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.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 8 and 9: A Grand Finale

I have decided it it time to finally wrap up this trip to Romania in one extended blog post. All the photographs that follow are from day 8 of the trip as the ninth day was fully taken with travelling back home.

Another very early start saw myself and Rene heading back to the Northern Jackal hide for our last attempt on these enigmatic animals. Overcast conditions prevailed above once more but at least is was a white cloud rather than deep grey which increased the availability of light. The carp carcasses were staked out and once again within a short time a jackal head nervously appeared out of the longer grass and scrub area to the left of the hide. We had three jackals appear that morning which seemed to be a an adult male, a female and a sub-adult. These jackals are quite nervous animals and the large male seemed fairly possessive over the carp breakfast. I guess in total we had the jackals in front of us on and off for seemed to be around 20 - 30 minutes in total allowing plenty of time to get some more photos to add to those taken in the preceding days.
The jackals sloped back off into the scrub. Again the action was over relatively quickly and so we still had plenty of the morning session available. Once we were certain the jackals had completely left the area we called Luca who came and collected us. We had decided we would spend the rest of the morning in a reed clad  hide located closer to the hotel which overlooked a small reed lined pond with a scattering of lilies across its surface. The main target birds for this pond were Kingfisher and Pygmy Cormorant.

We were not sat there very long before we heard the distinctive high pitch call of the Kingfisher and a male bird came speeding in towards the hide and landed on a perch in the water in front of us.
The bird departed and flew across to a post in the middle of the pond where it dived a couple of time before returning in front of us and disappearing once more.

Whilst waiting for it to hopefully reappear there were some other birds in front of us. A Squacco Heron stalking through the reedbeds on the far bank and a pair of Ferruginous Duck. I concentrated my efforts on the ducks having taken so many heron photos in the previous days. The drake was preening and as with virtually all birds this was followed by the obligatory wing flap to shake down the feathers.

Another shrill call announced the return of the Kingfisher, a female this time.
At this point Rene and I part ways with him deciding to stay in the hide to see what else may arrive whilst I decided to walk about 20m away to where a pop-up hide had been placed next to a sandy depression in the bank for European Bee-eater. If you look carefully in the photograph below you can just see one of the birds perched in the tree behind.
Just for your interest, this was the camera few from the hide. Always a pleasure to have these colourful birds in the camera viewfinder.
There were no nest holes in the bank and at first it did not look very promising but there were plenty of birds gliding around nearby and it was not long before I had a pair perched up in front of me. Having taken a few portrait photographs of these technicolour birds that look like they have flown through a wet rainbow, I spent a little time trying for a couple of landing photographs. The birds were just beginning a nest excavation in the bank as you can see by the small depression in front of this bird.
The birds were being fairly un-cooperative for the landing photos but this partly resulted from the perch being too long giving them to much choice of where to alight.
This last one shows the last few of many flying insects during their short lives.

The sun was getting high now, the light harsh and the air becoming wobbly with the rapid rising temperature outside the hide, so I decided to bring the morning session to an end and head back to the hotel for a coffee.

Over another tasty lunch we all sat down and discussed our plans for the final afternoon / evening session. Rene, Paul and Kevin decided they would go off site with Luca and Zoltan with a drive of around 40 minutes to an area with Collared Pratincole. I decided I would stay and take out one of the electric buggies and see what I could find to photograph around Ultima Frontiera.

Mid-afternoon accompanied by the whir of an electric motor I headed down to the south end of the site to start my afternoon in a hide for that had been set up for Marsh Harrier.

My transport for the afternoon

The hide was a strange one! A tiny box raised up on long supports overlooking a vast area of reeds with an old tree branch a short distance in front. This was not a hide for the claustrophobic as it was so small I had to leave my bag outside at the foot of the entry ladder. Once settle in it was obvious flight photos were going to be nearly difficult as the slight breeze was not in an ideal direction and there was a fair amount of heat and water vapour haze rising up off the reeds. I had seen a couple of harriers at distance and continued to wait cramped into the box. A male bird suddenly appeared from nowhere and settled on the perch.

This was the first time I had seen a Marsh Harrier that was not in flight and they are such an attractive bird of prey.

The male stayed a short while  but did not really do much beyond the above photo except rearrange a couple of feathers before taking flight once more. I decided under the conditions I was not really going to get much more out of the hide and had a growing need to stretch my legs. Under some better conditions the potential for this hide to provide some amazing harrier photographs would be very good.

What to try next? I remembered there was a hide nearer the hotel set amongst a series of old square fish ponds where the previous day Luca had managed a nice photograph of a Purple Heron and Rene and Paul had seen some Musk Rat. I convinced myself it was worth checking. This hide was not ideal sited as it was set up quite high on the bank and therefore not providing the ideal viewpoint of anything in front of it. It was very quiet except for a family of Mute swans including a very aggressive male. My hopes were raised when an adult purple heron flew in behind some reeds to the left but this was soon flushed by a herd of free ranging cattle. After staying in the hide a while I decided my efforts would be better directed elsewhere and remembered the Penduline Tit nest that was just around the corner that Zoltan had showed me the previous day.

Getting photographs of this tiny 'masked' bird was a trial of patience as it zipped around between nest, low bushes and reeds but eventually I managed to get some photographs I was happy with.
The evening was starting to draw in now so I decided I would go off on one big final circuit and just see what I could find along the way.

The first photo opportunity was with a beautifully coloured Red-backed Shrike which was glowing in the late sun. The bird was quite difficult to photograph as it was one of those that just wanted to stay a little too distant in front of me, as it flipped between low bushes, and as I tried to creep up on it in the electric buggy. Eventually it paused on top of a bush for a moment allowing me to get close and a couple of shots. Such a shame these birds have been lost from the UK.
Moving along one of the southern tracks, a European Roller was perched in a low tree. I expected it to peel away in flight and a blur of blue as I approached but it just sat there in apparent curiosity. I really like these birds, which are about the size of a jackdaw, but they do spend long periods sitting around doing not very much.
After a while the curiosity seemed to get the better of the bird and it flew down to a bush right next to me. By this time I was standing at the back of the buggy which I was trying to use as some cover. Such a pleasure to be so close to one of these birds. It just sat there cocking its head to the sides and inspecting me before another flew by which it joined.

I was heading back to the hotel now as the light was dropping fast. On the final approach a Hoopoe  made me stop briefly and I got a nice full sequence of photographs as it dispatched another mole cricket excavated from the sandy track below. These were to be my last bird photographs of the trip and a fine way to finish.
If you look back up this post at the variety of photographs taken in a single day it shows was an amazing place Ultima Frontiera can be for the wildlife photographer,

The following morning, it was time to wave goodbye to Danube Delta and make the long journey home. We all decided we would try and squeeze in one more brief Golden Jackal session and we would literally have around 30 minutes in the hide. A heavily overcast sky and a jackal that ran in and ripped the staked carp from the ground in one move meant that the few photographs taken ended up in the computer trash bin. However, it was good, even though very briefly, to see a jackal for one last time before we left.

The journey home was a reverse of the one coming to the Delta with a combination of boat, minibus, two planes and a car before I was putting the keys in the front door 18 hours later. What a superb and memorable trip it had been spent in great company with some truly wonderful and memorable wildlife encounters.

So I would like to express a big thank you to a number of people:

  • Rene, Paul and Kevin for their great company. 
  • Zoltan and Luca for their tireless efforts.
  • Sakertour (website here ) for another brilliantly organised trip
  • Skua Nature (website here ) for making the stay at Ultima Frontiera such a pleasure
  • The chef at Ultima Frontiera for not serving fish!
and finally.....to the wildlife of the Danube Delta for allowing us to share those precious and intimate moments.

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