Monday, December 22, 2014

Feathered 'Selection Box'

Christmas is upon us once more. I am sure the years grow shorter as I get older as it seems like only a blink of an eye since the last.  I thought it was time for a seasonal selection box. However, this one is not filled with sticky spiced chocolates but some recent images of the local bird life. Typically the winter weather has not been particularly kind recently and in fact at times it has been bordering on very grim with frequent strong winds, plenty of rain and dark blankets of grey clouds above. As such, light, the essential element for photography, has been in relatively short supply. So it has been a question of being at the ready with camera and snatching odd moments when the light and free time have put in a combined appearance.

I have also been working on a small unexpected winter bird photography project which I will reveal in a future post. The delay in posting is mainly to protect these birds from unwanted attention and potential disturbance.

So lets not waste any more time and dip into the avian selection box. I will start off with a scarce bird for this area, the Long-tailed Duck. I asked a good friend of mine if he wouldn't mind looking in on a lake local to his home whilst passing, to see if there were any Goldeneye present. There were none but he sent a picture text to my mobile and said he had seen an unusual duck but was not sure what it was. I immediately recognised it as a Long-tail duck and more interestingly it did not seem to have been reported anywhere. Unfortunately not one of the stunning drakes but it was too good an opportunity to pass by, a scarce bird that the crowds of bird watchers and photographers had yet to discover. A quick visit was in order. I found the bird easily as it seemed to be staying away from the other birds up one end of the small lake and managed to get close by the old 'move when it is underwater' routine. After a few photographs it was slowly making its way along this small lake when I noticed a patch of reflected reeds that were turning a patch of water golden and this was the result.

The shortest photography session ever was recorded when I decided on a bit of flight practice with some Black-headed Gulls on the local marine lake. Despite a large patch of clear winter blue sky above, the low sun stubbornly refused to lift from behind the only bank of cloud except for about 2 minutes. This was the best I could muster on this icy, blustery day in 120 seconds.
We are still on the first layer of the selection box and this time a brief sunny morning session looking for some winter thrushes. In the distance I saw two birds feeding on a grassed area and assumed that these were my target. However, as I got closer I could see one was a blackbird and the other looked slightly odd, only revealing itself properly as I approached to be a Green Woodpecker, as it  flew up to a nearby tree. After a short while waiting and predicting where the bird might appear, I got the opportunity for about 2 seconds to get a couple of photographs of this beautiful shy female bird before it was gone.
The winter thrushes I was seeking I typically only found a flock  about 10 minutes before I had to leave. The Fieldfare has to rate as probably our most attractive visiting winter Thrush species. This one showing showing a typical drooped wing pose.
The flock was accompanied by a single Mistle Thrush that was also picking out fallen rowan berries from a gravel area. The birds having already completely stripped the tree above its fruit.
Let's dip in to the layer below of the selection box and see what lurks there. Ahh...seems to be a wading birds.

The first was taken on the way home after a wholly unsuccessful session with the small winter project I mentioned earlier. As I swung into the 'home straight' which takes me along the coast I noticed it was high tide and decided to check one of the regular roost for wading birds. They are not always there and I thought may be absent that morning as it was a fairly large tide but was pleasantly surprised to find around 50 Redshank, and a similar number of Turnstone perched high on the rocks. However, what really drew my attention were three Purple Sandpipers and so concentrated on those.
My next encounter with some waders was on a day when I decided to head out for some Red Breasted Merganser on the local marine lake. I like to photograph swimming birds on either very calm surface or the dynamic conditions of rough water. The forecast was for strong westerly winds but it turned out to be blowing much harder and much colder than expected. The marine lake resembled the North Sea in a storm and so there was little chance of seeing, let alone photographing the Mergansers. However, the first light visit coincided with a rising tide which would see the wader flocks coming into roost. A good number of Redshank, Turnstone and a few Dunlin and a solitary Knot had gathered.
I took a few photos and noticed spray being blown into the birds from the crashing waves driven by the punishing wind which created an interesting effect backlit in the first light of the day. I thinks this photographs gives a great impression of the harsh weather we were all enduring that morning.
After I while I decided it would be good to head home and get my hands round a warm coffee, leaving the tough wading birds to sit it out. I took a route home that would see me pass an area that curlew often use at high tide when the sand banks are covered with water. I have always liked curlew. They may not be the most colourful birds but are beautifully patterned and surely possess one of the most evocative bird calls. The birds were across the road from their usual area and seemed to be getting disturbed by the Sunday morning dog walkers. Fortunately one dog walker pushed the birds right over to where I was waiting.
With that the bird selection box is now empty. For those of you interested, all of the above with the exception of the Purple Sandpiper were taken with a Canon 7d Mk2.

So I would like to take this moment to wish you all a Very Merry, Healthy and Peaceful Christmas with a suitably tacky e-card.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Just the Hare Necessities

Coming up to the end of the year is often the time to try and reduce the usual processing backlog and get the year's images wrapped up and finally backed up. So my first task was to go through some brown hare photos from the summer that have been left gathering dust on the hard drives.
I spent quite a bit of time with the hares again this year, an animal of which I can never tire. Its always such a pleasure being in their presence but I cannot quite put my finger on the attraction of hares for me. I mean I have obviously seen a large number of rabbits over the years but taken relatively few photographs but put a hare in front of me and the hours just seem to drift away. They certainly have mesmerizing glassy eyes that reflect that surrounding landscape.
Keeping those feet clean.
A warm summer evening spent lying down on the ground close to hare is such a wonderful experience and all of life's pressure and stress fade to nothing in the background. To use a versus from a song in the Jungle Book film but substituting bare with hare and you get the following which I think sums it up well.

'Look for the hare necessities
The simple hare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the hare necessities
That's why a hare can rest at ease
With just the hare necessities of life' 

May be I have just spent too long with hares !!

Anyway on to some photographs. The summer brown hare is a very relaxed animal they still breed throughout the summer with the occasional crazed boxing bouts but most of the time seems to be spent feeding and building up fat reserves to see them through the hard times in the coming winter months. This makes these shy cautious animals much easier to approach.

Hare's eyesight is geared up to detect movement. If you sit still enough they can sometimes walk right up to you, apparently completely oblivious to your presence. Some of you may remember a couple of years back when I told you of a hare that walked up to me whilst sat in a hedgerow and started licking my boot, presumably for some residual salt left on it from a beach wader photography session.
If you need to approach them then crawling flat is the way to go as they, together with many animals, associate the upright human form with danger. At times you will be surprised how close you can get to a hare. The tricky part is often leaving without disturbing it as crawling very slowly backwards with a heavy camera is not the easiest movement to make. However, the goal with all wildlife photography should be not to disturb or stress your subject. I see many people having got their photos then forgetting about their subject, standing up and sending whatever they were photographing speeding off to the horizon.  My view is you should back away as carefully as you approached.
With the brown hares now quiet my thoughts are rapidly turning to photographing mountain hares given that they will be well in to taking on their white winter coats. It is all dependent on the weather which is never to be taken lightly in their habitat.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Last of the Little Owls

As you will have seen from a couple of previous posts, I undertook a mini project this summer photographing a family of Little Owls living in an old farm building. This post is the last of the photographs of them, at least for this year, which were mainly taken through the second half of July and the beginning of August. Most of my sessions were carried out in the evening after work although I did manage to get the odd first light session in during the weekend which required a very early rise. Certainly something you could not attempt on a weekday unless I wanted to take on the appearance of the living dead by the early afternoon.

I left you in the last post with the appearance of a juvenile which had appeared in the round window in the wall of the barn. There were in fact two young birds from this years brood and it was fun to watch them becomingly increasingly bold and inquisitive as they explored their new world. Young little owls are amusing birds to watch as they continually bob their heads around as they look around their surroundings. It took a while to get both birds looking in the same direction.

The adult birds were evidently reducing the frequency of feeding now to encourage the birds to leave the barn and hunt for themselves. During the end of July I did get partially distracted with the appearance of some leverets around this farm building which I showed in a previous post. These provided a great time filler as I was waiting for the owls.

Even the young birds are good at pulling that stern look.

It soon became obvious that the young were learning to feed for themselves as they started descending from the barn to the track. One of the two, the larger, being evidently much bolder.

Lurking on a low window sill

The young birds were relatively nervous and the slightest noise would see them raise themselves up at full stretch to try and located the source of the noise and to also make themselves look bigger in case there was a potential threat. However, even at full stretch a young Little Owl does not really appear as an imposing figure.

During the whole period with the owls only one bird regularly came close the other preferring to keep its distance and hunt from another building for the majority of the time. However, it did come in on one occasion.

There is not much more to say about these Little Owls except they provided with many hours of fun and its was a pleasure to share some moments in their lives. It was also great to share some of this time with Steve who had previously originally spotted one of the owls lurking in that round brick window several weeks previously.

Many thanks Steve.

I am sure mid-summer next year with see us out looking for these tiny owls once again. So I will finish off this project with a further small selection of images and hope all these birds are still doing well.

Always good to catch some in the late evening sun.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Formby's Shades of Red

The UK's native Red Squirrel has had a tough time since the Victorians decided to introduce the American grey variety as an exotic curiosity in the 1870's. As with many deliberate introductions of non-native species across the globe, the full impact to endemic flora and fauna has  rarely been considered and often with disastrous ecological consequences. Following their arrival, the grey squirrels quickly spread causing large declines in the red populations and today in England and Wales they are reduced to a few fragmented populations where a natural barrier to the grey invasion exists. The more aggressive grey squirrel also carried a hidden danger to the red populations in the form of squirrel pox virus.
A well known site for red squirrels which for many years has been very popular with visitors and photographers is the population that can be found in the pine woodland that fringes the Sefton Coast around Formby. However, around 2007-2008 the squirrel pox virus struck and the the population was all but wiped out. The woodland fell silent.
Since this time a combination of hard work by the National Trust and volunteers, combined with an increasing natural pox immunity developing in the population has allowed the population to bounce back and I can happily report they appear to be really thriving once more.
These red squirrels were originally introduced many decades ago with animals imported from Europe. Their euro-origins can still be seen in the wide variety of colours that range from pure red, through silver red to almost black. This certainly adds some additional interest to the photography.
I did a session at Formby back in 2012 and it was hard work with very few squirrels around. In the intervening period the numbers have really increased and happy to report that a visit now feels like the pre-pox days. I visited Formby last Sunday for a couple of hours in the morning and very enjoyable it proved to be with plenty of squirrels putting in an appearance in front of the camera. This is not particularly challenging photography (although the light can be awkward in the pine woodland particularly when the sun is out) as the red squirrels are accustomed to people and on occasions will come very close.  In fact all the images on this post where taken with a 300mm lens on a full frame camera.
I must admit that I never ceased to be amazed at the images that Canon 300mm F2.8 lens produces. It really is an amazing lens with super fast autofocus (even when teamed with a teleconvertor) and images so sharp that they might be difficult to print for feel of cutting the paper. A real pleasure pf a lens to use when the situation allows.
On this occasion I did not bother with the Jays that are also relatively friendly here, having just spent the last few weeks with them, and just concentrated on the Red Squirrels. Such a joy to see them back and flourishing again.
It was good to have a nice relaxed session with the Red Squirrels. I know the photography ahead over the next few winter months will be tough as I head uphill into the harsh environment of the some shy mountain hares. A prospect that I am really relishing.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Just Jays

Regular readers will know I have a great fondness for photographing various corvids in flight. A particular favourite and challenge has been the Jay.
The majority of people seem to love jays which I put down to their slight unusual and exotic looks amongst the relatively muted colours of birds in the UK. Their pinkish hues of their body combined with black and white wings with its splash of electric blue and a crest which they only occasionally show.

Almost in flight
Jays are generally a relatively shy woodland species with broad wings that provide them with the lift to carry crops full of acorns, which they spend a good proportion of the autumn caching to provide a winter food supply. Having spent a good deal of time with these birds, some of their hiding of acorn tactics are probably not too successful when they simply place it on the ground and place a nearby leaf on top. Amusing to watch but hardly an approach that will deter a determined and hungry squirrel. Their broad wings also offer them great manoeuvrability in the air to help them negotiate with ease through their preferred woodland habitat. However, this aerobatic ability also makes them particularly challenging to photograph in flight.
'Project J' as I entitled this mission when it started a few years ago has proved an interesting and rewarding learning experience. I would say that it is only really during this year that I have finally honed the technique to consistently start capturing images of this fascinating species in flight. The main difference this year has been getting closer to the birds which has allowed me to use the very fast focusing 300mm F2.8 lens rather than fairly unwieldy 600mm. Speed of focus is key when trying to photograph these colourful corvids to keep up with the erratic and rapid flight paths.  However, even with a fast focusing lens and camera body the challenge still remains high. They are prehaps at their most unpredictable when coming into land and as I previously written about before the 'jay flip' often takes them sideways out of the camera viewfinder just when you think you have got the focus locked on.
Interestingly another confounding problem I have recently found at this site, paradoxically, is bright sun. Now many would think that bright sun would be beneficial for this flight photography allowing fast shutter speeds and larger depths of field to be easily achieved. However, apart from the obvious exposure challenges under these conditions on a bird with patches of black, a bright white rump and wing bars, I have often found the camera also struggles to acquire focus. The reason for this is that I am photographing the birds low over an area of grass which has much more contrast in bright sunshine. A camera's autofocus system is based around detecting contrast and so there is a tendency under these condition for the camera to lock on to the grass, especially when using expanded autofocus points. An expanded focus area is a necessity for these birds to try and keep the camera on them during their unpredictable flight path. Under the bright diffuse light of thin cloud cover, the success rate of achieving and holding focus on the jays becomes much greater. This just goes to show how differences in light when combined with the setting can have a big effect on how a camera can perform and as such the photographer needs to constantly change and adapt his settings and approach to maximise success under the prevailing conditions.
I think I have probably rattled on enough here and gone slight off track on the whole purpose of this post which is to show you some flying jays. To me they look at their best from a dorsal view when the blue wing patches are in view and this is probably the most difficult photo to achieve.
I may do one more Jay session this autumn but my thoughts are rapidly turning to my plans for the winter. Winter is a wonderful time for the wildlife photographer, if the weather is kind, and I always look forward to it as I am once again this year.


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