Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stoats - The First Encounter

I thought it time to move away from the bird photographs for a couple of posts to tell you about a wonderful wildlife encounter and probably one of my most memorable yet in the UK. I must admit I was filled with doubt on that grey morning that I headed out at first light to try and take some photographs of the elusive Stoat and was under no illusion that the task would be easy. I had some good information on a site where a family had been seen reasonably regularly but even if I managed to find them I expected that would only be the start of difficulties as they were going to be a tricky subject to photograph due to their small size and speed. Not that I had any experience with them as all I have seen in the past had been a fleeting glimpse as one has run across the road or rapidly disappeared into vegetation.

My confidence was further dented when the was no sign of them in the expected area, and decided to widen my search. Now some of my friends say I am lucky when it comes to wildlife photography and of course there is always a element of this but I do also work very hard at it and try and maximise any chance of success. Fortune was certainly with me that day as suddenly before me was not one but six Stoats running around.

I watched them for a while, decided which direction they were heading and then settled down at a distance in the hope that they would come to me. The sit, become part of the landscape and wait for them to come to you is often the best approach for a close wildlife encounter.
It difficult to convey with a photograph the speed and agility of these mini predators and they are certainly a serious challenge to both camera and photographer.
A flying Stoat
One of the adults found a vole nest and efficiently and systematically came out with several voles which were taken to feed the nearly fully grown kits amongst the rocks. The family of Stoats disappeared then for about 40 minutes with just one staying in view, apparently on 'look out' duty.
This lone adult went on a long wander before returning to the family and also disappeared in to the rocks.
I sat and waited and after about 10 minutes and then the family group started to emerge, it appeared it was time for another hunting foray.
This was the start of an amazing hour with the stoat family but that will have to wait now until the next post.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Wandering Warbler

Following a memorable encounter with a Dartford Warbler in the early part of last year, I decided to head south once more to try and capture some more images of this wonderful warbler. Given that these birds are a Schedule 1 species, extreme care has to be taken to ensure that any photographs are taken far from any nesting location or activity (which requires a licence) and it is imperative that no disturbance whatsoever is caused to the birds. I am always extremely conscious that the welfare of my subjects is the key priority during any wildlife photography and that is regardless of the rarity of the species.
I was told of a site where a lone male bird was frequently singing and foraging next to a public footpath in an area well removed from the known Dartford Warbler locations. It appears that this normally sedentary bird had probably been displaced from its usual territory by the extremely cold winter of 2010 and had moved in response to a local shortage of insect prey. The unusual situation of a solitary bird seemed to present an ideal opportunity for some photography.

In the absence of any partner, the parental behaviour mode coupled with some confusion had taken over and the bird had taken to fostering a brood of recently fledged Common Whitethroat which are a closely related species. No doubt the food begging behaviour of these young proved irresistible to the errant male. Therefore I was confident that there was no possibility of causing any disturbance to a breeding pair.

As with other Sylvia warblers these birds appear to have an insatiable curiosity.
The bird has certainly settled well in to its new temporary home and was in immaculate condition due to the abundant food supply.
The sight of any passing Whitethroat, which have a similar basic shape, caused the bird to immediately burst in to its distinctive scratchy warble in the vain attempt that it might prove to be a partner.
Between bouts of singing the bird was collecting caterpillars to take to the waiting Whitethroat fledglings. A rather odd situation but interesting to watch how efficient it was at collecting caterpillars from the scrub.
This was a brief but memorable session. I paid one more visit to the bird (which I will show in another post) , before it eventually gave up with trying to find a partner and went wandering once more. I hope he managed to find his way back to a traditional breeding area where his efforts would be more appreciated and fruitful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Taste of the Orient

Over the course of history the fauna of the UK has been supplemented by various 'alien' species. Some such as Red-legged Partridge and Little Owl have arrived through introductions. Other species, particularly waterfowl, have resulted through escapes from captive collections and have subsequently established feral populations. A particularly colourful addition to the waterfowl species found in the UK is the Mandarin Duck that originates from eastern Asia and in China is known as the Yuan-yang. They make a wonderful photographic subject due to their colour plumage.
There is currently a UK population estimated to be around 7000 pairs of this tree cavity nesting duck. The area around my home supports a small population that regularly breed on a local lake surrounded by woodland. I decided to make an early morning visit on a short pre-work session. The light was a bit limited but their colours tend to shine even more vividly under overcast skies.
The site is regularly visited by bread wielding families that feed the ducks and geese and as a result the birds are accustomed to people and relatively easily approached. The perfect subject for when your time is limited.
I had two drakes in front of me but unfortunately no females, which although less colourful, are still a very attractive looking bird.
As with all wildlife photography a more intimate image is created by positioning yourself at the level of the animal or bird. For waterfowl the closer to the water level the better. Fortunately lying on a small concrete ledge allowed me to get the required angle.
The birds did not really show much activity beyond gently swimming around amongst the mallard and so I settled for some portraits on the green algae rich waters of the calm lake.
All to soon it was time to leave and continue my commute to the office. These colourful oriental invaders certainly brightened the mood for the long day ahead of report writing.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Warbler of the Woodlands

With the early arrival of the migrants this year, I decided to bring forward my annual pilgrimage to photograph one of my favourite small birds, the Wood Warbler.

I have visited the same western oak woods in North Wales for the past three or so years. It is a very beautiful place and made all the more special by the electric trilling song of a few Wood Warblers. For those who have not had the good fortune to encounter this species, this small green, white and yellow bird tends to favour the tree canopy where it flutters between regular singing perches like a large moth.

By its habit it creates difficulties for photography but at the site I visit there are a series of rock terraces up one side of the valley, which once climbed, put you level with the birds. The lighting is always a challenge with it's constantly changing patterns through the leaves above.

Once up and amongst the birds they appear quite oblivious to your presence and almost curious. On this occasion I had a the bird stay with for an extended period allowing to happily take many photographs.

I love the colour combination of these birds the pure white of the belly, the pale green of the back and the lemon yellow throat. this combination no doubt provides them with good camouflage in the canopy.

Despite their colouration they are quite easy to locate by the amazing song that penetrates the woodland. The call is a rather mournful descending note usually repeated 3 or 4 times but the songs is an accelerating staccato trill.

I have heard the song compared to a spinning coin on a plate which describes its increasing tempo well but does not convey the purity of sound.

Unusually for a bird with such a fondness for the tree tops it nests on the ground. Unfortunately like many of the bird species in the UK, the Wood warbler is sadly declining. These woodlands would be greatly diminished in their atmosphere by it loss, making the protection of these remaining western oak wood areas so important.

A memorable day with a stunning little bird and if you have time to spare in May definitely one that is worth making the effort to go and find.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Searching the Farmland

The end of April always triggers an internal alarm that its time to go and look for some Yellow Wagtail on an area of local farmland. Timing the visit is important as I want to try and catch the birds just as they arrived from their migration and are still busy trying to establish the territories they will use for the few months of their annual visit to the UK. The timing is essential to try and catch these birds in 'song', which in itself is not particularly pleasing to the ear as it tends to be a series of repetitive high pitch 'peeps'.

I tend to photograph these birds from a farm track and try to catch them as they land on field side fence posts. The light direction is not ideal at this site, as it quickly swing round to side lighting, but it is the only place locally that I know that they can be reliably found. As usual an early set alarm clock is essential and on this session I arrived just as the sun was creeping upwards over the horizon. En route to the particular field that the wagtails have used consistently for several years, I was slightly distracted by some Meadow Pipits perched on some fence posts and bathed in the warm glow of the early light.
The birds were calling an occasionally launching vertically upwards in to fluttering song flight.
I decided to quickly move on having taken a few photographs of the Pipits, to try and find the Yellow Wagtails before the sun had arced too far round. As I arrived at the field I was greeted with a familiar call and saw a flash of yellow as male briefly flitted upwards and disappeared back in to the low crop. At least they were here and a female was the first to appear on the fence line.
A promising start but it was really the more colourful male I was hoping to photograph and had to wait a while before one put in an appearance. There are many different races of Yellow Wagtails which are generally distinguished by having different coloured heads. Regular readers will know I encountered the grey-head race (see here) that is typical of Spain on my recent trip to Mallorca. I have encountered some of the other races on my travels but still believe the race that is unique to the UK with its light green colouration on the head and back to be the most attractive.
The yellow colouration of the spring male bird is incredibly bright and you would think they would be an easy target for any passing predator. However, they can be surprisingly difficult to spot even where I have seen them in areas of short grass.
A short while later another male appeared and landed on the barbed wire and started to sing, allowing me to capture a few of the photographs I was hoping to get from this pre-breakfast session.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Spring Whitethroat

As working through my Mallorca images took so long I am now working through a very large backlog of photos I have taken since my return. Therefore I need to wind the clock back to the early morning of late April when the spring migrants were arriving in numbers and the bushes and scrub took on those all too familiar songs of the summer visiting warblers.

Common Whitethroat were once a species I really struggled to photograph but I have done well with the species over recent years which has mainly resulted from getting more accustomed to their behaviour. This has resulted in some very close encounters. Sometimes too close in fact and inside the minimum focusing distance of the lens and on these occasions all that can be done is to sit back and enjoy watching the birds go about their daily routines. I must admit I have a bit of soft spot for the Sylvia type warblers which always seem to have a slightly 'angry' disposition.
The key to their photography is patience, the knowledge that they will routinely use the same perch for song and their apparent insatiable curiosity.
Once you appreciate these traits all the Sylvia types of warbler suddenly become much easier to approach and photograph.
From a photography perspective I always try to aim for singing images of the birds. They are warblers after all!
This requires some study of an individual within its its territory, locate its preferred song perches and waiting. Sometimes you may wait a considerable time but eventually the bird will return to burst into a scratchy warble.
These are really fun birds to photograph and its a very enjoyable way to spend a few hours at first light on a Spring morning. No doubt my lens will fall upon them once more next year.


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