Saturday, May 25, 2013

An Extraordinary Lark

I must admit having risen from the bed at some unearthly hour, the morning had not been very productive, with only a couple of Chiffchaff photos for my efforts, and so my thoughts were turning to a return home for some breakfast.

En route I decided to try one last place as a last ditch attempt to put some photos on the memory card and diverted off to a site close to home to look that beautiful songster, the skylark.  It proved to be a sensible decision. It is strange how small timing decisions can often make the difference between success and failure in wildlife photography. I am sure many of you, who pursue wildlife with the camera, have witnessed your subject appear where you have been sat as you have decided to walked away due to inactivity.

As I walked up the small grass slope I spotted a skylark and the next 90 minutes turned into an incredible encounter with an unusual bird. I crept into position and the bird seemed completely oblivious to me.

In fact as I approached, the bird decided to walkover towards me until it was standing about 30cms away and far too close to photograph. Strange. I was then left with a dilemma  should I try backing slowly away so I could take some photos, with the risk of the bird departing,  or wait for it to move.  

The bird was going nowhere and after a while I backed off, only for it to come trotting through the long grass to stand right next to me once. This was repeated several times before the lark headed skywards in vertical song flight. Up and up it went in full song, only to descend once more and land right next me.

Two dog walkers were coming along the path which I was convinced would see the departure of the bird but as they got closer it just casually walked around and hid behind me, to re-emerged next me once more after they passed. This was all very odd the bird just seemed to like being next to me. It was obviously on its own and still looking for a mate and seemed to content to spend some time with me.

Many people associate skylarks with their song flight when they almost disappear from sight in the blue yonder above, before slowly descending with their liquid song and finishing off with sudden plunge back to earth.  However, they also have a ground display when they go up on extended legs, raise their tail and appear to 'dance' and bob on the spot while in song. This is what the bird was now doing right next to me. To have a skylark stood singing and displaying literally right next to you, I can only describe as a sublime experience.
I decided to do some ground level photo given this unique opportunity. Photographing a small bird on the ground can be tricky when the grass is even a moderate length as there often stray blades which insist on appearing in the wrong place.  It proved even more difficult on this occasion as the bird insisted on coming too close.
Having taken plenty of photos it was definitely time for breakfast. Even when I stood up to leave the bird was still standing right next me. As I walked back to the car, the bird took flight, flew straight down towards me and landed in front of me once more. It continued to do this for the next 400m before finally deciding to go off and find itself some breakfast. A very strange bird but a superb encounter with an extraordinary lark.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Weakness for Grasshopper Warbler

Wildlife photography requires a certain amount of self-discipline, such as getting up at an unearthly hour to an alarm call when your head and body would rather stay in the comfort of your bed beneath the duvet. You need to set yourself goals and concentrate on particular species to which you dedicate your time and not become distracted. I nearly always set out from the house with a definite plan, on those days when you become distracted and decide to head elsewhere are usually when you come back with few or any photos at all.

At the start of this spring I told myself categorically that I was going to ignore Grasshopper Warbler (locally known as 'Groppers') given that I already have so many images of them. So I set out a couple of weeks back looking for some Blackcap not realising with this year's 'broken spring', which has played havoc with my mental calender, that the main influx of this migrant Sylvia warbler was yet to occur. As I looked around looking and listening for Blackcap I heard that all to familiar rapid ticking song of a Grasshopper warbler from a bramble patch. The warbler was keeping low out of the gusty wind and I just got a momentary glimpse of a very yellow looking bird. Many of you may not actually realise that Groppers come in two colour morphs with both brown and yellow variants. This was certainly the most yellow coloured one I had ever seen.

That brief sighting and sound of that reeling song was all it took for my weakness for Grasshopper warblers to kick in. When I got home I found myself suddenly checking the forecast looking for good Gropper weather! There was no turning back now, as I became fully consumed by the G-fever. The forecast showed that the relentless stiff cold wind was easing off in three days time, the temperature rising and some dawn sun was even predicted. It looked ideal.

Still conditions are important for Grasshopper warbler photography as the birds will only show themselves at the top of their bramble patches in light winds. Stronger winds see them content to sing from deep cover.  The other important factor is time of day as you need to be in position as the sun is just emerging or disappearing over the horizon. I have often seen photographer arriving as I am leaving who enquire if I have seen any Groppers, by which time the early morning performance is over. The window to photograph them is also very brief usually only a week or two, after they arrive while the birds establish territories and pair up for breeding. If you combine all these factors then they are relatively easy to see or photograph.

So the alarm was set for early o'clock to allow me to get ready and drive to be at the site just as the red glow of a new day started to tint the sky. Before the sun broke the horizon I could hear a few short bursts of the insect like warble from the brambles, the bird was warming up for its morning performance. As the first rays appeared up came the same very yellow bird, in the same place I had seen it a few days early, to broadcast its song.

This is the bird on its first appearance before the sunlight flooded across the bramble patch.
I thought for a change I would post a head crop of the above photo. I would like to point out that any image you see of a small bird's head in close up is always a large crop of the original unless the photographer as gone to extreme lengths with extenders and extension tubes attached to the lens. The reasons for showing this is are two fold. Firstly you lose a lot of detail when you reduce an image in size and to low res to post on the Internet. I always wished you could see the images that I do where you can count individual feather filaments, assuming you wanted to. Secondly I want you to look in to the eye where you can see the sun just  emerging above the horizon.

The first light of a sunny day is always a photographer;s best friend and bathes your subject in beautiful soft warm light. The performance by this Grasshopper Warbler from a photography point of view was outstanding as the bird would often pick the highest bramble arch in the low clump to perform. This allowed, with a bit of slow manoeuvring from me to achieve clean backgrounds to the photos which is always welcome for a bird that shows such an affinity for deep cover. It is always interesting when you obtain a series of images of the same bird over the period of the sun rising how much the changing colour of light affects the look of the bird.
So yes I am weak willed when it comes to these enigmatic little birds and managed to completely ignored my own advice to give them a wide berth this year, although in many ways I am glad I did :). Maybe next year I will be able to ignore them.....maybe.


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