Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Swirling Masses

It has been a very good year for waders along my local coast. The birds overwinter here having bred in more northerly latitudes in the spring and early summer. They spend these cold months probing the rich muds that accumulate around the peninsula from the two large rivers that border its sides and discharge into the Irish sea.   Huge flocks, mainly of Knot, mixed with less numbers of Dunlin and Sanderling, have been present and have attracted bird watchers, photographers and the general public to watch the spectacle. Count estimates have been up to 40000 birds gathering together. The best times to watch this are on the big spring tides where beach space is limited by the high water levels for the birds to roost over the high tide period.

The birds gather in tight groups on the shore and are constantly on the move as they jostle up the shore to escape the advancing sea. Periodically they will take flight, sometimes due to a marauding bird of prey looking for an easy meal. The spectacle and sound of these enormous flocks as they lift-off is a memorable experience.  The birds will often then go a short distance out of the sea and swirl in tight formations, flashing dark and light as they twist and catch the light. To capture this amazing sight with still photographs can barely do such a wonder of nature justice.

In the photograph below the island behind is Hilbre Island that sits in the mouth of the Dee Estuary.

The flocks became a popular attraction over the last couple of months and always put on a superb display for onlookers the look on in awe.

The roosting periods are important for the birds as they operate on tight energy budgets during the winter months. Unfortunately they do not have exclusive use of the beach and are frequently subject to disturbance by walkers and dogs. There has been a concerted effort by the local the bird watching community and photographers, combined with a warden scheme to educate the public on the importance of allowing the birds some space and peace. However, there are still people who pay no attention and happily let there dog run in to the flocks or bird watchers or photographers from outside the local area who seem to think walking up to birds will somehow not disturb them. If you visit on the large tides there actually is no need to step on to the beach at all as the birds are brought right up to you by the incoming tide allowing plenty of photo opportunities.

The photograph below is part of the flock, tightly gathered, and waiting for the advancing tide. As the beach is so flat the tide advances with dangerous speed on these large tides and a few minutes after this was taken the sand was covered.

I do not often bother photographing flocks as I prefer to target individuals or small groups. I find flocks quite difficult although that may be down to lack of practice. With flocks of this size it is more like landscape photography that includes a large flock of birds. I suppose you could call them 'birdscapes'. The photographs in this post are a selection from two visits that I made, one in December and one earlier this month. The weather conditions during the January visit were beautiful with the rare winter treat of clear skies and light winds.

On the beach the birds gather into extremely tight flocks and occasionally there will be a wave of movement through it with all the birds lined up and facing the same directions. This creates waves of patterns through the gathered birds which is a delight to watch.

Places to land are always at a premium. When the flock lifts off at close range there often seems to be more wings than air in which to flap them. These are photographs that are asking to be made in to a very difficult and frustrating jigsaw puzzle.

I know these photographs really have not done the dynamic nature of these a flocks justice but hopefully will give you a small impression of this amazing gathering of nature. A real treasure to have on your doorstep.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Starting with Snow Bunting

It has been a relatively slow start to 2013 due to generally poor weather and lack of light.  My original intention when I headed out, a couple weeks back, was to go and photograph some woodland birds. As I approached the site and looked upwards it was plainly evident it was not going to get much light. Conditions were looking clearer over towards North Wales so I switched plans and decided to go and find some winter thrushes. However, they obviously had other ideas with no sign of them at one of the sites I regularly visit. My first session of 2013 was going down hill fast. What to do now, where to go? I wanted something that was going to be reliable as really did not want to start the year badly and return home with empty memory cards in the cameras. Having decided I was already probably half way there my final plan was to head further in to North Wales to a well known beach where Snow Bunting can be found.

It is slightly ironic that I sit here now writing about Snow Bunting and there is a thin blanket of snow, the first of the winter, outside the window. Needless to say unfortunately there was none during my visit to the buntings.

The Snow Buntings have used this beach reliably for several years and forage around the tide line amongst the pebbles and sand patches for washed up seed. It is common for this species to head down to the coast and spend the winters along beaches. As they are quite well known at this site, they also receive seed handouts from the numerous bird watchers and photographers that visit. My friend and his wife were there when I arrived so I went to join them. The wait was fairly short before a flock of around fifteen birds landed a short way down the beach on top of the crest of accumulated ridge of pebbles on the upper shore.
The only way to really describe the movement of a snow bunting on the ground is a low shuffle. They appeared a bit like a group of large mice as they made there way along the beach towards us. Very quickly the birds were in front of us and behind us, sometimes down to only a metre away as they searched for their seed breakfast.

The light from above was soft and combined with that reflected off the bright pebbles provided some good illumination.

Two points to note of this male bird shown in mid-scratch in the photograph above. Firstly the characteristic bunting shaped beak with the small upper bill that site down within the rolled groove of the lower. Perfectly adapted for rapidly de-husking and handling seeds. The second is the feet and as is common with many species that spend time on the ground, the extended hind claw. One thing I noticed on this occasion with the feet is they appear to have a good 'tread' which I suppose is prudent when you spend a good deal of time on ice and snow. Not that they would have far to fall if they slipped.

It turned in to a productive couple of hours with plenty of photo opportunities, with the birds posing well and with time to try different angles and capture different settings. The memory card would not be going home empty after all. An enjoyable start to my year, spent in good company with a group of stunning little birds.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Equipment Sale

I currently have a couple of Canon lenses that are available for sale. Both of these lenses produce superb results and the 500mm lens is responsible for the majority of the images I post on this blog. My main reason for selling is that I am looking to purchase a 600mm lens as I have moved across to a full frame camera.

I am only prepared to sell these lenses within the UK and would be happy for people to inspect by arrangement prior to purchase. I am prepared to courier the 500mm but would ideally prefer the buyer to collect from my home on the Wirral.

If you are interested in purchasing either lens or require further information then please do not hesitate to contact me through the contact form on the sidebar.

The lenses for sale are:

Canon EF500mm F4 IS USM

This lens is in excellent condition and has been lovingly looked after. The lens produces very sharp images and works well with the 1.4 teleconvertor when extra reach is needed. There are just a couple of very minor marks on the lens hood. The lens comes complete with the original carry case, tripod collar and lens hood. I would also provide a replacement Kirk lens foot with the lens which allows directed connection to a tripod head or gimbel without the need for a lens plate. I will be sorry to see this trusty lens go as it was the one that really opened up wildlife photography to me and has been faultless in its performance, but it is time to move on :)

I am selling this lens for £4500. THIS LENS IS NOW SOLD

Canon EF300mm F4 IS USM

This lens is in excellent condition and has been lovingly looked after. The lens produces very sharp images and works well with the 1.4 teleconvertor when extra reach is needed. This is useful as a travel lens due to its small size and weight. Also due to its close focusing distance is very good for zoo photography and a friend uses it very successfully for insects. I have used this lens successfully both for mammals and birds at very close range. There is just one very minor marks on the lens hood. The lens comes complete with the original box, carry case, tripod collar and lens caps.

I am selling this lens for £725 inclusive of postage.  THIS LENS IS NOW SOLD

As you know I don't like to make a blog post without an image, so here is a red squirrel recently photographed at Formby. It is good to see that the squirrels there are making a good recovery after their numbers were severly affected by squirrel pox.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

100 Shades of Grey

Firstly may I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope 2013 is filled with many memorable wildlife encounters for you. Apologies for the lack of updates over the last couple of weeks but the end of the year is always busy with final archiving and backing up images from the previous 12 months. I have also been busy with writing a magazine article.

I will turn the clock back just a couple of weeks to the end of 2012. I was really looking forward to my extended Christmas break and hoping that I would get plenty of opportunities to spend a few hours with the camera. However, for nearly the entire festive holiday the weather conditions were bad with persistent rain and a grey gloom overhead and more importantly a distinct lack of light. So each day I would keep my eyes glued to the weather forecast hoping for a moment of light to break through the stubborn blanket of grey above.

The first of these chinks of light was on Boxing Day morning and it was felt very good to escape the 'cabin fever' and step out at first light into the fresh morning air after the house bound easting excesses of the previous day. The period of sunlight looked as if it would be brief so I decided to stay local. I did not really have a plan on where I was heading to as I pulled away from the house. This is not usually a good idea as you can often spend most of the time driving around undecided and have very few photographs by the end of the session. As I was heading out towards the motorway a decision had been made and I would try and photograph some Red-breasted Merganser that appear each winter on the local marine lake. It has been a couple of years since I had last photographed this species so I was pleased to see about eight birds present as I arrived.

Two females on early morning feeding patrol

This is not an easy site as the birds are generally wary and it is a large lake making it easy for the birds to drift out of photography range. I have often found in the early mornings the birds will feed along the lake edge before the visitors and dogwalkers arrive, which tend to push them out beyond reach into the centre. My normal approach for these and other diving birds is to move to my position when they are foraging underwater. So I went straight from car to lake edge during the first dive. Lying still when they surfaced. On the next dive I moved to a position along the lake where I thought they would surface and so on. Sometimes you get into the right position and the bird surface right in front of you, other times not. To an onlooker I am sure my behaviour must have looked a little strange as repeatedly I jumped up quickly, walked a little away along the lake edge and lied down again.

The session was quite brief as what I had not figured into my calculation was how many people would be out in the early sunlight for a Boxing Day constitutional. Therefore the birds presence at the lake edge was brief.

Just left with a head as a male bird disappears into a trough between waves.

The next glimmer of sunlight took place on the morning before New Years Eve but this time was accompanied by a very stiff wind. When photographing birds on water I have two preferred conditions either flat calm that gives potential for reflective images with a sense of tranquility or very rough water which gives more energy and dynamics to the image. Again half a dozen birds were present but this was rapidly reduced to a solitary male as two windsurfers came speeding up the lake. However, I managed to stay with the male at close range for quite a long period.

A male bird in mid-dive. This is a photograph I have been trying to get for a while. It happens very quickly with the only hint the bird is about to dive being a slight flattening of the feathers and posture. I was happy to get one though which still showed the birds eye just before it disappeared. This was my cue to move position once more.

Male Red-Breasted Merganser are difficult to photograph from an exposure point of view given the black and white plumage. The head is particularly tricky as it turns from black to green depending on the light angle as you can see in some of the images.

It was a good way to finish off my year which had been a little odd due to being seriously ill at one point. Looking forward to 2013 I already have many photography plans forming which includes a trip to Romania and the Danube Delta in June which I am really looking forward to. I hope you will enjoy and join me regularly on my wildlife photographic journey through 2013.


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