Sunday, September 28, 2014


During this summer I have spent a fair amount of my time photographing Little Owls which will be the subject of a couple of future blog posts. The owls were resident in an old farm building which had a gravel track running down its side which separated it from a field with a potato crop. As Little Owls are most active during dawn and dusk and it was inevitable that during these sessions I would also encounter some other birds and animals which show a preference for these times of day.
Whilst sitting waiting for owls I would see the occasional brown hare coming down the track and cutting across the grass verge and into the potato plants.
During July three leverets appeared briefly for a couple of weeks and not only gave some good opportunities for photography, which does not happen to often,  but were also a great deal of fun to watch. Leverets always seem slightly comic in appearance with their ears and feet which they always seem to need to grow into. They also always seem slightly uncoordinated in their movements as if someone above is pulling strings attached to the legs in the opposite direction to that which they want to go. These mini hares are also highly unpredictable, sitting still one moment and then bouncing around all over the place the next as if they are receiving repeated electric shocks.

They are actually fairly difficult to photograph given the apparent randomness of their movements, u combines with their small size and impressive speed.  Sometimes they have the appearance of a turbo-charged guinea pig. The world must seem a very large place to a small leveret.
It was interesting to watch the three of them interacting and most of their time was spent chasing each other in circles among the potato plants. Important 'playtime' training to avoid future predation. There was another interesting moment when one approached a rabbit and seemed to be trying to provoke it into a chase although the rabbit was having none of it.

My brief moments with these leverets was very enjoyable especially when combined with the Little Owls and provide a useful and entertaining distraction whilst waiting for the owls to appear. I hope these hares are all still around and fairing well as this declining species is currently afforded no statutory protection in the UK. In my view this is one of our most enigmatic small mammal species and deserves a higher legal conservation status to ensure that future generations can enjoy the spectacle of the 'mad' March hares running around the fields.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Red Grouse in Purple Haze

About three weeks ago I had to head up to Durham with work. As I was driving across some winding roads through Teesdale it struck me that it seemed to be an exceptional year for flowering by the moorland heather. The rolling landscape draped in a blanket of rich purple and and pinks. As I continued my journey, I would occasionally see a Red Grouse perched near to the road or speeding across in front of me in straight low flight. On my journey home the grey matter started ticking, and I was thinking that this exceptional bloom of heather was just to good to pass-by and and allow to fade into autumn.

A couple of days later and I was speaking to my good friend Andy and  a visit to our favourite grouse site in Yorkshire was quickly arranged. So last week, after a very early start and a long drive, I managed to get myself to the site soon after sunrise and was happy to be slowly driving up the track that leads on to this upland moor. I had not even reached the moor before I encountered the first Red Grouse which was perched on a dry stone wall with the fields behind  glowing a golden yellow. I had a good feeling about this trip already.

I gave Andy a quick call who was on the far side of the moor and we agreed we would slowly work across and meet somewhere in the middle. There was a urgent need to get photographs quickly before the sun got too high, the light too harsh but more importantly given the conditions before the focus destroying haze started.

There were a lot of grouse around and the setting was just beautiful in the early morning with the flowering heather, some of which was already starting to fade to orange. We had timed our visit well as much later and we was would have lost the colourful benefit of the flowers. Many of the birds were still in family groups with the male on sentry duty over looking the female and two or three well grown young as the grazed on the fragrant heather.

I was finding plenty of birds and the memory card soon started gathering images.

I even managed to get a lucky flight shot.

By 10am you could already see the first shimmer of haze starting to develop and grouse activity had significantly nose dived. By this time I had met up with Andy and we decided to try one last bird, sat in amongst a mound of heather, before heading off for breakfast. We started taking photos and Andy wandered left  and found a great angle on the bird which produced a pleasing darker background from the dark hills in the distance.
We took a lot of photos of this bird but the majority ended up  in the computer waste bin due being soft in focus due to the haze of wobbling air that had developed just above the heather. Under these conditions all you can do is take a lot of photos and hope you get a moment where there is a 'gap' in the haze. You will inevitably end up with the odd photograph that is sharp but you should also be prepared for a lot of disappointment.

It was late morning before we got to the hotel and breakfast turned into an early lunch sat outside a pub in some warm September sunshine. The food combined with an early start, long drive and some fairly intense concentration were beginning to take its toll. A siesta was needed to recharge the bio-batteries before heading out again for a late afternoon and evening session.

As we headed back to the moor at around 4pm, a layer of cloud had gathered overhead creating some fairly 'flat' light. I worked hard through the session to build up the increasing collection of grouse images, always being on the look out for a bird in a different setting and trying to make the most of the heather. In some locations the palette of hues around the birds were amazing and using a shallow depth of field blended them into a techni-coloured haze. On occasions the scene through the camera viewfinder seemed like some kind of psychedelic experience. I wonder if Jimi Hendrix ever photographed grouse in flowering heather? Probably not but I am sure he would have certainly appreciated the purple haze.

The day was finished with a very enjoyable curry.

The next morning was overcast and misty and as we headed out towards the moor again the mist turned to thick fog. Fortunately the very top of the moor was just high enough to take us above the swirling white layer. We had to move around quite a bit of the course of the morning as patches of the fog lifted up the hillside rendering the area we were useless.
It turned out to be a fairly productive morning. We found one very accommodating bird that would allow very close approach but insisted on sitting on top of a post.

A good opportunity though to get a nice frame filling head photo of the bird.
We both decided we wouldn't wait around to the evening and finished our trip late morning. On the way home I found one last bird to photograph sat on a  boulder surrounded by bracken.

It turned out overall to be another very enjoyable and productive trip with Andy. We tend to do these outings a couple of times a year when a gap in our busy lives coincide. It is always a pleasure to have a couple of days out with the camera, away from the pressures of modern life and spend time enjoying the wildlife in a beautiful area with good company. The next day I was back in work looking somewhat 'groused' from my exertions of the previous days.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Heading Out to Sea

For the past couple of years I have chartered a fishing boat, the 'Discovery' based in Liverpool, and taken a few photographers and bird watchers out into Liverpool Bay to see what sea birds we could find on a pelagic chumming trip. We had a trip blown off at the end of last year and so the boat deposit was transferred across to a booking in mid-July. Previously we have headed out mid-week and at first light but this booking was a more relaxed affair with a midday sailing on the weekend for a 10 hour trip. So I met up with the other five photographers, Brian, Steve, Mike, Dave and Paul and Tony the bird watcher at Liverpool Marina and we were soon settled on the boat and heading out through the lock gates into the swirling brown waters of River Mersey.

We decided we would head further out on this trip and went around 30 miles out to an area near one of the gas platforms. The sea was like the proverbial mill pond, in fact I have never seen it so flat. The light was pretty flat too with the forecast for rain later. After only a short distance out and away from the influence of the River Mersey, the sea turned clear and a that wonderful blue-green shade.

For creating our chum trail we used an oil drip of salmon oil supplemented with regular dosing of mixed floating particles and fresh mackerel caught during the trip to attract the birds.  We headed past Burbo Bank wind farm, which is approximately 3 miles offshore from the Wirral Pennisula, and onwards out to the horizon seeing various birds including Gannet, Guillemots, Gulls, Manx Shearwater, together with a couple of Arctic Skua and Harbour Porpoise whilst in transit.

The powerful twin engines on the 'Discovery' quickly got us out to our destination and we immediately got the chum slick going off the back of the boat, and one of the crew started catching mackerel. As with all the previous trips the first bird to arrive was a Fulmar which with effortless flight circled the boat a few times before coming to rest on the water.

It was not long before a few Lesser Black-backed gulls started to accumulate in the chum trail and this activity attracted our main target bird the gannet.  We soon had several birds ranging from adult to immature circling the boat. Freshly caught whole mackerel were thrown out for the birds to dive to accompanied by a hilarious running commentary from the skipper on the progress of the birds towards each fish. The birds seemed in a fairly indifferent mood with only the occasional one diving which I think was partly due to conditions an also it being the middle of the day but we still managed to get a few photographs.
The moment of impact.

Then it went dead, a mid-afternoon lull with no bird in sight in any direction for quite a while but some freshly cooked sausage barms dosed with tomato sauce and a mug of piping hot tea was well received all round. With everyones' agreement, I suggested we try a different area and move back in around 5 miles as we had passed quite a lot of birds on the way out.  On the move we had a small flock of Lesser Black-backed Gulls following the boat allowing us to get a few frame filling images of the birds in flight.

On arrival at the new location, just by the wind farm off the North Wales coasts, we had the first Gannet appearing when we saw a group of dorsal fins cutting through the still waters. A large pod of Bottle-nose Dolphins, estimated between to be between 30 and 50 animals, were passing a couple of hundred metres from the boat. We immediately pulled the anchour and the skipper took the boat towards them. The dolphins gathered around the boat as we cruised along at around 8 knots, riding under the bow. An incredible sight to see these big marine mammals up so close. At one point it looked that they were stacked 5 deep under the boat. Photographing them was not easy with them tending to ride along just in front of the boat. In the end the skipper suggested I get up on the roof of the cabin to get a better view. I managed a couple of photographs I was happy with.

My favourite moment of this amazing encounter was when one swam alongside right next to the boat and turned on its side to watch the amazed photographs gazing down over the gunnels. A brief moment of intimate contact with a completely different world.
The pod stayed with the boat for around 35 minutes before peeling off and heading off on their way leaving a boat of smiling people behind.

It then started to rain and everyone took shelter for the 40 minutes or so until it stopped and when carried on with the birds. We were well into the evening now and not much time before we had to return and the Gannets were obviously hungry and going into evening feeding mode. The problem we had was that we had run out of fish and despite our efforts struggled to catch any. We managed a few more photographs before it was time to raise the anchour once more and head back to the marina.
We docked around 9:45 pm. It had been an interesting day out and everyone seemed to have really enjoyed themselves, despite it being a relatively quiet with the birds. A big thank you to Gary and the crew for all the hard work to make it such a great trip. On each of these trips I learn a little more and hopefully will try arrange a series of trips out during July and August next year. If you would be interested on joining me on this high seas adventure then please drop me a line.


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