Monday, February 28, 2011

Chasing Summer Colours

At some point during each winter and usually in the month of January, a Mediterranean Gull will appear amongst the flocks of hundreds of local gulls. These are scarce birds and it always a challenge searching through the masses of similar looking Black-Headed Gulls to find one. I must admit I have got better at picking them out of the feathered crowd with time and the subtle differences in winter plumage between the two species now becoming more obvious to me. This winter a bird arrived early and has stayed local through the entire season which has provided plenty of photo opportunities of what I consider to be one of our most elegant gull species.

I first found the bird towards the end of November and this particular individual seemed less wary than usual and provided a great deal of fun and many very close encounters.

This photograph of the bird was achieved with a shallow depth of field to turn the grass into green mist as it was peering up over the top of a bank, whilst resting amongst the roosting gull flocks.

I found the bird once again just before Christmas with snow laying on the ground. A couple of photos have appeared in previous posts but here is another flight photo from that session of wonderful reflected light.

Christmas came and went and on the 2nd of January and my new 'friend' was one of the first birds to put an appearance in front of the lens during 2011.

I did not photograph the bird for another 6 weeks and was pleasantly surprised during our next encounter in mid February on how far it had progressed in to summer plumage. Once these birds start changing to their summer colours progression is often quite rapid. I have never managed to photograph a Mediterranean Gull in their smart full summer colours. The fact this bird seemed well advanced, before their normal departure around the beginning of March, offered encouragement that I might actually finally achieve the goal.

So a week later, and despite some fairly poor conditions, I was out once more searching amongst the ever increasing numbers of gulls. The bird had become quite obvious amongst the crowd by this time with its deep black head feathers standing out amongst the brown heads of the Black-headed Gulls (the clue is not always in the name!) as they transform to their summer colours

By this point all that was remaining were the last few white feathers around the beak to turn black.

It looked like in a few more days or another week at most that my chase to find those full summer colours of the Mediterranean Gull would be at an end. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was in sight. However, the bird had other ideas and appears to have finally departed and no doubt will appear once more at the end of the year returned to its full winter plumage. To be honest that final photo it is not really of importance and it is the numerous encounters and time spent in close proximity with this bird over the past few months that will persist in the memory.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Titivating Birthday

Over the last couple of years it has become a bit of a tradition for me to take my Birthday off work and head out for the day with the camera. This year my birthday fell on a Monday but the forecast was poor and so it was postponed to the following day when the forecast was for some clear sky and sunshine. The choice of venue for this year's birthday session was really dictated by the weather, and an early start saw my friend Steve and I heading south to a well known car park where the birds have been fed for many years. This site requires some tolerance by the photographer as there is a lot of disturbance from visitors passing through who usually seem to have little respect for the birds or the fact you are trying to take some photographs. However, it does have the benefit of plenty of birds and the fact you can set up a temporary mini feeding station to your liking.

The site does not usually offer anything unusual to the photograph although is frequented by the scarce Willow Tit and a number of Yellowhammer. As we drove in to the car park I was looking forward to a relaxing day, spent in good company, photographing some small common birds.

The first job on arrival was to set-up the mini feeding station giving due consideration to the path of the sun and backgrounds. We came prepared with some small branches and an old log. Birds started visiting the perches instantly and even while we were still strategically placing out the feed. It was then back to the car yto use as a temporary hide. For this small bird photography at close quarter I usually use a 25mm extension tube on the 500mm lens as it makes the bird a little larger in the frame. The other important consideration is to use a reduced aperture to increase the depth of field (the depth of the photograph in focus) which is very narrow at close range with a long lens. This reduces the potential problem of the head being in focus and the feet out of focus which always looks a bit odd. A steady stream of birds started arriving.

Despite being a common bird there is no denying that Blue Tits look superb at this time of year.

Another common tit species and the largest, the Great Tit.

The broad black mid-line markings showing this to be a male bird in fine early 'spring' plumage.

I must admit I could happily sit for hours photographing these common birds when the light is so good and they are looking so beautiful.
At the other end of Tit size scale, the smallest species the Coal Tit.

This next bird is one of the best looking Coal Tits I have seen in a long time and had excellent colour and markings.

Of the Tit species when it comes to looking 'cute', the award would certainly go to the feathered pompom that is the Long-tailed Tit.

I have always had a fondness for this species and it was great to have two or three birds periodically visiting the temporary feeding setup.

Another species that occasionally called in for the free handout, and the most frustrating to photograph, was the scarce Willow Tit.

Photographing small birds is never easy and requires quick reflexes but the feeding behaviour of the Willow Tit compounds the problems as it dashes in grabs a seed and then flies off very quickly. They are also one of those species that rarely seem to be looking in the direction of the camera.

In addition to the constant arrival and departure of nearly all the UK tit species, the occasional Nuthatch would bring welcome change.

This one captured in typical Nuthatch hanging off a tree pose.

There was also an occasional Yellowhammer putting in a brief appearance and a wonderful bird that topped of a productive and enjoyable day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Crossbill Challenge

A couple of weeks back I decided to take on a new challenge and try to get some photos of Crossbills for the first time. I have previously only ever caught fleeting glimpses of these birds as they have flitted through the tops of tall conifer trees.

Given these birds tend to breed early in the year, January and February seemed like a good time to try for them, on the basis that there calls and songs might make them easier to locate. I was under no delusion this was going to be an easy task as the birds tend to reside on the thin top branches of coniferous trees and so it would need to be a calm day with blue skies and sun. Such weather conditions have been very rare so far in 2011. The next problem would be location and trying to find some birds in some low trees.

As I left home in the dark, I must admit I was not brimming with confidence, particularly as the forest I was heading to covers 100 square kms. That is a lot of trees for a small population of birds that are only slightly bigger than a sparrow to disappear in to. At this point I would like to thank my friend Steve for providing a map with some areas to narrow down the search. As I approached the forest, the blue skies overhead during my journey, turned from white to grey. Hopeless conditions for trying to photograph these birds and this was coupled with a very cold morning and the car thermometer showing -10C. By this point I had fully convinced my photography session would probably become a reconnaissance mission.

The first area where I stopped was a relatively open area of sparse low trees and to my surprise it was quite easy to locate the birds by their noisy metallic calls. I even managed to get close to a green female but the light and light grey background sky only produced photos which were instantly deleted.

After spending a fair amount of time without success, during which I had also managed to get slightly lost by the disorientating forest, I made my way back to the car. I was just about to put the camera away and try elsewhere when three birds appeared opposite the car. Fortune smiled down as a wedge of blue sky started to open up beyond the birds....

and then sun shone for a few moments and the male Crossbills glowed a glorious red in the early sun.
and then one male moved to a lower branch...
The birds have a wonderful spectrum of colours ranging from green through yellow and orange to red. After a few moments the birds moved on and so did I.

I spent most of the remaining time, driving around various parts of the forest looking for birds. Even though I came across a few groups of Crossbills they were always at the top of very tall trees and beyond photograph range. With the clock ticking rapidly away I decided I would return to my starting location as it was the place that had produced some photographs. I decided to wait by the parked car and after a while three birds appeared briefly.
I waited once more and at one point eight birds appeared in the tres behind me but were backlit and there was no route through the dense trees to get round behind them to get a good light angle. Once more the restless birds quickly moved on and they were the last I saw that morning.

On the drive home I was quite encouraged by the results of this first Crossbill session. I had learnt a great deal about the birds behaviour which hopefully I can use on my next visit to produce some better photographs. Unfortunately despite being very keen to get back to the forest for another attempt, the necessary weather conditions has not coincided with my free time. However, I fully intend to return as soon as possible and take up the Crossbill challenge once more.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Corvid Lunch Break

For about the last two years I have been regularly feeding the large flock of Rooks and Jackdaws that use the fields surrounding my office. The feeding site is on the edge of my work car park and so about 100 metres from the office front door. The birds have become very accustomed to both me and the free hand outs which means that they quickly appear when their free lunch appears.

We both benefit from the arrangement as the birds get their diet supplemented and I get an opportunity to break up the office day with a lunch hour of photography which is very therapeutic to relieve the stresses of the morning's work.

Regular readers (that's both of you ;)) will know that I have a great fondness for all the crow family and despite their apparent sinister and destructive reputation it is difficult not to be impressed by the subtle beauty of their metallic sheen, 'intelligence' and social interactions.

As you can imagine the numerous lunch hour sessions over the last two years have provided me with many memorable sights and a good selection of photos. I have mainly concentrated my efforts on taking flight photos.

More recently my attention has been grabbed by the interactions and displays of pecking order as the birds feed.

When faced with multiple birds it always a tricky task to get both birds sharp, well lit and in interesting poses but persistence eventually produces results.

Jousting on the fence...

...and 'dancing' in the air.

I have really enjoyed the lunch hour sessions so far this year. The short time available in a lunch break certainly concentrates the mind on trying to achieve particular types of photographs. I will continue with the corvids for a couple more weeks before my attention will shift to another lunch hour species.


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