Saturday, May 26, 2012

Vole Patrol

I have been thinking about photographing water voles for a while. The main problem was where to start with numbers having suffered such a catastrophic decline. The key reasons for the decline, of this once common rodent, may be attributed to both habitat loss and fragmentation and the appearance of an 'alien' invader. The habitat requirements appear to be fairly straight forward being a slow flowing watercourse with a diverse abundance of aquatic and bank-side vegetation, banks that can be burrowed in to and minimal disturbance. However, the routine maintenance clearing of drainage channels to assist in the conveyance of flows and loss of river floodplains have all taken their toll on the vole. The other main factor has been the arrival and establishment of the American mink in the UK countryside through releases from fur farms. Some of these releases have been deliberately undertaken by anti-fur protesters concerned about animal rights. They obviously did not think about the rights of the native UK wildlife when they opened the cages to this highly efficient predators.

Fortunately there is a much greater awareness of water voles now which have been rightly afforded full protection status for both the animals and their habitat. A great deal of effort has gone into the encouraging the animals to return naturally through habitat management and assisted through re-introduction programmes together with the implementation of control measures on mink numbers.
Given the lack of local voles I decided to seek some help from a water vole expert, who kindly took me out to show me a couple of sites with a thriving population. She also helped me and hopefully my photography by providing a great deal of useful background information on their behaviour and how to look for signs of  their activity. Signs that previously I would not have seen such as small grazed patches of vegetation or plants stems cut with a characteristic 45 degree bite. So I would like to very much thank Kate for her invaluable help.
The site where I decided to concentrate my photography efforts is a short section of canal  where the usual concrete vole unfriendly banks have been replaced with a staked material. This allows the voles to chew hole in the material and access a buffer zone of abundant vegetation that separates the canal from the surrounding farmland.
From a photography perspective the site is slightly awkward as there are very few water level places for the voles to sit and only limited opening on the bank top where they have grazed down the vegetation on the opposite bank to which there is no access.
The photography of water voles is a waiting game and relying on them to appear at certain points where a clear view is possible. it appears to be characterised by brief flurries of activity between long periods of quiet. The start of the activity is often signalled by a rustling in the vegetation or a characteristic plop sound as one launches itself from the bank into the canal.
One bit of interesting behaviour I have already observed is how the voles fell small willows, like a mini beaver, to fall from the bank into the water so they can strip the stems free of leaves.
Of the various rodent species Water voles and Dormice are generally the species that have gain most popularity due to their threatened status but also they are visually very appealing animals. I also think that the cause of the water vole has no doubt been helped by fond memories of 'ratty' from the childhood stories of Wind in the Willows. They certainly have a charm went they are sat looking around and their popularity is also helped in that they often seem to be wearing a 'smile'. I have found that I much prefer to photograph the adults than the young which seem to have much more 'character'.
This is only the starting phase of this mini mission to photograph these delightful animals and I look forward to many more happy hours quietly sitting on the canal side watching the world go by and the place being lit up with the occasional appearance of a water vole.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Joy of 'Groppers'

I seem to have a strange affinity with the Grasshopper Warbler which has allowed me over the last few years to build a good library of images. It strange as a bird photographer how you have great success with some species and seem to completely fail with others. Every bird photographer has a few 'bogey birds' for which they struggle to get images. For example, Dottrel that are relatively easy to photograph due to their very confiding nature I have never managed yet to put in front of the lens.

This is a highly skulking bird that loves to keep deep within low vegetation and a species which many have only heard but not seen. I think the key to my numerous prolonged encounters with these birds has been mainly due to timing. The window for photography is a narrow one and only seems to last two or three weeks from when the birds first arrive back from Africa and  until they have secured a mate for the breeding season. During this brief time the birds, that will have taken up residence in low clumps of brambles and scrub will frequently move up to the highest perch in the early morning to burst into their unusual insect like song allowing great opportunities for the photographer.

As insect grasshoppers are not usually singing at the time when these warblers are, if you hear the characteristic fast clicking sound in the mid-spring its a good chance it is one of these birds.

Homing in on the birds' locations can sometimes be difficult as during the song they rotate their heard to broadcast the sound giving it ventriloquist properties with it seemingly coming from somewhere else. It can be heard from a surprising long distance, as long as you and not too old to have had your high frequency hearing dulled. I think the song has some sort of hypnotic influence on me, as despite telling myself to concentrated on photographing other species, each time I hear it I find myself drawn in towards the bird. One thing I do know that is a hour or so in early morning light at close quarters to a 'Gropper', as they are known locally, is an unforgettable wildlife encounter.

Once a singing Grasshopper Warbler is located their photography is relatively straight forward as they are fairly unconcerned by your presence (as long as you do not move) and it is quite predictable where they are going to sing from. As with many warblers they have preferred song perches. Its really just a question of having some patience and waiting for the bird to occasionally pop up from the brambles on to one of its perches and start its 'reeling' song.
Given that I have so many Grasshopper Warbler images now, I have told myself that in future years I will do my best to ignore them and look for other species. Whether I will be able to stick to this remains to be seen and no doubt in future years on hearing the song I will be drawn back in gripped by 'Gropper' fever once again.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Tiny Wonders

You are more likely to hear the characteristic call of a Chiffchaff before you see one. These tiny leaf warblers, which are one of the first warbler migrants to arrive in the UK and for me herald in the start of spring, are normally spotted energetically flitting high through the leafless trees. The only time they stop moving is to go in to their characteristic two note song.
These birds certainly are not the most visually exciting bird being a rather drab brownish green with a feint yellowish eye stripe and streaking on the breast and very similar in appearance to a willow warbler. The colour does seem to vary slightly between individuals put the muted colour palette remains the same. Therefore from a photography point of view this is a bird may not be high on many people lists of target species. However, what they lack in colour they certainly make up for with a certain endearing nature to their 'character' and irrepressible energy and inquisitiveness which always makes the time in close proximity to one of these birds a pleasurable encounter.
Personally bird photography is not always about taking photos of the spectacular species, as I have always loved being in close proximity to a bird that many only see from a distance and being treated a brief insight in to their daily lives and habits. I believe such experiences make you a better wildlife photographer because by understanding behaviour, future close encounters become so much easier. In my opinion the greatest skill of  being a bird photographer is being able to get very close to your subject whilst it carries on with its normal behaviour.
I was recently told that the dark matted feathers that are often see above the beak when they first arrive and slightly evident in the photo above, results from the Chiffchaff feeding in Mediterranean olive groves on their migration up from Africa. I am not sure how true that is but it is certainly impressive that such a tiny bird that only weighs a few grams undertakes such long migrations.
One feature of their behaviour that certainly helps them on their journey is that their skills in catching aerial insects is on par with the best of the flycatchers. Their aerial manoeuvres in making sudden mid-air turns to snap up a fly with their flattened beak appears on occasions to defy the laws of physics.

The main challenge in terms of their photography is trying to find a bird that is a bit atypical and not too high up in a tree and using low bush or trees to forage and sing from. Like many warblers once they have established their territory they will often use the same set of song perches to sing from to attract a mate. Like the bird's appearance, the song is not the most exciting and sounds exactly like their name. However, it conveys the apparent unstoppable energy of the birds and often is sung relentlessly for very prolonged periods.
No doubt this will not be my last close encounter with Chiffchaff and I know the next will be a pleasurable and fascinating as the first.


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