Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hungary for Birds -Day 7: Homeward Bound

Our amazing week photographing the birds of Hungary had finally come to an end. I always like to squeeze in as much camera time as possible on these overseas trips and given that we had a late afternoon flight there was a couple of hours spare. So we returned to the bee-eater hide once more for a short-session before the 3 hour drive across to the airport in Budapest. Activity with the bee-eaters was considerably reduced on our previous visit and we assumed that some of the birds were probably sitting on eggs. Anyway we took a few more photographs to add to the collection and what a wonderful way to end our trip in Hungary. It is impossible not to have these birds in front of you and not marvel at the sublime beauty of nature.
A butterfly for breakfast

The rear view of a Bee-eater really does show its rainbow plumage of to the full.
So we packed the cameras away for the last time that week and left Hungary behind for our long journey home. What a memorable week with around 30 bird species photographed including many new ones and also some of the most colourful that Europe has to offer. This will not be my last trip to Hungary but I will leave the return trip for a couple of years and am already putting my thoughts to next year which should be an exciting adventure that sees me returning to eastern Europe.

I would like to thank Gerhard for his excellent company and sense of humour during a week when we had some uncomfortable sauna like conditions in some of the hides. I  would also like to send a big thanks to Sakertours and their team for organising such a brilliant week amongst the beautiful and diverse bird life of eastern Hungary. Thanks also go to Easyjet for their wildlife photographer friendly hand baggage policy :). Finally I would like to thank my better half Dawn for putting up with me frequently disappearing with my camera and also the support from you, my blog readers. I hope you enjoyed this visit to Hungary.

As most of the recent posts have been dedicated to birds, I though I would dedicate the three next posts to UK mammals so expect some badgers, hares and stoats to appear here very soon.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hungary for Birds-Day 6: All the Colours of a Rainbow

We had a later start on our last full day of photography in Hungary with a pick-up at 7am. I was excited about the morning session ahead where we would be photographing European Bee-eaters. All week I had been looking forward to getting my first chance to photograph these rainbow coloured birds. It took a while to drive to the hide and we soon turned off the main road and winded our way along farm tracks and it was about 8am when we arrived.  I was slightly disappointed to learn that our session would only last three hours as we to be collected around 11am. At this point I did not also realise that this 3 hours was also to be interrupted by some major disturbance reducing the shooting time even further.

The hide was located adjacent to a high sandbank that was being used by a colony of Bee-eaters for nesting. As we approached a number of birds could be seen circling in characteristic gliding flight and either entering holes in the sand bank or swooping up to land on telegraph wires along the top of the bank.

We settled into the hide and it was not long before the first Bee-eater returned. Your first sight of one of these birds close-up is memorable and you find you yourself slightly stunned by the riot of colours. The green-blue chest and yellow throat the red, orange and blue across the back. They are certainly a beautiful bird and a great photographic subject as they are so active.

I started with some portrait photos with a choice of the yellow sand bank or some distant bushes as a background for the photographs.

The birds were frequently returning to perches in front of the sandbank with a variety of flying prey that had been snatched from the air including naturally bees, hoverflies, dragonflies and butterflies. As you can imagine they are superb fliers to catch these insects on the wings, a flight that involves frequent long glides on stiff wings.

As with European Rollers and Red-footed falcons we had photographed earlier in the week, the prelude to mating was initiated by the male offering the female a recently captured insect as a 'gift'. In the photo below the male on the right offers a bee to the female on the left.

Given that time was so limited I decided I would try and capture some flight images. Given the restrictions of the glass in the hide for capturing birds generally flying around, I decided that the best approach would be to take some photos of the birds coming into one of the two perches.  This technique basically involves noting where the birds are tending to land, turning off the autofocus and pre-focusing on that point. A burst of photos is then fired off as the bird approaches and lands. A good depth of field and shutter speed is required for success.

During our session in the hide it was interesting to watch at distance a male Golden Oriole chasing a Bee-eater. That would have made a very colourful image! As we were sat in the hide, I turned to Gerhard and asked if he could hear geese. The answer soon became apparent as a farmer with dogs herded a flock of several hundred partially plucked birds along the top of the bank in which the bee-eaters were nesting. This obviously disrupted the photography for a while and was to be repeated a short while later when he herded the noisy gaggle all back in the opposite direction. All to soon the by now familiar rattling engine of the pick-up approaching signalled it was time to depart. I must admit that I left the Bee-eaters leaving slight frustrated that our photography time with them had been so short. During the afternoon we decided that we would see if it would be possible to squeeze in another short session with the Bee-eaters on the following morning before being taken back to the airport.

Our destination for the final afternoon was a return to where we had started the week, at the Tower Hide. Originally we had planned to spend the afternoon in another hide photographing rollers but decided to return to the Tower hide site for a couple of reasons. Gerhard wanted to try and capture the falcons mating and I had some unfinished business with the Hoopoes as I still had not managed to photograph a bird with its crest up. On arrival we went our separate ways and I went straight into the small raised Hoopoe hide.

All was quiet but it was not long before I could hear the familiar corvid like squawking calls and low triple fluty 'hooping' song of a Hoopoe close by. A few minutes later the first bird appeared in front of me.

A second bird appeared on the ground and started foraging around but the angle from the elevated hide was too great to produce attractive photos. I then heard the sound of small feet running around on the roof of the hide. A movement in the corner of the hide opening caught my eye and I had to smile as a Hoopoe head leaned in from the roof above about half a metre from where I was sat. One of the inquisitive young no doubt wondering what the occasional clicking sound was. This bird stayed for quite a while and it was a little surreal seeing just the upside down head of a Hoopoe at such close range. Obviously this was too close for photography but a wonderful intimate moment shared between me and the bird.
The bird on the perch in front of me had disappeared but soon returned and I manage to get my first images of the bird with its crest up for a few moments after landing when it returned.

This bird was then joined by a second and it was good to capture some interaction between the two.

Given that the Hoopoes were performing so well I decided to wander across to the Tower hide to let Gerhard know so he could share the action. Gerhard reported that it had been very slow with the falcons now all sitting on eggs in the nest boxes. I ended up staying in the Tower hide so Gerhard could have full use of the Hoopoe hide as good photos could only really be made from one end of the small hide. It was very quiet and I ended up only taking about a dozen photos of the male and female falcons as they swapped positions on egg incubation duties. It looked like we had been fortunate with our timing on the first day in Hungary to just capture the last of the pre-nesting action. I was hoping that a Roller might appear but the only other bird that showed in front of the Tower was.....a Hoopoe. It seems like it was my day for this species.

For the second time that day the sound of the approaching pick-up could be heard making its way down the dirt track across the grassland plains. On returning to the hotel, it was agreed that we could fit in one last short session with the Bee-eaters before being whisked off back across to Budapest for our afternoon flight back to the UK. The results of that brief session I will share with you in my next and final blog post from the trip.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 5: The Beautiful Heron
This post is a continuation of the previous one that found us in a hide in the middle of a huge reedbed in Eastern Hungary. One frustrating part of the day was watching Marsh Harriers floating above the reedbed hide to the right hand side of the hide at close range. However, the angle through the one-way glassed front of the hide was too acute to get any photos with various attempts through the day just resulting in 'soft' images. I must admit I am very self critical when sifting through photos and if it is not pin sharp then it heads straight to the waste bin. After several attempts and positioning myself to the very right hand side of the hide I managed to reduce the angle between lens and glass to capture a couple of images of the male Marsh Harrier that had been 'tormenting' me all day.
A more typical view of the Marsh Harrier floating in flight across the tops of the tall reeds looking for prey.
The rest of this post I am unshamedly dedicating to what turned out to be one of my favourite birds of my trip to Hungary, the Squacco Heron. This is yet another bird I have long admired in books and had a yearning to see and photograph.  I certainly was not disappointed when one first appeared in front of the hide at very close range. In fact so close all that could be fitted into the frame was its head and shoulders.

They are such an attractive bird with the long black and white head plumes and abundance of subtle warm feather colours. They are also a surprisingly small bird when compared to the Grey Heron that we have in the UK.

The background colours of the reeds and lilies provided some good subtle hues to compliment those of the bird. I often think that an image is enhanced when the colours of the background are a similar palette to those of the bird.

The charm of these birds is added to as they are slightly ungainly as they walk along perches with their very large feet.

The first Squacco Heron did not stay very long but the next one to arrive was even more amazing and was partially showing some breeding colours with its bright blue beak. Apparently when in full breeding colours the legs are also bright red which must be a sight to see.

This bird spent some time unsuccessfully waiting and trying to catch fish through gaps in the lilies that covered the pool's surface.

The day in the 'Pygmy Coromarant' hide had finally produced the rewards after a long inital wait which was made easier by such an attractive setting. The day may have lacked a wide range of species but was made up for by some interesting birds and in particular the beautiful Squacco Herons.

We made our way back to the hotel for the now nightly routine of shower, eating, sorting through images and preparing the camera kit for the nexr day. The anticpation for the early morning start was high as we would be heading out to photograph bee-eaters in the morning. So be prepared for a blaze of colour in my next post.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 5: The Long Wait

Another early start on day 5 was met with the sun creeping up slowly over the horizon in to a cloudless sky. Our full day of photography was scheduled for the 'Pygmy Cormorant Hide' but unlike the hide of the previous day we were not on 'lock down' due to some screening around the enterance allowing for some comfort breaks. The access to the hide was by walking a long raised board walk through a huge dense reed bed and involved a bit of mosquito dodging in the cool dawn air.

The large hide, which you stepped down into, was set down at water-level with a large one-way glass window. We settled in to the hide and took in the view. In front of us was a large circular reed fringed pool, covered in yellow water lilies. To the left a channel connected this pool to a large lake. It was a very attractive view in front us but there were two probelms. Firstly the hide was facing into the light in the early morning. Back-lit photos can look good when the sun is low but it was quickly arcing skyward. The second problem was there were no birds to photograph except for a solitary coot picking its way through the lilies. This is how the scene before us stayed the next 7 hours! There were birds to be seen and heard during this time, a constant passage of Whiskered Terns, Marsh Harriers floating over the high reeds, various herons flying over, and deep within the reed bed the loud songs of Great Reed Warbler and more distantly a Cuckoo. All of them out of photography range. This is the difference between bird photography and bird watching, with the former requiring close encounters even with long lens we use.

During the 7 hour wait cabin fever started to set in a bit for the waiting photographers. At times I was surprised not to see tumble weed blowing across this 'avian desert'.  By the time the first bird arrived the sun had fortunately swung round and the light was at a more favourable angle. A Great White Egret came in and start stalking through the lilies. By this time quite a bit of cloud had built up with the heat of the day causing variable light conditions.

This bird departed but another returned towards the end of the session when the light had softened down very nicely in the early evening.

Still no sign of the Pygmy Cormorants which were the main target species for the day. A Coromorant arrived and started fishing around the pool unsuccessfully before hauling itself out to dry its water-logged feathers.

We had seen the small dark shapes of a couple of Pygmy Cormorants flying over and eventually one circled round and came into land like a scene from pre-history. Of all the birds I always think that the cormorants show the greatest closeness to their reptillian ancestory.

This bird was soon joined by half a dozen others who were either fishing around the pool or 'loafing' on pieces of wood to dry out their feathers. The light was getting better and better for photography with a beautiful reflected golden glow from the surrounding reeds.
One particular bird came right in close to the hide and was successfully and repeatedly surfacing with small catfish which after a bit of playing around to subdue the fish eventually disappeared down the large gape.
A one way trip for the catfish.
However, the best bird of the day, I will save for the next blog post. This is a species I have wanted to see and photograph for a long time and I was not disappointed when it arrived. In fact it probably rated as one of my favourite birds of the whole trip, the beautiful Squacco Heron.


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