Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Appeal of Furry Mammals

My chief passion since I took up photography  about five years ago has been to catch birds in flight. It still is. However, I can't help noticing that when I post pictures on Facebook it always seems to be the occasional picture of a mammal that draws the warmest reaction. I think this Fox however looked a bit too mean and focused to elicit many "oohs" and "aahs"

I photographed it at Seaton in Devon on the Axe Estuary Reserve. There is a tourist tram service that runs alongside the estuary and I caught it running along the lines. It is obviously intent on something. The following day I went back to try to get another shot. For various heart-breaking reasons I missed the main opportunity as it ran along the lines in the other direction this time. I did however get this fleeting shot.

Rubbish photo, but interesting because you can see it has milk teats showing beneath. It is obviously a vixen with a brood of young in the earth. It should be very active over the next few weeks so I will be going back to see what I can do.

Another mammal readily seen on this reserve is the humble rabbit. Funnily enough I do not seem to see many rabbit photos posted on the web, oerhaps they are too common to interest anyone. Anyway, I like a good rabbit photo or two.

Other than these recent photos, I have to go back into my archive to find more mammal photos. Compared to Rabbits, Hares are very popular. Here are a few of my Hare shots collected over the years. I would love to get some more and I am always on the look out.

Some photographers set themselves specific subjects to photograph and study over an extended period. I think this is a good idea and there are some fantastic collections to be found online. I find myself to me more of an opportunistic generalist, photographing whatever I come across and crossing my fingers that some of the shots will be OK.

This Mink was also photographed at the Seaton Reserve. I was really lucky that it came out into the open and showed itself for a few seconds. They are not popular animals of course. They rob eggs and nestlings from the breeding shore birds. They are controlled on most reserves, but still manage to keep a toehold.

 Whilst the Mink may not be that cute, this Wood Mouse certainly is. Ten out of ten I would say.

 I am going to try to concentrate on mammals a bit this year. Much more difficult than birds of course. They are timid and elusive but that just sounds like an interesting challenge to me!

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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Greylag - and some fish

Unusually, this blog is mainly about just one bird - the Greylag goose. Although they are not uncommon, I don't usually come across them. A few days ago however, a few condescended to visit the lake I was watching. Here are two coming in to land.

I like geese. On a mundane level they are big enough to make getting a decent photographic image fairly straightforward. More than that though, they speak to me of the Arctic Tundra. Actually, I believe that most UK Greylags actually breed here, but they still have a whiff of cold open spaces for me and they make a lovely honking noise! What more could you want in a goose?

These geese turned up the other day just when I was beginning to despair. I had visited various sites around the Somerset Levels and there was very little in the way of bird activity to see. After an empty hour or two in my final hide, I was just about to give up when this exciting honking sound brought me to attention. Suddenly, there was a pair of them flying low over the reed tops heading straight for me. Unless you have done this sort of thing yourself you may have difficulty understanding what a thrill this is. From dreamy lethargy to concentrated attention in less than a second! Camera waving about trying to pick them up in the telephoto lens, then a period of panic as the autofocus system tries to make up its mind whether or not to focus on them. Suddenly, there they are, crisp and clear in the viewfinder and you press the button to initiate a rapid-fire burst of shots.

Once the excitement is over and they are serenely paddling about on the water, I watch them like a hawk might. One of the tricks I have eventually learned as a wildlife photographer is that you have to try to anticipate what the birds are going to do next. With the geese, I am waiting for a sign that they are about to take off again. If you can spot this you have a chance of getting your camera ready to catch the take off sequence, a nice bit of action. With Greylags the sign seems to be some head movements then taking a drink or two of water then, often as not, they clatter and splash into the sky. Other species have different signs of impending flight, but head bobbing and looking up are common. Here goes this one!

Then the job is to try to follow them as they pass in front of the lakeside foliage and gain height. Most cameras find it very difficult to maintain focus on the bird instead of picking up on the leaves and branches behind them. The Canon 7D Mk2 seems to manage!

And then they are off at cruise altitude.

That was an exciting little episode and re-kindled my passion for birds-in-flight photography.

Otherwise I have been exploring new areas of photography in my garden, or more exactly in my garden pond. These two "Gold" fish are friends of mine.

Years ago we introduced some fancy fish of the normal orange colour. Over a year or two  a Heron started thinning them out. Unsurprisingly it ate for preference those that could be seen the most easily, i.e. the orange ones. Occasionally, some of the young fish hatched that year would have dark patches on them, or be entirely grey. This of course is classic Darwinian "selection pressure". Being orange was not good, whereas being entirely or partially grey gave an increased probability of living long enough to breed. Sure enough, over a decade or two, the colour of the entire population reverted to a natural Carp Grey tint.

I have also been trying to keep on top of the Garden-Bird-in-Flight project, seeking ever more extreme viewpoints to give some variety in my photos. Here is a Blue Tit coming into land and viewed from below.

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Saturday, 21 March 2015

The work continues....

I sometimes get the impression that people underestimate the amount of work that can be involved in getting a good bird-in-flight shot. Sometimes of course it is simple. A bird flies over and you just happen to be in the right place to squeeze off the perfect shot - can't actually remember when that last happened to me, but it must be possible! However, working with garden birds usually requires a lot more planning and hard work.

This Blue Tit shot above for example is the result of some careful jiggery-pokery. You can see that the twig is tied to something else; actually it is a garden cane. This cane is in turn fixed to an aluminium framework that I have erected in my garden as something of a bird studio.

The birds tend to fly from a natural perch in a nearby hedge. I have a special electronic detector placed so that most of them will fly over it. The camera is pre-focused on the point where I hope they will be when the shutter fires - pure guess work. The vast majority of shots obtained in this way are out of focus, but some come out well.

In the one below, I have re-positioned the camera to try to get an upward-looking shot. That works, but the timing is wrong, the bird has just landed whereas I want to catch it just before that point. That means I have some more experimentation to do today. Actually, even though the bird has just landed, it has not settled, so you get some dynamic tension in the shot which you don't usually see in a perched bird photo.

The same comment applies to the photo below.

Apart from garden birds, I have also been making trips to the Somerset Levels to see what can be found. Not much at this time of year actually, with the winter visitors thinning out and the spring visitors yet to arrive, but you can still usually find something to make a nice photo.

Great Crested Grebes are always a fine sight.

The Herons (below) are nesting in the reeds.

Little Egrets might be doing the same.

 And even a pair of Mallard make a nice picture as they pass a woodland background as they cruise to land.

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Friday, 6 March 2015

Working hard on the garden birds in flight.

 As the spring hots up and with the prospect of an exciting day ahead with Charlie Bishop doing one of his excellent Kingfisher courses, I have been honing my skills and developing new equipment to try to catch one of those jewels of the river bank in full flight.

 At the moment I am experimenting with a Doppler radar element, similar to the ones they must have in the roadside cameras to catch speeding motorists. This device detects the birds as they approach the feeder or perch and, using my home-made electronic control box, fires the camera.

 The difficult part is getting the focus right. There is no time for autofocus, so I have to pre-focus manually on the spot where I expect the bird to be when the camera fires. There is always a short delay between detection and shutter firing so it is really a matter of guess work.

 The best that can be hoped for is to get some of the shots in focus and just get used to the fact that many will have to be thrown away as not sharp enough. Sometimes it breaks my heart to have to throw away what would have been a beautiful shot except for the dodgy focus.

 One day one of these photos will be of a Kingfisher approaching to land on a riverside twig. I can only hope that it will be in focus!

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