Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bang Bang ... Go the Goosander

My first photography session of 2015 saw me heading to an upland lake with my friend Steve. The weather was forecast to be mixed with a brisk wind and intermittent sun but looked good enough to make the trip worthwhile. We have been photographing Goosander at this site on and off now for several years but were both surprised to find our last visit was  back in 2012. Needless to say we were both looking forward to it.
After a 90 minutes drive, we arrived at the site and three things were immediately obviously. Firstly the lake level was much higher than usual and our favourite spot to photograph the birds, a concrete jetty set just above water level, was under about a foot of water. Secondly the sun was well and truly blocked out by a long line of cloud that seemed to be developing as it was pushed up over the hills and thirdly there was not a single Goosander to be seen. Not a very promising start!

A close view of a female to show why they are called sawbill ducks.
So we waited and waited and were just thinking about perhaps looking somewhere else on this large elongated lake when a pair of birds flew in. The sun was still stuck behind the stubborn bank of dense grey cloud. We starting taking some photographs but the male birds with their dark heads with its iridescent green sheen really do benefit from a bit on sunlight.
Far in the distance the clouds seemed to be breaking and a patch of blue sky, which was heading our way, was opening up. At the same time a second pair of birds arrived. The situation was definitely improving fast and even the lake levels seemed to be dropping from its flooded state. Before long the blue sky was by us and the sun appeared and it looked like we were to have a prolonged period of good light ahead.
Preening male. 
and preening female.
We had been photographing the birds for around 10 minutes when there was a loud bang, followed by another and another and another which was echoing around the hills. My first thought was that may be there was shooting party up on the hillside somewhere. The banging continued and seemed to be getting closer. With each successive bang the Goosander were obviously getting more and more unsettled. Then the source of the noise appeared which was a 'customised' small car which was constantly backfiring which was travelling down the road along the edge of the lake. By the time it had reached us, still backfiring constantly, the Goosander had heard enough and all four took off at high speed towards the far end of the lake. How typical, we had patiently waited for it all to come together only to then fall apart in an instant due to a passing poorly modified car. We could hear the car as it was driving around in the nearby town, bang, bang, bang before it eventually fell silent presumably due to the owner parking.
All we could do was wait once more to see if the Goosander would return. This gave Steve time to have a play with his new Canon 7Dmk2 and get a better feel for the autofocus with some flying mallard. As we waited for the Goosander we said that knowing our luck the birds would return and the back-firing car would come back through just as they arrived. We waited some more. Eventually one pair of birds returned. They had been there for around 5 minutes when from the town behind we suddenly heard in the distance the car started back up. We looked at each other in disbelief, surely we wouldn't be twice unlikely which fortunately we were not. However, by this time the patch of blue sky was rapidly closing up once more into dense cloud with no obvious signs into the distance of improvement. So once the sun disappear for the last time we decided to bring the session to an end.
A rare exit from the lake.
One the final photographs in the afternoon before the sun disappeared behind cloud for the last time
It was one of those trips where you think you have not come away with many photographs but I was pleasantly surprised when I got home and went through them. We had obviously worked hard in the moments when we had both sun and birds in front of us. Overall it was an enjoyable day out and a great way to start our photography in 2015.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Waiting for Merganser

Most winters rarely pass without me finding myself trying to photograph some of my favourite waterfowl, the sawbill ducks. There are three species in the UK, the Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander and the Smew. The latter is a rare visitor to the north-west corner of England where I live and so naturally I have concentrated my efforts on the other two.

A local large marine lake holds Red-breasted Merganser every winter. They tend to arrive in early December with up to a dozen birds being present but I tend to leave any photography until after Christmas when they have got a bit more accustomed to the visitors that stroll around this popular lake. Having said that these birds are still very wary and the lake is large and so it usually takes quite a bit of patience before they come into photography range.

Often I like to have a session with these birds on Boxing Day as it is good to get out of the house and in to the fresh air but it also has the bonus of an early morning visit is also unusually quiet. Unfortunately the weather on the last Boxing Day was not great and it was New Year's Eve before I found myself by the lake at first light. I was surprised to find a reasonable number of people already taking the long walk or jog around the perimeter either with or without dogs.

It was an icy cold morning with a brisk breeze and the sunlight was very short lived as it rose from the horizon and disappeared behind a swiftly moving blanket of low cloud. On arrival I decided to take a 'quick' circuit of the lake to see what was present and soon spotted half a dozen Goldeneye and a similar number of Merganser right out in the centre of the lake. On my travels I came across this Redshank, silhouetted against the golden water of first light which couldn't be ignored

As I moved around the lake more Redshank were found, running like Sanderling across the beach. Still the Merganser stayed out in the middle.

After a while I had complete a full circuit of the lake. The target birds were still out in the middle occasionally going on short feeding runs with synchronised diving. I sat and watched in the face numbing wind. Timed passed. More time passed. The Merganser seemed to be gradually moving closer to the far bank. I decided I would walk back around the far side to see if I could get close to them there. As I walked around they appeared to be getting closer and closer to the far bank of the lake but I had concerns about the number of people heading along the footpath towards them. These corncers were well founded as just as I got eventually round to them, after a reasonably long walk, the birds were drifting back out to the centre of the lake once more. However, I did manage a photograph of a couple more female birds arriving.

Back round the lake I walked again as the birds now seemed to be heading towards the bank where I was originally waiting. When I arrived they seemed to have stopped their progress once more in the middle of the lake. By this point I had been there for three hours with little to show for my efforts except a couple of Redshank and Oystercatcher photographs. I was at the point of thinking that this session was going to be a non-starter for the Merganser when the only male bird on the lake came swimming over right to where I was sat and started diving and fishing in front of me for around 10 minutes. Such is often the way in wildlife photography where long periods of inactivity are punctuated by very busy moments.

The light was not great, as these birds definitely look their best with a bit of sunlight on them to bring out the green hues in the black head feathers, but I was determined to try and make the most of the bird being so close. For these diving birds the best approach is move while they are underwater and try and predict where they will surface. My antics were receiving some odd looks and comments by the numerous people walking past. As soon as the bird dived I would jump up, quickly move along the footpath and lie back down to where I thought it would resurface.

Red-breasted Merganser always look slightly scruffy birds with their wayward head feathers compared to the sleeker line and plumage of the Goosander. However, it does give them a certain endearing character and I always really enjoy photographing them. Here is a small selection of the male bird whose eventual arrival was a very welcome relief on a bitter winter's day.

For my next post I will be re-telling an early January session with some beautiful Goosander on an upland lake in some much better light.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Frosty Fieldfare

Firstly I would like to wish all the readers of this blog a very Happy New Year and hope you have some memorable wildlife encounters during the coming 12 months. I am looking forward to many exciting photography projects ahead and already have a trip planned to Iceland for the end of May. I hope you will all join me on my photographic journey this year.

Apologies for the lack of blog updates over Christmas, which is always a busy time, but I have also been trying to make the most of the Christmas break to get some time out with the camera when the weather has allowed. It has actually been quite a productive time for my photography and I will start with a morning session on the 28th December after a very sharp overnight frost.

I set off early from the house to a local site that I have visited for many years now to see if I could find some more Fieldfare. After some snowfall on Boxing Day, which melted very quickly around my home by the coast, I thought there may be a chance that there may still be some on the ground further inland. On arrival it was obvious that this was not the case but the hard frost could provide some interesting photographs. The large noisy Fieldfare flock had long since stripped the Rowan trees of berries but there were still others that were conspicuously heavily laden with berry crop. These were Sea Buckthorn and Cotoneaster. These really are at the bottom of the bird berry menu and usually need several hard frosts to make them palatable to the birds. Sea Buckthorn in particular always seems to be a last resort food choice and the bright orange berries only seem to be eaten when conditions are particularly tough for the birds which the ground frozen for an extended period which stops them finding worms.

I decided to do a bit of reconnaissance to see what the birds were doing before settling on my approach for the morning. As it was still first light the majority of the main Fieldfare flock were only just waking and sat in the tops of the trees fluffed up to insulate them from the cold. They started moving and it became quickly obvious that they were targeting  Cotoneaster. Unfortunately the trees they were heading in to were in a very awkward position in terms of light direction. However, I remembered there were some other Cotoneaster further down the road which may provide a better opportunity and arrived to find a single Fieldfare actively guarding each tree.
I have seen Mistle Thrush do this before but not Fieldfare. Every bird that arrived at the tree would be quickly chased off. These trees were heavily-laden with berries and although the action was going to be slow decided to sit it out as I could see there would be some potentially good photographs to be had with a bit of patience.

While waiting for the Fieldfare to move in to good feeding positions a Robin kept me amused as did a very large brown rat that kept scuttling around under the tree.
Whilst sat there I noticed there was a small number of Fieldfare flying in to frost covered bush about 50m down the road. So I decided on a quick relocation to them before the sun pushed too far round. The low soft winter sun has a lovely quality to it and was just illuminating the birds on the dark frost covered bushes.
Occasionally a bird would drop to the frozen grass below.

I decided it was time to return to the Cotoneaster as visible steam started to rise off the bush in front of me as the sun hit the frosty leaves. This usually plays havoc with the camera focus and achieving sharp images can be very difficult. Every 30 minutes or so one of the birds in each of the trees would move to eat a few more berries. It was just a question of waiting for them to appear in the right place. The action was slow but it proved to be a very enjoyable and relaxed morning in some beautiful sparkling winter weather.

Here are some photographs from the Cotoneaster bush and from the ground below it.

I decided my my next Christmas sessions I would try and get some of my favourite waterfowl the sawbill ducks but these will have to wait until my next post.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Feathered 'Selection Box'

Christmas is upon us once more. I am sure the years grow shorter as I get older as it seems like only a blink of an eye since the last.  I thought it was time for a seasonal selection box. However, this one is not filled with sticky spiced chocolates but some recent images of the local bird life. Typically the winter weather has not been particularly kind recently and in fact at times it has been bordering on very grim with frequent strong winds, plenty of rain and dark blankets of grey clouds above. As such, light, the essential element for photography, has been in relatively short supply. So it has been a question of being at the ready with camera and snatching odd moments when the light and free time have put in a combined appearance.

I have also been working on a small unexpected winter bird photography project which I will reveal in a future post. The delay in posting is mainly to protect these birds from unwanted attention and potential disturbance.

So lets not waste any more time and dip into the avian selection box. I will start off with a scarce bird for this area, the Long-tailed Duck. I asked a good friend of mine if he wouldn't mind looking in on a lake local to his home whilst passing, to see if there were any Goldeneye present. There were none but he sent a picture text to my mobile and said he had seen an unusual duck but was not sure what it was. I immediately recognised it as a Long-tail duck and more interestingly it did not seem to have been reported anywhere. Unfortunately not one of the stunning drakes but it was too good an opportunity to pass by, a scarce bird that the crowds of bird watchers and photographers had yet to discover. A quick visit was in order. I found the bird easily as it seemed to be staying away from the other birds up one end of the small lake and managed to get close by the old 'move when it is underwater' routine. After a few photographs it was slowly making its way along this small lake when I noticed a patch of reflected reeds that were turning a patch of water golden and this was the result.

The shortest photography session ever was recorded when I decided on a bit of flight practice with some Black-headed Gulls on the local marine lake. Despite a large patch of clear winter blue sky above, the low sun stubbornly refused to lift from behind the only bank of cloud except for about 2 minutes. This was the best I could muster on this icy, blustery day in 120 seconds.
We are still on the first layer of the selection box and this time a brief sunny morning session looking for some winter thrushes. In the distance I saw two birds feeding on a grassed area and assumed that these were my target. However, as I got closer I could see one was a blackbird and the other looked slightly odd, only revealing itself properly as I approached to be a Green Woodpecker, as it  flew up to a nearby tree. After a short while waiting and predicting where the bird might appear, I got the opportunity for about 2 seconds to get a couple of photographs of this beautiful shy female bird before it was gone.
The winter thrushes I was seeking I typically only found a flock  about 10 minutes before I had to leave. The Fieldfare has to rate as probably our most attractive visiting winter Thrush species. This one showing showing a typical drooped wing pose.
The flock was accompanied by a single Mistle Thrush that was also picking out fallen rowan berries from a gravel area. The birds having already completely stripped the tree above its fruit.
Let's dip in to the layer below of the selection box and see what lurks there. Ahh...seems to be a wading birds.

The first was taken on the way home after a wholly unsuccessful session with the small winter project I mentioned earlier. As I swung into the 'home straight' which takes me along the coast I noticed it was high tide and decided to check one of the regular roost for wading birds. They are not always there and I thought may be absent that morning as it was a fairly large tide but was pleasantly surprised to find around 50 Redshank, and a similar number of Turnstone perched high on the rocks. However, what really drew my attention were three Purple Sandpipers and so concentrated on those.
My next encounter with some waders was on a day when I decided to head out for some Red Breasted Merganser on the local marine lake. I like to photograph swimming birds on either very calm surface or the dynamic conditions of rough water. The forecast was for strong westerly winds but it turned out to be blowing much harder and much colder than expected. The marine lake resembled the North Sea in a storm and so there was little chance of seeing, let alone photographing the Mergansers. However, the first light visit coincided with a rising tide which would see the wader flocks coming into roost. A good number of Redshank, Turnstone and a few Dunlin and a solitary Knot had gathered.
I took a few photos and noticed spray being blown into the birds from the crashing waves driven by the punishing wind which created an interesting effect backlit in the first light of the day. I thinks this photographs gives a great impression of the harsh weather we were all enduring that morning.
After I while I decided it would be good to head home and get my hands round a warm coffee, leaving the tough wading birds to sit it out. I took a route home that would see me pass an area that curlew often use at high tide when the sand banks are covered with water. I have always liked curlew. They may not be the most colourful birds but are beautifully patterned and surely possess one of the most evocative bird calls. The birds were across the road from their usual area and seemed to be getting disturbed by the Sunday morning dog walkers. Fortunately one dog walker pushed the birds right over to where I was waiting.
With that the bird selection box is now empty. For those of you interested, all of the above with the exception of the Purple Sandpiper were taken with a Canon 7d Mk2.

So I would like to take this moment to wish you all a Very Merry, Healthy and Peaceful Christmas with a suitably tacky e-card.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Just the Hare Necessities

Coming up to the end of the year is often the time to try and reduce the usual processing backlog and get the year's images wrapped up and finally backed up. So my first task was to go through some brown hare photos from the summer that have been left gathering dust on the hard drives.
I spent quite a bit of time with the hares again this year, an animal of which I can never tire. Its always such a pleasure being in their presence but I cannot quite put my finger on the attraction of hares for me. I mean I have obviously seen a large number of rabbits over the years but taken relatively few photographs but put a hare in front of me and the hours just seem to drift away. They certainly have mesmerizing glassy eyes that reflect that surrounding landscape.
Keeping those feet clean.
A warm summer evening spent lying down on the ground close to hare is such a wonderful experience and all of life's pressure and stress fade to nothing in the background. To use a versus from a song in the Jungle Book film but substituting bare with hare and you get the following which I think sums it up well.

'Look for the hare necessities
The simple hare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the hare necessities
That's why a hare can rest at ease
With just the hare necessities of life' 

May be I have just spent too long with hares !!

Anyway on to some photographs. The summer brown hare is a very relaxed animal they still breed throughout the summer with the occasional crazed boxing bouts but most of the time seems to be spent feeding and building up fat reserves to see them through the hard times in the coming winter months. This makes these shy cautious animals much easier to approach.

Hare's eyesight is geared up to detect movement. If you sit still enough they can sometimes walk right up to you, apparently completely oblivious to your presence. Some of you may remember a couple of years back when I told you of a hare that walked up to me whilst sat in a hedgerow and started licking my boot, presumably for some residual salt left on it from a beach wader photography session.
If you need to approach them then crawling flat is the way to go as they, together with many animals, associate the upright human form with danger. At times you will be surprised how close you can get to a hare. The tricky part is often leaving without disturbing it as crawling very slowly backwards with a heavy camera is not the easiest movement to make. However, the goal with all wildlife photography should be not to disturb or stress your subject. I see many people having got their photos then forgetting about their subject, standing up and sending whatever they were photographing speeding off to the horizon.  My view is you should back away as carefully as you approached.
With the brown hares now quiet my thoughts are rapidly turning to photographing mountain hares given that they will be well in to taking on their white winter coats. It is all dependent on the weather which is never to be taken lightly in their habitat.


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