Sunday, April 13, 2014

Buzzin Round the Zoo

Now and again I like to make a visit to my local zoo at Chester. Is is a very good zoo and they a operate a large number of  important conservation and education programmes. This zoo holds many fond memories as it is one of the places I taught myself photography. I use to have a season ticket and so would pop in for an hour or two and go and spend some time at a particular enclosure. I think this zoo provide me with a valuable education as overcoming the constraints of the enclosures to produce natural looking images, taught me to think carefully about my position and how it effects the setting and composition and the importance of backgrounds. This is still important in my wildlife photography.  In those early days I would often rush around the zoo wanting to photograph everything, these days I take a more relaxed approach on my visits.

I prefer to visit in the winter when the zoo is quieter and if the sun shines it is softer. Mind you the low sun angle can create some awkward long shadows across the enclosures. This post is about two visits I have made in the last 6 months. The first was a brief afternoon back in November when I dropped my better half off in Chester to meet some friends for some retail therapy whilst I had a couple of hours wandering the zoo. High Street shops or looking at exotic animals, well there is not much competition there really.  So here are a couple of images from that first trip.

An adult cheetah prowling its large enclosure and one of the three youngsters rim lit by the low winter sun.
Staying with the big cats, the male Asiatic Lion nearly always provides some good photo opportunities, when he is awake, with this one given the black and white treatment.

Photographing in the monkey house is always difficult due to the limited light but can produce some interesting images with a bit of patience.

Crested Macaques

The dominant male Mandrill. I have always been fascinated with these large monkeys and found myself transfixed watching this one wandering what was going on behind those eyes.

Mandrill

My second visit was quite recently and unusually an all day one. My very good friend Andy Rouse, together with Andrew James, recently set up a very interesting photography website called Fotobuzz. They have tried to create something different and have put in a huge amount of work in to creating a very slick website with strong feeling of community and fun that is aimed at improving people's photography. I have been contributing to this on a monthly basis in a section about days out with your camera. Really it would take me far too long here to explain so here is a link Fotobuzz , if you want to see what it is about. This trip to Chester Zoo was the first Fotobuzz meetup with around 40 members from all over the UK attending. Given that it was just down the road I promised I would call in to help out. After an initial talk, accompanied by some coffee and pastries, about zoo photography, Andy went on to show some images and provide some background on his latest wildlife photography projects. Before being let lose with their cameras around the zoo, some help was given to people who had queries about setting up new cameras. A great day was had by all and I am sure many learnt some new techniques. There was certainly plenty of smiles when we all congregated together at the end of the day before departing. A few images from my wandering around the zoo that day are below.

Asiatic male lion again, this time in colour.

Emerald Starling in the Tropic Realm. Beautiful birds in their metallic green and purple colours. However, the colourful bird awards must go to the Nicobar Pigeon. Not all pigeons are equal and this must rank amongst the most beautiful.

A brief visit into the small aquarium and a Cardinal with an anemone.
Glossy Ibis and Black Vulture

The new Komodos.

My favourite images of the session was of one of the giraffes. The black background here created by some of that careful positioning I mentioned earlier.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Relaxed Spring Hares

Springtime is synonymous with brown hares as they are very visible in the low field crops, as they chase each other around with the males all vying for the attention of the female. At the site I visit they can be quite unpredictable in the spring. On some days it will be like a 'hare desert' whilst on others they seem to be everywhere. I think the main driver for this is when a female on heat is around as you often see numerous male running around and constantly stopping to sniff the ground trying to locate their target.

Most of the hare 'madness' seems to take place in the morning with them being a good deal calmer in the evening as they have a feed before nightfall. The words 'relaxed' and 'spring hares' are not often seen together but its all about time of day. So for portraits the evenings at the moment are often a better proposition.

My patient better half often questions why I spend so much time photographing 'those rabbits'. Apart from being completely different to 'rabbits', anyone who has spent time with hares will know the answer. Simply they are  fascinating animals, that are a pleasure to spend time with. This fascinating aspect is a feature that has not just captured my attention but the imaginations of many over centuries which is why the hare has become steeped in so much myth and folklore.

A couple of weekend back I headed out on a short evening session. Always good to have some wildlife photography that doesn't require a ridiculously early alarm call.  As is typical with the rapidly changing spring weather the sunlight and clear skies when I left home had turned to overcast conditions by the time I had arrived. I was a bit early as most of the hare activity would take place as the light was starting to fade and for the first hour of so I only managed to find one hare grazing on some fresh spring grass. There was a patch of daffodils behind and I waited until the hare slowly ate its way forward and the flowers provide some colour in the background. Spring encapsulated in a single image, well sort of ;).

As the session progressed, the light started to diminish, I started finding more and more hares. All of them were just sitting quietly, busily eating or just having a good stretch. Below are a selection of images. You can tell that the light had gone low by the size of the hares' pupils. The superb high ISO performance of the 1DX keeps you shooting when other camera have long gone to bed.

I was just finishing with a low level photo of a hare peeking over some long grass and thought it was about time to head home.
When I turned around there were two hares behind me but the female looked slightly odd in the fading light as it was striking pale in comparison to the darker  attendant male.
In fact I have never seen such a fair coloured hare in all my years of photographing them. On arriving home I did a Google search and found that sometimes they can appear pale during the transitional moult between winter and summer coat. Whatever, the reason it was a striking beautiful animal which certainly provide a great finale to the session.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Giant Water Wrens

Living close to North Wales I have  access to a very good area for photographing Dippers. It is common, when you wander up one of the tumbling welsh rocky streams, that you do not see  a bird bobbing on edge of a riffle or cascade or flying low and rapidly along the watercourse. This was a bird that I have previously photographed in my lunch hour but it was always a mad rush as by the time I had reached the birds it was almost time to head back to the office. So it struck me the other day that I have never gone undertaken a proper session with the birds and it was time make amends.
Dippers are amazing birds and always a pleasure to watch as they dive under water looking for food or perch on boulders in tumbling rapids with the characteristic bobbing motion from where they get their name. They are also when you spend time with them very attractive with a mix of brown head, black wings and tails which appears slightly scale-like and shiny , rust red on the belly and a very bright white breast. The latter is a bit of a headache for the photographer and getting the correct exposure of these white feathers can prove a challenge, particularly in a woodland stream where the light is constantly changing. It a brave photographer who tries to photograph these birds under the midday sun! Dipper photography often requires some very busy times certainly changing camera settings. The birds also have thick white eyelids and a session will inevitably result in a few photos with a white patch where the eye should be.

First light starting to come through to the river.
Early spring is a good time to try and photograph these aquatic birds as the light penetrating the woodlands is not restricted by leaf growth and, as an early nesting species, they are usually very active. The nest is an impressive large spherical construction of moss around the size of a football and is often made under bridges or in piles of large wood debris at the river edge.

Some moss heading to the nest
An early alarm call rose me from my slumber yesterday morning, as I wanted to get to site as early as possible. I must admit I was really looking forward to the session and it would make such a pleasant change not to be photographing Dippers against the 1 hour clock. The main reason for an early start was that the site is  a popular place for walking, including dogs, this obviously has its disadvantages but also there is a benefit in that the Dippers are relatively accustomed to people being around.

I left home under clear skies, having cleared a thin film of ice off the windscreen, and as I head towards North Wales I could see a bank of grey cloud over the hills. It was not warm as I stepped out from the car on arrival and I was glad I had dressed for cold as I was going to be sat still in one spot for a while. I walked off down the river to the spot where I hope to find some Dipper which is a bridge where they have nested for several years. Sure enough just as I arrived I saw one rapidly flying up under the bridge with a beak full of moss, it looked like nest building was in full swing, as a second bird quickly also appeared just downstream with a beak full. At this point the light was very poor, as the sun had not climbed high enough and a blanket of grey cloud swirled overhead in the brisk biting wind.
I decided to watch the birds for a while to work out which boulders they were mainly using as they approached the bridge and hoped the light would improve. As I watched it even started snowing briefly at one point but I could see the clouds would probably break up as the morning progressed. The birds were very busy and constantly returning with beaks of moss and other soggy vegetation. When both birds were away I took a quick look at my preferred photography position to check what the water colour would look like as a background to the images. I always think this is important for dipper photography and small changes in position can make a large difference to the look of the photographs. Generally I am looking for areas of coloured water as the Dipper's dark colouration against light water does not usually result in good images. I moved back to the observation point before the birds returned. They left again and this time I go into position upstream of the bridge tucked into a fairly uncomfortable alcove in the bank down at water level.
The light was improving and the first glimmers of sunlight were appearing through the breaking cloud layer overhead. The surrounding woodland was filled with the joyful spring song of various tits, nuthatch and drumming woodpecker. The Dippers returned deposited their nest material and left to find more. They returned once again and went through the same routine before departing. They seemed happy with my presence, which is always important, so it was time to start taking some photographs. I must have been quite well hidden in my camouflage clothing as twice I had dogs appear behind me with a sudden apology and 'oh I didn't see you there' from the owners. Quite a few people crossed the bridge completely unaware of my presence including the family who found more delight in throwing rocks in the river then either me or the birds!

An unusually upright pose for a Dipper.
It was a great morning watching the  pair going about their nest building routine and there were even some moments of good light. I moved position after a while to the far side of the river as I noticed some yellow water, caused by the reflection of a sandy clay bank. My final position was again tucked in the bank downstream of the bridge to get the birds in different settings. Each move was only made when the birds were away from the nest. By 10 am it was all over, as the skies turned leaden grey and it started to rain and hail. When I got back to the car it looked like my timing had been good as large numbers of walkers were assembling.

A adjacent sand bank created some attractive 'golden' water.

Overall it had been an enjoyable session and great to watch the antics of these 'giant water wrens'. Whether I will return for another session this year really depends on how easily I become sidetracked by other subjects. April is nearly upon us now and this is usually a very busy month for the wildlife photographer with the migrants birds arriving and mammals becoming much more
active.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

More Flying Corvids

Thought I would do another post on some flying corvids given that they are such a great photographic subject.Whilst trying to capture photographs of my main target, the Jay, I also get visits from other birds such as Magpies and Carrion Crows.
The Jays are on the bottom rung of a distinct pecking order ladder of these three crow species. As such, there are always some opportunities to photograph these other birds whilst waiting for the feeding area to become clear. Both the crows and magpies are easier to photograph than the jays as they are more predictable in their flight patterns. The main issue is one of getting the exposure of the photograph right in the good light needed for flight photography.  For the non-photographers reading this that means trying to finely balance the camera settings to changing light conditions to maintain detail in both the blacks and whites parts of these birds. Birds that are both black and white being at either end of the 'light spectrum' can present quite a challenge to capture correctly. Of course as I have said before the magpie is not really a black and white bird but the back of the wings has an iridescent blue sheen and a green tail that ends in a purple dominated rainbow of colour. Despite their much maligned reputation, there is no denying that the magpie is a very attractive bird when looked at carefully.

Another occasional visitor is the Wood Pigeon. Interestingly these birds stand their ground to all at the feeding area except Carrion Crow.

Of course the real star of the show and the main reason why I started this whole project so long ago, is the Jay.

Air brakes fully engaged before the final landing flip.

 Fly-bys with full downbeat wing extension. Of course given the nature of jay flight you inevitably end up with quite a few photographs with no wings showing and it just appears like a flying rocket.
Sometimes it nice to pull back a bit and show a bit more habitat, especially when there is the lovely rusty coloured hues of old beech leaves in the frame.
Possibly my favourite photograph of the recent return to Project J is the one below which shows the bird in its fully flying glory whilst calling.
Its now time to put 'Project J' back to bed for a while as Spring is starting to develop and my thoughts will turn to other subjects. Its a joy now to walk back along the local coastal strip and hear the sky filled once again with tumbling liquid song of skylarks. I have a few photography projects in mind for Spring and Summer. In two months it will be time to jet off  as I am returning to the Danube Delta once more. I am really looking forward to the trip as on this visit I will be spending the entire week in the Delta  including a new area recently opened up to visitors in the north where amongst the bird life, I am hoping to put some golden jackal in front of the camera. So some exciting times ahead which as always will be a pleasure to share with you.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

O'er t'Moors

I am not sure if it a reflection of my advancing age, but I find myself increasingly drawn to remote places. I love the solitude of just being out alone with the wildlife. If you were to ask me what would be my worst photographic nightmare then it would be being forced to attend a  site where a very rare bird has appeared and large crowds of often bickering photographers and bird watchers have descended. This is why I rarely go to photograph rare bird species unless it has been resident a long time and the interest has really died down.
Looking for solitude increasingly finds me heading to upland areas where escape can be sought from the 'maddening crowds'. I particularly enjoy driving around moorland roads looking to see what  birds can be found to photograph. IT is always a pleasure as you never know what may be waiting around the corner. Sometimes the photographs are taken from the car, using it as a mobile hide (blind for any readers from the USA), and on other occasions I will park the car and head out across the moorland on foot. A personal favourite species for this type of photography, at certain times of year, is the Red Grouse.
I will often take a detoured route home, if I am in the right part of the country, to try and take in a bit of moorland road. It is a very good way to break up a long drive and recharge the batteries for the remainder of the journey.  Such was the case recently as I found myself coming through Yorkshire, and instead of speeding down trunk roads and motorways to get home as quickly as possible, I took a gently arcing extended route to take in some upland moors. A much more relaxing drive which gives much better views than that of rapidly passing motorway embankments and the constant flashing of red brake-lights.

My only recommendation for when photographing on these uplands roads is to just be careful. Traffic will usually be light but you don't want to stop the car where it will obstruct other vehicles. Often the roads are narrow and you also need to take care with pulling on to verges as they may be softer than you think and getting stuck on a remote upland road is not likely to be much fun.

A male bird standing sentry over its territory.
Photographing the birds from the car is relatively straight forward and they main consideration is about positioning of you car to get the best angle and corresponding setting and background. To pursue the birds on foot takes quite a stealthy approach as generally when grouse see people they are pointing guns at them. However, being on foot allows much more variety in angles and some soft blurred vegetation can be created around the birds.

Up very close to a bird feeding on the heather shoots

The quantity of light on my journey through Yorkshire was not great with dull overcast skies above with only  occasion shafts of sunlight illuminating opposite hillsides or distant valleys However, the Red Grouse in the spring are magnificent looking birds in top condition with the male birds sporting very prominent red eye combs. This particular bird was beautifully patterned in the subtle arrangement of rust, black and white.
As I was coming down off the moor, I came across one bird standing on a dry stone wall, gently calling. A memorable scene from another productive and happy detour o'er t'moors (as they say in Yorkshire)

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