NICK Bell’s never been one to shy away from a challenge.
His participation in no fewer than 18 London marathons can testify to his energy and a more recent fascination with modern jive dancing has seen him strutting his stuff in national competitions at the famous Blackpool Tower Ballroom.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that taking up a new retirement hobby a couple of years ago would see him throwing himself with just as much enthusiasm into the world of wildlife photography.
His output has been prolific, encompassing such a broad range of subjects that it needs a three-part series to do justice to his new-found passion, starting with a selection of photographs this week focusing on the smallest details of insect life.
“I took early retirement at the age of 61 two years ago,” says Nick. “With the start of the first lockdown, I took up wildlife photography and bought myself a 600mm lens, which I now couldn’t be without.”
That lens has allowed him to capture some extraordinary sights – none more dramatic than our picture choice this week of a southern hawker dragonfly in flight, captured at Stonor Park.
Nick recalls: “There were two or three of them flying over the ponds. They just wouldn’t keep still, so it was really difficult to photograph them. That photo was the best one from thirty minutes of attempting to photograph them. The great light that day helped, too. It was bright enough for me to us a very fast shutter speed – 1/4000th second.”
The large inquisitive dragonflies differ in colour between the male – dark with blue and green markings and the female, which is brown with green markings.
Common across the Chilterns, hawkers prefer non-acidic water and may breed in garden ponds but hunts well away from water, often hawking woodland rides well into the evening.
Other attention-grabbing shots range from flies, beetles and bees to a startling close-up of a wasp spider dangling by a thread.
For the technically minded, Nick explains that the lens which helped to transform his photos is a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens.
“I also use a Tamron 18-400mm lens for close-up photography. I haven’t really got into macro photography, but it’s something that I want to do,” says Nick.
His studies capture a glorious range of colours and fine detail, as in his portrait of a banded demoiselle damselfly, a large fluttering insect with butterfly-like wings and spectacular metallic colouring.
Other insects to catch Nick’s eye include the common darter, one of the most common dragonflies in Europe, but not always as obliging about posing for photographs as this one.
The pictures are taken in a variety of locations near Nick’s home patch in Maidenhead, with the surrounding fields and woods sometimes taking centre stage too, providing a gorgeous backcloth to the fine detail of the insect, bird and animal studies.
Dramatic colour contrasts range from tiny green aphids exploring a yellow rose to the distinctive body colouring of the wasp spider, a recent arrival in the UK from the continent which has slowly spread over the south of England.
It builds large orb webs in grassland and heathland, looking just like a common wasp to keep it safe from predators, even though it is not dangerous itself.
That clever disguise may work with predators but it’s no defence for male spiders coming into close contact with their much larger female counterparts, who are prone to eat the males during mating!
Some of the fastest-moving insects and birds pose the biggest tests of both camera and photographer. But then that just adds a bit of spice to the chase for someone who has risen to the different disciplines of marathon running and jive dancing.
“I love taking challenging photos – like fast-moving dragonflies and birds,” says Nick. “In my retirement, I run, dance and take photos – not a bad life!”
Next week: Nick’s focus switches to local birdlife