Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rothiemurchus Ospreys - Day 1

Earlier in the year my good friend Andy asked if I fancied spending a couple of days,  before he held a week of workshops, photographing diving ospreys up in Scotland. I had slight reservations about this initially as many photographers have visited the hides and come away with similar looking photographs but in hindsight now I am now very glad that I went for the experience of watching these master fishers in action. To see an osprey plunging into a pool at close range, the ensuring brief battle between fish and bird as the talons find purchase below the surface, and the sheer effort required for the saturated bird to escape the water clutching its prey is truly a memory for life experience. One part that will always stay with me is the sound of an osprey hitting the water, the speed and power of the plunge dive is nothing short remarkable. The sounds is similar to someone throwing a medium sized boulder in the water.

 So at the very end of July I took the long drive northwards to Aviemore and met up with Andy and my other companions for the next two days Rob and Dave. I can't remember what time the alarm went off the following morning, probably around 4:30 am but it was far too early and still dark. We made the short-drive, with anticipation running high, to the Rothiemurchus Fishery. Before I tell you about the first day there, a huge deal of appreciation and thanks must go to all the people at Rothiemurchus who have been involved with the establishment of what can only be described as a world-class osprey photography facility. Both the thought and effort that has gone into this should not be understated. I also wish to particularly thank Julian and Neil Mc for their superb running commentary on approaching birds throughout our time there. Without all their efforts these photos would not be here, so thank you.

To set the scene I will describe the setup. A small shallow raised lake has been created close to the trout fishing lakes and is separated from the main fishery by a row of trees. Three spacious and partially sunken hides have been constructed around one side of the pool. Each hide can very comfortably accommodate four photographers. The low position of the hides combined with the elevated pool effectively puts the photographers very close to water level, a very good perspective from where to catch the action. The hides are entered during semi-darkness and left once the birds have finished feeding. The hides are positioned for the rising dawn sun from behind. Wind direction on the day is critical as this dictates the direction the birds take off in (i.e they always fly off into the wind). As visibility from the hide of approaching birds is very limited a watcher is provided who relates the activity overhead via radio. This raises the level of anticipation in the hide for the waiting photographers and the single word they are listening out for, and causes the shutter fingers to tense, on the low volume radio is 'diving'. After which there is a very brief silent pause and then the eruption of water as a bird hits the surface.

We entered the hide, settled down and started to wait for the first bird. I wouldn't like to calculate the total value of camera kit in that hide but on the four tripods there were four Canon 1dx bodies, three of the new 200-400mm lens and a 300mm F2.8 (which I was using both with and without a teleconvertor). Given the large size of the subject and the relatively small size of the pool a focal length of 300 - 400 mm seemed optimal.   After about 75 minutes, the radio announced the first approaching and circling bird followed quickly by the first dive of the day by a bird known as 'Blue XD' (the birds are generally identified by their unique coloured legs bands). The light at this point was still fairly low and the excellent high ISO performance of the 1DX really came in to its own.

During the course of the morning session through until about 9:30 we had a total of 5 dives from 'Blue XD' and 'Blue DF' taking lake rainbow trout from the pool. We were even blessed with some very nice soft early sunlight.
The battle between bird and fish

Four happy photographers left the hide in the morning to head off for breakfast. The photographs in this post are a selection from the morning session.
One of the dives was right in front of the hide so that all could be fitted in to frame was the birds head and shoulders. An amazing experience to see such a beautiful bird up so close.

In the evening we returned to try some back-lit photographs but over the 4 or so hours we were there, not a single bird dived in the pool.  The main reason for the lack of action was a single 'rogue' bird known as 'Red 8T'. This appeared from its behaviour to be very territorial about other birds coming in to use the pool and spent the whole evening chasing other birds away. It had been a memorable day despite the lack of evening action and we looked forward to what the next day might bring although from the look of the weather forecast it seemed to the weather would be changing to a more typical Scottish rain.

While I am here I want to tell you about a wonderful new book my friend Andy, who arranged the Osprey sessions, has recently written on Little Owls.

It is a beautifully produced book filled with stunning images that really capture the lives and endearing 'character' of these tiny owls.With a forward by Chris Packham, the book is the culmination of 10 years hard work to photograph and capture the lives of these fascinating birds. For those who love wildlife and birds or just like some amazing photography then this is a book that will bring a great deal of pleasure. Andy's love for the subject and skill behind the camera real shine through in the words and images.

This book is currently only available through Andy's website (click HERE to go Andy's store) and he will provide a signed and dedicated copy on request which I always think is very nice personal touch if purchased as a gift for a friend or loved one.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Water Vole Education

With the skies a leaden blanket of grey outside and the rain beating against the window, its nice to turn the clock back a couple of months to think about the long warm days of summer. After putting in a bit of effort in photographing water voles in the spring, I decided to return to them once more in the mid to late summer period. My water voles photography is a long-term project (possibly lifelong!) but I felt that I really had not spent enough time with them to learn about their behaviour and habitats.

Why bother? Well for two main reasons firstly out of personal interest and secondly once you can start to get an insight into how an animal behaves then the photography often becomes easier. The other purpose for this concerted effort was also to look at experimenting with techniques to get around the significant constraints on photography at this particular canal site. Overall these sessions proved to be very useful and I have now formulated a clear approach for photographing the water voles at this site next year. Importantly I have also learnt a great deal about the voles which will hopefully be readily transferable to other sites.

Timing is all in wildlife photography, afterall it is impossible to photograph what isn't there. Many animals have regular daily routines and it is only be frequent observation that you can start establishing patterns. Once your have worked out where and when they are likely appear, which can take some time, then you can actually start pursuing an approach of short targeted but productive photography sessions. This has a real benefit if you only have limited camera time to fit into an otherwise busy life. People often say to me  that I must have a lot of patience to photograph wildlife but with this targeted approach minimises the waiting around and staring at fresh air.

Water voles have cycles of routine - eat, clean, sleep, eat, clean, have a dispute with the neighbour, sleep and so on. Often several will become active feeding at the same time and then it will go quiet again as they go back to sleep. If you arrived in a sleep period you could easily be forgiven that there are no voles there at all except for the typical vole signs they leave in their wake. After a few first light visits it quickly became obvious that one particular activity period occurred between around 8:30 - 10:00 am. A very early start would just see me sat for several hours with no activity and  quickly ruled out the need to set the alarm clock to a very unsociable hour. I ended up spending a good deal of time photographing one particular vole which I could almost predict. It would appear in a particular spot on the far side of the canal and feed for a while, drop into the water with that characteristic 'plop', swim to a patch of common reed to feed there for a while, drop back in the canal swim back to original spot to feed some more before disappearing (presumably for a sleep).
Sitting by the side of a canal in camouflage clothing (although this is actually probably unnecessary as water vole eyesight is not great) with a long lens pointing towards apparently nothing on the far bank inevitably draws attention and enquiry from every passing boat, jogger, cyclist and dogwalker. Typically the response is 'oh water voles' and inevitably their eyes avert to where the camera is pointing in the hope of a glimpse of this rapidly declining mammal. I remember one particular jogger who stopped and asked. I indicated that there was one currently in the patch of reeds and if she looked at a particular stem she would see it disappearing which is was rapidly in short 15cm movements as the vole pulled it downwards. The jogger stood transfixed by the rapidly disappearing vegetation.

I very rarely record video, and this is a blog first, but thought you may be interested in this short clip of a Water vole feeding, not very sensibly on stinging nettles as you will see towards the end.

Water Vole feeding from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

The water vole photography season is now over but I am already looking forward to putting what I have learnt and trialing of different techniques in to action. So here wishing the colony a safe and mink-free winter.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Green Woodpecker Challenge

Despite slowly extending their range northward within the UK, the Green Woodpecker remains a fairly scarce bird where I live in North-West of England.  There is one reasonably local site that this striking bird can be seen reasonably regularly which is an old graveyard where I have only ever seen the male and young birds present.  However, seeing a green woodpecker and photographing one is completely different challenge as they are extremely wary and unapproachable birds and can prove incredibly frustrating at times. Of course bird photography often requires you to get close to a bird, even with a long lens, which comes as a surprise to those not involved in wildlife photography. The common belief when someone sees a photographer with a long lens is that you are able to photograph your subject from several kilometers away but the reality is the bird actually needs to be within a few metres of you. The Green Woodpecker photography challenge is also compounded by the fact that I am trying to find a single green bird that spends most of its time in the grass and has hundreds of gravestones to hide behind in a 30 hectare area.
When I returned from Romania this year I was determined to have a concentrated effort trying to photograph this tricky but very beautiful bird. During the mid-summer period these woodpeckers become preoccupied with gathering their main prey of ants for their rapidly growing young, holed up in a tree somewhere unknown, and become slightly more approachable. I decided I would target the evenings, as it would allow an after work session and the graveyard would be generally quieter. The first task was to try and establish the movements of the solitary male bird.

The male below showing a bulging crop having excavated several ant nests in the course of the evening, with some still stuck on its beak.

I have learnt that Green Woodpeckers often show regular patterns of behaviour and will routinely visit certain areas at particular times of day which is no doubt is tied into the activity of ant nests. It took a couple of visits, and listening hard for that distinctive 'yaffle' call to locate the male before I worked out that he could generally be found in an area about the size of two football pitches between 6:00pm and 8:30pm. I then visited 2 to 3 evenings a week over about a month period. Slowly I started to capture some images and the more time I spent with the bird the more I learnt about how best to approach it. Soon I was starting to get full frame images. The important point was once located you could not let the bird out of your sight for a moment. If it made a short flight I used the graves as a reference point to where it had landed. On occasions it would seem to just vanish into thin air! Frequently it would hop behind a gravestone and I would wait for some time for it to reappear on the other side and it never would. I would re-position myself to try and see the bird and it would be gone, having hopped directly away from me with the tombstone shielding its 'escape'. The process of trying to relocate it would then have to start all over again and often proved unsuccessful. Another important lesson was the benefit trying to predict the route the bird would move along on the ground and to get in position and wait for it to hop towards me. This worked some of the time!

Inevitably with the site being a graveyard I ended up with the occasional photograph of the woodpecker perched on top of a gravestone, as it rested in between excavating ant nests.

Interestingly, I found the bird was very sensitive to the camera shutter noise, so I resorted to using my Canon 1DmkIV rather than the 1DX which is a great deal quieter in so called 'silent mode'.

Capturing the a Green Woodpecker perched on a tree is extremely difficult as it will inevitably move around to the far side away from you, occasionally peeking around the trunk to keep an eye on your position. On one occasion I was fortunate as a person passing forced it to move around the tree and into the line of my waiting camera. A photograph I have longed to take.
After about three weeks of evening sessions, a new woodpecker call could be heard, as a solitary young bird appeared.  It had obviously not been a very successful breeding year. The young birds appear to fledge with the same very wary  temperament as the adults.

From previous experience the young birds tend to follow the male who keeps feeding them while they quickly learn the business of finding ants and seem to become independent very quickly.
This usually only last a week or two and then all the woodpeckers disappear as the young disperse out of the adults territory and the adult goes into a late summer moult.
The photographs above are a selection from the Green Woodpecker challenge which actually went much better than I expected.  I will post more photos from these summer evening sessions in a future blog post. Some very memorable warm summer evenings were spent in the company of this charismatic species and I hope it is something I can repeat in future years having gained a better insight into how to get them in front of the camera.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Face Value

Sorry for the lack of recent blog updates, I have just changed to a new computer which always takes longer than you think to setup. In this age of computers information moves at such a fast pace and we have grown accustomed to everything happening quickly. Instant news, conversation and responses have become part of our busy time-stretched lives. We have also come to accept being bombarded with a constant stream of wonderful images, that are continually uploaded to the internet through websites and social media, thanks to the advances in digital cameras. However, have we become too blase about photographs and only consider the aesthetics and content and forgotten about the efforts and skill that goes into making the image.

As a wildlife photographer I am strong believer that you do it because you firstly love being close to wild animals and  photography offers a means of recording those encounters to share the wonders of the natural world with others. As with many aspects of life the more effort you dedicate to a pursuit, the greater the rewards and personal satisfaction.

In recent years, with the increase in the number of people with good camera equipment, there has naturally been a corresponding growing trend in the rise of the commercial hide. From these it is now relatively easy to get some amazing images of a wide variety of species, although the photos will look very similar to the numerous photographers that have visited previously. You turn up, pay your money and with a moderate amount of photography skill and some reasonable kit can walk away with memory cards full of excellent images.  Please do not get me wrong I have nothing against this and for some difficult species such as birds of prey, like golden eagle, goshawk or osprey, it is the only way you are likely to ever get any photographs. I also have no complaint against people who use the hides but must wonder if the majority of their photography consists of travelling around the various network of these hides it cannot be very rewarding in the long run.  However, what I do find annoying is the increasing number of photographers who are using these hides to become  'trophy hunters' and to whom the capture of an amazing image with which to impress their social media followers seems to have become more important than the wildlife.

Of course all the hard work has been done for the photographer by the owner of the hide to make sure the best images can be achieved in terms of light and settings. The 'trophy hunters' seem to be using the hides as a short-cut to self promotion in wildlife photography circles. Unfortunately all too rarely do I see the owner of the hide credited for their hard work, as it is only due to all their efforts that the creation of great images is possible and relatively easy. I find it more disturbing that some of the photographers go a step further and do not even mention the use of the commercial hide to get viewers of the photographs to believe it was obtained through their amazing field craft skills. Unfortunately some go a step beyond this and make up some unlikely yarn that they crawled through hectares of brambles or sat out in horrendous conditions for weeks on end to capture that precious and elusive image. We all need to slow down a bit when viewing images and put a bit more thought into not looking just at the face value of the image but give some due consideration and question on how it might have been achieved.

A few weeks back I visited one such commercial hide that is operated in West Yorkshire for Kingfisher photography. So before I show any photographs I would like to say a very big thank you to Mark for all his hard work in setting this up and without which none of the following images would be possible. I just turned up and pressed the shutter button.  I have photographed kingfisher before, albeit many years ago, but thought I was long overdue to spend some time with one. A day spent in close proximity to such a beautiful and interesting bird can be very enriching and lift the spirits. For me the photographs from this session are really for myself as a memory of the encounter but for those who have not had the opportunity to be up close to one of these birds I am more than happy to share them here. So I will say no more now and just post a few of the images, happy in the knowledge that you know how they were achieved.


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