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.