s surface or below – with the food gripped in their mouths. Water voles feed throughout the day, interspersed with periods of rest, so expect a few quiet patches during your watch.
You might not see them on your first foray, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. You can look for their droppings, areas of short grazed vegetation on the bank, and other field signs. For more help with finding locations for water voles, contact your local Wildlife Trust or search on their website. Be sure to relay all your sightings back to the Trusts and other organisations. Very important: Do yourself a huge favour and download a copy of the Mammal Society‘s water vole ‘field signs’ fact sheet. Print it out and keep it in your pocket, or save it to your smartphone for reference.
When I photograph them locally in the Wilts & Berks Canal, I stand with my back to a tree or hedge and use binoculars, searching for movements in the reeds and telltale ripples in the water. Keep your ears open too. Sometimes, you can hear them munching vegetation and if they’re spooked you’ll also hear a ‘plop’ as they dive beneath the surface.
2. Approach water voles very carefully
Patience and an ability to sit still really counts here. A water vole’s eyesight is poor but their hearing and sense of smell are finely tuned. Your approach should be slow, methodical and from downwind. Do not take your dogs with you.
If you cast your shadow over the watercourse, reveal your outline against the sky, make a sudden movement or loud noise, they will dive with an audible ‘plop’ and head for the nearest burrow. They have entrances both above and below the waterline, so you will rarely see where they go. Don’t panic. They will emerge again, just as long you’re quiet, still and patient.
3. Only take the gear you need
Don’t burden yourself with loads of camera gear. If possible, take only what you need in your jacket. You might walk a great distance looking for water voles (up and down a watercourse) and you don’t want to have a big backpack weighing you down. Be light on your feet and responsive. If you need to hunker down at the water’s edge, you don’t want a hefty backpack unbalancing you, not to mention the safety aspect of falling in the water with a large weight on your back.
During the winter, the trees are bare and more light reaches the water, hence you may even be able to handhold your camera and leave the tripod at home. You’ll only know if you properly scout out your location first. Admittedly, longer focal lengths magnify camera shake, so I do recommend a monopod or tripod for telephotos. You could get away with sitting down and using a beanbag perched on a raised knee. The choice will depend on whether you can get down to water level, or whether you need to shoot downwards and/or over vegetation.
If you’re really game, you can suit up in a wet-suit or waders and submerge yourself in the water. Not a venture to undertake lightly for obvious safety reasons. Think hyperthermia, drowning, etc. If you’re going down this route, always go with somebody to help you if you get into trouble. We all know what can be lurking in canals: branches, spare tyres, shopping trolleys! They are treacherous places.
4. Pick the right lens option
This is definitely one subject that is very difficult to photograph well without an SLR and a telephoto lens. I use a full-frame DSLR and shoot with focal lengths between 300mm-840mm. However, once you have settled into your position, water voles can approach very close, so a massive prime lens is not essential.
Due to the small size of water voles, you need magnification. Popular wildlife lenses like the Canon 200-400mm f/4 L IS and the Nikkor 200-400mm VR f/4 work well because they generate 8x magnification at a minimum working distance of just 2m meters. Compare this to a 600mm’s 12x magnification at over 5m. However, a standard 300mm kit lens on a crop-factor DSLR gives you an effective c.9x magnification factor at 1.5m or less.
There is an argument for pricier fast lenses with stabilisers, so you can photograph in low-light without a tripod. The counter argument is that recent generations of DSLRs produce such clean files at higher ISOs, you can just ramp up the ISO setting, negating the need for ultra-fast glass. It’s your call. The most important feature of the lens choice is magnification at close working distance. Bear in mind, the shorter your lens, the more stealthy and patient you will have to be.
5. Really get to know the location
Water voles are not easy wildlife subjects to photograph, but your images will definitely improve the more often you try. You may need to visit a location several times to get a good handle on their territories. A male’s territory will overlap those of several females. so can extend 10m-130m along a watercourse, depending on food availability. The more you visit, the more you’ll learn: Where are the best vantage points?; Do the water voles perch on submerged branches? Are there overhanging branches bearing fruit?
If the canal or watercourse is wide and the water voles zip straight across from one side to the other, place a submerged log in between. The water voles may well stand and rest on this to feed or groom their fur. Please act responsibly. When water voles are out of cover, they are easy prey for mink, owls, raptors, and rats. The longer they’re out in front of your lens, the higher the risk they will fall prey to a predator.
6. The best time to see water voles
I have rarely seen water voles at the crack of dawn. In my experience, they wait for the sun to rise and lift the chill before venturing out. Still, arriving earlier won’t be a wast of time as you’ll be in position and settled before they appear. By doing so, you can enjoy the best light with the potential for other wildlife to appear. I’ve seen stoats, roe deer, fox, badgers, and owls. It’s amazing what appears when you just sit still and quiet.
7. Find the best vantage point
Find a spot where you can get low down to the water, with a clear view along the watercourse in either direction. You don’t want to be staring into the sunlight. I always pack a pair of secateurs to trim away annoying twigs or long reeds that obscure the view. You can also use a walking pole or your monopod to gently bend the reeds out the way. Avoid thrashing them and making a noise! Water voles are a protected species, so please do not disturb the vegetation around their burrows. Exposing their burrows will make them more susceptible to predation from rats and mink.
8. Master your metering
Bright green reeds, highlights on the water, and deep shadows can be a nightmare to expose correctly. With a digital camera you have the luxury of a histogram so you can accurately determine underexposure and overexposure. Don’t know how to read the histogram? Check out this article from TechRadar and this one from The Luminous Landscape.
Mostly, I use Aperture Priority (Av) and set my desired ?/number depending on the available light and range. While you’re waiting for the water voles, shoot a series of test shots over the scene to assess the very dark or very bright problem areas. Make a mental note of the exposure differences. When a water vole passes through these areas, you’ll already know what exposure compensation you’ll need to apply.
As a general rule, the matrix-metering system of every camera will evaluate the scene and calculate the exposure setting to create a mid-tone image. For example, if the subject is very bright like a swan, the metering will darken the exposure, if the subject is very dark, the metering system will lighten the exposure. Metering systems can be fooled by a large area of one colour (especially red, green, or blue), very bright, or very dark subjects. All these situations will require [+/-] manual exposure compensation (quick control dial on Canon, rear command dial on Nikon).
If the light is constant with either blanket cloud or clear blue sky, shoot a series of test exposures in Aperture Priority set on your chosen f/number (suggest f/5.6). Review the histograms of your test shots. If it’s sunny, make sure the highlights are not totally blown and the areas in the sunlight are correctly exposed. Once you’ve worked out the best exposure, enter the settings in Manual Mode. Now, as long as the water vole is in sunlight, it will be correctly exposed.
With RAW, you can recover nearly 2-stops of light without any deterioration in the image quality. If the shot is underexpose and you correct this during processing, you will create more noise and moiré in the shadow areas. Don’t worry about specular highlights that naturally occur in the water. Certainly avoid adjust your highlights and white-clipping in RAW processing. They should be white, not a dull grey.
9. Always be ready to focus quickly and pan
Water voles can move surprisingly fast. They seem to hydroplane across the surface of the water, their legs just a blur. They can quickly disappear behind reeds or dive underwater. It’s a challenge. If I lose sight of the them, I just stay still and quiet and listen out for them paddling or munching. When the water voles are harvesting, you rarely have time for precision focussing with single focus points. I know it isn’t easy to focus on something so small and quick, but there are solutions:
- Select your centre focus point or zone as this is the most sensitive to movement with both vertical and horizontal sensors;
- Once you spot a water vole, keep it in the viewfinder and do not take your eye away;
- Track and pan as the vole paddles across the water and scurries through reeds, always keeping it in the viewfinder;
- If the vegetation is very dense, use One Shot/Single instead of AI Servo/Continuous and pump the focus when you have a clear view;
- In open water, it is relatively easy to capture a couple of frames, but you will need AI Servo/Continuous focus mode and a fast shutter-speed (1/300th sec) to freeze them;
- In low light conditions, I usually wait for them to stop and feed or groom, usually on submerged logs and branches (you can add these) or flattened reeds.
With water voles moving so fast, a gimbal head is brilliant for the bigger lenses, allowing effortless freedom of movement and panning. Wimberley Head® Version II is the standard to which all others aspire, but my Benro GH2 Gimbal Head is just superb and at £270 (Amazon.co.uk), nearly half the price.
10. Create & capture dynamic compositions
When a vole is feeding or grooming its fur, you’ll have time to recompose your shot and nail the focus. To be close enough for a full-frame portrait is rare, so use the Golden Rule or Rule of Thirds and avoid centring the water vole in the frame. Composing a shot with a water vole on the bottom third intersection looking into space creates a perspective of context and habitat.
If you are shooting at the water level, reflections are reduced to a blur. If you want clear reflections, increase your shooting height and shoot at a downward angle, leaving enough room at the bottom of the frame for the reflection.
11. Bonus tip! Water voles love apples
And other fruit. Yes. It is true. In the Wilts & Berks Canal, I often see water voles ferrying fallen crab apples and plums across the water as well as feasting on overhanging blackberries. If you’re responsible, you can use this to your advantage.
The simplest way is to bring a couple of apples and a fruit peeler. Cut off thin slithers and drop them in the water, upstream. Let them drift down and see if the water voles take them. It’s useful to see if there are any water voles around, but also to encourage them to emerge from the reeds. Please act responsibly. Remember, when they’re out of cover, they are easy prey for mink, owls, raptors, and rats.
The Wildlife Trusts need your help
It is a well-known fact (or should be) that the humble water vole is now an endangered species in the UK and a rare sight on our country’s waterways. The water vole faces many threats, but habitat loss and predation by American mink are tipping the balance in the favour of ‘localised extinction’.
These wholly man-made factors have reduced the water vole population by an estimated 90-95% from its pre-1960 level. Although nationwide projects to target suitable locations for reintroduction programmes and conservation efforts are underway, the water vole remains the UK’s fastest declining mammal.
The Wildlife Trusts are calling for members of the public to inform their local Wildlife Trust when they spot a water vole. For contact details of your local Trust and more information about what to look for and how to tell the difference between a water vole and a rat, visit the The Wildlife Trusts www.wildlifetrusts.org.
Local Wildlife Trusts often run workshops about water voles that give you the opportunity to learn about these curious animals and get more involved in their conservation. If you would like the chance to find out more about water voles and the signs they leave behind, why not contact your local Wildlife Trust to see if they have any events coming up.