Sunday, November 24, 2013

Green Oasis

This blog post is my the second and the last part about my efforts to photograph the green woodpecker during this summer. Those of you that saw the first part will recall that this is an very difficult bird to photograph due to it being such a shy species and that I concentrated my efforts in a large graveyard which is the only place I know locally where they can be reliable found at certain times of year.

Cemeteries can offer some good opportunities for photography as they often provide a large oasis of green space within an urban setting in a similar way to parkland. They are relatively quiet and undisturbed places for the majority of the time and a steady trickle of visitors allows the wildlife (with the exception of green woodpeckers!) to become accustomed to the presence of people. Before you all rush out to your local graveyard with your camera, please consider the purpose and emotional sensitivity of the place. I have two basic rules which are visit at first and last light, which is best for the wildlife and light quality and when there are very few if any people present, and head to the quieter areas. I would urge you never to photograph around people visiting the graves of their lost relatives as this disrespectful and they should be given a wide berth.

Many people have said to me don't you find it a bit morbid, uncomfortable and odd spending so many hours on a burial ground. At first I use to spend time reading the gravestones as I waited but no longer do and to me it has become a large field with scatter trees, odd shaped stones and various birds and mammals. Typically I am so concentrated on looking for wildlife and keeping an eye on visitors that the actual purpose of the place seems to disappear. For green woodpecker photography the concentration factor is particularly high to spot the bird amongst the grass. This bird below is having a break from feeding and taking in some evening sun.

Anyway on to some green woodpecker photographs which after all is the purpose of the post. After several short sessions with the male bird I had got a good understanding of his behavioural routine during the evening which was allowing me to firstly find him and encouragingly to get photographs on each session. Some sessions were more successful than others but I knew by repeatedly visits I could built up a collection of images.

Green woodpeckers spend a large amount of time digging to find their main prey ants. A couple in action in the following photographs.
You will notice on the second of the photographs above the thick membrane that covers the eye to protect it from flying soil and also from ants. When they are busy feeding its is common to see several ants running around the bird's body, no doubt doing their best to try and fend off the attackers from the nest. One particular evening the male woodpecker was slowly excavating a whole in a patch of soil when the recently fledged young bird came hopping over. It watched the adult digging for a while before having a go itself. As with many things often the best way to learn is to watch an expert in action.
A couple more photographs of the solitary young bird which was usually fairly easy to find as it was incredibly noisy and repeatedly calling to keep in contact with the adult. You can see in the first photograph a small patch of red forming under the eye so it looks like this will be another male.

I will finish off with one of my favourite images from the sessions which is a dorsal view of the adult perched on a gravestone showing the lovely bright yellow flash of its rump. They really are such a beautiful looking woodpecker and it was a real pleasure to share some time, despite the inevitable frustrations, with such a camera shy bird.
By the end of July the birds became less predictable and patterns started to change until they both disappeared and the window of opportunity had closed. The male presumably went in to moult and the young bird will have dispersed to find itself a territory. Hopefully they will be back in the 'Green Oasis' next year to provide some more memorable summer evenings with the camera. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Prime Time Kites

I remember a couple of years back, after visiting the Red Kite feeding station at Gigrin Farm in August when all the birds were in moult and looking fairly tatty, calling to ask when was the best time visit to catch the birds looking at their best.  The answer came back as November when the birds have their fresh set of post moult feathers. The other good feature about visiting in November is that you can get some autumnal colours in the backdrop from the trees along the right hand side of the feeding area.
So with it being that very month a visit was due and I headed into the middle of Wales with some good weather  in prospect.

A visit to Gigrin is always a wonderful experience not just to see the spectacle of so many wild birds of prey congregated but as a photographer you also know that you are virtually guaranteed a few images. Red kites rarely land and tend to swoop down to grab the free offerings from the ground and therefore nearly all the photography is of birds in flight. Therefore for any visit weather is key and the need for some good light to get enough shutter speed to freeze the action and also preferably with a blue sky. The red hues of the kites are certainly set off well against a blue backdrop.

For those of you who have not visited Gigrin, firstly you should and secondly for photographers there are three specially built hides to chose from. A ground level hide, a mid-level hide and a tower hide. On my previous visits I have always used the ground level one but realised the advantage offered by the tower for capturing those photographs of the birds twisting in flight before plunging towards the ground.

As I climbed the stairs of the tower, the Red Kites could be seen to be gathering in the air above, together with Buzzards and an onlooking of audience of Rooks, Ravens and Crows in the trees on the right hand side of the field. The stage was set. Nothing can really prepare you for what happens when the free feed is scattered around the field. In fact it is often better just to watch and take in the spectacle as there is just too much going on for  photography as a couple of hundred kite swirl in front of you and plunge dive towards the field. The photography becomes easier once the initial feeding frenzy subsides and lower numbers of birds pick off the remaining offering at a slightly more leisurely pace.

I had two particular photographs that I was looking for the dorsal view of the bird (as above) and the turn and diving photos. The latter being the more tricky of the two due to the speed of the action. I was also keen to take some better photographs than my previous visit of the 'ghostly' form of the leucistic red kite. I always find the best approach is just to pick out a particular bird that looks interested in making a dive and following round with the lens. Often as the action is fairly intense you tend not to know what is on the memory card until you get home and download the images, expect for the occasional image checked for exposure during the session. The are always some nice surprises when you arrive home.

Red Kites are such masters of the air, gliding in and making adjustments to their flight with subtle twists of the large forked tail.
The kites performed beautifully,  the low autumn sun shone, the wind was even in the right direction for once and the leucistic kite put in several appearances. Interestingly the plumage on this bird did not appear as pristine as the normal coloured birds. (Please note that this particular bird has two plastic wing tags (No.51) which I have removed in Photoshop for aesthetic purposes. It seems a shame that the appearance of this unusually beautiful bird has been spoilt by these tags).

Overall it was another very memorable couple of hours at Gigrin and no doubt will not be last visit. If you have not visited yet then I urge you to do so to soak up one of the most amazing avian spectacles of the UK.


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