Saturday, October 29, 2011

Burning the Midnight Oil

It has been many years, apart from the sad sight of road kill, since I have seen a badger. Certainly I have never photographed these nocturnal mammals. So last week I decided to take myself off for a couple of days to a farm down south that has been set up for photography. The site has a number of hides overlooking a flood lit area frequented by well fed badgers that importantly are oblivious to camera flash.

I arrived fairly late with the shortening day length and so it was a bit of a dash around to get set-up for the first night. My experience of flash photography is very, very limited as I always prefer to use the light from the sky. Obviously this is not an option at night. For the first evening I decided to concentrate on an area of longer grass in front of one of the hides and set up three wireless flashes (kindly loaned to me) in an arc around an area baited with their favourite food, peanuts. A small trail of peanuts was then laid to draw the badgers to the area where I hoped to photograph them. All sounds good in theory and a few test photos looked good on the back of the camera although obviously missing the essential badger!

3 hours later and all was still quiet except for the night noises of owl, foxes, deer and rats moving and calling in the surrounding undergrowth. A further half hour passed before I caught my first sight of a huge male badger slowly making its way up the field. It picked up the peanut trail and slowly advanced until it was about a metre short of the 'target area' and stopped, looked at the small tripod supporting the flash, turned round and wandered back to the sett. This behaviour was repeatedly periodically over the next 3 hours, with up to four badgers present, which were wonderful to watch but with an end result of zero photos. I made my way to bed disappointed and frustrated, thinking about the necessary change of tactics required for the following final night.

The next evening I used a different hide and this time clamped the flashes to some small branches stuck in the ground to make them less obvious. Again peanuts were scattered in front of the arc of flashes and some trails of nuts to hopefully draw the badgers to my chosen spot. 2.5 hours passed with only barn owl briefly hunting across the field and the sounds of the night for company. The first badger finally appeared and once more homed in with its superb sense of smell on the the trail of nuts. Just as it reached the the 'target area', the batteries on all three flashes died in the space of about 30 seconds. I now had the badger in the perfect spot but no light....arrrgggh!. I had assumed having not taken any photos the previous night the batteries would be fine. Hard lesson learnt.

Once the badger had wandered off into the adjacent wood, I crept out of the hide and changed all the batteries on the flashes. Four badger-free hours later and I was starting to convince myself it was just not meant to be. Then the big male wandered out of the woods and directly across the field towards me. The photograph below is my first ever badger photo, and I can't but help wondering if its 'laughing' at me.
The badger came closer as it sniffed out and followed the peanut trail leading towards me.
It was not until the badger came across directly in front of me at close range that I appreciated its impressive size. I do not think this one will struggle through the winter given its accumulated fat reserves.
The big male disappeared down a sett entrance only to be replaced by the emergence of a another badger. Just as it wandered in to my' target area' and much to my disbelief the right hand flash died despite the new batteries, leaving just the two operational flashes to my left. Fortunately these carried on working and it was interesting to see how this small change of lighting has given a different feel to the photographs.
I eventually packed up at around 2am. A total of around 14 hours in a hide for a total of 30 photos was not as productive as I had anticipated. However, it was a still a wonderful and memorable experience and a good number of lessons were learnt for next time. I would like to thank Sandra and Richard for their hospitality and for my partner Dawn for putting up with my return in the early hours of the morning over the two nights.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Gone for Grouse

'Gone for Grouse' was the message I left on the kitchen worktop for my patient better half, as I left the house with my friends for a day trying to photograph Red Grouse in North Yorkshire. A 5 a.m departure was necessary to try and arrive at our chosen area on the moors at first light. This was the same area I had travel through a few months earlier, during a journey northward. Then my efforts to try and photograph Red Grouse for the first time was beaten by dire conditions with gale force winds blowing cloud across the tops of the heather.

The first birds we came across as we drove up to the summit was a group of Red-legged Partridge perched on a dry stone bathing in early light.
A promising start but not the species we were seeking. Having reached the moorland plateau, it soon became apparent that large numbers of birds had avoided the shooting parties, as the dawn air was filled with the distinctive calls of grouse.
Red Grouse are subtly beautiful birds, when viewed at close quarters, with intricate patterns of black across their rust colour feather. The moorland and heather provide a naturally attractive settings.
I say 'naturally attractive' as it is easy to forget that this is a carefully managed habitat to maximise the numbers of grouse available for the waiting guns in the latter third of each year.
Cutting and burning of areas of heather creates a mosaic of vegetation at different stages of growth and a plentiful supply of food and cover for the birds. Reminders of this habitat intervention were evident as white-grey curls of smoke rose from a smouldering patch of heather in the distance.
A bird on a previous burnt area.
At the time of our visit the deep purple colour of the summer heather had faded to a pink- orange hue which still provided a colourful setting for the birds, especially when taken at a very low angle.
As usual I was on the lookout to try and photograph the birds in a wide range of different settings which include calling out from patches of long wispy grass or perched on fence posts.
One of my goals for the trip was to try and capture some flights photos. This is a tough challenge as they are extremely fast flying birds, hence their popularity as a game bird, can be erratic in their flight and normally fly away from a person. Despite several attempts I only managed to capture a couple of flight images.
This last image provides a good example of their speed in flight as it was taken with a camera shutter speed of 1/2000s yet still the wings are a whirring blur.
An enjoyable and productive time was had by all, and I eventually reached home at the end of a long day at 7 pm. However, I intend to return once more next spring and hopefully try for some more of those tricky flight photos.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Nearly Monochrome Zoo

Back in the summer, I took my better half's sister to Chester Zoo as she is very keen to learn about photography. I had already donated a camera to her, that I won as a competition prize, kitted her out with a 100-400mm lens and we were ready to go. The main purpose of this first trip was just to get her use to taking photographs and to think about framing the shot and getting around the obstacles present by the enclosures. Zoos are a great training ground for wildlife photography and I spent many happy hours in them when I first started. She really enjoyed the trip and on the next visit I intend to go a bit more in depth about the different camera settings.

When I got home I decided for a change that I would have some fun in Photoshop converting the images to black and white and also do some with selective desaturation. The latter is where you convert the image to black and white and then selectively bring back colour in parts of the image. This is a departure from my normal work in Photoshop as I usually do very little to my images beyond some minor adjustments and sharpening.

We started the visit with an easy large slow moving target, the Elephants. As usual they seemed to be enjoying themselves in the pool and waterfall. These are just straight black and white conversion. I must admit my experience of monochrome images is limited but I was once told the key is contrast.
The rest of the images in this post, except for the last, will now show selective desaturation. The effect on this first image is subtle as it has just changed the background colour on this Hornbill image from brown.
I like the use of this technique for birds that have bright eyes such as owls where only the colour of the eyes is retained. A Hawk Owl andthe strange looking Frogmouth.
For some images the technique produces a pleasing result. Flamingos with the water desaturated.


For others, such as this Giant Otter which had just killed a mallard that had flown by accident in to the enclosure, I am not so sure. I think this would have been a more pleasing image if the green water colour had been retained.
Chester Zoo have just acquired a pack of Painted Hunting Dogs and they were being fed as we arrived. Beautiful animals but you certainly would not want to be in the enclosure with them!
I will finish off this rather odd post with a full colour photo that has not been subject to any Photoshop treatment. Do not adjust your monitor :) While passing the bear enclosure the usual wild flock of jackdaws was milling around on the look out for any easy meals. Amongst the flock was a stunning looking leucistic bird. Natures own version of selective desaturation.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Too Late for Terns

Each summer I like to have at least one good session with some of the local Common Terns. I have always been attracted to the streamline elegance of these 'swallows of the sea', particularly during their twisting acrobatic flight. This year the mental alarm clock kept ringing out that it was time to pay them visit. However, due to other commitments the trip ended up being continually postponed until way past the optimal mid-summer period. For wildlife photography timing is key, particularly with birds, and so my expectations for the session ahead were not very high as I slipped out of the house before sunrise.

I arrived in the hide with numerous terns circling overhead but none were landing on the odd assortment of perches close by. If I had managed my trip a couple of months earlier they would have be queued up with plenty of flight opportunities. I would pay for my delay. While waiting for a tern to put in an appearance I had a look around to see what else was on offer.
The ducks were waking in the first rays of sun. A female mallard warming up the flight muscles.
A Tufted Duck glided slowly by while a male was stretching its wings.
Still the only terns were circling around the lake or landing on their floating nesting pontoons. Looking out the side of the hide a Lapwing was close-by and moving with characteristic stop and go walk of a plover. The rainbow hue of the shoulder feathers gently glowed in the early sun.
Still no terns. Further along the bank I waited as a hyperactive Common Sandpiper approached the hide. These birds never stop moving and this one was rapidly feeding on small flies that had gather around the muddy debris along the lake margin.
The tern perches remained vacant. A strange looking duck approached across the water. It took me a little while to decide what it was, having not seen a young Shelduck previously.
The species list was growing but the tern photography was failing. Eventually one bird landed briefly.
A second tern then arrived with what looked to be a young whiting firmly clamped in its beak.
One final bird arrived and threw a characteristic tern shape while calling to the birds flying high overhead.
I will admit it was not the most productive tern photography session which was entirely my own fault for not making the time to visit a few weeks earlier. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable morning spent with a small variety of birds in front of the camera. As I often say, there is always next year :)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Code Red Corn Bunting

Wildlife photographers always have a wish list of species that they would like to put in front of the lens. For those who photograph birds the list is often headed by dramatic or colourful species such as kingfishers and owls. My personal list includes some species that are not immediately obvious but which I have always found myself drawn to. One such species, which is usually tucked away on the last page of bird identification books, is the Corn Bunting.

Why I have been so drawn to this large plain coloured bunting is difficult to say. Even the RSPB website describe it as 'nondescript' but I think I have always been fascinated by its unusual shaped beak and odd metallic song.

The Corn Bunting is one of the countryside species that have suffered from the effects of intensive agriculture. The loss of hedgerows, use of herbicides and insecticides that have diminished their natural food supply, more efficient farming methods leading to less spilt grains have all contributed to its precipitous decline. As such it is now classified as a threatened Red List species in the UK. Part of the problem appears to be caused by Corn Bunting behaviour as they tend to spend their entire life with close proximity to where they were reared. Therefore the birds do not tend to relocate to escape the pressures and find better habitat leading to their inevitable decline. Obviously steps are being taken through funding and grants to improve agricultural areas with reinstatement of hedgerows, set aside and the use of buffer strips around fields but is it too little and too late for the Corn Bunting? It would be a sad loss if the summer fields became silent to their unique song.

My first encounter with a Corn Bunting occurred earlier in the year, during my spring trip to Mallorca, and I decided then to make it a target species for this year. A small population exists locally and I headed out early one mid-summer morning to see if I could find some to photograph. They are quite easy birds to locate as their song is so distinct and has been described as metallic jangling keys. The first bird I came across was perched on a ripening crop of barley and just caught the rising sun before it disappeared in the cloud layer above.
I stayed with the bird a while but decided that the long wispy heads of the barley were making it difficult to get a clear photograph of the bird and I would move on to try and find another. My search took me to an area about 5 miles away where I had recalled a report of a flock during the previous winter. Once more I located a bird but this time in a much better setting and at point blank range.
The bird then burst in to song and it was strange to watch it producing this odd sound at such close range.
The bird would make occasion short flights during which it look quite peculiar with its dangling legs but would always return to the same song perch. A useful lesson learnt for the photographer. I moved on to scout around the area to try and find other birds, with a future return trip in mind, and found 2 other photographable birds.
Showing the unusual 'bunting' beak in close up. Perfectly adapted for rapidly manipulating and de-husking seeds.
The final bird was in full song amongst some weeds at the edge of a field.
This first session had been a promising start to my mini Corn Bunting mission with several birds located and some good general observations made on their behaviour. However, the results of my return visit will have to wait until another blog post.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Plan W - The Final Session

As I left home, before the sun had risen, I decided that the session ahead would be my last with the pair of Whinchat. I had really savioured my time with them and I knew that there was little more photographically I could get from the situation.

I was greeted by the female, perched at close range, in the soft early light of an overcast morning. The birds were now fully accustomed to my presence and hardly showed a flicker on my arrival.
For this session I decided to concentrate my efforts on the male bird which had been slightly more elusive than the female during my previous two sessions.
However, he had become bolder with time and was now spending a good deal of time perched at close range in front of the lens.
During my sessions with the birds I had noticed that the male would often show the characteristic food begging actions of a juvenile bird with rapid fluttering of a wings. As if the female didn't have enough to do keeping her growing brood fed!
To finish off this series a couple more photos of the male perched in heather and on a mossy perch.
The three sessions with the Whinchats had been a memorable experience and it was such a pleasure to be in their company for an extended time at such close quarters. This was made all the more enjoyable by being surround by by the beauty and solitude of moorland habitat which is rapidly becoming a favourite place of mine to spend time with the camera.


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