JUST BIRD PHOTOS: Blog https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog en-us (C) Jonathan Lethbridge/JustBirdPhotos.com 2007-2017 justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Tue, 09 Jun 2020 15:58:00 GMT Tue, 09 Jun 2020 15:58:00 GMT https://www.justbirdphotos.com/img/s/v-12/u925344209-o89554882-50.jpg JUST BIRD PHOTOS: Blog https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog 79 120 Skylark lockdown https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2020/6/skylark-lockdown Now that lockdown in London is easing a little I have been going out in the very early morning when the light is decent to try my bird photography luck. There is a particular Skylark that (unfortunately, now that it is June) is still singing, and as well as singing in flight it also likes to let rip from a short wooden post. When it is on this post it is quite easy to get relatively close to it. Here are a few taken over the course of three or four morning sessions. You see each of these images along with the settings in the "Larks" gallery.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2020/6/skylark-lockdown Tue, 09 Jun 2020 15:58:24 GMT
Pied Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/pied-wheatear A return visit to Cape Kaliakra, a mere six years after my last visit, expressly to photograph the resident Pied Wheatear.  There were three things that were different this time.

1) I was on a purely photographic trip and could take my time

2) I have a much better camera and the lens has seen an update too

3) I am a better photographer 

The birds are extremely tolerant of people as the site is well visited. Too well visited in my opinion, there were times when I struggled to get a shot without people in the background! The tactic here is to first observe what the birds are doing, and then set up somewhere close to a favoured perch and see what happens. There are many pairs, however you do need to find the right one that will let you get especially close. Once the birds were identified, find your position and set the height on the monopd for a pleasing background. And then the waiting game begins. As with the Paddyfield Warblers I used the 800mm and Canon 1DX body.

There are a few more images in the gallery.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/pied-wheatear Sun, 10 Jun 2018 20:22:16 GMT
Paddyfield Warbler https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/paddyfield-warbler I've recently returned from a weekend in Bulgaria and Romania photographing birds. Intensively photographing birds - the last few months have predominantly focussed on birding, that is to say seeing birds, listing birds and experiencing birds. I've put almost no effort into photographing them as a form of art, any photos have been taken on the fly so to speak and are generally what I call record shots. Proper photos, as I like to call them, have been few and far between.

This trip was different - there were no new birds, only a desire to get better images of a few key species. My last trip to this area had been a birding trip in 2012, this aimed to build on that list of birds with decent images. Paddyfield Warbler was one of target species, and so on my second morning in Bulgaria I was up for first light and standing at a large reedbed on the Black Sea coast. The Warblers were all around, singing, trying to make themselves heard over the guttural chatter of Great Reed Warblers. The light was heavenly, the reedbed faces east and you can have the soft morning light precisely behind you. There were lots of birds, however one was frequenting a very small stand of reeds set slightly apart from the main area. As well as having less of an area to concentrate on it also allowed some potential for a clean background or of the bird on an isolated stem - the kind of image I really wanted. Rarely is anything perfect in wildlife photography, and this morning's trial was a stiff breeze which caused the camera to repeatedly lose focus on the bird as reeds came in front, or indeed the bird itself was swinging wildly on a stem and simply would not stay still. What I was after of course was a bird on a clean stem with nothing else at all!

My kit this morning was a Canon 1DX, a new camera body that I only purchased about three months ago as I needed something with high ISO capability for the dark rainforests of Costa Rica (more on this later!). Mounted on this was my 800mm lens, perfect for small subjects like Warblers. As usual I had this on my Gitzo monopod, the freedom of movement that this allows versus the more traditional tripod set-up proves its worth time and again in my style of bird photography. As the bird moved around in a small patch of reeds, I could move with it extremely easily in comparison with somebody with a tripod. The lens is mounted directly onto the top of the monopod using the integrated lens foot, there is no head. Instead I leave the lens loose in the collar, and by swaying the monopod away from 90 degrees whilst rotating the lens to compensate I can cover a fair area without needing to move. I can also switch rapidly between vertical and landscape compositions. 

Anyway,  my choice of kit was perfect for the application and using 800 ISO meant I could stop the lens down to f7.1 or f8 for a bit more depth of field and retain decent shutter speeds in the range of 1/1600s. The closer you are to the subject the shallower your depth of field, leaving the lens wide open at f5.6 risked a sharp head and a soft body, as it is I have barely got away with it. Compromises, compromises. 

Here are a few of the resulting images from the session. Note that almost all of them have had some degree of photoshop work to clear out distracting elements. I took many frames, and in all of them I had in my mind how complex the separation of the bird would be in post-processing. I only took a shot when I felt that the areas of clear space on the frame would make it worthwhile. For some images I nearly managed it, for others the bird was in the clear but various stems interposed. Some people find editing images in this way acceptable, others do not. As you can probably guess, I don't have an issue with it, but bear in mind that some spheres of photography - particularly competitions - do not allow anything other than the most minor dust removal as it otherwise becomes impossible to draw a line.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2018/6/paddyfield-warbler Tue, 05 Jun 2018 21:31:05 GMT
Cyprus Pied Wheatear fun https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/4/cyprus-pied-wheatear-fun

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.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Wheatear cyprus pied wheatear wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2017/4/cyprus-pied-wheatear-fun Sat, 29 Apr 2017 10:43:35 GMT
Florida - Brown Pelican https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/6/florida---brown-pelican 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!

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Brown Pelican https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/6/florida---brown-pelican Thu, 02 Jun 2016 12:00:36 GMT
Florida - other Terns https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/6/florida---other-terns 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!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/6/florida---other-terns Thu, 02 Jun 2016 10:41:37 GMT
Florida - Royal Tern https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/florida---royal-tern 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...

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Royal Tern https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/florida---royal-tern Sun, 22 May 2016 15:29:35 GMT
The Blue Zone https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/the-blue-zone 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.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/the-blue-zone Fri, 20 May 2016 18:00:00 GMT
Florida - Black Skimmer https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/florida---black-skimmer On my first trip to Florida in March last year I didn't see a single Black Skimmer or Snowy Plover, two of my top targets. I had a wonderful time regardless. On my second trip about six months later, I was pleased to finally find some, though the circumstances were less than ideal. After my failure the first time, I put in a lot of research, even finding one of the breeding colonies on a satellite map of the area and working out exactly where it was via Google streetmap. Not especially relevant for a trip in November, but it shows I was trying! In the event I found about thirty birds on a Sunday afternoon in the most crowded part of Fort Desoto imaginable. My heart skipped a beat when I spotted a single bird in amongst Laughing Gulls, and then suddenly they were streaming in from the north. I managed a couple of flight shots but I wasn't really ready! Then came a difficult situation - the birds were all hunkered down facing away from the shore, and being late on the west side or the peninsula the afternoon sun was right behind them. I could get the sun behind the birds, but only if I waded into the water, and even then they were all facing away, and so tightly bunched together that I couldn't pick out a single bird and a plain background. There was precious little time to think, a stray football could bounce through the flock at any minute, there were people everywhere. So I waded in and got wet, trying to get the lens as close to the water as possible and attempting to get the images I wanted. What worked in my favour was that after a few minutes the birds started getting up in small numbers and flying off further down the point, into the roped off area, allowing a few single bird shots. And then of course the inevitable happened and a child charged the whole lot for a laugh. Sat in the surf I was dumbstruck, but also elated as I knew I had a few keepers despite the experience being very brief. The next day I returned to the same spot, and whilst it was devoid of people it was also devoid of birds. Looking south into the restricted area I could see a mass of birds of all sorts of species, including Skimmers, but they were beyond my reach. A couple of metal detectorists totally ignored the ropes and went right down into the bird sanctuary, but I was not going to do that. I am going to need to do a summer trip, and I know exactly where to go!

 

This final image is possibly my favourite, with the added people element. In the original photo the couple were much lower in the frame, and in order to use the photo for the title of my trip report I simply removed the middle slice of the frame to bring the people up. The right hand side of the image had to come up further than the left obviously as the lowest bird is below their level. I really like the result, even though there has been some manipulation - bet you couldn't tell though!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Black Skimmer https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/florida---black-skimmer Sun, 15 May 2016 20:13:13 GMT
Florida waders - Sanderling https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/florida-waders---sanderling I finally have a little spare time to devote to these pages so I thought I would try and finish up my trip to Florida in November of 2015 - I'm only seven months behind. As a reminder, it was a short trip at just two and half days, but as good fortune would have it I got a lot of photography in as the weather was quite dull. When the sun came out, as it did on my final morning, photography was over by 9am whereas on the other days I could literally go all day. The trip was mostly about waders and herons, and this post is going to concentrate on Sanderling, one of my very favourites. They're actually one of the trickier birds to photograph as their feeding action is rapid and constant, chasing the waves and rarely if ever staying still. Another reason I like them is because in winter the birds are very monochromatic, and against a white sandy beach of the sort you get in Florida you can get an image which looks almost black and white. In fact I may have a go at processing them this was to see if anything can be drawn out, however for now here are some of the colour ones. As ever it is a shame that I have to publish them on this blog in so small a size - typically 1000 pixels wide or 850 pixels tall. The actual images much bigger than this of course, but all the detail is there and on my 24 inch monitors they look ever so much better.

I would definitely recommend Florida as a bird photography location, especially for a beginner or for somebody (like me!) who is stretched for time. Whilst I'd love to be somewhere like this for two weeks, the birds are so tame and plentiful that you can make many more images in the time you do have available as the opportunities are more or less constant. In the UK, especially the south of England where I live, you often have to wait a long time for a suitable opportunity to present itself and when it does it rarely lasts very long. Birds are also much more wary I find, but in Florida it's a dream. A beginner in the UK would easily get frustrated - indeed I frequently get frustrated and many is the time when I return home with nothing to show for my efforts - but on the Gulf Coast beaches you can walk right up to birds and they barely move. Anyway, highly recommended.

 

So do I have a favourite Sanderling image from the trip? Of course I do! One of my favourite poses to photograph is the 'over-the-shoulder' one, with a bird facing away yet twisting its head around to face the camera. Whilst this works best in my opinion on passerines, it can also work on waders too, and one image from the various sessions I had with these birds stood out for me for that reason. The bird is ticked up, beak buried in its feathers as it roosts on the sand, but birds rarely fully go to sleep and every so often it would open one eye to check out what was going on before settling back down. It was simply a question of waiting for the moment to coincide with an OK background (which kept changing due to the water). 

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Sanderling https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/5/florida-waders---sanderling Fri, 13 May 2016 19:48:11 GMT
Red-footed Falcon cover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/4/red-footed-falcon-cover I've just found out that I've been fortunate enough to get the Birdwatch Magazine cover for May 2016, a portrait of a Red-footed Falcon that I photographed in Hungary in June of 2013. I obviously pay quite a lot of attention to cataloging and storing my best images, so it's usually an easy task to find files if it so happens that I have something that an editor is looking for. This particular image was taken on a week-long hide-based photo tour of the Hortobagy National Park a few summers ago via Sakertours. I'm actually not a fan of hides, I get very bored very quickly, but there is no denying that it presents unrivalled opportunities to get up close and personal with some stunning birds. My only previous magazine cover, also for Birdwatch, was I think roughly two years ago and was of some Bee-eaters from the same trip, so clearly this is telling me something! I actually think I'm a much better photographer now than I was three years ago, I have learnt heaps - not only technical knowledge but also I think I have a far better understanding of my subjects and what works and what doesn't, so perhaps it is time I went back to see if I can improve on some of the species where I didn't do so well.

Techie details: Canon EOS 5D MkIII with 500 f4L lens + 1.4x converter, tripod mounted at 1/800s, f5.6, ISO 800. Shot through glass in a hide where you had to wee in a bucket.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/4/red-footed-falcon-cover Mon, 25 Apr 2016 21:13:56 GMT
Florida waders - Grey Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/2/florida-waders---grey-plover Grey Plover (or Black-bellied Plover in the local parlance) are very common on the beaches of the Gulf coast - so common that you sometimes have to force yourself to do something else! I don't necessarily always have that willpower so I've pulled together a series of illustrative shots - some of which I find nice and some of which grate! I'll try and explain why it is that I should not have pressed the shutter - going through your images and self-critiquing is an important part of getting better. You will never critique your own work as well or as harshly as somebody else, so every now and then I get a mate to help me with the paring process. It's hard work, but worthwhile. If however you don't have someone willing, or indeed skilled enough, then having a go yourself is a good place to start, just recognise it's not the real deal.

Head Angle - a slight turn in is always to my mind preferable. Compare the following two images that were more or less in sequence. The first is mostly parallel to the camera, whereas the second has the bird turning in slightly. I know what I like best, but to capture that often means just holding down the trigger actually. Back home you can select that one frame that has the pleasing angle, and then get rid of the rest - birds move quickly and digital is more or less free!

DDistractions - compare these two. The first has a bit of weed or something on the shoreline a few feet back that is right between the feet. It won't clone out easily - far simpler to wait to take the photo until the bird has taken a few more steps. Alternatively if you can move even a tiny bit without scaring the bird, depending how far back the offending item is you could get rid of it or make it a lot easier to clone away. In both of these images I actually find the darker lumps distracting no matter where they are positioned, and if I had more time on my hands I would get rid of all of it! The reason I have not bothered up until this point is that both images are very slightly over-exposed.....

But not as badly as this one! This is what happens when you blast away and don't check your histogram frequently enough. There are many things not to like about this image, the awkward leg angle being just one of them, but why worry too much about that when the whites are utterly fried and unrecoverable. I am talking of course about the area below the bill and then the lower chest. This was on the final morning of my second Florida trip when I finally had some decent light and I think got over-excited!

The next image is also completely blown, but the main subject is OK. The Egret in the background is fried, but I was exposing for a darker bird. This is a case of what might have been I think I like the symmetry, with the subject walking one way and the background going the other way, but in addition to blowing the Egret to bits I've also chopped the top of its head off. If only I had increased my shutter speed and raised the camera a fraction - easy to say now, less easy to do on the spot, but by calling it out I've given myself more of a chance next time. That's not to say I won't blow it again, but the thought will be there.

What about this one? Anything problematic here? I binned it, but it's not immediately obvious as to why. It survived quite a few passes before I spotted it and decided there was an issue.....

And finally a few shots that I prefer above all the others shown in this post, though none are perfect. The first is a bird smaller in the frame, but with parallel lines of water giving some structure. In the second I like the out of focus shells and pebbles, and the ripples in the water. I also like the way these fade to nothing and then become the background. My only critique really is that the bird is a little tight in the frame. The third is a fraction too bright, but not distractingly so. I like the pose.

For me though the pick of the bunch is this one. Why? The light. Do I want a head turn as per the second image in this blog post. Yes I do, but I'll take it!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/2/florida-waders---grey-plover Mon, 22 Feb 2016 12:00:00 GMT
Florida waders - a return - American Osytercatcher https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/2/florida-waders---a-return---american-osytercatcher I first went to Florida for bird photography in March 2015, however it was too short a trip really. I had an absolute ball in lovely light on the Gulf coast and vowed to come back again as soon as I could. That turned out to be only eight months later, last November, when I found enough time for a long weekend. I posted a gallery of that trip here, but never managed to get around to blogging about it and giving a little more detail about the various challenges I faced along the way, what I learned, what worked and what didn't.

The first to thing mention was the weather - not good in some ways, ideal in others. Part of the attraction in Florida is the wonderful light, and during my earlier trip I had a succession of wonderful mornings. Not so this time though! On arrival in the St Petersburg area I was met with a stiff breeze and grey cloud cover creating a dull situation. I was able to just about retain my standard 800 ISO, but the images just don't have the vibrancy of the last trip. I was able to lift them a bit in post-processing, but it was a bit disappointing. Ultimately however it meant that instead of having to pack up at 10am when even at this time of year the light is simply too harsh, I was able to photography birds all day long. On my final day at Fort Desoto, the weather perked up considerably - the wind died down and I got the beautiful light I had wanted. Irritatingly I actually then blew a lot of images on this final morning, including completely nerfing a fly-by white-morph Reddish Egret - sharp as you like but blown to smithereens! I gave myself a good talking to and pulled it together for the final hour or so, but a whole series of images went in the bin. Sure enough, by 10am the light was as good as hopeless and so I stopped and went birding elsewhere. You have to know when there's no point continuing, and in Florida it is difficult to call a halt to proceedings. Not only was I keen to make up for the lost time when I forgot to check my settings, but the birds were still all there, all parading around. But you have to call it quits in this situation.

Part of the problem as I see it was the difficulty of seeing the screen when I was so low to the ground I could barely see through the view-finder. Ironically enough, if I was stood up behind a full length tripod I would likely have noticed far more quickly that I wasn't shooting right, but when you're in the sand straining to twist your neck in ways that hurt a bit, you can lose sight of the basics. An important lesson, a shame I had to learn it (again!) in such perfect conditions. Some of my images from that morning are of course fine, others were salvageable, so it's not as if I came home empty handed. I'll share some of both the good and the bad in a later post. 

Enough of my travails however, here are a series of frames of American Oystercatcher which was a top target for this trip having been missed last time. This bird only came onto the beach at St Petersburg very late on once human activity had largely died down, and on one of the dull days. However its arrival coincided with the sun beginning to drop behind and somewhat below the pervasive layer of cloud that had screened it all day. I estimate the light improved by up to a stop and a half almost instantly, and before I knew it I was back to shooting at 1/2500s. However this being the Gulf coast the sun sets over the sea, which means if you want to be between the sun and the bird feeding on the surf you have to be IN the sea! I wasn't really up for that just before packing up, so had to wait for decent head turns. The following images were taken when the bird was slightly further up the beach, and have various out of focus bits of either buildings or foliage as backgrounds for a bit of contrast. I was right on the sun angle here, but I quickly realised I was preventing the bird from feeding by forcing it up the beach in order to get my angle and avoid getting wet. I retreated to one side and allowed it to come back down to the surf line.

In terms of what I mean my needing that extra smidgeon of light, compare the following two images. The first has the bird facing almost directly away from the sun, whereas the second has a slight head turn that lights up that fantastic eye a treat. In my opinion this saves images where a lot of the bird is poorly lit, as you are immediately attracted to the eye and the beak. Despite the action, really that first image has nothing going for it at all with only the mantle lit.

I probably spent about twenty minutes with this bird as the sun gradually got lower and lower, albeit without creating any sort of sunset whatsoever! Still, it was good to study it in such detail and finally get something on the CF card. Almost all the images are taken with the bare 500mm lens at f4, which indicates that the bird was pretty close. Shutter speed was as mentioned a constant 1/2500s, and some of the earlier images in the series actually see the camera set at f8 or f6.3 - there must have been a brief blaze of light!

As a postscript to my final day and the lovely morning light it brought, just as I was leaving an American photographer turned up in massive SUV and asked if there was anything about. He then proceeded to tell me about all his brand new kit for about ten minutes (everything newer than mine, everything larger!), and then headed off to the beach to take a series of likely worthless images in the blazing sun, shadows all over the place and simply uncontrollable whites!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2016/2/florida-waders---a-return---american-osytercatcher Sun, 21 Feb 2016 16:00:03 GMT
Snow Bunting https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/10/snow-bunting For the first time in many months, possibly years, I actually used my extension tubes on a bird. The last time I can recall doing this was on a very very friendly Little Grebe at Rainham Marshes, but at that time I may have only had access to my 800mm which has a 6m minimum focus distance. My more modern 500mm lens has a 3.7m minimum, however for this Snow Bunting on the north Norfolk coast even that was too much. It was another of these wonderful wildlife moments of the sort that I enjoy so much. I get a thrill from managing to get up close to a bird without threatening it, but an even bigger thrill from encounters where the bird is simply fearless – usually an indication that it’s never seen a human before. This bird, the first of the winter season, was one of these latter and was quite happily feeding within two feet of people on Saturday. This is no exaggeration – two feet. Obviously that’s still way too close and I would have needed a Macro lens (wish I’d had one in my bag!). So as it was I had to hang back but quite often the bird simply hopped towards me. This is no bad thing as I got to spend as much time simply watching it at close range as it delicately prized seeds from coastal plants, as taking image after image of it. That’s not to say I didn’t take any, of course I did, but this was only when the bird flew or walked to less busy areas, or in some cases perched on some old war-era rubble. A number of people there with cameras (which let’s face it is most people these days) were firing off continuously, no matter where the bird was, but I was happy to hang back and wait for the most part as I knew I’d probably just bin anything where I didn’t have a largely clear background. I did however close in with the extension tube for a number of shots where I knew I could crop to just the bird’s head and forget about the rest of the frame.

To be honest though I did find it rather busy on the beach, with any number of people with the bird. I expected no less,  this is the Norfolk coast in autumn. To anyone who thinks people were crowding it, well yes they were but it didn’t alter the bird’s behavior at all and that’s the key thing. But it did alter mine as there were at times so many people that I couldn’t get the angles I wanted without getting somebody’s leg! I think it’s just a feature of birding almost anywhere in the south-east these days, it’s an increasingly popular hobby, information is everywhere and lots of people chase the news and want the best views they can get – especially those who have not seen a Snow Bunting before! Mind you, it might not just be the south-east – I saw a photo of a Little Bunting up at Spurn that was completely surrounded by at least a hundred people who were all there dipping bigger and better birds, and pager messages from there the previous day were explicitly asking that birders give tired migrants like the Pied Wheatear space to feed and rest and not pursue it around the rocks. And I’ve been on Shetland before where within half an hour of a Buff-bellied Pipit being found a number of minibuses with tour groups had turned up and there were probably 50 people on the beach looking at it. Every situation is different of course, and this Snow Bunting was just one of those silly birds you get from time to time  rather than an exhausted migrant, but all in all and satisfying as the bird was I felt a little uncomfortable being one of a crowd around it. I’d much rather it was just me and the bird, whether or not I have a camera, and no sight of the green horde anywhere! This is one of the reasons I now twitch less and travel more, as many of the places I go I’m the only person there. What I really need to do is seek out places in the UK that have nobody there – no birders, no joggers, no dog-walkers, no cyclists, no football players, nobody flying model airplane, no kids, no nobody. On this crowded island on which we live this is easier said than done of course, and bearing in mind that I live in London for now I may just need to accept that when I go out birding or on a photographic mission, for the most part I’m going to be just one of many. 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/10/snow-bunting Mon, 05 Oct 2015 18:48:30 GMT
Close Bald Eagle encounter https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/7/close-bald-eagle-encounter I was trying to photograph Red-winged Blackbirds at Dungeness (in Washington State!) when suddenly it all kicked off at the small lakes just next to the river mouth. Ducks scattered, Pied-billed Grebes scampered for the reeds, and I soon saw why - a Bald Eagle was sweeping in low hoping for an unwary DUck as a meal. I'm not the greatest at birds in flight, but I do mostly understand exposure, and realised straight away that with my camera in manual mode and exposure set for mid-tones, that a bird against a white sky would be hopelessly blown. I'm not sure I got it quite right, but as I raised the camera away from the reeds and to the sky I was already dialling in a much faster shutter speed. Really it was just an instinctive twiddle of the dial towards where I thought it likely needed to be, and so 1/1000s at f5.6 for the Blackbirds became 1/2000s  at f5.6 for the Eagle. I have the superb autofocus of the 1D Mark IV camera to thank for the rest. But it got better, as within the mere three seconds that separate the first of the 13 images I took from the last, a feisty Brewer's Blackbird landed on the Eagle's back, gave it a good scratching and pecking, and then lifted off to safety. As I said, it was over in the seconds, the Eagle gaining height and departing to the east. I couldn't believe it when I looked at the back of the camera, and immediately backed up the images to the SD card that sits in a second slot. Looking at the images below, I can't see that the Eagle was bothered in the slightest - it didn't attempt to turn, didn't attempt to shake off its tiny foe, it just carried serenely on its way. Later on in the week I saw an Eagle get attacked by an Osprey, and that elicited an entirely different response, with the bird inverting itself in the air and extending its legs and claws up towards the smaller bird. Smart these Eagles! Anyway, I lucked out, and here are four of the 13 images that tell the story of that amazing moment.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/7/close-bald-eagle-encounter Mon, 27 Jul 2015 21:24:22 GMT
Florida Gulls and Terns https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/7/florida-gulls-and-terns Surprisingly there were very few Gulls and Terns in Florida, and in the limited time I had there I was more interested in other things, but I still found time to point the camera at a few when they walked into my field of view. I have to say that Laughing Gull is a pretty smart beast, if you can set aside for amount the fact it's a Larid. The following were all taken on a short session that had been devoted to feeding Willet, on Fort Myers beach right next to a mass of deckchairs and with streams of early morning joggers and shell collectors going past. It's a very busy place but for the most part it didn't seem to matter - in fact I can only think of one occasion where a careful approach was ruined by someone who just didn't notice me.

The above photo is an American Herring Gull, which I found eating a rancid fish on Sandibel Island, right in the middle of a sea of beach-goers. The background was such that I couldn't get a position where I could get the whole bird so went for a tight head crop instead. Below is a Lesser Black-backed Gull, something of a surprise but which I learned is pretty regular here.

Below are a couple of Royal Terns, with the whites right on the limit. I've tried to bring them down but the first image was having none of it!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/7/florida-gulls-and-terns Sat, 18 Jul 2015 09:08:40 GMT
Osprey https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/7/osprey I could barely believe how common Osprey was in Florida. I can go years, even visiting Scotland, without seeing one in the UK but in Florida they were the commonest Raptor by far, and fairly photogenic too. They were not a main target, typically I would be doing something else when one cruised by, but I found a few that posed, and managed a few flight shots too. The final image shows an Osprey seeing off a Bald Eagle that had the temerity to fly near its territory.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Osprey https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/7/osprey Sat, 18 Jul 2015 08:06:52 GMT
More Florida Herons https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/6/more-florida-herons Apologies for the short break, it has been a busy period, but let's go back to Florida for a while before we get to Washington. So, it was all about Waders and Egrets and in that respect it did not disappoint. After the Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron, there were also Green Heron, Great Blue and Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret and a pile more. Here's a few more photos of some of the others, generally taken at the same coastal locations. Most were as tame as you like, if anything they came too close at times, and now that I don't have an intermediate telephoto (oh for my 300mm!!) it was actually harder than you might think! First up a Green Heron, actually the only one I saw the entire trip, fishing from the bowline of a moored yacht, which made finding an angle next to impossible. The athleticism of this bird was amazing, it was able to hang like a bat upside down, gripping the rope with its legs to stretch down and pluck a fish from the water - I spent as much time marvelling at what it could do as I did trying to get photos! If I'm honest, I didn't do as well with these other species as I did with the first ones. And I didn't do as well with Egrets as a whole as I did with waders. Tall and leggy birds I just seem to find more difficult to get the kind of images I like - generally the background will always include elements of the horizon for instance, which is why I've gone for head crops and that kind of thing. I'm not sure how to address this - scour the web for ideas on what other photographers do I expect - there is always tons you can learn from looking at other peoples' photos.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-rYnrO7Xivp8/VRxXb6iLZAI/AAAAAAAAtHI/uvj6sI2BUDY/w596-h893-no/IMG_9159%2BGreen%2BHeron%252C%2BPlacida%252C%2BFlorida%2Bcopywtmk.jpg

The following images are of Great Blue Heron, one of which recently turned up on Scilly. After having seen countless in Florida it was difficult to motivate myself for that particular trip! Always good value for close study, these were perhaps less approachable than the others, but being so massive that is less of a problem.

Next, American White Ibis. I didn't manage to get up close and personal with a full blood-red adult, but these are still pretty smart. 

Finally, two white Egrets, Snowy and Great White (known in the US simply as Great Egret - a [precocious] young birder I met in Central Park later in the trip was at pains to tell me how Great White Heron was a bird but Great White Egret was not...)

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/6/more-florida-herons Tue, 09 Jun 2015 20:16:47 GMT
Tricolored Heron https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/tricolored-heron This bird was also at Little Estero Lagoon early one morning, fishing rapidly along the edges of one of the shallow pools. I couldn't quite keep up with it, and wondered if wading into the lagoon might be the answer. Chickened out, maybe I should have done. Didn't get too many images of this bird as a result, but I'm pleased with the few that I have kept. Florida is quite incredible for being able to get pretty close to a number of species, and being America, is very simple logistically as well as being comfortable and safe. I am hoping to back a lot in the coming years. Kit used was the 500mm, most often bare at f4.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Tricolored Heron https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/tricolored-heron Tue, 28 Apr 2015 15:49:09 GMT
Reddish Egret https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/reddish-egret I hadn't realised how rare Reddish Egret is in the US, so to find a more-or-less tame bird at Little Estero Lagoon didn't mean quite so much at the time - all the birds were tame. This bird, performing its skipping dancing fish-chasing routine, came too close at times, and in any event a series of stills cannot capture the crazy motions, the back and forth, the running, the pausing, the spearing. It was quite superb, but you needed to have been there really. These do not do the bird justice, but as stills they're ok.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Reddish Egret https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/reddish-egret Tue, 28 Apr 2015 15:13:30 GMT
Willet https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/willet Willet was by far the most numerous of all the waders I encountered in Florida. I don't know if this is repeated all the way up the east coast, but if it is it's amazing that there has never been one in the UK! Unlike the Plovers, these birds were constantly on the move, feeding in and along the surf, running and probing like a typical Shank. An excursion along Blind Pass Beach on Sanibel Island was rather a failure due to the time of day and sheer numbers of people, however an early morning session on Fort Myers Beach the following day was fantastic, and where most of the images were taken. Whereas I'd stayed relatively clean with the Wilson's Plovers, to get these images I got very wet and very sandy!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Willet https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/willet Fri, 17 Apr 2015 19:00:00 GMT
Wilson's Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/wilsons-plover Wilson's Plover were not common on the Florida beaches that I went to, but proved to be exceptionally confiding when I did find some. Typically they were in small groups of around four birds, and they would stick closely together, however their preferred strategy was to hunker down low in the sand just marginally above the tide line. This was a new species for me so I was pleased to get up close and personal with them, distant fuzzy ticks can be very underwhelming. As was the strategy with all the other birds, this was another lying down on the sand job. I'm aware I'm beginning to appear a bit of a one trick pony, but I am loving the results. That said, it is bloody hard work and can be extremely painful, as I do not use an angle finder, I just twist my neck -  did recently got some correspondence that suggested that this could end up being really bad in terms of permanent health issues, so I may need to rethink how I do this. In some instances I've been unable to actually get my eye to the viewfinder and so have been attempting to line up the focus point, which is highlighted in red, with the bird's head and rely on the accuracy of the AF. My keeper rate drops dramatically when I do this but if it saves my neck it's probably worth it. What I really want is an angle finder that works at about 45 degrees as at 90 degrees, and thus looking vertically down, I wouldn't be in a position to hold the camera - you never actually lay the camera directly on the ground as you'll lose the bottom half of the image. Instead you need to be an inch or so above the ground which is usually achieved by laying your left forearm and hand on the ground, and then raising your fingers very slightly whilst also offering some support of the camera body with your right hand. I cannot imagine doing this whilst looking vertically down an angle finder. Note that I use a low-profile lens foot to aid with carrying the lens and to reduce weight. If I used the foot supplied with the lens, this would likely give me the height I need, but would not solve the neck issues. 

Here are a few images. For me the favourite is definitely the first one though, the clarity of the birds and the complete absence of any background whatsoever are exactly what I am looking for. When you get low and the geography is on your side, you can blend the foreground into the background such that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. No horizon in other words.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Wilson's Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/wilsons-plover Fri, 17 Apr 2015 11:03:23 GMT
Grey Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/grey-plover Here's a selection of images of Grey Plover from my spring 2015 weekend in Florida. Known as Black-bellied Plover in America, it's a common bird on beaches, and still in winter plumage at the time of my visit in late March - I think it still has to count as spring though as the first Warblers were arriving! I found one particularly cooperative group of these birds on Fort Myers Beach, adjacent to Little Estero Lagoons, and with the superb early morning light I had a fantastic time trying to isolate single birds. Equipment used was the Canon 1D Mark IV camera body, along with the 500mm f4 Mk II lens and sometimes the 1.4x converter. I did not use any support other than the ground, even though I had packed both my monopod, my skimmer pod and my Wimberley head. I swear that a year ago I was touting my monopod as the best thing ever, but in truth I am now using it less and less. What changed? I am not sure, though the superb handling characteristics of the new 500mm make hand-holding that much easier and the more I realise I can get away with it, the more I do without. It could just be that as I aim to get lower and lower, so the monopod just doesn't quite allow that and so I find myself resting on the ground more often than not, even if that means getting mucky. Anyhow, I carted all that extra gear across the Atlantic and used it for perhaps 20 minutes in total, so that should tell you all you need to know. The ground is currently my preferred support. It weighs nothing, and costs nothing. What's not to like?

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Grey Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/4/grey-plover Tue, 07 Apr 2015 20:11:24 GMT
Wheatear arrival https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/3/wheatear-arrival Arrival singular, as we only have one bird at the moment, but unusually for a Spring bird it has lingered nearly a week. I was initially worried about it, but it seems pretty perky, and getting close to it is time-consuming. It does tend to become accustomed to my presence, though there is a definitely a minimum distance it is comfortable with. Trial and error, but I think I have it sussed now, and if I keep that and am still, it does sometimes hop closer. Today I photographed it twice, and predictably the final encounter was the best. This time I used a tree trunk as cover, resting my lens on the slight curvature as it met the earth. This physical barrier seemed to reassure it for some reason, and it remained closer than it had been all weekend. Or maybe that was just how it appeared as today I had my 800mm with the 1.4x converter bolted onto it ;-) My favourite is the first one in the "This afternoon" section - it has everything I like in a bird photo - a nothing background, a sparkling eye, low to the ground, and.....a Wheatear!

Yesterday (500mm)

This morning

 

This afternoon

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/3/wheatear-arrival Sun, 22 Mar 2015 16:59:21 GMT
Eider Duck https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/2/eider-duck The following series of images comes from the coast of Fife at a small village called Elie. Whilst (notionally) on a family walk I spotted this drake bird very close into the rocks off the eastern beach, and each time it dived made a little ground towards it, including behind a convenient large rock. Eventually I made it to the seaweed covered rocks, lying flat on my stomach with the bird somewhere under the water. As it popped up fairly near me I could have jumped for joy. I had pre-metered for bright white while some distance away and my first series of shots confirmed I was basically on the money, but I made sure to check as often as the situation allowed. On a cloudy day the light can change quite quickly so if the bird dived or faced away I quickly checked and adjusted as necessary. After my first series, and with the bird aware of the shutter noise, I expected it to drift further out but happily seemed not to care - perhaps prone on the seaweed behind a lens didn't register as a human and thus something to be feared. Each time it popped up I rattled off a few more, with the camera sometimes getting confused by the sloshing water and throwing the bird of out focus. I probably spent over half an hour with it, and these easily outshine my best previous shots of Eider, and indeed looking through my gallery reveals only one image that I've previously thoughts cuts the mustard - I'll be deleting it shortly as I now realise that it doesn't! I am however quite pleased with these. All are handheld with the 1D Mk IV and the 500mm + 1.4x, albeit with the lens resting on a nice bed of seaweed covered rock. I keep on reading about the 7D Mk II, and some new 50mp full-frame bodies and thinking wouldn't they be nice, but I have to say that my battered old MK IV continues to eclipse both my needs and skill levels. I have no idea how many clicks I've put through it, but it continues to just go and go and go. Probably hexed it now - when I go on my next major expedition (Florida!) I'll be sure to take a spare body. Anyhow, the sun was out in a brief break between clouds, and so I was up at 1/3200s at f8 which is not a common occurence in Scotland in February! Lying flat, I was probably only a couple feet above the water, but the tide was going out so I was in little danger. And in full waterproofs and wellies, in other words ready for Scotland in February, I was properly dressed for the situation I found myself in. 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/2/eider-duck Sun, 22 Feb 2015 14:46:42 GMT
UAE - wrapping up https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/uae---wrapping-up This will be the final set of images from my recent trip to the UAE, and is basically the odds and sods, typically one-off images grabbed in the course of more general birding. As a trip it was fairly productive, and I've certainly got a lot of decent images out of it, but it was hampered I think by trying to do too much and never giving enough time to one particular location, but also by being three people who ultimately had very different photographic and birding ambitions. So that's a little disappointing in my opinion, as although it was very good, deep down I know it could have been better for me. I guess that now that I have the measure of it a little better, and decent images of quite a few species, the next time I go I can be very targeted - I know that's what works best. I'll be going straight back to Al Ain for instance, as given what was on offer there I really didn't get what I wanted, and the second morning we were supposed to spend there never happened. So look out for a Wheatear update at some point, though not this year as my schedule is very full already with something like seven trips already booked up. In the meantime, here are some of the stragglers from the trip. Although I took my monopod with me, I barely used it this time, and for an upcoming trip to Spain I don't even plan to take it. Funny how things change, a year ago I would have said it was my most useful and used accessory. I still love it, but in countries with decent light it's not needed given the performance of the new lenses. I enjoyed fabulous shutter speeds the whole trip!

Laughing Dove - this was taken from the breakfast table at the hotel in Al Ain. The birds returned frequently to the top of a building opposite the terrace. Between mouthfuls of mango juice I blasted a sequence off, of which this was the sharpest. This species, along with Collared Dove, reached almost plague-like proportions in some places.

Chukar Partridge - this was a species I couldn't get remotely close to in Cyprus when it was a lifer for me, but this individual on the Jebel Hafeet was just plain daft and sat there while I papped it. Fine by me!

Socotra Cormorant - all the literature I read suggested you could only hope to see these flying offshore from a certain location on the west side of the country that we never ended up going to even though it had been on our itinerary. So I was quite surprised to see this one waddling along the beach at Fujairah. Sadly when we went back on our third visit we saw a dead one which was very likely to have been this bird.

Arabian Babbler - didn't see too many of these, and they tended to move swiftly on in small groups. These were out of the car window at a roadside stop at Hamraniyah fields, a dusty agricultural area. 

White-eared Bulbul - as with other members of the family very vocal indeed and a pleasure to hear. They're a sound of the tropics for me, or at least places that are very un-European. Generally all over the place, and a really good-looking little bird. These two images are from the Green Mubazzarah Park near Al Ain, where they were feasting on what looked to be an Oreo cookie leftover. I lay down on the grass, covering myself in crap in the process - the amount of litter was sensational after a weekend that included a public holiday. In the interests of full disclosure I have cloned out the cookie....

Desert Lark - also at the same park, where they too subsist on what messy humans have left behind. Grass makes a funny background for this species!!

White Wagtail - another very common species found in greener areas. We never came across the Masked Wagtail, a shame as they look stunning. This individual crossed my path as I was wriggling on my stomach towards the White-tailed Plover. 

Hoopoe - not quite as close as the birds on Tenerife, but who doesn't like a Hoopoe! Still have not managed to catch one with the crest raised - definitely on my to-do list.

Tawny Pipit - huge numbers of this species too, but also next to impossible to approach for some reason, even if locations that see a lot of human traffic. This is still the best image of this species I've ever taken though!

Citrine Wagtail - common in the right habitat, and very much attracted to water. This is unfortunately an uber-crop.

 

Marsh Harrier - a fly-by somewhere along the line.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Chukar Desert Lark Laughing Dove Marsh Harrier Socotra Cormorant Tawny Pipit White Wagtail White-eared Bulbul https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/uae---wrapping-up Fri, 23 Jan 2015 21:05:13 GMT
UAE Plovers https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/uae-plovers Red-wattled Lapwing was the default species in the Emirates, on almost any patch of irrigated grass. Remarkably difficult to get anywhere close to them, when you even raised a camera they were off. As with many birds with similar temperaments, the best tactic was to roll up in the car, kill the engine and hope it stuck - most of the time it didn't! Here's the best image I got.

The other species, far less common, was White-tailed Plover, the same species of Rainham and Dungeness fame. We saw this at just two places, a brief flyover at Al Wabtha, and then perhaps a dozen birds at Dubai Pivots. These latter were the subject of a slow 50m belly-crawl which ended up being remarkably successful. I probably crossed half a field which took ages, but my luck was in. With frequent pauses to assess the bird's reaction, I must have got to within 15m, and the light was stunning. Possibly one of the best moments of the trip, very little gives me more satisfaction than having to work really hard at an image and have it come off. And when will I next see one of these?

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Plover Red-wattled Lapwing White-tailed Lapwing https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/uae-plovers Thu, 22 Jan 2015 21:20:19 GMT
UAE Wheatears https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/uae-wheatears For me the whole point of the trip. Easily my favourite birds and I wanted good views of some new species. I also wanted to photograph them of course, but that didn't go so well for a variety of reasons. Still, now that I have done a recce and know what to expect, I'll be going back with some clear tactics in mind, to spend time just on them, and hopefully do a bit better. In a way this is similar to my experience with Red-rumped Wheatear, where my first trip was a failure with this species, so I went back and nailed it. Normally after a trip somewhere with Wheatears there would be post after post. Sadly not in this instance, but I reckon I can get at least a post out of it.

Hooded Wheatear

Seen in a variety places, but the best place was at Jebel Hafeet. The only issue was the lack of decent perches, but I didn't have any time to set things up. A day up there by myself and I reckon I'd sort something out. Still, a great bird to see after a frustrating experience in Cyprus last year.

Hume's Wheatear

Only seen on Jebel Hafeet, with the same issues as the Hooded. Look how compact, sturdy and bull-necked this bird is compared to the Hooded and the Variable that follow. I experimented with putting a rock on the railings in the hope that the bird might perch up on it, but it didn't. Again, more time needed!

Red-tailed Wheatear

A much-hoped for species, and I saw a few very well indeed, but the photos just were not there as the species tended to flush at some distance.

 

Variable Wheatear

Didn't see very many of these birds at, and again simply could not get near the one bird we did find in a suitable location. That said we barely gave it five minutes as there were Gulls to see....

 

Desert Wheatear

Probably the most frequently encountered Wheatear seen in almost all areas we visited. Yet again incredibly difficult to get up close to, proving perhaps that the stupidly tame vagrants we get in the UK really are wired a bit funny. Always good to see a male Desert Wheatear under any circumstances though, unbeatable birds. I've taken better though.

Isabelline Wheatear

A couple of grab shots of a bird near Al Ain whilst the guys waited in the car. This was the only occasion we saw this species, and I remain eternally grateful for the superb UK vagrant in Pembrokeshire a couple of years ago.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Desert Wheatear Hooded Wheatear Hume's Wheatear Isabelline Wheatear Red-tailed Wheatear Variable Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/uae-wheatears Wed, 21 Jan 2015 21:41:33 GMT
Beach Waders https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/beach-waders As well as all the Gulls and Terns, a few Waders were partaking in the fish feast. A welcome relief from larid action, so they got a bit of the treatment. I'm particularly pleased with the Redshank - a nervous bird that preferred to run past me, but with such great light you had the speed to capture a flavour of the movement. The others are Kentish Plover, Greater Sandplover, and of course Whimbrel. As usual the tactic was to lie flat on the beach and get mucky - I think my camera still has sand in it, but that's what the pro-bodies are built for in my opinion. Abuse, and lots of it!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Greater Sandplover Kentish Plover Redshank Whimbrel https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/beach-waders Tue, 20 Jan 2015 22:33:04 GMT
Terns on Fujairah beach https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/terns-on-fujairah-beach The gathering of Terns on the beach was particularly impressive, with the standout species being Swift Tern, otherwise known as Greater Crested Tern. It's smaller cousin, Lesser Crested Tern was present also, and is incredibly similar, especially when in evening light the bill colour of the former starts to look a lot darker - I've never spent much time with Terns before, and I have to say that they're almost as confusing as Gulls! Again, if I've stuffed any up, please do get in touch, I recall them being a lot easier in the field. As well as the two crested Terns, there were also White-cheeked Tern, Whiskered Tern, Gull-billed Tern, and a single probable WWBT (or a Black Tern!). I never managed any photos of the Gull-billed despite finding a massive high-tide roost on the west side of the county, but there are a few of the White-cheeked and Whiskered further down this post.

As I mentioned earlier, the action was non-stop, and concentrating on a single bird was nigh on impossible. They would wheel around and around, occasionally dropping into the surf to pick up a small fish that had escaped the nets. However with an onshore wind all the birds were dipping facing out to sea which was less than ideal, but hopefully the below gives an idea of what was going on. I used the 500mm both with and without the converter, typically without at the height of the net action when the birds would come a lot closer, swirling round my head and picking off the fish from almost around my feet. When the birds moved a bit further out I popped on the 1.4x converter to get in a bit. As usual, the camera was frequently used in portrait format for the banking shots. I have to say I'm beginning to lose my fear of flight photography, and quite a few of these came out pretty nicely - hard work on the upper arms though!

Swift Tern

 

 

Lesser Crested Tern

White-cheeked Tern

Whiskered Tern

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/terns-on-fujairah-beach Mon, 19 Jan 2015 22:49:17 GMT
Other Gulls on Fujairah beach https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/other-gulls-on-fujairah-beach I did an entire post of Sooty Gulls as, in fairness, they were quite smart. I didn't spend much time on the larger White-headed Gulls - see enough of those at home and to be honest they don't really do it for me. But seeing as I went and I saw, here's a few Heuglin's. The species present were Heuglin's, a variety of LBB, and Steppe, a variety of Caspian, but bar one barabensis only the former seems to have escaped the editing process. There were some regular Caspos in there too I expect, but hey, I'm not a Gull expert (and have little desire to be one!)

First up an adult Heuglin's Gull in flight and then on the beach. If I have screwed any of these up please let me know.

And now a first winter bird, as for some reason I seem to have missed out any other age groups - I think I was spending more time with the far more elegant Terns. I'll cover these in the next post as they were amazing and deserve one of their own.

And I think this is the only image of Steppe Gull that I have.....

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/other-gulls-on-fujairah-beach Mon, 19 Jan 2015 21:30:18 GMT
Slavonian Grebe on the patch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/slavonian-grebe-on-the-patch A brief interlude from colourful Arabian species whilst I post some shots of a more monochromatic nature. This little black-and-white beauty has graced the local patch for around two weeks now, and has provided a couple of memorable if uncomfortable sessions. It's been on the Heronry pond, the biggest of local ponds in Wanstead, and an annoying location for photography. The whole pond has steep concrete sides and thus it's impossible to get down to water level. The north side, which is fairly open, is against the light, and in any event beyond the first few days the Grebe now prefers the wooded edge to the south. This is better for the light, but at this time of year there are many heavily shaded little bays and areas with over-hanging branches. You can only get to the waters edge in a few places, and the bird is now a lot more wary than it was when it arrived. The best tactic is to lie down on the edge, actually lengthways on the concrete side if you're feeling brave and fancy neck ache, and wait for the bird to hopefully drift past. This is what I did on my first visit, and it worked fairly well. The bird has now moved, and the slope is even more severe, so for my second visit I remained on the bank above the concrete edge, and this probably shows in the images. Whilst it has been a fairly accommodating bird, the location is not as well suited as the pond a similar winter bird turned up on at Dartford, where you could get right to the waters edge and be at more-or-less eye-level to the bird. Still, this bird is on the patch, and that makes all the difference as far as I'm concerned!

First visit

A bit of sunshine every now and again, with the Grebe sometimes swimming into clear water. I was perhaps 20cm above the waterline, but one false move would have seen me several feet below it! These images are very much hit and hope, the angle of the view finder means that you can't see into it properly, so you set up your exposure before you start, and then try and keep the centre point on the head of the bird which is very difficult indeed, and many images were hopefully out of focus. The beauty of digital is that these are free!

Second visit

Terrible light throughout, so to gain a bit of speed I've underexposed each image by around a stop, and then brought them back up again afterwards, which also involved a lot of mucking about with white balance and the dropper tool. Much higher up on the bank, but the effect of the telephoto disguises it a bit. How I managed the clear reflective image at the very end I have no idea, definitely against the run of play!

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Slavonian Grebe https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/slavonian-grebe-on-the-patch Sun, 18 Jan 2015 11:58:54 GMT
Green Bee-eater https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/green-bee-eater Not a new tick for me, having seen this species in India in 2009, but an opportunity to do a far better job with the camera as my skills back then were quite pitiful. We chanced upon a group of four birds along a small creek at Fujairah, and whilst they never perched at head height and so I was always pointing up, I managed some fairly nice ones with nice clean backgrounds. Green Bee-eater seems common throughout the UAE, and would be a target bird for my next trip as we did not spend anywhere near enough time with them. Along with Indian Rollers, a colourful highlight of the trip, you can't beat a bit of colour!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Green Bee-eater https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/green-bee-eater Fri, 16 Jan 2015 20:56:38 GMT
Indian Roller https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/indian-roller Indian Roller was one of the highlights of the trip. Common almost everywhere that had some water, by far the best place for photographs was in the irrigated fields associated with the Wamm Dairy Farm at Dibba, near the Oman border to the north of the UAE. Here pairs of Roller sat around on sprinkler heads, occasionally getting up and displaying to each other. The display flight is tricky to capture, but involves large swoops and dives with folded wings over where the other bird is sitting. The backdrop of the Omani mountains and fields played havoc with the AF, and more often than not I missed the action. I got onto it a few times, and I could have stayed there all day it was such fun, but we had a schedule to keep. Anyway, here are a few images of these raucous and charismatic birds, a real favourite of mine. Could we get them to perch anywhere other than a sprinkler head? Nope, but nevermind!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Indian Roller https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/indian-roller Mon, 12 Jan 2015 22:15:21 GMT
Sooty Gull https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/sooty-gull Well, thanks to my travelling partners I spent far more time looking at Gulls than anticipated, something I had hoped would not happen. Hey ho, you live and learn. As Gulls go, Sooty Gull are nicer than many however, and of all the species on the beach south of Fujairah in the UAE were probably the most tolerant of people. So here are a few images of the birds, seeing as I took them anyway whilst waiting for the sun to set over the course of three (yes, three) afternoons. An afternoon visit is best as the beach faces east and you have the sun behind you for the last part of the day. Talking of which, the light is excellent in the UAE in winter during the morning and afternoon, so I was able to go hand-held all the way. In fact I am not sure I used my monopod even once on this trip. 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Sooty Gull https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/sooty-gull Sun, 11 Jan 2015 23:08:23 GMT
Review of 2014 https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/review-of-214 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.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2015/1/review-of-214 Fri, 02 Jan 2015 15:12:45 GMT
Southern Grey Shrike (Morocco) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/southern-grey-shrike-morocco Another confusing bird at a roadside stop as we returned to the airport on the final afternoon. This bird seemed happy not to move perches even as I got out of the car, and it even waited for me to pop the converter on, and we left it in the same place as we found it such was its indifference. Great great birds, a pleasure. 

The next images are of different birds, but the same tactic - drive along a road until you find a bird on a bush or otherwise pleasing perch. Most birds were probably on the overhead wires, so we probably missed out most of them. However the species does so well in Morocco that they're very frequently encountered, and if you don't like the set-up, or don't fancy your chances, you just move on to the next one.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Southern Grey Shrike https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/southern-grey-shrike-morocco Sun, 21 Dec 2014 12:33:01 GMT
Sardinian Warbler https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/sardinian-warbler Previous encounters with this species have resulted in nothing, merely birds skulking around in the bottoms of bushes, so this bird was a complete surprise. No playback, no nothing, to my utter disbelief it just paraded up a bare branch as we were waiting for a Stonechat to pop up. It clearly didn't realise it was supposed to be a Sardinian Warbler, so it was easy to quickly spin the camera around on the axis of the monopod and rattle off a series of shots as it briefly progressed up the branch before disappearing again. Rather a bonus, as the views of all other individuals that we saw were fleeting at best, much like the third image. The final image is of a female from a trip to Morocco in January, which also passed through my viewfinder. On that occasion I was trying for a Common Bulbul if a recall correctly - so maybe Sardinian Warblers are just random?

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/sardinian-warbler Sun, 21 Dec 2014 12:14:49 GMT
Cattle Egret https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/cattle-egret Real dirt birds Cattle Egrets, omnipresent no matter where in the world you seem to be. In the Oued Massa in Morocco they outnumbered Little Egret by about 20-1, and were seen up nearer to Marrakech as well. Normally I don't stop to take photos (whereas if I saw one in the UK I would, go figure), but a flooded field close to a road in the Massa held a few birds that seemed more intent on feeding on insipid stringy worms that bothering about two photographers. So here's a few from that session, all taken with the 800mm, which was actually too long in this situation and caused me to switch to a full frame body to reduce my focal length. This was still too long for the reflections in most cases - oh for my 500mm! Always the way, you want what you don't have, though for most other birds on the trip the extra length of the longer lens was spot on. White birds, which regular readers know I'm not a fan of, but I think I've done OK. As usual I got down low, as low as I could go, which involved getting attacked by an ant nest twice.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Cattle Egret https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/cattle-egret Sun, 21 Dec 2014 12:00:22 GMT
Stonechat https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/stonechat Another day, another Stonechat - this time in the Oued Massa in Morocco, site of previous amazing Stonechat encounters. Once I had negotiated the floodwaters that was! This bird necessitated leaping across a ditch using my monopod much like a pole vault....mildly risky, but well worth it. Even though it was the middle of the day, I was blessed with a momentary covering of thin white cloud which acted as a giant reflector and took the edge of the heat. All of these were with the 800mm atop my pole vault, a lens which I had not used in Southern Morocco before, and that I took with precisely small birds like this in mind. The images are all a bit similar, but it was difficult not to keep pushing the shutter!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Stonechat https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/stonechat Mon, 15 Dec 2014 20:52:17 GMT
Southern Grey Shrike - koenigi https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/southern-grey-shrike The sub species of Southern Grey Shrike on Tenerife is "koenigi" - known either Canary Islands Grey Shrike, or in some quarters as Desert Grey Shrike. The taxonomy of this latter group is complicated, with "elegans" and "algeriensis" also in the mix. "Algeriensis", as you might expect, is found in North Africa, but only on the coast, with "elegans" inland, and "koenigi" is restricted to the Canary Islands. The differences are not that clear, at least not to me, but the Canary Islands sub-species ought to have less white in the wings, and almost no super. Or at least that is the theory - I am not convinced!

So this bird here is interesting, as it doesn't show much white in the wing, but does have a fairly broad white supercilium - could it in fact be a stray "elegans" based on this feature? The final photo is of a completely different bird, but also exhibits a massively extensive white super. As before though, the white in the wing is limited.

To my knowledge I've not photographed "algeriensis", but did catch up with "elegans" in Morocco earlier this year. Take a look at the difference, I have to say I am confused as my inland Moroccan bird has to my mind significantly less iof a white supercilium than either of the birds on Tenerife. The final photo is of a different bird in the same area of Morocco, also exhibiting barely any white above the mask. Confused? I am!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/12/southern-grey-shrike Tue, 02 Dec 2014 21:49:09 GMT
Blue Chaffinch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/blue-chaffinch One of the most spectacular birds on Tenerife in my opinion, incredibly easy to see at some sites, but next to impossible to photograph. Or at least that's my excuse anyway. The main issue is that they frequent the areas underneath picnic tables, and rather than come and eat breadcrumbs left at photogenic locations, would rather grub around in deep shade. I tried, I really did, but it just didn't come off. The barely ever came into the sun, and when they did it was on top of a table. I tried placing a natural perch on top of the table, but no, they preferred the bare table! I have five images I'm prepared to share after something like four hours over two mornings, it was that tough. Very frustrating. The final image is an inventive crop of a bird that popped out in the sun for a microsecond. I had the presence of mind to change the exposure and nab a shot, but of course the background was absolute dap. I've cloned a bit extra in above and the right of the head to enable a vertical crop. I had a perch set up where this wouldn't have been necessary and I'd have had the whole bird with this background. Would it go near it?!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Blue Chaffinch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/blue-chaffinch Sun, 23 Nov 2014 14:22:26 GMT
Canary Islands Great Spotted Woodpecker https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/great-spotted-woodpecker I'd been keen to see quite how different these birds were from are own, especially since discovering on Shetland that Great Spotted Woodpeckers come in different flavours, something I had not known. For instance those from Northern Latitudes as might migrate from Scandinavia, have stubbier bills. Those from Southern climes, including those on the Canaries, are dusky in place of white amongst other things. And indeed they were, and I got some great views at Las Lajas recreational area in the pine forest belt on Mt Tiede. I read somewhere that there are likely fewer than 100 pairs on Tenerife, so that makes these birds incredibly rare really - however at Las Lajas they were a complete doddle.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Canary Islands Great Spotted Woodpecker Great Spotted Woodpecker https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/great-spotted-woodpecker Sun, 23 Nov 2014 12:26:43 GMT
Berthelot's Pipit https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/berthelots-pipit One of the birds I was most keen to see on Tenerife was the Macaronesian endemic Berthelot's Pipit. I'd seen some cracking photos on the web, and was keen to replicate those as well as see the bird really well. Ideally both of course, and is was likely that one would follow the other unless I was really unlucky. As it happened they're everywhere, and incredibly tolerant of a close approach. I had no idea what they sounded like, and don't even have the call on my phone (nor any of the Tenerife endemics as it turned out), but when I heard an unfamiliar call on the first afternoon that somehow just sounded pipit-y I was soon onto one, and then the species became a regular feature of pretty much anywhere I went in the lowlands. I managed some pretty nice image in fading light on day one, and so went to bed pretty pleased with myself given the really limited time I'd had. The first images, though dull, do convey the exact setting very well. The birds liked to run along the ground, but when a slight lookout presented itself, they seemed perfectly happy to hop up. The tactic was to place myself ahead of likely rock and see what happened. Sometimes it was bypassed, other times it all worked out.

Later on in the trip, I think on my final morning, I had a number of birds in much better light. Whilst the images above were taken at 1/250s (as usual just a monopod for ultimate flexibility), those below benefited from upwards of 1/2500s! Much better, but then of course you have harsh light to contend with. Never happy, that's the motto of most bird photographers I know....

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Berthelot's Pipit https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/berthelots-pipit Sun, 23 Nov 2014 12:16:32 GMT
Hoopoe https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/hoopoe I got really lucky at my hotel on Tenerife, when just as I was packing up the car to leave I noticed three Hoopoes feeding unconcernedly on the grass right next to the car park. Naturally I unloaded my camera bag, got set up, and got to work! So close that I used the 500mm lens bare, and had shutter speeds to die for. Could not stop down as the backgrounds were very close, so a bit of a compromise there. Still, when I went to Hungary I skipped the Hoopoe hide, so this was a welcome grip back and no complaints whatsoever!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Hoopoe https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/hoopoe Thu, 20 Nov 2014 22:00:32 GMT
Desert Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/desert-wheatear I was kicking myself yesterday that I hadn't managed to get over to Kent for what seemed to be a typically confiding Desert Wheatear judging from images on the web. Lucky for me that it stayed, and so my son and I went down there today for mid-morning once news on its continued stay came up. It had already drawn a fair crowd, and so of course there was some nonsense about "you're too close", "don't chase it" from a couple of folk who clearly haven't much experience of this species as a vagrant. Nonetheless to avoid criticism, unjust or otherwise, I waited to properly close in until the bird carried on its circuit and the old boy way up front got bored, before nipping in and waiting close to the favourite rocks by the shore. Didn't take too long before it was back and parading around right in front of me, and so sure enough I was joined by quite a few other camera-jockeys. Did the bird mind? Of course it didn't - and so we all enjoyed a superb experience. The light was dreadful in the morning, but I came back for seconds an hour or so later when it had improved and got some much nicer images, and I've thrown out most of the ones taken in the morning. Kit used was the 800mm (perfect for the twitches where perception of distance is likely to be an issue) and so I was able to initially hang back, and then once the sun came out, popped on the converter for some frame-fillers at 1120mm. This combination never ceases to amaze me, and though I don't in truth use this lens very much, whenever I do I realise why I continue to hang onto it. For support I used my monopod, it's great to be able to change height very quickly and thus sort out backgrounds depending on where the bird lands, and it can be done three time quicker than a tripod! 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Desert Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/11/desert-wheatear Sun, 09 Nov 2014 17:57:50 GMT
Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/wheatear My regular reader will know that Wheatears are by far my favourite subject. I make trips to photograph single species, and ultimately plan to try and photograph them all - ideally without travelling to some of the scarier parts of the world. This latest image is only of a Northern Wheatear, but was possibly the most pleasing from the whole of last weekend. I spotted a bird on a small mound, and we maneuvered the car close by. As we were doing so, the bird flew in even closer, almost as if it were checking us out. "Kill the engine! Kill the engine!", and as the car shuddered to a stop I fired off half a dozen frames - as luck would have it my manual exposure from a few minutes before was still appropriate, 1/800s at f5.6. Handheld resting on the car door frame, a real grab shot, no planning at all. Love it!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) northern wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/wheatear Tue, 28 Oct 2014 10:23:25 GMT
American Golden Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/american-golden-plover Here are a few images of the extremely photographic American Golden Plover at Davidstow Airport in Cornwall. I happened to be in the South-west anyway.....

Tactic was to roll up to the bird in the car, and then take photos out of the window. This proved unsatisfactory, so I stealthily snuck out of the car on the opposite side to the bird, and edged my way around the front on my stomach whilst resting the lens on my coat. Not a bad tactic as it turns out, but my desire for ground-level shots is really starting to hurt my neck. I really need an angle finder, or I need to use my Wimberley on  the frisbee thing. Trouble is I can never be bothered with that, and so yesterday I actually gave myself a headache taking these photos. Idiot.

Anyway, that's all behind me now, and so here are a few of the results. All taken with the Canon 1D Mk IV, coupled with the 500mm f4 and 1.4xx converter. 1/800 at f5.6, ISO 800 and neck ache.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) American Golden Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/american-golden-plover Mon, 27 Oct 2014 21:10:01 GMT
Jays https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/jays It is Jay season! Most of the year you cannot get a look in, however around now the birds start to collect and store food for the coming winter, and this urge for the most part overcomes their natural shy tendencies. I can only manage a few snippets of time here and there, but went up to a place where I've been seeing quite a lot of activity. The Jays were there, as predicted, and numbered up to four birds. It's also a place which sees a lot of human activity, and this works both for and against a photographer. The birds are more used to people, but people are bloody senseless sometimes - including this morning a guy walking between me and the birds. They all flew away, I thanked him very much indeed, and he told me to F*** Off. This is what you have to put up with in London unfortunately, getting a decent shot has to be a lot harder than in some other places. Unsurprisingly this is roughly when my photography session ended, but by then I had a few keepers. Many were taken in deep shade, but if you hold the dropper tool on an element of white at the point of RAW conversion, this sets your white balance to a far more natural looking tonality, rather than the gloomy purples you tend to get.

So here are a few from this morning - all with the 500mm, both with and without the converter. Because of the gloom I used my monopod - although there were brief patches of sunshine, most often my shutter speed was sitting at around 1/200s. I think that next time I might actually take a tripod, and possibly the longer lens for more opportunities.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/jays Sun, 19 Oct 2014 13:21:11 GMT
Lapland Bunting https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/lapland-bunting A Lapland Bunting recently graced Wanstead Flats, a pretty rare bird for London. I managed to get it on the first evening, and the bird was just so confiding. But having come straight from work I had no camera, and so returned the next day when I was lucky enough to have a bit of early morning sunshine. It didn't seem quite as approachable this time around, and it mostly just crept around the tussocks, but with a little patience I was able to position myself in locations where a clear shot was just about possible. I say just about, as the vertical crop below actually had a few stems of grass through the bird - some detailed work with the clone stamp tool sorted that out though - the trick is to zoom right in and work on one feather at a time. Details are 700mm (500mm + 1.4x), 1/1000s at f5.6 - handheld, as I tend to do ever more frequently.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Lapland Bunting https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/lapland-bunting Sun, 19 Oct 2014 13:06:31 GMT
Steppe Grey Shrike https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/steppe-grey-shrike I love Shrikes, I really do. Today I elected to spend four hours in the car to go and see one, and whilst that part of the day was pretty boring other than the selection of quality tunes, the part which involved the bird more than made up for it. I wanted some properly good shots, so why on earth I didn't take my tripod I am unable to fathom, especially as I knew I would be using the 800mm, more than likely with the teleconverter. But no, like a fool I went armed only with a monopod - I think my recent trip to Shetland has made me overconfident. There, I went handheld for most of the trip, but that was with the 500mm which is a completely different proposition. And with today's Steppe Grey Shrike, I did indeed resort to the 1.4x, and so had to use my best monopod technique to try and get some sharp images at what is an unhealthy focal length - 1456mm in old money. And that's before you factor in any heat haze! Fortune was perhaps on my side though, as there was some nice light cloud cover which kept the worst of this at bay, and the bird was very obliging in terms of staying in the same place for extended periods of time, as focusing isn't always straightforward with this combination. Happy to say it worked out....

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Steppe Grey Shrike https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/steppe-grey-shrike Sat, 11 Oct 2014 20:05:01 GMT
Red-breasted Flycatcher https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/red-breasted-flycatcher I ended up seeing six of these smart little birds on Shetland, none more showy than the final one, in a garden on Whalsay where the owner had invited us to hop over his fence and plonk ourselves down. I didn't take many photos, preferring the close views, and anyway it was incredibly dark in the garden. The image directly below was taken whilst crouched down underneath the sycamores, and remarkably was at 1/200s - I had bumped the ISO to 1250, and removed the converter to get to f4 - this time I did use the monopod! To be honest I wasn't expecting to get anything, and indeed most of the series came out unusable. This, right in the middle of the set, defied the odds somehow! Thankfully we also had it in a near the more open area closer to the house.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Flycatcher Red-breasted https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/red-breasted-flycatcher Sat, 11 Oct 2014 19:55:34 GMT
Twite https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/twite Twite are amongst the commonest of small birds on Shetland, and tend to hang around crops fields with Sparrows. They're a lovely gingerly colour, and to hear a group bouncing over, jangling as they go, is something that to me just screams Shetland. As I was on a birding trip, I had kept camera gear to an absolute minimum - not even a monopod on this occasion, the idea being that if an opportunity presented itself I would just do the best I could and move on quickly. As it happens, I think I have underestimated the hand-holdability of the 500mm, it was incredibly easy to get a sharp shot just by crouching down and bracing, even in Shetland winds! These two are my favourites of all the ones I took, 700mm focal length, 1/1600s at f5.6. They're very similar, but one lends itself to a vertical crop, whilst the other the bird is slightly more horizontal and as such I've left it in its original format.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Twite https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/twite Sat, 11 Oct 2014 19:48:49 GMT
Fulmar https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/fulmar Shetland wasn't exactly a photographic extravaganza, with far more actual birding taking place, but where opportunity allowed I nabbed a few shots. Usually this was when I got bored with trying to find vagrants, I left the other two to it and had a quick pap. One such occasion was on the first morning at Sumburgh head, when it became apparent that the Red-flanked Bluetail wasn't around. Not even a year tick, so I went and stood by the cliff edge and started having a go at the Fulmars as they came past. The most successful method was to pick an individual bird a long way out and hope that it came in, tracking it all the way. Many times this didn't work as, early morning, they dipped into the shaded area, ie most of the skyline, but every now and again one stayed high enough for long enough. This is my favourite, and possibly amongst my favourite I've ever taken along with a few from Loop Head last year. More depth of field would have been good, no idea why I didn't dial in f8 or f10, as there was plenty of light. There's always something to get wrong in my experience!

This was with the 1D4, the 500mm, and the 1.4x converter - 1/6400s at f5.6. Even I can manage a sharp flight shot at that speed!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Fulmar https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/10/fulmar Sat, 04 Oct 2014 17:17:21 GMT
Oystercatcher https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/9/oystercatcher Oystercatcher's are notoriously shy, and I rarely get any chance with them. However I was able to sneak up on a bird feeding on the golf course at Falsterbo by using a small pine tree as cover - you could not make this up, the tree was barely bigger than I am. I hid behind the tree for a while, and waited for the bird to exit on one side or the other, but not be obscured by long grass. It chose the side with the longest grass, naturally, and so I had to show my hand and shuffle left, at which point I had roughly 5 seconds of the bird in range as it looked up, freaked out, and then waddled away as quickly as it could. Didn't fly though, but I had enough, and there were no more elements of cover where the bird was headed.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/9/oystercatcher Mon, 08 Sep 2014 08:47:27 GMT
Yellow Wagtail https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/9/yellow-wagtail Yellow Wagtails littered the Golf Course at Falsterbo - you can see a trip report via this page. The holiday was all about birding, so the camera did not see a lot of action, but I could not resist this little chap as he ran up to the green, the powerful wind blowing him sideways. I got as low as I could, I think hand-held. The wind blew the lens around as much as it did the bird, so most went in the bin, but a selection remain! I think I even took off the lens hood to reduce the amount of surface area the wind could pick up - gusting 50kph!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/9/yellow-wagtail Tue, 02 Sep 2014 19:56:05 GMT
Stonechat https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/9/stonechat It has not been a productive summer camera-wise. It has largely been with me, but I've either not had the opportunity, nor felt the inclination - largely I've been into cities. I did however get it out on a recent holiday with the family to the Hebrides, where a particularly obliging Stonechat posed on a fenceline for me. It was the only time I used a large telephoto the entire trip. These two were taken out of the car window as I rolled to a stop. On the second one, even I'll admit that the post isn't the best, but that's what the bird liked, so that's what I went for - it was the highest post which probably explains the bird's fondness for it. Straight down the barrel!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Stonechat https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/9/stonechat Tue, 02 Sep 2014 19:52:01 GMT
More birds from Helsinki https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/8/more-birds-from-helsinki My photography in Helsinki was concentrated into a single morning session from sunrise, which was about 5am, and 6.30am, when the light started getting a little too harsh. It probably wasn't, but just seemed like it after the incredible start to the day. I was in a small hide near the start of the boardwalk to Lammassari, and as the sun rose the mist became more concentrated for a short period. Once the sun was up and the silhouettes were over, I started on the inhabitants of the reedbed, mainly Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings. As I was all alone, I did a whole load of grunting, pishing, whistling, chucking, and they were surprisingly interested and came pretty close in - I think they were probably young birds. 

I then had to lug my camera round Helsinki for the rest of the day. Was it worth it? For the warblers etc, probably not, but that Caspian Tern and that sunrise will live long in the memory!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/8/more-birds-from-helsinki Sun, 03 Aug 2014 21:58:06 GMT
Helsinki at Dawn https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/helsinki-at-dawn I spent Saturday in Helsinki, no real reason, just more of my ridiculous penchant for travel at the moment. This time I did take the camera, and arriving in the small hours I elected not to bother with a hotel but instead get myself into position for some potentially lovely light at sunrise. I wasn't disappointed! Vanhankaupunginlahti Bay is a very long name, as such often called Viikki, and is an area of habitat immediately to the north of Helsinki city centre. I jumped off the airport bus at approximately 2am, and walked perhaps 2 or 3 miles to this fantastic reedbed. I gave up attempting to sleep after being ravaged by mosquitos, and instead waited for the sun to come up. Awesome conditions, a low mist that became more intense at first and then gradually dissipated, and I had it all to myself. Photography was over within the hour, the light incredibly harsh in the heatwave that Finland is currently experiencing. But by then I had a few images that I was happy with - rarely in the UK am I able to get myself somewhere for this time of day. The following photos are all a bit 'samey', but altogether different from my normal output - it's good to try different things now and again. It's a tough call, but my favourite is the final one - an early morning Caspian Tern, no detail possible in the conditions but instantly recognisable nonetheless. It has to be one of my favourite images of 2014 so far.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Caspian Tern https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/helsinki-at-dawn Mon, 28 Jul 2014 22:32:43 GMT
Iceland - wrapping up https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/iceland---wrapping-up The main targets were Waders, Wildfowl and Divers, but there's plenty of other stuff about too. Not a huge amount on the passerine front, but what there was was very nice indeed. Redwing is probably the commonest song bird, not often you can say that. I've never had much luck in the UK, the birds tend to be very shy and retiring. In Iceland, we tried and largely failed in getting birds from the car, but finally found a cooperative subject at Myvatn, feeding nearby young. I am immensely pleased with this photo, perhaps happier with it than any other image I took on the whole trip. Not sure why, it's only a portrait, but it's a bird I've wanted for a long time - it plugs a huge gap in my Thrushes gallery for starters. We spotted it from the car, a quick exit with the monopod and two minutes later I was done - being mobile was key.

We also had a couple of opportunities with Snow Buntings - on Flatey and at Godafoss. We couldn't pass up birds in summer plumage, so devoted a bit of time. The first image is from Flatey, the second from Godafoss.

And of course there were various Gulls, Fulmars and Terns. I personally didn't spend a huge amount of time with them, as they are species that I can more easily get elsewhere and time was at a premium, however if they're flying past it would be rude not to. Glaucous Gull is the predominant species in Iceland, loads of gleaming adults (if you're into that kind of thing). It was all I could do to keep Mick and Richard from spending the whole day at one site, but they saw sense in the end. These are from harbour at Grundarfjordur.

 

Fulmars were present at the top end of Flatey, flying along low cliffs. They came so close that I resorted to a 70-200mm - great fun as the whipped by, but I didn't give it too long as I last year I had some great times with this species in Ireland.

And last but not least, Arctic Tern and Kittiwake. The size of the Tern colonies has to be seen to be believed - the biggest one I've ever seen, acres and acres, at the west end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula between Hellisandur and Rif. We could have stopped, but we would have been pecked to death, so drove on! This photo is from Flatey once again, where there are numerous birds, but also Arctic Tern-free areas where you can shelter!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Arctic Tern Glaucous Gull Kittiwake Redwing Snow Bunting https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/iceland---wrapping-up Sun, 20 Jul 2014 11:30:00 GMT
Icelandic Waders https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/icelandic-waders I've already done a post on Red-necked Phalaropes and Golden Plovers, but they weren't the half of it! Drive through any suitable habitat in Iceland and it is stuffed full of Waders - Whimbrel, Redshank, Snipe and Godwit. This is a post devoted to them, as their omnipresence was a background highlight of the trip, even if the were shaded by the more famous birds like Harlequins.

First up Whimbrel - I've never managed to get close in this country, and without driving majorly north I doubt I ever will. Far easier to travel to where the birds are, served up on a plate. A couple of these were on a tripod, but I found that my tripod skills let me down in Iceland, and the results were not as good as when I switched to my monopod. I guess it's a question of what you use most frequently, and that's easily the monopod. Somehow I guess I and it have just gelled, whereas I don't have that kind of relationship with the tripod. So, don't always follow the advice, instead do what you are most comfortable with. For me, I don't even have to think when using the monpod, it's an extension of the camera. With the tripod I probably introduce shake all over the place without realising it. When I ditched it mid-trip things started going a lot better.

Common Snipe were also very frequently encountered, many of them still drumming. They proved relatively difficult to get close to, even using the car as a blind, but again these are the best photos of the species that I have ever managed. Oh to live somewhere where this species is a breeder, up in the moors of northern England. If every time I went out I was able to photograph Snipe I'm not sure you would see much else from me. As I say, only a couple shots ended up making the cut, but I could very easily do another trip up there simply to concentrate on Waders.

And who can forget the Redshank! Probably the most common bird we saw, their constant scolding a reminder that we were on their turf, not the other way around. The best birds were probably on Flatey, but essentially great photo ops were everywhere - if only Mick could find the perfect post! We drove past loads as the posts were simply sub-standard. Let me tell you now, there is no such thing as a sub-standard post - the eye is drawn to the bird, not the perch, and whilst a lovely lichen-covered post is always pleasing, a plain old wooden stake is not going to stop me!

The final bird I want to highlight is the Black-tailed Godwit. In this country we often get excited when early-returning birds have a bit of colour on them. In Iceland they are all immaculate, such a beautiful species. They enjoy the odd post too, but mostly they were to be found in lush water-meadows. Here's a few images I managed to get along the way, very often from the car.

And finally, a lone Ringed Plover in the early-morning light (very early, probably about 4am!) on our first day. If you're into Wader photography, Iceland has to be right up there, and I for one will be going back as soon as I can!

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Black-tailed Godwit Common Snipe Redshank Ringed Plover Whimbrel https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/icelandic-waders Sat, 19 Jul 2014 09:44:23 GMT
Barrow's Goldeneye https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/barrows-goldeneye Another day, another Duck. Barrow's Goldeneye was a major Iceland target, and after a really long drive to Myvatn from Snaefellsnes of approximately six hours we were pleased to find a small group of them in a sheltered bay. We had previously tried a lone male just over the road on a smaller pool, but with no cover for our approach, he was understandably having none of it. Happily I spotted a group the other side, and there was the usual long grass etc in which to wriggle our way up to the water. This crawling approach was certainly quite dirty, but made the difference on a number of occasions. Once at the water's edge, lenses poked out and away we went, once again nice and low. For once the sun was out, and this of course made it difficult to control highlights and shadows - I've had to do a lot in pp to get these up, hopefully a few are worth it.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Barrow's Goldeneye https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/barrows-goldeneye Thu, 17 Jul 2014 12:30:00 GMT
Harlequin Duck https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/harlequin-duck Back in 2013 I twitched the long-staying Harlequin Duck on North Uist. Although I managed to get relatively close to it, and close enough to get one into "Scottish Birds" as a rarity photo, really they weren't what I had in mind - for starters the bird wasn't a full adult. Of course back then I didn't care, it was mega, I'd never seen one, and I was over the moon that such a long distance twitch had gone so well. And of course I discovered that I loved North Uist, so all good. But I had a hankering to have another crack at Harlequins, and so this was one of the top reasons for going over to Iceland. 

We stumbled upon a three birds purely by luck as we were investigating some small pools for Phalaropes. The road crossed a small river that became a shallow pool before emptying into the sea. Initially seen on this pool, one bird flew under the narrow bridge and up the river to join another two. Small waders were forgotten as we set up by the side of the pool, hidden from the river by the bridge. We felt that the birds, making steady progress downstream, might shoot the rapids under the bridge and before they knew it would be in front our lenses. Sure enough, our luck was in! First the pair zoomed through and found themselves right in front of us, and while they hurried to the far side and became too distant, the lone drake followed under the bridge and stayed a lot closer. Boy oh boy did we have fun! Lenses to the water, necks bent awkwardly to try and get down - oh for an angle-finder, could be my next purchase!

As was the case 90% of the time in Iceland, the light was complete crap (technical term) for most of this session, but I still managed some pleasing images. Pleasing to me at any rate. Less pleasing was fluffing all flight opportunities, I just don't get it. I blew a female Wigeon away the very next day with some aplomb, but was unable to nail the smartest of all ducks in relatively easy circumstances. C'est la vie I guess! Nonetheless a great encounter, and these were pretty much the only Harlequins we saw other than some in a fast-flowing river near Myvatn, and that were completely unphotographable. So, another "most-wanted" in the bag - I love it when a plan comes together!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Harlequin Duck https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/harlequin-duck Wed, 16 Jul 2014 13:30:00 GMT
Great Northern Diver https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/great-northern-diver Another species high up the wish list, but as with their slimmer cousins very few opportunities. When they did come, the light was dull and flat and awful. First up was a family of birds on the southern side of the Snaefellsnes pensinula. Reverting to stealth yet again, we dropped and commando crawled to the edge. But I wasn't quick enough, as still several yards from the edge I started hearing the shutters whirring, and so did the birds. Only a couple of images before they had drifted too far out and right, so I retreated the way I had come.

The second chance came after our long day at Myvatn. As we climbed out we noticed three birds sheltering in the lee of the wind, really close to the edge of the lake. Although the boys would have liked me to ditch the car in the middle of the road, I insisted we leave it somewhere safe, and unfortunately by the time we had walked back the birds had drifted out a little farther. In crappy light we decided to give it a go anyway, and the Divers surprised us by not swimming several kilometers away. Do they perhaps have poor eyesight? Or perhaps they felt perfectly comfortable at that range? We made the most of what was probably going to be our last chance at this species, but it was a struggle to get low enough, and it was getting dimmer by the minute. Still, an adult summer GND in any light is immense, and having only really seen winter plumage birds before, to be able to get one of these beasts in the frame at all was a huge result. But I still need to go to Maine or somewhere I feel. Here's the best from this encounter, some of the images show a small amount of the neck sheen, but on the whole dull light makes for dull images. Indeed shortly after we left here the rain started to come down. Nonetheless I am happy with what I came away with, best (only!) I've taken so far!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Common Loon Great Northern Diver https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/great-northern-diver Mon, 14 Jul 2014 12:00:00 GMT
Red-throated Diver https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/red-throated-diver Red-throated Diver was a bird that the three of us were all very keen to photograph. I remain very keen to photograph it, as although we got a few opportunities, I don't think I made the most of them. The main session was with a bird on a smallish pool near Grundarfjordur - the final image shows the type of habitat that is typical. Mick came across this whilst having a scout down a side track, and late that evening we erected some scrim netting to try and provide cover - the thought was good but it never really worked out. The day after we put the netting up we gave it a try. Although it shielded us from the bird once at the netting, there was no possible way to get down to it without one of the pair seeing us - the female (presumably) was on a nest on a small island, whilst the male either patrolled the pool, or went off towards the sea to fish. We used one of these fishing breaks to get down to the scrim, and about half an hour later the bird returned with a small fish, which it presented to its mate on the island, and then disappeared off to the far corner of the pool. It's difficult to say whether they knew we were there or not, but the female never left the island, and the male continued to go about its routine perfectly normally, including going to sleep! I reckon they probably did, in which case this tolerance was a bit of a surprise given what I had read about this species flushing at some distance - maybe we just did a good job on the fieldcraft. Mick slithered his way closer during dives, whereas I relied on the power of the 2x converter allied to my 500mm - I wish I'd slithered with him, but it didn't go too badly - the trouble was of course the light, and at f8 I was restricted to speeds of 1/200s at times. That said, there was no heat to distort the images, so in that sense I was relatively lucky, and with the lens mounted on the Wimberley I had at least some stability even at these lows speeds and long focal length. Of course lots of frames got binned, but I have a few keepers. However when I look at the web it's clear I have some way to go in the quality stakes! In Britain, all Divers are on Schedule 1 (I know this now...), and although they do breed in the far north, they're essentially off limits. So if I want another go I am going to have to go back to Iceland, where they are very common indeed, but I would need longer than three days I think. That said this pair either were not aware we were there, or were relatively relaxed with our presence (for example we sensibly never broke the skyline, and remained very quiet. I put my shutter on 'silent' mode, which makes it sound much more like a 50d in one-shot, rather than the staccato machine-gun fire a 1D would imitate in high speed mode). So, here's what I ended up with... the first images of this species I have ever taken, so in that sense I am pretty pleased.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Red-throated Diver https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/red-throated-diver Sun, 13 Jul 2014 15:54:20 GMT
Red-necked Phalarope https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/red-necked-phalarope Red-necked Phalaropes are pretty much everywhere in Iceland, and wherever the habitat is suitable birds were to be found, and in some numbers. Much is made of the island of Flatey, and indeed many of the images that follow were taken there. However if you don't like boats, or the £35 cost of the trip is a deterrent, then you can do just as well simply by driving around until you find shallow pools. Sooner or later, a Phalarope will drop in. Another top birding destination, Myvatn Lake in the north, could have been excellent, but on the day we visited the wind had got up and the water was very choppy. It is true, however, that the birds on Flatey are particularly tame, even as Phalaropes go - which is saying something. The island is very small, with a handful of houses, and the birds are all around you in the village, on small puddles, ditches, pools, and also in the bays. I found that the best time to photograph them in the sea was on the rising tide, but by contrast found the pools on Flatey rather difficult as many of them were hidden in the long wet grass and very narrow. Luckily we came across some simply brilliant pools on the Snaefellsnes peninsula near Grundarfjordur which were tiny and still, and with mountain backdrops I was able to get the pure green background and foreground I was looking for. Every single image was taken more or less flat on my stomach - on the path, in the mud, in the seaweed. One dimensional perhaps, and I got pretty mucky, but these are tiny birds and I didn't want to be pointing down at them if I could help it. Also worth noting is that almost every single image is full frame, and some were even taken with my 5D3 which is a full frame camera. In fact I also had to break out the 12mm extension tube, which is practically unheard of! These birds really don't care a hoot for people or the noise of a shutter, which is how I like it.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Red-necked Phalarope https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/red-necked-phalarope Sat, 12 Jul 2014 10:37:19 GMT
Golden Plover https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/golden-plover I've just spent a long weekend in Iceland, the sole purpose of which was bird photography. One of the top targets was Golden Plover, a species that barring a few birds that landed on Wanstead Flats last year, I've never had any decent opportunities with. Iceland remedied that! Goldies are everywhere, from lava fields to upland moors, an incredibly common and easy bird to photograph. And of course they're in stunning summer plumage. I had a great time, the challenge was mainly to see what kind of background could be achieved, and whether the bird had a nice perch. Several hours were spent over the course of the three days with a succession of birds that we spotted from the roadside, with some shots taken from the car, and others crawling along the ground. Even though we had taken loads, we could not help ourselves if we saw a bird in beautiful habitat. Here are a few from the trip, apologies if it's too many!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/golden-plover Sat, 05 Jul 2014 21:52:13 GMT
Song Sparrow https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/song-sparrow As I already mentioned, my trip to America was a family holiday rather than anything to do with birding, but I I snuck the odd moment. This particular moment was a Song Sparrow just over the road from my Grandma's house in a vacant lot that had gone to seed - perfect habitat. Song Sparrow is really common, but it didn't stop me, bird-starved as I was, from trying to get some images in a quick jaunt out of the front door. All hand-held, the first is easily the best, but it would be a very short post if that's all I shared!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/7/song-sparrow Sat, 05 Jul 2014 09:14:35 GMT
Red-winged Blackbird https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/red-winged-blackbird Apologies for the constant jumping between continents, I'm processing the files in no particular order other than those which grab at a particular moment in time. Tonight I happened to glance at the few Red-winged Blackbird images I found, and decided I had enough for a quick post, so that's what I'm doing. This species was perhaps almost as common as American Robin, but is a lot better. And they make brilliant noises too. The below were taken in Ohio near my Grandmother's house, and at Niagara Falls, where the birds are perhaps extra accustomed to loads of people. I didn't have the time to stake out a flight shot, but trust me when I say they look even more amazing than the displaying bird about half way down. Next time perhaps!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/red-winged-blackbird Mon, 09 Jun 2014 20:35:56 GMT
Bulbuls https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/chinese-bulbul Red-whiskered Bulbuls were the most common, followed closely by Chinese Bulbul. I also saw Sooty-headed Bulbul and Chestnut Bulbul, but have no photos of either of these. My favourite shot is probably the first one, which was a grab shot at Discovery Bay as a bird flitted past me briefly - 1/400s at f5.6 whilst at 700mm, so pretty pleasing really. In fact all of these shots were hand-held, I barely used the monopod as it was so hot and humid my only desire was to shed as much weight as possible. Indeed this probably contributed to a very short time spent birding overall. You can see in the second image that the birds are feeling it too! In the third image I think my lens has steamed up - another constant annoyance as I moved between air-conditioned comfort and the sweltering stickiness of outside. Photographing birds in the tropics certainly has its challenges, so hats off to those that do it for a living!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/chinese-bulbul Sun, 08 Jun 2014 18:46:08 GMT
Oriental Magpie-Robin https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/oriental-magpie-robin A pretty common wild bird in Hong Kong, and also very popular in the cage bird trade. These lovely whistling songsters can be found in most places where there is a bit of greenery, and I found them near my Sister's house, in all the parks I visited, as well as out in the New Territories. They seem to prefer the dark and the shade, so getting decent images of them out in the open was very difficult - these are the best I managed despite seeing them all the time. If I approached, the default response was to retreat to the deepest shade and sing from there! And of course black birds in the shade go purple.....and their patience outlasted mine, especially when the rain started! The final image is probably the best.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/oriental-magpie-robin Sat, 07 Jun 2014 21:55:33 GMT
Black Drongo https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/black-drongo Black Drongo is a relatively common bird in Hong Kong, perhaps not in the top tier, but I saw the species most places that I went. I found them to be quite shy, and managed only one brief sequence of shots - the bird flew away after a mere five seconds once I revealed myself by popping out from behind a bush on Lantau. A shame, as I would have liked to have been a lot closer. I think this must be a young bird, though it seems quite advanced for the time of year - I cannot explain the fluffy grey feathers on the back - it would seem odd for a bird to moult in May. There is another speceis in HK, called Hair-crested Drongo, but I only saw that once, so whilst they look very similar, my gut feel is that this must be Black. Dull light, but I like the simplicity of the photo.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/black-drongo Thu, 05 Jun 2014 13:00:00 GMT
American Robin https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/american-robin American Robin fills the role of Blackbird in the States, except I'd say that it is far more numerous in any given area - or at least the area I was in, the mid-west. They forage in the same way as Blackbirds, and even sound pretty like them. Of course they're not a Robin at all, and are only named that due to the red breast reminding settlers of the bird back home (I presume) - it's a Turdus species just like Blackbird. Although I was definitely not on a birding holiday, I did have my gear with me - given how many images I got I rather regret carting it some 20,000 miles most of the way around the world - so decided to try a few sneaky shots when the family weren't looking. Here are a few of them. I've been away for a whole two weeks, and have decent photos of perhaps ten species. Sometimes you have to do something different I suppose, and it's been good for me to not be totally obsessed by birds for a while - there are other things out there!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/6/american-robin Wed, 04 Jun 2014 20:37:59 GMT
Whitethroat https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/5/whitethroat I stepped out of my front door this morning and heard a Whitethroat very clearly. Normally London traffic would completely prevent this from being the case, but being a Bank Holiday there were few cars on the road. As I walked towards Wanstead Flats it got louder and louder, and there it was, in the patch of broom closest to the house. Before continuing on for my morning birding session, I grabbed a few shots of it - it seems to have three favoured song perches, but only launches itself into the air from one of them. I'm not skilled enough to get that display flight, but I'm reasonably pleased that I had a high enough shutter speed that when it dashed from one to the other I got a bot of movement.

The portrait at the bottom is my favourite of the ten or so images I took though. I've been looking at images on the web lately that are more of a bird in a landscape or a setting, rather than just the bird, and I'm trying to get a few more images with this feel.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/5/whitethroat Mon, 05 May 2014 13:39:11 GMT
Turtle Dove https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/5/turtle-dove You cannot fail to have heard about Chris Packham's trips to Malta. Truly ridiculous situation over there - that the Maltese Govt allows the Turtle Dove and Quail spring hunt anyway is terrible, that the hunters shoot with impunity literally anything that moves (including, apparently, raptors roosting on the ground, at night, with torches) is hard to listen to. At the same time that this is all unfolding, I'm seeing some lovely photos come out of the Hortobagy National Park from the Shetland Wildlife group currently out in Hungary, which evokes a pertinent memory. This is where I've had the best views of Turtle Dove ever. Last year I did the same trip to those photography hides out in Debrecen Great Wood, and over the course of the couple of mornings in June as I waited patiently in the darkness, getting eaten by mozzies, an undoubted highlight was a brief visit from a Turtle Dove. Just beautiful. I didn't see one in the UK during the whole of 2013, and unless the flyways are protected (which does not extend to simply Malta, it is a much wider issue, geographically), I doubt I'll see one this year either.

A truly fantastic site, presumably a resident bird at that time of year, it dropped in for perhaps 45 seconds to have a drink, and then was gone. I've not seen one since.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/5/turtle-dove Fri, 02 May 2014 16:10:44 GMT
Another Izzy Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/another-izzy-wheatear I'm gradually working through images taken on my not-so-recent trip to Cyprus. It was a flying visit, which meant I had precisely two evening sessions. This photo comes from the first of those, and is of an Isabelline Wheatear on the "dump tracks" at Cape Greco. In the failing light, I took this from the car window as the bird perched up, lit by the setting sun. When the car rolled to a stop it spooked the bird, as is often the case, but once at a standstill, the bird returned of its own volition and perched up again, albeit not quite as cleanly - the first perch would have been magnificent! I've cloned out more than a few excess twigs to create this - the first one would have needed no intervention whatsoever, and would still have been better. Nevermind. It was a great end to a great - if tiring - day. 

Izzy Wheatear was easily the most common Wheatear across the Island. In specific habitat there were more Pied Wheatears, but for overall distribution, Isabelline was the clear winner. This is not a bad thing.....  1/800s at f5.6 - engine off and lens resting on the wing-mirror for support.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/another-izzy-wheatear Mon, 28 Apr 2014 20:56:54 GMT
Spur-winged Plover has spurs! https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/spur-winged-plover This bird was a lifer for me in Cyprus, and I think I ended up seeing around 20 in all, usually in pairs. The best place I found for them was at a place called Oriklini Marsh, which has a couple of raised hides. One wasn't yet completed at the time of my visit in late March, but the other was fully open and slightly larger, and can be found at the northern end of the site right next to the motorway slipway. There were at least 6 of these bird present on my second visit just before I had to leave for home, and one pair (I assume) were commuting between the marsh and a crop field on the other side of the road. I scoped them out for a bit, but what wasn't apparent until I saw them in flight - and indeed I only noticed this on the back of the camera - is that they do indeed have spurs on their wings! When one pair took flight to go over to the field I dashed down the steps of the hide to open ground and caught a bird as it came over relatively low, and this image shows those spurs. I don't know if they are actually used or serve any kind of purpose - might have to do some reading on that, but check them out!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/spur-winged-plover Sun, 27 Apr 2014 13:22:17 GMT
Chukar https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/chukar This was possibly the most numerous bird that I saw in Cyprus - at the Cape Greco area they were literally everywhere, particularly on the cliffs, and their default behaviour, other than making an absolute racket (far more so than Red-legged Partridge here which I rarely hear) was to fly off a great distance, usually in an enormous arc. I hadn't taken a scope, so only once did I get decent views of a bird and that was from the car. I found that I could drive by and the birds took no notice, but of course the moment the car rolled to a stop, the bird was off! I had just enough time to snap this out of the window before the bird went off behind a ridge - running, not flying, and I quite like the sense of movement from the photo as it's not something I often manage to get. This was another new bird for me, though not high on the list of targets - as mentioned that was the Wheatear - would that we had regular birds in this country, or at least down south. The passage this year has been very poor so far on the patch, I've barely seen ten individuals. I hope it isn't over, but there is always the autumn.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/chukar Wed, 23 Apr 2014 18:54:49 GMT
Dartford Warbler - losing sight of the bigger picture to get the picture https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/dartford-warbler This morning I went on a mission to photograph Dartford Warbler, and there is some way to go versus what I know I can achieve, and as a first stab it didn't go perfectly This is another species I've never taken any images of worth talking about, and so this caps off a mostly satisfying long weekend where I've also added Whitethroat, Nuthatch and Treecreeper to my collection. Bar the Nuthatch, I know I can probably do better, but you have to start somewhere, and as a smash and grab with no real plan formed, it went ok. 

I left London at 4am, and arrived on the Suffolk coast just before six in the morning. The sun had just risen, and there was still some mist around. Sorting out the camera and monopod, I headed off along a path that went through some good habitat, and within mere metres found three birds. All told I must easily have had double figures, but most of the views were of the tail end of birds skipping off into the heather, reappearing only well out of range. I was surprised initially that there were not many birds singing, so perhaps my visit was a little late and the singing and displaying is over for the year?  Although the light was great, getting anything decent on the birds was nigh on impossible. I must have walked several circuits of the heath and only once did a bird pop up "in range" - and even then it was only my 800mm and 1.4x converter that saved me. Had I been wandering around with a 500mm, I'm not sure I would have got anything at all. Most shots I took qualify only as landscapes with a Dartford Warbler in for scale - that said, I do quite like one of them, the light makes it.

I managed a couple of series of shots as the bird flew alongside a path, perching twice. Quality has taken a hit with the converter, mainly I think due to the air starting to warm up when I got these shots. To get away with this focal length the air needs to be cold. Still, I was lucky to come away with anything - and the day would have been a big fat zero without these, as when I returned to Lynford in the afternoon for another crack at Nuthatch, I couldn't find a cooperative bird, and all the Treecreepers stayed steadfastly up high.

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT

As I mentioned in my post above, I went to Minsmere at the weekend to photograph Dartford Warbler, and whilst there, an RSPB warden approached me and gave me a leaflet and some verbal advice explaining the dos and don'ts (mainly the don'ts!) of watching and photographing the species - I think that between him and the leaflet were specifically mentioned leaving the track, tape-luring birds, lingering near birds, and possibly "pishing". He mentioned that they had been having some trouble with photographers, and I've had this nagging at me ever since. Even though I said nothing at the time, I had unfortunately not followed that guidance at all times. Albeit with no success, but that's hardly the point is it? If they go to the trouble of producing a leaflet, there has to be a good reason for it. I've just looked it up, and there certainly is - I have discovered that Dartford Warblers are highly protected, being on Schedule 1 of the 1981 Wildlife Act. If a bird is on Schedule 1, what this means is that you cannot cause any disturbance to it at any time, but particularly in the breeding season - i.e. now.  If you have not looked at the list of Schedule 1 species, it's here, and contains a surprising amount of birds! Peregrine, Golden Eagle and the like are obvious, but Crossbills, Kingfisher and Cetti's Warbler are on there too, all birds I would consider common. The list is a lot more extensive than you might imagine, and photographers and anyone interested in nature would do well to know it and what it means. I'm not sure why Short-toed Treecreeper might be on there mind you. Not knowing what birds are in Schedule 1 is not an adequate defense, all nature watchers should know what is on the list.

I caused no disturbance, or at least none that I could see, but it doesn't matter. It's possible that I could have, and that's the issue and what the list is for. The birds appeared to steadfastly ignore me and all my attempts to get them bigger in the frame, and just got on with whatever they were doing (being invisible in the heather mostly....), but it's an interesting lesson that I wanted to write about, because I think I have become too obsessed with the image, and in doing so I've crossed the line and I'm really disappointed in myself - I'm the one moaning at dog walkers disturbing our Skylarks for Christ's sake! My reason for writing an addendum to this post is that I have been doing some thinking following being given that leaflet, and in hindsight, really it's incredibly easy to let the pursuit of the image get in the way of good behaviour, and the schedule doesn't really come into it at that point. As I get better at bird photography, I often have an image in mind, and my determination to get it has caused me to lose sight of the bigger picture. The bird has to come first, and I forgot that. The image therefore comes second, and I forgot that too. Common sense really, but believe me when I say that you get obsessive about bird photography!

We all know that photographers get a bad rap, primarily at twitches it would appear, when they are too close, crowding a bird etc (I've moaned about this in the past) but equally this could also apply to disturbing birds away from the big crowds. That appears not to get much press, though I am told that at Gilfach nature reserve in Wales they have just recently banned photography as it was perceived to be causing too much disturbance. A shame as I had never been there and was planning to go - Pied Flycatcher! A photographer who disturbs breeding birds is not the type of photographer would like to be. It was a lack of patience, pure and simple, and that's such an important thing that a photographer has to have. After however long of watching the warblers flit away and disappear, often before I'd even seen them, either not to be seen again, or to pop up miles away, I decided to try and get a closer bird, which I should not have done. Four hours in the car there and back, I really wanted that photo that I had in my mind - I lost patience.

Reading about Schedule 1, it's also possible I unwittingly broke the law, which is something I definitely don't want to do! In actual fact you cannot go near nest sites of these birds without a special licence, or rather, you cannot intentionally cause a disturbance at a nest (presumably this is even if you do have a licence). I don't know the legal ins and outs of it, and whilst I never saw a nest, unless it is too early they had to have been there somewhere, and so my actions could have caused disturbance. Based on what I saw, I very much doubt it, but how do I know for sure? Ironically enough the best images from the morning were from the main path as opposed to smaller tracks, but even this could be a problem, as theoretically disturbance can be caused by lingering near a nest site. Whether this is the case even if a nest is near a well-used footpath I don't know, but it is better to be safe. In theory, as you have no idea where nests are, you should not even stop on a path, but I stopped frequently to scan, and to wait if there was a bird that might pop up, which is how I got a close-ish photo. Clearly the issue of regularly used public footpaths going straight through nesting habitat is a funny one, and one that I'm not sure can be dealt with easily, but I assume that's why the RSPB guy (and it may be been in the leaflet too, I can't find it anymore else I would have posted it here) specifically mentioned not lingering in any area where you see a bird, as you can't be sure it isn't near its nest. Having read more about it, I would go so far as to say that unless you have an afore-mentioned licence, you should not even be attempting to photograph Dartford Warbler or any Schedule 1 species at all during the breeding season. 

Essentially I'm on a guilt trip, and wanted to let people know, if anyone actually reads this, that you have to be really careful. So what am I doing beyond writing this, as whilst cathartic, it doesn't particularly help the birds does it? Well firstly I've deleted the images as I don't want to get praise or credit for an image that was taken during the season at a known breeding site. I also don't want to encourage others to go there, or anywhere similar, to try and get equivalent images. This raises an interesting point, as you see an awful lot of amazing close-ups of Dartford Warbler on the net (hence my desire to take one) but you don't get any insight as to how or when they were taken. Perhaps question that the next time you see a blinder. All the advice I have since read about Schedule 1 suggests that the best course of action is simply to stay away altogether during the breeding season, as that's the only way you can be absolutely certain that you're not causing a problem. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I am getting in touch with the National Trust, and also the RSPB guy who handed me the leaflet and had a word with me. To be fair to him, he was very even handed about it, and I can imagine he was incredibly frustrated as he has clearly seen lots of photographers turn up and get it wrong. The leaflet is a great idea for getting the message across - I wonder if we could do the same in Wanstead with dog walkers - have a polite leaflet that we can hand out, as clearly it can work. If I can end up getting in touch with him, even if it means going back there to find him at some point, I'll apologise personally and see what I can do to help. He may have some good ideas, as he's a photographer himself by the looks of things, and I'm willing to bet that very few if any photographers ever decide that they have approached a situation badly and then seek to do something positive about it. If anyone has his contact details, I'd like to have them. Anyway, there we are, what's done is unfortunately done, but hopefully in writing this and doing these few things I can help spread the message about Schedule 1 and what it means, and what constitutes good standards and what does not, rather than just post point blank images of birds all the time.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) dartford warbler https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/dartford-warbler Mon, 21 Apr 2014 19:56:23 GMT
Nuthatch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/nuthatch I've never taken a decent photograph of a Nuthatch, which is really amazing as they can be such friendly little birds. I was out yesterday twitching the Two-barred Crossbill at Lynford, but I quickly tired of that when I realised that there were loads of Nuthatch everywhere. Abandoning the rarity, I started trying to get some pleasing shots, which meant setting up for clean backgrounds and so on, and altering my height to make that possible. The biggest challenge was the light, and a slow lens with only a monopod for support, which meant I was really struggling with shutter speeds of around 1/200s to 1/320s. I have a theory though that in some instances, camera shake can be eliminated a slow speeds simply by taking a long series of shots - almost inevitably one in a series can somehow defy the odds and be acceptably sharp, if not blisteringly so. And actually this is what happened, some of them are absolutely fine despite the support - I guess that the 4-stop IS is playing its part here. As I've said many times, I prefer a monopod over a tripod for the flexibility it gives and the huge weight saving, and it would seem that in many circumstances it isn't actually needed, and the gains are marginal.

Although I like the trunks, I decided to mix things up by finding a couple of perches, one of which was a mossy branch that I placed at the bottom of a trunk. Pretty soon a bird came in and started coming around and down the trunk - they seemed to work one tree and then the next in a relatively predictable order. I was using the 800mm, and so was able to keep my distance. I held my breath as the bird came along the series of trunks, and then it was on mine! The first time it proceeded to the next trunk but skipped the perch, but the next time it came around it went along the perch, and spent some time hopping around the floor. 

I took around 300 images, and have managed to get quite a few keepers from the morning. The best are from the perch, even if it's not the classic Nuthatch image vertically down a trunk. I'll definitely be going back as it seems that are are quite a few possibilities, (including Treecreepers) and if I take a lens that lets in more light (as well as a tripod perhaps, for additional secuity!), I'll likely come back with some even better results. Still, not bad for a first attempt, and more interesting than a bunch of Crossbills up in a high tree! Here are a selection of the best from that short spell yesterday, including two at the ned from the perch - I must try and find a twig that isn't as obviously snapped at the end!

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) nuthatch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/nuthatch Sun, 20 Apr 2014 11:45:21 GMT
Cyprus Warbler https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/cyprus-warbler Cyprus was another target for my lens, if secondary to the Wheatear by some distance. Oddly enough I took these images before the Wheatear, but who can stay rational when there are great bird opportunities all over the place. I took these at the Picnic tables on Cape Greco - although 99% of the birds there are House Sparrows, there are a few Warblers hanging around as well. Very skulky indeed, and I got these from the car window. Go early, as at a weekend this area gets very busy. Never got the clean shots I was after and that I had seen on the web, but nevermind, an excuse to go back and it's not like it's a Wheatear is it? As this was my first trip to Cyprus, this was a new bird for me - very striking - Sylvia Warblers have bags of personality, and as I group I could get quite interested in them.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/cyprus-warbler Sun, 06 Apr 2014 09:20:03 GMT
Cyprus Pied Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/cyprus-pied-wheatear Another trip, another Wheatear. My mission to see (and get quality photos of) all possible Wheatears gets one step closer to fulfillment. As mentioned in my trip report, almost the sole reason for the trip was to get images of Cyprus Pied Wheatear. A long way to go, but I'm becoming a little bit fanatical. But what isn't to like. If you go and have a look at my galleries, you'll see that the "Chats" one is becoming rather all-conquering. And I'm very happy about it! 

Cyprus Wheatears prefer open rocky terrain with low bushes and scrub. They are particularly numerous at Cape Greco on the the south-eastern tip of the island, and having done my research before booking this is where I decided to base myself. I was no more than a 15 minute drive from them each morning, which was when all the below photos were taken. At this time of year (just post the clocks changing) it gets light enough for the camera at around 6.45am, but by 10am it is getting extremely bright and it is basically time to put the camera away until the late afternoon. But I made the most of my two mornings I'm pleased to say.

The two images above came from the second morning, and I'm not sure which is my favourite. When I saw the bird from afar perched on the perfect loop I knew I had to get it, and so carefully maneuvered into position with the sun behind me. Although the bird flew off, it only went to a nearby rock, and so I ended up choosing a position between the two - 700mm of reach kept me in the game. The deep blue background is the sea, and I used a slightly higher perspective in order to place the bird in line. For the second I remained crouched, and so the background is the sky. Try as I might, I couldn't get some shallow water with a sandy bottom for a truly aquamarine background - another trip perhaps. The images below are of the bird on the close by rock.

Once, just once, it perched on a plant, making for a very minimalist image.

The next series of images are from the first morning, and my first decent session with the birds. Only some individuals are tolerant of the close presence of a person, and if a bird flies some distance, it is often not worth pursuing and instead looking for another subject. This bird was perhaps the third individual that I targeted. Again, I moved around a bit in order to get a variety of backgrounds - for instance a bush to get some relatively solid greens, and then the beige is in fact a large rock about thirty feet behind. I suppose they're a bit sterlie for some, but I love plain backgrounds - for me it focuses all the attention where it should be. The bird, with no distractions. All images were with the Canon 1D Mark IV, 500mm f4 lens, and a 1.4x converter - my most often used set up. Oh and the Monopod, my most useful non-electronic bit of kit. Shutter speeds 1/2000s to 1/4000s - brilliant light makes photography a lot easier. There are quite a few more images of this species in the gallery.

So, a very successful trip, with "keeper" images of six species over the two days. This might seem like a low return, but I would have been happy with just the Wheatear. Next up, Cyprus Warbler....

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/cyprus-pied-wheatear Sat, 05 Apr 2014 22:24:26 GMT
Gulls at Anza https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/gulls-at-anza I can quite honestly say that Anza, a fishing port just north of Agadir, is a place that is truly disgusting. That I didn't die from a variety of horrible diseases is pretty miraculous. There are a couple of fish processing plants that have run-offs into the sea, with a bit of raw sewage thrown in for good measure. These are fabulously attractive to birds, especially Gulls. Yuck! 

However it was another good opportunity to practice both flight photography and the exposure of whites, both things that I wish I could do better. Also a good opportunity to try out flight photography in vertical format which means less chance of clipping the wings when a bird banks. The Gulls were 90% Lesser Black-backed, 10% Yellow Legged, and 100% scabby! If you do want a place with heaps of Yellow Legs guaranteed, you could do worse than go here, but you need to get there early before the light becomes very harsh, but also the factory needs to start up, so in reality you do not have a lot of time at your disposal. The biggest issue was targeting a single bird and remaining with it and getting a clear shot, as there are so many other birds swirling round that they get in front, they end up in the frame, they obscure the target and throw the AF......All good fun. I can still smell the place today!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Lesser Black-backed Gull Yellow-legged Gull https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/gulls-at-anza Sat, 05 Apr 2014 21:31:44 GMT
Stonechat, Morocco https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/stonechat-morocco I'm about two months late with this post, sorry, I'm a little busy. Anyhow, back to Morocco, and our penultimate day spent in the Oued Massa. We spent the first half of the day getting a guided tour of some of the good birds, but decided that it was ultimately too restricting on the photography front and so proceeded alone into the fields between a couple of the villages. Here I found the best Stonechat in the entire world and proceeded to lay waste to it for about half an hour. Chats are easily my favourite group of birds, I find I make excuses to photograph them more than anything else. The bird remained faithful to a low bush allowing for some very pleasing clean backgrounds, and the light was sensationally nice in the late afternoon. All handheld I think, so that I could get exactly the right angle with the minimum of fuss - shutter speeds around 1/3200s so no worries on the wobble front. Such a compliant bird, everything fell into place, and as a result one of my most satisfying bursts ever! The first image is my favourite - I took so many, and ended up having to delete most of them as they were all identical. Will I ever learn?! Probably not, but these situations come about rarely, and most often than not you really have to work at it in order to create them. For this one I simply bowled up, but the method was the same - get cracking with that shutter!

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/stonechat-morocco Sat, 05 Apr 2014 21:18:59 GMT
Red-rumped Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/3/red-rumped-wheatear My single most satisfying image from Morocco was of a Red-rumped Wheatear. This was a bird that I had seen only briefly on my first visit to Morocco, and that had been in the heat of the day on Tagdilt track as the birds (a pair) fed on the flies attracted by a number of chicken carcasses. Heat haze and the stench were most off-putting, so putting this species very firmly on the "most wanted" list in terms of targets for any subsequent visit. It didn't start well - although there were many more birds that I had seen previously, getting close to them was nigh on impossible.

On one of our desert forays we parked the car in a likely spot and the three of us parted ways. We had stopped the car because of a pair of Wheatear, and I had seen the male disappear up a wadi. The heat was building and even though sensing I was almost bound to fail, I gamely set off in pursuit. I got close to it twice, and this is the result. I snuck up on it by crawling along the bottom of the wadi, and then popping up roughly where I thought it was. Bingo! I'll make no bones about it, I bloody love this photo, a clean background, a cocked tail and a lovely little over the shoulder head turn. It could have done a little more head turn but this angle is, for me at least, in the exact arc that makes me happy. Techy stuff - Canon 1D Mk IV (when this dies I do not know what I will do), with the 500mm and 1.4x converter, atop my trusty monopod. Settings were ISO 500 (no particular reason), 1/2000s, and f8. Looking back, I also see that I am in AV mode. This isn't normal, I think it was because it was on and off sunshine earlier in the day had meant that Manual mode was a pain the arse. I've dialled in +1/3rd, this is a common thing I do in AV as I like a bright image. It's a slight crop, perhaps 70%, and I've cloned out a distracting twig that came up and under the breast towards the leg. This is just me being picky, the image was a belter even without that (again, just my opinion!). It's just one of those grab shots that really makes me smile as I remember what it took for me to get it, crawling along, guessing, and finally nailing it after half an hour or so. I got a few more images of it elsewhere, but this is by far the nicest - I've done a portrait version as well, which is a crop of the original landscape with canvas added in at the top and filled with sky. I am undecided which I like best, so here are both.

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/3/red-rumped-wheatear Mon, 03 Mar 2014 18:00:00 GMT
Temminck's Lark https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/2/temmincks-lark Temminck's Lark was another bird high up on my target list, essentially another bird that had eluded the camera on my previous visit to the Moroccan deserts in the winter of 2013. The area we birded this time, on the west side of the country, seemed to have many more of this fantastic little bird. With no other people in sight, we split up to comb the desert for attractive photographic subjects, and these were always pleasing to find.

As usual the best angles were to be found low down, and I got very dusty indeed on quite a few occasions. The only difficulty with this tactic was that the birds were very mobile and active, and I found I was constantly having to drag myself off the floor and move position to get ahead of them again as they fed rapidly. It's a hard life! I came back from Morocco on February 5th, and exactly two weeks later I have not taken a single decent image of a bird in this country - I need to pull my finger out! These are OK though - I'm happy to act as a guide for any Moroccan trips anyone wants to do, I can't wait to go back!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) temminck's lark https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/2/temmincks-lark Wed, 19 Feb 2014 21:57:26 GMT
Thick-billed Lark https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/2/thick-billed-lark As you perhaps read on my other blog, I've just come back from a very enjoyable and, dare I say it, successful trip to Morocco. The main aim of the trip was probably to photograph desert birds, and we spent a full day and a half on this, mainly in just two locations south of the town of Guelmin. This is somewhere I will definitely be going back to. The first decent situation we managed to create was with Thick-billed Lark, which was very nearly the first bird we saw we stopped the car along the N1. Whereas mine flew off never to be refound, Mick found a pair at the edge of a tilled strip where it had been carved out of the desert - what the local people hoped to grow I have no idea, but although there was nothing immediately obvious, the birds were sticking around this area.

We set up a few rocks for perches and started the vigil. The male wandered off quite quickly, but with patience (we were probably at it for a couple of hours on just this pair as they fed alongside a "field") we got a few decent images of him as well. The day was quite windy, with broken cloud cover, so although I started off in manual mode, it became apparent that the ever-changing light would be better dealt with in AV (Canon's aperture priority) mode. The light was nice under the clouds, and so most images seen below were taken at f8 with shutter speeds ranging from 1/1000s to 1/2500s, mostly at ISO 640 to keep myself in four figures. I used my trusty monopod, which was incredibly useful for supporting and panning to follow these often quick-moving birds around. We saw a few more of these species over the next day and a half, but never really bothered trying to get more on them as we knew we had done pretty well first time around and there were many other things we wanted to do.

Thick-billed Lark was high on our list of targets, so to have all of these images safely tucked away on the cameras by mid-morning on day two (day one spent travelling) was a great start.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) thick-billed lark https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/2/thick-billed-lark Fri, 14 Feb 2014 14:21:25 GMT
Thekla Lark https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/thekla-lark Thekla Larks are everywhere in the Moroccan landscape. Being fairly drab, I didn't pay them much heed unless there was a particularly close one, but they're nice birds to have a bit of a go at, and with a little patience I was able to get some good images. Or at least I think they're OK! 

Next time I'm out there I want to try a couple of other things, but I was particularly pleased with the cactus as for the most part they rarely left the ground, and in fact this was the only bird of any species that ever posed for me on one. These prickly pear cactuses are everywhere, people tend to use them as natural hedges or to protect their property. There is definitely some mileage in a series of images of birds on cactuses, but for now I've only got Thekla Lark! There are a few more images in the gallery.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/thekla-lark Wed, 22 Jan 2014 18:26:40 GMT
Great Grey Shrike https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/great-grey-shrike Great Grey Shrike are abundant in Morocco, but I never dreamed I would come away with images. My experience of this species so far has only been of birds in the UK, and these typically remain miles away. So I was amazed on my first evening in the country when slowing down to a bird I had seen out of the car window that it didn't move when I rolled to a stop. I couldn't get the angle that I wanted on the bird, so I moved the car a little way off, parked up and got out to approach the bird on foot! It didn't move! This first image is of that bird. 

1/640 at f5.6. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4 converter. Monopod.

It didn't work with all individuals I came across, but later on during the trip I was able to approach three other birds relatively closely as well, including one that was absolutely astonishing in its fearlessness. I spent hours with it, just sat alongside its favoured hunting perch. It spent a lot of time checking me out, but continued to fly down to the ground to pick up beetles. Insects must be 100% of its diet, or at least other birds perhaps formed 0% of its diet, as every Shrike I found was in the company of other passerine species that it paid no heed to whatsoever, and who were not afraid of it at all. Perhaps it is only in northern areas that small birds form part of their diet, and that in warmer climes insects are sufficiently common and easy prey that there is no need to add birds to their diet. Or that's my theory anyway.

1/1600 at f10. ISO 640. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4x converter.

I absolutely love the detail in this image, it passes all my tests for sharpness with flying colours, but in reality the bird was too close! A 300mm lens, or my 70-200 (which was in the car at the bottom the hill!) would have been really quite useful in this situation. Then again, can you really ever be too close to a Great Grey Shrike? No! There are a few more images in my "Shrikes" gallery.

1/2000 at f7.1, ISO 400. 500mm MkII lens.
1/3200 at f6.3, ISO 640. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4x converter
1/3200 at f7.1, ISO 640. 500mm MkI lens + 1.4x converter

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/great-grey-shrike Mon, 20 Jan 2014 21:45:09 GMT
Black Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/black-wheatear Black Wheatear was one of my main targets in Morocco, but it wasn't until the third day of four that I finally found one. Driving along well off the beaten track, I espied a black dot on a ridge - these birds often take a prominent position. I chatted to the local farmer as I would need to cross his land to get the bird, but he had no problem with that - up I went. A bit of climb, but the views were superb. The birds - there was also a female that I had not spotted - never came particularly close to me except once, but I was able to grab a couple of nice shots as they chatted at me from further away. I had found a truly great little spot, with a Moussier's Redstart, a Black Redstart, several Thekla Lark, and a Great Grey Shrike that will be the subject of my next post.

1/3200 at f6.3, ISO 640. 500mm lens + 1.4x converter.

1/1000 at f10, ISO 400. 500mm MkII lens.
1/3200 at f6.3, ISO 640. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4 converter
1/2500 at f6.3, ISO 400. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4x converter.
1/3200 at f6.3, ISO 640. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4x converter.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Black Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/black-wheatear Sat, 18 Jan 2014 20:51:02 GMT
Moussier's Redstart https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/moussiers-redstart Moussier's Redstart is abundant in Morocco, literally everywhere you stop - unless I was just really lucky of course. They tend to be inquisitive birds, and came in to check me and my funny squeaking noises. I'd had a good experience with a bird on a prior trip to Morocco, but hadn't quite come away with the perfect image. This time I reckon I'm a lot closer, but I'd still go back for another try! This is just a selection, there are quite  few more in the "Chats" gallery. 

1/3200 at f5.6, ISO 400. 500mm MkII lens.
1/3200 at f5.6, ISO 400. 500mm MkII lens.
1/6400 at f4, ISO 400. 500mm MkII lens.
1/1600 at f8, ISO 640. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4x converter.
1/2000 at f7.1, ISO 640. 500mm MkII lens + 1.4x converter.
1/3200 at f5.6, ISO 400. 500mm MkII lens.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/4/moussiers-redstart Fri, 17 Jan 2014 18:30:00 GMT
Morocco for Bird Photography https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/morocco-for-bird-photography I've just returned from Morocco, where a long weekend was spent purely in the pursuit of images. I wrote about the trip here, but deliberately kept it light on the details. I had no plan, and just followed smaller roads and tracks until I saw birds - if they were friendly I stuck it out, if I couldn't get close I moved on. On the whole (and when I stuck to it!) this plan, or lack of plan, paid off handsomely, and rarely was I short of subjects. It was interesting to note how birds seem to live together in small pockets, and then there is a blank area before another pocket. I guess is to do with habitat, water and food availability.

I flew to Marrakech with British Airways, hired a car from Medloc, a local company (22 EUR/day - arranged in advance from the UK), and stayed at the clean and comfortable Hotel Le Coq Hardi in Ait Ourir, where a room, dinner and breakfast set me back about 25 quid. Bargain. Driving is interesting, but if you're sensible and slow it's easier than it first looks. At no point in the trip was I further than about an hour from Marrakech by car, perhaps 60km, but it felt for the most part as if I were on a different planet. Speaking french is a big plus, but probably not essential, and I found that being polite to local people and taking time to speak to them and their children paid dividends. Once you get into the backcountry, people cease wanting to sell you stuff and just want to know what you're doing - my advice from personal experience is simply to steer clear of the tourist areas like the Ourika Valley and Oukaimeden, and instead go off the beaten track. It's a great destination, and you could easily come away with a ton of good images in just a weekend - I may attempt just that later on this year.

I took the 1D Mark IV body, the 500mm lens and both converters, as well as full tripod set-up and my monopod. As I was by myself, I ended up with the tripod set up in the front seat (one leg in the footwell, one near the handbrake, the other out horiztonally into the door frame - see photo) so that I could gently roll up to roadside birds and start papping. When I left the car in search of birds I simply took the camera off the wimberley and popped in on the monopod. Most images were taken outside the car, but the "drive by" is still an effective method of getting close to some individuals, even in a bright white car! Other lenses taken but only lightly used were 16-35mm and 70-200mm zooms, with a 5D Mark III body which was also intended to serve as a backup should the worst happen with the 1D. All of this went into the Guragear Kiboko bag no problem at all, along with a whole pile of gubbins like spare batteries, cards, chargers, a rocket blower. As usual I took far too much, I was so busy taking photos of birds that the other lenses barely got a look in - lesson learned for next time!

The majority of the time I used the 1.4x converter, but some birds were so accommodating that this wasn't necessary. The 2x converter didn't come out of the bag! The light in the morning is brilliant from about 8am until 10.30am, at which point it became a bit harsh. It was at it worse probably at around 1-2pm, but it remained harsh probably until about 3pm. During this period not only was the light a bit tough, but the heat (20+ degrees even at the start of January) made accurate focusing and sharp images very difficult. If you could get very close you were OK, but I'd imagine that later in the year even this would be impossible. I tended to either rest up or do a bit of driving around in the middle of the day.

With the light being so intense and constant, I worked in manual the whole time and was able to get shutter speeds all the way up to 1/6400th of a second. Generally I used this to get decent apertures of f8 and beyond, and so a typical speed was 1/1600th. When you get very close to birds, you need a lot of depth of field, I think f13 was used on a couple of occasions - a far cry from the UK! This was one of the reasons I went - the forecast at home was absolutely dire, whereas Morocco looked incredible, and I only booked it about two weeks before I travelled. Sure enough, winter gales ruined the whole weekend in the UK whereas I was wandering around in short sleeves. 

In addition to excellent birds and very few people to spoil your enjoyment of them, Morocco is such a sparse country that you can generally always find a situation which has the potential for very simple backgrounds of the type I love. Rocks and thorny bushes are often favourite perches, and you can blow the backdrops to pieces as there is simply nothing there, even when stopped down a lot. And the colours....wow! Every shade of red and orange or beige you could dream of. Bright blues and olive greens. Personally I love this kind of simple image, and it's a reason I'll keep going back there.

On the trip I was birding as well, and so clocked up over fifty species, but took images of only about ten. I'm going to do a post per species of the best of those - Great Grey Shrike, Thekla Lark, Black Wheatear, and to start with, Moussier's Redstart. Here's a taster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/morocco-for-bird-photography Wed, 15 Jan 2014 20:44:42 GMT
Wheatears of 2013 https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/wheatears-of-2013 Well, Gulls are one thing, Wheatears are another entirely. I live for Wheatears, they're just great, great birds. I drove many kilometers recently in Morocco attempting to find Black Wheatears to photograph. Ultimately successfully, but more of that later - this is about last year as I thought I'd so something similar to the Gull post, but with a far superior family group! I hope you enjoy them as much as I did taking them. Same rules as before, if one passed in front of the lens, on it goes. Funnily enough the list starts with Black Wheatear....

You will note that five of the nine images are from Morocco - it's THE place to go for Wheatears, or at least THE place that I've so far discovered. Heaps of scope for pleasing perches, completely blank backgrounds if that's your thing, and mostly great light in the early mornings and late afternoons. Just go!

That said, my favourite image is the Izzy Wheatear from.....Wales!

You can click on any of the images to make them bigger, and hovering over them gets you the exif. Fun fun fun!

Black Wheatear

Black Wheatear1/1250 at f6.3, ISO 640

Taken on my first visit to Morocco, we perched behind our lenses hoping that the bird would come in. I ended up slightly badly placed, needed to be few feet left, and an inconvenient rock obscures the lower part of the photo as well as bit of background irritation. This was my first ever image of this species, so no real complaints. Next time! Maybe....

Black-eared Wheatear

Black-eared Wheatear1/1250 at f5.6, ISO 400

Only managed a few photos of this bird, taken from a gently rolling car in southern Spain. Note the lovely perch and the nicely exposed forehead.....oh well, another one to aim for. The image was taken in early April, it was interesting to see how early the bird bleaches from the rich ochre. Later in the season they actually look black and white.

Desert Wheatear

Desert Wheatear1/1600 at f8, ISO 400

Another image from the Moroccan deserts. I needed a faster shutter speed here, as 1/1600 wasn't sufficiently motion-stopping or sharp. I actually use ISO 800 far more frequently these days than I did back in March, could have done with that here. That said, how often do I get usuable images of passerines in flight, and I like the action here. Eye level with the bird, decent background too, lots of nothing in Morocco.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear1/1600 at f7.1, ISO 800

Have I already said all there is to say about this image.? Possibly, possibly. Don't care though. I love it, I absolutely love it. Partly it's the image, for me it ticks all the boxes - on my stomach to get level with the bird also helps get a good soft background, the light is lovely and the bird has a sweet head turn. Partly though it was the blissful location, the lack of crowds, and the shirt sleeve weather in October. Mostly though, it's because it's a Wheatear.

Mourning Wheatear

Mourning (Maghreb) Wheatear1/400 at f5.6. ISO 800

A big target bird for us in Morocco, we finally found a pair late in the day. I've lightened this image significantly to bring up detail. Now that I know my camera better I might have upped the ISO as well, but what's done is done. Still an effective portrait to my mind, got that classic Morocco background. Shame I couldn't stop down, but the light was bad. I deliberately underexposed in the field to squeeze out some speed, knowing I could bring it back up - always worth remembering, but only if you shoot RAW.

Northern Wheatear

Northern Wheatear1/1600 at f7.1, ISO 800

Although a little more space would have been nice, this bird was so close! Here, it's all about the pose, I don't see Northern Wheatear adopt it all that often, and I do spend a lot of time chasing them about! Good detail, nice light (note that the exposure is identical to the Izzy Wheatear above - same day, same light, same working in manual exposure mode), nice background, and something a little different so that's why I chose it above all my other N. Wheatear shots for this post.

Pied Wheatear

Pied Wheatear1/1000 at f8, ISO 800

Wish that I'd taken a longer lens! I had not been expecting to have a chance of photographing this particular bird, so was surprised to find that the opportuntity presented itself on a major twitch. I nearly didn't take a camera at all, then realised that I would be naked without one. This is with my 500mm with the 2x converter attached. Not bad considering, but as in so many UK birding situations, the 800mm would have been the deal-breaker here. Monopod (my tripod had a scope on it, you can see this was a birding trip!) and the central focal point by necessity as the minimum aperture is f8 with the doubler. 

Red-rumped Wheatear

Red-rumped Wheatear1/2500 at f6.3, ISO 400

Amazingly we only found one pair of this species in the Moroccan Desert, and in the heat of the day! Nevermind, here is the image, poor though it unfortunately is. Let's just say I had some lighting and exposure issues..... Aiming to improve on these birds on a trip sometime soon, for now here's what I have.

White-crowned Black Wheatear

White-crowned Black Wheatear1/1600 at f7.1, ISO 640

By the far most frequently-encountered Wheatear in Morocco, I like the pose, the simple background, and the native plant versus the usual rock. Many of the plants in Morocco are very stubby, thus you only have to be crouched in order to get to eye level with the bird.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/wheatears-of-2013 Tue, 14 Jan 2014 21:57:20 GMT
Gulls of 2013 https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/gulls-of-2013 I can scarcely believe I'm writing this, I hate Gulls! But funnily enough as I was looking back through my files from last year, it turns out that I actually point the camera at them more than I thought. I guess they're large and obvious, and when all else fails, it's something to do. Rarely do I go out on a specific Gull mission, it's usually a grab shot whilst doing something else.

I was inspired to do this post by Mick and Richard, who spend all weekend every weekend at Dungeness photographing Gulls. This is slightly one-dimensional, but results in some truly outstanding images (far better than those that follow), and Mick's review of his Gull year can be seen here, not sure Richard has done one.

So, in that vein, here are what I think are my best Gull images from last year. None spared, if I photographed the species, there is an image here to prove it, even if it it's a bit useless! Funnily enough I had under ten Lesser Black-backed Gull images to choose from, but well over thirty of Bonaparte's Gull. It's only when you look back that you realise you have completely overlooked the common stuff that you see day in day out.

You can hover over the images for the technical details, and click on them to display them at full resolution.

 

Audouin's Gull

Audouin's Gull1/500 at f5.6, ISO 800

Audouin's Gulls were few and far between on my family holiday in August. They departed the beach at the first signs of human life and didn't come back until dusk. Based on the east side of the island, it was impossible to get the right sun angle without taking my lens for a swim (I tried, didn't work!), but this is the best of what I got. Although there is a lot of shadow, the side lighting looks quite nice. I was very low for this one, and although the bird's legs look lost in the mist, this is actually the top of a ridge of sand I was shooting through.

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull1/3200 at f9, ISO 800

Probably not the greatest photo of this species I've ever taken, but my main targets are always something else! This is a rare flight shot from me, and proves at least that I can kind of do it if I put my mind to it! Just not consistently! This was taken off Southend Pier, which I visited specifically to practice flight photography. That's dedication!

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte's Gull1/1600 at f5, ISO 640

I actually made a specific trip to photograph this bird, four hours in car - what is the world coming to! The light was horrible, a nasty, insipid, flat and uninspiring day. The resulting images all looked very monochromatic, but you take what you can get. The bird was on a boating lake, and to get this image I lay flat on the pavement with the lens resting almost on the ground - you can't really tell where the water ends and the sky begins. I should have stopped down more to get a sharper beak, but probably even f13 would not have been enough, and at that point I would have been down to 1/250 or thereabouts.

Common Gull

Common Gull1/2500 at f8, ISO 800

Another image from that same day on Southend Pier. This image required a tiny tiny bit of missing wingtip to be added - don't ask me the P number, I'm not that kind of birder! I barely have any images of Gulls in flight, I like the pose and the lighting, so I thought what the hell, I'll do it. Rather than stitch it from another frame, there was so little of it needed that I simply drew it by hand/mouse, as well as adding canvas to the right. If you hadn't been told, would you have noticed?!

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull 1/1000 at f5.6, ISO 1600

This is about the only image I took of a Glauc all year - a bit annoying as I have much nicer ones from last year but rules is rules. This was taken on Shetland near the fishing factory, where there are always a few white-wingers hanging around. Getting any kind of shot was very difficult as this was late in the day, and even up at ISO 1600 I was struggling - the converter meant my maximum aperture was f5.6. Of all the shots I took, I like this one the best. I know eye contact is considered essential, but this a little different. The white wings of a white-winger.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull1/3200 at f9, ISO 500

I was forced against my will to go to Dungeness one day, and 100% of the birds there are Gulls. What was I supposed to do? This was another opportunity to practice flight photography. I'm still at the stage where if it's sharp I'm basically happy, so this isn't a classic pose, banking and so on, but I'll get there. The weather was really nice, good light in the afternoon, and this allowed me to dial in f9, which is always helpful in flight shots. Note how all the Ps on view (numbers 21, 23, and 28 especially!) are ragged. 

Herring Gull

Herring Gull1/5000 at f4, ISO 640

Ah, the ubiquitous Herring Gull. Nothing special about this image, but I like the pose, and the light was fabulous, as was my positioning for the light. What do I wish I had done differently? Smaller than f4, as although this was handheld I didn't need 1/5000th of a second.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull1/1250 at f4, ISO 800

I travelled to Ireland in the summer for a spot of sea-watching. The wind had other ideas and it wasn't that great, but luckily I had my camera with me. This was taken at Galway's famous Nimmo's Pier, a place I'd never been and that was completely different to what I had in my head. This was the only interesting Gull around, so I took a few images. As with the Bonaparte's Gull, I like the almost Black and White feel to the image, as well as it's cleanliness. Although the whites look bright in the late evening sunshine, the histogram has not been breached. A low angle has helped here - I was lying down on the pavement again.

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gull1/2000 at f5.6, ISO 800

Never thought I'd see one of these, one of the only Gulls I've truly enjoyed this year! Photography at a major twitch is never easy, as you can't move around to change your position in case you flush the bird and are then lynched by 100 angry birders. I had to choose my spot in advance of the bird coming in, and this is what I got. Some way from ideal, but you can tell what it is. I actually guess the right spot and was closer to the bird than many people, and although the light was fine, even getting down as low as I could had no impact on the background which is naff.

Kittiwake

Kittiwake1/2500 at f6.3, ISO 400

This is a special image for me, not because it the best ever image of a Kittiwake (which clearly it isn't), but because of where I took it. Sometimes images are not all about the end result and how you got there, but the memories they recall. This bird was in Wanstead! I was walking along near Alexandra Lake when I glanced up at a Gull flying over my head. I did a double take when it appeared to have black legs. My brain screamed at me and I fumbled for the camera. At this point I was right into the light but even the dreadful frame showed what I wanted it to see. Solid wingtips and a yellow bill! Kittiwake! Nick and I think Josh who were still within earshot must have heard my screams - I was literally jumping up and down, pointing and yelling. I couldn't believe it, Kittiwake is rare enough on the river in London, let alone on my patch miles from the Thames, but yet here it was, a patch tick. The bird stuck around long enough to get some images with the sun behind me, and I was over the moon for the next few days.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull1/2500 at f6.3, ISO 640

I could only find a handful of images of LBB that I had taken in 2013, and not many more than that ever. It seems to be a species that I have completely overlooked. I have nothing to say about this image, the only thing that stands out is that I used a 300mm lens and a converter rather than anything longer as my 500mm was broken (or so I thought at the time!).

Mediterranean Gull

Med Gull

Lovely Gulls these, as Gulls go. I was quite pleased with the lighting and the pose on this image, given my usual success rate. The plain background helps, and I have to say I really enjoyed my time on Southend Pier.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull1/2000 at f8, ISO 800

This bird was already frustratingly full of bread when I got to it, and never really showed much interest. That said, it was the first time I'd seen a juvenile of this species so I took what I could. Birds flying straight at you never really work, but the saving grace of this image is the head-turn and eye contact - ideally there would have been even more head turn, masking the other eye, but it wasn't to be. The bird did one pass and then flew back over estuary and landed in the same field it had been sat in when we turned up. 

 

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/gulls-of-2013 Fri, 10 Jan 2014 18:59:39 GMT
Photoshop https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/photoshop Do you remember this photo that I posted a while back in my "Editing Process" post? At the time I said I wasn't yet skilled enough with Photoshop to be able to sort it out. Well, it turned out that do know enough, and that I just hadn't devoted sufficient time to it. The below took me absolutely ages, and still requires a little more work on the tail, but I am pretty pleased so far. Obviously I'd have preferred to have taken the clean shot, and always strive to do so, not least because I'd rather be in the field that at my desk, but it shows what is possible these days.

I use the venerable Adobe Photoshop CS2 package, which is now available for free I believe. I use a tiny tiny fraction of its functionality, but it is the most amazing program, and I do not see the need to swap to a newer version that costs many hundreds of pounds. It does everything I could possibly want, which for most images, isn't a great deal. The example below is extreme in nature, but from a free software package, wow! 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/photoshop Thu, 02 Jan 2014 12:16:32 GMT
Searching for the Light https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/searching-for-the-light Well, 2014 started off about as dark and dingy as you could possibly imagine. I looked outside this morning and  that was that, no camera! It doesn't look great the next few days, at least not here in the UK. However....

...in Marrakech it looks rather nice! I said I'd be attempting to use the camera as much as possible this year, and this may be the solution to get me through the dark winter months - abandon the UK altogether. Morocco was probably the best place I went to last year for bird photography, and seeing as I have worked right through Christmas and New Year, I felt that a short trip away was merited. The flights are really cheap, everything when you get there is really cheap, and the weather and birds are excellent. Are you sold yet? Let's see if I can get some contenders for my "January" image under my belt early on, before work becomes rather hectic. You can actually do Morocco in a weekend, an early morning Saturday flight gets you there for about ten in the morning, and the return flight is on Sunday evening. That's only one morning and two afternoons, but there are a load of great places within striking distance of Marrakech, and by lunchtime on Saturday you could be photographing Atlas Shore Lark in the mountains. I'm actually going for a slightly longer weekend than that, but you get the picture. And I hope I do too!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2014/1/searching-for-the-light Wed, 01 Jan 2014 18:57:25 GMT
Review of 2013 https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/review-of-2013 I thought that I’d do a review of my photographic year, as even though I have not used the camera as much as I had hoped, I’ve still had a really productive year and am pretty pleased with what I've done. I should probably rephrase that as I have used the camera quite a lot, but it has been in intense bursts rather than constantly and frequently, which is what I’d hoped for. I reckon that if the gaps between picking it up were smaller then I might see more improvement – it all comes down to time, or rather a lack of time. One of the things I want to do in 2014 is make that time and go out more frequently – it just seems to be too easy to invent an excuse to stay in and do something else. There should be plenty of creative opportunities close to home, but I also recognise that the best opportunities come with careful planning. Having a list of target species, locations and times is really important and that’s where I fall down. I can take a decent photo whilst on a wander, but usually the best images are the ones that have been thought out and planned for. A lot of the photographers whose work I really respect seem to be really good at the planning part, and work on longer term projects where they will identify a good opportunity and keep coming back to it over the course of several weeks. Away from the technical side, that’s where I have the most to learn, and where I think I can make the most improvement – my thought is that if I can get to grips with this facet of wildlife photography, then the images will follow. On the technical side, I’m interested in seeing if I can get better at action photography. Any readers of this blog or my other one will have noticed that 90% of my photos are fairly static. That doesn’t mean that they’re not good shots in some way, but it is too one-dimensional, and one way I can see to easily vary my output and widen my portfolio is to get more bird interaction, more movement. I was recently put onto a US bird photographer called Alan Murphy – his images of passerines in flight are incredible. My guess is that a lot of flash is used, but they’re still wonderful – I don’t think I’ve got more than a handful of passerine flight shots, but I know why that is! I need to continue to work on the big stuff like Gulls before I can ever hope to nail the small stuff...

Anyway, enough about my hopes and plans for 2014, let’s go back to 2013. I’ve tried to pick a favourite image from each month, one that represents both a happy memory as well as decent image. Some months were far more productive than others though, so it has been impossible to whittle it down to just one. In other words there are more than 12 images in this post!

January - Slavonian Grebe

I remember that when this first came up I had no car and couldn’t get there. The bird was on a tiny pond, and about 60% of it had frozen over, and the views were apparently amazing. My mate Mick was there and I knew he would be absolutely smashing it. Gutted. However it stayed for quite a few more days, and in the end I went twice. The first time was a flying visit with the kids and I only had a few minutes. The bright sun made it hard work, and I wasn’t completely happy with any of the images, though I'd have taken any of them in advance given how short I knew my visit would have to be. The second visit was much better and under the cover of white cloud – ideal - and that's where I got the shots I really like. Wish I'd had a third visit.... The first image was taken in January, but my favourite image of the bird, shown afterwards, is actually from the first few days in February. Is that cheating? My blog, my rules....

February - Fieldfare and Dipper

Fieldfares are such lovely birds, but they’re a pig to get close to, usually very shy indeed. Mick, Richard and I had gone to Shoeburyness to try for the Long-tailed Duck that was there, but had drawn a blank. They had been the previous day and noted a Fieldfare very near to the carpark, so we changed tack. For some reason the bird was on an oval bit of grass no bigger than half a tennis court, which was surrounded by the access track to the carpark on one side, and the parked cars on the other. The three of us lay in a circle with the bird in the middle, and oblivious to cars going back and forth we were treated to some fabulous opportunities with this incredibly confiding bird as it hopped around feeding between us. We got a bit cold and muddy all lying face down on the floor in late Feb, but it was more than worth it.

The Black-bellied Dipper was a really confiding bird that spent a few weeks on the river Thet in Norfolk. Although I marginally prefer the Fieldfare image, I can't not post one up of this bird. I'd never seen a dipper so well, and so to have the chance at some images was a real bonus even though it was really dark.

March - White-crowned Black Wheatear

White-crowned Black Wheatear is probably the commonest species in Morocco, and they were a joy to photograph. Morocco is perhaps one of the best places I’ve ever been to for bird photography – I already have two trips planned for 2014. There are no people, amazing light, heaps of birds, and with so much space it’s a lot easier to create the blown backgrounds that I love so much. I have extremely fond memories of the trip, which combined great birding with great photographic opportunities. And it wasn't confined to just birds....

April - Eastern Subalpine Warbler

Just a few days previously I’d driven three hours to finally get Subalp on my UK list, and then this bird appeared a lot closer to home at Landguard. It was a really showy bird, but there were far too many photographers pursuing it as it fed – this is the trouble with photographing rare birds in the south of England, so many people have cameras that wherever you go there are fifty other people all wanting a piece of the action. I quit this game after a while and sought out an area where I might get a clear shot without all the twigs and so in the background, and in doing so got well ahead of it. As the bird and the scrum approached I got ready, hoping it would land on the stem I had in mind. It did, I took a dozen shots in the space of the few seconds it was perched, and I then left the site immediately knowing I couldn’t get any better in the current circumstances. The hordes continued following the bird up and down, and I never did see a single other photo that I really liked.

May - Meadow Pipit

Meadow Pipits saved a quiet day back in May up on the cliffs at Dover. With our main target not turning up, a territorial Mipit that would come in quiet close made for some great photography in glorious conditions on the clifftops. I remember loads of stupid tourists balancing on the cliffs and posing for iPhone shots, but luckily none of them fell off. We largely ignored them and enjoyed the photography. Although I ended up with many better shots of the bird itself in a variety of good poses, my favourite is still this one of it eyeing up a potential snack!

June - Roller & Bee-eater

Whilst I go out looking for birds to photograph, I’ve never actually been on a pure photographic holiday. On a whim I booked up to go to Hungary with Sakertours, taking the last slot on a June trip to the Hortobagy National Park. They have a number of hides set up, and they take you to one or two per day and leave you to it. I’m not a hide photographer really, I find it very constrained, but I can’t deny that they deliver the goods. I’m actually wondering about purchasing a pop-up hide to use in this country, perhaps set it up in the garden this winter. Anyhow, these hides were the business, and whilst my shots of these birds are all pretty standard stuff, I was really pleased with the results. I couldn't choose between these species, so have taken the liberty of posting one of each. 

July - Arctic Tern

In  late July I twitched the Bridled Tern on the Farnes, and have since made a vow to go back every year, but in future not to stand around on the jetty for hours and hours. The islands are fabulous, and I intend to make the most of them as often as I can get up there in the breeding season - simply a glorious place with millions of photographic subjects. I'm not exactly sure what it is about this image that made me pick it, but part of is the expression of what seems to be distaste on the face of the adult - it just looks deeply unimpressed and disappointed with its offspring!

August - Fulmar

A somewhat abortive trip to Ireland for sea-watching once again put me in a beautiful location, Loop Head in County Clare. In the wind currents above the towering cliffs, the resident Fulmars were having a whale of a time, and so did I. Utterly alone, sat in extremely comfortable long grass, I spent a few hours trying to get flight shots. This is not my forte, although I am getting better, but I really worked it between rain showers, and ended up having a great time. And you get two for the price of one!

September - Red-backed Shrike

This bird comes a close second to my "Bird of the Year", and had the added bonus of being quite local. I forwent twitching the Spurn Great Snipe in order to get to this bird, and it lived up to my every expectation. I have a soft spot for certain bird families, and the Shrikes are right up there. This bird performed superbly, my one regret is that I never caught it in flight. But what a bird!

October - Isabelline Wheatear

This was undoubtedly my favourite bird of the year for a couple of reasons, the first being that it is a Wheatear, obviously. The second was that the scenery in far west Pembrokeshire was sublime, a grotty morning in London turned into a glorious afternoon in Wales, and after a journey of nearly five hours Nick and I had the bird almost entirely to ourselves. The bird was confiding, returning to the same spot again and again (at some point during its stay mealworms had been placed on a certain part of the cliff, though one remained), and the light was glorious. I lay flat down on my stomach with the lens on the ground in front of me, and was rewarded with exceptional views and a fabulous photographic situation. Everything had come together and I can honestly say I have rarely been happier.

November - Antillean Crested Hummingbird

As you may know, my work is pretty intense, and by the end of the year I’m usually pretty shattered. Actually I’m probably pretty shattered most of the time, but it’s a good excuse to book a holiday. This time around Mrs L and I went to St Lucia. I didn’t actually spend a great deal of time with the camera – the lure of a deckchair, rum cocktails and a warm sea was simply too great, but a little bit of chasing Hummingbirds around produced this image which I particularly like. Although I had taken a few flashes with me, there were no feeders around which to set them up, and with the multitude of flowers there was no telling where the birds would go. Rather than waste good beach time waiting by one flower with everything primed, I went the old-fashioned route of setting a high shutter speed and following a bird round. It's bloody hard, but I came away with a few that have worked pretty well.

December - Brunnich's Guillemot

For Christmas this year I made a bird calendar for my family, and needing to get it done in time for the last post, I went with an early December Black-headed Gull with autumn leaves reflecting in the water. Since then though I’ve had surprisingly more outings with the camera than I had anticipated, including an Ivory Gull up in Yorkshire that will live long in the memory. Although the Gull was brilliant, it didn’t really do much other than just sit there, and the whole location was pretty crap for photography. My photos of the Gull are visible in my Gallery, but they won’t win any prizes for artistic merit. But I have to confess to being pretty pleased with that Brunnich’s Guillemot shot from a few days ago. Not that it’s a superb shot or anything, but it’s all about the circumstances in which you find yourself. On that morning I had one single opportunity that lasted about three seconds in order to create an image that would both please me and be different from pretty much everything else that was taken that morning by the dozens of cameras present. As much as it was luck that caused the bird to pop up near me, experience meant that I was ready for that opportunity, and I remained calm enough to do what was needed. Sometimes it’s enough to say that you didn’t blow it!

So there you have it, a few of the images I have most enjoyed taking this year. My overall favourite bird and experience was the Izzy Wheatear in October - just a wonderful trip and a lovely location. So I'll leave you with one last view of it as it hopped around a coastal path in some afternoon sunshine. Every time I think of it I smile, and you can't ask much more than that.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/review-of-2013 Tue, 31 Dec 2013 09:00:00 GMT
Brunnich's Guillemot Grab https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/brunnichs-guillemot-grab 2013 being the year of the twitch, I went down to Dorset for the Brunnich's Guillemot that has been frequenting Portland Harbour. I'd heard stories of the bird being fabulously confiding, and a number of images I had seen on the web led me to believe that I might be in with a shot, so to speak. The bird showed well though the scope, but never stayed on the surface for long, and always remained too distant for photography. When it did appear close inshore, it was in the darkest corner of the harbour where you could only view from the top of the wall, and thus were pointing down at it. Not for us the confiding bobbing off the beach it seemed! However every now and again it would appear to head slightly west, which took it past a beach, and that's where I spent most of my time waiting for it - not for me the running up and down the sea wall with loads of other people all getting the same poor dark images - although I admit I did try it out before realising I was on a hiding to nothing!

Most of my beach vigil was in vain, the bird would appear next to a couple of posts that were still too far out, and then it would dive and the next thing you knew it was back in its favourite dark corner, having managed to do it on a single lungful, and amazing quickly. Only once did it come a bit closer, and I was as ready as I could be, low to the ground only a couple of feet above water level. I'd elected to bring the 800mm, despite the stories of the bird appearing less than twenty feet away I though that as much focal length as possible was the way forward. As the bird was frustratingly far out I had the 1.4x converter mounted as well, for 1120mm at f8, although only the central focus point is active at this point. I knew this combo could hold the quality in cold weather, especially on a tripod - much as love my monopod, there is only so much it can do sometimes. I repeatedly reset my exposure to account for the changing light, and so when the bird suddenly appeared about thirty or forty feet out, all I had to do was quickly swing the gimbal round, focus, and fire. I managed about five shots before the bird submerged again and went straight back - underwater - to the dark corner. 

Looking at the back of my camera, I knew I had done OK in the circumstances, which was good as I needed to get back on the road for the Diver in Devon, and would have hated to have gone away empty handed. The bird had surfaced just on the border of shade and sunshine, with its head thankfully lit up. I had been exposing for some Red-breasted Merganser that had also been in the sunshine, so was more or less spot on - the body of the bird is overly dark but it's the head and eye that are by far the most important. Of the five images I got, probably only two work, and the first is far better as the head is slightly angled in, whereas on the second it is already turning out as the bird starts to head away. So, I got lucky, but importantly I was prepared to get lucky, and that's what made the difference. If the bird stays and a fine day coincides with a weekend, I might go again and spend more time there, as eventually I expect I'd get more and better opportunities. For now though, I'm really pleased how it worked out in the limited amount of time that I had.

Techy details are Canon 1D4, 800mm + 1.4x converter, ISO 800, 1/1250s at f8, exposure set manually.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/brunnichs-guillemot-grab Mon, 30 Dec 2013 08:08:05 GMT
Long-tailed Tit https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/long-tailed-tit Last weekend I took the first shot of a Long-tailed it I'm remotely pleased with. Still a long way to go, but if I can somehow find the time I may look to have spend more time with them. Feeding in small to medium groups, they're easy to find and very photogenic. Finding a decent perch and backdrop is the key, and then being quick because they move through so quickly! I grabbed this shot with the 800mm in Wanstead Park - more dof required which is always tricky in winter light, and if I could have just been a bit further to my left! Still, getting there, getting there. Watch this space!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) long-tailed tit https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/long-tailed-tit Fri, 13 Dec 2013 18:52:28 GMT
Autumnual reflections of Black-headed Gull https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/autumnual-reflections-of-black-headed-gull I tried and failed for Mandarin Duck in Epping Forest yesterday, so today spent some time in Wanstead Park. Although there were stacks of Ducks, none were really close enough for the camera, and so instead I concentrated on the loafing Gulls. On reflection I should have brought the longer lens and a tripod, but I wasn't really on a photography mission today, I was actually birding for the first time in who knows how long. So the bare 500mm, handheld, high ISO, poor shutter speed. Most went in the bin, these that remain I quite liked.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/12/autumnual-reflections-of-black-headed-gull Sun, 01 Dec 2013 19:21:17 GMT
Spotted Sandpiper https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/spotted-sandpiper This Spotted Sandpiper would visit the beach at Jalousie every evening, and if the beach was quiet, sometimes before. I attempted to take photos of it from the water, or flat down on the sand, but it was quite difficult and I never quite got what I wanted. Either the light went, or the images had a lot of blur because of the motion of the water moved me around! Still, I had a lot of fun trying and that is often what it's all about. The last two images in the series used flash, which is unfortunately rather obvious. A lovely little bird though, and a pleasure to see it pottering along a plush tourist beach, especially when nobody else really noticed it at all!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/spotted-sandpiper Sat, 30 Nov 2013 18:43:55 GMT
Lesser Antillean Bullfinch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/lesser-antillean-bullfinch Lesser Antillean Bullfinch was one of the most common residents of the hotel gardens on St. Lucia, and they clearly know a good thing when they see it! Free and easy food! Along with the Grackles they were an omnipresent feature of all meals, seeing what crumbs they could scavenge, and I have to say they are absolutely delightful. Our room was a tree height with a lovely roof terrace, and a pair of these birds visited us regularly to see what was on offer. Upon arrival we were given some plantain chips, and those that I didn't scoff were eagerly consumed by these birds over the following few days. They were completely fearless, perching on the arms of chairs we were sitting in, on the table we were eating from, and even landing on my beer a few times. Because they were so accustomed to human presence, they rarely seemed to perch on anything that might be described as natural, so instead I enjoyed myself trying to capture their extremely cheeky nature, composition be damned!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/lesser-antillean-bullfinch Fri, 22 Nov 2013 15:01:52 GMT
The ultimate travel lens for bird photography? https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/portability-redefined I replaced my older 500mm f4 with the 800mm f5.6 in 2012. This opened up new avenues for me in bird photography, the extra reach is phenomenally useful. It doesn't weigh a huge amount, but at some point that year I strained my side and it hasn't ever got better. Was it to do with carrying the lens? I don't know - it could have been on Shetland that autumn, where I carried it all day every day. Anyhow, carrying the 800mm now, even though only 700g heavier than my old 500mm, seems now to make an adverse difference to me. If I'm working close to the car, and I know the bird is a small one, the 800mm comes every time - for instance the Red-backed Shrike at Canvey earlier this year (and, I wish, for the Nottinghamshire Pied Wheatear but I didn't even think that would be photographable!). But I'm not sure I'd like to carry it around with me all day long any longer - I must be getting old! However birds in this country tend not be particularly approachable, and for that reason I choose to keep it, as it gives me a huge advantage, but it's not a lens that I actively carry around just on the off-chance that a photographic opportunity might arise. In other words it has very specific uses, but is not what you might call versatile. And it's huge!. Many airlines in Europe have prohibitively small hand luggage allowances, and as you know I have started to travel quite a bit. I realised that with my dodgy side and increased travel that selling my old 500mm might have been a mistake. Such is life, you don't know what you miss until it's too late. There was only one thing for it - start saving to buy it back!

In the meantime of course, Canon released a new 500mm, the Mark II. It weighs 600g less than the old version (18%), focuses closer, and has a more effective IS system. The older lens was no slouch in the quality department, and this new version is at least its equal, and the fact that I had to tone down my Photoshop sharpening points to the fact that it is even better. The only trouble is that it was nearly double the price of the older second hand model. I agonised for a while, and then took the plunge - you only live once. And I am glad I did, the new 500mm F4 IS Mark II is an incredible bit of kit and I get stacks and stacks of use out of it.

Having now used it extensively for about a year I can't think of a lens better than this one for general birding, or travel where birds might be on the menu. For starters it packs into a tiny bag, unlike the 600mm and 800mm. The value of this cannot be underestimated, it is so easy to pack. I can take this lens anywhere, even on the smallest of planes, nobody ever questions the small bag, which also contains a 1d body alongside (i.e. not mounted), both converters, a standard sized lens like a 100mm macro or 16-35mm zoom, and various small items like batteries and cards. Monopod strapped to the side, I have a package that can go anywhere for bird photography and be perfect for most birding situations. Partnered with a 1d body it weighs in at less than 5kg. I can handhold it all day long, and with my unique horizontal carrying system I barely notice it on my shoulder if I'm out birding, and it seems not to aggravate my side too much. I've been doing a fair bit of travelling this year, and this lens has been everywhere with me. Without even a monopod, I'm finding that it delivers great image quality time after time. And it takes the 1.4x converter without blinking. I swear I can't tell if I used it or not. On my recent holiday to St. Lucia, I used it handheld 90% of the time, often with the converter, and I'm perfectly happy with the results. It takes the 2x pretty well too, and just this past weekend I used it with both converters stacked around a 12mm extension tube with perfectly acceptable, if not spectacular, results. The cost is the only downside, especially when a mint example of the older model can be had for around 60% of the price at the time of writing, or a saving of over £3000 - this amount could take you a long way!

Below, a female Antillean Crested Hummingbird, taken handheld at 700mm (f7.1, 1/2000s, ISO 1000)

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/portability-redefined Wed, 13 Nov 2013 20:57:00 GMT
Grey Kingbird, St. Lucia https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/grey-kingbird-st-lucia I love Kingbirds, giant Flycatchers with huge beaks that could almost be Shrikes, and thus are awesome. I'd been hoping to get some close encounters with Grey Kingbird, the species present on St. Lucia, and sure enough on our one trip away from the hotel we came across three or four on a track adjacent to some cultivated land high up in the hills. I had forgotten both my monopod and converter, so these were with the handheld 500mm, slowly approaching. This worked relatively, and produced a couple of images I was happy with, particularly the second one, which even though smaller in the frame is pleasing somehow (to me at least!). Although the birds were relatively cooperative, we were actually on a birding mission, so I had to move on.

The following day once back in the hotel, or maybe the day after as I tended to lose track of time, I discovered a bird frequenting a less manicured part of the grounds, and spent a good hour or so taking photos, this time armed with all the kit I hadn't had with me in the hills. The only place it would perch at eye level was a fence, but it's quite a nice fence with a nice clean background, and definitely preferable to having the bird from below and framed against a white sky. All of the images were at 700mm (i.e. with the 1.4x converter), and I used the monopod for support. The bird never came back to the same bit of fence, and although it fed relatively frequently I frustratingly never chose the right part of fence for a landing shot, and after a while I got a bit hot and retired to the Caribbean Sea for a spot of snorkelling, all thoughts of photography forgotten!

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/11/grey-kingbird-st-lucia Tue, 12 Nov 2013 23:08:15 GMT
Citrine Wagtail on Shetland https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/10/citrine-wagtail-on-shetland Photographic opportunities were few and far between on Shetland. On the islands for a mere three and a half days, the mission was bird finding, not bird photography, and the weather was predictably poor for a lot of it. The camera came out of the bag perhaps three times, and one of those was for a first winter Citrine Wagtail right at the end of the day. Light was really poor - I know, excuses, excuses - and I was without my main monopod which was still in my suitcase in Aberdeen! I had a spare monopod but unbeknownst to me the stop screw on my arca-compatible 4th Gen Design lens foot meant that it wouldn't slide into the Kirk clamp - note to self, check these things before leaving! The jaws on my regular Wimberley clamp open far wider - anyway, the end result was that the lens was clamped to the monopod by about 5mm, and was as a result not perfectly stable - I could easily feel the play! Really not ideal, and with the light going I was forced to pump up the ISO to 1250.

The bird was frequenting a slurry pit, or sileage run off. I have no idea what you call it, but effectively it was 90% liquid cow shit as far as a I could tell. Even I wasn't prepared to lie down flat, especially with no spare clothes! Crouching was the best I could do, and tried to brace the rig as best I could on slightly dodgy support, and even then it was pretty unpleasant. The bird seemed to be frequenting the darkest and furthest corner, but also would come close to people around the outside, so knowing I didn't have long, when the bird next flew away and over the barns I went and crouched in the space nearest to the corner that was clear of brown liquid! I had to hop, skip and jump to get there, but this bold move was rewarded when the bird flew back in and came in really close, completely unconcerned by my presence. So I was in position, as close as I could get, I was as low as I could get, now the bird just had to stay still! To cut a long story short, it didn't! In active feeding mode, only very occasionally did it stop for a split second, and as a result most of my photos are complete garbage! Some however came out OK, despite the tough conditions. All taken with the 500mk II + 1.4x converter, ISO 800-1250, and unusually for me, on Aperture Priority mode, which I figured would keep me right as the bird moved in and out of darker areas.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/10/citrine-wagtail-on-shetland Fri, 25 Oct 2013 11:29:29 GMT
The Editing Process - to keep or not to keep https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/10/the-editing-process

 

As I get more ruthless with paring my images down, a process which I only truly got to grips with this year, and which I continue to improve upon, I thought it might be interesting to share my thought process as I go through my RAW files on the computer. Largely this involves THE BIN! These steps are more or less in order, and each ends with the bin, unless it makes it through that step. So for instance if the image is sharp enough it goes through to stage two, but if I'm missing part of the bird it goes. If I have an entire bird that is sharp, but the exposure is off, then I bin it. If the exposure is OK, then it makes it to stage four, and so on. Or at least that is how I suggest you look at this if you doing this very strict selection process for the first time. Probably in reality I do many of the steps simultaneously, especially the first five. But anyway, here is what I think about when I am reviewing images that I have just downloaded. Also worth noting is that I use a piece of software called Breezebrower Pro. This is a very rapid way of categorising images as keep or bin, and has the advantage of applying some standard "as if sharpened" views of the RAW images. You simply select the keepers, then invert your selection and delete the rest.

 1) Is it sharp, and I mean properly sharp? None of this "oh it's ok I suppose", we're talking real sharpness. Feather detail sharpness. This particularly applies to the  head, particularly the beak and the eye. Not sharp? Bin. I am mildly addicted to what I call the "Rictal bristle test". Can you see them? If you can, you're all good on the sharpness and detail front. In the image below, the left hand bird is off. The right hand bird is a lot better.

 

 2) Have I got the whole bird? Is the tail there? The wingtips? The feet? Unless you're aiming for a tight portrait, really you don't want images which have been cut off. If I'm missing just a tiny bit, have I got that bit on another frame that I can copy across? Can I clone it in, and leave some space around it? Mostly, if I've missed it, I bin it. Cloning and copying take time. Only when I have no other choice do I go down this route. The following two side-by-side images were taken about a second apart. I realised I had clipped the tail and panned slightly to the right. If anything though, there is now not enough space on the right of the bird.

 

 3) Is the exposure good, or at least recoverable if slightly off? No? Bin. Some images you can raise to bring them back. Lowering them is more difficult. Did I blow my whites? A bit is recoverable. A lot? Bin. To be honest this is rarely a problem as I constantly check my exposure in the field and amend accordingly. It would be extremely rare that I went through more than ten shots without checking that everything was OK, and an entire session would be unheard of. However if you're not completely at ease with exposure theory, which only comes with time, then this could be an important step. The Brambling below is too far underexposed to raise successfully - I tried and the whites never recovered. Only one place for it.....

 

 

 4) Quality of light. This is in many ways connected to the exposure as detailed in #2, and also to the shadow issue as detailed in #5, but what is the light like? Images taken under a white cloudy sky are the best, direct sunlight often looks extremely harsh. Once again this is very subjective, but images taken in the midday sun are rarely better than those taken early morning or late afternoon. Softness is key. Any image which grates is destined for only one place. Most of the time I don't pick up the camera in these conditions as I know I will be disappointed. Photographers often moan about the lack of light, but too much is equally bad.

 5) Head angle, position of bird? This is where we start getting subjective, but this it's one the areas where I see the most images on the net that I end up shaking my head at, knowing how easy this to get right. If bird's head is turned away from the camera, the image goes in the bin. If it's looking down, it goes in the bin. Similarly, if bird is flying away from the camera, even slightly, it's a goner. Even if it's the sharpest ever photo with a brilliantly perfect  exposure, if the bird is flying away, or the head is inclined away from the camera, it fails the definition of a good photo, and goes in the trash. I lose a lot of images here, especially where I have taken a sequence knowing that at least some of that sequence will have the bird doing what I want it to do, or where it turns away as I am still firing. In the first image below of the Isabelline Wheatear from last weekend, I binned the bin left hand bird and kept the right. There is only a fraction in it but the slightly lowered head on the left means it doesn't work for me. When it raised its head slightly, I got better light on it and a catch-light in the eye. Happy days! In the second image, which is of a Northern Wheatear, it is far more subjective. Either image works, but I much prefer the one on the right.

 

 

 6) Shadows? Is the head in shadow? Yes? Bin it! You want a nice evenly lit bird. You ideally want a catch light in the eye. If the bird's head is in shade, you won't have either of those things. Bin! Twigs and so on, sometime even other birds, can cast shadows across a bird. The body, the head, anywhere. If you don't think you can clone it out (cloning is where you take pixels from another part of the image and paste them over bits of the image you don't like, but so that you CAN'T TELL!) then bin it. In the Izzy Wheatear image, I like the pose, but look at those shadows! Bin! The Gull would be OK, the head turn is OK and just about rescues it from the fact that the bird is flying away, but the wing cuts off some of the beak. No rescuing that, goodbye! And the Chaffinch? Check out that shadow slap bang across the body, the head isn't quite sharp, and the bird seed......oh dear.

 

 7) Shooting angle. Very important. Where was I when I was photographing the bird. Was my lens mounted on a six foot tripod pointing down at 30 degrees towards the bird, as I see all the time in the field from the no clue brigade. Or better, am I level with the bird. At eye level with it. This step barely exists in my routine these days as I am never point down, only pointing level. Very occasionally there is no option, for instance shooting over a wall, or the banks of a reservoir, but the answer there is to move back from the bird to reduce the angle, and instead add focal length if you can. I'd much rather an image taken at height with a 2x converter from a distance, than taken at a height closer and with the bare lens. If it's obvious that you're on top of the bird, bin it. The Buff-bellied Pipit below is an over-the-wall job that I could do nothing about. The image is sharp, the exposure is spot on, but I was too close, and the angle was too acute. It goes down as a better-than-average record shot, which is why I still have it to use it as an example.

 

 8) Clutter. Is it a clean image? Very much personal taste. Some prefer the natural image, some prefer the clean image - I fall in the latter camp. Neither is better than the other, but if you're in my camp then it becomes a lot more difficult. I've deleted many a perfect image of a bird because I can't reconcile myself with the rest of the image. For instance are there twigs cutting across the bird? Can they be dealt with in Photoshop? Leaves, grass, litter, bird seed? Other birds distracting? Again, can I deal with them? I am very fussy, getting fussier, and aim not to include them in the first place, but knowing what I can and cannot do in post processing is very important. Some images just can't be worked on and if you're like me, have to be let go. I've tried to work on the Spotted Flycatcher image below many times, as with a clean background and some space out to the right, it would be a killer. It's unfortunately beyond me at the moment, but I'm saving it for a day when my photoshop skills are better.

 

 

So, a lot of this is probably obvious, but not necessarily if you took the photo. It certainly wasn't obvious to me for many years, and it has only really begun to click in the last 18 months. Before that I was willing to accept any old rubbish if it had one good element to it. I'm still working on it, still learning, and no doubt there are photos in my galleries that don't reach the standards I'm describing. I'm planning another edit soon, the final one following two immense purges. I had one go myself, and then passed my portfolio to a fellow photographer to cast an impartial eye. I return, I went through his. It's a healthy exercise to go through now and again - what I thought was brilliant two or three years ago I look at now and wonder what drugs I was on. No doubt the same will apply a couple of years from now when I look at my output from this current period. As well as going through my galleries on this website and pressing the delete key a lot, I also went through my entire collection of RAW files from about 2007. I deleted gigabytes and gigabytes, it was quite incredible. And although that sounds like it ought to have taken ages, it didn't really. It was all obvious, and most of the images I deleted were straight bins, without a second glance. Many of them I could not believe I had even taken in the first place. Forget about c&c on the web, most of it is meaningless drivel that won't help you in the slightest. Take as many photos as you can, but only press the shutter if the image there to take. If you set yourself high standards, my experience is that gradually, slowly, it will all come together. I binned the image below, can you see why?

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/10/the-editing-process Sat, 12 Oct 2013 19:22:53 GMT
Isabelline Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/10/isabelline-wheatear As you may know, Wheatears are my favourite species. Wheatears of any description - one of these days I'd love to illustrate a book solely on Wheatears in fact, but that is for another day - for a start I haven't seen them all! I digress - when I find one that is photographable, by which I mean I can get close to it without it being bothered, then I'm at my happiest. Saturday was one of those days where it all came together. In addition to being a UK lifer, I'd also seen some photographs on the net that indicated to me that the bird was probably a good 'un - although they weren't the greatest photos ever, they showed distinct promise! Predictably it was miles away, and I mean properly miles, about 600 round trip, but I had more or less made up my mind. I had the time, I had the car, and I had the desire! I waited on news Saturday morning, and when it came through at around 9am, it was game on. A mind-numbing 5 hours later and Nick and I arrived at the one of the very western tip of Wales. Trudging up the short slope, legs numb from the journey, we followed a path through bracken to the cliff edge, and there found the bird almost immediately - extremely pale and stood out like a sore thumb.

There were only about four others there for the bird, and they suggested that the bird liked to come back to the same area of grass where somebody had placed mealworms earlier on. None were left, but nonetheless the thought of finding a hidden crumb kept the bird returning, and it was simply a matter of waiting. With lovely light, there were some choice backgrounds on offer - pure green, pure blue, or a mixture of both. And as usual, down to bird eye level! Monopod dispensed with, I flat on my stomach (still just about possible!) and supported the lens with both my elbows, left one in front, right one tucked in a bit, and waited for the bird to return. This it did every now and again, flying in with some Northern Wheatears, and then running in a little bit closer. It was then simply a matter of tracking it around the place and waiting for a nice combination of pose and background, altering my height as appropriate in order to get a particular background, though obviously if the bird was super-close I didn't move. Although I was lying a little ways in front and to the side of some of the other people, the bird probably approached me to within ten feet on multiple occasions. Why the others decided to stay further away, and with lenses of top of tripods pointing down at the bird I will never know, but I see it all the time. I know which images I'd rather have! All the below were using the 1D Mark IV, my body of choice, and the 500mm f4 Mark II lens, with the 1.4x converter attached - despite the bird's proximity at times, I wanted as much on it as I could, and the converter seems to lose me nothing on the quality front. All images manually set at 1/1600s or 1/2000s, and at f7.1 or f8, as with the bird close I needed to stop down to ensure as much of it was in focus as possible - had I used f5.6 I might have been caught short, but at the same time I needed a fast shutter speed as I was hand-holding - the settings mentioned seemed to be the best compromise. ISO 800 was therefore also a compromise, but with noise reduction in even the venerable CS2, they look fine to me. So, that's the technical stuff out of the way - I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed taking them!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/10/isabelline-wheatear Mon, 07 Oct 2013 22:28:58 GMT
All the gear, some idea https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/all-the-gear-some-idea I had a comment recently over on my other blog. It was a comment that was very complimentary about some photos I had taken, and it annoyed me a great deal. Here's why. Following on from the high praise was this - you must have a very expensive prime lens. Ah, you see, that's not the right thing to say, at least not to me. They went on to say that their attempts with a different, less-expensive but still pro lens, hadn't delivered results that were as good. I went and checked, and they were spot on. So what is being said here exactly? That the reason my photos are sometimes good is because I have an expensive lens? That therefore if all people had expensive lenses that their photos would all be good? What a load of rubbish! I see heaps of people in the field with large expensive lenses, all the gear. When I get home I sometimes look some of them up. By far the majority, and this is no exaggeration, have with all that gear taken a pile of complete garbage fit only for the trash. It ain't the lens, and it ain't the camera. Dear commenter, do you know what it is? Don't get me wrong, the lens helps, a camera with a great autofocus system helps, using support helps, but without a competent photographer at the other end of it who knows how to use it, none of it is worth a thing. And that is what people sometimes fail to grasp, and that without fail annoys me. Would you compliment a chef on a lovely tasty meal, and then tell him he must have a great cooker? No. Would you remark that an artist must have wonderful brushes? No. I'm not claiming to be a top-notch bird photographer, but I am claiming that I'm competent. And that's the important part. I'd be willing to bet money that if I swapped gear with any person who said the reason I got better results was because I had a better lens than they did, that with very few exceptions, perhaps none, I'd still take the better photo. That's because I have practised for hours, I have abused shutters like you would not believe. I understand exposure theory, I know what a histogram is, and I know my camera like the back of my hand. My camera has 45 focus points, I use one. It has several exposure modes. I use none. I know what angles can deliver the most pleasing images, I get low, I use a monopod for support with speed and flexibility, I spend hours with a single subject. I get wet, I get cold, I get uncomfortable and I walk miles. And sometimes I come home with NOTHING. If I do get something worth keeping, I work on it on the computer for ages. Hours in Breezebrowser, hours in Photoshop. Tweaking, cropping, cloning, learning. Learning all the time.  These are the reasons why the images look good, not because I also happen to flog my guts out in the City and can therefore afford top quality kit. So to anyone that thinks the reason their images don't stack up is because they don't have the gear, whatever you do don't go out and buy it all, as that's not the problem. Rant over.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/all-the-gear-some-idea Wed, 25 Sep 2013 20:27:17 GMT
Arctic Skua https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/arctic-skua Whilst twitching the Lesser Grey Shrike in Suffolk at the weekend, team East London was made aware of a nice and showy Arctic Skua on the beach at nearby Sizewell. With the Shrike not giving itself up for any type of meaningful photo, I was pleased to at least have something else to point the camera at. The bird, unfortunately, was not well. Some clear oiling to the plumage, especially on the left wing. Nothing too serious, and it was flying around pretty nippily doing all the usual Skua stuff, but it was clearly not comfortable, spending a lot of time preeing and bathing, and this no doubt explains why it has spent a whole week on the beach. I've never photographed this species before, and assumed it was silly tame - more fool me. It was anything but tame, extremely wary indeed of advancing humans, and a very careful and low approach was needed if you wanted to get really close. The bird was fine to about 20 metres, but I wanted a lot closer than that, and eventually closed to perhaps six or seven. It watched me the whole way in, and the eventual successful tactic was to shuffle in a bit more every time it returned to preening. Ideally I would not have had the bird against either the featureless sky or north sea, but it seemed to like perching on a shingle ridge which made anything else virtually impossible given the low approach and the need/desire to be at the same level as the bird. Had I approached from the seaward side, which was also into the light, I could have had a shingle background whilst standing up - I opted for the white/grey-out instead! All photos taken with the 800mm, either handheld or on a monopod at its shortest setting. For a few of the images I created a little shingle mound on which to balance the camera, so this may have helped get that bit sharper. Dull light unfortunately, but I was still pleased to be so close to this species. I wasn't able to read the ring, but hope it recovers and gets to wherever it is going.

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/arctic-skua Tue, 24 Sep 2013 22:51:19 GMT
Wanstead Wryneck #3 https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/wanstead-wryneck-3

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/wanstead-wryneck-3 Sun, 08 Sep 2013 16:38:02 GMT
Whinchats https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/whinchats Yet another post extolling the virtues of Canon's stellar 800mm prime I'm afraid. For the past week or so there have been several Whinchats hanging around the patch. For many years I had no images of these smart little birds, but last year I managed a few whilst maxed out with the 800mm and the 1.4x converter. With a 1D body you retain AF, albeit it with the central point only, however the real challenge is simply dealing with the enormous focal length of 1456mm, and somehow keeping your image sharp enough to publish. The rule of keeping a shutter speed equivalent to your focal length is almost irrelevant here, the biggest challenge seems to be the air itself, and once a little heat appears photography with this combo is at an end. Yesterday I hit the patch with this lens, and with the 1.4x converter already in place - I knew I would need it, Whinchats are not renowned for being approachable.

If anything the birds were even more flighty than I expected. In over two hours of lugging the gear around - weighing in at something like 7.5kg all told - I managed about thirty seconds of photography. Such is life, but here are some of the results. In the first image I have tidied up the excess foliage, however for rest of them I couldn't be bothered. I love a nice clean image, but most of the time it simply isn't possible, and I do sometimes need to resort to a bit of cloning. As I develop as a digital photographer, I'm beginning to have half a mind on Adobe Photoshop even as I press the shutter, it's just the way you start to think. When you know you can't get the 100% clean image you have in your mind, you know that even if you alter your position slightly, you have an image that you know you can deal with in post-processing. What would the Velvia shooters have thought of these new ways? Annoyed that they were not part of this generation I expect! Digital photography makes things so so easy. Not completely facile, just look at the proliferation of utter dross all over the net, but easy enough that if you spend a little time, take a little care, and are cogniscent of the possibilities before you even press the trigger, then decent images are the norm rather than the occasional. So, any photo of a Whinchat, for me at least, is a complete bonus, but if a little work in Photoshop is needed to make the image shine, why not. The first image in the sequence has undergone cloning only. That is to say that where there was stuff in the background, in this instance out-of-focus foliage on a different plane, I've used parts of the clean background to cover that up and get the uniform look I wanted in the first place. After over an hour of chasing Whinchats around I wasn't about to hold off simply because a bit of Broom was in the wrong place!

I'll say it again, I am astonished by the quality possible with the 800mm + 1.4x converter (Mk III), and with only a monopod for support. Heavy, and I much prefer using a shorter lens, but there are times when you need all you can get, and nothing else comes close. 700mm, i.e. the 500mm with the 1.4x converter, and I would have been nowhere. Tripod would have been ideal, but I suspect that in the time it would have taken me to extend the legs and so on that the birds would have moved on. The flexibility and mobility of the monopod is worth the sacrifice in stability. No such thing as a free lunch anywhere in photography, nonetheless I'm pleased by what I managed to achieve in the circumstances. 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/9/whinchats Sun, 01 Sep 2013 20:31:49 GMT
Fulmar https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/fulmar I just spent a weekend in western Ireland. Ostensibly the purpose was sea-watching, but with that a little on the slow side, I sought out a few photographic opportunities. Fulmar has long been on my list of image "wants" but somehow I've never managed any. Whether this is never finding the right opportunity, or never putting in the requisite time I don't know, but a session on Loop Head in County Clare has put that right. I probably spent upwards of two hours with these birds before the weather set in and I was forced to retreat to the pub! Interestingly the birds required gusty conditions to actually come close in to the top of the cliff. In calmer conditions the following day, and when the light was a whole lot better, the opportunities were much less frequent. If you've been reading this or my other blog (www.wansteadbirder.com) for any length of time you will know that flight shots are not my forte, so it was quite pleasing to be able to devote some much needed time to this aspect of photography. I'm very pleased with some of the results, and it does show that if you practice something enough, eventually this will bear fruit. I'm not pretending these are the greatest Fulmar shots ever, but versus my usual standard I'm very happy indeed! Let's start off with a shot that helped me test my exposure - I work in manual most of the time now, and a test shot is generally always a good idea if you plan to be set up for a while. Again, with practice, you get to judge the light fairly accurately. I think my first guess was about 2/3rds out.

So once I was dialled in, I sat down on the cliff edge - a dangerous business this photography lark - and got to work. Exposure in the event required constant tweaking, but generally I used ISO 800, with shutter speeds of 1/2500s-1/3200s, and apertures of f6.3-f9. Centre point AF was by far the most effective, the "ring of fire" never locked on, always got the sea below, really irritating, and the variable distances involved meant I could not use the focus limiter on the lens. All photos with the 1D Mark IV, and the 500mm Mark II lens. I tried the following day with the 5D Mark III, and the focus simply wasn't as effective for me - I soon gave up and reverted to the 1D.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/fulmar Wed, 28 Aug 2013 19:46:45 GMT
Audouin's Gull https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/audouins-gull Such a beautiful Gull, and relatively commonplace in Mallorca. All shots early morning, when the Gulls come and feed on the beach. Get there early though, as when I was there it wasn't long after first light that the beach gets quite a few joggers and the birds depart. Evenings were not good because the beaches remain busy all the way past usable light - see the final photo. The best area was the beach just south of Puerto Pollenca, and around the Albufereta. My favourite image is the penultimate in the series, and one of the first I took.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/audouins-gull Thu, 15 Aug 2013 23:00:00 GMT
Black-winged Stilt https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/black-winged-stilt A common wader in Mallorca, with a few opportunities in the early morning around the the "Torrent d'Albufereta" which is just south of Puerto Pollenca. A few technical details of which I'm relatively proud - the first two images with reflections were taken at 1/80s and 1/100s using only a monopod - the technique was to hold your breath, squeeze and hope! And the close-ups were using the 500mm lens with a 2x converter, also only with a monopod. Gradually I'm finding that the monopod is adequate in most situations, and so I have a great light-weight travel set up that I can go anywhere with, with the bonus that both converters have a part to play for some really long focal lengths. My small photo bag (Thinktank Streetwalker Pro) that never attracts any check-in attention can take the 500mm, a 1d body, both converters, the monopod, and either a wide-angle or macro lens. All you could really need. Anyhow, hope you enjoy these - wonderful birds, wish we had them here.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/black-winged-stilt Wed, 14 Aug 2013 23:00:00 GMT
Hungary Day 6: Drinking Pool Hide #2 https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/hungary-day-6-drinking-pool-hide-2 I had a final morning in the hides before my evening flight, and chose to visit the second Drinking Pool hide, in the hope that its more open situation slightly away from the full canopy would allow me more opportunities for action shots. The first hide had seen fabulous sequences of bird interaction, but even at 800 ISO I often had to use 1/80th of a second. The maximum I ever achieved was 1/250th, and even that just isn't sufficient to sharply capture movement. The second hide was indeed a lot better, but with one significant issue - almost no activity! After an hour, what should have been the best time of the day, three birds had visited for a total of about ten seconds! Noooooo! And to think I could have been photographing Bee-eaters! It never really picked up unfortunately, though I did get some decent images of Turtle Dove and Jay, some of which are reproduced here.

 

I was picked up at about midday and that was it, back to the hotel for 20 minutes and then a two hour drive to Budapest airport. So in summary, some great opportunities, but somewhat below my expectations for a trip that ended up costing close to £1300 in total. I had 2.5 days of great photography, but 3 days of poor photography. The 2.5 days were productive for sure, but I'd expect a trip with photographing birds as the sole aim to have scored higher than this in percentage terms. There isn't a lot you can do if birds don't come and sit in front of hides is the bottom line I suppose, though Sakertours could also have improved in places - I've left feedback with the owner and will see what he comes back with.

Birds or no birds, the hides were on the whole outstandingly well thought out, the hotel at Balmazujvaros clean, comfortable with ok food, the staff friendly and mostly accommodating. For my part I perhaps could have been a pushier client perhaps, and next time I'll pursue my agenda rather than following somebody else's. I've come back with some of the images I'd hoped for, but am missing all those killer Heron and Stork shots. Will I go back? Probably, but at a different season. I want to go earlier in the year so that there is less canopy over the Drinking Pool hide, and a different mix of birds, including migrants on the move. Is it worth it? If you had four or five bird-filled days, I wouldn't hesitate to say yes. As it is I can't help but feel a little short-changed. That said, these days I am pleased if I come home from a day out with three or four keepers, and during those two days I got hundreds, so actually the ratio of images to hours in the field is way above the normal rate. But it could have been even better! No regrets (or Egrets....) as I really wanted to do it.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/8/hungary-day-6-drinking-pool-hide-2 Wed, 14 Aug 2013 22:21:19 GMT
Hungary Day 5: The Reedbed Hide https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-5-the-reedbed-hide This hide is very similar to the Pgymy Cormorant Hide - which if you read my post about that day is not a good thing! In fact, my experience of this hide made the Pgymy Cormorant Hide look good! Everything about the hide is excellent. It has windows on two sides for morning and afternoon use, and these go all the way down to water level for pleasing perspectives. The morning side looks out at the reedbed, whereas the afternoon side looks out to a sheltered pool, including a close bund enclosing a smaller area of water. Mattresses are available for lying on the ground, or else you can use camping chairs.

The one big issue is that there were almost no opportunities for photography as the birds just didn't come in. In ten hours we were treated to three brief visits by a Squacco Heron, none of which provided a decent image, and a Night Heron came in just once, sitting resolutely on a stump against a blank sky before flying off again without feeding. Beyond that we had a single Ferruginous Duck, and a number of Mallards and Greylags. This was one fifth of my holiday don't forget, and bitterly disappointing. Had the smaller pool been stocked with fish then the opportunities would have been amazing, but this was not the case. Consequently it ranked as a terrible day and I have no keepers.

Looking out of the hide windows, waterbirds passed overhead constantly - flights of Night Herons and Spoonbills, loads of Egrets and Herons. Bar what I've mentioned, none of them ever landed  - a real shame as the hide has the potential to be amazing. The best of what I did take are below. Much as I'd have like to have shown off a series of great images, when the birds just are not there, there is simply nothing that can be done. So not a good day at all unfortunately, but such is bird photography - nobody ever said it was straightforward, but hides are supposed to make it easier!

 

 

 

Gear

Lenses: A 300mm lens would be an asset for photographing birds that came along the bund (if they were ever to do that....), but otherwise a 500mm/600mm + extenders would be suitable - the longest you have, basically.

Cameras: Again, high ISO is useful, but unlike the Drinking Pool Hide, a 1.6x crop body would work fine. A few birds came close, but our experience was that most were far out. I used a 1.3x crop body almost exclusively.

 

Other: A tripod without a centre column, one that can go flush to the ground. Alternatively a beanbag or a skimmer pod would work. All wildlife photographers ought to have a tripod that goes to ground level though, in my opinion at least.

Mosquito repellent!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-5-the-reedbed-hide Tue, 30 Jul 2013 19:35:56 GMT
Hungary Day 4: The Bee-eater Hide https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-4-the-bee-eater-hide As I mentioned earlier, we had previously forsaken the Bee-eater hide in favour of the Pygmy Cormorant Hide because of the weather - we cannot know whether the Bee-eater Hide would have been any better than where we ended up, but I doubt it could have been any worse! Anyhow, with some sunshine and a decidedly dodgy forecast to come, we decided today was the day for the Bee-eaters, and this proved to be an excellent choice. Conditions were difficult, with sunshine followed by cloud followed by sunshine, exposures problematic for a manual convert like me, but the overall situation was wonderful.

You're sat in a wooden shed that has been positioned in front of a sandbank that has many Bee-eater nest holes as well as lots of Sand Martins. Between you and the sandbank are a few perches, and these are where the Bee-eaters land with food before delivering to the nest holes, and where they often perch.

 

Beautiful birds that I have wanted to photograph for simply ages, this hide ticked all the boxes. After tiring of the standard perched shots, the challenge was to get some wings open action, but anticipating where the birds would land was a complete lottery. The bird that had come back to the same perch four times would land somewhere different the fifth time, or on the same perch but at the other end! And with lenses that were just a shade too long (300mm native - 200mm would have been better for easier framing) I was forever cutting off the wingtips or tail, consigning otherwise great images to the dustbin!

The maximum number of birds on the perches at any one point was probably five, but I think that at least four nest holes were occupied. Periods of inactivity were interspersed with frenetic coming and going, rattling off shot after shot - Bee-eater is one of these species that cannot fail to look nice. There wasn't a great deal of supporting cast - the Sand Martins were too far away, but a Golden Oriole did drop in momentarily in some grass to the left of the hide. Positioned on the right hand side of the hide I had to shoot at a terrible angle through the glass, but it just about worked.

So all in all a great morning, and although the weather was mixed, this probably meant we ended up having decent shooting conditions for an additional two hours. A blue sky day would have seen us pack it in at 10am due to haze and harsh light. So at midday we reluctantly packed up and went back to the hotel before the afternoon session back at the Red-footed Falcon Hide. This was actually the only day we got a break - I had understood prior to going that all days involved a morning and afternoon session, with the middle of the day devoted to sleeping and resting in the cool. In the event either Sakertours were short of drivers or were feeling a little laid back, and every other day we were either left in the hide for the duration, or moved straight from one to the other in the heat of the day. If I go back I'm going to insist on the rest part!

 

 

Gear

Lenses: The ideal lens for this hide would have been a 200-400mm zoom. I use Canon, and they have just come out with such a lens. Unfortunately it costs something like £12,000 at the present time, and so far this hide is the only situation where I have thought "oooh, I could really do with one of those". As it was, the trusty combo of 300mm f2.8 and the 500mm f4 sorted me out. Really if you have these two lenses, there is very little else you need to photograph birds.

Cameras: Any, I chopped and changed between full-frame and 1.3x crop the whole time. Open wing shots needed the 300mm at full-frame.

Other: A tripod with or without a centre column.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-4-the-bee-eater-hide Mon, 29 Jul 2013 20:25:37 GMT
Hungary Day 3: Afternoon Roller Hide https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-3-afternoon-roller-hide Around lunchtime on day 3 we moved to the Afternoon Roller Hide, as distinguished from the Morning Roller Hide which presumably faces in a different direction. It's only about a five minute drive from the Red-foot Tower, so ideal for doing two in a day and wasting no time driving, although frankly I would have appreciated a bit of time back at the hotel in order to cool down and lie down!

The big downside to this hide is its size. Whereas the tower hide we had come from was large and comfortable, this was small and highly uncomfortable, with the seats being too low and there being nowhere to put your legs. Many periods of pins and needles, combined with stifling heat made this very hard work indeed, and eventually we gave up. I think the bird had twigged that we were in there after all our noise trying to remain comfortable (impossible!), and thus after the first hour it only came in direct to the nest box rather than landing on the perch. In addition the options are very limited - one bird, one perch, and no supporting cast. Apparently the Morning Roller Hide had a lot more activity, and a few more species present. Nonetheless I managed some pleasing photos during that first period, though I have to say that I can't really enthuse much about this hide - my best Roller photos were probably taken here, but there were far more options for different Roller poses at the Red-foot Tower Hide earlier in the day.

 

Gear

Lenses: The longest you have, a 500mm lens is ideal for portraits with a 1.3x crop body, as well as for the bird in flight. A 400mm should be fine with a 1.6x body. 

Cameras: See above.

Other: A tripod is essential.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-3-afternoon-roller-hide Tue, 23 Jul 2013 22:07:57 GMT
Hungary Day 3: Red-footed Falcon Tower https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-3-red-footed-falcon-tower After the disappointment of the Pygmy Cormorant Hide, I and fellow photographers Jurgen and Jan were very much looking forward to today. The morning was to be spent in the Tower Hide, and the afternoon with Rollers in a nearby hide. An early start saw us trundling in the 4x4 over the grassy plain and through a series of large farms. Eventually we saw the hide in the distance, an impressive structure on stilts with the ubiquitous reflective windows. Entering via a steep ladder and trapdoor, the hide was large and comfortable, the only slight worry being large receptacles should the call of nature be unavoidable.....

The morning view

 

It was brilliant. The hide has full length windows on the east and west sides, so is suitable for both mornings and afternoons. You can only one side at a time, and you cover the other side with either curtains or shutters. Each side of the hide there are a couple of Red-footed Falcon nest boxes, as well as a Roller nest box. The Falcons nest colonially, so there are more nest boxes on the sides of the tower. With so many birds the activity is more or less constant, so a wildly different experience to the previous day (Thank God!).

I've already posted quite a few images up, so won't do too many here, but it was superb in every respect. The hide is as good for Rollers as it is for the Falcons.

 

Gear

Lenses: A 500mm lens is ideal for portraits with a 1.3x crop body. A 400mm should be fine with a 1.6x body. A 300mm with any body should ensure you are far enough out to get two birds in the frame, or wing stretches. A 70-200 can also be used for the times when birds perch on the side of the hide.

Cameras: Any will work.

Other: A tripod is essential, but need not go to ground level as the windows are set about a metre off the floor. Bladder control would be an advantage.....

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-3-red-footed-falcon-tower Sat, 13 Jul 2013 21:11:14 GMT
Hungary Day 2: The Pygmy Cormorant Hide https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-2-the-pgymy-cormorant-hide Waking up to rain, my fellow photographers and I elected to try the Pygmy Cormorant hide, the theory being that water runs right off ducks. This is situated in the vast wetland area of the Hortobagy, and is a hide set at water level - you can lie down on a mattress in behind your camera. With perches right in front of the glass, we had high hopes for an excellent day despite the weather.

We drove through a deluge to the hide, black skies and forked lightning. Pushing our way through water-logged reeds we got soaked getting to the hide  (tip, if it's raining, go last!). Once safely inside, we raised the shutter to reveal......nothing!! Oh well, patience is often the name of the game, so we set up and waited. And waited....

I'm not sure what to say. For most of the day we had mostly Greylag Geese, Mallards and Pochard outside the hide. I refused to photograph the first two. Sometimes small parties of Ferruginous Duck attempted to visit but either stayed some way out, or were chased away by a family of Coots. A Great White Egret visited twice, a Squacco once, and a Purple Heron was unphotographable. Whilst there was opportunity for Whiskered Tern flight shots, I gave it several hundred attempts and came away with one single image that was vaguely OK, but still essentially laughable. I have no idea what I am doing wrong, I may try a special course in the US as it is most frustrating. Anyway, moving on, a frustrating day which saw the perches go almost unused - a single Whiskered Tern spent perhaps a minute on one of the larger logs. Apart from that the only options were for birds in amongst the yellow water plant flowers - I'm not sure yellow is a particularly forgiving background for bird photography. One or two perhaps, but every shot? A Pygmy Cormorant visited once, swimming and diving in the centre of the pool before disappearing leaving us with no shots. Oh, and we got eaten alive by mossies as the day went on! The light was largely sub-optimal, and when it was nice, no birds deigned to drop in!

So, tiring, hot, and deeply unsatisfying,  and I ended up keeping only a tiny number of photos, fewer than 30, which for a whole day of bird photography in a set-up designed for you to score heavily is very poor indeed. With few usable images we bemoaned our luck on the way back to Balmazjuvaros and our hotel, hoping for better weather the following day, and a hide with birds in front of it! Things could only get better!

 

Gear

Lenses: A 300mm lens would be an asset for photographing Marsh Harrier and Whiskered Tern in flight, but otherwise a 500mm/600mm + extenders would be suitable - the longest you have, basically.

Cameras: Again, high ISO is a necessity, but unlike the Drinking Pool Hide, a 1.6x crop body would work fine. A few birds came close, but our experience was that most were far out. I used a 1.3x crop body almost exclusively.

 

Other: A tripod without a centre column, one that can go flush to the ground. Alternatively a beanbag or a skimmer pod would work. All wildlife photographers ought to have a tripod that goes to ground level though, in my opinion at least.

Mosquito repellent!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/7/hungary-day-2-the-pgymy-cormorant-hide Tue, 02 Jul 2013 19:44:57 GMT
Hungary Day 1: The Drinking Pool Hide https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/hungary-day-1-the-drinking-pool-hide I arrived fairly late in the day on Friday after electing to do a morning's work first to help pay for the trip. This left just enough time to have a quick beer with the other photo-tour guests, and make plans for the day ahead. With a period of hot weather about to end and with rain forecast I elected to go to one of the drinking pool hides; when the forest is dry the drinking pools are a valuable source of water for bathing and drinking, and will be visited frequently. And so it proved with non-stop activity in the morning and the afternoon, with the only quiet period being in the middle of the day, as you would expect.

The two drinking hides are situated close together in Debrecen Great Wood. They seat three people reasonably comfortably, and are set below the water line, so that you can set up parallel to the surface for absolutely level-with-the-bird shots for that unique perspective, and allowing for awesome reflections. You shoot through one-way glass, and  I estimate that this cuts up to 2 stops of light. Drinking hide #1, the one I was in, is set underneath the canopy, and as such it can get very dark - shutter speeds of 1/60s are not uncommon, and as such bathing action or bird interaction is essentially out of the question which is a great shame. You face a shallow pool, constructed as a metal trough, that is perhaps 5m long. The majority of the action happens at the far end where you can set up various perches - mossy bark, stones, sticks, whatever takes your fancy. A pre-bathing perch is often a good idea - birds like to take a moment to check out the situation before getting down to business. The sides of the pool are lined with logs that prevent birds from drinking, thus everything is concentrated at the far end unless you set up a perch closer to the hide. There is a large gap between the end of the pool and the foliage at the rear, allowing amazingly clean backgrounds.

 

Note that drinking hide #2 is identical to the first in terms of physical layout, but is in a more open situation that allows faster shutter speeds - perhaps up to a stop and a half. When I was there though, it attracted far fewer birds than hide #1. You are more likely to get a light green background in #2, whereas #1 will have darker backgrounds, including black.

When we arrived the guide opened the hide up, cleaned the glass, topped up the pool with water and left us to it. It didn't take long for birds to return, and for the photography to start. A average day should see 18-22 species visit, an exceptional day would be 30 species. These are classic woodland birds - Tits, Woodpeckers, Thrushes, Finches and so on. It can get quite intense at times and you don't know what to point the camera at! One recommendation is to get the birds before they start bathing, as they become very quickly become drenched and rather unattractive!

 

I had a great day, getting shots of some species like Turtle Dove that I had only dreamed of. My only criticism beyond the light issues is that many images end up looking very samey, even if of different species. I wouldn't put together a portfolio of images from this hide alone, it would be very one-dimensional. You can help yourself out by nipping outside every now and again to play around with the placement of perches, but there is still really only one thing going on. This does not in any way detract from the fun though, and it's pretty easy to get standout shots that you would difficult to reproduce elsewhere. Beware of getting your horizons level - with reflections it's really obvious when you're not true to the world.

We elected to have a full day in the hide, though a half day is an option. We arrived at 6.30am and were picked up at 6pm - that's a long day to be sat in one place, but the images you get make it worthwhile in my opinion. In a 12 hour session I got the best images I've ever taken of probably a dozen species, can't ask for more than that really, and I'll be doing a series of "species" posts in the coming days, to include Hawfinch and Turtle Dove.

Gear

Lenses: Lenses from 300mm to 700mm are what you need, including any crop factor. A 500mm f4 was my most-used lens, though a 300 f2.8 also saw some action. With the end of the pool about 5.5m away from you, 500mm is excellent for portraits of small birds when using a 1.3x crop body. A 1.6x crop body would likely be too much to allow pleasing compositions. If you want full reflections, this focal length of 700mm is too much, and I swapped to a full-frame body. For larger birds, like Jays and Thrushes, 500mm native focal length was good, though 400mm would have been better. Anything closer would require a 300mm lens, an f2.8 version would be good as it lets heaps of light in, though bear in mind that the subjects are often at or just beyond minimum focusing distance, so stopping down is often required, despite the lack of light. I found myself using f8 and f9 quite frequently to get sufficient depth of field, with the resulting extremely slow shutter speeds - down to 1/40s in some instances. Solid long lens technique is very important, as is a tripod.

 

Cameras: Unless you only use a 300mm lens, a 1.6x crop is too long. This hide is perfect for a full-frame body with longer lenses, and I used my 5D Mk III more frequently than anything else. A 1.3x crop body gets you tight in for smaller subjects, but won't allow you to get the full reflections in. All bodies need to have excellent high ISO capabilities. I never went below ISO 800, and often used 1250 - it really is dark in there. In addition, many of the best reflective compositions require portrait framing, so a camera with a vertical grip will make things a lot easier and much more comfortable. My 1D Mk IV has a vertical grip built in, but I really missed not having this option with the 5D Mk III.

 

Other: A tripod is essential in my opinion, with a head than pans easily and smoothly. You may need to lock it down for some shots to minimise the risk of camera shake. Mosquito repellent and after-bite lotion. Toilet paper in case the need arises. Plenty of water is provided. In high summer it can surpass 30 degrees in there. Don't be tempted, as we did, to open the front window a fraction. When the sun is out, unless the lens is perfectly parallel to the glass, ghosting will occur on high contrast areas of the subject, such as a Blackbird's beak. This wasn't apparent in shade, but in brighter light we couldn't understand what was going on until we shut the window. Lesson learned!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/hungary-day-1-the-drinking-pool-hide Fri, 28 Jun 2013 17:56:11 GMT
Bee-eaters https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/bee-eaters I'll be attempting a full write-up of my Saketours "Hungary" trip when I'm home, but with little time in the evenings (in addition to being shattered) beyond that needed to download images and back them up, recharge camera batteries etc, this for now is the best that I can manage. This morning I went to the Bee-eater hide - essentially a shed in front of a sandbank. Simple, and is highly effective. Birds about fifteen feet away! Somewhat defeated by low light for most of the time we were there, but a few spells of sunshine to work with - this is when most of the insects were caught. Wonderful birds, love them to bits, and I've finally managed to get a photo! 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/bee-eaters Tue, 25 Jun 2013 21:19:04 GMT
Hungarian Hawfinches https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/hungarian-hawfinches I'm currently in the Hortobagy National Park in Hungary, and spent yesterday in a drinking pool hide. I'm not a fan of hides but there is no denying that they give you some great photo opps - 33 degrees, mossies galore, but heaps of birds coming in to drink. Some difficult shutter speeds, it can be very dark underneath the canopy, and shooting through special glass probably costs somewhere between one and two stops, but I'm reasonably pleased with some of these. For the technical amongst you, shutter speeds topped out at around 1/500s for a brief period, but were more commonly 1/200s. Action, forget about it! Early morning, when the light was arguably nicest, and I was working with 1/60s and really struggling. Other species visiting the hide included Syrian and Green Woodpeckers, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Yellowhammer, Spotted and Collared Flycatchers, and Turtle Dove.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Hawfinch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/hungarian-hawfinches Sun, 23 Jun 2013 03:11:16 GMT
Local Long-tailed Duck https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/local-long-tailed-duck A female Long-tailed Duck has been visiting various urban water bodies along the south side of the Thames for the past few days. Peckham, Greenwich, and now Rotherhithe, which is where I caught up with it this evening. It shows like a dream, at times coming too close for my long lens. I love birds like this, and I don't care where they come from as long as I get to see them! The light was pretty OK for the 6-7pm slot, so real complaints at all from me on that score which is pretty unusual!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/local-long-tailed-duck Mon, 10 Jun 2013 21:16:54 GMT
Wren and post-processing https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/wren-and-post-processing I've been a bit active on an online forum recently, giving C&C in my usual full-on way, and also asking for it. This has been extremely revealing, and I am not ashamed to say I have learned something. I've known for some time that taking the photo is the easy bit, but I've always struggled with the post-processing. When I started out with RAW files, I used a series of steps as outlined by Art Morris. This works fine for photos at full res, but a version of the same process when wanting a smaller image to post online sees me struggling for the sharpness and detail that I know is in the photo. Sometimes I overcook it, sometimes I under-process it - the happy medium defeats me. Where I struggle is often with the background rather than the bird itself, with all sorts of artefact appearing. I've learned today that I might be causing this myself by playing with levels, and changing the exposure during RAW conversion. So this evening I've developed a minimalist process for web images.

1) Crop as appropriate (Which I am learning is subjective)

2) Reduce noise (Strength 8 or 9, preserve details 30%, reduced colour noise 0%)

3) Resize to 1000 pixels on the long side

4) Unsharp Mask (120%, radius 0.4)

5) Save for Web (Quality 80-100, optimized "checked", blur 0)

And that's it. No levels, no curves, no shadows and highlights, no selective colour changes. Have a look and see what you think. A series of more or less the same images can be seen on my other blog post from yesterday. The results are quite interesting. Just goes to show that photography, especially that bit behind a PC, is always a learning experience, and that the web is a great place to do it. A lot of C&C is utterly useless - "Great shot", "Love it", "Brilliant!" etc. Nothing doing there, and I am scrupulous when it comes to avoiding that banal back-slapping and giving genuine C&C, rightly or wrongly. The good news is that post a recent onslaught I decided to stick a few of my own photos up so that people could give as good as they were getting - only fair - and it has worked a treat. I'm getting genuine and useful feedback that I'm starting to put into practice straight away. It's just a shame that I've got so many I want to go back and have another go at!!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/6/wren-and-post-processing Sun, 02 Jun 2013 20:03:16 GMT
Meadow Pipit https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/meadow-pipit Spent a happy couple of hours with a single bird up on the cliffs at Dover, and most enjoyable it was too. Never had the bird hovering, nor parachuting, but when a bird is in your face for so long it's easy to be a little disappointed! Really pleased to have a quality session though, was worried I wouldn't remember what buttons to press. Probably took around three hundred shots, and have so far managed to delete two thirds of them. Here are a few I have processed this morning - there are plenty more to come!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/meadow-pipit Mon, 27 May 2013 09:31:01 GMT
Cuckoo at Reculver https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/cuckoo-at-reculver After a brief twitch of the Dusky Thrush,  I spent a few happy hours wandering around Reculver in a bit of a daze. Really what I wanted to do was go to bed, but it was a nice day and it was a pleasure to be out. Not a lot going on on the photography front, but there was a relatively fuss-free Cuckoo along the sea wall, and then inland towards Chambers Wall. I've never managed any decent photos of Cuckoo before, so although not the images I really had in mind, for now they'll do just fine!

PS Apologies for the quality of these pics - Picasa in it's wisdom is doing something funky to the pixellation, particularly of the background. I have no idea what it is, but the uploading system has changed as well. Much more of this and I am off to a new provider!!

 

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/cuckoo-at-reculver Sun, 19 May 2013 11:08:07 GMT
Goldfinch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/goldfinch A few of a Goldfinch from Rainham Marshes last weekend. All takne with the 800mm and a 1.4x converter, only the centre focus point is active at f8. These were all manual exposure 1/640s at f9 - you can see that this lens is somewhat useful for small birds and holds up pretty well with a converter too. Interestingly I met a pro photographer a day after I took these who stated that the 800mm was rubbish. I'd hate to see what a good lens can do! I'd unfortunately not processed these at the time, else I might have been able to show him what it is capable of even in my limited capacity. He'd clearly never met Arthur Morris, in whose hands the 800mm is pure gold, but many people tend to make statements about stuff they have never used. I have to say though that I have heard no bad things (other than price and weight) said about this particular piece of kit. Generally the pros can pick up anything and take a good photo with it, so I suspect this guy would do the same were he ever to give it a go.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/goldfinch Tue, 07 May 2013 21:16:08 GMT
Focal Length https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/focal-length I suppose I must finally be developing some good long lens technique. Today after an unsuccessful attempt at taking Kingfisher photographs from a busy hide, I cut my losses and went to find some small birds. The 800mm rules supreme here, and with a 1.4x converter attached gives a stonking 1120mm of focal length, which including my camera's crop factor, works out at something like 1450mm. That's a lot of length able to wobble, but I reckon I'm getting the hang of it. The following images were all taken at this focal length, and at around 1/800s as the light wasn't all that. I have to say that I'm pretty pleased with the resulting sharpness. Full Wimberley used to give me the best possible chance!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/5/focal-length Sat, 04 May 2013 17:38:09 GMT
Subalpine Warbler https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/subalpine-warbler Last weekend I twitched a Western Subalpine Warbler in Lincolnshire. Got the bird, but the light was awful and it was rather too distant. Didn't stop the big lens boys that were there papping away though, presumably hoping to see quite how many files they could later bin. A Sylvia Warbler 30m distant and directly into the sun? All of them would be my answer, and I didn't take a single frame as there was no point, and instead enjoyed the bird through my scope. Roll forward to this weekend, and another Subalpine Warbler at Landguard in Suffolk, though this time of the Eastern race. And this time the experience could not have been more different. The bird showed to about three metres, perhaps less, and was a little superstar - apart from not choosing any of the perches I might have wanted it on. As usual far too many people there, along with the usual photographer vs birder nonsense, but I didn't let it distract me too much. Quite amazing how many people have 500mm (and longer!) lenses, and also quite amazing to see how many of them haven't got a Scooby Doo. Bird a few inches off the ground in some scrub, super telephoto mounted on a six foot tripod a mere fifteen feet from the bird. Shooting angle 22 degrees, exacerbated by the bird constantly peering downwards in search of food. Nice one fellas! My shooting angle from a monopod low to the ground? About four degrees! Get low, get low, get low, it has to be the number one rule. If you're at eye level with your subject, the images will be miles better. And from looking at the guff on Surfbirds this afternoon, very few people understand that. I guess I'm sounding pretty arrogant, especially having recently whinged about arrogance on my other blog, but it is such a simple thing to change. Half of me always want to tell these guys to lower the tripods, splay out the legs, get down to the bird, but the other half just wants to get on with photographing it myself!

The images are rather cluttered for the most part, but are an accurate depiction of the experience; this was the habitat the bird favoured. Only once did it perch anywhere with something resembling a clean background, and these were the last photos I took. Having been tracking it for over an hour, I knew from checking the rear of the camera that I had the best I could get. Another tip: when you get to editing, reverse the order and start from the last photo you took in any given session, as I find that it takes me a while to get over the initial trigger happy phase that means that many of my first photos are complete junk. Very often I don't even bother looking at the first ones, as I know they were probably more distant, poorly composed and nowhere near the level of the later ones where I've found my rhythm, got my exposure spot on and am thinking properly about composition and the like. So it proved yesterday! All photos below taken with the 1D mk IV body, 500mm f4 IS mk II lens with the 1.4x mk III teleconverter, ISO 800, manual exposure 1/1000s at f5.6, monpod.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/subalpine-warbler Sun, 28 Apr 2013 14:50:38 GMT
House Martins https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/house-martins I'm gradually getting through my Spanish images. Most recently I've been concentrating on a series of about 300 shots that I took of House Martins collection mud at the town of El Rocio in the south west, right on the fringe of Donana National Park. It was a busy location, plenty of people to scare the birds off to different puddles, but with patience I managed a few I am pleased with. As always, getting down prone and in the mud with the birds was the best strategy, though my clothes took a beating. The biggest trouble was perhaps isolating a single bird in the multitude, they all seemed to land and take off together! Good fun though, and in some nice late evening sunshine.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/house-martins Fri, 26 Apr 2013 19:24:14 GMT
Grasslands https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/grasslands Wanstead Flats is my patch, and it rocks. Photographic opportunities tend to be limited as the site is massively disturbed, but I still try and get out when I can - birding principally. The last few days, on my walk to work, I've noticed a particular Skylark on a particular tussock. I've always been leaving at that point, and so had no time to try and get some images, so I was keen for the weekend to come along. 6am and Saturday dawned nice and bright, with lovely early morning light. Sure enough, the Skylark was on the tussock. The reason I've been interested in this tussock is that it is near one of the paths, and so I don't have any need to walk on the nesting area - I spent half my life telling people to get the hell off it, so it would be pretty low of me to then go and do exactly the same thing. The path runs east to west, and so I also had the light behind me - simply the ideal tussock - that it should be favoured by a bird over and above a stack of others is pure luck.

I decided to go with the 800mm - much as I am really enjoying the new 500mm, the reach of the longer lens means it retains it's top dog spot, and when small birds are involved it's the one to go to - tripod mounted on a Wimberley head - no mucking about this morning, I'd been planning this for three days! It justified me keeping it, the difference between 500 and 800 is massive. Even when you stick the converter on the 500, it's still a pretty big difference. And, as you will see, it takes the 1.4x pretty well itself, to leave all other lenses in it's wake! Rumour has it that the new 600mm plus the the 2x is a pretty awesome combination, but I suspect it's pretty difficult to get right.

As I approached with the sun behind me, the Skylark got up - almost inevitable I suppose, but I high hopes that it would come back. I positioned myself pretty close, perhaps 20 feet away, in other words just outside of minimum focus. And come back it did, and not just to perch on the tussock, but to actually display and sing on it. They do this more often than you might think, and I've always hoped to catch it. For whatever reason I've never spent much time with my local Skylarks, but a few images by Rich Steel a couple of weeks ago inspired me to give them some time.

As I was photographing the Skylark, I couldn't help but notice a couple of Meadow pipits returning to a different tussock. So when I was done with the Skylark, I moved on to them. I found I couldn't get quite as close, so turned to the converter to help me out. A quick rebalance of the newly changed setup on the Wimberley, and I was good to go - important that you do this if you have one of these, you always want your kit properly balanced. I have cut a little notch into the Arca plate (actually a replacement foot incorporating the Arca dovetail) which shows me exactly where the lens needs to sit in order to be spot on. I've done the same thing on the head itself, cut a notch on the pillar that the platform slides up and down on. This cuts out trial and error and allows me to get set up perfectly time and again, with no full and in about 20 seconds. I don't have a second notch cut for when I attach the converter, but you just need to slide the lens forward by about a centimetre. Most of the following images are with the 800mm and converter, giving a whopping 1120mm, plus the crop factor of the camera - somewhere close to 1500mm. Makes a mere 500mm seem pretty wide angle! Anyway, a lovely session in some excellent light, and I rattled off quite a few frames. Amazingly by 9am I was struggling with heat haze!

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/grasslands Sun, 21 Apr 2013 18:17:35 GMT
Window Blue Tit https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/window-blue-tit I work from home fairly frequently, and just outside my window a Blue Tit has been singing. It seems not to notice when I open the window, so in short breaks between meetings I've been seeing if I can get a few shots of it. Generally it chooses relatively tangled perches, or rather perches where the background is a real mess, but with a bit of contortionism I can sometimes get a cleaner view. The orangey background in some of the following images is in fact the brick wall of a house on the other side of the road. I've been hand-holding the lens as there is no room to set up a tripod, and I have to say I'm dead impressed with how well the 500mm Mk II performs - it's razor sharp! I may need to think about reworking some of my photoshop actions to apply less sharpening to files as I don't want them to look overdone - this is not normally an issue for me! It's a bit funny really, as up until this year I'd never really taken many photos of Blue Tits, but I have to say they're incredibly charismatic little birds and at the moment I can't get enough of them. Just wish I didn't have as many meetings!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/window-blue-tit Fri, 19 Apr 2013 19:26:41 GMT
Kittiwake, Wanstead Flats https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/kittiwake-wanstead-flats It had been a relatively quiet morning up until about half eight, nothing untoward at all. My first Blackcap of the year in song, causing my brain to momentarily overload given I've not heard the song for months, and also my first Willow Warbler. What I wasn't expecting was an adult Kittiwake to cruise over my head and then start cirling Alexandra Lake really slowly, but that is exactly what happened! The first I knew of it I was looking up at a medium-sized gull that had jet black legs. The period of recognition was petty quick despite the strange circumstances, and after a quick confirmation of the bill and eye I was jumping up and down! First job was to get the teleconverter off the lens as I'd been using it for small birds, and then get dialled in for manual exposure - changing background, changing distance between me and the bird, i.e. changing amount of white in the frame. I ended up on 1/2000s-1/2500s, and f6.3-f8.0. I had started off at 1/1600s, but soon got up to the slightly faster speed. Luckily I had all the time in the world as the bird just glided back and forth. Normally I see Kittiwake on remote scottish archipelagos, so to get one in suburban London was brilliant! All with 1D Mark IV and 500mm f4 IS Mark II, hand-held.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/kittiwake-wanstead-flats Sun, 14 Apr 2013 22:57:19 GMT
Blackbird https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/blackbird This is just a grab shot with the 500mm mounted on a monopod, but I have to say I'm pretty pleased with the result - 1/250th at f4, ISO 800. This was early morning in pretty mucky light, and yet I got away with it. I reckon my monopod is just about the most useful piece of non-electronic gear that I own, and I never travel without it - always in hand luggage. If my suitcase is delayed, I'm still good to go, and half the time I use it in preference to a tripod anyway, as the greater mobility is a real asset. If you're in the market for one but are not sure it's for you, I can recommend the Manfrotto 680B as a cheap, excellent and nigh on indestructible bit of kit.  If you're a believer already, don't mind shelling out, and want something more compact and yet utterly rock solid, the Gitzo 5561T is absolutely brilliant.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/blackbird Sun, 14 Apr 2013 20:07:30 GMT
Canon 800mm + 1.4x converter https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/canon-800mm-1-4x-convberter I've just been looking through a few images from last year, and decided that this one is worth pulling. It was taken with the Canon 800mm f5.6 IS lens, with the 1.4x Mk III converter mounted, for an amazing 1120mm of focal length. Even more amazing is that this was with just a monopod, and yet the sharpness is all there. I've recently been using my 500mm much more, but today I picked up the 800mm as my target was small and likely to be skittish. I never found the bird, but whilst having a go at other things I was reminded quite how much magnification 1120mm actually is, and quite how viable a combination the 800mm with a converter actually is. Now that I use a tripod and full gimbal head practically all the time, I wonder if this might be a set-up I use frequently to get large in-the-frame images of passerines out on Wanstead Flats, which is where I took this Wheatear.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/canon-800mm-1-4x-convberter Sat, 13 Apr 2013 17:00:00 GMT
Rock Bunting https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/rock-bunting Whilst waiting for the Vultures in the last post, many other small birds were moving around, most often on the slopes below the viewpoint. These included Black Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Blue Tit, Serin and Rock Bunting. This latter would hop around below us, move into a nearby tree, then come in to the rock we were stood next to, then cross the road and sing above us, and then return to the slopes below. I got a few images the first time around, and then worked out the second time that the third time might be a repeat, which it was. 

I've kept about 50 images, but most of them are the same, so here are a variety of different crops. The angle when the bird was on the slope wasn't the best (first and second shots), and the perch in the tree was slightly messy (too much cloning needed), so most images are from the side of the rock, which was clean and at eye level. The grey background is a mountainside in the distance. When on the top of the rock, the background was the sky, so I quickly took the camera off the tripod for the final image, and balanced a little precariously on a wall to gain a bit of height. Didn't quite manage it as you can see, but I still like the result. All taken with the 1D Mark IV, and the 500mm f4 IS Mark II lens, sometimes with the 1.4x teleconverter. All bar the final one were tripod mounted.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/rock-bunting Fri, 12 Apr 2013 12:48:20 GMT
Griffon Vulture flybys https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/griffon-vulture-flybys I spent one day of my trip to Spain at Monfrague National Park. More accurately, I spent half a day, as the other half was effectively spent sheltering from torrential rain. Although the sun didn't shine as such, during the periods when it wasn't raining I made sure to put the camera to use. At a few places in the park, Griffon Vultures nest communally on sheer rock faces, and there are numerous vantage points for people to watch this tremendous tourist attraction. It must be a well known spot for photographers as I saw a few more big lenses there, as well as people trying to photograph them with their phones of course! Although a lot of the time the birds are up high, now and again a bird cruises by at eye-level - that's what I want! Once I'd got over my initial "Oh my God a Griffon Vulture, I must rattle off as many shots as possible!" phase, I became a lot more circumspect and waited for individual birds to come close and level. It was quite amusing to see a German guy behind me with a 600mm and converter pointed vertically at the sky papping the birds, when I was just a few feet away, panning flyby birds with a bare 500mm. I'm not sure he ever realised!

Anyway, despite the weather I managed a couple of decent sessions, although the waits for suitable birds were pretty long. Plenty of other stuff to have a go at in the intermin though, which will feature in another post.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/griffon-vulture-flybys Thu, 11 Apr 2013 20:48:54 GMT
Corn Bunting https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/corn-bunting Corn Bunting was by far the commonest passerine in Spain as far as I could tell. Would that were the case in England! Literally on every fence, the best tactic was to roll the car alongside and then shoot hand-held out of the window, which is how all these shots were taken. Nine times out of ten the bird would fly off before I could grab a shot, but every now and again a bird would linger, unconcerned. Try as I might, wire was easily the favourite perch!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/corn-bunting Tue, 09 Apr 2013 21:04:38 GMT
Lesser Kestrel https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/lesser-kestrel I've just returned from a very short break to the Extramadura region of Spain, with my nine year-old son for company. Although the weather was mostly terrible - their wettest winter for years apparently - the first evening was blessed with lovely sunshine. We were staying near the town of Trujillo, and every trip report I had read about the region had mentioned the Lesser Kestrel colony at the Bullring. With an hour to kill before our pre-determined hotel arrival time, we decided to check out these birds - I wasn't expecting to be able to photograph them though. How wrong I was! We found the Bullring extremely easily, and on parking up we were amazed to see at least 20 birds flying round, some fairly low. Every now and again all of the birds would disappear, to nearby fields or up high we couldn't really tell, but when they returned they often had large locust-like prey clutched in their talons. As you may know, I'm pretty hopeless at flight photography, but with patience I managed a few images I am pleased with. But I have binned absolutely loads! Here are some of the ones I kept - all were with the 1D Mk IV, the 500mm f4 IS Mk II lens. Exposure was set manually to account for the changing backdrop, dialled up to as high an f-stop as I could get away with and still retain sufficient shutter speed to hopefully compensate for my lack of proficiency. But so many of my images were soft I started to question if it truly was me - I mean I can't be that bad, can I? - or if the camera might be to blame. I mean here I am with probably the best kit in the world for the job at hand and I can't get consistent quality with really quite easy (i.e. hovering!) and large-in-the-frame subjects. Why not? I tried IS on, IS off, IS mode 2, IS mode 3, high shutter speeds, smaller F-stops, and nothing seemed to make any difference at all. It seemed to be pure chance whether I nailed it or ended up slightly off despite the focus point being precisely on the bird. I don't believe in chance, as I know photographers who would have turned up and got 80% keeper rates. Anyhow, I discovered when I got home, typically, that my "AF Tracking Speed" custom-function was set to "slowest", and I have been wondering if this means that the AF doesn't quite keep up? I've set it to "fastest" now, to see if that makes any difference at all, but of course I'm no longer in Trujillo.....The smart money however is that I simply have not had enough practice, and so am not good enough at tracking birds in flight, or can't hold a 500mm lens sufficiently steady. Or both! So, enough moaning, on to the ones I have left!

 

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/lesser-kestrel Tue, 09 Apr 2013 06:24:19 GMT
Black Guillemot https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/black-guillemot Back in Oban the next morning, the tide was high and the weather was nice - perfect for Black Guillemot photography. I could easily have spent the morning there, but with a 500 mile drive ahead of us all I got was an hour. Nonetheless most enjoyable, and one of those locations that I could keep going back to - indeed this is probably my third visit. I'm always on the way somewhere else though, it seems a long way to go just to photograph the birds. Maybe one day I'll go there with this as my only purpose and see what happens!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/black-guillemot Sat, 06 Apr 2013 19:17:52 GMT
Twite https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/twite I've just spent a couple of days up on the Hebrides, specifically the Uists. Although the primary objective was seeing the vagrant Harlequin Duck, it was also an opportunity to catch up with species that are just not present down south. We came across a flock of perhaps 90 Twite and a dozen Snow Bunting on the west side of Berneray, a small island off the tip of North Uist. They were too difficult to approach whilst feeding on the ground, never really settled, but the following shots were made by rolling the car up to the fence line that they often retired too after flying around for a bit. These are all hand-held from the passenger seat, many thanks to Bradders for providing shoulder support - 700mm (500mm +1.4x) is never the easiest to get a sharp shot with. Although the perch isn't ideal, I suspect that they perch on man-made structures like fences more than they do on trees and bushes - mainly due to the fact that the far-flung Scottish islands tend to have a lot of the former and not much of the latter. I call it a sense of place!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/4/twite Mon, 01 Apr 2013 17:34:26 GMT
Patch Gold! https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/patch-gold A real patch rarity turned up at the weekend, a pair of Golden Plover, and what's more they were on the deck - this is most unusual, normally we'll get a fly-over, and that's if we're lucky! I caught up with them late Saturday afternoon, and not wishing to push my luck, didn't approach too closely. Conditions were poor - light snow and pretty murky - IOO 400, 1/160th at f5.6, and this is the result with the hand-held 500mm f4 mkII, with the 1.4 mkIII converter in place - I managed to rest the lens on a grassy tussock, lying flat on the ground to take this photo:

Almost unbelievably, the birds were still on the patch the following morning, having relocated to what we call Police Scrape, a bit of rough ground that held the Met Police Olympic Muster Station last summer. It got really churned up and has yet to recover, and the pools that have accumulated during this winter are attracting quite a lot of birds, though up until this morning, nothing particularly good! The two Goldies had somehow managed to attract a third during the night, and seemed very settled. Knowing how they had reacted the previous evening, I decided I could probably get a lot closer - once again I descended onto my stomach and began crawling forwards. I reckon I got to within about ten metres, perhaps closer. With no tussock available, I rested the lens on my backpack. No converter this time, though perhaps I ought to have used it for some properly close-up shots, and the light at 8am was better than the previous afternoon. Shooting details were ISO 800, between 1/250th and 1/500th at f4.0. I'm much happier with the results, they have that bit more zing about them. I wish I'd had proper support, and that I'd gone even closer!

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/patch-gold Wed, 27 Mar 2013 10:46:58 GMT
Larking about https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/larking-about It's been a dire couple of weeks in this country - last weekend I didn't even get my camera out of its bag. I managed about an hour and a half on the patch, got cold and wet, and went home birdless. This week has been much the same, so instead of new material I've been going through my folders from Morocco to see if I can tease any more images out. As such, I've just about managed to cobble together a post about Larks, in this case Crested, Thekla, and Desert. They were actually relatively difficult to photograph as they never really stayed too still - definitely some species to try for again on a sunsequent visit. I'm satisfied with some of the Wheatear photos; that's where I devoted most time, but I can definitely improve significantly on the larks, especially in terms of backgrounds, which in the following images are mostly pretty messy.

The first four images are Crested Lark, the next two Thekla Lark (as Crested really, but a much stubbier bill), and the final one a Desert Lark.

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/larking-about Fri, 22 Mar 2013 16:12:18 GMT
Crimson-winged Finch https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/crimson-winged-finch No time like the present, I'm keen to finish up with Morocco and move back on to UK birds. The following images were also all taken at Oukaimeden ski centre in the High Atlas mountains. A real speciality species, found hardly anywhere else, I was really pleased to get these and not only that, to get point blank views of them - you can see how they got their name. I took loads of these, but all of the same bird and in virtually the same pose!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/crimson-winged-finch Sat, 16 Mar 2013 12:07:13 GMT
Atlas Shorelark https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/atlas-shorelark These birds are clearly different enough from the Shorelarks we see on the british coast to be worthy of a sub-species. In addition to their deeper tan colouration on the head and nape, shown best in the first photo, they live in snow at 2600m and above! I spent a fair bit of time with them at Oukaimeden ski centre in Morocco, and was pleased to get some nice images, though getting a decent background was always a challenge, and they preferred a busy car park. As you can see, they like bread, and can be encouraged to move to nicer spots by leaving a little trail..... The background of the two photos at the end of the sequence is actually a car, and the rock was placed on a wall with various bits of bread scattered around. Almost all the images preceding the ones with the blue-ish background were all leading up to it, I just couldn't resist pressing the shutter! If I learnt one thing in Morocco it's that planning goes a huge way to making images that much better. Plan the perch, plan the background, get the light behind you, set up, pre-focus, and WAIT! Click, and happy days! All these with the 1D Mark IV, the 800mm lens mounted on a tripod, and manual mode so as to control the massive amount of white going on.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/atlas-shorelark Sat, 16 Mar 2013 11:56:58 GMT
Moussier's Redstart https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/moussiers-redstart Possibly my favourite bird of the trip! I blew the whites a bit, and have had to bring them down, but it doesn't detract from what was a brilliant little bird, and one I was so glad we found and photographed having only encountered difficult ones until our very last day. I reckon I'd go back to Morocco just for this one bird!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/moussiers-redstart Fri, 15 Mar 2013 15:14:20 GMT
Desert Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/desert-wheatear My experience of Desert Wheatear up until now has been of vagrant birds in the UK. In Morocco I finally encountered them in their natural habitat, i.e. not a carpark! Wonderful birds. Near Auberge Yasmina we found a really smart and deeply-coloured male, and although it was difficult to approach, with patience I got a few good opportunities, including some action shots, which is so not my bag! Amazing!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/desert-wheatear Thu, 14 Mar 2013 22:40:29 GMT
Mourning Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/mourning-wheatear You can probably tell why I like Morocco. This species, the Maghreb Wheatear (treated by some as a distinct race of Mourning Wheatear), was one of the smartest ones that there was, but also the trickiest to find and seemed to be the lowest in density. We encountered a pair near the town of Imiter late one evening and with not a lot of light to play with. Still, you do what you can. The female is the duller bird of the two, shown first and last. All images with the tripod-mounted 800mm, with shutter speeds of around 1/400s - perfectly acceptable really. Would have loved to have been back at the same location at dawn the next day, but our trip was very short and we had a great deal to see and do.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/mourning-wheatear Wed, 13 Mar 2013 20:34:02 GMT
Hoopoe Lark https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/hoopoe-lark Hoopoe Lark were one of the most engaging birds we found in the eastern deserts of Morocco. They're pretty big birds really on the passerine scale, and very reminiscent of Cream-coloured Courser in a funny way. Rarely still, the birds actively fed, probing in the sand with their long curved bills. I missed the display flights, but managed a number of nice portraits both on the ground and on the low thorny stuff that characterises the desert flora out there. All images with the 800mm lens, tripod mounted.

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/hoopoe-lark Mon, 11 Mar 2013 19:41:36 GMT
Black Redstart at Rainham, and thoughts on the Canon 500mm Mk II https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/black-redstart-at-rainham-and-thoughts-on-the-canon-500mm-mk-ii I didn't really choose my day to go and see this bird! Dull, miserable, and above all freezing - not making for great photography conditions. The bird - a male - was showing relatively well from the top of the sea wall, but was about twelve feet below my level - not great for getting a decent photo. For whatever reason, and despite the cruddy weather complete with a tiny ice particle storm, I decided that the best thing to do would be to descend to the waterside to get down to bird level. Of course the bird immediately flew 30 yards further away...... However with patience it came back, happy to feed not too far away. We're not talking Morocco close, but it wasn't too bad really. I was ill-prepared though - no tripod and only a 500mm lens. I say only, that's actually quite a lot, one of the longest there is in fact, but passerines are small. Birders with telescopes often expect that these super-telephotos give a photographer equivalent magnification - a long way from the truth. I estimate that a 500mm lens is probably equivalent to 10x binoculars - hardly the 60x of a decent zoom! Any time I moved, the bird did too, so I ended up sitting stock still on the foreshore and waiting. Somewhat of a surprise was the presence of two enormous Brown Rats, who appeared not to notice me at all! I guess I'm pretty good at sitting still - either that, or these rats are particularly bold!

The above shot of the rate full-frame at 1000mm - 1/125s at f8. As you can probably guess from the focal length, I was using the 2x converter (the Mk III version). I'm stunned at the detail available with the 2x converter on, such a low shutter speed and minimal support. The Black Redstart finally came within range, and I was as ready as I could be. I should say at this point that my 500mm is the new Mk II version with the 4 stop image stabiliser - a recent splurge. Supported by my monopod, and bracing as much as I was able I nabbed a couple of shots as the bird moved through and past me. This is the best of them - I have to say that I'm relatively impressed with the performance of the converter. I rarely if ever use a 2x converter - in fact these days I hardly ever use the 1.4x - however this was one of those times when it was necessary. With a tripod, and locked-down properly, I reckon the quality would be perfectly acceptable. The below is a fairly heavy crop, a vertical crop using approximately 40% of the original capture - 1000mm, 1/250s at f8, ISO 1250.

When I bought the 800mm last year, I thought long and hard about selling the 500mm Mk I, a lens that had changed everything for me. Eventually I did though, knowing that I would likely cave in and go for the Mk II at some point. I didn't expect it to be so soon, but I actually need it for a hide photography trip I'm going on in a few months where 800mm will actually be too long, especially with a mimum focus distance of 6m. I also now realise how valuable f4 actually is in this country during the winter months, having not had the option all year. And last but not least, this lens is so much more portable than the 800mm, which is always a mission to carry around. It fits in a small bag and so I can easily take it with me to work and back - and now that it's getting a little lighter a little earlier, this means I have some opportunities before work, this will keep me sane I hope - bring on the Wheatears! The weight difference is also very noticeable - at 4500g the 800mm is over 40% heavier than this new 500mm (a paltry 3190g). This difference in weight means the 500mm is pretty easy to handhold, even for a weakling like me. The Grey Heron below was handheld at f4, 1/1000s at ISO 800. I feel pretty greedy having both, but I know I will use them both, and the 800mm is great in small bird situations - I should have taken it to the Black Redstart today!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/black-redstart-at-rainham-and-thoughts-on-the-canon-500mm-mk-ii Sun, 10 Mar 2013 18:12:40 GMT
Spectacled Warbler https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/spectacled-warbler One of our many roadside stops in Morocco was outside a town called Ouzarzate. Amongst the many birds there were a pair of Spectacled Warblers. I'd never seen this species before, let alone photographed it, and so once I was done with Wheatears, moved on to these. All with the 1D4 and 800mm lens - over 1000mm of focal length is massively helpful for small birds, even when they're as close as this bird was.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) Spectacled Warbler https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/spectacled-warbler Sun, 10 Mar 2013 12:01:29 GMT
White-crowned Black Wheatear https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/white-crowned-black-wheatear The default Wheatear in Morocco is the White-crowned Black Wheatear, Oenanthe leucopyga, and they are literally everywhere. You find them in towns as well as remote wadis in the desert. And it goes without saying that they are superb. They were also relatively easy to get close to, and we found we could pretty much pick a perch and sooner or later the birds would use it. The 800mm lens made light work of getting some really nice close-ups of these fantastic birds.

One of first stops was near the town of Ouzarzate, where we found a pair. Using a bit of stealth I approached a bird, and was amazed when it then halved the distance and came and landed on a nearby rock to check me out. At that point I only had the monopod, but the light is so nice in Morocco that I could probably have handheld for this one - 1/2500s at f5.6.

For subsequent shots, I found that the best method was to mount the whole rig on a tripod, which I would then crouch behind, pre-focused on the intended perch and wait for the bird to come in. This meant I could then stop down to f8 or thereabouts. I used manual exposure throughout - the light is pretty constant out there, and it's far easier to control the whites than using AV. Canon's 800mm is a bit of a beast - heavy, unwieldy, and thus a pain to lug around, but for well thought-out shots of perched passerines it really is the business. I never resorted to a teleconverter, there was no need. Here are few of the many images of this species that I took during the trip. The first three images below are of a young bird - these do not have a white crown, and so look deceptively similar to Black Wheatear, Oenanthe leucura, but can be separated by tail pattern, and to a certain extent by habitat. The sexes are identical - on the photo with two birds I have no idea which is which!

 

 

 

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/white-crowned-black-wheatear Fri, 08 Mar 2013 17:22:33 GMT
Desert Sparrow https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/desert-sparrow I've just returned from a five day trip to Morocco, with most time spent in the eastern side of the country - where the real desert starts. One of the main targets for the trip was Desert Sparrow (Passer simplex), a true arid specialist. The Erg Chebbi, south of the town of Erfoud, is the most westerly part of the Sahara Desert, and has a spectacular dune system. In previous years small numbers of Desert Sparrows have nested at various settlements on the very edge of the Erg Chebbi, but they have recently been pushed out by House Sparrows and have retreated into the dunes. My companions and I really wanted to see these birds, so followed a camel track out into the desert. This afforded spectacular views as it wound up and down various ridges, before reaching a small Berber encampment, home to a family and their flock of goats. Although only about two miles into the dunes, walking on soft sand carrying a pile of gear was extremely hard work, and by the time I got back out I was exhausted. It was worth it though, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

The birds were living in a small group of palms next to the Berber tents, and seemed to find much of their food in and around the dung created by the goats and the passing camels. We estimated that there might have been four or five pairs in the colony. Such smart birds, and so difficult to connect with - it's a long way to go from Marrakech to find them, over the Atlas and out into the middle of nowhere. Somewhat of a sea change from Wanstead! Here are a few images, both of the birds and of the scenery we had to trek through to get to them. A fantastic experience!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/3/desert-sparrow Wed, 06 Mar 2013 17:38:43 GMT
Wimberley are Great! https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/wimberley-are-great Wimberley makes great products. However, many companies make great products, so how do they distinguish themselves from the competition? How do they stand out? For me it's all about customer service. I've used Wimberley products for a long time - lens plates, arca clamps, macro arms, and of course their famous gimbal tripod head. None of it has ever gone wrong before, and so I've never had cause to contact the company. Then last October I detected a wobble in the tripod head. It had been a while since I last used it, and after the Siberian Stonechat on Shetland I then didn't use it again until the start of 2013, and so promptly forgot about the wobble and continued using my monopos - which by the way has a Wimberley clamp atop it. This year, when I decided I'd try and take my photography to the next level, I turned to my tripod as one way of perhaps helping me make that step. The wobble was still there - it could be eliminated by locking down the whole head, but when you wanted to pan, back it came. Annoying, and I needed to solve it.

I contacted Wimberley directly, and explained the symptoms. They wrote back straight away, asking a few questions, and also where I had purchased it, the serial number and that kind of thing. The serial number was easy, but where I bought it, had I filled the waranty document in - not a chance. I hadn't the faintest recollection of where I got it, nor could I find any paperwork. No matter, said Wimberley, we stand by our product. They would send me, they said, a new central screw and washer set that their technicians felt would fix it. Gratis. With no proof of purchase or anything. Furthermore, if it didn't fix the problem, all I had to do was to send the whole unit back and they would simply replace it. Just like that. I mean, these things cost £500!

So today I was pleased to find a small and neat package on the front door step. Inside was the promised screw, and the two washers along with a step-by-step guide to performing the repair. Also very helpfully a complete parts diagram of the entire head. It took five minutes to whip out the old screw and washers (which by the way looked identical to the new ones!) and replace them with the new ones. A couple of minutes to adjust the tension and I was all done. Wobble gone, smooth panning back. Fantastic. I have no doubt that they would have sent me a brand new head had I needed it, but it wasn't necessary and I'm back in business with a fully functional head. The whole process, start to finish, took no more than a couple of weeks - Wimberley are based in the US. I am what they call a satisified customer.

Here's a photo of a Wimberley head in action from the weekend, with fellow London photographer Mick S behind the camera. If you see somebody with a long lens taking photos of birds, they are almost guaranteed to be using a Wimberley. Lenses that are pain in the backside to carry become completely weightless, it's a fabulous bit of kit. There are various knock-offs available, various copies and slight alterations on the design. They might work, they might not. But what of the customer service? Will it be quite as good? I very much doubt it, and that's why I'll always use the real deal.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/wimberley-are-great Wed, 27 Feb 2013 19:55:55 GMT
More of that Fieldfare https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/more-of-that-fieldfare Couldn't resist a few more of the Fieldfare - a lovely bird and one of the best Thrushes. Almost impossible to get close to normally, so this was a real treat for me. If you ever find an obliging one, get to work on it immediately as these opportunities are highly unlikely to occur! As usual I was working with Canon's superb 800mm f5.6 lens, mounted on a tripod and with a gimbal head. Prior to this year I probably took most of my photos either handheld, or using a monopod. I've waxed lyrical about the benefits of a monopod many times, and the portability and flexibility is hard to beat. Nonetheless, this year I've used a tripod far more often - mostly as a function of the low winter light levels. I have no idea if the tripod explains it, or whether I'm just thinking much more carefully about the shot, but I feel that my photos have improved this year. Just a coincidence? I'm not sure, but I'm thinking that it probably isn't and so plan to use my tripod as often as I can. I do currently have an issue with the Wimberley though - it wobbles when not completely locked down, so I can't pan very easily. The company are being very helpful though, so I'm very hopeful of getting full use of it back soon.

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/more-of-that-fieldfare Tue, 26 Feb 2013 22:03:19 GMT
Fearless Fieldfare https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/fearless-fieldfare Fieldfares are usually very wary, to the point where I've singularly failed to get any photos of one in many years of trying. I managed a few when the snow came down earlier this year, but wasn't completely satisfied. So it was brilliant to get another bite at the cherry this afternoon in Essex. Originally Mick, Richard, Kev and I had been after the long-staying Long-tailed Duck at Shoeburyness, and although it had been there yesterday, it was a no-show today. A Fieldfare made ample compensation though. Light was OK, topped out at 1/320th I think, and in post-processing I have added some warmth that was completely lacking in the field. We spent about an hour with this bird, and after an initial period of flightiness, it seemed to become accustomed to our presence and spent a lot of time feeding in the middle of us as we clicked away. Good practice for Morocco, which is just around the corner! There are a few more images in the "Thrushes" gallery.

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/fearless-fieldfare Sun, 24 Feb 2013 22:01:33 GMT
Bonaparte's Gull in Sussex https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/bonapartes-gull-in-sussex This bird has been on my mind for quite some time, but until today I had no time to go and see it. Happily it stuck around, and although I had to stand around for over three hours in the cold doing very little, sure enough it came in. It's a dainty little Gull, constantly out-competed by even the Black-headed Gulls, but it has now been faithful to Crumble's Pond, a small boating lake in Prince's Park in Eastbourne. When I arrived at around 10am this morning the light was actually quite nice. No sign of the bird however, and as I waited patiently with a few other birders the light gradually deteriorated. By the time the bird arrived sometime after lunch, it was the same dull conditions that have made photography mostly a misery for most of this year - so many good opportunities, and almost all of them have been in the murk! Nevermind though, I've never had the opportunity to photograph this species before, so dull light or not I was going to have to have a go! No flight shots sadly, mostly the bird just bobbed about on the water. Everyone else probably got some though, as it did take off every time bread was thrown. However as it was me doing the throwing, the action was over before I could even raise my camera! Sod's law!

 

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/bonapartes-gull-in-sussex Sat, 23 Feb 2013 18:57:14 GMT
Juvenile Kittiwake https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/juvenile-kittiwake Just returned from a trip to Shetland to twitch the Pine Grosbeak at Collafirth. Naturally that wasn't the only thing I did - spent a happy couple of hours attempting Gulls in flight. Here are a few of a young Kittiwake that made a couple of close passes at Lerwick Catch - the birds hang around the processing plant where the trawlers come in, hoping for scraps that come from the outfall. Nice soft evening light at around 4pm. I reckon I could get into photographing Gulls in flight if I did it more!

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justbirdphotos@gmail.com (JUST BIRD PHOTOS) https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/juvenile-kittiwake Wed, 20 Feb 2013 23:00:19 GMT
Black-headed Gull at f2 https://www.justbirdphotos.com/blog/2013/2/black-headed-gull-at-f2 Regular readers will know I have an optics fetish - it's almost an illness actually. At least I use my gear, perhaps not to the fullest of its ability, but I do use it. Anyhow, a while back I purchased a used 200mm f2 lens. The price was amazingly good, and I knew that if I tired of it