Thursday, 29 January 2015

Probably the best Peregrine photo in the world (not)

It may not be the best in the world, but in its way is a minor miracle given the circumstances under which it was taken.

RSPB Greylake on Wednesday was battered by a "howling gale" - surely there must be a less hackneyed and more telling expression than that to describe the strength of the wind. What about, "windy enough to have the ducks flying backwards". In fact, that was pretty close to the truth. I watched a pair of Mallard take off from one small pond and attempt to fly into the wind to land on the main scrape. For several seconds at a time they were making no headway at all - their ground speed was zero despite their furiously flapping wings. It looked like everything that got airborne was suddenly surprised by what they encountered. Consequently, most things seemed to prefer the shelter of the odd tuft of sedge and remained on the surface, head down.

The exposed "Treetop" hide was taking the full force of the Westerly gale. It shook, but not enough to make you think of jumping for dry land. Opening the windows however was a matter not to be undertaken lightly.

On this of all days I had arranged to meet well-known Somerset landscape, portrait and documentary photographer Pauline Rook to help her experience the pleasures of bird photography. Not a good choice of day, but Pauline remained cheerful throughout. Thank you Pauline!

We arrived at the Treetop hide and, guess what, opened the window. Wow! Whilst we were trying to move benches to find some shelter from the wind we noticed a Peregrine blow by at about a hundred miles an hour. Very shortly after I noticed it ploughing its way back up wind. Still engaged in essential housework I was not really prepared, but diving for the window I poked the camera out and pressed the button.

It says a lot for the new Canon 7D Mk2 autofocus system that it found something to take a picture of; it did not get much help from me. In fact it is the autofocus system on this new camera that has eventually persuaded me that it is a significant upgrade on the original, and still excellent, 7D. 

If anyone is looking for a wildlife photography introductory bargain package they should, in my opinion, snap up (if they can still find it) one of the brand new original 7Ds, plus an original Mk1 100-400mm telephoto lens. Total cost not much more than £1000 at current give-away prices. Be quick though.

Here is another shot of the labouring Peregrine.

That was the main excitement of the day. I stayed on for an hour and a half after Pauline had sensibly left. Just a few opportunities presented themselves. It was disappointing to see how few ducks were at Greylake that day. Less than a tenth of recent flock numbers in my estimation.

I think that Greylake duck numbers may recover when those scattered by the gale make their way back to the main scrape in front of the hides. I will be there again soon to check.

Meanwhile, please visit my website at and visit and "like" (if you do) my Facebook page at

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Back to the garden birds in flight

I started my career as a bird photographer about five years ago. I spent several years developing techniques to help me catch these speedy little creatures in flight. If you click on this link, you will see the garden bird photos selected for my website:

Here, for instance, is an example from that period:

In the past few years, I have not been doing so much garden bird photography. I have instead been visiting the Somerset nature reserves and capturing some shots of the resident and visiting birds - I am tempted to call them wild birds, as if garden birds were tame! They decidedly are not! They present as much of a challenge as any "wild" bird. They are completely free to do their own thing and the photographer has to struggle to keep up with them!

My garden is located on a North-sloping hill. On the crest of the hill to the South is a stand of Norway Spruce trees. At this time of year the sun is so low that I scarcely see any sunlight in the garden. Taking flight shots of birds by natural light definitely needs sunlight as, without that intensity of illumination, the shutter speeds are too low.

Now that the year has turned, and the sun is climbing slowly in the sky, I am starting to see a bit more light. Consequently, I have been moved to have another go at my local birds. I am  a bit rusty and actually in the throes of developing some new detection techniques, but I got some shots the other day and would like to share them with you. Hopefully there will be more and better as the season progresses.

This Long Tailed tit is a relatively rare capture.

 And here it is (in not quite such sharp focus - fingers crossed that you will forgive me - but the bonus is that it has one of my peanuts!

Blue Tits are, of course, frequent visitors but, along with Robins, are one of the most difficult species to photograph successfully. No idea why, it is just that a lot of the shots leave you wishing they were just a bit better. This one isn't bad though.

And here is another

This one is just about captured doing some spectacular aerobatics

 If you would be interested in how I do these shots, please let me know and I may write a separate page to explain. Alternatively, you could come to one of my talks and hear the whole story first hand - see the list here

The next talk is on Feb 2nd at Taunton Camera Club. They are happy to admit visitors if they have room.


Friday, 23 January 2015

Another interesting day on the Somerset Levels

It has been a good few months since I visited Shapwick Nature Reserve, I find it to be very quiet in the winter. Yesterday, however, I felt moved to check it out. The first surprise was this young Grey Heron just resting on the far side of the canal, just across the water from the main footpath. It seemed entirely unconcerned at the passage of the human visitors, so I stopped and took a few shots. It is not often that you have the privilege of getting so close to a wild bird.

I followed the newly surfaced track through the woods to Noah's Hide. Some pleasant company in the form of Alan Ashman, and a lake full of ducks, kept me happy for a while, but I had a desire to go back across the bridge to Meare Heath Hide to see if the Marsh Harriers were flying over the reed beds. I made it to the hide and settled myself down and waited. There were a few distant glimpses, but in the back of my mind was the growing conviction that I should be waiting somewhere else - Westhay, where I have had some recent success with these birds. So off I shortly went! You really never know what it the best thing to do, wait or move.

My chosen spot at Westhay was even more empty of bird life than the hide I had just left at Shapwick, but soon a Mute Swan floated into view, shortly followed by a Cygnet. For some reason they both adopted the same amusing posture.

A commotion in the reed bed had me on the alert for a Moorhen. I love to try to catch these birds as they run across the water surface. It is a bit early in the year for too much of that sort of thing, but this one eventually came clattering out and made a low pass. Here are two shots of it (two because I cannot decide which I like best!)

Anyway, as always, it was the Marsh Harriers I was hoping for. Sadly, even though I kept a look out for two hours, there were only the most fleeting glimpses. I had all but given up, when I saw a female perch in a distant tree top. It stayed there for about ten minutes, but then glided purposefully towards a patch in the reed bed where, unbeknown to me, the male had been resting. He must have dropped off to sleep because, when disturbed by the arriving female, he sprang into the air in alarm and they both circled around for a while. I took a few very distant shots and it was not until I looked at them closely that I saw that the female had some prey in her talons. On even closer inspection it proved to be a Snipe. Can you make it out in these rather fuzzy shots?

Food passing is a courtship behaviour in Marsh Harriers, so I guess I must have been witnessing the start of the spring blood rush! Same goes for these mating Mallards.

So I hope that you are enjoying these regular news items from the Somerset Levels. Please do follow me, share with your friends and on your circles, and visit my website for loads more photos.

Monday, 19 January 2015

It's really all about Marsh Harriers

As I and others have reported, Greylake has been great recently. There have been several days when the light has sparkled and the wildfowl obliged by taking to the air. There have been Marsh Harriers and Peregrines too. I have visited as often as I could and it has been very rewarding. 

Two Shoveler come in for a tandem landing.

Another glides past the window.

There is also a flock of Pintail at the moment.

But great as Greylake is, I always find myself moving on after an hour or two to a quiet corner of Westhay reserve. Compared with Greylake, nothing, absolutely nothing, seems to be happening. Visitors come and take a brief look out of the window at the emptiness and quickly leave. But I am happy to gaze out of the window for hours. Very little comes into view, but there is enough for me. Like this Snipe resting in the middle distance.

And a serene Gadwall glides past in the same glowing, golden water.

But it is really all about the Marsh Harriers. They only show themselves very occasionally, and then not for long. But they are well worth being patient for. Sadly, however, they seem to have a very well established patrol circuit and this studiously avoids the vicinity of the observation hides. I have a large number of distant Harrier shots on my hard disk and I really do not need any more, but I cannot help myself from pressing the button.

But sometimes you just have to get lucky! On the very rare occasion a Harrier, possibly with something else on its mind, seems to forget to keep its distance from the hide.

In the flurry of activity that these fleeting appearances cause it is difficult to keep calm and my camera pointed in the right direction.

 So far the Harriers have not come so close as to overwhelm my 560mm lens, so in saying "close" I am talking in relative terms only. The prospect of a really close approach sometime in my life time however will be enough to keep me going back until I get that dream shot - oh what folly - but harmless enough.

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Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Ducks, ducks and more ducks!

The reserve at RSPB Greylake is full of wildfowl at the moment and they make a splendid sight. The layout of the reserve is such that almost all of them are concentrated around the two public hides.  This affords great opportunities to view them in close up and to photograph them too! I do not usually take bird portraits, but the excellent light recently and the proximity of the ducks tempted me to snap these two Shoveler. The female first

 then the male

For me it is much more exciting to photograph these excellent and extraordinary looking ducks in flight, and there were a few opportunities.

But of course there were other ducks to focus on - Wigeon, Pintail, Teal and Mallard. I was keen to try to capture them as they adjusted their speed, height and attitude for landing. I think that moment gives the greatest variety of action poses and I really like my birds to be doing something! This is such a rewarding challenge that I plan to return to Greylake as soon as possible to have another go - always chasing that elusive perfect shot. Here are a couple of Wigeon trying hard to do the right thing for me!

And a pretty group of passing Wigeon.

Actually, Pintail make such a pleasing sight, it really does not much matter what they are doing. I do not think I have ever seen so much flight activity from Pintail as I have recently at Greylake.

Gadwall are almost in the same category.

 Anyway, I have saved the best bit for last. The ducks were all resting, with not much going on until a Marsh Harrier flew along the water's edge. They rose en masse calling and circling in agitation. The sky was so full of ducks that I lost sight of the Harrier, and I did not even once see the Peregrine that it turned out was hunting at the same time. Then, and it is almost a miracle, amongst all the swirling ducks I spotted a different shape flying straight and low towards the boundary fence. I fired off a few distant shots and, when I looked at them, saw that it was a Peregrine with what looks like a Snipe in its claws. It is difficult to make out in this photo and your opinion would be interesting.

Please do have a look at my website and watch out for the next Blog item coming soon.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A trip to the Seaside

A few hours of sunshine on Tuesday afternoon had me reaching for my camera and scampering down to the coast at Seaton.

The Axe Estuary reserve has been extensively developed over the past few years and now offers sumptuous (relative term) hides and wheelchair-suitable paths. There are views over the estuary and over a number of inland lagoons. The most developed part has been at Black Hole Marsh. You can access the car park for this section by driving through Seaton Cemetery - there must be a joke here somewhere, but it eludes me, any offers?

As usual, when the weather is good, you can pretty much count on the bird activity being disappointingly quiet. It is part of that well known universal law of life. There was some movement however. This Shelduck came gliding over the tram line to land in a small pond.

Another bird well represented at Seaton is the Curlew. For some reason I never seem to see many photos of Curlews in flight. I think they are quite elegant and this one makes quite a dramatic sight against a brooding sky.

A blue sky lends a different mood to the following, otherwise almost identical, Curlew shot.

Generally, I think that bird enthusiasts, such as myself, struggle to make good bird photographers. There is a tendency to concentrate only on unusual species and to overlook the common everyday birds. This is a mistake as even birds as common as Black Headed Gulls can make a fine sight.

And finally for today, just as the light was fading and I was about to leave, this Herring Gull lumbered by with it feet and bill caked in mud. Obviously heading for the coastal roost and a good bath.

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PS If anyone is interested in my views on the new Canon EOS 7D Mk2, please let me know and I will write a blog article.