This page will act as a photographic journal. What I'm using, why I like various bits of kit, how I set up certain shots. Stuff that on the whole would act as a massive turn-off for anyone not interested in wildlife photography. 

Cyprus Pied Wheatear fun

April 29, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

It has been a very long time since I posted anything here. Mainly I feel that it has been a very long time since I have taken anything worthwhile. All that changed on a quick visit to Cyprus over the first bank holiday weekend. The target bird was Cyprus Pied Wheatear, a monochromatic bird of arid environments, and one in my experience that you can get relatively close to if you persevere. They arrive back in Cyprus in March, unfortunately after the wintering Finsch’s Wheatear have departed so you can never see both on one trip, and in mid-April are firmly on territory. Whilst they are no doubt at many spots on the island, my favourite place to see them is Cape Greco, as in addition to being able to photos against the more typical sandy backdrops, there are areas where you can get them against the pure blue of the Mediterraenean Sea.

I only had two mornings (which is when the light is best and the birds are at their most active and conspicuous) so I needed to work quickly. At the first site I tried on the peninsula I found a pair of birds straight away. With the benefit of hindsight I spent far too long trying to get shots of these birds when they were simply not playing ball. This is often the trouble with more than one bird – they feed off each other’s anxiety almost, but I am so rusty at the moment that I failed to recognize this and wasted a lot of time on what was never going to be a successful outcome. I could get close to one of the birds, but not both together, and whenever they were separated they liked to join up. One had far less tolerance and this affected the other bird too. I eventually gave up after about 90 minutes, but I had wasted the best light of the day.

At the next site I tried I struck gold immediately. A lone bird that was staking out a relatively small territory and had not yet paired up – yes! Now it does depend on the personality of the individual, but in some cases you get birds that are far more tolerant of a close approach than others. Despite the physical size of SLR telephoto lenses, for small birds like Wheatears you do need to be pretty close to them for a decent photographic result. This is one of the main reasons for conflict between photographers and birders in my opinion, the latter don’t understand that a camera does not magnify in any way to the same extent as a spotting scope, and for many photographers an image taken at the same range as somebody using a 50x zoom simply isn’t worth taking. The counter argument is that the person using the scope will very likely not disturb the bird, whereas the person with the camera runs much more of a risk. With care this can be minimized, or avoided altogether, and I certainly left this bird exactly as I found it, singing away from atop its favourite perch, in this case a yellow sign – the highest vantage point in this particular landscape. As the light was getting harsh, I only took a few photos at this point, I was mainly watching the bird and planning for the following morning as I felt sure it would still be here.

Just after dawn the next morning I was back on site, and the bird was indeed still present. Now I don’t want a yellow sign in my photos, so before I started in earnest I went on a scouting mission for pleasing rocks. I have found this to be an excellent tactic in creating natural-looking images of birds whilst still allowing those birds to remain in their favourite places. I simply placed rocks on top of all the Wheatear’s non-natural perches and retreated. In this instance the bird did not even hesitate and was perching on ‘my’ perch on his perch within a couple of minutes. It was still the best vantage point, and from a Wheatear’s point of view there was nothing suspicious about a rock. Frankly I probably could have placed a tin of beans on the sign and it would likely have perched on it. To get the biggest photos I could, that is to say as many pixels as possible on the bird, I took the longest lens I own with me and added a teleconverter to it. No bird (well, there are a number of exceptions I can recall) will let you walk right up to it, so the longer you lens the ‘closer’ you can get without spooking it. I found that I could almost fill the frame on this bird and it would just sit there as I was still outside of its perceived danger zone. If I had taken, say, a 400mm lens I probably would have flushed it repeatedly. As it was it only flew from me a few times when I pushed my luck, and even then it just went to a different perch that I had also pre-loaded with rocks.

The following are all taken with Canon’s 800mm f5.6 lens, frequently with the 1.4x teleconverter. This gives a minimum of f8 and restricted me to a single central focus point, but with a focal length of 1120mm. Add to this the natural cropping factor of my now ancient 1D mk 4 and I had a staggering amount of zoom. This allowed me to get the bird extremely large in the frame whilst staying back - ultimately the less you flush a bird the more time you can spend taking photos of it. I used my monopod as support, something I have not done for a while – essential with this set up. By adjusting the height of the monopod I could change the background – sea, sky, a distant bush, or simply the sandy coloured rocky ground. So the following represent probably the best from that morning’s wonderful session with an incredibly cooperative bird – I hope you enjoy them as much as I reveled in taking them. The last thing I did before I left? Removed all the rocks. Before I was back in the car the bird was back on the metal edge of the yellow sign.


Florida - Brown Pelican

June 02, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I never saw many Brown Pelicans, but when I did I often saw them spectacularly well. Typically there would always be one cruising up and down whatever beach I was on - the trick I never managed was being exactly parallel to the bird as it either dived or landed, but I had a lot of fun trying! They're enormous, so big that even I can manage to lock onto one in flight - as you may have gathered not exactly a forté of mine. I mostly concentrated on the waders on the beach, but when a Pelican came close I rose from my prostrate position on the sand, changed camera settings and had a go. Some of the images I really like, but as always I know I can do a lot better if I spent some proper time concentrating on them. The trouble with Florida is that there is too much to do. 

As an aside a dear friend of mine, now sadly departed, used to call Pelicans Pelihonks. He was not much of a birder to be fair, and his ID skills were somewhat lacking, but during a long trip we took together up and down the East coast of Australia many years ago I gradually got him to at least start looking at them. Predator Budgie was his generic term for any bird of prey, but it is Pelihonk that has somehow stuck with me for nearly two decades - so much so that whenever I see a Pelican of any species I am immediately reminded of him. So here's to Pelihonks and great guy who went too soon.

The image above reminds me of a 747 coming into land with flaps extended. They're actually quite nimble in the air despite their size, and like a Gannet can twist and turn at the precise moment to time their dive to perfection. I however had trouble timing my coordination to perfection, and did not manage a perfect dive shot. The image below is probably the closest I came.

All of the images above were taken on an uncharacteristically murky day on the Gulf Coast. On my final morning however the sun came out which made a huge difference. I probably already mentioned it but I was so unused to the brightness that it took me a long time to control my whites. Not that there is much white on a Brown Pelican, but on adults the neck can bleach out - as can be seen on a couple of these images. Not enough to worry me, but then bright whites seldom do!



Florida - other Terns

June 02, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Whilst Royal Tern was the dominant species in terms of numbers during my November visit to the Gulf Coast, some other species were present too - Sandwich Tern and Forster's Tern. They were most transient than the larger species, seemingly dipping in and out only briefly, particularly Forster's Tern. I managed a few frames of both in overcast conditions one morning.

The American form of Sandwich Tern, known by some authorities as Cabot's Tern, is a breeder on the atlantic coasts of the USA, and 90% of its population winters in the Gulf. Although the european version has made it across, the overwhelmingly likelihood is Cabot's - and they can be separated by better birders than I on a more robust bill structure and on moult timing at certain times of year. Sound tough? You bet, but below are two images of Cabot's from St Pete Beach.

Below are two images of Forster's Tern, which is a much smaller bird. I wasn't certain I'd ever seen one before as I didn't know what it was when it landed in amongst the throng. It didn't stay for very long unfortunately and I would very much have liked longer with it as it seemed very characterful. I'm racking up a good list of terns now, what with all the species in Dubai last year and then various odd birds on my travels, including a Black-naped Tern from Thailand identified from a nearly 20 year old 35mm slide!

Florida - Royal Tern

May 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

A very common bird on the beaches of Florida is the Royal Tern, generally roosting just above the waterline. When I went in November there were plenty around, many with fully-grown chicks continually begging for food. Here's a chick with an adult behind it.

I spent a bit of time photographing their antics, but mostly they just loafed rather than doing anything particularly interesting. They're large birds though, large enough that you don't need to use much focal length - I found a bare 500mm lens too much a lot of the time, but unfortunately I don't have anything else. Is it time to repurchase a 300mm f2.8, or could I get away with that new 100-400mm I wonder. I recently cut back on a few lenses, selling three that I have not missed one little bit. You can of course never have the perfect kit bag....

Not once did I see an adult actually give a begging chick any food. Perhaps this late in the season they are encouraging the youngsters to sort themselves out and become independent. This did not stop the chicks incessant calling however. I would be very interested to go back in the summer to see proper parenting behaviour - a photograph with the passing of a fish or eel would be a lot more interesting, and depending on when I went the chicks might be small and fluffy. I'd also be able to go to that Skimmer colony I have tucked away - time to start looking at flight sales perhaps, another cheeky weekend in 2017...



The Blue Zone

May 20, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I've recently discovered a phenomenon which I call the blue zone. After sunset, a varying amount of minutes depending I am guessing on where you are in the world and what date, the sky when photographed with a longish exposure will go a deep shade of blue. I imagine that many photographers have known about this for a long time, but as I say it was a new one on me. It is no good for birds obviously, however for landscapes it is excellent. You will need a tripod, or be able to find a suitable perch for your camera which will keep it still (I often use my bag to create a level surface and simply rest it on that), and ideally a cable release. Using either a long exposure or the bulb feature where you can keep the shutter open indefinitely, the trick is just to experiment with different lengths of exposure until you draw out the blue - be warned though, the light only stays like this for a matter of minutes so you don't get many chances. Ensure you have done all your framing and so on well before you get to the appointed time!

Here are a couple of the Hungarian Parliament building on the Danube at Budapest, as well as one of Valletta in Malta. Well lit impressive buildings are the ideal subjects for these types of images. Just bird photos? Well, nearly! The Danube photos are 6 second exposures at f11 and f13, and the one from Malta is at 5 seconds at f11, all using ISO 50. The reason for the long exposures was to soften the water but it also seems to make the blues more intense.