Sunday, October 28, 2012

Gigrin Kites

The Red Kite feeding station at Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales is a superb place for the bird photographer. This long established site, with excellent hides, can attract up to 300 birds during the daily afternoon feeding. Other species are also drawn in by the free meat handout including good numbers of both Buzzard and Raven.

I have only visited twice before and both times have been very brief for various reasons. Looking back into my photo archive, my last visit was back in the summer of 2008, and definitely far too long ago. On that visit the skies were grey, the light was poor and the birds looked rather tatty as they were in mid-moult.  So with a day off work booked last Friday and the forecast looking reasonably good, I set off with my friend Steve on the twisting and fairly tortuous journey down in to mid-Wales.
For Gigrin to be at its best the ideal conditions are clear skies and a light southerly wind. Red Kites do not look good against a white sky and a blue sky or one with dark grey clouds is better. Sunlight is also needed to show the colours of the birds off to the best. As Red Kites rarely land, most of the photography is of birds in flight. As with all birds, the kites tend to fly into the wind so a northerly breeze tends to have them pointing in the wrong direction and away from the hides and the direction of light. When photographing birds in flight the ideal is for light and wind to be in the same direction.  The forecast was for sunny spells and a very cold brisk northerly wind.
We arrived early at opening time at 1pm and made our way down the track to the pre-booked photography hide. There are three specialist photography hides, one at ground level known as the 'Gateway hide' and two tower hides. We were booked in to the ground level one. Feeding time was at 3pm (it changes today to 2pm for the winter months) so we had a couple of hours to wait.
The Kites were  already starting to gather. They really are superb fliers and soar around with very little effort using that broad forked tail as a rudder to make adjustments in direction. As we waited the clear blue skies overhead started to cloud up. We could see in front of us what was coming and in the distance a layer of grey cloud was building rapidly. Sunlight and blue skies were going to be limited.
A few minutes before 3pm and we could hear the engine of the tractor approaching down the track with a trailer of meat to put out for the birds. The birds started descending as soon as the meat was scattered and before the tractor had left the feeding area. We estimated around 250 birds, surely one of the most spectacular raptor sights in the UK. However, during the initial frenzy there tends to be actually just too many birds to photograph. The best actions tends to come later on as the birds have settled down a bit and it becomes easier to target individual birds with the camera.

One of the two unusual leucistic birds that visit the site, soaring past the autumn coloured trees .

In total we had about 20 minutes of sunshine and so tried to make the most of the brief sunny spells. I was keen to try and get some diving photos during this session. Typically the birds will drift over the food before turning in mid-air and plunging to the ground to grab a bit of meat off the ground.

The majority of the Kites looked brilliant with their new feathers, having recently moulted. Another advantage of timing our visit when we did was that some of the surrounding trees were showing their autumn colours providing some really attractive coloured backgrounds to the photographs. I am a big fan of the dorsal view for birds in flight, particularly Red Kites as the show great colours and patterns across their backs and the upper side of the wings.
After 90 minutes it was all over. The birds were still feeding but we had lost the light to the advancing unbroken blanket of cloud. Needless to say it was a very enjoyable session and I will return once more this year when hopefully the conditions with be a bit more favourable.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Grey Sky Hares

Its been an quiet year for hares but then again it has been a very strange year for weather.   I have certainly struggled to get any photographs of them in  sunlight but then when it shines so infrequently it is not particularly surprising that its unlikely to coincide with my visits. This one below being one of the very few taken with sunlight on a hare.

There have been two changes this year at the site where I have been visiting them over the last few years.  Firstly is the appearance of a few rabbits and secondly for the first year I have seen no leverets (young hares). Neither of these changes I see as a good sign. Despite this I have still managed to accumulate some photographs over the last few months although it has generally been under low light conditions.
A nearly but not quite boxing moment. Probably just as well for the light this day was particularly dire.

I have spent more time trying to get ground level images. A good rule in wildlife photography is to get down to your subject's at eye level. For small birds and mammals this means getting down low, very low. This has a number of effects to the resulting image in the creates diffuse foregrounds and backgrounds that isolate the subject. However, but most importantly this approach gives a photograph a much more intimate feel and a greater connection between the animal and viewer of the image. The difference can be seen between the following two photographs with the second being taken at ground level.

Anyone who tells you that photographing Brown Hares at ground level is easy is not being honest. It is very difficult getting close to the hares at their level and I have achieved this through becoming familar with their behaviour and the site through my regular visits over several years. The approach I use would not necessarily translate to success at another site.  In effect I have learnt over many hours to read a hares behaviour through its body language and how individuals are likely react to me in different situations.  Well as much as you can predict a hare anyway!

All the effort  and discomfort, as low level photography is a great way to get a bad headache from neck strain, is more than worth it. It is difficult to describe the pleasure to be gained from laying down face to face with a hare at close range and watching them go about their daily business. They are special animals and these encounters are very special moments so maybe I will share just a couple more photographs to finish off this post :)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Beyond the Horizon

Living on the coast, I often look out to sea and wonder what birds life can be found out in the ocean swell of Liverpool Bay beyond the horizon. We get glimpses of these pelagic birds occasionally, after storms and gales, as birds struggle along the shoreline against the pummeling winds. So for a couple of years I have been thinking about getting out there to find out and finally got round to doing so at the end of August.

There are a couple of cruises that go out there with the Mersey Ferry but my view was they never went far enough and more importantly did not use chum.  Chum is a mixture of mashed up fish and fish oil that creates a trail behind the boat for the birds to home in on. Many seabirds use scent to find food.

So for a couple days prior to trip my friend Steve and I had the fun task of making up some chum for the trip. We made up fresh chum and also frozen some down into large blocks. The recipe for our 'pelagic potion' was based on a lot of Internet research I had undertaken  It was a smelly task as we  and the house quickly took on the odour of a fish market on a hot summer's day as we blended fish and fish oil.

The boat was booked and passengers assemble comprising 3 photographers and 4 birdwatchers. This was an exploratory voyage as noone had really done this before. What we would find was unknown but anticipation was high for our 10 hour trip as we headed out of Liverpool Marina in the darkness before first light.

It was fairly rough as we headed out the Mersey and muddy estuary waters quickly gave way to clear green blue of the offshore. I must confess my sea legs used to be fairly wobbly until I discovered Avomine which seems to combat any motion nausea with great effect. We headed outwards, past the Burbo Bank Wind Farm and end up about 25 miles out into Liverpool Bay. The Wirral peninsula where I live became a small speck on the horizon. The chum bags were placed over the back of the boat and we waited to see what would arrive. An oily slick of fish particles could be seen extending far out the back of the boat and flattening the waves.

First to arrive was a particularly favourite seabird of mine the Fulmar which came arcing low across the waves and pattered across the surface in typical petrel style just behind the boat.

While we waited for next bird, numerous Manx Shearwater could be seen skirting across the waves but just slightly out of distance for photography. The next bird that came in was a Gannet. The bird came diving in literally within a few feet of the boat to the sound of whirring camera shutters. Several gannets visited the boat while we were out there. I never thought I would be photographing Gannets off the Wirral coast!
A Gannet and Fulmar battle it out over a small mackerel.
A flock of gulls had started to assemble along the chum line consisting of Lesser Black Backed Gulls with their bright yellow legs.

Also amongst them was one of my favourite gulls, and the world's largest, the Greater Black Back. These are such impressive birds.
The gull activity attracted the attention of two Great Skuas, pirates of the seas, which briefly circled around the boat looking for scraps.

Time seemed to pass all to quickly and we started making our way back to port. En route we spotted some bird activity and found a large raft of Manx Shearwater. I must admit I did not fair very well with my photos of these birds, although they are my first images of this species, but there is always next time.

During our trip out there we also spotted Arctic Skua, Guillemots and a young Mediterranean Gull as well as groups of Scoter flying at distance. We did not find any Storm petrels but I think that was really about timing as we were probably too late for Storm Petrels and too early for Leach's Petrel. Overall, a great day was had by all. I learnt a great deal from our maiden voyage and would adopt a slightly different approach in the future.

I cannot wait to get back out there and we are hoping to run a series of pelagic trips out into Liverpool Bay next summer between July and September. If you would be interested in joining me on this unique photography / bird watching adventure then please drop me a line through the contact form and I will send you the details as they become available in the near future. 

Saturday, October 06, 2012

A Taste of Spring

As the autumn winds start to swirl outside and the chlorophyll drains from the leaves turning the trees to their rusty and golden hues, my thoughts go back to the Spring. I love Springtime, a time of renewal and hope for the warmer months to come after the long dark days of winter. However, this year the UK climate had other ideas and cool days and torrential rain predominated and nature's calander was perturbed. The usual arrival of migrant birds seemed to be delayed by about a fortnight and then all the summer visitors suddenly seemed to arrive at once. So this post is about some of those Spring birds, the photographs of which have sat on my hard drive gathering dust.

One of the first arrivals each year are the Northern Wheatear, usually touching down around the end of March. They are welcome addition of warm colour against the be-draggled vegetation ravaged by the winter weather. An energetic bounding bird species that pause briefly along the local coast as they head northward during their journey from Africa to northern breeding areas.  The females are attractive but for the photographer the male birds in their smart and bolder spring colours are the real prize
Amongst the Wheatear, the Skylarks battle it out for breeding territories. Many fast acrobatic chases between males occur low over the rough grassland before one of the birds will soar upwards in liquid song until it becomes a mere speck in the sky.  There it will hang in fluttering flight, often for many minutes, before rapidly descending back towards earth.
For those of you who have never had the fortune to be very close to one.
They will also occasionally sing from low perches on the ground. This bird would often use a particular boulder.
However, it would take exception to any other bird landing on its rock. This was the response received by a House Sparrow that landed just out of frame.

During mid to late April the scrub, reedbeds and low lying bushes come to the life with the churring, click, grating sounds of warblers. First the Grasshopper Warblers but closely followed by the Sedge and Reed varieties and the Whitethroats. Not wishing to become too anthropomorphic but Common Whitethroat always seem to be a slightly 'angry' and 'impaitent' bird. They are always fun to photograph and relatively easy with the right approach.

At the beginning of May Yellow Wagtails arrive brought, on the warming winds from the south. A brilliant splash of yellow and green amongst the rapidly growing vegetation. The first encounter with one of these birds each year always brings a smile.
You normally hear the birds before you see one as their characteristic high pitch 'jeet' calls emaniate from a field of low crops and penerate the dawn chorus. They absolutely glow golden when hit by the early low sun.
This bird caught by a sudden gust of wind from behind was having a 'bad feather day'.
Much as I like the Spring, I always look forward to the winter. The daylight may be limited but when the sun does put in appearance the low light can be just stunning. Lets hope we are not in for a gloomy wet winter.


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