Thursday, April 30, 2015

Up with the Larks

A key piece of equipment for successful bird photography is a good alarm clock. First light is a busy period in birds' lives as they are often hungry from their overnight roost and need to build energy levels back up. The other benefit of course is that you also get that soft early light that shows the birds off to the best and the day has not warmed up enough for the focus ruining, wobbling air of heat haze to kick in. Of course at this time of year, and going into the summer, with the every increasing day lengths this can be punishing on a person's sleep regime. You have to be on your sight as the sun is appearing. So if you take in to account getting yourself up and out of the house (which includes a mandatory coffee) together with travel time, you end up having to set the trusty alarm clock to times when some people are just coming home from a night out.
Despite it being a struggle to get up at these unsociable times with usually results with you feeling later in the day (the mid-afternoon zombie time) like you have never slept in your entire life,   I do love these early mornings. A joy to travel along empty roads and the dawn period often has a wonderful stillness and freshness with the main sounds being just the wildlife around you.

Photography of skylarks definitely seems to benefit from an early start. Over the years I have spent a good deal of time with these birds but never seem to tire of what for me is the harbinger of spring. When images of skylarks start appearing on the back of the camera you know that spring is just around the corner and the first of the arriving migrants the Chiffchaff, the Wheatear and the Ring Ouzel will not be long in arriving.

Most people associate Skylark as a bird of flight as the flutter upwards in song until they nearly disappear from sight before descending to the preferred rough grassland habitat once more. However, photographing these birds in flight is a real challenge. Rather than fly past, which they only seem to do when chasing rivals in rapid twisting fights during periods of setting up their territories, they tend to go vertically straight up. Unless you are in close proximity to the bird when it goes up or down then your chances of getting photographs are slim. Of course they use the wind to aid them in their vertical liftoff and so the breeze needs to be blowing in the same direction as the light to get front lit photographs of the birds.

I have had some success with photographing them in flight previously and thought I would give it another go this year. Wind, light and birds all came together one morning for a memorable session which produced a good number of images.  Certainly it produced enough images, a few of which are here, to satisfy that early spring craving for these wonderful birds for another year.
Next year? Well may be I will try and capture some of those territorial mid-air battles between rival males which would be a big photography challenge. Mind you it wouldn't be so fun or rewarding if you didn't have to work for it, at least that's what I tell myself when fumbling around for the alarm off button at 4am.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fairhaven Diver

Apologies again for the lack of updates. There just does not seem to be enough hours in the day at the moment. My dad continues to be in hospital, work is busy and spring wildlife is getting busy! I have also been putting together a long presentation together on my trips to Romania, which I am giving next week, that has taken a large amount of time. Anyway onwards with this post.....

I have always had a strong fondness for the Divers as a group of birds. Elegant shapes, beautiful summer plumage and of course that haunting atmospheric call of the 'Loon'. The soundtrack of every US film which features a lake. Having said that my photography of them has been somewhat limited to the Great Northern Diver on a couple of occasions in the winter. This is one of the primary reasons why I am heading to Iceland in a little over a month's time now where I hope to encounter both Great Northern and Red Throated Divers in their glorious summer plumage. Its been booked a long time now and so is an exciting prospect that is rapidly drawing close.

I always keep an eye on bird watching reports and back in mid-February, a Red Throated Diver started to be reported on Fairhaven Lake near Blackpool. Some photographs started to appear of what seemed to be and was being reported as a very approachable bird. As I am quite crowd adverse, with these long staying birds, I tend to leave it a while before visiting and the early rush of interest has died down. This strategy obviously runs the risk of these 'popular' photography birds disappearing but on occasions has had the benefit of it being just me and the bird. To me that is my favourite situation, far from the maddening crowds.

So I headed up to Fairhaven for an afternoon session when the weather looked like it would be reasonable. The formerly accommodating bird now seemed to be taking a bit of an exception to people no doubt having been chased all around the lake over the proceeding weeks by scores of visiting photographers. So it was quite happy to spend the majority of its time drifting around and occasionally fishing in the middle of this sizable lake. There were a few other photographers present, one who I found particularly annoying.

It was a cold day with a strong icy wind blowing of the sea and I was lying down by the side of the lake waiting for the bird to occasionally drift in close. The car park was a short distance away up a slope. This 'photographer' insisted in sitting in his car and every time the bird started drifting close in to the bank, came running from his car down the slope and jumped down by the side of the lake resulting in the bird doing a rapid u-turn and heading back away. This would see him scuttling off back to the warmth of his car. Fortunately he left after about an hour. Its this kind of stupid behaviour which is primarily not fair to the bird and inconsiderate to other photographers which is why I have become crowd adverse.

The weather didn't quite turn out as forecast and the sun on arrival quickly disappeared behind overcast skies turning the water from dark to pale grey. However, this is an attractive bird even under the flat light and in its winter plumage with some beautiful patterning across the back of the wing feathers.
A bit of early afternoon bathing

The session was about 4.5 hours long with most of the time spent watching a distance bird but occasionally interrupted with brief flurries of photo taking as it drifted close. When moving to get a better position on the bird I always did it whilst under the water and tried to anticipate where it might surface. This is not easy as they can spend a long time submerged and travel a surprisingly large distance. On one occasion it dived under and surface right in front of me so all I could fit in frame was its head. I like it when they do that :)

Just before I was about to leave the bird made its way into the northern corner of the lake and right up into a narrow channel where the banksides created some nicely coloured darker water.

A great place to finish the session and return to my car to thaw out. This was a useful session as it gave me a little insight in to how these birds behave which hopefully will be of some help when I get to Iceland.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Winter Beachcombers

Apologies for the lack of updates but illness in the family has needed my attentions diverted elsewhere.

With a couple of snow bunting remaining on the local beach over the winter' it provided a good opportunity to do a targeted session. It is great to have such opportunities so close as you can keep an eye on light conditions and dash out for a quick visit in response to limited moments of wonderful seasonal soft warm light. These quick productive local sessions in great light are often amongst my favourites. So I was sat here one late weekend afternoon, and after a day of dark grey clouds overhead, the blanket parted to reveal that pale blue winter sky above and the warmth of a setting winter sun poured through.

5 minutes later and I was on the small area of beach that the birds had been so faithful to for several weeks. As the sun dropped, the light developed a Midas touch that turned everything golden that it fell upon. At this time of year the sun drops quickly and the moment was short-lived but memorable. I did try some silhouetted backlit photographs against the last of the light but it did not really work as the outline of the bunting did not present a uniquely recognisable outline. You should be able to see the change in the quality of light through the series of snow bunting images until there was none left to play with and it was gone for another day below the western horizon.
Another encounter with a winter beach-combing bird was found around 75 minutes drive northward with a long-staying Shore Lark in Fleetwood. It has been a few years since I last had an opportunity to photograph one of these birds, that time being in North Wales when the bird shuffled right passed me as I sat still on the beach. Unfortunately I timed my visit badly from a bird photography perspective to coincide with the day a large group of volunteers were undertaking a very worthy beach litter clean-up. Many small groups of people wandering the beach with brightly coloured sacks were making the lark unsettled and flighty.

Before starting to look for the bird I was temporarily distracted by a male Stonechat perched up on some thin stems in the dunes that backed the beach.
The search for the Shore Lark began. The beach in this area is mainly covered in gravel, pebbles and cobbles making the bird very difficult to spot. By searching hard I managed to find it on three occasions in different parts of the beach, the lark having been moved on by the litter pickers.

On the last occasion I saw a group of eight bird watchers approaching, who were also keenly trying to find the bird. I enquired if they had seen the lark on the beach in the direction they had just come from to which the answer was a resounding chorus of no. I decided to continue on anyway  and managed to find the bird perched on a small boulder having not gone more than 15 metres beyond the group of birdwatchers. Sixteen scanning eyes had missed it and walked straight past.

From the photographs below you may not think it would be that difficult to spot but the reality was very different. A selection of images of this attractive lark are shown below.

I must admit I have enjoyed these winter sessions laying on the beach and it has made a refreshing change to photograph birds other than waders. Spring is definitely in the air now with the birds busy singing and signs of nesting but there is a little bit more of winter I want to share with you before we the blog heads into this exciting time for the wildlife photography.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Call of the Curlew

I still clearly remember seeing my first ever curlew. I was around 12 years old at the time and on a summer holiday break staying in a bed and breakfast in a quiet Yorkshire valley. A very different landscape to the area around the family home in the urban sprawl of south-east England. At that time I was a keen jogger and every evening I would head off on a run up the very quiet country road that wound through the valley. The light was starting to fade rapidly and on the hillside to my left I heard a sound that was completely alien to me, a plaintive bird call that evoked a beautiful sense of wilderness as it echoed through the dusk. It was then that I saw this fairly large bird,  silhouetted  as it skirted the hill ridge,  with a very distinctive long curved beak. My first curlew and as you tell it made quite an impression on me due to the fact I can recall the moment so clearly all these decades later.
Since then I have heard that wonderful sound of the curlew on many occasions and it always brings a smile. If you haven't heard one before then there is a recording on the link HERE . I am fortunate to have relatively good numbers of curlew close to my home in the winter. The birds descend from their summer upland breeding areas and gather on the coast to overwinter in the milder climate provided by the sea. The birds have used the same rough wet grassland field, which I have unimaginatively named the 'curlew field', to roost over high tide periods for many years. Typically there are around 50 birds present. Both male and female birds look identical except the females generally have the longest bills which they use to great effect to extract worms from deep within the soil below.

Curlew are wary birds which do the best to maintain as much distance between themselves and people. Typically they will start walking away from a person if they come within a 100 metres of them. So when photographing them everything has to be down very slowly and quietly. So for most of these photographs I was using kit that gave maximum reach so as not to disturb the birds. However, this does make it tricky when trying to photograph the birds in flight or if one does walk over very close. The Canon 7dmk2 performed very well and all of these were taken with this very capable body combined with a 600mm lens often with the tele-convertor added on the back.
It was particularly some flight photographs that I was interesting in trying to capture, although no easy task with an effective focal length of 1344mm!

In this high tide roost the birds spend long periods standing around sleeping and occasionally preening unless there is predator nearby. During one session a fox thought it would try and stalk the curlew but had little chance with 50 pairs of keen eyes watching and it gave up before it even got close.

The crows and gulls hassle the birds at the roost and occasionally a sparrowhawk will wing through that will put them to flight but generally all is relatively inactive. As the high tide passes on the coast, which about 150m to the north, the curlew start becoming more active. You can sense a restlessness amongst the birds which start stretching and preening, whilst small groups break away and start feeding. This period before they fly back over to the sandbanks as they are exposed by the ebbing tide provides the best opportunities for photography.
Before I started this post, I processed the images, and it was only then that I realised that this winter without any specific plan appears to have turned in to a bit of a curlew project. Time well spent in my opinion as these birds continue to hold a strange and strong fascination for me. The photographs below are from three brief afternoon sessions under the low winter sun. This soft golden light is always a pleasure to work with. They may not be the most colourful birds but I think you will agree that the patterning across the feathers in good light is beautiful.
It will not be too much longer now before the curlew start to depart and head back to the upland areas for breeding and the hills and valleys will be penetrated by that atmospheric call once again. I hope you are lucky enough to hear it yourself one summer's evening.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Beach Buntings

I have spent a bit of time in the past photographing Snow Bunting along the shores of North Wales. This year I have been fortunate to have two buntings on the 'doorstep' which have taken up their winter residence literally a 2 minutes drive from home. These are birds that have been around the coastline since the autumn and after a short absence reappeared and now seem firmly settled in one area of the beach.

Snow Bunting commonly spend the winter along the coasts having descended from their upland breeding sites to look for seeds that have floated down rivers and end up amongst the seaweed and debris along the tide line. After the winter storms, the local area of sandy beach where they are favouring is covered in debris. Pieces of dried blackened bladderwrack sea weed, assorted bits of human plastic debris, together with empty whelk and dogfish egg cases. All this is set among many shell fragments, particularly cockles and razor-clams, that have been sucked out of the sand by the raging winter seas and smashed against the seawall and its rock and concrete defences. The effect is the resulting debris field actually makes photographing the birds in a relatively clean and attractive setting fairly difficult. It requires some patience and carefully watching to where the birds are moving and waiting for them to appear in small gaps and areas of clean beach between the shore 'junk'.  The task was made slightly easier as during my visits as the local council was digging up the wind blown drifts of sand and dumping it back on the beach. The track marks from the dumper making clean sand ridges which proved to be a useful place to try and photograph the birds when they occasional moved there.

These two birds are particularly approachable and fairly oblivious to people and even free running dogs on this busy beach as they shuffle around the beach in characteristics snow bunting fashion looking for seed fragments. Snow Bunting are often a fairly easy species to photograph as long as you wait and let them come to you, as is the case for the majority of bird species. As with most birds on the ground or water, the best viewpoint is a low one to let your photos reflect their world. In the case of small Snow Bunting this means lying down and getting very close to the sand with your camera. It never ceases to amaze me after one of these sessions how sand seems to permeate into everything no matter how careful you are. I think my car currently has half of the beach in it and is certainly overdue a good clean out.



The photographs in this post are a selection from two fairly short consecutive morning sessions I spent lying on the beach one weekend recently. It was a very cold experience but fun. Strangely I only seem to ever find myself lying on a beach in the winter. On the first session it took me a while to locate the birds which can be quite difficult to spot. I was wandering along the sea wall scanning the beach and fortunately stopped to suddenly unexpectedly see one of the birds on top of the wall about a metre in front of me. I had almost 'tripped' over it. Since that weekend I have done one more session, which I will show in another post, which was at the end of the day and managed to catch the birds in the last orange glow of light on a sparkling clear winter's day.

Some occasional wing stretches


Currently we have a rare bird on the local marine lake in the shape of a young Laughing Gull from America. This bird is attracting bird watchers and photographers from all over the country. Many of these visitors take the time to look for the two Snow Bunting, after the gull, and so these wonderful little birds are getting a fair bit of attention at the moment. No doubt they are giving delight to most that see them , although I suspect for some they are just another tick on this year's expanding species list. Hopefully they will stay a while longer yet as it will be good to spend a bit more time with them before they head back to the hills for the summer.

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