Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Feast of Spring Warblers

Those of you who have been out and about in the UK during the last couple of weeks, will have found it difficult not to notice the bushes have become alive with the songs of recently arrived warblers. These range from the reeling cricket-like sounds of the Grasshopper Warbler to the hesitant scratchy song of the Whitethroat. I have a great fondness for warblers and always admire these tiny birds and the epic migration passage they have undertaken from Africa to reach our shores.

From a photography point of view these birds create quite a challenge due to their tendencies for skulking in dense undergrowth and often only giving fleeting appearances. The best opportunities usually occur when the birds first arrive and sing to establish their breeding territories. My main objective when trying to photograph these small birds is try and capture the birds on an uncluttered background when they visit the edge or tops of low bushes. However, this photography requires a good deal of patience and can be a frustrating business. Anyone who has tried photographing warblers will know what I mean when I say there always seems to be one small twig in the way! There is also a limit with what you can achieve with these birds as flight photographs are usually out of the question and therefore the best that can be achieved is a bird in full song.

For this post I have decided to post three images of five species from a series of recent short sessions. I will start off with the Chiffchaff which is usually one of the first to arrive and often a first sign of spring.

Chiffchaffs bear a very close resemblance to Willow Warblers but tend to have darker legs and less yellow - green colouration.

The main identifying feature however is their unmistakable rather monotonous song from which they derive their name.

The Whitethroat usually arrives in mid April and can easily be located from their rather angry sounding hesitant warbling song. They also tend to give their location away by the males going up in an occasional parachuting song flight.

From a photography point of view there are two features of the birds behaviour that can help with capturing images. Firstly once a male has set up a territory it will tend to use the same perches to sing from and secondly they seem to have an insatiable curiosity and usually will pop up out of a bush to take a look at you.

These are wonderful birds and always seem to be slightly 'angry'.

There seems to have been a big influx of Grasshopper Warbler into the UK this year. An early morning session is essential for these birds as often their insect like singing can be over by
These are a particularly skulking species and the best time to see them is usually after they have just arrived following migration when the birds will appear on top of brambles to burst in to song.

The whirring song can last for several minutes while the birds turn their heads to project the sound whilst their whole body vibrates. However, I am often surprised by the number of people who are unable to hear their high pitched song.

There are two colour morphs of this bird a yellow and a brown version although the differences are quite subtle and is probably best left to the warbler identification experts.

The Reed Warbler is a species I am hoping to spend more time on this year. It is a bird that can provide a rapid route to baldness as it can have you tearing your hair out with the frustrations of trying to get an unobstructed view.

They look quite a different colour under overcast skies or in this case before the sun had risen. Not the most colourful bird but they have looks that are appealing but difficult to define why.

I will finish off this rather long post with the Willow Warbler. A bird that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Chiffchaff.

The song is very distinct on these birds, as they flit around in the trees catching insects, which is a gentle warble of descending notes.

I know the song of these birds well as I had one singing continuously through the perpetual daylight of 'night' outside my bedroom window in Arctic Norway last summer.

There is plenty more time ahead for warbler photography as they seem to arrived early this year. They may not be the most colourful birds but certainly make up for this in character and I look forward to many more happy hours in their presence in the coming weeks.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Stream 'Wrens'

Before I get to posting my journeys around Mallorca last week, I thought I would just post some images from a recent lunch hour project trying to photograph some dippers on a small stream close to my office.

For those who have encountered a dipper before they are like a large white breasted wren who are happy spending as much time under the water as they are above it. They are a fascinating bird to watch as they peer under water for invertebrates to eat and forage in amongst the tumbling water of the shallow riffles.

A bird swimming downstream to its next feeding shallows.
These photos actually took quite a bit of effort with eight days of lunch hours required to obtain the photographs in this post. The birds were being somewhat elusive which was further compounded by the very limited photography time a lunch hour offers after you knock off the travel time.

Dippers are quite a photographic challenge in terms of getting the exposure correct. This results from a combination of dappled and variable lighting falling on a woodland stream combined with their brilliant white breast feathers. You would think this white chest would make them easy to spot but it is surprisingly easy to walk right past a bird.
When you find a cooperative bird then the fact that they will spend long periods carefully preening their feathers allows plenty of opportunity to play with the camera setting and get the exposure right.
Hopefully I can call back in to have another lunch hour session with the birds soon before the tree canopy becomes too dense and sends their woodland stream into deep shadow. A wonderful and fascinating species to watch and photograph.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Spring Pheasants

I am currently in the middle of packing for very early departure tomorrow morning. I am heading south with the camera kit to Mallorca for a week of bird photography. So I thought I would put a post on the blog before I departed. The place where I am staying has a WIFI connection so hopefully I can give some updates on my progress with the Balearic birds either through Facebook or Twitter.

The subject of this particular post is pheasants. These are birds that I do not usually tend to go out for specifically but tend to be a by product of my brown hare photography as both share the same site. There is nothing better for lifting one out of the monochrome of winter than Pheasants in their full springtime technicolour glory.

I always think that these birds are a little overlooked by photographers which is a shame given the array of colours and variation, combined with some interesting call and dispute behaviour. The early morning sun hitting a spring pheasant in all its finery is an arresting sight.

These birds are great fun at this time of year with the males calling frequently and battles erupting between males if two should cross paths. I found these two birds in the middle of a dispute which went on for a full 10 minutes but unfortunately not in ideal light conditions. If you ever come across two male pheasants nose to nose, gently swaying, then prepare to watch the fireworks. The other interesting element of the behaviour is the explosive wing whirring call of the male. If you stay in the presence of a male long enough at this time of year it will at some point usually call. The more you watch, the easier it is to pick up on the subtle posture clues that indicate a call is about to take place. The main issue I find with photographing these birds is that the long tail can make for some awkward composing of the image. Often a bird coming towards the photographer at a slight angle is easier to accommodate in the viewfinder.

So next time you encounter a pheasant you may wish to pause and watch for a while and appreciate them for the beautiful and interesting birds that they are.


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