Sunday, December 27, 2015

Winter Wanderings

This has probably been one of the worst winters to date for photography that I can remember. A constant stream of storms and wet weather have rolled in on the Atlantic 'conveyor belt' and an unusual jet stream alignment has resulted in unseasonably warm temperatures. Some trees are even in blossom in December! Many places just a short distance to the north of here have suffered the brunt of this weather and my thoughts go out to those communities who have been subject to repeated flooding which must be a dreadful experience.

I don't mind photographing wildlife in bad weather as it can produce some very atmospheric images but there needs to be some light and that is where this winter has really failed. There has been a almost constant presence of thick grey cloud above. The few moments of brightness seem to have coincided with when I have been otherwise occupied. I have managed a couple of moments to coordinate having the camera in hand with those rare moments when the sun has broke through and thought I would share a few photos from these sessions with you.

The first of these are from my long running corvid flight project. Being close to home it means I can respond quickly to getting there when the sun appears. The low winter sun means that there is a very limited window of light at the location, due to long shadows cast by trees. Always fun to photograph these birds. The challenge with the magpies is to try and catch the back view of the tail in the right light such that it shows off the full rainbow range of colours. The photographs below are a small selection taken from this project since September.
The jay are as difficult as ever with their erratic flight, particularly as these birds come in to land.

I have a couple of marine lakes close to home on the Wirral. The most reliable for turning up an interesting bird is the large lake at West Kirby on the north-west corner of the peninsula. It has been a few years since a Great Northern Diver took up temporary residence on the lake and this winter saw a juvenile bird arrive. A brief moment of sun saw me out next to the lake which is always a challenge for photography merely as a result of its large size. It was good to catch up with this young diver having spent some time with the adults in Iceland this year. After some patient waiting and moving while the bird was submerged, I was eventually rewarded with a close encounter and just in time before the sun disappeared below a bank of clouds gathering over the hills in North Wales.
The very last rays of the day.
Of course you always get a few extras along the way including a group of Redshank at first light and a Little Egret whilst waiting for the final species of this post, the Short-eared Owl.

This winter has seen a big influx of Short-eared owls into the UK. I assume this is a reflection of a poor year for voles, their main prey, or very successful breeding year in Europe. Its always a pleasure to photograph these daylight hunting owls and watching them quarter the fields in search of prey. They usually stay until around March when they start heading back up to high altitudes to breed. So hopefully if the weather is kind there is still plenty of time to photograph them in the New Year.

This will be my last blog post for this year. Thanks for all your support through 2015  and I will wish you all a Happy, Healthy and Wildlife filled 2016.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Little Owl Evenings

With the skies outside a leaden grey and the trees being shaken to their roots by another winter storm that has just rolled in from the Atlantic, it good to turn thoughts back to some more benign conditions of the summer. I love the warm calm evenings of the early summer. The long hours of daylight mean I can pick a camera up after work and head out for a few hours and immerse myself in some wildlife. I spent many of those evenings this summer photographing brown hares but did use a couple to also try and photograph  the Little Owls my friend Steve had found last year. Photographing Little Owls is always great fun especially when its is a shared experience with a good friend, as what these birds lack in size they certainly make up for in terms of 'character'. Watching their antics always raises smiles.
On the first of the two visits we decided to make the bold move of getting out of the car to photograph them. All the photography last year was undertaken from the 'autohide' but we were keen to try and get some different perspectives. So while the owl was not there we got out of the car and sat quietly with our backs to it to break up our outline and waited. The male Little Owl appeared quickly and did not seem concerned by us being sat there and carried on with his evening food collection duties to supply the ever growing chicks inside the barn.

Posing nicely as we shot from ground level next to the car.
Busy Little Owl.

In the end of the day light.

We managed to get plenty of photographs of the owls coming and going and as the sun dipped away decided to get back in the car and investigate the other side of the barn. Here we found the barn was open and despite the light being low managed to get a few more photographs of the male sat on some old weathered beams. The darkness of the barn space behind provided some nice contrasting backgrounds to the birds.

Throughout last year we had struggled to get images of the Little Owls perched. We had plenty of photographs of them on the low outbuilding roof or in the old round brick window they used to exit the barn. At the very end of last year we managed to get a few images of one of the birds perched on an old branch in some very low light but there was definitely room for improvement. So for my second evening visit, which also turned out to be my last one this year, I pulled out an old piece of tree branch from the small pile I keep for perches in the back garden. We decided the best place for this perch, and where it was most likely to be used, was to attach it to the top of a fence that ran back towards from the corner of the barn outbuilding. The benefit of this position is that it also put some distance between the perch and the barn wall behind creating a soft diffused coloured background. Fortunately the Little Owl seemed to get the message that evening and used the perch several times together with one the concrete posts along the fence line.

Last moments of light.

Unfortunately I never got opportunity to go back to the site this summer and so did not have the fun times to be had photographing the young. I am sure the birds will be back in the same place next year and so look forward to another couple of barmy summer evening spent in their company.

I just want to finished this post to apologise for the lack of recent posts on the blog. I have been suffering from a unpleasant flu for the last three weeks and difficult to raise much enthusiasm with a fuzzy head full of mucus and accompanying lethargy. Fortunately this seems to be on the wane now and so normal service will be resumed.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

A Few from Spring

With it being foggy and murky grey outside all day, it was a good time to catch up with a bit of the photo processing backlog. So I turned my thoughts back to Spring which is such a contrast to the view out of the window today. Early mornings filled with bird song, migrants arriving in waves, the birds looking bright and immaculate and the freshness of the new growth bursting forth from the plants. Such a vibrant time of year and always a pleasure to be out at first light and soaking it all in.

So for this post I just thought I would take a few of the bird images from last Spring and put them together. What could say Spring more than a bird on some willow catkins. In this case a colourful Goldfinch.
Living by the coast there is a reasonable number of gorse bushes and normally good flocks of Linnet. I always associated one with the other as the males often use the top of these vibrant yellow flowered bushes to advertise their territory in song.
A bird that is particularly noticeable in the Spring is the Meadow Pipit.  Huge numbers migrate and on certain days it seems they are everywhere. Of course these are a favoured 'victim' of cuckoos who time their migration to arrive when other birds are beginning to lay eggs.  
Many birds look at their best at this time of year as the males feathers finally wear into their fresh breeding plumage. This male Reed Bunting is nearly there with just a few tawny coloured feather ends to change before the transformation is complete. 

One of the earliest migrant arrivals is the Northern Wheatear with the birds typically arriving locally from their long flight up from Africa around mid-March. They bring with them a real injection of striking colour and contrast into what is still a generally drab landscape in the early Spring with the remnants of winter still evident. Often these arriving birds are very flighty and have an annoying habitat of tending to stay just out of camera range, displaying a flash of white rump as they keep their distance ahead of you.

Into April and migration is in full swing with the arrival of warblers and Whinchat. These birds look amazing when they arrive although the orange colours of the breast and flanks seems to quickly fade once they have been here a short while. From a photography point of view they are definitely a bird to try and catch as they arrive.
 Of course Spring is not just about sights, it is also about sounds. Unfortunately I did not get much time to photograph warblers this year with the exception of the Willow Warbler. This bird's song of descending notes I know very well, having had one singing all through the 'night' outside my bedroom when I stayed in Arctic Norway. The songster did not help with me struggling to get to sleep with the perpetual daylight outside.
Well having done this post and reminisced over Spring the grey murk outside suddenly looks a bit brighter. Also it has got me thinking that I should start thinking about and planning my trip abroad for next year. North, South, East or West...decisions...decisions.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Spring Grouse

I want to wind the clock back now to the spring when I spent some time trying to photograph Black Grouse. At the start of each year and try to formulate some plans for some photography projects. This usually includes trying to get some photographs of a new species or two. For 2015 I decided I would try and photograph some Black Grouse, although not through the easy route of paying for a pre-set up hide.
Black Grouse, or 'Black cock' and 'Grey hens' as they are known in Scotland, are very enigmatic and beautiful moorlands birds. Each spring the birds gather at traditional display grounds known as leks at first light each day. On the leks the birds battle for dominance and to impress the females for mating. A Black Grouse lek is truly one of natures spectacles as the  males pumped up with hormones almost seem to vibrate as they square up to each other with fanned white and black lyre shaped tail feathers. Much of the action is display and posturing, such as frequent jumping up and down on the spot or strutting around with the head held low. However, quite frequently this will turn into a full on feet first battle.

The noise from the lek is also atmospheric, especially when combined with first light, with the low bubbling calls interspersed with hissing from the birds which sounds a bit like a tyre being deflated. Quite often there will be a moment of quiet and then some trigger suddenly bursts all the birds into life and a unison of sound rise up out of the lek.

Photographing Black Grouse does present a range of photography challenges. Firstly they will stand the sight of people which means typically you have to get up at some unearthly hour, particularly in mid-spring to arrive in the dark so they don't see you approach. It is fairly punishing getting up in the middle of the night and you really feel it later in the day. These birds are not big fans of staying on the lek long once the sun has risen and will usually all depart together soon after sunrise. I have noticed they do hang around longer on overcast days. Given their colouration of black, bright white and blue they do present some exposure challenges especially when in sun where they seem to quickly become  very contrast subject. My preferred conditions are actually bright overcast skies and it is under these conditions their rich dark colour combination really sings out.

I decided mainly to go for capturing some portrait photographs of the birds as the site does not lend itself particularly for battling shots. Action photos are a challenge given the birds preferences for low light conditions at dawn.
However, I did manage to get a few photos of the birds in flight.

Overall I was pleased how the few sessions went and have posted a small selection of images.

Having spent some time with the birds I now have a better understanding of the their behaviour and hope this puts me in a good position when I hopefully spend some more time on their 'battle grounds' next spring.


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