Saturday, December 31, 2016

Winter Fieldfare

The winter influx of Fieldfare from the north seemed to be late this winter.  I checked the usual sites in November and the rowans were laden with berries but empty of birds. However, they did eventually arrive in big numbers providing some photography fun during December. These birds are one of my favourite thrushes, such smart and attractive looking birds and typically show quite a bit of variation in the intensity of their colour and markings.

Photographing birds feeding in trees on berries requires some patience to get the birds in a good setting otherwise you end up with images of birds in a 'jungle' of sticks.

My usual approach is to look carefully at the tree and trying to select the end of branches or the lower branches where a bird can be photographed against a clean background. Whilst waiting I always concentrate on particular branches hoping the birds will land there. Sometimes they do, often they don't. The ideal point to visit a rowan tree is when the birds have reduced the berries down to the lower branches, as they tend to eat their way down from the top, which generally provides some better opportunities and also the chance for some more interesting backgrounds. A couple of examples of this are shown below. Having found an interesting background these two photographs show a bird on the same branch, the first with a bird closer to the tree trunk and second photograph was taken by waiting for one to land on the end of the branch.

Another example, in my view the first has a few too many distracting elements in the image whereas the second is more the type of image I hope to photograph.

Of course this is not always possible, and so when the sky forms the background it is important to choose a day of good weather, which can be infrequent in the winter, to provide a blue sky for the backdrop. In my view a bird in a rowan in dull light against a white sky is a non-starter and on these days its time to look for birds on the ground.  Fortunately in December we have had a couple of periods of high pressure providing  good conditions for photographing the birds and of course such days are accompanied by that wonderful golden soft low winter light.

A further advantage of the ends of branches or those hanging down from the tree is that they also provide some more interesting photos as the they are thin and unstable and usually requires some balancing by the bird to stay on them. The four images below are from a rowan where the remaining berries were on long thin branches hanging down. The birds needing to use their tails and wings to balance.

The constant mantra while photographing the birds is setting and background....setting and background....  and small changes in position can make a big difference to the resulting photographs.

After the birds have been on the rowans for a few days you tend to start finding them on the ground below feeding on fallen berries.

However, Fieldfare are relatively shy birds and so remain always alert and wary.

When not feeding on the berries they will start hunting worms and as with all thrushes show the characteristic slow moment across the grass listening for the worms below.

I will finish off this post with a day I went out and the sky wasn't really suitable for photographing birds in the trees so I was looking for birds on the ground. Eating berries tends to make the birds thirsty and so they will often visit puddles to drink and bathe. I managed to find a group using a long puddle in the middle of a quiet cul-de-sac and immediately spotted an opportunity for some images.

Interestingly after the birds left the puddle, I went to look at it from the other side and found it would have created images with dark water and been back-lit which could have produced some interesting photographs. Maybe something for another day.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Morning with Stoats

Apologies for the lack of recent posts, it has been a busy time for me with my new business. Also I wanted to have a short break from the blog to recharge my batteries. As the blog has now passed its 10th anniversary, I figured a short break was deserved. 

For this post I want to wind you back to the summer and a short morning session when I tried to photograph some stoats. It had been four years since I last tried to photograph these mini predators and a session with them was long overdue. I love photographing stoats but they are very tricky to photograph, partly due to the fact that they move so quickly and rarely pause which is further compounded by the rocky terrain where I photograph them. 

It's  really a case of now you see a stoat and an instant later you don't as it disappears behind a boulder. A real game of hide and seek between the stoats and photographer.
For photographing the stoats you have a very small window of opportunity of around 2 to 3 weeks, as the easiest time is generally when the young are just fully grown and about to disperse away from the adults. At these times the adults will leave the young playing in a group while they go off hunting. However, trying to predict exactly when that 'photography window' will occur is difficult to predict with certainty and the vagaries of the British climate can have a direct impact on the optimum time to visit. Unfortunately not only was my visit this year mis-timed, but it also coincided with a morning of poor light and frequent heavy showers.  Ideally you need good light and fast shutter speeds are normally the order of the day with these very fast animals. This particular morning was going to need high ISO and a wide open lens to try and make the most of the poor light available. The sun only made a brief and very temporary appearance.

It took me about an hour of searching to find the stoats and when I found them it was two adults actively hunting. During the morning I only caught one brief glimpse of one of the kits and they stayed underground in one of the temporary dens throughout the session.  The adults were moving fast and covering a lot of ground in their search for prey along the foreshore. They certainly kept me busy as I tried to get ahead of them and let them come to and past me as they rapidly weaved their way through the large boulders.

It was a slight frustrating morning as I would get a glimpse of a stoat and it would then disappear behind a rock just as I manage to get the camera trained on it. Every photograph was hard won and I was pleased to get a few.  Such a  real pleasure to be in the company of these beautiful animals for about an hour and watch them go about their lives. 

Eventually the two adult stoats went to ground as the weather deteriorated and I decided to bring the session to a close. Hopefully I can catch up with them again next summer with an improvement in my timing and the light.  

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Days 9 and 10: South, West and Home

It was time to pack up and leave Norway and start the long journey home. So we packed our gear, cleared out and tidied up the hire car, ate some breakfast and hit the road southward. Before leaving Vadso we went online to find some accommodation as we had nowhere booked for the evening. We found a hotel in Ivalo near to the airport.

Our destination for the day was to return to the 'Grosbeak Motel' in Finland for another session on the feeders but we would try and see if we could have find anything on route. The trees returned to the roadside and grew larger as we headed southward. We made good progress weaving our way along the quiet pine forest clad roads of Finland under some fine weather and increasing warming temperatures. We occasionally would stop at a roadside lake to see if there were any birds to photograph. As usual when driving  through Finland, it seems remarkably devoid of wildlife.  It is there but hidden from view in the extensive forests and you really need to stop and explore for a while to find it. We found a male Smew on one lake, but it remained uncooperative and out of photography range.

We arrived back at the Neljan Tuulen Tupa in the early afternoon and it felt warm as I stepped out the car. In these northern latitudes, warmth generally equates to mosquitoes and they were out in force around the feeders at the back of the hotel. This made for some uncomfortable photography. I concentrated mainly on the Brambling which showed a lot of variation.

Some Red Squirrel where visiting including a couple of young ones.

I finally managed to get a photograph of a Siberian Tit which unusually just paused for a moment in its hyperactive life.

In the end I'd had enough feeding the female mosquitoes and started thinking a blood transfusion might be necessary if I remained any longer under the constant bombardment. The final photograph of the trip was a lovely looking male Pine Grosbeak which briefly appeared before I beat a retreat from the whining mosquitoes.

We continued southward to Ivalo and found the hotel we had booked earlier in the day. We decided this 'Norman Bates Motel' was not for us, the mop and bucket propped up against the entrance didn/t bode well and there was a much better looking place next door. We went back online and cancelled our reservation.

Our arrival at the adjacent hotel coincided was a coach of Chinese tourists. One in particular was fascinated by our camera kit and he insisted on trying my camera with the 600mm lens to photograph some of his travel companions in the hotel corridor. It was a funny moment.

There was not much left to do now except eat some food, go for wander and hit the bed for the early start in the morning for the flight home.

On arrival at the airport the next day we were the only ones there when we arrived for the first of the two flights home. Given that the woman on check-in had plenty of time to spare she decided she was going to weigh our hand luggage. This was not ideal as I decided to pack all my camera gear into my bag which took it about 7kg over the 8kg allowance. She weighed Adams hand luggage first and while he transferred excess weight to his suitcase at the checkin desk, I retire to a nearby packing table and transferred two camera bodies and the 100-400 lens into my photographers vest under my fleece. She weighed the bag and it was spot on 8 kg and it was tagged. I walked away and transferred all the kit from my vest back into the bag. I always think this hand baggage policy is crazy especially when you are in a queue and the behind person may weigh 40 to 50 kilos more than you.

Back in Helsinki I paid farewell to Adam who was picking  up a flight back to Paris and went off for mine back to Manchester and home. the rest of the journey went smoothly.

Overall it had been a great trip with the main target bird species found and photographed. The highlight of the trip was of course the Ruff which was the primary reason for returning to the wonderful Varanger Peninsula. I would like to express my gratitude and thanks to a few people:

  • Firstly to Adam for being such a great companion and making it a special and enjoyable trip. 
  • To Dawn and Jayne for holding the forts while Adam and I wandered the icy tundra. 
  • To Agle at the 'Grosbeak Motel' ( Neljan Tuulen Tupa ) 
  • For the great people who run the 'Birders Hotel' in Vadso (Vadso Fjord Hotel )
  • To Alonza at Biotope for all his help (Biotope )
Hope you enjoyed the trip. Next year is already in planning and I will be heading somewhere warmer having spent the last two year's trips in the freezer!!!

Friday, September 09, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Day 8: High Tundra Junction

As the forecast had predicted, we woke to some better weather conditions on day 8.  The wind had eased to a gentle whisper and the cloud above was broken. We had decided that the photography mission for the day was to head to the upland tundra areas with our prime target hopefully being Dotterel.  Given the previous wind conditions we had avoided the upland areas, on the basis that if it was bad at sea level it would be twice as bad at some altitude.

Before I describe the day, I thought I need to mention a little about Dotterel which have remained elusive to me. All bird photographers have a personal 'bogie species', a bird they would love to photograph but despite their efforts, seems to stubbornly refuse to appear in front of the camera. I have tried for Dotterel in the UK,  with the spring passage birds on their northward migration. However, each attempt has ended in failure with the birds departing just before I arrived. To be fair though I have only tried on a couple of occasions so my absence of success is mainly due to a lack of concerted effort on my part. For wildlife photography, as in many of life's pursuit, the more effort you put in the greater the rewards.

We left the hotel and headed west along the fjord befor taking the road northwards along the Tana River Valley, before heading upwards on to the high tundra. Our destination for the day was the road junction at Gedjne which offers a range of upland tundra bird habitat including a series of pools and lakes. Below is a couple of photographs to give you an idea of the landscape. There were still areas of deep accumulation of snow in places and the snow cliff along the small river valley in the photograph below was about 6 metres high.

On arrival at the road junction, we spotted a male Long-tailed Duck in the roadside pool with which to start the day's photography.

On the pool on the other side of the road was a pair of Red-Throated Diver but we would return to them later after we went looking for our main target bird of the day, the Dotterel. We headed directly to an area where we had been told we may find some of the 'elusive' birds and  came off the main road and headed up to a plateau area along a dirt track. As we came up to the summit, there in plain view by the side of the track was a male Dotterel.

After taking a few photographs from the car and scanning round we also found the more boldly coloured and marked female. We parked up and then spent around 40 minutes carefully photographing the birds on foot, aware that this is a sensitive time for the birds and not wishing to cause any disturbance. A selection of these images are below.

A great start to what would be our last full day in Norway. As we were up on the plateau passing bird watchers must have seen us and decided to travel up the track to see what we had found. Soon three cars were heading up the track towards us. When asked if we had seen any Dotterel, we replied that we had seen one flying off as we did not want the birds to be subject to the pressure from this sudden deluge of people.

We came off the plateau and parked up by a lake next to the main road and decided it was time for some food and we raided the diminishing supermarket supplies in the boot. It was pleasant sat by the lake eating cheese and crackers watching the antics of ruff in the reeds on the far bank. Even the sun was doing its best to try and break through the clouds overhead.

Returning to the road junction area it was obvious that these lakes were alive with birds. Suddenly the lack of birds on the coast through the week all started to make sense. The  unusually warm spell a couple of weeks early had caused the snow and lakes to melt up in the high tundra area and the birds had moved up in response to start their breeding earlier. We spotted some Ruff on the shore of a lake with a low ridge to tuck behind to photograph them from. I only took a couple of photographs as I had my eye on some other species and left Adam to them. I moved back up to the small pool where the Long-tailed Duck was and started photographing some Red-necked Phalarope and also had a Wood Sandpiper working along the lake margin in front of me. Occasional the sandpiper would burst into a short display flight only quickly to return to resume its feeding activities in front of me.

My next target was in the small pool on the other side of the road where there was a pair of Red-throated Diver. It was cloudy at first so I waited there for a while for the sun to break through. Always a pleasure to spend time with these birds.

I then crossed the road junction again and across onto the willow scrub along the margin of the bigger lake where I could hear Bluethroat singing and the trill display flight calls of Temmincks Stint. The Bluethroat were typically being awkward, frequently appearing briefly on the top of the vegetation but always slightly too distance. After a bit of perseverance I managed to get close in on the birds on a couple of occasions with them in a decent setting.

The Stints were hyperactive and whizzing around in fluttering display flights and occasionally landing on top of the low scrub.

Whilst trying to photograph the Bluethroat, I noticed a Ruff working it ways along the edge of the lake towards me. As it got closer I realised it had the colouration of the bird that Adam had been talking about for the past few days. The one he named 'The Purple Prince'. I must admit that I had suggested that such a bird didn't exist but there it was now in all its glory in front of the camera.

The  weather was starting to close in and it had been a long drive to get here so we decided to call it a day on the high tundra and head back to Vadso. After the daily dose of Pizza, we headed back to the hotel. Outside the weather and more importantly the light had become really good. The wind had dropped to nothing and golden light bathed the landscape. We picked up the cameras once again and headed out on to the nature reserve next to the hotel on Vadsoya Island. I was aware Adam had yet to photograph any Red-necked Phalarope and so we headed directly to the pond.

I left Adam with these hyperactive waders and decided to go for a wander to see if there were any other waders along the shoreline. Whether there were any I will never know as I was stopped in my tracks my Arctic Terns. It looks like the absent birds had finally returned and were prospecting an area to set up their nesting colony.

The light was now beautiful and with some gathering dark clouds in the distance made a perfect setting for photographing some of these elegant long-distance travels in flight. Up to this point in the trip opportunities for any flight photography had been virtually non-existent due to conditions. As the birds were inspecting the area for next locations they were frequently hovering over a spot which allowed for some more interesting poses with their wings and tails stretched wide.

One notable difference with the warmer stiller conditions was that it suddenly brought the mosquitoes out. To give you an impression here is Adam walking amongst them.

Circling back towards Adam, I came across one of the resident Mountain Hares and took the opportunity to get a few photographs in some warm soft back-lighting before bring the days events to an end. It had been a long but rewarding day.

Back in the hotel we started packing as we would be checking out in the morning to start the long journey home. By the time I had finished it was around midnight and it was still light and sunny outside. For those of you who haven't seen what the midnight sun is like I took a quick photograph outside the hotel at 12:15am.  As you can see it really does create beautiful light.

There will be one more post to come on this trip which will just tie up the journey home which included a brief stop-off back at Gosbeak Motel.


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