Saturday, October 25, 2014

Farmyard Fun

Time for another post from my mini summer project on Little Owls. We are now into the start of July and I was starting to get a slightly better measure of their behaviour. Typically an owl would appear in the brick window and sit there for quite a long while waiting for the light to drop before starting its evening feeding. Many hours were spent watching a near motionless hour sat in this window. At times you had to wonder which of us was yawning more.

Where time would allow I was trying to do one or two evenings a week after work. This was always a bit of rush around which meant getting home, having some food and then driving to the site, back home and then taking the dogs out for a  late walk. Some evenings the owls would not appear until very late which meant the availability of light and time with them was very short. However, any time spent with Little Owls is always fun as they are such bold and charismatic birds.

Catching the last of the rays.

Up to this point I had only done evening sessions but decided a first light session was needed to see how the owls were behaving. Being mid-summer this required the alarm clock being set to some ridiculous hour that seemed like the middle of the night. First light summer session certainly take their toll on you around early afternoon where you seem to enter an almost zombie like state from fatigue.

Having taken quite a few portrait photos in different locations, I decided I need to try and get some more action photographs. Capturing Little Owls in flight when they are not flying into a regular spot is no easy task as they are small and fast moving. Their flight is also undulating like a green woodpecker which makes them trick to track with the camera.
This photograph below shows one of the owls jumping having just been dived upon by a swallow. As with all birds of prey they received a great deal of hassle through mobbing by other species.

As well as birds feeding, perched on the low outbuilding roof there seemed to be more activity along the gravel track that runs beside the barn. The birds certainly seemed to very active and were evidently feeding young back in the barn somewhere. The birds are quite comical when they run and I managed to get them both on the ground and 'free running' on the low outbuilding roof. They move remarkably quickly and it needs quite a bit of camera shutter speed to freeze the movement.
On one evening session around at the start of July a new bird appeared in the brick window with the first of young birds cautiously peering out. A good sign and an indication that the project could run for a few more weeks.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Autumn Reds

As autumn descends and fades the foliage to golden and amber hues, my thoughts often turn to deer. This is the time when the stags are looking their best and busy rutting with other males in order to exert their dominance and win and hold onto a harem of females for mating. This wildlife spectacle at times can be very impressive as the large stags, often caked in mud and virtually dripping with testosterone, majestically strut around. The air is filled with palpable tension and the primeval sounding roars of the stags announcing their presence. A great deal of posturing goes on but occasionally it breaks down and into an antler clashing and potentially life threatening battle of strength. This amazing deer ritual is easy for anyone to watch across the numerous herds of deer around the park-lands of the UK.
Of course as with all wildlife photography timing is a big factor to success and ideally a visit during the peak of the rut can produce some memorable images. At this time of year many photographers head to the well known parks such as Bushy, Richmond and Bradgate. However, I prefer somewhere closer to home, where the landscape is less flat and more interesting and the deer a good deal less approachable. My preference is for an ancient parkland area on the edge of the Peak District, Lyme Park. The deer here make you work hard for your images, there is no strolling up to them with a short lens at this site, and every photograph that ends up on you memory card is often the result of considerable physical effort. However, that makes it all the more memorable and rewarding experience. Now don't get me wrong I am not saying Lyme Park  is anything like the difficulty of stalking deer in the Highlands but it does present a good photography challenge.
So back at the end of September with the promise of some clear skies at the end of the day, I decided to make a mid-afternoon and into the evening visit with my friend Steve to see where the rut process had reached. It quickly became obvious we were a couple of weeks too early. The deer were in a few large groups that often included several stags, a sign that the rut had yet to get fully underway by the fact they were tolerating each other's presence. It would be a very different story once the rut had started.

There was the odd sign the stags were starting to gear up to this annual event with the occasional guttural roar  penetrating the still air.  The deer were typically very skittish and approach was as difficult as when I last visited. By the end of the session I physically felt like I had been on a trip to photograph Mountain Hare.

We managed to get a few photographs during the late afternoon. The deer remaining in tight herds made our task more tricky as it was difficult to single out individuals to photograph.

It was really during the last 30 to 40 minutes of the session that all started to come together for us and we ended up taking the majority of our photographs during this period. As the sun dropped away it created a gorgeous soft golden light that really lit up the golden tones of the long grasses.
As the light dropped further and became increasing more red which really enhanced the colour of the deer.
We finished off the session trying to get a couple of silhouettes and against a wonderful coloured sky.

A difficult but in the end a rewarding session and shows the importance of persevering until the light is no more. Hopefully I will get opportunity to return again this autumn when the rut is in full swing.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Summer Owls

When I returned from my trip to Romania earlier this year, apart from having a huge number of images to work through, I was trying to decide where to concentrate my photography efforts during the summer. The summer can be a tricky time for the wildlife photographer particularly in a year of good weather when the best conditions are early morning and and late afternoon evening.

I received a call from my friend Steve who said that a Barn Owl had been showing reasonably regularly during daylight. The owl was hunting in fields at distance from its nest site in an old  barn. An important point as I am always aware that these are a Schedule 1 species. I did 2 or 3 evening sessions, only one of which produced any results I was happy with when there were several close fly-by the owl. A beautiful sight to watch on a summer's evening as the ghostly form quartered over the fields in slow buoyant flight listening for signs of voles  A couple of photographs from this  session are shown below.

I arranged to meet up with Steve one evening and on his arrival he told me that on the way over he had spotted a Little Owl sitting on a farm building that might be worth having more of a look at. The interest radar immediately activated. Little Owls are one species that I have never got round to photographing for a variety of reasons but partly due to them being fairly scarce the immediate vicinity of my home. With a no show by the Barn Owl, we packed up early that evening and headed off to check out the other site.

The Little Owls were nesting in an old, derelict brick t farm building which had a low outbuilding with a slate tiled roof to one site. The building was separated from an adjacent field by a gravel track with a wide grass verge. On arrival an owl was sat in a circular brick opening when Steve had spotted it early in the evening. This turned out to be one of its favourite places to perch and from where it could watch below for any potential prey. So many hours were spent over the next 2 months looking at the owl in this hole doing not a great deal until the sun had dipped sufficiently to stir it into action.

When looking at a new site and species there are lots of factors to consider. You always need to go through an education process of assessing the site in terms of light and photography potential and most importantly learn the behaviour of the animal. What times are they most active? What areas do they frequent most? and so the  list goes on. All of which are processed by my moth filled grey matter to try and determine how and when the best photo opportunities are likely to be presented. So the photographs below are a selection from a couple of evening sessions after work during June where I was learning the habits of these owls. As you can see they are mostly portrait type photos which you tend to take during an initial phase of a mini project. Typically once you have established patterns then you can move on to trying to capture some other types of photographs.

It became quickly obvious that owls has a preference for sitting in the brick window or on the roof and would frequently drop to the lower roof before dropping into an adjacent gravel track or verge to hunt prey.

Catching the very last of the day's light on the roof.
Despite their diminutive size the stare of a Little Owl can be very intense. 
A bird on the track standing to attendion at the sound of the camera shutter having not yet got accustomed to it. 
The birds would spend quite a lot of time on the lower roof which they seemed to be using as a hunting perch.
Before dropping  to the ground below to look for food.
However, these birds are constantly alert for birds and potential predators passing overhead which is hardly surprising given their small size with an adult standing at about 20cms.
Little Owls are an interesting species which are  not native to the UK but were introduced in 1842 by Thomas Powys and a population quickly established. These tiny owls appear to have quite a feisty temperament which is partly enhanced by their scowling and stern appearance. They certainly seem to stand their ground  when frequently mobbed by other birds.  A very endearing species to watch and a pleasure to be with even if it does involve quite long periods of watching  them do apparently very little. One point I noticed very early on is that the iris on those penetrating yellow eyes seem to act independently of each other in terms of dilation according to the quantity of light falling on different sides of the face. This can give them quite an odd appearance at times.  You can see this effect to a degree in this photograph with the left and right pupils being slightly different sizes.
However, their vision is amazing and there ability to spot prey at distance in the grass verge adjacent to the farm building was nothing shot of staggering.

This will be the first of two or three blog posts on these birds as I followed the progress of the adults and their young over a couple of months this summer. So expect to see more of these fascinating owls in some future blog installments.

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.


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