Review of 2013

December 31, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

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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