Sunday, May 01, 2016

Secret Valley Herons

A few weeks ago, I received an email with a couple of photographs attached  taken on a compact camera of a heron nest. This  had been sent to a photographer I know who lives down south, who knowing it was in my area, then forwarded it on to me. The nest was supposed to be one of around ten at a location close to home, which I have driven past many times, and never knew a heronry was there. My good friend lives just round the corner from the herons and he did not know they were there either. So before I get any further I would like to send a big thanks to Ben for sharing the information with me.

The heronry is on the edge of a new housing estate located in a narrow, shallow heavily wooded valley. Where birds have nested in the tops of trees growing from the valley base, by standing on the valley ridge effectively puts you at the interesting perspective of being level with the nests. Given the dense tree growth along the side of the valley there is only one small gap which is clear of vegetation to allow you to photography the birds. When I say small I mean its a 2ft clear hole through the branches which, with some careful camera positioning allows you to photograph three different nests. Each of the nests was occupied one with 4 well grown young, another with 3 and the third with an adult bird which was presumably sitting on eggs.
This is the first time I have photographed a herons nest and it reminded me a little of a scene from Jurassic Park especially with the 'primeval' sounds of birds from adjacent nests as adults came back and forth with sticks to build up their nest or fish to feed their rapidly growing young. I did three sessions in total before the spring tree growth obscured by small window through the trees. It proved to be a waiting game as the action only really starts in earnest when the adult returns to the nest with the next fish meal which seemed to occur every 60 to 90 minutes. In the intervening time, the chicks would spend their time sleeping, preening, moving sticks around and stretching their wings and building their wing muscles with some flapping exercise.

Here is a short video to show what I mean:
Herons Nest from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

On the video you can hear the sounds of birds on other nests nearby. It must be quite a noisy place at times for the local residents but from the few I spoke to out walking their dogs it appears they have a great fondness for the herons. One cold morning whilst waiting for an adult to return I was even offered a cup of tea by the owner of the house over the road from where I was stood.

It soon became obvious that the nest I was concentrating my attention on the most, (the one with three chicks) that the adults had found an easy food source as they were bring back large goldfish and golden orfe to feed the young. No doubt someones back garden pond was being steadily emptied of fish. When wildlife is offered an easy food source you cant blame it for exploiting it. Optimal foraging in action with maximum energy gain from minimum energy expenditure.

The main challenges with photographing the birds was trying to get all the birds facing in a good direction, one session I arrived to find a thick mist in the valley and also with the cold weather on the morning when I managed to eventually get some sun a heat haze rapidly developed.

Below is a further selection of images from the three short  but enjoyable morning sessions at the Secret Valley with the herons.
It was wonderful to get an insight into their lives that you don't normally see and good to watch a flourishing population of birds so close to home. I am sure I will return once more next year to observe, photograph and learn some more.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Late Season Owls

It has been a good winter in the UK for Short-eared Owls with a large influx of birds from continental Europe. Unfortunately for me, free time coinciding with decent weather to try and photograph these majestic owls seems to have been limited. The birds usually stay on their winter feeding areas through March before starting to disperse to the upland summer breeding sites. With an improvement in the weather this March and three birds being reported to be appearing at both ends of the day on the local marsh, I decided I would try to get some photographs before they disappeared.
Photographing owls always requires an element of luck as it tends to be done by standing in a spot and waiting for owls to fly close by as they quarter the fields in their buoyant flight searching for voles. My first trip was in the evening which proved to be unsuccessful as the light was not great and the birds all distant. I decided I would try an early morning visit when the birds would be front lit. This was at the time of a new moon which means that these daytime owls are limited in their ability to hunt visually at night, compared with a full moon period, which would hopefully prolong their morning hunting activities.

So an early alarm call saw me creeping out the house on a still and frosty morning with clear skies overhead. I was down at the site before sunrise, standing on the edge of a large area of salt marsh. Slowly the sky lighten behind me with the rising sun and it was a joy to hear the marsh slowly come to life with an increasing symphony of bird sounds.  Soon after the warm glow of the sun started spreading across the marsh two owls appeared and started hunting. They spotted each other and made a direct line towards each other for a mid-air tussle at distance before seeming to fly off into the distance which was not a very encouraging sign but they did return and one made several close fly-by in the soft warm dawn light.

Its is always a pleasure to watch these owls hunting, as they float low above the marsh before suddenly twisting downward to try and wrap their talons around an unsuspecting vole. The are such a lovely looking bird armed with a very penetrating stare from those bright yellow eyes.

By 8am it was all over and the birds went back to ground to roost. A brief but pleasurable session. I made another return visit in similar conditions about a week later although not an owl was to be seen. Maybe they had already moved on and I was lucky to just catch the very last on them in their winter haunts where hopefully they will return once more in the mid-autumn.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Upland Ramblings

The winter before last I started photographing Mountain Hares in the Peak District. Last winter was basically non-starter for them as terrible weather seemed to coincide with my free time and I only managed one unsuccessful visit.
So I was looking forward to this winter. However, as you will have realised from the last few posts the weather this winter as been dire down at sea level so you can guarantee it will be doubly grim where the hares live at around 600m. So as every weekend approached I would check the Mountain Weather Information Service for the wind speed and also the level of the cloud base. Up until the New Year the weather has been a no go. Then finally on New's Years day the weather looked favourable and while most were sleeping off the excesses of the night before I found myself in the early morning heading to the hills. Since then I have managed another two visits.

The first visit and with all the preceding rain proved very soggy underfoot on the upland peat deposits and by the time I had finished crawling around, which is inevitable when photographing these shy animals, I resembled something emerging from the proverbial black lagoon. At first I thought something was wrong as the places where I expected find hares were all empty. Had their been a population crash?  It took 2 hours searching before my first encounter. With the stiff cold wind the hares had decided to sensibly take shelter on the other side of the hill! In the end  I managed to put a couple of hares in front of the camera. I had forgotten what hard work is involved with photographing these beautiful animals. Every photo ending up on the camera typically involves large amounts of trekking across the hills, subsequently followed by a long crawl to get in close to them. Every image is a hard won.
The second trip was fairly unproductive for me and for the first time I took my friend Steve to show him where to find the hares. Steve did well on his first trip and was pleased with his results. It was just one of those days for me where the hares were sitting in the wrong place when I came across them. In fact I only kept one photo of this back-lit hare which for a change I decided to give the selective de-saturation treatment when processing to just leave that amber colour of the eye.

The third session was last weekend and needed an early start to get up to the hares for first light with the rapidly increasing day length. The ground was frozen and the wind light which meant making a quiet approach was going to present some challenges. It was interesting to note during this visit a change in the hares behaviour, as the spring hormone rush had obviously started to kick in. Many of the hares I encountered, instead of sitting in eroded peat gullies were sitting up on vantage points presumably scanning the area for other hares. Of course, this made the already difficult task of approaching these timid animals even more challenging.
I spotted a few chasing each other and also noted the hares tended to be more in small groups of up to half a dozen in one small area. Again this made the approach more difficult with several pairs of eyes and ears scanning for unwelcome movements and sound. However, I still managed to get a few hares in front of the camera.

This session was hard work involving lots of slow crawling to try and get in a good photography position on the hares. I was certainly feeling some aching muscles for a couples of days afterwards. Overall, it was another enjoyable sessions which produced a few more images for the slowly expanding library.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Summer Foxes

With the weather continuing to be grim, its a good time to catch up with the perennial backlog of images needing processing. It is always nice to go back to a set of images you took a few months ago as not only does it re-stir the happy memories of the moment but inevitably you find a few surprise photos. This week I have been working through some fox images from a couple of sessions last summer in a friends back garden.

My good friend Steve has a wide variety of wildlife visiting his garden that includes for the last few years a pair of buzzards and foxes. Often the key to having a garden full of wildlife is to keep a constant supply of food and water available.  For the last couple of years when Steve and his family have headed off on holiday I have offered to visit to keep the food supply going and also this give opportunity for a quick photo session or two.

The garden includes an acre of oak woodland on a slope and close to the house falls away in a couple of terraces with the lower area being were the foxes are regularly fed and also come in to clear up spillages, particularly peanuts, from the various bird feeders. Steve has built a small hide down there for photography.

So I turned up for the first visit with a couple of jumbo tins of dog food for the foxes. Having checked all the bird feeders were topped up, I scattered the dog food around the lower lawn. The strong smell of fresh tinned dog food should draw the foxes in quickly. I went to go in the hide to find it full or garden furniture in temporary storage so quickly needed a plan B. Fortunately in my car I had my rarely used ghillie suit which putting on quickly transformed me into a bush. I found a suitable place to lie down, at some distance on the terrace above the lower fed area and waited. I decided given that I only had the ghillie suit to, and not wanting to potentially alarm the foxes, to sit further back and use thequiet and movements we 600mm lens. This would have the added benefit of reducing the angle from my slightly raised position. I had to keep very quiet and move very slowly so as not disturb them. Fortunately the wind was in my face blowing any scent away from them. They knew something was there, from the click of the camera shutter,  but couldn't work out what it was but this had the benefit of having a lot of the foxes look straight at me.

I did not have to wait long and a grey squirrel dashing up a tree and alarm calling with its rapid flicking tail announced the arrival of the foxes. There was a total of seven foxes visiting at that time, 2 adults, 2 of last years young and 3 of this years cubs. Over to the right hand side from where I was lying there was some low shrubs on the edge of the woodland and a various obvious fox sized path going into the undergrowth and as expected that is where the first fox appeared.

Over the next hour or so a number of different foxes appeared in front of me with the vixen being the most active. They are such beautiful animals and always special to have one in front of the camera. Later in the week I made another early evening visit going through the same procedure. During both visits the dog fox only appeared once briefly and seem to be suffering with an eye infection which I am happy to say he now seems to be fully recovered from. So I will finish off by saying thanks to Steve for the opportunity of spending some time with his foxes.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Great Northern Junior

Firstly big apologies for the lack of recent blog updates, it has been a very busy time for me with all kinds of things going on in the background.

The winter weather continues to be very poor. This is certainly proving to be one of the worst winters for weather and light that I can remember. The weekends when I tend to do most of my photography have either been plagues with dark grey skies or strong winds or both. As I look out the window now this is exactly what I am seeing. My shutter finger is getting very itchy.

A couple of weeks back I did manage to catch a few moments of rare sunlight at the end of the afternoon and headed up to the local marine lake before the sun disappeared to have a quick session with the long-staying young Great Northern Diver. I love photographing all divers and still have one on the list to do which is the Black-throated variety, which is a stunningly beautiful bird. Something I hope to try rectify in the not so distant future but will probably require a summer trip up to Scandinavia.

The young Great Northern Diver has been resident on the marine lake for many weeks, happily munching its way through the crab population. As with many long staying birds in very public places this one has become very accustomed to people, however has developed a tendency when surfacing or feeding to always be facing away from the perimeter footpath. So you always have to wait for it to turn before taking any photographs after which it usually shortly disappears underwater again. This is not the easiest lake to photograph birds as it covers a large area. However, it does have the benefit that around the majority of the lake it is easy to get close to water level on the surrounding path. Fortunately during my visit the bird decided to go foraging close to the footpath on the right side of the lake for the light direction.

Since visiting the bird its colouration has changed and it seems to be starting to develop a dark collar as it starts to slip towards the conversion into summer plumage. No doubt it will have long since departed before the conversion is complete. Unfortunately during my brief visit it was proving very unsuccessful in capturing crabs as I was hoping to get some feeding photos. However, the soft low winter light was wonderful and some very close encounters with the bird were had. Always such a joy to be in close proximity to one of these birds.

As a bit of extra news, I have recently booked this year's overseas trip and will be returning to the Varanger Peninsula in Arctic Norway at the beginning of June. Excited by the prospects of getting some ruff in breeding plumage back in front of the camera.


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