Saturday, November 22, 2014

Last of the Little Owls

As you will have seen from a couple of previous posts, I undertook a mini project this summer photographing a family of Little Owls living in an old farm building. This post is the last of the photographs of them, at least for this year, which were mainly taken through the second half of July and the beginning of August. Most of my sessions were carried out in the evening after work although I did manage to get the odd first light session in during the weekend which required a very early rise. Certainly something you could not attempt on a weekday unless I wanted to take on the appearance of the living dead by the early afternoon.

I left you in the last post with the appearance of a juvenile which had appeared in the round window in the wall of the barn. There were in fact two young birds from this years brood and it was fun to watch them becomingly increasingly bold and inquisitive as they explored their new world. Young little owls are amusing birds to watch as they continually bob their heads around as they look around their surroundings. It took a while to get both birds looking in the same direction.

The adult birds were evidently reducing the frequency of feeding now to encourage the birds to leave the barn and hunt for themselves. During the end of July I did get partially distracted with the appearance of some leverets around this farm building which I showed in a previous post. These provided a great time filler as I was waiting for the owls.

Even the young birds are good at pulling that stern look.

It soon became obvious that the young were learning to feed for themselves as they started descending from the barn to the track. One of the two, the larger, being evidently much bolder.

Lurking on a low window sill

The young birds were relatively nervous and the slightest noise would see them raise themselves up at full stretch to try and located the source of the noise and to also make themselves look bigger in case there was a potential threat. However, even at full stretch a young Little Owl does not really appear as an imposing figure.

During the whole period with the owls only one bird regularly came close the other preferring to keep its distance and hunt from another building for the majority of the time. However, it did come in on one occasion.


There is not much more to say about these Little Owls except they provided with many hours of fun and its was a pleasure to share some moments in their lives. It was also great to share some of this time with Steve who had previously originally spotted one of the owls lurking in that round brick window several weeks previously.

Many thanks Steve.


I am sure mid-summer next year with see us out looking for these tiny owls once again. So I will finish off this project with a further small selection of images and hope all these birds are still doing well.

Always good to catch some in the late evening sun.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Formby's Shades of Red

The UK's native Red Squirrel has had a tough time since the Victorians decided to introduce the American grey variety as an exotic curiosity in the 1870's. As with many deliberate introductions of non-native species across the globe, the full impact to endemic flora and fauna has  rarely been considered and often with disastrous ecological consequences. Following their arrival, the grey squirrels quickly spread causing large declines in the red populations and today in England and Wales they are reduced to a few fragmented populations where a natural barrier to the grey invasion exists. The more aggressive grey squirrel also carried a hidden danger to the red populations in the form of squirrel pox virus.
A well known site for red squirrels which for many years has been very popular with visitors and photographers is the population that can be found in the pine woodland that fringes the Sefton Coast around Formby. However, around 2007-2008 the squirrel pox virus struck and the the population was all but wiped out. The woodland fell silent.
Since this time a combination of hard work by the National Trust and volunteers, combined with an increasing natural pox immunity developing in the population has allowed the population to bounce back and I can happily report they appear to be really thriving once more.
These red squirrels were originally introduced many decades ago with animals imported from Europe. Their euro-origins can still be seen in the wide variety of colours that range from pure red, through silver red to almost black. This certainly adds some additional interest to the photography.
I did a session at Formby back in 2012 and it was hard work with very few squirrels around. In the intervening period the numbers have really increased and happy to report that a visit now feels like the pre-pox days. I visited Formby last Sunday for a couple of hours in the morning and very enjoyable it proved to be with plenty of squirrels putting in an appearance in front of the camera. This is not particularly challenging photography (although the light can be awkward in the pine woodland particularly when the sun is out) as the red squirrels are accustomed to people and on occasions will come very close.  In fact all the images on this post where taken with a 300mm lens on a full frame camera.
I must admit that I never ceased to be amazed at the images that Canon 300mm F2.8 lens produces. It really is an amazing lens with super fast autofocus (even when teamed with a teleconvertor) and images so sharp that they might be difficult to print for feel of cutting the paper. A real pleasure pf a lens to use when the situation allows.
On this occasion I did not bother with the Jays that are also relatively friendly here, having just spent the last few weeks with them, and just concentrated on the Red Squirrels. Such a joy to see them back and flourishing again.
It was good to have a nice relaxed session with the Red Squirrels. I know the photography ahead over the next few winter months will be tough as I head uphill into the harsh environment of the some shy mountain hares. A prospect that I am really relishing.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Just Jays

Regular readers will know I have a great fondness for photographing various corvids in flight. A particular favourite and challenge has been the Jay.
The majority of people seem to love jays which I put down to their slight unusual and exotic looks amongst the relatively muted colours of birds in the UK. Their pinkish hues of their body combined with black and white wings with its splash of electric blue and a crest which they only occasionally show.

Almost in flight
Jays are generally a relatively shy woodland species with broad wings that provide them with the lift to carry crops full of acorns, which they spend a good proportion of the autumn caching to provide a winter food supply. Having spent a good deal of time with these birds, some of their hiding of acorn tactics are probably not too successful when they simply place it on the ground and place a nearby leaf on top. Amusing to watch but hardly an approach that will deter a determined and hungry squirrel. Their broad wings also offer them great manoeuvrability in the air to help them negotiate with ease through their preferred woodland habitat. However, this aerobatic ability also makes them particularly challenging to photograph in flight.
'Project J' as I entitled this mission when it started a few years ago has proved an interesting and rewarding learning experience. I would say that it is only really during this year that I have finally honed the technique to consistently start capturing images of this fascinating species in flight. The main difference this year has been getting closer to the birds which has allowed me to use the very fast focusing 300mm F2.8 lens rather than fairly unwieldy 600mm. Speed of focus is key when trying to photograph these colourful corvids to keep up with the erratic and rapid flight paths.  However, even with a fast focusing lens and camera body the challenge still remains high. They are prehaps at their most unpredictable when coming into land and as I previously written about before the 'jay flip' often takes them sideways out of the camera viewfinder just when you think you have got the focus locked on.
Interestingly another confounding problem I have recently found at this site, paradoxically, is bright sun. Now many would think that bright sun would be beneficial for this flight photography allowing fast shutter speeds and larger depths of field to be easily achieved. However, apart from the obvious exposure challenges under these conditions on a bird with patches of black, a bright white rump and wing bars, I have often found the camera also struggles to acquire focus. The reason for this is that I am photographing the birds low over an area of grass which has much more contrast in bright sunshine. A camera's autofocus system is based around detecting contrast and so there is a tendency under these condition for the camera to lock on to the grass, especially when using expanded autofocus points. An expanded focus area is a necessity for these birds to try and keep the camera on them during their unpredictable flight path. Under the bright diffuse light of thin cloud cover, the success rate of achieving and holding focus on the jays becomes much greater. This just goes to show how differences in light when combined with the setting can have a big effect on how a camera can perform and as such the photographer needs to constantly change and adapt his settings and approach to maximise success under the prevailing conditions.
I think I have probably rattled on enough here and gone slight off track on the whole purpose of this post which is to show you some flying jays. To me they look at their best from a dorsal view when the blue wing patches are in view and this is probably the most difficult photo to achieve.
I may do one more Jay session this autumn but my thoughts are rapidly turning to my plans for the winter. Winter is a wonderful time for the wildlife photographer, if the weather is kind, and I always look forward to it as I am once again this year.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Farmyard Fun

Time for another post from my mini summer project on Little Owls. We are now into the start of July and I was starting to get a slightly better measure of their behaviour. Typically an owl would appear in the brick window and sit there for quite a long while waiting for the light to drop before starting its evening feeding. Many hours were spent watching a near motionless hour sat in this window. At times you had to wonder which of us was yawning more.

Where time would allow I was trying to do one or two evenings a week after work. This was always a bit of rush around which meant getting home, having some food and then driving to the site, back home and then taking the dogs out for a  late walk. Some evenings the owls would not appear until very late which meant the availability of light and time with them was very short. However, any time spent with Little Owls is always fun as they are such bold and charismatic birds.


Catching the last of the rays.

Up to this point I had only done evening sessions but decided a first light session was needed to see how the owls were behaving. Being mid-summer this required the alarm clock being set to some ridiculous hour that seemed like the middle of the night. First light summer session certainly take their toll on you around early afternoon where you seem to enter an almost zombie like state from fatigue.

Having taken quite a few portrait photos in different locations, I decided I need to try and get some more action photographs. Capturing Little Owls in flight when they are not flying into a regular spot is no easy task as they are small and fast moving. Their flight is also undulating like a green woodpecker which makes them trick to track with the camera.
This photograph below shows one of the owls jumping having just been dived upon by a swallow. As with all birds of prey they received a great deal of hassle through mobbing by other species.

As well as birds feeding, perched on the low outbuilding roof there seemed to be more activity along the gravel track that runs beside the barn. The birds certainly seemed to very active and were evidently feeding young back in the barn somewhere. The birds are quite comical when they run and I managed to get them both on the ground and 'free running' on the low outbuilding roof. They move remarkably quickly and it needs quite a bit of camera shutter speed to freeze the movement.
On one evening session around at the start of July a new bird appeared in the brick window with the first of young birds cautiously peering out. A good sign and an indication that the project could run for a few more weeks.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Autumn Reds

As autumn descends and fades the foliage to golden and amber hues, my thoughts often turn to deer. This is the time when the stags are looking their best and busy rutting with other males in order to exert their dominance and win and hold onto a harem of females for mating. This wildlife spectacle at times can be very impressive as the large stags, often caked in mud and virtually dripping with testosterone, majestically strut around. The air is filled with palpable tension and the primeval sounding roars of the stags announcing their presence. A great deal of posturing goes on but occasionally it breaks down and into an antler clashing and potentially life threatening battle of strength. This amazing deer ritual is easy for anyone to watch across the numerous herds of deer around the park-lands of the UK.
Of course as with all wildlife photography timing is a big factor to success and ideally a visit during the peak of the rut can produce some memorable images. At this time of year many photographers head to the well known parks such as Bushy, Richmond and Bradgate. However, I prefer somewhere closer to home, where the landscape is less flat and more interesting and the deer a good deal less approachable. My preference is for an ancient parkland area on the edge of the Peak District, Lyme Park. The deer here make you work hard for your images, there is no strolling up to them with a short lens at this site, and every photograph that ends up on you memory card is often the result of considerable physical effort. However, that makes it all the more memorable and rewarding experience. Now don't get me wrong I am not saying Lyme Park  is anything like the difficulty of stalking deer in the Highlands but it does present a good photography challenge.
So back at the end of September with the promise of some clear skies at the end of the day, I decided to make a mid-afternoon and into the evening visit with my friend Steve to see where the rut process had reached. It quickly became obvious we were a couple of weeks too early. The deer were in a few large groups that often included several stags, a sign that the rut had yet to get fully underway by the fact they were tolerating each other's presence. It would be a very different story once the rut had started.

There was the odd sign the stags were starting to gear up to this annual event with the occasional guttural roar  penetrating the still air.  The deer were typically very skittish and approach was as difficult as when I last visited. By the end of the session I physically felt like I had been on a trip to photograph Mountain Hare.

We managed to get a few photographs during the late afternoon. The deer remaining in tight herds made our task more tricky as it was difficult to single out individuals to photograph.

It was really during the last 30 to 40 minutes of the session that all started to come together for us and we ended up taking the majority of our photographs during this period. As the sun dropped away it created a gorgeous soft golden light that really lit up the golden tones of the long grasses.
As the light dropped further and became increasing more red which really enhanced the colour of the deer.
We finished off the session trying to get a couple of silhouettes and against a wonderful coloured sky.

A difficult but in the end a rewarding session and shows the importance of persevering until the light is no more. Hopefully I will get opportunity to return again this autumn when the rut is in full swing.

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