Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Seven Year Itch for 'Storm Bats'

Regular readers will have noticed I have not updated this blog for a while. There has been a couple of reasons for this. Firstly I thought I needed to have a break to recharge the 'blogging batteries'. After all I have been writing this journal now continuously for 11 years. Secondly I have effectively 'lost' the first 5 years or so of photographs from my musings which as you can imagine I was none to impressed with. This came about as for a period when producing the blog in the early years, I started hosting images on here through Photobucket. Unfortunately, Photobucket has now started charging for 3rd party site hosting and frankly I am not prepared to pay the $400 per year they are now charging that would bring the images back. I could go back through and re-enter all the post images but as you can imagine for a 5 year period this is no small undertaking and probably something I may actually never get round to.

Anyway, I have decided to start blogging once more, and in my 7 month absence have had some wonderful wildlife experiences which I look forward to sharing with you. I will start with the most recent which took place only this week.

I am fortunate to live at the end of the Wirral Peninsula which is probably one of the few and best places in the UK to photograph Leach's Storm Petrel from the shore when the conditions are right. The ideal conditions are strong north-westerly gales for a period of two to three days, ideally couple with some large tides around the middle to end of September. The last time this occurred and big numbers of Leach's Petrel were blown into the shore was way back in 2010. Every September since, I have carefully watched weather and tide conditions hoping and waiting for a repeat performance but it has just not developed. It seemed that every September that came round was accompanied by settled conditions with a lack of the necessary storms. People often ask me how long did you have to wait to get a particular photograph? Often it is not as long as you would imagine but for the Leach's Petrels, the 7 year wait has felt like a very long time.

At the end of last week, I was on my usual September weather watch and it appeared that all the right conditions were suddenly going to converge to bring in goods numbers of Leach's Petrel into the local shore. The winds were right, the tide heights and times were all looking good. Before I get on to some images I will take a few moments to describe why these are such challenging birds to photograph from the shore beyond the waiting for all the right conditions to come together. The Leach's Petrel is a small bird  about the size of a starling and tend to be very erratic in their moments in the onshore gales. To me they often resemble a large bat which is why I call them 'Storm Bats'. The conditions that bring them into shore makes for some tough photography. They require use of long lens that usually need to be handheld to try and keep on the birds, the strong winds buffet both camera and photograph and also this is accompanied by a constant sea spray off the raging sea. The birds appear and disappear within the rolling breakers and twist and turn as they try and battle their way back out to sea. You have to admire these birds that appear so small and delicate but apparently totally fearless in these conditions as they characteristically patter across the turbulent water surface. Below are a couple of images to give you an idea of the conditions that birds and photographers are battling with.

So on to the session itself, I left home at lunchtime on Monday and after a couple of minutes drive and I was at the mouth of the River Mersey. Groups of birdwatchers were parked up or huddled in groups against the Perch Rock Fort out of the pummelling wind looking for these elusive birds. A chat with a couple of them confirmed that the Leach's Petrel were appearing. This meant they would slowly make their way along the north coast of the Wirral as the tide dropped. I moved on further along the coast to park at the top of an embankment where I spotted around a few birds struggling their way through the waves, however too distant for photography. However, if the birds were here it should mean they would hit the shore at my favourite spot which is where I headed to next. My friend Steve arrived quickly followed by a sharp downpour of rain which was whipped horizontally by the onshore winds. However, the skies then cleared and we started to get some good light as the first of the Leach's Petrel made it way along the edge. Over the next 2.5 hours we had around 20 birds pass close to where we were stood, sometimes too close, allowing us both to make some of our favourite Leach's Petrel images to date. The will be many images below as all my previous images of these wonderful birds from back in 2010 have currently disappeared in the Photobucket 'black hole'.

So will I have to wait another 7 years before the next petrels to appear? Well possibly not. With the series of hurricanes currently battering the east coast of the USA it may be possible that remnants of these storms may wind their way across the North Atlantic bringing more birds into shore. As usual during the rest of September, I will be keep a close eye on the weather with the hope of another encounter with these wonderful ocean wanderers.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Winter Light

Photography is all about using light to show your subject at it best. For me, this is about using natural light as I don't use flash. Many years ago I tried some flash photography trying to capture small birds in flight and was so disturbed at the response of the birds that have not used it since. I don't have any problem with the use of fill flash during daylight for those that want to use it. However,  Aacurrent trend I find particularly worrying at the moment is photographing owls at night with multiple flash set ups at baited posts. With their highly sensitive night vision, this must be impacting on the birds with temporary blindness and their long term hunting success. Now I know there are all kinds or arguments surrounding this concerning the negative effects which I not going to enter into. All i can say is this practice seems wrong and it bothers me greatly.

For those photographers who just use natural light, winter is a very special time of year. The low elevation of the sun produces beautiful soft warm light to work  through large parts of the day. Unfortunately, living in cloudy north west England,  such days can be few and far between and so you have to make the most of them when they do occasionally arise. On occasions it can feel like an eternity of cloud between sunny moments. The other benefit of course is that it easy to get out at first light without the need to set your alarm to ridiculous o'clock, so you can have a nice relaxed start to the day and still be at your chosen site at sunrise to catch the first important rays. Even at this time of year, both ends of the day tend to produces the most evocative images.

The collection of images below are from my recent winter wanderings and in no particular order.

I have spent a little time down by the huge area of local salt marshes hoping to capture some short-eared owls. As with most photography of hunting owls it is a game of luck and whether they fly close to your chosen position. Given the size of the marsh, success rate can be fairly low and it requires many hours effort to be rewarded with only a few images. Given the time requirements, the moments when the sun is out and the owls are close occur even more infrequently.

When the sun does shine at this site in the afternoons it tends to be at a tricky angle and ranges from side lit through to full backlit.
Sat waiting by the marsh for long periods you do see plenty of other birds, particularly raptors such as hen harrier and marsh harrier although often at too far a distance for photography. Occasionally one does come closer. This is a silhouette of a marsh harrier hovering over the reeds at last light.
While waiting by the marsh, there are usually some small birds around the edge to pass the time such as Stonechat.

Another place I find myself waiting around quite a bit during the winter is one of the local marine lakes. This gets some interesting birds on it and can be good for photography as it allows in places for you to get right down at that water level perspective. However, with it covering an area of around 60 acres and having high numbers of visitors, catching the birds close to the edge requires paitence. I usually visit at first light when the number of people and dogwalkers around is low.

A Cormorant surfacing at first light.
There are usually several Red-breasted Merganser on the lake each winter.
This winter they were joined by two female Goosander.
One benefit of the number of visitors is that the wading birds are relatively accustomed to people which provides some photo opportunities while waiting. In this case a Redshank in flight.
One difference this winter is that there have been very high numbers of Brent Geese overwintering on Hilbre Island off the north west corner of the Wirral peninsula. Usually they stay on the island but some have been venturing over to the mainland this year which gave a couple of opportunities to put these long distance travellers in front of the lens for the first time.

Moving closer to home. At the end of the street where I live is the River Mersey, which gets reasonable numbers of waders on the intertidal area. For some unknown reason, I rarely venture down there with a camera. To get it at its best all the right conditions need to coincide with late afternoon sun and the right state of tide i.e as the tide is coming up to high water or ebbing away leaving a narrow strip of shore for the birds. As I work from home now, a couple of weeks back the weather and tides came together for a quick mid-afternoon break from the computer for an hour. It was an enjoyable brief session photographing a foraging Curlew and some Oystercatcher picking around the rocks for crabs and mussels.

Maybe I should try and visit the end of my street more often! It is all too easy to overlook what is on your 'doorstep'. Unfortunately it does not look like the sun will put in an appearance this weekend, such is the way of winter weather, but there is more promise in the forecast for next week for maybe a quick work break session. Fingers crossed for some more of that glorious winter light to come before spring is upon us.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Winter Fieldfare

The winter influx of Fieldfare from the north seemed to be late this winter.  I checked the usual sites in November and the rowans were laden with berries but empty of birds. However, they did eventually arrive in big numbers providing some photography fun during December. These birds are one of my favourite thrushes, such smart and attractive looking birds and typically show quite a bit of variation in the intensity of their colour and markings.

Photographing birds feeding in trees on berries requires some patience to get the birds in a good setting otherwise you end up with images of birds in a 'jungle' of sticks.

My usual approach is to look carefully at the tree and trying to select the end of branches or the lower branches where a bird can be photographed against a clean background. Whilst waiting I always concentrate on particular branches hoping the birds will land there. Sometimes they do, often they don't. The ideal point to visit a rowan tree is when the birds have reduced the berries down to the lower branches, as they tend to eat their way down from the top, which generally provides some better opportunities and also the chance for some more interesting backgrounds. A couple of examples of this are shown below. Having found an interesting background these two photographs show a bird on the same branch, the first with a bird closer to the tree trunk and second photograph was taken by waiting for one to land on the end of the branch.

Another example, in my view the first has a few too many distracting elements in the image whereas the second is more the type of image I hope to photograph.

Of course this is not always possible, and so when the sky forms the background it is important to choose a day of good weather, which can be infrequent in the winter, to provide a blue sky for the backdrop. In my view a bird in a rowan in dull light against a white sky is a non-starter and on these days its time to look for birds on the ground.  Fortunately in December we have had a couple of periods of high pressure providing  good conditions for photographing the birds and of course such days are accompanied by that wonderful golden soft low winter light.

A further advantage of the ends of branches or those hanging down from the tree is that they also provide some more interesting photos as the they are thin and unstable and usually requires some balancing by the bird to stay on them. The four images below are from a rowan where the remaining berries were on long thin branches hanging down. The birds needing to use their tails and wings to balance.

The constant mantra while photographing the birds is setting and background....setting and background....  and small changes in position can make a big difference to the resulting photographs.

After the birds have been on the rowans for a few days you tend to start finding them on the ground below feeding on fallen berries.

However, Fieldfare are relatively shy birds and so remain always alert and wary.

When not feeding on the berries they will start hunting worms and as with all thrushes show the characteristic slow moment across the grass listening for the worms below.

I will finish off this post with a day I went out and the sky wasn't really suitable for photographing birds in the trees so I was looking for birds on the ground. Eating berries tends to make the birds thirsty and so they will often visit puddles to drink and bathe. I managed to find a group using a long puddle in the middle of a quiet cul-de-sac and immediately spotted an opportunity for some images.

Interestingly after the birds left the puddle, I went to look at it from the other side and found it would have created images with dark water and been back-lit which could have produced some interesting photographs. Maybe something for another day.


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