Continuing on from last year, I've tried to pick out a favourite image from each month. This has been quite difficult, more difficult than I expected - this can only be a good thing though. A major disappointment is that I wasn't able to go through with my planning for specific species, and barring a couple exceptions I rarely photographed anything more than once. I made specific plans and stuck to them, for instance the local Jays, but I never really worked it, and so once again my images are from grabbed opportunities as I wandered around. Where I did plan was largely abroad, and with specific targets in mind and a decent amount of research, I'm pleased to say that most trips were very successful. More photos were of action, as opposed to simply static portraits, though there is definitely more I can do in this respect. But have I improved? Well, I never used the camera as much as I hoped as I was simply too busy, but I am definitely finding flight photography easier, and the results are speaking for themselves. The most important improvement has probably been non-technical, following a sobering incident early in the year that prompted me to ask all sorts of questions of myself. A blip, and since then I've always ensured my brain kicks in before my finger, and that can only be a positive thing both for my photography and my subjects. As with anything in life there are ups and downs, and you have to learn from both of them. The good news is that I'm still taking the kind of images that I enjoy taking, and the increased thought processes that are required makes it intensely satisfying. I'm still a big fan of the nothing backgrounds, and I'm still probably doing more in photoshop than would be strictly necessary, but gradually I can see that stopping - I am becoming far more fastidious in the field, ensuring that stray twigs and so on are simply not present, and that my backgrounds are clean, compatible, and soft. It doesn't always pan out of course, but happily I am not so fastidious as to not press the trigger if everything isn't perfect. Bottom line is that in some cases the bird is so wonderful that you don't care what else in in the frame and you take what you can while the opportunity is there.
Last year I cheated and chose more than 12 images, this year there is no such skullduggery - one per month and that's it. Very difficult, and there's easily a "B" side. Maybe I'll do a post of second bests at some point, but for now here are the ones that have personally given me the most satisfaction, and bring back some of the best memories. At its heart, photography is a very personal hobby.
January - Black Wheatear
I treated myself to a two day trip to Morocco in early January, and whilst I took many lovely photos, the memory of this Black Wheatear remains to this day. I took an uncharted road into the middle of nowhere specifically looking for Black Wheatear, and after some massive rental car abuse spied this beauty up on a ridgeline. I sought the permission of the farmer to cross his fields and climb up to it, and was rewarded with a monumental view, a pair of Black Wheatears, and a Southern Grey Shrike that must not have seen a human before. The whole thing was staggering, and though this sounds pathetic, I felt wonderfully alive and grateful to be so. This is what birding should be about. The image I have chosen is deliberately a smaller bird in a larger frame, reflecting my small stature in an immense landscape.
February - Red-rumped Wheatear
I have massive soft spot for Wheatears, and my second trip to Morocco in February was always likely to see me trying to get an image. This species was close to the top of my targets, and was taken in the stony plains south of Guelmin - a fair old trek from Marrakech. The desert birding was out of this world, but I remember this image as the RR Wheatears were singularly difficult to get close to, always several steps ahead. To get this I jumped into a dry stream bed and crawled along it until I had reached where I had thought I has last seen the bird perched. I popped up and there is was. A cocky look back over his shoulder and he was off to out of range again. This is a vertical crop, and quite a hard one at that, but it came out very nicely and is probably my favourite image of the year.
March - Cyprus Wheatear
Can anyone detect a theme? I adore Wheatears, and this was a trip solely to see this particular species. I had researched a couple of locations so thoroughly that when I finally arrived I felt like I had been there before. The birds were back from their winter quarters, and I found several very obliging posers. Once I had worked out the favourite perches it was a matter of waiting. This stem wasn't actually a favourite perch, those seemed to be rocks or bushes, but this nearby and was used as an intermediate stop-off. I love the simplicity of this photo, and I deliberately stood tall so as get the blue blackground. It's the sea.
April - Nuthatch
Although Nuthatch is becoming more common locally, I have never managed a decent photo of one. This photo is a complete set-up, where I purposely planted a mossy stick between two trunks that the bird was feeding on. I set myself at a height where a patch of grass would provide a plain green background and waited. My joy when after a couple of circuits it bounced onto it was almost indescribable. When I left I took the perch with me, but I've not used it again so far.
May - American Robin
May was not a great month for me photographically, as half the month was spent abroad on trips which did not have birding as a primary aim. I took this photo at Niagara Falls in Canada, where the birds are very used to human traffic. I had intended to leave my lens in the car, but saw this bird perched up with light spray from the falls drifting over it. I begged forgiveness from the family and nipped back to put the 500mm on. A couple of shots only, handheld, and I rejoined the family for a fabulous day of out and out tourism with birds far from my mind.
June - Red-throated Diver
I spent a brilliant three days in Iceland just after the summer solstice. The photographic opportunities were incredible, and I got literally hundreds of incredibly clean portraits of things like Golden Plover, Harlequin Duck, Barrow's Goldeneye and Red-necked Phalaropes. It was mind-blowing, and I was in paradise, able to take my favourite style of image at almost every opportunity. But when I look back at all those great birds, it's this particular setting that I keep coming back to. It's not a clean image, it has a stem right through the eye, you can barely see the bird at all, but it sums up the landscape and the wildlife within it. We found this bird on a tiny lake, and set up some scrim netting in the dark the previous night. The following morning, once the other half of the pair has flown off to fish, we crept down one at a time, hopefully keeping the netting between us and the bird. I don't think it worked in the slightest, and the bird knew exactly where we were, but it didn't move. When the second bird returned with a fish we concentrated on that in the clear water, but for some reason I took this one - not the kind of photo I'd normally take but I really like it for the memory of the place.
July - Caspian Tern
Another trip, this time a city break in Helsinki. But I took my wildlife lens! The plane landed at about midnight, and rather than stay in a hotel I got off the bus in the north of the city and walked to a vast reed bed where I spent the night. I won't pretend it was the most comfortable night I've ever spent, but the sounds and the mists were spectacular, and it meant that in the morning I was in the prime position to watch this Caspian Tern having its first fishing expedition of the day. The scene was breath-takingly beautiful and I was the only person to experience it. Soft mists swirling up from the water as the sun rose, with this majestic bird stealing the show. I actually get quite emotional when I see this image, the early morning was absolutely perfect.
August - Sparrowhawk
An unproductive month for the camera for some reason; my favourite images are all of the kids on holiday in the Hebrides. So I'm scraping the barrel here rather, but this image brings back great memories of what was a great birding trip to Falsterbo in Sweden as the southbound migration really kicked in. I took my camera, but it played second fiddle to the spectacle of migrating raptors and passerines. This Sparrowhawk was one of many that passed along the golf course and out over the sea, pausing sometimes for a speculative grab at a Tree Pipit or Yellow Wagtail. It was one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles I'd ever seen, the sheer numbers of birds made anything in the UK seem a pittance in comparison. You cannot fail to have noticed that a great many of my favourite photos above are not from the UK and there's a reason for that, there are simply more birds abroad, in some cases staggeringly more.
September - Fulmar
I took this on the cliffs at Sumburgh on Shetland, one of my favourite birding locations. I try and get there annually, even if for only a few days. As usual it was superb, and though I didn't score the big one this time, I saw more decent quality birds in four days than you would think possible! I think I was dipping a Red-flanked Bluetail when I took this - having a camera means that there is always something to fall back on if the first order of business has buggered off! Despite what you may think, I remain very much a birder.
October - Jay
I had noticed the local Jays storing sweet chestnuts at a certain location on the patch, and I made sure to make some time for them. I took none of the right equipment but still got something that made me pretty happy. I vowed to go back the following day with a bigger lens and a tripod, but I never did. Really these brilliant birds deserved three of four sessions, but my life is so hectic that I never got round to it. I need to slow it down to make the best of these opportunities, the autumn colours are lovely and I expect I could have done a lot better.
November - Desert Wheatear
Well, it has been several months since I chose a Wheatear photo, and this one is pleasingly much closer to home, taken at Reculver in Kent. It was one of several that arrived on the east coast, and I made sure to get down there as they are always very friendly. The bird was finding heaps of flies in the shingle, and allowed a very close approach. I waited until it had moved to another of it's perches and then lay down on the beach and waited until it came back. The morning session wasn't that great as the light was poor, but in the afternoon the weather cleared up and I benefited from some late sunshine.
December - Stonechat
A final visit to Morocco, and the shortest yet at basically a day and a half. I packed a lot in though, and this photo was taken at the Oued Massa south of Agadir. Floods that followed heavy rain had devasted the landscape, and to get to this bird was a mission in itself and required great poise and balance to avoid falling into newly formed streams. This beauty was waiting on the other side however, and made it all worthwhile.