Sunday, January 26, 2014

Project J Revisited

Regular readers of my blog will recall that I have a long running project to photograph Jays in flight, known as 'Project J' which started back in 2009. I have dipped in and out of this over the intervening years and last weekend thought it about time for a revisit given that conditions looked right.  Typically I arrived too early and before the sun had even crawled up over the horizon but it gave me a few moments to gather my thoughts and think about my approach for the session ahead.

For this session I decided that I was going to try a closer approach using the 300mm F2.8 lens. This lens has very fast autofocus and thought it might help with the erratic nature of the Jays flight path. However, this would of course be offset by the fact that I would be now much closer which means the action is much faster and more difficult for photographer and autofocus to keep in touch with the birds. The easier approach would be to set-up a log or stump and pre-focus on it but I always like a challenge and can assure you that trying to photograph free flying jays is definitely not easy.  Not only are the birds quite erratic in flight but also perform what I call the 'jay flip' on landing which is a bit of mid-acrobatics just before touch down. This can see them flip out of the field of view just at the critical last moment.
Of the three corvids present at this site - crows, magpies and jays, the jay being the smallest is at the bottom of the pecking order which usually means a short wait is required for them to appear. So whilst waiting a did a couple of test shots with the magpies.
The light was all over the place during the session with both sun and overcast conditions which kept me very busy with adjusting camera settings. The long shadows from nearby trees cast by the low winter sun also proved problematic as they moved across my target area as the sun rose. The photography is all done from the car which is not the ideal place to pursue flight photography but is the only way possible with this shy species. I really wish my car had smaller wing mirrors!!
Four Jays eventually appeared and it was time to try and capture some flight images. I decided for this session I would mainly concentrate on the birds coming into land.

The session was reasonably successful although quite a few images ended up in the trash from this session. I am still debating whether using a longer lens at greater distance is a better approach. Of course there are a lot of variables during each individual session which affect the birds behaviour such as wind direction, how many jays are visiting and the interaction with other birds. I doubt I will ever find the magic formula for success beyond perseverance. This is why I keep returning to Project J and am sure this certainly will not be my last session as it is always a pleasure to spend time with these charismatic birds.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Well-timed Waders

When you live by the sea, you seem to become very tuned into the rhythm of the tides.  This is particularly the case as a bird photographer as you learn where various wading birds will be at both different states and heights of tide during the winter. As examples there are some beaches where large accumulations of mixed flocks of waders can be found on spring tides, the gathering of Bar-tailed godwits on a local beach during neap tides or the gathering of curlews on a field the high tide period.
The majority of wader photograph tends to be done towards the top of the rising tide as the birds are pushed towards the waiting photographer. Also the bigger tides tend to be favoured as it reduces the area of beach for the birds to use and make them easier to photograph.  However, having said that on the very big spring tides, rocks where the birds typically roost may be inundated and empty. The other key consideration is light direction. For example the beach (a generous phrase for estuarine mud and rocks in the River Mersey channel at the end of my street) can only be photographed during the afternoon a two to three of hours after high tide.

Living by the sea allows you to learn these patterns and use the knowledge to undertake short productive sessions for photographing the birds. This does not work all the time as on occasions the disturbance by other beach users put the flocks to flight.

On the big spring tides at the beginning of the month the appearance of some low late afternoon winter sun in conjunction with the peak of the tide saw me grabbing the camera and taking the 5 minute journey to a beach on the north of the Wirral peninsula. As I hoped there was a narrow strip of beach remaining with one of favourite waders to photograph, the Sanderling, dashing around foraging along the foamy edge of the waves.

 It was just a question then of sitting quietly nearby and letting the birds come to me which is always the best approach. I soon had the birds literally running around close to my feet speeding along the shore looking for marine morsels brought in by each new wave.  The often made comparison of sanderling to clockwork toys as they run around the beach is a very good analogy. They are great fun to photograph as they sprint up and down the tide line.

I had a good 30 or 40 minutes with the birds until a dog walker thought it was hilarious to let his dog rush around and generally terrorise the flock until all the birds departed.
Wading birds, particularly in the winter, are often on a tight energy budget and disturbance of this sort does nothing for their general welfare. However, you cannot expect the majority of people using the beach and coastal footpaths to realise this and all you can do is try and educate where possible.

As I made my way back to the car I spotted a couple of Dunlin together with a few Redshank standing on the rocks, in the diminishing light trying, to avoid the spray of the waves crashing against them and so a took a few photographs before returning home.

So the total length of this session from leaving home to my teabag landing in the mug when I returned was about an hour. An hour well spent in my opinion, as is any time with waders, and such a short session was only possible due accumulating local knowledge from experience.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Hares of the Hills

Firstly a very Happy New Year to you all.

Having spent a lot of time photographing Brown Hares, about 18 months ago my thoughts turned to thinking about trying for their slight smaller upland relative the Mountain Hare. There are two main places to find Mountain Hare which are the Highlands of Scotland and the Peak District, the latter being a population introduced in the 19th century. With the Peak District being reasonably close to home this seemed the sensible place to target my efforts.

The Peak District covers a huge area and so I started some Internet research to try and narrow down my search for the enigmatic hare. However, much of the information I found was not particularly specific until I stumbled across some geo-referenced photographs, albeit from a few years ago. I painstakingly entered the grid reference of every photograph I found into my GPS which resulted in two distinct clusters emerging. It was one of these clusters I decided  to target. Having said all that my first outing for the hares around Christmas time was actually to a completely area having received a suggestion on a place to try. This ended in failure despite trudging across the hills for several hour with not a single hare was seen.

I decided to follow my research and instincts and try my original target area although the first visit did not go well. When I left home the skies were clear but as I approached the Peak District I could see clouds on the hill tops. By the time I finally reach the area where I was going to head out on my trek I was in thick cloud being blown by strong winds and very limited visibility. I waited in the car for a couple of hours hoping it would clear but it was not to be and so returned home hare-less once again. An important lesson was learnt though that I needed to pay a bit more attention to the 'mountain' weather forecast before heading out. I kept my eyes fixed on the forecast waiting for the right conditions before heading out again. Would it be the proverbial third time lucky?

I started heading up hill and was scanning around looking for hares. To be honest having not photographed them before it seemed a bit daunting as I had no idea of what their preferred habitat would be although given their white coat and the lack of snow I thought they should be fairly easy to spot. I could see a white blob on the far side of the valley about a kilometre away. So  I took a photograph and zoomed in on the image on the back of the camera and yes it was a hare and not a plastic bag!

The valley however was steep sided and so I trekked upwards to where it was shallow and I could cross before coming back down to where I had seen the hare. After a bit of sneaking and crawling around in the peat hags I finally had my first hare in the viewfinder.
I had put my bag down to get myself in position to photograph the hare and as I walked back to retrieve it, I just spotted a small amount of white in the grass on the bank above me. After some careful looking this was another hare which I managed to get really close to.
Having now got a close prolonged view of one of the hares I could really see what beautiful animals they are.
There seemed to be a few hares in this area so I decided to spend some time searching around to see if I could find some more. The eroded gullies through the peat meant that in this rough landscape I tended to come across the hares very suddenly and without any warning and sometimes the first I knew about a hare being there would be as it set-off in a long arcing run away from me. If I could see a hare in advance then it became easier to plan a route using the gullies and hummocks as cover to move up close to it.

This one was tucked out of the brisk breeze blowing across the plateau and taking in some sun.
After a while walking around I spotted another hare at distance and again managed to get in close after taking a long route to get in to position. Physically the Mountain Hare are slightly smaller than a Brown Hare but seem to be a very study animal. Both species share similar coloured eyes and the ears on the mountain variety are considerably shorter.
I moved higher up still to another hare I had spotted from a distance.
By this time it was now late morning and I was intending to head up on to an upper plateau but the cloud base suddenly descended shrouding the hilltops in grey murk. So I decided I would make my way slowly back down to the car and see if I could spot any hares en-route. I spotted this one in a peat gully which was to be the last of the morning session.
Overall I was very pleased with how this session went and importantly learnt a good deal about the hares which hopefully will be useful during my next visit. I have to say the large mug of tea and long hot shower I took when I arrived home were most welcome!


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