31 July 2011

Encounters with a Sparrowhawk

I've always had a particular love of sparrowhawks - and to this day a sighting of this raptor fills me with excitement. It was whilst waiting by a pond for water voles to appear that I had an amazing and quite unusual encounter with this sparrowhawk. At first it was a typical glimpse - the bird shooting low over the reeds and quickly changing direction. To my surprise though, this bird banked back round towards me and landed in a tall tree - just fifty yards or so away. I expected it to stop briefly and then move on - but it actually stayed a while. I was even able to change lenses and take my time to get a shot.

After 5 minutes or so it took flight, passing ridiculously close, before disappearing somewhere in the trees. My attention was drawn elsewhere and after a few more minutes I walked closer to the pond, only for the same sparrowhawk to suddenly shoot up from deep in the reeds and land in another tree at the edge of the water. Although the plumage was more like a male, the size suggested that it was a female - and clearly it was hunting something specific. No doubt it was one of the many coot or moorhen chicks in the reeds, and it seemed that this bird wasn't going to leave until it had got its kill.

I have heard stories of sparrowhawks finding a nesting site and returning repeatedly to raid the site, picking off one young bird at a time. This might seem evil, but quite simply it's smart. With its own chicks to feed a sparrowhawk must take every opportunity and easy pickings should be exploited. For me I was just lucky enough to watch an often secretive predator at incredibly close quarters.

Photography Workshop at Fairburn Ings

I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday's photography workshop at Fairburn Ings. I think everyone got some useful tips and thankfully the weather was great too. A bit quiet on the butterfly front, but pleny of plants and flowers to practice on. As for dragonflies - the darters were out in force but the bigger hawkers just didn't seem to want to come close enough.

Thanks to the group for making it such an enjoyable day - everyone was really enthusiastic and keen to have a go at new techniques. Examples of particpants' images can be seen in my Flickr group. I still have a few places on the 6th August photography workshop - contact RSPB Fairburn Ings for information.

23 July 2011

My first Water Vole Photos!!

This morning was incredibly exciting for me. It was my second visit to a water vole site, and one that is excellent for photography. I've wanted to photograph these little mammals for ages, so to find such a workable spot is a dream come true; and it's only 20 minutes drive away..  The voles seem fairly active, and although I've only seen one at a time, I definitley saw different individuals.

They are a delight to spend time with. I had some views so close I couldn't quite believe it - and I was lucky enough to watch some natural behaviour too. I love to watch them swim - it's funny watching them with their heads above the water - but boy can they shift..!  Hopefully back tomorrow morning and then I will see what I can get over the next couple of months. Can't wait for some good light and beautiful reflections - that will really make the shots work..

20 July 2011

Who says rain stops play..?

Heavy rain is usually my cue to get some more work done in the office - it's useless for pictures... right..? Well, not always. Wildlife photography is as much about capturing the surrounding atmosphere as it is about recording the actual subject. This afternoon was a perfect example - as I drove along the winding upland track near Grinton looking for red grouse. Some of the downpours were just torrential, and within minutues there were large puddles and temporary streams cascading across the road. No good for wildlife you might think. I've often thought just that - but today was different. I decided to photograph in the rain, to create more atmospheric shots... and to produce something different from the norm. Not only did the rain record beautifully, but the quality of the deeply subdued light gave wonderfully rich colours and superb detail. And on top of that - it was rather fun too...!

 I needed to be prepared to shoot in such soggy conditions and used my own waterproof cover for the camera and lens. This allowed me to shoot in extremely heavy rain from the car. At first I shot on ISO 250, then after securing some shots switched to ISO 100. Shutter speeds were ranging from 1/80 to 1/30 and in all cases the rain was recording as streaks... just the way I wanted. The majority of the grouse were young birds, and all were capable of fending for themselves. Pitty no other birds stuck around, but I just don't think they were able to tough it out like them grouse..!
Note that if you come on one of my Upland Birds Photography Courses and the weather looks atrocious - all is not lost..!!

19 July 2011

Short Eared Owl Photography

Every so often we find an opportunity that we just wished we had taken earlier: in this case it's short eared owls. I've watched them hunt the grassy meadows on my friend's farm, and although I was pretty sure, I could never say for certain that they were nesting - in fact it seemed unlikely given the setting - and so close to Leeds. But now I have confirmed it! One of the great things about young owls is that they are just so noisy..! It didn't take long after hearing one pipe up, to realise that there were at least two young owl fledglings sitting in the trees - and the adults were still bringing in food. If only I'd figured this a couple months earlier..!! The picture opportunities would have been amazing.. Still, it's good to know they are at home here and I'm already looking forward to next spring.

Shorties always fill me with excitment. There's something magical about this bird - almost in the literal sense. For such a big bird they are incredible at keeping themselves hidden here on the farm. For one to suddenly arrive in the middle of a field in broad daylight is rather a shock - especially given their size. To watch them hunt is a privilege. Graceful birds, and surprisingly agile as they follow the hedgerows and flap low over the meadows. One of the best things about these birds is that they are relatively easy  to photograph as they will hunt the same fields, and they seem to take little notice if you stay quietly at the field edge. These shots were taken just before 9 p.m. - beautifully backlit in golden light. I tried my vole impression but the owl didn't seem interested... must work on getting it right.. Simon King did a great job with barn owls.. I think I need a higher pitch...  Anyway, I'm hoping that the young birds hang around for a while and maybe I'll get to see them practising their own hunting skills... 

09 July 2011

Wildlife Photography Techniques: stalking mammals

I've recently spent a lot of time stalking a variety of wildlife including roe deer, brown hare and red fox - so here are a few tips that I've learnt that can make all the difference in getting closer:

1. Research your subject: not all animals have the same senses or see in the same way. Roe Deer for example see in monochrome - their sight is much more sensitive to movement and human outline.
2. Camouflage hoods are great, but it's still worth adding extra camouflage to break up the outline of your head. Stitch in green netting which can be stuffed with various grasses, bracken and even branches to make your head as un-human as possible.
3. Be aware of ground cover. Smaller mammals can be well concealed in summer - so you might need to keep a check with binoculars as you approach to be sure you're not being seen.
4. Stay low. It's hard work but keeping close to ground level is the best way to ensure you're not spotted.
5. Use AV mode so you don't have to worry about changing light as you get closer.
6. Try to use sunny days so you can use faster shutter speeds and hand-hold. Tripods/monopods can be very impractical in stalking situtations.

Hopefully off to try for my local short eared owl again this evening... fingers crossed!!

Photographing Red Squirrels

I actually photographed these red squirrels back in March, but it's taken me til now to process the images. At a private site I had the privilege of spending almost a whole day with a small group of reds, at the edge of a pine wood. These squirrels are so confiding that some would scamper right past my feet - I even had one that took an interest in my camera bag..! They really are one of the most beautiful of all our British wildlife - so dainty; so nimble, and a wonderful character.

Many thanks to the landowner for allowing me to spend time photographing these wonderful little mammals - it is much appreciated.

02 July 2011

To Photograph Wild or Captive..??

The subject has been written about many times - by many amateurs and professional photographers alike. Is it right to photograph captive species..? Personally I don't think the question should be: is it right; but rather - what's the reason for doing so.? Yes, I have spent a fair number of hours photographing captive species, including falcons, hawks, owls, hedgehogs and red squirrels. These subjects are constantly in demand, and as a professional wildlife photographer I need to have them on file. In fact, my reason for shooting these types of images is often not in the expectation that they will sell as invidual pictures, but rather in their use to illustrate my written articles on nature. In this way I guess it's more of a journalistic approach. I'm not naive in the reality of just how many of these pictures are available, so I know that it will take some luck for one to find its way onto a greetings card or calendar.

This brings me to my main point: just how sensible is it to shoot these images in the current climate.? Do a picture search with any photo libary and you'll find page after page of red squirrel, goshawk, red fox and the like.. So, yes these images are saleable - but where does it go from here..? As these types of images become increasingly common, they begin to lose impact; and there is a crucial part of the image missing - the story. For these images, there is no story - no background, no preparation, no tale of discovering a wild animal and working the site to finally achieve that special image. For me, it's not just about the ethics of shooting captive - it's simply about the surrounding story of how those images came to be. I make no apologies for photographing captive species and no doubt I will continue to do so on a relatively small scale. But I honestly believe that the future is in story-telling. Things often come full circle (look at some of the clothes out there these days) and photography is no different. Editors and readers are always looking for something new - and I think that the 'new' future will be once again in photographing completely wild animals in their natural habitat, and the stories of how photographers achieved the images.

This recent roe buck image illustrates my point pretty well. I could have photographed roe deer in captivity but would never have been able to capture the animal in this natural setting of a wild buttercup meadow. Shot in captivity - once asked how I got the shot, my answer would have been: "I turned up, used a telephoto lens, made the most of the light and composed the shot...oh, and I paid some money too.."
So how did I get this roe buck..? Answer -"I've been watching a group of roe deer for the last 3 months. I arrive at 5.00am and reach my usual check-point wearing camouflage. I spot a buck and hind towards the far end of the buttercup meadow and contemplate going for the stalk. The decision to stalk is made by weighing up the benefits of extra stability (stuck in one position) against potential camera shake (hand-held stalking). In this light I can use ISO 200 and get 1/1000 second - but I need to get damn close with a 300mm lens! I manage to get to the opposite side of the hedgerow in the adjacent field - there's plenty of cover, but it's a true crawl all the way. What the hell! In wet grass, I crawl around 50 yards trying to make zero noise all the time. I stop and look up. They're still there. Just get past these bushes and I'm close enough... My camouflage hood has netting with various grasses stuffed in to break up my outline, so I should be o.k.. The female has disappeared, but the male's still there making his way to the corner of the field. There's a barb wire fence in the way.. so I have to rise higher to get a clear shot. One click... the buck doesn''t even seem to notice! He moves forward and now the shot's there. I compose with the deer looking into space and have no option but to use the out of focus hedgerow as foreground. A couple more shots - perfect!!"

I'll continue to concentrate on wild subjects and have a story to tell. There are many pictures out there - but there are also many, many more that have never even been taken. It's only by putting in the time and gaining the knowledge that these will come about.

A great many thanks to Andrew and Fiona for allowing me the opportunity to watch and photograph these fascinating animals on your land.