24 December 2009

More Birds from the Cold Snap

Taken over the last few days of snowfall...

Photographing birds in the snow is great fun, but actually shooting whilst snow is falling can be a real challenge. In order to protect my camera, I used a home-made sleeve on my lens, with a waterproof cover over the top. Even so, it can be tricky to keep everything dry. These shots were taken on a beanbag using a tree stump as support. The difficult part is getting sharp images: some were taken at ISO 200 but at times the light levels were so low that I had to push up to ISO 400, which I try to avoid. Still -sharpness should always be the foremost consideration. Shutter speeds were often around 1/250 although I have found it possible to get sharp images even down at 1/60 - but it reduces your hit rate a lot.. The beauty of many of these pictures was the blanket of snow acting as a giant reflector and bouncing light back to illuminate the underside of the birds. The other tip is - take a lot of pictures..! In just a couple of hours I shot over 150 images.. this is not unusual..!

Winter Jays

The last few days have been simply glorious, with one of the coldest December weeks we've had in years... must be all that global warming I presume..? Heavy snowfall is one of the things I live for, and when the forecast comes, I make sure that I'm ready. From thermals to hats and gloves, and making sure batteries are charged... there's plenty things to get in order, and then there's the question of: "what do I photograph?" In answer to that question, I decided to endulge myself in pure wildlife photography. So it was back to the park to capture some more birds, and hopefully get some classic jays amidst snowflakes. These shots were taken on the first day of snowfall over 3 or 4 hours. Yes, I was cold by the end of it - but the pictures more than make up for numb fingers and toes. Enjoy...!

Clockwork Kingfishers

Location is the key for so many wildlife shots, and these kingfisher images are certainly proof of that. My friend who works at my local RSPB reserve had told be about a pair of kingfishers that were regularly fishing from the beck - often along the same short stretch, providing incredibly close views. I was more than delighted when my first morning provided a number of kingfisher sightings at fairly close range, but not quite close enough to photograph. My second visit was similar, but you can't fail to be overjoyed at watching these birds - and the fact that they were so regular made it even more amazing. The kingfisher was never away for more than about 15 minutes, and every time it was back to one of the same perches... you could almost set your watch by them..!It was third time lucky for these pictures, when one beautiful frosty morning, this female kingfisher decided to perch on just about the only clear branch close enough to photograph. I saw her heading for the perch and was ready. The next few seconds were manic as I fired off exposures, bracketing and re-composing to make sure I didn't end up with the miss of the year!! She stood still... posed, turned around, posed again and then finally flew off. A stunning experience - whether with or without a camera.!

20 November 2009

A Morning with the Jays

Like most of the crow family, jays are usually shy birds, and not known for coming close to humans. But, as is the case with so many species - there are often places where various birds have become accustomed to people and are verging on the tame. My local park is no exception, and here there are often 2 or 3 jays that are attracted to a feeding area amongst the smaller tits and finches. Photographing Jays is at such close range is a wonderful experience, and I still can't believe just how confiding they are. They have literally been within feet of me when hoovering up peanuts!

On this particular morning there were 3 birds coming down to the food, and an old oak tree made a perfect vantage point for them. So for me, it was simply a case of throwing handfuls of nuts around the bottom of the tree and waiting for them to come in. Luckily, there are various tree stumps that make spot on supports for a camera and beanbag. It didn't take long before I got one jay perching in the oak - a classic portrait of a bird that is particularly fond of acorns and therefore has a true relationship with this tree..

18 October 2009

Bringing Nature Indoors

For the last few months I've been on the lookout for anything to do with Oak trees. Full tree portraits, leaves, tree bark and associated wildlife all make useful images that build up a portfolio of possibly our most important native tree. One particular old oak at my local farm was showing some good change in leaf colour and I spent an hour or so shooting various leaves. Also quite obvious was the multitude of little flattened spheres that were clustering on almost every single leaf. These are known as oak galls, caused by the eggs laid by insects - in this case most likely the gall wasp. They provide nutrition for the growing larvae, and eventually amass into rather large growths - in some cases bigger than the acorns.

It quickly became apparent that this was a very useful subject to photograph, but with the wind picking up I decided to pick a selection of leaves and take them home to shoot indoors. Once at home I used a technique that I've seldom tried... simply taping the leaf to the window and using soft backlighting to illuminate the branching veins and colours.

As is always the case with close up photography, the most demanding aspect is picking the composition. I tried a number of shots: some I concentrated on veins and colour, whilst for others I focussed my attention on the fascinating oak galls. This is quite a relaxing way to photograph, and taping to the window means quite comfortable shooting too. Using a shortish lens with a 31mm extension tube allowed me to fill the frame. A tripod and remote release was of course essential. Aperture wise I shot at around f11/f16 which maintained depth of field but also kept good optical quality for sharpness. I always feel that backlighting in this way is ideal for plant detail, as it brings out those amazing patterns so much better, due to its translucent nature.

13 September 2009

A family of hedgehogs

Hedgehogs are one of those creatures that I just haven't managed to photograph so far, so imagine my excitement when I was told of a local lady who had a whole family in her care. These animals were amongst a number that had been taken in by a wildlife refuge.. cleaned up and looked after - before eventually being returned to the wild. This provided an amazing opportunity for me to endulge in some 'easy' and enjoyable photography, and to get to experience such a beautiful animal close up. I was first introduced to 'Hogrid' - an impressive adult with serious bulk. Ready with the camera on the ground, we simply put him down and let him wander the garden.

One thing was for sure - hedgehogs can move pretty quickly when they want to, and I had to be quick to shoot before he got too close to my lens. After a few images of this veteran animal, I turned my attention to two of the younger hedgehogs which were happily mooching around, and managed some pleasing shots of them with the older hedgehog. Using a wide angle lens was quite interesting as I could put them in the garden setting..

Finally, the tiny ones came out - and five of them! These hedgehogs were smaller than I had imagined, but absolutely beautiful. It was fascinating to see so much detail, such as the colouration of their backs, and their tiny feet and claws. The youngsters were a delight to photograph and it was hard not to admit to their 'cute' factor.

In a way, hedgehogs are a very forgotten animal - maybe because we rarely come across them anyway due to their nocturnal habits. It's hard to believe that this delicate, placid mammal is now under serious threat, but their numbers have plummeted. Those who get to hear their familiar bumbling and snuffling are indeed lucky to have such a visitor.

04 August 2009

Insects at last!

Over the years I've never really been massively into insects. Not that I've anything against them - it's just that I much prefer photographing my bigger birds and mammals. That said, I've still tried to get some decent shots, and I know that invertebrates will be useful for illustrating articles etc.

The last couple of summers saw a combination of increased effort on my part, along with two of the wettest summers on record. That put pay to my aims to increase my butterfly and dragonfly portfolio.. This year it's been quite different, and finally my efforts have paid off. I've managed a number of butterflies which I desparately wanted, including the frustrating common blue. Dragonflies however, continue to taunt me. Here's a few successful images - a combination of persistence and timing helping to bag some butterfly shots.

Early morning searches for inactive butterflies has proved pretty fruitless. Therefore my technique for butterfly photography has been pretty standard, usually shooting an hour or two after sunrise and trying to photograph towards the light. My usual technique is to rate at ISO 200 and shoot handheld, often around 1/250 at f8, using my elbows as support whenever possible, and firing a series of shots to increase chances of pin-sharpness.No dragonflies this summer as yet, but a nice colourful image of a damselfly which was very obliging. The light was very harsh so I waited for the cloud to pass over the sun and then shot. Reduced light levels in this case meant shooting at ISO 400 and hand holding at shutter speeds down to 1/125 second - tough to keep it pin sharp but it's possible. A few butterfly species have been a little elusive, including orange tip, but I can't complain too much - it's been a fairly successful year.

08 July 2009

Yorkshire Wildlife & Landscape Photography Workshops

I am currently planning my workshop programme for next year, which will include some new subjects and locations. I have recently agreed on a beautiful location for a couple of photography courses on plants, butterflies and dragonflies - in a semi-private bluebell wood near to Wetherby. Fingers crossed - I may also be able to provide a workshop for guaranteed red squirrels..! The birds of prey photography workshops continue to be very popular and are great fun. They are also an ideal way of practising your skills in wildlife photography.

I have recently set up a group on Flickr: Yorkshire Wildlife and Landscape Photography for participants of workshops to share their images. This is a great way to show people how we do things, and what pictures are possible. Here are just a couple of my images from past bird of prey courses in North Yorkshire.

01 July 2009

The Mirage of the Meadow

The last few months have been great for wildlife photography - and if I haven't always bagged the shots I wanted (on numerous occasions), I have at least witnessed some wonderful sights and revelled in the sheer joy of watching our British wildlife. Back in March I saw my first water vole, followed by another sighting last week. These squat little mammals are magical creatures, and I am figuring out the best plan to optimise potential images... it may take a while! I have had a number of other sightings too, including baby long tailed tits, running roe deer, a family of red grouse, and a mid air scrap between a sparrowhawk and heron..! But there is one experience which for me tops them all, and one which has left me both exhilarated and inspired...

It was two summers ago when I first witnessed a short eared owl on the local farm. Watching from the roadside, I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing, as this stunning bird methodically quartered the meadow in broad daylight. After this sighting, I never saw the bird again... until a couple of weeks back that is. Again the bird looked like it had been there for ever, as it repeatedly quartered the fields and flew around the hedgerows. A few evenings later, from the edge of the field, I was witnessing the same thing yet again, although on this occasion I was much closer. Camera in hand, I made my way slowly forward, keeping low in the grasses thinking, "there could be a grab-shot here." However, no sooner did I realise the bird was out of view, than a huge flying owl was virtually upon me. With purposefully direct flight, I watched the owl zip over my head, complete with hanging vole in tow. Instinct told me that I might be able to watch this bird at closer range. My 'roe deer' hide is situated at the edge of the buttercup meadow, and it was over this exact field that the owl was hunting. Knowing that owls can be creatures of habit, and thinking that this day might just happen to coincide with an abundance of voles for some reason, I headed for the hide...

In my hide I was now completely hidden, and perfectly situated at the field edge, should the owl return. Sure enough, my instincts were right, and within less than ten minutes the short-eared was back. It was clearly favouring this one buttercup meadow. I watched in amazement as the bird repeatedly quartered the meadow, covering almost every inch of ground. I was surprised to see just how agile the owl was, being able to change direction incredibly quickly and even do a good job of hovering at times. Every so often the bird would switch direction and disappear from view, as it dropped into the buttercups. The hit rate for this bird seemed impressive, and I watched it catch three voles in less than an hour, before making a bee-line across the hedgerow (surely a nest somewhere...)
This was a memorable experience to say the least. Photography wise I managed some pleasing flight shots - a little far away, but they did show the evironment well. That high impact flight shot with lovely back-lighting above the buttercups just didn't materialise... but the experience pretty much made up for it. This would have to go down as one of the the 'wildest' experiences I've ever had. To watch this wild bird of prey so intimately, and truly at ease, was indeed a privilege.

And what since that wild encounter..? Well, just like the previous years... the owl now seems to have completely vanished - just like it was never even there. I could be forgiven for thinking that I dreamt it... but this time I have the pictures to prove the owl is real!

18 May 2009

Photography Contact Awarded by Natural England

I am thrilled to say that I have just been awarded a contract as a photographer for Natural England, the environmental body that advises the government. I am one of a group of professional photographers chosen throughout the country to provide imagery. The competition was fierce, and the application procedure one of the most thorough I have ever seen. I am looking forward to my first assignment, whatever it may be.

Photography wise I have just finished another article for Yorkshire Ridings on upland birds which will appear in the July issue. A recent walk that I led in a West Yorkshire woodland proved both enjoyable and productive, with a lot of interest in my work - and I captured some new images of bluebells and early purple orchid, along with general woodland scenes. I also photographed the lighting of a charcoal burn which the local wildlife group does every year in order to make use of felled trees. It was quite something to watch - if a little toxic!

A recent badger watch proved interesting. After 2 hours of waiting silently, it seemed that my badgers were once again proving awkward by not showing themselves. But to the right of me I could hear movements in the undergrowth - and it sounded like something of size. It was another half hour or so before I got a glimpse. After mentally going through every mammal I could think of, it suddenly became obvious what the scurrying animal was... a beautiful and tiny fox cub. Soon joined by another, the 2 cubs continued to make a racket as they ran around the undergrowth and scratted in the fallen leaves. This was a lovely sighting, but not as good as what happened a few minutes later... as I sat quietly in the faded light I could just make out one of the cubs in the distance along the path, and his next move was to come bounding straight towards me, perfectly happy as he literally ran past my boot!! Obviously these cubs don't know to be scared of me yet.. Hopefully they won't grow up to quickly, and I may be able to get some images by putting out food. The surroundings are beautiful at the moment, with bluebells and red campion making a great setting...

30 April 2009

A little update before May

With a mixture of things including wind direction, I've yet to get in the new roe deer hide - and once into May I know things will get quieter as the females begin to give birth... Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been busy: a couple more butterfly shots (which I'm desperately short of), and two more articles commissioned for the summer.

My first craft fair at Ripley went well, and I met a number of people who were interested in my work (must take more business cards next time!). I was pleased with the number of visitors - a steady flow during the day, and a really nice bunch of people exhibiting too... Next fair is Sunday June 14th - same venue - www.yorkshirefairs.co.uk/dates.asp .

On another subect, I recently took some images at a train station; for a nature article believe it or not.. Although I wasn't stopped by anyone on this particular day, it reminded me of the problems that photographers can face. I remember one day a few years ago, photographing a building in the centre of Leeds and being asked to move on by a security guard. Things have gone a little too far I think, so just bear this in mind. If it's possible to work without a tripod it can make a big difference - that three legged companion seems to make people immediately suspicious. Of course if you were a terrorist, I doubt you'd be taking pictures in broad daylight with a tripod, but there you go...

22 April 2009

Frustrating Mammals

The last few weeks have been frustrating ones. Amongst other subjects I have been trying to capture decent images of an animal that I have never got close to. They are roe deer. Having seen them from a distance, and having erected a permanent hide at what I thought was the perfect spot, they still continue to elude, surprise, and just downright baffle me. Although frustrating, they are fascinating creatures. I have now been lucky enough to see them at much closer range, and watch a range of behaviour from 3 does and 2 bucks.

This image shows a somewhat lucky encounter with roe deer on a morning of thick fog.

This was a truly wild encounter and one that will stay in my mind for ever. At around 7am I entered this meadow, and through the fog, the unmistakable shapes of 3 roe deer suddenly appeared. With little option, I ducked down and stayed low whilst slipping on my camouflage hood and positioning my beanbag and rucksack. Slowly, one of the does got closer and closer, picking her way through the wild grasses, until eventually she reached a little clearing. Forced to to use manual, I focussed quickly and fired the shutter, managing just 2 shots. She looked in my direction - paused... then turned round and trotted off. The combination of the long grasses and thick fog make this quite a special image. It also makes me think how some of the best wildlife images are truly wild ones - uncontrived, completely natural... and a snapshot in time from a wild animal amidst its natural landscape.

As I write this, I am about to check the wind directions for the next couple of days. A westerly wind and I will be in my new hide - downwind of the deer, and in a spot that should see them walking straight towards me. Fingers crossed! If that doesn't work, then there's still the recent addition to the farm that may be 'photographable'. A beautiful short eared owl that seems to have taken to quartering the meadow - even in broad daylight...

13 March 2009

The Snow that Was..

Finally I get round to posting this blog - this should really be February's post, but with one thing and another it's now mid-March... Anyway, the main action in February was at the feeding station, with cold weather bringing in good numbers of birds... and yes, I was lucky enough to make the most of that incredible snowfall - the best I've seen in years! Although I only managed one day in the hide whilst the snow was still falling, I was able to get some cracking winter images of long tailed tits braving the blizzard - with a nice stem of red dogwood as the perch - giving a much needed splash of colour.

This is one of those images I never get bored of.. and I've learnt something new - long tailed tits actually have a yellow eyelid - something you'd never see unless you photographed them up close.

The woodpecker has been a real star too - or should I say woodpeckers, seeing as there have been both male and female down to the food. One of them has slight reddish feather on the top of the head, so I'm thinking this might be one of this year's youngsters in its first winter.This is one of the first images I got from the hide -

Time to tail of the food soon, although I may try putting out some nesting material in place of the food for some behavioural shots... With a project as satisfying as this, it's certainly difficult to tear yourself away..!!

Next few week should see more trips to the dales, and hopefully some new frog/toad images - fingers crossed...

29 January 2009

The birds are coming

My winter feeding station is starting to get busy. There are now regular blue tits, coal tits, great tits; and my favourite the long tailed tits... these birds are just so lovely to see - they give you good warning too before they arrive - 'pinging' away as they fly towards the bird feeders. I have had up to ten, and counted a total of eight on the big bird feeder - all at the same time! When it's a group and they all begin calling, it's like a wonderful natural symphony.

I'm also getting nuthatches, jays and woodpeckers - although not as regularly. The jays are interesting... I see them skulking in the distance before they float to a perch to check things out. Once on the ground they seem quite bold as they happily hoover up the fallen peanuts. On top of that was a cracking sighting of a male sparrowhawk as he rushed through the woodland clearing - he's obviously spotted the potential for his own feeding station..!

Another cold snap is forecast, so fingers crossed for some good light..

07 January 2009

New Year Frosts

This seems like proper winter. I can't believe the temperatures are continuing to stay so low - o.k. it means turning the heating up, but in terms of photography it just doesn't get much better than thick frosts and snow... well, not for me anyway. The previous night was forecast to be ridiculously cold - possibly down to minus ten in some areas. Needless to say, I was up and out early...

Taking the usual road through Wharfedale, my eye was taken by a large bird flying behing an oak tree... A buzzard perhaps, I thought. Only when I cleared the next bend did I get a decent view - and then I realised that big bird of prey was a red kite, amazingly joined by two more as they floated at tree height, no doubt waiting to return to a dead pheasant that lay in the road; it's definitely cold! My photogenic destination today was Littondale - a spot above Litton by the footpath, with beautiful views looking back down along the valley. The scene was perfect. Thick frost coated the ground... the distant hills showed a dusting of snow... and a wonderful combination of light and shadow playing on the hillsides. A walk further on and the snow was thicker; providing a classic image of gate, stone wall and distant hill tops from a high vantage point. A good morning's work, and even though it didn't feel terribly cold... it was still time for a hot lunch.

My afternoon was rewarding too. Reached from Storiths, there is a cracking viewpoint to photograph Bolton Priory, and during the afternoon it becomes almost backlit. The surrounding trees are great too, with lovely side-lighting striking the green winter branches. I was happy with my exposures, and the gravestones surrounding the priory added an interesting dimension, as they gave a contrast of frost-free in the sunshine, and cold white in the shadows. It was now 3.00pm and the sun already near the horizon. Time to think about returning home.

How many more of these winter days to come I wonder? Roll on February....