Thursday, November 24, 2011

Delayed Departure

One of the interesting features of bird photography is that every year is different. I was only thinking the other day about some of the photographs I had taken this year in comparison to last. Some years I do not manage a single photograph of a particular species and the next I may end up with hundreds. This partly results from my approach of trying to concentrate on particular species but also from a few unpredictable encounters during each year with 'friendly' approachable birds. Northern Wheatear are a good example. Last year, photographs of this species were fairly few and far between but this year it has almost seemed like they are following me!
Having already had a good year with this species, another bird recently appeared in its autumn colours offering some great photography opportunities. This bird took up a prolonged temporary residence on the rocks of the local sea wall a couple of weeks back. A very late migrant that should already have been winging its way into Africa. The latest record for this species in my local area is November 21st and this was just beaten by the bird finally departing southward on the 23rd.
It made a pleasant change to be photographing this bird on some rocks, which provide a more 'natural' setting rather than amongst the grass or perched on the posts of the North Wirral coastal strip. During its stay the bird became quickly accustomed to the constant passing of people along the promenade and therefore very approachable for photography.
Where birds are in contact with large numbers of people, good photography opportunities can often develop.
Interestingly this wheatear, despite being on migration, had decided that the heap of boulders was its temporary home and became very territorial, chasing away any other birds that landed nearby. Meadow Pipits were the usual target of its aggression.
The beach in the background provided some nice complimentary coloured background to the bird and although the day was overcast there was still reasonably good and even light.What you cannot see on these low res images here is the feather detail and so you will have to believe me when I say you can see each feather filament in the high res versions.
There was one particular rock that I hoped the bird would use as this was the only one with a decent growth of yellow lichen. After a short wait the bird obliged.
Hopefully, the bird's late departure has not affected it chances of reaching its final destination. I wish it luck on its long journey. This is certainly the last wheatear I will see in 2011 and beside the photos, I am left with fond memories of all those special moments I have spent with these birds this year.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Corvids in Flight

The crow family or corvids gets a bad press. Words often used to describe these beautiful, and 'intelligent' birds include evil, cunning, vicious, sinister and murderous which has not been helped by their general portrayal in newspapers, film and books. They have in my opinion been wrongly accused of the steep and recent decline in UK song birds with inappropriate calls for culling above and beyond their usual daily persecution. In my view the changes and losses in bird habitat and the domestic cat are probably the major influences in small bird decline. In 2006 it was estimated their were 10.3 million domestic cats in the UK which is a large population of efficient predators. Another study showed that cats bring home about 4 small birds a year. I think the resulting maths speaks for itself yet noone obviously calls for a cull of cats. Corvids will take eggs and chicks from nests but then again woodpeckers are more predatory than you may realise. The crow family and song birds and have lived in harmony for thousands of years and common sense would suggest that other factors are at play here in the recent sharp declines of the latter.

Over the last couple of years I have spent many happy hours in their company. They are fascinating birds and the closer views has given me a great appreciation of the subtle beauty of their true colours. From a photography point of view they provide good subjects and often look at their most spectacular when in flight. However, capturing flight images of these birds has proved both challenging yet personally rewarding.

For this post I will concentrate on three species and start off with the Jackdaw. These birds are superb aerial acrobats.
The moment of touch down.
The magpie is a particularly maligned species probably because we have greatest contact with these birds as they visit our parks and gardens. They are particularly tricky to photograph in flight as they tend to be quite erratic. A further challenge is achieving the correct camera exposure on a black and white bird in the good light required to freeze them in flight.
I find that photography of these birds flying is at its easiest just before the point of landing.
My favourite pose for this bird is the head on landing when all the feathers are at full spread to slow the bird on it final approach but in photography terms these images are the most difficult to achieve.
Of course what these images unfrotunately do not show is the the iridescent blues, green and purples that can be only be seen on a dorsal view of these bird.

I will finish this post with some Rook images. This is a particularly overlooked species by bird photographers but I cannot for a moment imagine why. These birds have been a long running subject that I have pursued during my lunch hour at work and I am sure will continue to be so. Some sandwiches, a camera and a flock of rooks is a great way to spend 60 minutes.
I love the purple and blue sheen of these birds when the light hits them at the right angle.
As with the Jackdaws, Rooks are incredibly agile in flight.
The wing shape of these birds, with the long feather 'fingers', is on a par with many raptors and creates some interesting flight poses.
Hopefully this post will have helped you view corvids in a more favourable light For those who wish to find more, can I suggest that you wander over to the excellent Corvid Journal which has a wealth of information on these birds. For those who already share my passion for corvids you may wish to go and check out and help support one of the organisations, such as Corvid Aid, who undertake such brilliant and dedicated work rehabilitating injured birds for release back in to the wild.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Return to the Green Nemesis

Regular readers of my blog will by now realise that to date my photography of Green Woodpeckers has been a continued struggle. There are two main reasons for my lack of success which I attribute to these birds being generally fairly thin on the ground in the north-west, compared to the south of the UK, and also due to their very wary nature. Often if you at look at one sideways from a good distance you will see it departing in undulating flight to the nearest tree. I have achieved better results this year with the species than previously which I view as some progress. However, they are not a species I have been able to specifically target and any photographs have come from chance encounters at a particular site I visit regularly.

Back in August I came across the male bird during an early morning session, hunting around for its ant breakfast in the dew soaked grass. The bird was starting to go through moult so not looking at its pristine best but when it comes to this tricky species any photos are welcome.
My observations of these very wary woodpeckers has taught me two main points that now steer my approach. Firstly the male birds, those with the red 'moustache', seem to be relatively more approachable than the females. Secondly if you can find a bird that is preoccupied feeding then your chance of approaching close is raised slightly above zero.
The main set of photographs from this session came when the bird became distracted whilst looking for ants along the edge of a footpath.
A moment to hold my breath and hope the bird would not fly off as it suddenly became suspicious and adopted an alert posture having heard the camera shutter.
A sigh of relief from me as it then relaxed and continued feeding.
Regardless of how careful a wildlife photographer is in their approach there are always factors beyond your control that can put a bird to flight. In this case a passing Sparrowhawk saw the woodpecker fly up to the refuge of the shady side of a nearby tree.
The bird stayed in this position motionless for a full 5 minutes before deciding it was not about to become a raptor meal and flew across to a small tree where I got my final photograph of the session.
This was probably my most prolonged encounter to date. When our next meeting will occur is difficult to say but hopefully this experience will leave me slightly better prepared. On the other hand the most likely outcome is the woodpecker will have different ideas and I will see the flash of its yellow rump as it disappears into the trees once more with its characteristic laughing calls.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Bunting Bonanza

This is a follow-on from my previous post recounting my search for the sadly declining Corn Bunting (see here for previous post). Having finally located some birds I decided to return to the second area I had discovered for another camera session with these wonderful songsters.

Often when you find some obliging birds its pays to return for further sessions. Through repeated visits you learn the character of a species which in turn helps refine your fieldcraft and approach. The phrase 'make hay while the sun shines' seems apt as I was amongst the mid-summer crops of an extensive area of agricultural land.
It did not take me long to home in on the characteristics jangling song in the early dawn light. I found a bird in full song about 100m away from where I had photographed one during my previous visit.
The bright but overcast conditions provided some excellent and very even lighting conditions. As before the bird was regularly flitting between a select number of song perches.
My favourite song perch was a clump of flowering thistle so I spent the majority of the visit concentrating on this area. The purple flowers providing an extra dash of colour to the photos.
Overall it was a very productive few hours in the early morning, with only a small sample of the images taken shown here. I will no doubt return to the crop fields again next summer, now I have located the birds, and hope to try and get some flight photographs. This will not be easy but I know it will definitely be fun and a pleasure to spend some more time in the close proximity to these charismatic farmland birds.


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