Monday, November 26, 2012

Lyme Park Reds

Back at the beginning of last month, I felt the need to go and photograph some Red Deer as it has been a while since I have done them in the autumn. The majority of previous deer photography efforts have been done in the large expanses of the London Parks with Bushy Park being a particular favourite. However, herds of deer can be found closer to home so instead of taking the long drive south, I headed just over an hour eastward to visit Lyme Park for the first time.

Lyme Park has large herds of both fallow and red deer but it was the latter that I felt this sudden seasonal need to photograph. So I headed over there for an afternoon and early evening session to see gauge the lie of the land and photography prospects. Lyme Park is a big place and covers around 1500 acres but has the advantage in that it has quite a few hills within its landscape, being on the edge of the Peak District, which I hoped would provide some attractive settings.
On arrival I discovered that a large area of around probably 100 - 150 acres is set aside as a 'deer sanctuary'. This part of the park is not fenced off but has notices around the perimeter asking visitors not to enter. On the day of my visit, although it might often be like that, I would say around 99% of the deer were within the 'sanctuary' and as far away from any areas of public access as possible. So on a pleasant sunny autumn afternoon I sat in the long grass on the sanctuary perimeter and waited and waited, and waited some more, in the hope that some deer may venture closer. Every so often the peace was shattered by the primeval bellowing of a stag in this pre-rut period. A sound once heard and never forgotten. After a very long time some deer started to drift close and I managed to get a few photographs as the deer backs and heads just appeared above the very long golden grasses. Sometimes it felt like I was suffering from double vision as the females were often appearing in pairs.

It was a short-lived experience though as a passing walker with roaming dogs saw the nervous deer scatter back deep into their 'sanctuary'. So I sat and waited once again.

High above and behind me I could hear the occasional roar of a distant stag. It sounded like it was coming from the top of the steep and long hill that rose up behind me.

Certainly from where I was sitting there was no sign of any deer but they had to be up there somewhere and more importantly outside of the restrictions of the 'sanctuary'. I decided it was worth investigating as the action in front of me was non-existent.

Climbing a boggy path, up a steep long climb with full wildlife photo kit and too many clothes on during a warm sunny autumn afternoon is not the most comfortable of pastimes. As I climbed I could see a dry stone wall cutting across the summit in front of me. I hoped the occasional stag roar was coming from my side of this high wall and not beyond, otherwise my efforts were likely to prove fruitless. As I got higher I stopped to watch and just saw what looked like in the distance a couple of female deer moving across the front of the wall. Seeing how nervous these deer were I decided to take a very slow and cautious approach and used a perpendicular wall as cover until I reached the summit wall, which I then very slowly and quietly eased myself along towards the deer. This was a small group of females, the harem of a large solitary stag. The stags at this time of year really are magnificent animals. My efforts were rewarded with some photographs of the group.

The light was starting to drop and soften so I decided to descend back down to the 'sanctuary' area in the hope that the animals may start to move out later in the day as the park visitors reduced. This proved to be the case but with only females coming within camera range.
The light was now fading very fast and I decided it was probably time to set off on a fairly long walk back to the car. As I started on the long drive that exits the park a couple of stags could be seen. They were obviously wandering far and wide within the park now the light was fading. So I pulled over for a few minutes to photograph the distinctive silhouette of a stag moving along a ridge with the darkening skies behind.
I came away feeling the session had not gone particularly well but then reminded myself this was the first visit. When going through the photographs last weekend, I was actually pleasantly surprised that it seemed to have gone better than I recalled. It certainly will not be my last visit and I actually enjoy the fact you have to work fairly hard to get the photographs of the deer unlike the ease with which they can be taken in the Royal London Parks.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mis-timed Grouse

Back in the late summer, my friend Steve and I, took the 2.5 hour drive north-eastward on an afternoon out to photograph some Red Grouse. With wildlife photography timing is so important when you trying to obtain particular images and the purpose of our trip was  to try and capture some images of the grouse amongst a purple sea of flowering heather. As we took the winding road northwards I had visions of images of grouse emerging from an out of focus purple mist.

As we took the familar track up on to the upland moor, a brief  pause was required to photograph a small group of Red legged Partidge purposely moving along the top of a scree embankment.
We continued upwards and when we eventually emerged on to the heather blanketed hilltops it soon became obvious that the images that had been swirling around my head were not going to be fulfilled. Some of the heather was in partial flower but it was certainly a way off being in full bloom.
No doubt the plants had been delayed by the unseasonally cold and wet proceeding weeks. We also hoped that the family groups would have dispersed and there would be quite a bit of terratorial behaviour shown by male birds jostling to establish their territories. However, this was also not to be as before us were small family groups of birds moving through the abundant heather while a male took on sentry duty nearby.
So far our plan was not going very well and it looked our critical timing was out by a week or two too early.

On the brighter side it was good weather with clear skies and there were plenty of grouse about despite being after the official start of the shooting season on the 12th.  Given the time of year the birds, as expected, were fairly wary so we used the 'mobile Nissan hide' for most of the photography that day.

Cars are so useful for wildlife photography as many animals do not associate them with people and where the roads allow a close approach can be made without disturbance. You do need to keep an eye open for other road users but fotunately traffic was infrequent at this site. Another thing I often look for as we travelled the tracks is for places where the road dips down below surrounding ground level as it allows for an improved low camera angle.
So we spent the afternoon photographing different groups of Grouse and were looking forward to some wonderful, warm soft end of the day light to illuminate the grouse amongst the heather. The weather looked promising to produce the necessary light as the sky had cleared of some earlier cloud. Well nearly cleared except for one cloud and I am sure you can guess where that, yup right across the line of the setting sun and so the best of the light was lost. This was the last photo before the sun descend by the cloud.
Despite the slight failure in our quest it was an enjoyable session spent in good company, within a magnificcent landscape with plenty of beautiful grouse. So I can't really complain and we even came home with a few photographs.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tranquil Grebes

I finally got round to going through some Great Crested Grebe images that have been sat on my hard drive since earlier in the year. The photographs are from a brief early morning session on a local pond. As I recall it was a beautiful and peaceful morning with very little wind creating calm conditions allowing the water to pick up the colours of the bank side vegetation. The light was also gloriously soft and warm. The scene before me was very serene and a wonderful vista.

The pair of Grebes were doing very little except slowly drifting around on the still surface and so there was no chance of any action photography. However, the combination of light, colours and a low shooting angle combined to produce some pleasing portraits. One of the images has just appeared on the front cover of the local Wildlife Trust's quarterly magazine which is appropriately called 'The Grebe'.

The photography session was fairly short and only totalled about 30-40 minutes. This was mainly due to the quality of the light changing rapidly as the sun headed skyward creating light that was too harsh. However, there was little else I could achieve with the photography given the birds were so inactive. The height of activity was when one bird stopped to preen a feather or two on its neck, but then continued to slowly cruise around the pond.
Overall it was a very relaxed session, except for the inevitable neck strain from lying flat on the ground to get a low angle to the water. As you can see from the selection of photos even by lying in one position a wide variety of background and water colours can be achieved by waiting for the bird to move into a certain area of the pond. I never returned to the Grebes, as I was distracted by other species. Maybe I will try once more next spring when they are very active and hopefully capture some action photographs to add to the library.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Simply Rooks

During the autumn and winters of the last three years I have been feeding the Rooks and Jackdaws that can be found on sheep grazed fields that surround my work office car park. This has allowed me to undertake plenty of lunch hour photography sessions when the weather has allowed. It has also been a good source of images for  my long running and intermittent 'corvid in flight' project and has been very enjoyable getting to know the ways of these 'intelligent' birds.
The general impression of a rooks is of a dull black, noisy bird that can be found in muddy farmland during the winter. They are often overlooked by photographers. Having spent many lunch hours with them I have found these corvids to be incredibly beautiful and interesting birds to photograph. For a start they are not black but have a wonderful blue and purple iridescence when the light hits them. They are also great birds to photograph in flight as they form an attractive shape with the long finger like projections of their primary feathers.
I have seen some interesting behaviour amongst the group and the character of individual birds coming through as they descend on my free hand outs. Bold birds, timid birds and displays of pecking order amongst this communal species.
As a bit of insight, a typical lunch hour session would be as follows. First task is to look out the window at the weather, ideally with some sunlight that needs to be combined with a wind from between south to west. This will determine if its a lunch time in front of the computer with a sandwich or one in the car park with the rooks. I have always fed the birds at a similar time of day which has been important as I only have 60 minutes available and need them to arrive quickly. The food is put out on top of the fence at the edge of the car park. Usually at this point there are no signs of the birds nearby with only an occasional one drifting across the fields at distance. After about 10 minutes a lone bird, which I call 'the scout' will fly over and circle above the fence and then disappear for around 5 minutes. When it returns, it brings the flock with it and there is suddenly between 20 and 50 rooks in front of me and the photography can start.
All the photos on this post are a selection of some taken during my lunches on Thursday and Friday last week. You will notice that the birds mostly are facing in the same direction as there was a brisk wind from the south-west during these days.
There is a particular reason why I have shown these photographs. Firstly the rooks were looking stunning in the light on the days and showing off their wonderful colours but also as they may well be some of the last images of my sessions with the rooks.

About 2 months ago it was decided my office would be closed and after next week I am being relocated to Northwich. I will miss the rooks, and all the other birds, such as Dippers, that have filled my lunch hours during my time in North Wales. However, I will make time to visit them occasionaly in the future during weekends and days off. Obviously moving to a new office I will be now on the look out for some new lunch time wildlife photography opportunities and it will be interesting to see what I will find.


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