Friday, 28 August 2015

Birds of the Reed Beds start to Stir

After several weeks of almost total inactivity at #RSPB Ham Wall, some signs of life yesterday! The Great Egrets were making occasional flights. This one ended up by landing in the reeds right in front of me. Here is a sequence of three shots as it approaches.

I just love it when I get lucky like this, especially if, as yesterday, I am waiting for hours and hours for anything to happen. It is a shame that you cannot see the originals of these shots. My new birds-in-flight combination of the Canon 400mm f4 DO II lens and the Canon 7D MkII camera is proving to be a killer combo! I always use it with the Canon 1.4x teleconverter and it is still light enough to carry around all day even if I am walking miles.

Having replaced the original version of the 400mm f4 DO with the recently-released MkII I am mightily impressed by the increased sharpness that I am getting. I read all the bad comments about the original lens but nevertheless generally seemed to get good results with it. I used it on the original 7D for about four years. The new lens however is a class above the original.

Of course, it takes time to come to a conclusion like that, especially with birds in flight. By the very nature of the activity quite a lot of the photos come out blurred to one degree or another, even with the best technology to help you. So you have to look at the good shots you eventually get and compare them with what you used to regard as good with the previous equipment. When I do that I am seeing levels of sharpness that I do not think I have ever really achieved before.

Sadly, even small improvements in quality come at very high financial cost. The Canon 400mm f4 II is not cheap, but I could not be without it. It was impossible for me to continue with the old one knowing that there was a better one out there. I just could not rest easy. Here is a nice sharp Grey Heron.

These shots are all the more amazing if you know what chaos reigns behind the camera when a bird suddenly shows after hours of nothing happening. Suddenly I am trying to do everything at once. Even getting the bird in the viewfinder is not easy. I just press the button and the technology then does the rest, focus and exposure. I am often amazed to see what it has managed to come up with!

Whilst we are talking Herons, here is an earlier shot taken in the winter whilst this one was fishing.

The reeds are their winter colour. I won't be long now before they start to turn from Summer green. Here is a distant shot of a Great Egret doing a bit of fishing too.

The other bird that put in occasional appearance yesterday was the Bittern.

At this time of year they just pop up out of the reeds, fly for about twenty seconds, then drop out of sight for the rest of the day. It is so frustrating as they almost always take me by complete surprise and I cannot even get the camera on to them. The one above though made the mistake of making a slightly longer flight and passing right in front of the hide. Even I had a chance.

Another bird which is usually easier to photograph is the Mute Swan. Trouble is, they almost always look pretty much the same floating along, so I was quite grateful to be able to snap this more interesting pose.

Obviously having a good stretch prior to doing something energetic, like paddling serenely along.

Finally a nice shot of Glastonbury Tor to remind us all that Ham Wall is in Somerset!

Actually, not quite the last shot as I would like you to know that I also got several distant Marsh Harrier sightings during the day.

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Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Make a calendar? OK it's a date!

I had an interesting email from a friend the other day who wanted to tell me about a company called Calvendo. They produce and sell calendars created by photographers using their own photos. Calvendo were particularly interested in bird photos at that time so since I have thousands of nice photos just languishing on my computer I thought I would have a go.

So far I have produced two calendars, the cover of one of them is shown above.

Like so many photographers I would dearly like to have an outlet for my work. It is one thing amassing a collection of beautiful shots, but quite another to share them with other people and enjoy their delight in your work. This is what someone called "oxygen for artists". Without feedback and appreciation like this the artist can become stale and demotivated. Oxygen from outside is needed to breathe life back into your passion. That is partly why I write this Blog, have a website  and a Facebook page

The Calvendo interface is really slick and easy to use, their web address is if you want to have a look. 

You first upload thirteen photos, one for the cover and one for each month of the year. Then you choose a calendar format and allocate photos to each page - their capable interface makes sure that you do this correctly. The calendar above was produced to A4 format and is specifically for the UK market. You could choose a French or German version if you wanted, as long as you know enough to provide text in those languages! I am thinking of having a go at a French one - bit scared though!

Selecting photos for each calendar was really the difficult bit for me. Here are some flying Swans from my archive which I included in this calendar.

 And here what I consider to be a beautiful shot of a Great Egret.

 And below is Miss May, a Bittern for that month!

I could show you all the months of course, but perhaps just one more on this Blog. It's a Short Eared Owl for March.

I had often wanted to do a calendar and actually did make one a few years ago! I only paid to have 25 printed and even then I was sweating about selling them all before the advent of January killed the market. So publishing a calendar is normally a big risk. Who wants a bedroom full of unsold and unsellable out-of-date calendars to dispose of?

That is the beauty of the Calvendo approach. Firstly, they only print calendars when they receive an order and, secondly, the calendar that you create this year can be reused in subsequent years because they simply change the dates information that goes with the photos. 

You can set a price for your own creation and a table immediately tells you the amount you will receive for each calendar sold. My only beef with the pricing is that the minimum price you are allowed to set looks quite expensive to me. Anyway, it is all completely free to you and does not cost a penny.

I do not know if I will sell any, but Calvendo do their best to maximise your chances. Once you have submitted your creation they give it a good hard looking at and offer advice on any changes that might be needed to maximise its impact. They arrange for it to be allocated an ISBN number and then list it on various websites - here is my listing on Book Depository   Amazon listing is in the pipeline.

So what about my second calendar I hear you asking?

That one is called "Garden Birds in Flight" and here is the cover photo.

You might notice that I have chosen to go for the "international" square format for this one. I have no idea if it will make any difference. Here is just one more shot from that creation

Here is the Book Depository listing for this one

Here is a link to both calendars on the Calvendo site

So, I obviously do not yet know how well it is all going to work out, but I have my fingers crossed. Certainly Calvendo have provided all the mechanics and the support that were needed to get these projects off the ground (get it?). All I had to do was provide the photos - simples. It has been a very satisfying process and I already have ideas for two more projects.

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Oh! and you may even like to buy a calendar, it would mean a lot to me!


Sunday, 9 August 2015

Meanwhile, back in the garden ...

... this Great Spotted Woodpecker has been visiting.

I have dusted off my home-made electronic gadgets and had another go at capturing photos of my high-speed visitors. Here is the Woodpecker again, this time trying a different angle of approach.

It is partly because bird activity on the marshes is at its annual low point that I have retreated to the garden to see what I can achieve. The activity elsewhere has not quite dwindled to zero however, as these Bittern pics recently gathered at Ham Wall show.

You really have to be quick to catch Bitterns in flight at this time of year. They only fly very occasionally, and then only for short distances. The first I knew about these was a clattering noise followed by the sudden appearance of the Bittern as it left one reed bed and rapidly flew across to disappear in the next. There was hardly time to get the camera on to it and most of my shots were out of focus so I am grateful to have got these few. They catch me by surprise every time and in between appearances I tend to relax too much into the calming silence of the water and the softly swaying reeds.

So, back to the garden. If Bitterns are hard to catch, then small garden birds are very difficult. This is why I have developed a range of electronic detectors which I can use to trigger my camera as they pass. It is not the only way to do it, but I like inventing things and exercising my ingenuity rather than my patience sometimes! Here is a Great Tit caught coming in to land.

All these photos are taken by natural light, so I need bright sunlight to get the necessary fast shutter speed. Even then it is hard to get a sharp image.  The Great Tit is not too bad in this respect but I do set myself high standards and I am often a bit disappointed.

The story of how I do this is something I relate in my illustrated talks. If you are a member of a group based somewhere near me in Somerset you might like to consider booking me and hearing the story for yourself.

My array of home-built equipment is quite extensive now and I am always looking for novel ways to exercise it. If I come up with anything special I will certainly share it with you.

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Saturday, 1 August 2015

Birds we are sick of ...

Somewhere in England there are probably bird photographers who are sick of the sight of Marsh Harriers, but not here and not me! Those who inhabit areas like Norfolk probably have them feeding at their bird tables and heartily wish they would go away to make room for some "interesting" birds.

Here in Somerset however, they are not that common. They are very wary too. So to see one or, even better, get close to one is still a great thrill. Even better if the camera manages to focus on one and get a few good shots.


If you see one head-on, there is not that much to it. Obviously it pays to have a very low area and thereby keep drag to a minimum.

Whereas, seen from underneath, the massive wing and tail area becomes apparent. This is the perfect setup for low speed flight. Which is what Harriers do of course, just float about over the reeds looking for prey.


Even when everything comes together and I get one in my sights, and it looks to be near enough, it very rarely makes a good photo. Below is a young Harrier. That particular shade of chocolate brown always seems to produce a muddy, difficult-to-distinguish patch of confusion. Also, they are often against a bright sky so that you only see them in silhouette.

I know I sound ungrateful, but I have yet to get a Marsh Harrier photo that I am proud of. I will regard that as my project for the rest of my life! This is probably one of my better efforts from some time ago.

 If we do not have that many Marsh Harriers, we at least have Little Egrets in abundance.

As I have said before, therein lies a danger - we could get sick of them. It is so easy to see Little Egrets in this area that we could forget to photograph them. So I was particularly careful to concentrate on this individual that I encountered at RSPB Ham Wall. When I first saw it it was doing something odd.

It was kneeling down. (Are those its knees?) It didn't take long to find out why. All the better to do this.

Stick your beak in the water and make dibbling movements to attract small fish. This is a common fishing ploy amongst Little Egrets. Actually, this is the individual that appeared in one of my earlier blogs. Its main fishing strategy is to fly along just above the water whilst trailing its toes in the drink to make a little disturbance.

This often seemed to panic the small fry feeding near the surface. They would break the water surface and matey here would catch them. You can just about make out the fish splashes in the shot below.

Sometimes it caught them two at a time. Perhaps you can see that in the next photo. It still finds time to do some fancy toe-trailing.

 Sometimes it only caught one.


Most of the time it just posed about looking beautiful.



 And sometimes it had to deal with deadly foes.

A young Coot is not as deadly as this villain though.


Yes, a Mink. In fact there was a family of four of the blighters. No doubt the RSPB will be having a word with them soon.

So you can see that despite it being a notoriously quiet time of the year for birds, I had a great day at RSPB Ham Wall. My last shot was of this Moorhen preening itself.

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