Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 1 and 2: Bold and Colourful

This post is a continuation from the last, describing my first day on a recent trip to Hungary. It is rare in a bird hide to be restricted to a single species, especially in Hungary, and so it was for the Tower hide. Amongst the screams of the circling falcons various birds could be heard calling in the early morning. The sublime liquid song of a Nightingale from the undergrowth, the short warbling flute like singing of unseen Golden Oriole and the prolonged  repetitive triplicate 'hooping' of Hoopoe. These unfamiliar songs were mixed with a rising chorus of insects as the early sun warmed the productive steppe grasslands of the the Puszta.

In the early morning much of the falcon activity had been on the back-lit side of the hide and due to the double windows of the hide it required the opposite side to have a black curtain drawn to keep us invisible within. I took a peek through the front-lit side and was greeted by the technicolour sight of a pair of perched European Roller.

Apart from the immediate impact of the amazing colour of these birds my other first impression was that they were much larger than I had anticipated being approximately the size of a jackdaw. The male dived down to the field below and then the full extent of their beautiful colours become obvious. Despite several attempts at flight images through the day I did fail except for distant photos, one of which is the current banner for the site. The male returned with a small beetle which he presented to the female and then we were privileged to witness the rare spectacle of mating rollers. According to our Hungarian hosts we were informed that this was seldom seen.

A feature of Roller behaviour is that they sit around for long periods doing, well, very little. I also found out why they are called Rollers, as the male embarked on a couple of characteristic rolling display flights around the hide. Given the general inactivity of the birds it allows plenty of opportunity to take some portrait photographs. From the front.

The back and the side.

The Rollers were around on and off through out the day and a single bird returned late in the day and looked particularly magnificent in the softening light of the setting sun.
Conditions in the hide became uncomfortable around the middle of the day with the soaring temperatures and we decided we would stretch our legs and check out a recently built drinking pool hide about 200m away. I lasted in this hide, where there was very little activity except for the odd Tree sparrow, about 15 minutes as it was like stepping into an oven and made all the worse by the heady odour of a recent coat of paint inside.

As I left the hide I noticed a Hoopoe swoop out of a large tree next to an abandoned farmhouse. Hoopoe had been nesting in the roof but had left the nest a few days before arrival. As such our guide thought that the small raised hide next to the building was probably not worth bothering with. However, having seen this bird I was having second thoughts and decided I would try it out later on in the afternoon just in case the birds were still hanging around the nest site. By strange coincidence on returning to the Tower Hide a solitary Hoopoe landed very briefly allowing enough time to get some first photos of this species.

Hoopoe are such unique and attractive looking birds and this momentary appearance convinced me that some time spent in the hide next to the old nesting site may be worthwhile. I wandered over to the small slightly raised hide next to the old white farm building and waited. It was not long before the first bird appeared.

The building had a small perch sticking out of the white wall but this did not provide a great background, although did have the advantage of acting as a large reflector and creating a nice diffuse light when a bird landed on an adjacent branch.

The business end of a Hoopoe.

It was interesting to watch these birds in song. The neck slightly enlarged and the head angled down and the triple 'hooping' sound appearing to emit from within the bird without the beak moving.

I was starting to lose the light fast as the sun arced downward past the corner of the building casting shadows across the perches. I was hoping to try and get an image of the bird with its crest raised. This only seemed to happen for a brief moment when a bird landed and the restrictive view from the hide allowed no warning of an approaching bird making the task seem near impossible, particularly with the diminishing light.

We had decided that we would return to these hides later in the week as Gerhard was keen to capture some photos of the falcons mating and I definitely had some unfinished business with these Hoopoes. All too soon we heard the sound of the approaching 4 wheel drive to collect and take us back to the Hotel. It had been a great starting day to our visit to Hungary and we were already looking forward to what the next day might bring but that will obviously have to wait until my next post.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 1 and 2:  The Red Foots of Hortobágy

The waiting was finally over and having been booked for over 6 months, the day had at last arrived for my journey to eastern Hungary.  This was to be a slightly different trip to my previous overseas bird photography adventures in that the whole week would be based on using the network of hides that had been specifically developed for photographers in and around the Hortobágy National Park. The design of the hides was based on those developed by the globally famous Hungarian wildlife photographer Bence Mate and incorporate a one-way glass that allows close encounters with some of the spectacular birds that inhabit this region.

A trip to Hungary had been in my thoughts for a long time. Even during the hours of sleep images of colourful birds such as Bee-eaters and European Rollers had swept across my dreamscapes.  Birds that I had only admired in the pages of well thumbed books would hopefully now appear before the camera.

The journey to Budapest with my companion for the trip, Gerhard, was surprising uneventful given the traumas that can be associated with getting bird photography equipment through airports. We touched down mid-afternoon and were quickly standing outside arrivals to meet a driver who would transport us on a 2.5 hour journey across Hungary to our final destination of Balmazujvaros

We encountered our first Hungarian birds in the airport car park as Crested Larks hopped around across the  warm tarmac picking off unwary insects. I must confess I do not know a great deal about Hungary as a country and our journey across it in a slightly rattling old minibus gave plenty of time to take in the scene. We travelled through large areas of agricultural land which are farmed with a much less intensive approach than in the UK leaving beneficial large areas of uncultivated land around and through the fields. Natural buffer zones around reed filled drainage channels, that meandered across the farmland, providing important corridors of connectivity between the varied habitats. It was obvious how the birds would benefit from such a landscape. We spotted a good number of bird species on our journey including numerous Red-backed Shrike perched up on low bushes and fence posts, a species which has been unfortunately lost as a breeding bird in the UK.

We arrived at the Hotel Balmaz in the early evening and met our contact, Janos, who suggested that we should start early the next day at the Red-footed Falcon hide. So there was little left to do that day except to rest from a long journey, have a meal, unpack and ready the camera kit for the following day's action. I had a fairly restless night in anticipation of the next day especially as I never seem to sleep well when an early alarm is set.

An irritating beeping of the alarm work me from my sleep at a very unreasonable hour. Having grabbed a couple of quick coffees to reduce the stumbling around of being half asleep and collected our large packed breakfast and lunch provided by the hotel, we headed out in to the early dawn to be taken to the hide. It was about a 30 minute drive, half of which was off-road along deeply rutted farm tracks across a large plain of low grassland dotted with occasional white farm buildings and barns. A tree line in the distance marked our destination with the low sun glinting of one of the mirrored glass sides of the tower hide.

The hide itself was constructed on the top of four telegraph poles set in the ground at an angle and had two mirror glass sides to allow for photography throughout the day as the sun moved round. Access was up a steep staircase and through a trap door in the floor. As we approached the hide the dark shapes of the male falcons could be seen elegantly scything through the air around the hide. Next to the hide and along the tree line where it is sited there are numerous nest boxes for the Red-footed Falcons and Kestrel, six of which have perches mounted above for photographing the birds.

As a quick introduction to the Red-footed Falcon, a male bird on one of the perches.
A female bird in some bushes next to the hide.
I was surprised how small these birds were when compared alongside the Common Kestrel and I would have estimated them to be about 2/3 the size. My impression is that they mainly feed on large insects like a Hobby but also catch some small rodents as well.

We quickly found at the sun arced skyward that the hide turned in to a mini sauna and got very hot inside. It took Gerhard and myself  a short while to get accustomed to photographing through the glass which not only leads to loss of around 2 stops of light but also requires the camera to be set as square to the glass as possible for best results. This obviously makes flight photographs difficult but I did manage a couple of the male. You will notice in this photograph that he is clutching what appears to be a large cricket, which he is nosily bringing back to the female as a 'gift' as a prelude to mating.
We only saw the birds mate on three occasions during the whole day as the birds were already starting to lay eggs. I missed the first two matings with the camera as I did not read the behaviour signals that it was going to happen but with lesson learnt I managed to get the full sequence on the last occasion with this being one of the photos.
To show how productive the area is, at one point over a small area of the grassland there were 5 Red-footed Falcons and 2 kestrel hovering for prey. It was a glorious view from the hide across the grassland plains and we spotted Brown hare and Roe deer together with passing Purple Heron and Marsh Harrier.

The falcons spent a good deal of time perched allowing for plenty of photo opportunities and swapping duty sitting in the nest box.

The birds also seemed to spend a lot of time preening and keeping those feathers in prime condition. They create some beautiful shapes in the process particularly when cleaning tail feathers.
I could obviously show many more images taken during the day but have decided that is enough for this post. On my next blog post as I take you on the journey of this Hungarian bird photography adventure I will show two other species we encountered from the tower hide. All I will say for now is the day got a good deal more colourful and included watching and photographing a sight that is not often seen.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

More Bempton Flyers

Apologies for the delay in updating the blog but I was away in eastern Hungary last week photographing birds. It was a good trip with lots of exciting bird species and I will take you on my journey there in future blog posts.

This post is a follow on from my last about my visit to Bempton Cliffs. Apart from the Gannets the cliff faces support a wide range of other sea birds and there is plenty of opportunity for taking flight photos of these birds as they pass-by. One of my favourite UK sea birds is the Fulmar and I was hoping to take some more photos than just this single image. It may be I was just stood in the wrong place at the wrong time as usually good numbers of photographs of these birds can be photographed at Bempton. You have to admire the Fulmar as it effortlessly glides with stiff wings on the up-draft coming up the cliff face.
A very common species at Bempton are the Kittiwake, so named after their characteristic call, which to me only slight sounds like their name. These proved quite difficult to photograph on the day due to the strong wind and their twisting and turning noisy flights along the cliff.
Puffins are present at Bempton but generally too far down the cliff to get decent photographs and so I concentrated my efforts on the other two auk species the Guillemots, and a particular favourite the Razorbill.
The Guillemots are less elegant in the air than other sea bird and their wings always seem slightly small in relation to their body which is superbly adapted for swimming.
The birds are a challenge to photograph in flight as they are small and very fast. I noticed at the point where I was stood on the cliff top path, where it ran very close to the cliff edge, that there were a number of Razorbills coming in to land at close range. However, the time window for getting photos was going to be very short as you needed to spot a bird coming into this area, lock on with the camera and take the photos before it disappeared behind the grass at the cliff top. This was further complicated by the fact that capturing birds that are flying towards you is probably the most difficult for the camera autofocus system to deal with. The unusual coloured background on these following photos is the sea below the cliff.
I just managed to catch this one before it disappeared behind the grass.
As I was effectively shooting downwards to the birds coming up the cliff face to land it gave the appearance that I was level with them.
So if you happen to find yourself in north-east Yorkshire I would strongly recommend a visit to Bempton, which can provide some great sea bird photography. One real benefit of Bempton is that there is no uncertainty whether the boat will be cancelled, as is often the case if you visit one of the sea bird colonies on the offshore islands around the UK.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Bempton Gannets

It had been too long, in fact far too long since my last visit to Bempton Cliffs back in 2007. So I was now keen to return with some better camera kit to see what could be achieved at the UK's only mainland Gannet colony. A visit to Bempton is a great day out for the bird photographer and always an assault on all the senses in terms of sights, sounds and like all sea bird sites, smell.
The main photography at Bempton is for birds in flight but some portrait images are possible of birds precariously perched on the edges of the high vertical cliffs. Gannets are not the only species present as a whole range of sea birds use the site in large numbers including Fulmar, Kittwake, Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffins. All of these, except perhaps for the puffins, offer great photographic opportunities. However, for this blog post I will just restrict myself to some images of the majestic gannet. I must admit I have a great fondness for Gannets as they are such beautiful birds. 
Given that the cliff face is north-east facing then the best opportunities for flight photography come during the afternoons when there is a good westerly wind blowing. Under these conditions, the Gannets tend to 'hang' in the wind along the cliff edge. During the late afternoon we found a spot where a constant stream of Gannets were coming into land keeping the shutter finger very well exercised.

The birds were still busy collecting grass for nest building and it was a common sight to see a bird passing with beaks full of vegetation.
The is no question that Gannet are majestic and impressive birds with a wing span of around 2 metres. As graceful as they are in the air, they certainly are not always when coming in to land and can look quite comical at times as wings and feet spread in all directions to slow down their final approach. This is particularly the case for the younger less experienced birds.
At one location along the cliff where a number of gannets were landing it was nice to get some interactions between the birds including greeting each other and mating.
There is no privacy in the world of Gannets.
We finished off the day with a flurry of flight photos as the sun softened, the Gannets performing beautifully as they floated, twisted and turned in the wind blowing over the cliff top.
It was a very enjoyable session and a place I would wholly recommend for anyone wanting to photograph some sea birds. It is surprising how close the birds are on occasions and full frame images with a 300mm lens are perfectly possible if you chose the right place along the cliff top path. I hope to revisit the site soon and certainly will not be leaving it for half decade before my next visit!


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