Sunday, September 30, 2012

Competition Win

This will be quite a short post and unusually for me just contain a single image. I will post a more 'normal' blog post in a couple of days.

Every year I enter 2-3 photography competitions. It is always a difficult job selecting the images and many wildlife competitions these days are looks for photos from unusual angles, with interesting or amazing lighting conditions or just showing the animal undertaking some unusual behaviour. I always find competitions to have a large element of luck as much of the success depends on the judge sifting through the photos and their mood on the day. For example I have entered a photograph in one competition where it has found its way to the trash pile only to have it win another. Having been one of the long-listing judges in the BBC Countryfile photo competition for several years I know it is no easy task sifting through 1000s of photos to select the best. However, what is the best in your opinion may also differ widely from someone else viewing the same set of images. Beauty as the say is in the eye of the beholder.

One element that I often think is missing from some competitions, particularly where the panel of judges are not wildlife photographers is that they have little concept on the technical difficulties and effort required to achieving some photos that are casually tossed into the also entered pile. My personal view is that wildlife photo competitions should be judged based on aesthetic quality, interest factor and also technical achievement.

This year I entered three competitions and despite submitting, what I considered to be some strong, unusual images of difficult to photograph animals and birds, I completely failed in the first two.. Fortunately the third competition, run by Bird Watching magazine, produced a very good result with one of my images winning the 'Bird of Britain' category and the overall competition. The winning photograph of a Dartford Warbler is shown below and can also be found in the October issue of the magazine.
The prizes from the competition will be sold and hopefully provide the start of my new fund to upgrade my beloved existing 500mm lens (which will also need to be sold) to the eye wateringly expensive new 600mm version.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On Golden Ice

Regular readers may remember that I was struck down by an unexpected and very serious illness earlier this year. As a results some photographs that I had taken just before my close encounter with the grim reaper have remained unsorted on my hard drive and I am only just getting round to them now. This include a set of photographs from a winter session with Water Rail.
A cold snap at the beginning of February this year resulted in the local ponds and lakes freezing over. This included a site where I had photographed water rail during the autumn which I decided to revisit on a beautiful crisp winters day with clear blue skies and low golden sun.

Many reed dwelling birds such as water rail that often remain hidden from view will often venture out on to the ice of a frozen pond. Another bird species that is also commonly photographed during such times are Bittern. Unfortunately none are present at this time but I was more than happy to photograph the 'skating' Water Rails.

When photographing birds I always give careful consideration to how my position in relation to the bird will affect the background in terms of composition and colour. When using the longer lens for bird photography, due to the relatively narrow field of view, even small shifts in position can result in dramatic changes to the look of a photograph. This is particular the case when photographing birds on water or in the case of this session ice. A bird on open water or ice will take on the colour of the sky as the background when photographed from a slightly elevated angle. For example, the clear blue sky overhead is reflected on the ice as the Water Rail crossed an open section of the pond.

It gets a whole more interesting when a bird is around the margins as the water (or ice) takes on the colour of the reflected surrounding vegetation. For example if you visit a pond during a still  autumn  and there is a bankside tree with foliage of golden and rust hues you will notice that there area of reflected coloured water. Any bird photographed crossing this golden reflection will suddenly take on a whole new dimension.

Back to the Water Rails, where on the day the low early winter light was creating a wonderful golden glow to the ice as it reflected off the marginal reeds. I have posted this next photograph of a Water Rail, which had also ventured out on to the ice to show the area of transition, between the reflected blue of the sky and golden ice created by the reeds.

Taking this a step further then by shifting my position very slightly I was able to photograph the Water Rails stepping across areas of fully golden ice. Interesting as the position of the winter sun changed as it arced in a low trajectory across the sky the hues of the reflected area subtly changed which accounts for the variability you see in the following images.
In this photograph you can see the reeds in the background that are creating the golden glow.

I try and avoid being anthropomorphic but did smile when this Water Rail took on the  'Prima Ballerina' pose as if it was about to perform the premiere of  'Rail Lake'.

It was a very enjoyable session with the rails in some rare winter sunshine and on departing at the end of session I left some food out for them to help them through the icy conditions when energy demands to maintain body heat are so high.

Hopefully this post will give some of you inspiration to carefully think about your position and the 'colour' of water when you next find yourself photographing birds on a lake. Even a common bird such as a moorhen or mallard can takes on a whole new appearance when photographed on coloured water.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Graveyard Greens

Green Woodpeckers are a difficult species to photograph for a number of reasons. They are a bird, even as juveniles, that are very wary of people and will fly off long before you have got remotely close to them either on foot or in a car. Often you may see one perched on the side of a tree but as you get closer they disappear around the back of the trunk out of view. Photographing Green Woodpeckers can be a frustrating pastime and is made all the more difficult by the fact that they are fairly uncommon in my local area. The main site I know they visit regularly is an old graveyard and this is where I have managed to get the majority of my photographs.
Graveyards and cemeteries provide an oasis for wildlife in urban areas and therefore some opportunities for the photographer. The frequent visitors generally make the wildlife more easily approach as they become accustomed to people, except of course for Green Woodpeckers.

There are a few points to consider when taking photographs at these sites. You need to have a good deal of respect and sensitivity for the purpose of the place and why people are visiting. I always time my visits for the very beginning or end of the day, the 'graveyard shift' as I call it, which is better for photographic light quality and wildlife activity. Usually my visits are from first light and often I have finished my session as the first people are starting to arrive to pay their respects to the departed loved ones. Also where possible I tend to use areas that are where possible at distance from graves, particularly new ones, and never photograph around any people.
It is easy to see why Green Woodpeckers like these sites as the regularly cut grass and disturbed soils allow easy feeding on an abundance of their primary prey, ants. However, given their green colouration they are not always easy to spot as they spend most of the time on the ground and often I find them by homing in on their distinctive 'yaffling' calls.
This adult male bird was feeding on a line of ants running up a kerb. If you look carefully you can see there are a couple of ants on the birds beak and shoulder.

I decided that a possible time when photography success may be increased with this tricky species is when the adults were still feeding their recently fledged young in the mid-summer period. My thoughts being that the distraction of foraging for the young may allow an easier approach, this proved to be partly the case. The photographs in this post are the accumulation of several evening sessions of photography.

I only encountered the male and two juveniles during these sessions, with no sight of the female at all. The male birds are distinguished by the red through their 'moustach'. Of course photographing in a graveyard does produce some images with some less than conventional perches. The stones that mean so much to us, to the birds are just convenient places to sit.

Hopefully the absence of the female means that she did not expire from the rigours of breeding or has not fallen prey to the large female sparrowhawk that frequently hunts the graveyard. These few short sessions proved to be my most successful for this species to date and I learnt a great deal which will hopefully go someway to help in the future, but knowing the difficulties of Green Woodpeckers, I am just being optimistic. With the juveniles now dispersed the adult male appears to have reverted to his old ways of being nearly impossible to approach. There is no doubt though it was a real pleasure to watch them and put some in front of the camera for a change, particularly as they are such strikingly beautiful birds.

I will finish off this post with a couple of images, firstly of one of the speckled blue-eyed juveniles.
and lastly the juvenile expectantly waiting for its next ant meal from the adult.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Return to Stoats

Long-term readers of this blog may recall the photography session I had last summer with a family of Stoats on the edge of an estuary. I know that the Stoats have been present in this particular area for a number of years and so decided a return visit was called for this summer to see if I could repeat what had been such a memorable encounter. I have thought about that day a great deal in the intervening period, as it had been such a wonderful experience to be in prolonged close proximity to these amazing animals.
With wildlife photography much of the success is down to timing, and of cause a certain element of luck, as for many species there is a small window of opportunity when the chance of getting photographs are highest.  Over my years of photography I have built up a mental calender of where the best opportunities may lie at different times of year. However, that never guarantees success especially with the impact that the vagaries of the UK climate in recent years and the influence it appears to be having on food availability, breeding cycles and migrations. Having said that most wildlife tends to stick to fairly rigid patterns of timing, give or take a few weeks, that has be honed by thousands of millennia of evolution.  This is why rapid climate change may prove to be devastating to many species as it occurs over a much short timescales than the animals are able to adapt.

Typically given the UK summer this year, the day I had chosen was overcast with intermittent rain and not ideally light for photographing these hyperactive mini predators. I arrived at first light and started my search. Three fruitless hours later and I was starting to think the session was going to be a non-event, when in my peripheral vision I spotted some movement along the rocks at the edge of the estuary. At first I dismissed this as probably being a bird but went to investigate to find a young stoat peering out of the boulders. The search was over and the hard task of photographing stoats amongst piles of rocks began. As you can see from the photographs some of the stoats had a heavy burden of ticks in their ears.

One of the adults appeared and disappeared quickly along the beach leaving the seven nearly fully grown young at the temporary den. Over the next 90 minutes I was in for a real treat as several young would appear at once to explore their surroundings, giving a reasonable amount of photo opportunities at close range. This included some play fighting to hone their future hunting skills on the estuary mud and seaweed and a fixation with a reinforcing bar sticking out of the rocks which provided them with some climbing practice.

As with the year before it was such a pleasure being in close proximity to the group who were oblivious to my presence, as I sat very quietly and still close-by. Such an encounter is a real privilege as the most many see of a Stoat is a blur of fur running across the road or disappearing into the undergrowth. 
After a 90 minute absence I saw at distance a paler coloured adult running very quickly across the boulders, back towards the young, and carrying some prey. The course of the speeding adult took it right past where I was sat but I still only managed one photograph that I was happy with. As I said before photographing stoats is not easy. At first I though the prey was a young moorhen but looking at the images when I got home I think it is a young Wood Pigeon that was on the 'breakfast menu'.
The adult dragged the pigeon under the boulders into the temporary den and was quickly followed by the disappearance of all the young. I knew that I was now in for a wait and lull in activity as the meal was eaten and probably followed by a sleep. A further 90 minutes past before the first youngster's head appeared out of the boulders.
The lone adult then decided it was time to move the family on to another temporary den. A large group of stoats on the move is fascinating and like watching fluid fur flowing over the rocks. I was happy with the photographs from the morning and left the stoats to the rest of the day in the rapidly deteriorating weather and light. 
I will definitely be returning again next year to try and photograph the Stoats. It is already a fixture in the mental diary. Hopefully I will be able to find them and spend some time amongst them once again as it has, in my opinion, to be up there near the top with the most memorable wildlife experiences that the UK has to offer.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Night Walkers

Back at the end of June, I headed south with my friend Steve for three nights of badger photography. This was at the same site I had visited last autumn (see HERE) and when I struggled to get a few photographs due to various problems including failure of flashes. Armed with the experience of my previous visit I was hopefully much better prepared for this visit.

The site we visited has long been established for badger watching and photography and so the badgers are well accustomed to flash photography which we needed to use to capture the images during the hours of darkness when the badgers emerge. I am not a big fan of using flash on wildlife but I can assure you that this group of badgers are completely indifferent to it.

We arrived around mid-afternoon which gave us plenty of time to set ourselves up. We put up two hides on either side of the clearing in the woodland where the badger sett is located. I decided to use a  long. low hide for the first time as it has openings at ground level to permit a low angle of photography. The approach for photographing the badgers was to us remote wireless flash.  For my set-up I used three flashes complete with external battery packs (I was determined not to run into the power failure problems again!) mounted on camouflaged bank sticks arranged in an arc in front of the hide. Dark clouds were gathering overhead and with heavy rain forecast the flashes were wrapped in cling-film to protect them to a degree from water. The flashes are controlled and fired through an infra-red pulse from a wireless controller mounted on top of the camera.  A few tests shots showed all was working as it should be. This is not my favourite kind of photography as you need to try and predict how the area will be lit at night and you also have a fairly limited working area. Peanuts were scattered around in front of the hide with small trails radiating outwards to entice the badgers into the limited flash lit photography area. For those who like a bit of technical information all the photographs were taken with either a 300mm or 70-200mm F2.8 lens, in other words the badgers would be close.

The rain started as we entered our hides on the first night before dark and what can only be described as an intermittent  monsoon followed for the next few hours. The rain pounded down, although it didn't seem to deter the badgers who probably had thoughts of the earthworms brought to the surface by the rain.

Out of the darkness soggy badgers emerged.

The badgers appeared on the far side of the clearing in front of Steve and it took a while before I got a couple over towards me to photograph. With the water pouring from the sky I quickly found a major problem with the long and low hide.  The sloping front and open flap was letting water in fast and this was rapidly accumulating on the build in waterproof groundsheet. A large puddle around 3cms deep quickly developed in the front of the hide and everything was getting rather wet and unpleasant. I took some emergency action and found a spare ground peg and punched some drain holes through the groundsheet which helped a little. It was fairly quiet in front of my hide on that first night and I managed around 30 images of some very soggy and bedraggled badgers.  We eventually packed up around 2 am beaten back by the torrential weather and in need of some rest.

The first job the next day was to get everything dried out and fortunately the weather was kind to us in a very wet UK summer and stayed dry for the following two days. The next evening, was a repeat of the previous with the badgers appearing in front of Steve with only one or two wandering around in front of my hide producing another 30 or so images. Half way through the night I noticed the reappearance of a puddled in the corner of the hide which was odd as it was dry outside! I found the source of the liquid, a large bottle of diet coke had emptied its contents into the hide and soaked everything in its path as it had flowed from the back to the front of the hide, oh great! The badgers were looking drier although had taken on some staining of the red clay soils where they had been down their wet burrows during the day.

For the final night, we decided to swap hides. At around 10pm the first badger appeared and I soon had up to eight in front me, six cubs and two adults. This included a very memorable moment when one of the cubs came to within a metre of where I was as sat in the hide. It was a productive photography night for me with the badgers. On the other side of the clearing there was very little activity in front of Steve. That evening the wind had dropped right off and I had a good view of the badgers approaching Steve's position. Many would make their way to within about 20 metres, stop and start sniffing the air, turn around and move away. We think, given the direction of the wind and the slope of the land that the lack of activity in front of Steve may resulted from them picking up his scent. There was certainly something in the air that were stopping them getting close to him.

Overall it had been a great few nights. It is always a memorable experience spending time in close proximity to these wonderful animals.

Lets hope some sense comes to pass very soon and the senseless culling of badgers to prevent bovine TB is stopped and what to me seems a more sensible approach of vaccination is adopted.Otherwise the sight of a cub emerging  from the sett as below will very sadly become a less come sight in our countryside.
It seems crazy to me that so much effort is put in to conservation and promoting biodiversity and yet we then allow culling of part of our endemic fauna to take place. We should learn to live alongside our native wildlife and not eradicate it to suit our needs or as a response to political or economic pressures. If there is a problem or an imbalance in our wildlife, which we will no doubt always have a hand in causing in the first place, then there are always alternative solutions to culling which in my opinion really should be at the very bottom of the list of remedial measures.


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