Saturday, February 11, 2017

Winter Light

Photography is all about using light to show your subject at it best. For me, this is about using natural light as I don't use flash. Many years ago I tried some flash photography trying to capture small birds in flight and was so disturbed at the response of the birds that have not used it since. I don't have any problem with the use of fill flash during daylight for those that want to use it. However,  Aacurrent trend I find particularly worrying at the moment is photographing owls at night with multiple flash set ups at baited posts. With their highly sensitive night vision, this must be impacting on the birds with temporary blindness and their long term hunting success. Now I know there are all kinds or arguments surrounding this concerning the negative effects which I not going to enter into. All i can say is this practice seems wrong and it bothers me greatly.

For those photographers who just use natural light, winter is a very special time of year. The low elevation of the sun produces beautiful soft warm light to work  through large parts of the day. Unfortunately, living in cloudy north west England,  such days can be few and far between and so you have to make the most of them when they do occasionally arise. On occasions it can feel like an eternity of cloud between sunny moments. The other benefit of course is that it easy to get out at first light without the need to set your alarm to ridiculous o'clock, so you can have a nice relaxed start to the day and still be at your chosen site at sunrise to catch the first important rays. Even at this time of year, both ends of the day tend to produces the most evocative images.

The collection of images below are from my recent winter wanderings and in no particular order.

I have spent a little time down by the huge area of local salt marshes hoping to capture some short-eared owls. As with most photography of hunting owls it is a game of luck and whether they fly close to your chosen position. Given the size of the marsh, success rate can be fairly low and it requires many hours effort to be rewarded with only a few images. Given the time requirements, the moments when the sun is out and the owls are close occur even more infrequently.

When the sun does shine at this site in the afternoons it tends to be at a tricky angle and ranges from side lit through to full backlit.
Sat waiting by the marsh for long periods you do see plenty of other birds, particularly raptors such as hen harrier and marsh harrier although often at too far a distance for photography. Occasionally one does come closer. This is a silhouette of a marsh harrier hovering over the reeds at last light.
While waiting by the marsh, there are usually some small birds around the edge to pass the time such as Stonechat.

Another place I find myself waiting around quite a bit during the winter is one of the local marine lakes. This gets some interesting birds on it and can be good for photography as it allows in places for you to get right down at that water level perspective. However, with it covering an area of around 60 acres and having high numbers of visitors, catching the birds close to the edge requires paitence. I usually visit at first light when the number of people and dogwalkers around is low.

A Cormorant surfacing at first light.
There are usually several Red-breasted Merganser on the lake each winter.
This winter they were joined by two female Goosander.
One benefit of the number of visitors is that the wading birds are relatively accustomed to people which provides some photo opportunities while waiting. In this case a Redshank in flight.
One difference this winter is that there have been very high numbers of Brent Geese overwintering on Hilbre Island off the north west corner of the Wirral peninsula. Usually they stay on the island but some have been venturing over to the mainland this year which gave a couple of opportunities to put these long distance travellers in front of the lens for the first time.

Moving closer to home. At the end of the street where I live is the River Mersey, which gets reasonable numbers of waders on the intertidal area. For some unknown reason, I rarely venture down there with a camera. To get it at its best all the right conditions need to coincide with late afternoon sun and the right state of tide i.e as the tide is coming up to high water or ebbing away leaving a narrow strip of shore for the birds. As I work from home now, a couple of weeks back the weather and tides came together for a quick mid-afternoon break from the computer for an hour. It was an enjoyable brief session photographing a foraging Curlew and some Oystercatcher picking around the rocks for crabs and mussels.

Maybe I should try and visit the end of my street more often! It is all too easy to overlook what is on your 'doorstep'. Unfortunately it does not look like the sun will put in an appearance this weekend, such is the way of winter weather, but there is more promise in the forecast for next week for maybe a quick work break session. Fingers crossed for some more of that glorious winter light to come before spring is upon us.

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!!!


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