Saturday, 30 April 2011

Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla)

Kittiwakes are such good value photographically. Their plumage is, I think, stunning in its simplicity and boldness. The black wing tip feathers are so dramatic against the white body feathers and that beautiful yellow beak is a delightful counterpoint. These were all shot on Inner Farne in Northumberland and each image was taken in the midst of a dense sea fret.

All Canon 1Ds Mk II

1. 1/8,000 sec, f/4, 126mm at ISO 200
2. 1,8,000 sec, f/5, 200mm at ISO 320
3  1, 1,600 sec, f6.3, 140mm at ISO 320
4  1, 1,600 sec, f6.3, 140mm at ISO 320

Farne Islands seabirds

A selection of images from a recent trip to the Farne Islands in Northumberland, an absolute treasure trove of beautiful wildlife and photographic possibilities. These images – razorbills, guillemots and shags – are grouped together simply because I like each of the compositions. I like the beautiful emerald eye of the first shag; the majesty and apparent confidence of the razorbill's clifftop posture; the striking white flashes of the outlined razorbill in the second shot; the intimacy of the third shot; and the sense of community and context in the penultimate image. I will post shortly some images of Inner Farne's other main resident (apart, of course, from the puffins), the kittiwakes.

All Canon 1Ds MkII

1. 1/800 sec, f/4, 126mm at ISO 200
2. 1/800 sec, f/8, 145mm at ISO 200
3. 1/1300 sec, f/4, 180mm at ISO 200
4. 1/40 sec, f/16, 60mm at ISO 250
5. 1/200 sec, f/14, 35mm at ISO 250
6. 1/320 sec, f/9, 38mm at ISO 250
7. 1/2,000 sec, f/7.1, 500mm at ISO 400
8. 1/640 sec, f/13, 200mm at ISO 320

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)

I knew the moment I spotted the brooding figure of this shag perched high above a precipitous cliff face that it could make a compelling image. There was something almost Lord of the Rings about the setting; something prehistoric, alien. As the bird waited for the right moment to take to the air, the sheen of its dark green breeding plumage catching occasional shimmers of light through the sea fret engulfing the cliffs, I waited with my finger on the shutter release. Then, as it took one step forward and launched itself on to the swirling wind, it took on the air of a dragon, dark and imposing against the mist. A magical moment.

Both Canon 1Ds MkII

Puffins (Fratercula arctica)

I'm just back from the most magical of Easter breaks. I took the long drive from Norfolk to Northumberland and the Farne Islands, where I was able to enjoy the most blissful three days of wildlife watching and photography. There will be more posts to follow (kittiwakes, shags, razorbills, Atlantic seals and so on), but I thought I'd start with the islands' most famous residents – the puffins. By taking an early boat out to Inner Farne and then negotiating to get a late boat back, I was able to stay on the islands for quite some time and it was well worth it. Although it was early in the puffins' season on the Farne Islands (they breed in colossal numbers in June – usually in excess of 35,000) there were still plenty in evidence – flying off to fish, exploring their burrows for the first time since last spring or simply standing around, often in pairs. My favourite shot is the first in this sequence; I love the symmetry and the birds' seemingly quizzical expressions. My only slight regret is that I didn't get the shot I had in mind before the trip: that of a puffin with a beak full of sand eels. With no eggs or chicks yet, I imagine most food was being eaten before the flight back to land.

PS: I rushed a little to get these images up; just noticed some dust spots! Will re-load at some point

All Canon 1Ds Mk II

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Greylag Geese (Anser anser)

These shots of some fine-looking greylags coming in to roost were taken at close to dusk, hence the orange glow to their chests. They're such vocal birds in flight that the sound of them filled the sky as they came in low overhead as a pair. In the first shot, the second bird is the one doing the talking…

Canon 1Ds MkII, 1/125 sec, f/8, 400mm at ISO 320

Monday, 18 April 2011

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

I watched for 45 minutes a total of four Marsh Harriers quartering the same patch of reed beds and marshland, but none came close enough for a detailed shot. I wasn't disappointed though: more through luck than judgement, I think the first shot comes close to capturing the essence of these wonderful hunters – the blurred reed stems in the foreground and the ribbons of evening light coming down the picture contrast with the silhouette of the harrier giving the shot a real feeling of combat. I can't quite put my finger on why (perhaps the reeds are reminiscent of arc lights criss-crossing the evening sky), but the image seems strangely like one from the London Blitz. Or maybe I just need to get out less! In the final shot, a couple of birders are definitely in the pound seat as a pair of harriers scour the marsh below…

Canon 1Ds MkII, 1/640 sec, f/8, 400mm at ISO 200

An enchanting Norfolk evening

It was such a glorious Norfolk evening I couldn't wait to down tools in the office and take the 10-minute drive to the coast. And I was rewarded with some wonderful hours of unforgettable sights and sounds. In the 90 minutes or so I spent on the Cley salt marshes, I watched several Marsh Harriers quartering over the reed beds – while another gathered twigs for its nest – numerous geese flying in to find somewhere to spend the night, several Grey Herons returning to their tree-top roosts, countless duck coming in low overhead, and a Little Egret – branch in its beak – doing some last-minute housekeeping. Now I should stress I'm not accomplished enough to have captured all of those moments on camera (frankly, sometimes it's as nice just to sit and watch) but more posts will follow over the coming few days. In the meantime, I thought I'd share some shots that go some way towards illustrating just what an enchanting evening it was and what a beautiful place the Norfolk salt marshes are…

All Canon 1Ds MkII

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Male Adder (Vipera berus)

Can we teach ourselves patience? I ask because – for someone whose passion is wildlife photography – I have very little. Having captured some pretty poor shots of my first Water Vole [see previous post] I was determined to use the light of a beautiful Norfolk morning to get some decent shots. I found a likely spot, sat down, camera and binoculars in hand, amid the grass and reeds and waited. I heard again the distinctive 'plop' in the water somewhere, but the vole was nowhere to be seen. To pass the time, I took mediocre shots of a passing Moorhen and a couple of geese grazing on the bank. After 30 minutes, however, I could wait no longer and decided to hunt for adders instead. I drove to where I have always found them before and, for nearly an hour, I scoured the favourite basking spots that have always delivered in the past. This time, however, I saw not a single specimen and – somewhat dejected at what was becoming a wasted morning – I decided to leave. Then, as I neared the car, I heard a father and son excitedly discussing the fact that they thought they had "seen a snake". Warmed by the glorious sunshine, the adders had clearly left the cover of gorse to hunt in the adjacent conifer wood. I then saw a line of olive and black disappear into the leaves and twigs of the undergrowth and, luckily, just managed to get ahead of it. This Adder then took pity on a photographer with very little of note on his CF card – as I got closer it didn't flee into cover, but stayed put. Indeed I had to move quite quickly on a couple of occasions as it seemed quite content to move towards me rather than away as I lay on the ground. No patience on my part, then, but a lucky break and I was able to get what I think are some worthwhile shots of this majestic reptile…

All Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 70-200mm lens

Friday, 15 April 2011

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

This Marsh Harrier was one of a pair hunting over the reedbeds and salt marshes of the North Norfolk coast near Cley. Both were way out of range of a 500mm lens for a decent shot, but I liked the composition and so have tweaked the image a little to give it a more painterly feel. The marsh harrier is one of the great success stories of recent times in Norfolk. In the early 19th Century they were abundant in the county, but by the latter part of the century they had become extinct in the UK through habitat loss and persecution. Marsh Harriers bred sporadically in the Broads, and occasionally at other sites, from 1927 to 1975. Since then the number of nests in the county has risen steadily. In 1982 the first UK nest of marsh harriers in an arable field was recorded in Norfolk and this habitat has been regularly used by the species ever since. Today more than 100 females nest in Norfolk each year. In winter more than 100 individuals may be seen at roosts around the county.

Source: Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Canon 1Ds MkII, 1/3,200 sec, f/6.3, 500mm at ISO 400

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius)

I took a couple of hours out from the office this afternoon, not really expecting to see very much. The sky was a leaden grey and there was a chill in the wind. I'm lucky enough, however, to be just a few minutes from the North Norfolk coast and some of the UK's finest nature reserves and other protected/managed areas. Among them are the Cley salt marshes and this strip of flood land just in from the sea rarely disappoints. As I stopped on a footbridge to photograph Marsh Harriers in the distance, I heard a 'plop' from the water below and turned just in time to catch my first sighting of a European Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius). The water was filled with reeds and other detritus trapped under the bridge and the light was awful, so the final image is horribly compromised and certainly not one of those award-winners where the Water Vole is perched on a pristine reed patch bathed in glorious light. But the Water Vole is becoming a rare sight these days and watching it as it pushed its rounded head through the water was a magical moment. The reasons for the Water Vole's dramatic decline are threefold: intensive post-war farming saw its habitat degraded; escapee American Mink from 1970s fur farms had an immediate impact; then, when presumably well-meaning but shortsighted animal rights protestors set thousands loose into the British countryside, the affect of the predatory American Mink on Water Vole populations was disastrous. The Water Vole population in the UK has fallen from an estimated pre-1960 level of around 8 million to 2.3 million in 1990 and to 354,000 in 1998. This alone represents a staggering loss of 90-95%, but numbers are still declining and the most recent estimate (2004) puts Water Vole numbers at just 220,000. As a spokesman for the Wildlife Ark Trust has put it: "Over the last 15 years or so, the Water Vole has undergone one of the most catastrophic declines of a species ever known in the UK – a far more rapid decline than that suffered by the charismatic mega-fauna of Africa or Asia – and it has happened here right under our noses."

Source: The Wildlife Ark Trust water vole conservation

Both Canon 1Ds MkII, 1/250 sec, f/8, 500mm at ISO 640

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Adder (Vipera berus)

I was lucky enough to find this male adder just as it completed the shedding of its skin, presumably the first time it had done so since coming out of hibernation a few weeks ago. By mid-April, when warmer weather can usually be relied upon, most adders will have shed their somewhat dull winter skin in preparation for mating. This one used friction against the leaves, twigs and ferns on the ground to pull off the last contact with its old skin before moving off. While not apparent in the first rather snatched picture – shot in harsh sunlight – the adder's new livery was a glistening mix of vibrant olive-golds and vivid blue-black, as better illustrated in the other two images. If mating were to come down to looks alone, this one would do well.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Birdsong and vitamin D

There can be few better tonics after a dull day cooped up inside than to get out into the garden and enjoy the sights of spring. Even half an hour of bright colours, birdsong, a light breeze and a sprinkling of vitamin D can do wonders for the soul. The early flowers are in display, the cherry blossom is gorgeous in the early evening sunshine and the birds at the feeders – albeit just a few Blue Tits today – are a joy to watch as they busy themselves during the final part of their own hectic day.

1. Canon 1DS MkII, 1/800 sec, f/6.3, 500mm at ISO 400
2. Canon 1Ds MkII, 1/800 sec, f/6.3, 500mm at ISO 400
3. Canon 1Ds MkII, 1/500 sec, f/7.1, 500mm at ISO 400
4. Canon 1Ds MkII, 1/400 sec, f/6.3, 500mm at ISO 400

Black-headed Gull

I've been spending quite a bit of time over the last few days trying to capture birds in flight (see also Jackdaw, Rook and Red Kite). This Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) seemed an ideal candidate, whirling around on a stiff breeze above a North Norfolk creek crowded with mallard, swans and various geese. Experimenting with various speeds and aperture settings, I eventually twigged that the key is to deliberately overexpose by a couple of stops – the camera falsely reading brightness from the surrounding sky over accurate levels on the bird itself.

All Canon 1Ds MkII

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Top 10 most wanted

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to share my 10 must-get British wildlife shots. The list is not in any particular order, but represents those images I would love to have in my portfolio, but have yet to manage. It's also not intended to be a list of rarities – my passion is not for the seldom seen but simply for compelling images which, I hope, convey something of the beauty of the animal. Perhaps it would be fun for other bloggers to post their photographic wish-lists. So, over to you…

Here goes...

1. WEASEL or STOAT – either hunting or within a family group

2. GOLDEN EAGLE – in my dream shot it is in flight carrying off its prey, possibly a young hare or rabbit

3. PUFFIN – preferably with its bill stuffed full of glistening sand eels (I have a trip planned to the Farne Islands over Easter, so this one might yet happen)

4. OSPREY – leaving the water with a fish in its talons

5. KINGFISHER – relatively common here in North Norfolk, but I have yet to capture one on film. In my dream shot it would be diving headlong into pristine water or perched on a branch with its stickleback catch

6. SWALLOW – yes, common enough, but I would love to capture an adult bird feeding an infant bird on the wing

7. OWL – Barn Owl or Tawny Owl captured at the moment of a kill

8. DORMOUSE – simply because they are the most delightful creatures and I have never seen one

9. BAT – any one of our eight resident species caught on the wing (if anyone out there can advise on the techniques involved in managing to capture on film a bat in flight, I'd love to learn more)

10. BOTTLENOSED DOLPHIN – leaping from the water.

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

I have something of a soft spot for the corvids. I think it is the level of intelligence they can display and the wonderful folklore that surrounds many of the species in this taxonomic group. The Romans saw the Jackdaw as a warning of rain to follow; in some cultures a Jackdaw on the roof is said to be a harbinger of a new arrival; and – contrary to my belief that they are clever birds (in experiments, rooks, for example, have been proven capable of reasoned logic by learning to use a stone to access a food source) – I love the ancient Roman/Greek adage that "the swans will sing when the jackdaws are silent", meaning I suppose that the learned will be heard once the stupid have shut up! Capturing this Jackdaw in flight was relatively simple – it was mobbing Mallards and Black-headed Gulls for bread being thrown by an elderly couple at a creek on the Norfolk coast – but no less rewarding for that. I love the detail in the wing, tail and neck feathers and that keen eye focusing in on its target. The second shot – showing the daw coming in to land on a fence post out of frame – is reproduced here in black and white simply because I think the image worked better for it.

Both Canon 1Ds MkII, 1,5,000 sec, f/8, 336mm-400mm at ISO 400

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Rook (Corvus frugilegus)

From my car, I saw this Rook – typically one among many others – busy building a nest near the tip of a very tall conifer. For 30 minutes I watched as it tirelessly brought twig after twig to the construction site. Its dedication to the cause was inspiring. Nesting, of course, is usually colony-based with this clever but not particularly principled bird – it's as likely to steal the building materials from the nearby nests of smaller birds as it is to break them off itself.

Canon 1Ds Mk II, 1/500 sec, f/8, 400mm at IDO 200

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

With grey rain clouds hovering over Norfolk today, I had some time to look again through the results of an afternoon spent photographing Red Kites in The Chilterns at the end of last month. This selection – all of them of the same bird (note the identifying chink in the flight feathers or remiges at the tip of the bird's right wing) – were taken while it made just two circles over a cottage garden where, presumably, the bird had picked up scraps at some point in the past.

All Canon 1DS MkII