27th February 2015
Wintering Cranes of the Hula Valley .......
It has been a long time since I have done a blog as I have been so busy (tip to wildlife photographers don't buy a house that needs renovating). After a couple months of DIY I was ready for a trip and so in late January I was co-running a trip with Chris Gomersall for Natures Images to Israel. Chris had been to the Hula Valley in northern Israel before and showed me some wonderful images of the wildlife that can be found there. I was really impressed with the Crane images that he had achieved and so we put a trip together. Now like everybody else in the western world we are bombarded with bad news coming out of Israel and so there is always a slight doubt in your mind. After this visit though I thought it is a wonderful country and the people just couldn't do enough for us. Our main destination was the Agmon Crane centre and I have to say the staff made our stay so welcome and they really put themselves out to accommodate us throughout the trip.
Now I have to confess that I have a thing for Cranes. I have been to many places around the world to photograph them from New Mexico, Japan and Sweden. I went to Lake Hornborga in Sweden a few years back to photograph the huge gathering of Common Cranes that descend there each spring and loved every minute. I thought it would be hard to beat Lake Hornborga but that is what I felt the Hula Valley does. The sheer number of Cranes that winter in the Agmon Crane centre is an amazing spectacle, around 37,000 winters here. The centre has a very clever way in getting you close to the Cranes as they use a tractor with a large trailer to take you to the area where the birds feed during the day. They also feed the birds themselves and so they have become accustomed to these vehicles which allow an unbelievable close encounter.
We went out each morning and evening to photograph the Cranes in the best light. It was great for getting individual flight shots as the birds dropped into the fields to feed. The hardest part of the trip was to work out which lens combination to use because there are so many things going on. Wide angle lenses where great for capturing the large flocks of birds as they took off from their night time roosts.
I really liked working with my 500mm lens though because I could go in tight on the huge flock and pick out individuals preening or displaying.
Once we were in a position with the trailer the other tractor would then come in to feed the Cranes. This was a fantastic opportunity because the whole flock would form a tighter group. The movement in the flock was great to watch but it was extremely hard to capture in a still image. So I decided to use very slow shutter speeds to try and capture. This kind of photography is very much hit and miss and I had more misses that's for sure. Every now and then though one image stood out from the rest. This kind of photography is what I call marmite shots; you either love it or hate it. I like the challenge though.
Every now and then though we took a break from working with the Cranes and Chris knew where we could photograph some Griffin Vultures in the Golan Heights. We spent a couple of afternoons at this location and it was great in capturing flight shots of these impressive vultures. In the latter part of the afternoon the vultures would head back to their roosting sites in big gorge. It was good fun watching these flying barn doors effortless glide by.
The Agmon reserve was also good for seeing other species like Marsh Harriers, Kingfishers, Ibises, Spoonbills and also Coypu. I really liked these large rodents and on a couple of occasions managed to get close enough to photograph them.
So there you go just a small selection of the images that I managed to achieve during this great trip. I loved it so much that we have decided to run it again next January. If you are interested in photographing something unique then please drop me an email. The trip will go live on the Natures Images website in the next three weeks. I would like to make a special mention and thank you to Yossi Eshbol, Israels top wildlife photographer. Yossi really helped in making this trip happen and would like to thank him for all his help. Again I would like to thank the staff at the wonderful Agmon Crane centre. See you next year.
3rd November 2014
Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears .......
During early September I was in Lake Clark national park in Alaska running a trip to photograph the coastal Brown Bears. We had timed our visit to coincide with the annual Silver Salmon run that occurs during the latter part of August and into early September. This natural event is so important to the coastal Brown Bears of Lake Clark and so they head back to the estuaries and creeks to catch the Salmon as they make there way to their spawning grounds. This event is one of the most spectacular to witness in the natural world.
Our trip to Lake Clark during 2013 was an amazing experience for me and I loved every minute, so I was really looking forward to this trip. Every year is different and this year it was certainly different from the previous. In 2013 we only had a couple of Bears to work with as the Salmon run was late and most of the Bears had moved on to find different food sources. It was still good though as at least there was bears. As we were flying over our lodge to do a u-turn to land back on the beach I counted 6 bears fishing in a large creek and so instantly knew it was going to be a good year. There was also good numbers of females with young spring cubs too.
The last time I was at Lake Clark we had some great weather by Alaskan standards and the light at times was superb. This year though it constantly rained which at times was very challenging. We had the bears but not the weather. In conditions like this though you just have to shoot in a different way. Bears look great when they are wet as it really brings out the texture in their fur. So close-up portraits were the order of the day.
Most of my brown bear photography has been done in Finland and you can get some great results but I sometimes feel restricted because you are working from hides and a fixed position. Here in Alaska there is no such restrictions as you are capturing natural behaviour, so it is great to have the flexibility in being able to move around. Just getting lower or moving a few feet can make all the difference to your final image. It was really good to able to photograph the mums with young cubs too as they can be very photogenic.
Photographing Bears fishing is the real reason to visit during early September but this can be real hit and miss. Lots of factors can delay the Salmon from attempting to run. Weather conditions and tidal ranges can change the run and so it is really hard to predict. When we first arrived the Salmon were running and so we got lucky with a great encounter with a female bear called crimp ear. I have photographed her before and she is great at fishing.
Over the first couple of days we managed to find some more female bears fishing along the coast and I have got to say this is so exciting trying to capture this behaviour. It is not easy trying to keep tracking them as they run through the water as they can really shift and with all the spray of the water this really can fool your auto focus. For me it ranks as one of the best natural history behaviour to witness.
After the first couple of days though the rain got heavier and the creeks flooded so it was difficult for the bears to catch the Salmon. It was good for capturing other aspects of bear behaviour though. The bears along this stretch of coastline also go clamming at low tide and it is so different watching this powerful predator being more sedate in its hunting technique.
When the tide starts to come in though the bears then get pushed further in land and this is when you can encounter them feeding the meadows or actually visiting the lodge. One Bear had decided to break into a cabin and the mess she made brought home the real destructive power that they are capable of.
At high tide the bears do visit the lodge and this gives you a great opportunity at getting some really intimate portraits, especially when a female visits with her youngs cubs.
So there you go just a small selection of my favourite images from this wonderful place. I am going back again next year and I know the people that are booked on this trip will be interested in seeing how we got on. Very different from the first trip with more bears, bad weather and unpredictable Salmon but next year will be different again. I am already planning on going back in 2016 but during June so if you are interested drop me an email. I would like to thank everyone that came with me and I hope you enjoyed your time with these very special bears of Lake Clark.
28th August 2014
Eagle is coming ......
I first heard the words "Eagle is coming" uttered by Ole-Martin Dahl ten years ago. It was my first proper overseas photography trip and my first attempt at trying to photograph the iconic White-tailed Eagle. This beautiful Eagle was in vogue and image demand was high. After a successful re-introduction programme on the island of rum on the west coast of Scotland, the birds were doing well and were expanding their range. A couple of years before I had seen some great pictures captured by Chris Gomersall that he had taken on the Isle of Skye. Chris was working closely with the RSPB on this project and I was so inspired by these images I just had to try. At that time it was difficult to photograph them in the UK but Ole-Martin was already up and running in Flatanger on the west coast of Norway, so I took the plunge and booked.
Ole-Martin was very passionate and knowledgeable about his eagles and his enthusiasm for helping you achieve your pictures was immense. Not only did he get you images of these stunning birds, it was great fun whilst you tried. He made such a good impression on me since that first trip I have been back many times, not only photographing the White-tailed Eagles during the summer but a whole host of other subjects along the way. It had been a long time since I just went out for the White-tailed Eagles and so I added it to the Natures Images programme for this year. Ole all I can say is I loved every bloody minute.
As I was processing the images and picking out ones to put on this blog I realised I have a lot of images from this trip so I apologise in advance for bombarding you. The reason being is on this trip I had a much higher success rate than I have done in the past. The weather was very good with six absolutely glorious days and also the amount of dives we had from the eagles. In one day over two sessions we had 51 dives and Ole said that is a record. The other main reason was the success rate. Now I could say I am a better photographer than I was ten years ago but in truth it was the fact I am working with better gear. For the most part I used the 1Dx and the 500mm lens and that combination just locked on most of the times.
Now it's not easy hand holding a large lens from a small boat in the swell of a large Norwegian fjord, especially when your target is moving at an incredible speed and you are trying to pan with it. The new 500mm lens is a lot lighter than the older version and although still heavy it is manageable to hand held, just. The auto focus is also so good on the 1Dx, I knew this anyway but this trip really did bring it home to me at how good this camera really is.
The pattern of the four days was going to be the same each day. The Alarm was set for 5.00am, quick breakfast and then out on the boat. It is not long before you come across your first Eagle. Ole had already spotted it and then throws out a dead fish. Then shouts "Fish is out, Eagle is coming". Bloody hell I have not even got my camera out. Bang the first dive of the day. This is a pair that Ole knows well and then the male comes for his breakfast. Bang another dive. Then the female is coming back as she gave the first fish to this year's youngster. Bang another dive all in the space of five minutes. We then move on to the next territory. What a start, what an experience.
After visiting the other pairs in this part of the coast we then headed to one of my favourite locations, the wood fjord. This fjord goes deeper in land and is surrounded by steep side cliffs which are cloaked in forests. The backdrop is spectacular and on calm mornings the reflections from the trees add a different feel to your images. I love back light and this fjord certainly works well for working in this way. You need all the elements to come together, calm conditions, light and of course eagles.
Every morning was exactly the same which gave us lots of opportunities for capturing the dramatic moment when the eagle exploded from the surface with the fish. The back lighting really makes this stand out.
I am sure you have heard many people say that light is the key to photography and I am no different. It is so important. On our third morning out on the boat we had some amazing light to work with. At first I thought it was going to be a dull morning because the clouds looked menacing with lots of rain. The rain held off and the sun just kept shining. These menacing dark clouds acted as the perfect backdrop though for the eagles as they twisted in the air to position themselves ready for the dive.
Whilst you are moving from fjord to fjord you get lots of other opportunities to photograph other species. The Gulls that follow the boat make great subjects.
The good weather continued throughout and evening sessions were just as productive as the morning sessions. We head further out in the evenings to the big fjord, stopping off at many territories along the way. Again we had some great light to work in during these evening sessions, especially as the sun was setting.
So there you go just a little selection from this fantastic experience and trip. I bumped into Pete Cairns at the bird fair in Rutland and I had just got back from Norway. Pete had told me about Ole-Martin all those years ago and I booked through Pete to go. I told him I had just got back from photographing the Eagles and I was expecting Pete to be his usual sobering cheerful self and say it has all been done. But we just looked at each other and said that is great fun, he is right it is. We have not got it in next year's programme but I would love to go back, so if you would be interested and these images have inspired you please let me know and I will try and fit it in. I would like to thank Martine, Frank and John in joining me on this trip and Jeff we were thinking about you, hopefully next time and of course thanks Ole, great trip, cheers mate. I have found two more images and will finish off with these sunset eagles.
3rd July 2014
Finnish Summer ........
I have just spent the past couple of weeks in Finland. I love working in this beautiful country and photographing it's elusive wildlife. I have been visiting for many years now and on every trip it offers me opportunities for making images. First stop was to visit Martenselkonen to run our annual Wild Bear trip for Natures Images. It has been a couple of years since I last ran this trip so I was looking forward to another encounter with these forest bears. I had a small group with me and spent four nights in the small hides in three different locations.
Each location offers a completely different set of images and if the conditions are right you can come away with a varied portfolio. Marku the owner had decided to change one of the locations to a new site which is a natural pond set amongst the forest. On my last visit there a couple of years ago I had only one bear show for a brief moment so I was hoping for a bit more luck this time. It was along wait but eventually a couple of bears did turn up which coincided with some nice light. It had rained quite heavily during the day and as the clouds departed during the evening the temperature dropped which is perfect conditions for mist. The conditions were perfect for about 30 minutes but eventually the mist became too thick which made it difficult to see the bears.
The following night I went into the swamp hide which is usually the most productive of the three locations. It is always a privilege to see a female with young spring cubs and the swamp is nice and open so the females feel much more relaxed . It doesn't happen every year but this year was great because a female was visiting the swamp with her young family. It wasn't a long wait either as she was keen to come out to feed before the larger males start to show. Given the chance male bears will kill young cubs so the females have to be alert at all times. Any sign of danger she would grunt at the cubs and they would run to the cover of the trees and climb up out of reach.
It really is a great spectacle watching the antics of the young cubs as they play fight whilst their mother feeds. The play time stops though as soon as any danger is threatened and it makes a great shot as the cubs stand on their back legs for a better look. Also visiting the swamp was a female with some yearling cubs. These cubs are really boisterous at this age and after feeding would embark on some prolonged play fighting, very funny to watch and great to photograph.
I really enjoyed my encounter with Bears again and next time I won't leave it so long. The group with me was great fun and I hope you got some great shots and experiences. The trip was quite short and after dropping off the group I continued further north to Kuusamo with two friends Nigel and Kev. Our targets in the Kuusamo region was Boreal Owls and some very special forest flowers. For these elusive species we met up with our Finnature guide Antti Peuna. I have to say that Finnature and their guides are excellent and the service they offer is second to none. Antti has guided for me before so I knew he was going to show us some special stuff. Our first stop was Oulanka National Park to look for some very rare forest orchids.
I have been to Oulanka National Park before but only during the winter months. It is a beautiful park and harbours some special species. I wanted to visit during the summer to photograph these special flowers, they took some finding and we were a little to late as most of the flowers had gone past their best. In the end though we did find some nice specimens. This summer has also been a good breeding season for the Boreal Owls and Antti took us to a location where Hawk Owls had nested. Most of the owlets had left the nest already but the youngest was still in there. After some careful searching Annti did spot a youngster sitting in this young pine. I love the pose by him as he tries to make out what this new species is.
We also could use a small hide that was positioned near the nest to get some images of the adults feeding the last remaining chick. We went back the following day and the last chick had fledged but again found him sitting on the ground waiting for some food from his parents. It was a real treat to see and photograph this cracking species.
I didn't think it would get much better than this but Antti had also been monitoring some Tengmalm's Owls. He had a number of sites for this small owl and after checking them we eventually came across this adult. She was a real beauty and a bird I haven't photographed before. These few days in Kuusamo were great and just to finish off Antti also shown us a nesting Hazel Grouse. Again such an elusive species when nesting and I am amazed how he found this.
After Kuusamo we then headed to Oulu for some more owls. Our guide for this part of the trip was Petri Tamminen. Our targets were Pygmy and Great Grey owl but unfortanetly we were too late for the pygmy owls and the great grey didn't really work. So we moved on south to Vaala to photograph Osprey.
This was a great experience too. The Osprey's nest in the middle of a swamp but a tower hide has been built by Ero Kermilla and it allows a wonderful veiw into this aspects of an Osprey's daily life. It was challenging but great fun trying to capture the adults coming into feed their young chicks. I would like more time in this hide so will be going back for sure.
Which brings me to my main target species of this trip and the reason I wanted to do it in the first place. I have spent many hours trying to photograph Black Throated Divers before and although I have had some success I was never really happy with my final results and felt I could do better. So for the rest of the trip this stunning Diver had my full attention. We had a mixed back of light but on a couple of mornings the light was superb.
In the early morning the off duty adults would feed in a sheltered area of the lake which if the wind was still would cast beautiful reflections from the surrounding trees. The side lighting filtering through the trees was difficult to control on the exposure but together with this early morning light and dark surroundings I thought it really added something to the final result.
Divers always have a habit of wing stretching and it is never long before the do this practice. You get no warning though so have to be quick.
Sometimes the Diver would come really close to the edge of the lake where reeds were growing which gave a different perspective.
I have done some great trips over the years to Finland but I would struggle to say they were as productive as this. I really enjoyed photographing the Black Throated Divers again and it was a great to witness the nesting Hawk Owls and Osprey's. I thought it would be difficult to run as trip because if the weather is good you won't get any sleep, it is also a long walk to the tower hide for the Osprey's and you are constantly attacked by thousands of biting mosquitos and on your return you look like quasimodo. But if that lot doesn't bother you and you want some proper photography then drop me an email.
Japanese Winter 2014
We headed out to the ice each day and I have to say it was such a great experience. We went out with a local fisherman and he would throw out fish for these impressive birds. It wasn't just Stella's as there was big numbers of White-tailed Eagles too. The birds would fight over the fish giving you lots of opportunities for action shots. We had not planned to go back to Japan but whilst I was there I talked Mark into organising another trip as I loved it so much. The photography is so productive as the subjects are so confiding. Throw in those special winter conditions I just couldn't resist another trip. I still have a few places left for next year so if these images whet your apetite then drop me an email or give me a call.
24th December 2013
Favourite Images from 2013......
It has been a really busy year and I have travelled to many wonderful places in search of some beautiful species and so I thought I would finish the blog off with a selection of my favourite ten images that I have taken this year. The first image is of a Male Bengal Tiger that I took in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. I was there in February and this image is from a very special encounter. It had been pretty slow up until this point with only a couple of sightings. On the afternoon we saw this dominant male we were able to spend over two hours with him, following him as he was patrolling his territory. This Tiger is called Shashi and he has been the dominant male around the Chakradhara Meadows for a number of years, inheriting it from his legendry father B2. I got many images from this encounter but this image stood out because I love the pose of him and also the setting he was walking through.
Aurora Borealis which was taken in northern Finland during March. My main aim whilst I was in Finland was to photograph Wolverine but I got a couple of opportunities to capture this natural phenomenon during my visit. Seeing the northern lights is an amazing experience and I have been lucky to witness it on many occasions. To photograph this spectacle is tricky and so booking a trip well in advance is taking a risk. If your burning ambition is to so and you have the flexibility to go at short notice then this really is your best chance. There are a couple of websites that can predict Aurora forecasts in advance and if a high one is predicted then your best bet is to fly to the northern town of Ivalo in Finland. Photographing the Aurora is not too difficult and over the years I have usually worked on an exposure of around 15 seconds. You need a relatively fast shutter speed and any more than 15 seconds you will start to see star trails which you don't want. I always go for foreground interest as well to give scale to the overall image. For this image I decided to go for a different approach and used the Canon 14mm lens which gave a great perspective when looking up through the trees. I call the shot "The Boreal Forest".
Canon 1Dx, 14mm F/2.8L II, F4, 15 second exposure, ISO 800
I took this image of two White-tailed Eagles fighting in Poland during February. My friend Sylwia Domaradzka had told me about a very special place in her native Poland which was great for photographing this majestic raptor. Marcin Nawrocki has been feeding the eagles during the winter months for many years and he has managed to attract many different birds. During that first morning in the hide I didn't know what to expect. As the light started to improve I could see that there was good numbers of the eagles gathering, waiting to come in and feed on the bits of meat Marcin had placed out. I noticed that most of the birds were juveniles which meant there was going to be a lot of action with the birds squabbling and fighting over the food. The action was frenetic and was really difficult to capture and I had more failures than success's. Now and then though I managed to capture the action. In a situation like this I find it much easier to just select one focal point on the auto focus and just have it in the middle because I find it the most responsive.
Canon 1Dx, 500mm F4 IS II Lens, 1/1600, F4, ISO 1000
In September I went to Lake Clark National Park, Alaska to try and capture images of the Coastal Brown Bears. I timed my visit in early September to coincide with the annual Salmon Run which the Bears have been waiting for too. It was my first visit to Alaska and I was so impressed it won't be my last. The Bears congregate around the estuaries and creeks along certain spots around the coast waiting for the Salmon to start to run. When it is at its peak the action is non-stop and so they gorge themselves on this bounty which is so important for them to build up there fat reserves ready for the winter months ahead. I am always looking for great light and on this evening it certainly was. This female Bear had just turned up to start to fish and was charging around looking for a Salmon. She then paused briefly and stood up for a better look. I really like the water rushing from her paws. About 30 seconds after this image was taken the light had gone.
Canon 1Dx, 500mm F4 IS II Lens, 1/2500, F4, ISO 400
During the latter part of September I went to Yellowstone National Park. I have visited Yellowstone before but both trips were during the winter months. So I wanted to go during the autumn and my main target was to photograph the annual Elk rut. I have spent many years photographing Red Deer in the UK which is closely related to their American cousins and so I wanted to experience this wonderful event. I was mainly concentrating along the Madison river which supports a healthy population. The females would come down to the meadows during the evening and feed during the night. The large bulls just follow them. During the early mornings the mist formed along the river and so I was really hoping to capture the Elk in this ethereal landscape. On the morning I took this image the conditions were perfect and this young Bull crossed the river just at the right place and time. Yellowstone is a cracking place for the wildlife photographer.
Canon 1Dx, 500mm F4 IS II Lens, 1.4x Convertor, F9, 1/1000, ISO 400
I have been working on Puffins for a number of years now and I have been to most of the colonies in northern Europe. One of my favourite places for Puffins though is on Skomer as when the light is good it can produce some great images. I have photographed Puffins in every way imaginable over the years. One image that had eluded me though was of a very subtle part of their courtship behaviour. Prior to mating the male vibrates his wings rapidly whilst standing close to the female. She sometimes responds but mainly this behaviour occurs out at sea. I was in the right place right time to get this image. I really like the light filtering through the males wings.
Canon 1Dx, 500mm IS II Lens, 1.4x Convertor, 1/200, F5.6, ISO 400
I have photographed Wolverines before during the summer months but I really wanted to capture them in the winter. I think they look cracking in their thick winter coat and of course anything in the snow looks good. The Wolverine is one of the rarest and most elusive mammals in northern Europe and even in a remote country like Finland, where this image was taken, there is only around 150 animals. I had to spend a lot of time in the hide waiting for one to turn up to the food that attracted them and although my sightings were few and very brief I did manage to get a couple of images. The exposure was tricky because of a dark animal and against the white backdrop of snow. In a situation like this I over-expose for the main subject and just let the white snow blow out a little. I usually start of at around +2 stops over and then take it from there.
Canon 1Dx, 500mm IS II Lens, 1/400, F4, ISO 400
This image was taken on my local patch which is Bradgate Park in Leicestershire. I have been photographing the Red Deer in Bradgate for over 20 years and I still really look forward to the start of the Rut in early October. I have so many images of Red Deer you would have thought it would be difficult to improve on but you just never though with wildlife photography. This image was taken early in the morning during the early part of the rut. As soon as I looked through my viewfinder I knew it would be a good opportunity. What I really liked was the sepia tone to the image and also the natural curve of the mist clinging to the vegetation. I decided to place the Stag small in the frame which was better for conveying the scene. It is one of my favourite Deer shots from the Park.
Canon 1Dx, 500mm IS II Lens, 1/100, F4, ISO 1000
I was working with a family of Pine Martens during the summer months which is for a big project which is going to take me a few years to complete. Pine Martens are one of the most beautiful mammals found in the UK. They are also very elusive and can be difficult to photograph. I spent about 5 weeks with this female and her kits. It was one of the best projects I have done for a long time and I managed to get a few decent images. I am certainly hoping to cover all aspects of their behaviour though.
Canon 1Dx, 300mm IS II Lens, 1/2000, F4, ISO 400
This last image of an Arctic Fox was taken in Churchill, Canada in November. I love Arctic Foxes and during the winter I think they are one of the most beautiful animals on the planet. This is not just my favourite image from the year but is one of my all time favourites. Photography is subjective and people might question images like this but for I love clean graphic images and you can't get much cleaner than this. The subject for me has a strong emotion too as it is a subject I have always wanted to do. Cracking animal.
Canon 1Dx, 500mm IS II Lens, 1.4x Convertor, 1/500, F5.6, ISO 800
So there you go just a small selection of my personal favourites. I would like to thank everyone that has supported me this year either coming on trips or workshops, buying my images or helping out with logistic support. I really do appreciate the support and with out it I could never do or see what I do.
Have a great Christmas and Happy New Year
Winter in Churchill .........
During November I spent some time in the small town of Churchill which is situated along the western shore of the Hudson Bay in Canada. Churchill is famous for the high concentration of Polar Bears that head to the area each autumn. The reason they head to Churchill is because it is the first place along the shore of the Hudson Bay that freezes over. The Bears have spent all summer waiting for this winter freeze so they can head out onto the ice to hunt their favourite prey, Ringed Seals. It is a location I have been aware off from when I first started out and it has took me a long time to finally visit. My main target was the Polar Bears, which I have photographed before in Svalbard but Churchill is different and gives you much more scope. I had planned this trip nearly three years ago and I was so excited to be finally here.
I first spoke about this trip in 2010 with a friend called Gary Kramer. I was is Varanger in northern Norway and we were both there photographing King Eider and clearly both had a passion for the far north. Gary had mentioned Churchill and my ears pricked up as it was a place I had always wanted to go to. I was all ears when he said it was possible to rent our own tundra buggy for a small group of people and also rent 4x4 vehicles in Churchill so you could extend your stay and look for other subjects. So we kept in touch and planned a trip. Fast forward three years and finally we were here. What excited me about this trip was the flexibility of having the two forms of transport which would hopefully produce many opportunities. It didn't disappoint in that respect.
So together with Gary and Natures Images we put a trip together and then had the task of selling the places. Travelling to the Canadian arctic is expensive and so it was going to be difficult to do a recce trip. So I would really like to thank the guys that came with me on this trip and for having the faith and trusting me that the combination would work, without you guys I wouldn't be writing this. Our first night was spent in the town of Winnipeg which we didn't get to see after a long flight from London which arrived at night. The following morning it was an early flight to Churchill and so the trip could seriously begin. I hate long flights but have to do it; thankfully the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill is not too bad.
For the first couple of days we had hired the 4x4 vehicles so we could explore the tundra around the town. On that first day we never really saw anything and didn't take any pictures so I did question whether this was a good move. I didn't need to worry though because the following morning we came across an extremely tame Red Fox just on the outskirts of town. He was in beautiful condition sporting his superb winter coat. We spotted him walking in a purposeful manner and then he stopped to settle down for a rest. Our group then all got out of the vehicles and slowly we edged our way towards his resting place. He seemed very relaxed in our presence but just kept one eye on us for most of the time.
After an hour or so he casually got up which offered us some different perspectives. It is always good to get something in the bag early in a trip and our little encounter with this beautiful Fox certainly gave us that. It also justified the hiring of the 4x4's. That afternoon we also came across a female Polar Bear and her young cub. It wasn't a great setting for photography and the light was poor but none the less it was certainly nice to see our first bear. The following day we did our first day on the tundra buggy.
We had booked the Tundra Buggy trip through Frontiers North. I have used many companies over the years but I have to say these guys were really good. The organisation was spot on and the drivers of the buggies were great, very friendly and helpful. The Tundra Buggy is a very special vehicle and basically it can go over most terrains. It is a unique way of seeing the wildlife of the Arctic Tundra especially Polar Bears. Now seeing Polar Bears around the Churchill area is usually guaranteed before the Ice starts to form on the Hudson Bay. The pattern of the ice forming over the last few years has been much later and has been around early December. Not so this year as a major storm on the 10th November, followed by some really cold temperatures saw the bay freeze much earlier. This was great news for the Bears because every day counts and they need all the help they can get. What it meant for us though was low numbers of bears. So that first day out on the buggy was nerve wracking for me. What am I going to do if we don't see one?
Again I needn't had worried because we came across a lovely scene with a mother and her young cub. We got to spend most of the day with her and were rewarded by the cub’s antics throughout. Usually the Tundra Buggies take up to forty people but our group of twelve had the vehicle to ourselves, so lots of room but also we could dictate how long we stayed with our subject. This was really important to us and no doubt helped in our encounter with this female. It meant long periods just waiting whilst they were sleeping but once they woke up they certainly put on a show. I loved watching him play with this willow branch.
So our first day on the tundra in the buggy was a great success and in total we had four days. The next couple of days were hard going and we had to cover some big distances to find bears. The hard work was worth it though as we had some great encounters with some very impressive males. Because the bay had frozen over the setting was perfect and we managed to find a couple of males patrolling this fresh ice cover.
Some bears came really close to the buggy which was an amazing experience and for some members of our group quite emotional too.
On our last day on the tundra buggy we had a difficult day with very poor weather conditions and no bear sightings. We did manage to find some Willow Grouse and then came across this beautiful Arctic Fox resting during the blizzard. This was a real highlight of the trip for me as I have always wanted to photograph Arctic Foxes in their winter coat.
I have only photographed wild Arctic Foxes during the summer months and to do so during the winter whilst sporting their winter coats has been at the top of my list. On our days in the Tundra Buggies we saw quite a few foxes and it was clearly going to be a very good opportunity to get images of them. It had been a Lemming year around Churchill during the summer and so the local Arctic Foxes had a very successful breeding season, taking advantage of this overabundance of this little rodent.
Our last two days on the trip were going to be making use of the 4x4 vehicles again and so we really concentrated our efforts on photographing this beautiful mammal. The weather conditions had improved dramatically too and so cold, clear and crisp days were a huge blessing.
Some of the light we got to work in was sublime and it is a photographers dream to get to work in this lovely pastel pink light, especially with such a beautiful subject.
I have done some amazing subjects over the years but this really has been one of the highlights for me. It is such a beautiful animal and to work in this beautiful arctic light is a dream. It was cold at minus -35 and that caused problems with camera equipment and of course the danger of frostbite which one or two of the group were very lucky to get away with.
After a few successful sesions with the Foxes we then headed out of town in search of one last sighting of Polar Bear. We got lucky and came across this large male. It was amazing to get a low angle to shoot from and these final images are certainly different from our images from the Tundra Buggy.
So there you go I was hoping to show a few images from this beautiful place but ended up showing more so sorry if you have got bored. It is such an amazing place and experience and one that I would love to do again. I remember speaking about Churchill to a famous photographer called Norbert Rosing and he once told me that when you get the Churchill bug you will go back thats for sure. Well I am planning on going back and I am starting to organise a trip in November 2015. If you would like to put your name down for this experience then please email or call me for more information. I will finish off with a couple of my favourite bear shots from the trip.
Also check out Ben Pages blog from the trip www.benpage.co.uk
25th October 2013
Red Deer Rut ........
Well it's been that time of the year again with the annual Red and Fallow Deer Rut. My local patch is Bradgate Park in Leicestershire and I have been photographing this spectacular event for 23 years now and I have to say I am not bored with it one bit, well maybe I have a slight moan at the beginning of October but I soon get over it. The Red Deer rut is what really gets me going though and it is such a thrill to photograph this beautiful animal. This year's Rut has been testing at times what with the nature of it and the bloody awful weather. In the end though I have been pleased with some of my images.
When I first went up in early October I knew it was going to be a tough one because there has been a bumper acorn crop this year. This happened five years ago and so the pattern of the female Red Deer was exactly the same. They love acorns and so don't need to come out of the sanctuary to feed in the hills or meadows. This makes certain images difficult to capture and certain times of the day can be very slow. Still images can be had but you just have to work that little bit harder and walk that little bit farther. As the females were concentrated in this small part of the park there have only really been two dominant stags and they have kept the females to themselves. Other Stags have tried to muscle in but they have just not been strong or aggresive enough.
After photographing Red Deer for that long you would have thought that I had covered most aspects but I still manage to improve images from year to year. Early in October I had some great conditions to work in one morning. A large Stag was in front of the ruins and a small band of mist was clinging to the meadow. The sun was not quite up but the colours were fantastic and I managed to capture one of my favourite images. Maybe even one of my best from the park.
When you mainly work with a large lens the temptation is to fill the frame with your subject but I think the best images always include some of the habitat. The subtle browns and overall sepia tone make this image and of course the Stag roaring was the icing on the cake. I eventually got closer to him on this morning and captured a number of images.
That morning was by far the best and those kinds of conditions never repeated themselves. To be honest I haven't had many conditions like this over the years anyway as it is so rare. I have had some good opportunities for getting close up shots of the Stags in the bracken too this year and I am really pleased with some of these as well.
The weather has been pretty poor for large chunks of my time in Bradgate but on the odd occasion I have had some really beautiful light to work in to.
The Red Deer Rut started earlier this year but the Fallow Rut has been somewhat later and has only just kicked in over this past week. There is some cracking Bucks this year and the activity has been great in the mornings near the ruins.
Usually the activity is pretty good up in the hills during the day but this year it has been very quiet. I have still gone up though because you can find some of the younger Stags up here trying to stay away from the big boys. I liked these couple of shots from this sequence.
So there you go just a small selection of images from this year's rut. I have been up there for most of October and on all of the days I have had people with me as I was running workshops. I would like to thank you all for coming and you were great company during the long days in the park. Some of you got really lucky with the right conditions and for others it was a challenge but I hope you enjoyed the experience. These days fill up fast and I am hoping to run them again next year so keep an eye on the website for the dates. I will leave you with an image of this year's top dog, he must be spent by now but he has really been impressive.
30th September 2013
Yellowstone Fall ..........
After my Alaskan adventure I then went down to Yellowstone National Park with my friend Kev Bedford to experience the fall colours but also to try and capture the dramatic annual Elk rut. I have been to Yellowstone before but my visits have always been during the winter months. It is a fantastic location for photography during the winter but I wanted to increase my portfolio of this location at other times of the year. My main target during this trip was the Elk rut. I have been photographing the Red Deer rut for many years here in the UK and I was keen to witness the American equivalent as the two species are so similar.
My time was short in Yellowstone as I only had 6 days to try and capture images of this iconic species. I based myself in the town of West Yellowstone which was perfect for exploring the Madison River. The Madison River attracts small numbers of female Elk during the Autumn as they feed in the meadows during the night and early morning. The Madison is also the perfect location for encountering the Elk because it really is a stunning location. Like most river courses in Yellowstone the river is heated by the geothermal activity and if the conditions are right at dawn the mist just hangs over the river, producing an ethereal backdrop.
These conditions was what attracted me to the Madison river basin and on our first morning we got lucky. A small herd of female Elk was feeding in a meadow and was being shadowed by a large Bull Elk. They were the wrong side of the river so it was difficult to get into a position to shoot towards the rising sun. Then a young pretender walked out of the forest and headed straight towards the herd. The sun was just rising over the horizon and bathed the whole scene in the glorious red light of dawn. It only lasted a couple of minutes but the timing was absolutely spot on and I managed to grab the images that I had in my mind. I thought then it was going to be easy but the following five days never produced the same opportunity. What a start though.
After a couple of minutes the intense colour was over and so I switched to the more conventional images. The large Bull had by now noticed the young pretender and had risen to challenge. Bulls have a loud vocalization consisting of screams known as bugling, which can be heard for miles. This call is one of the most evocative sounds to be heard in Yellowstone. The Bull came over to warn this young male and so gave me opportunity to capture this behaviour. He was really impressive and much bigger than the Red Deer Stags that I encounter at home.
After a couple of hours the females would then head into the forest and of course the male would follow. They would then return in the afternoon and so the show would start all over again. Over the next few days I followed the same pattern. I was desperate for the misty conditions again but alas it never materialised.
Once the Elk started to wander off into the forest I then headed out into Yellowstone to look for other subjects to photograph. Driving along the Madison river we encountered Osprey's and the iconic Bald Eagles which perch in the trees looking out for a fish along the river.
I was really hoping to encounter Pronghorn too on this trip. The Pronghorn are mainly found in the Lamar or Hayden Valleys which meant a long drive from West Yellowstone. Pronghorn are exceptionally fast, it is often cited as the second-fastest land animal, second only to the cheetah. It can, however, sustain high speeds longer than cheetahs over a greater distance. I had photographed this species before during one of my winter trips but that encounter was brief so I was hoping to spend more time doing so on this one. These next few shots were taken in the Lamar valley. We had been driving for most of the day and never even spotted one. We started to question whether they were here when we spotted a male by the side of the road. At first he wandered off keeping a safe distance. I got low to the ground to get a better angle and this kind of intrigued him because I must have just disappeared. He just kept coming back for a closer look which was great for getting a series of intimate portraits.
My next destination was to head down to Grand Teton National Park. I am running a trip here next year which incorporates the two parks and I wanted to check out some of the locations. Grand Tetons is a landscape photographers haven and so we headed to some of the more classic locations to try and capture the beauty of the place. Now I have never confessed to being any good at landscapes but I tried my best and hopefully you get a feel for the place.
This first location is Oxbow Bend and it was good to incorporate the moon into the image. I also preferred the shots before the sun actually bathed the scene. The second shot is of the Morman Barns in the south of the park, again another classic location.
Tetons is famous for the Autumn colours but like everywhere else everything is slightly late this year, so we were just a tad early for capturing the glorious colours. I was also mainly looking for Moose and like the Elk it is their rutting season. It was much harder to find Moose than Elk but during my five days here I did get one or two encounters. We came across an area which was popular with a couple of females so we staked it out for most of the time whilst here. This is probably the best way in finding the ultimate target, a large male.
After the first three days are only sighting was of females so I was getting anxious of seeing a male. This animal is so impressive and I have wanted to photograph a large bull for many years. Eventually our strategy of staking a certain area paid of as we finally got the sighting we were after.
It was an amazing experience seeing one of these impressive males. Although the pictures are not great it was still a nice feeling to capture them. From photographing the largest animal to one of the smallest in the park as there was opportunities for seeing other species. Chipmunk's were great fun and I also managed a few images of the elusive Beavers. This animal is very easier to spot the signs but it only usually comes out at dusk.
We also had a bit of luck as someone mentioned an opportunity of seeing Grizzlies. A dead moose was close to an off road track and had attracted the attention of three young Grizzly Bears. These were siblings that had been abandoned by their mother and were still hanging around each other. It was good to see a Grizzly here as it is quite a rare sighting.
So after my short duration in the Grand Tetons it was then a case of heading back up to the Madison River in West Yellowstone. I was hoping for another early misty morning like the first one I encountered and on my last morning before flying out I got lucky. This time a large Bull Elk was in the distance and it nice to incorporate him in the context of his environment.
So there you go just a small selection of my stint in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks during the Autumn. I was a little bit early for the colours but the Elk proved to be very productive, especially along the Madison. It is not any easy place to work and is very different from the winter. There are more people around thats for sure and at some places it was borderline silly but it is such a big place you can find your own spot. It was a trip that has been on my mind for a long time and I am looking forward to going back next year. Hopefully it will be a normal year and I get to witness the colours. I am now just gearing up for the annual Red Deer Rut at my local place and I am looking forward to spending the whole of October at home, I am not sure Liz is though. Anyway I will leave you with my favourite image of the large Bull Elk.
24th September 2013
Alaskan Grizzlies ..........
During the first part of September I was in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. I was leading a trip for Natures Images to this stunning location to see if we could photograph the coastal Grizzlies that descend here each Autumn. We had timed our visit to coincide with the annual Silver Salmon migration back to their spawning grounds of Lake Clark. The Grizzlies have been waiting for this migration too. Alaska is a destination that is on most photographers list and it was no different for me. I was inspired by the images Andy Rouse had took here a few years ago and so just had to go. I have read so much about this northern US state and it was a trip that I planned nearly three years ago and so to be finally here was very exciting. My first stop was a night in Anchorage and the following day we headed to the local airport to catch our small bush plane to Lake Clark.
Flying over this vast wilderness with its countless lakes and never ending forests, you soon realise that Alaska is exactly that, a wilderness. Our flight was only short and before long we were heading to a long stretch of beach to land. Our base was the aptly named Silver Salmon Creek. After a warm welcome we were more or less heading out for an afternoon session with the Coastal Grizzlies. Our timing was good as the Salmon were late heading up the estuaries and creeks this year but the Salmon were starting to run. This delay in the run meant there wasn't too many Bears around as they had moved on to find other areas to feed.
It was not too much of a problem because one female Bear called Crimp Ear turned out to be a star for us and she gave us many opportunities to get some images. She was hunting at the beginning of a creek near to the lodge and the first few days we concentrated our efforts on her. The tides are the key as the Salmon only really run on an incoming tide and so the Bears only really show up during this critical period. It meant a lot of waiting around for the group but the lodge is a good place to wait. We had mixed weather during our stay too with strong winds and heavy constant rain but we also had our fair share of good days too.
I really liked the location the Crimp Ear was fishing because I could get some really nice backgrounds which was the forest along the edge of the beach. One particular session was really rewarding and some of the images are my favourite from the trip. She was hunting in her usual spot but the Salmon were not running. So she crossed the creek and headed over to where we were standing. She looked like she was heading back to the forest to rest for the day but then back tracked and headed straight towards our group. I got as low as I could get to grab these intimate portraits as she walked straight towards me and down the barrel of the lens. It's an exciting moment to say the least when Grizzly walks towards you.
She came so close I was able to grab a couple of tight head shots. She really had a beautiful look to her. It is a bit hairy being this close to a Grizzly as they can be unpredictable but she was very placid with us as she has been used to people all her life. We were in good hands though as our guides Dave and Brian were top notch and really knew their stuff.
In the afternoon we headed further up the beach to another favourite spot as some more bears had been spotted the previous day. We never found the bears hunting along the beach so instead Dave and Brian took us up a small creek that was running through the forest. There was a lot of Salmon in this creek so we were sure to find bears. After a short hike we found a large male that was hunting the Salmon but he had been here a while and was already full. He had settled down on the bank and so we got ourselves into position, ready for him to start hunting again. It was a good hour and we thought that he was going to be here for long time just resting. Then a young female came out of the forest and without warning plunged straight into the creek. Amazing how such a big animal can just appear from no where.
It was great to capture the sequence of a fishing bear and I thought it couldn't get any better but it did. As the sun got lower in the sky, it started to filter between the trees and was casting long shadows in the creek. I under-exposed these next couple of shots to try and produce something a little different, not everyones cup of tea but I quite liked these results.
The sun was still bathing the coast with glorious light so as we headed back to the lodge we stopped off en-route at Crimp Ears favourite spot. At first there was no sign of her but then she appeared and we just managed to get a couple of images of her before the sun disappeared. She looked even more beautiful in this quality of light.
She missed on her first couple of fishing attempts and then stood up to get a better look.
A day as good as that would take some beating and the next couple of days were ruined with heavy rain. This trip has to be undertaken by people with certain frame of mind as there is the potential for a lot of down time. Our group coped well though. We managed some more sessions even in the gloom. One of my favourite shots which is of Crimp Ear sleeping, was taken during the overcast conditions. It is such a nice feeling to be this close to bear that is so relaxed.
There was a young female hanging around the lodge too and every now and then she popped up offering some picture opportunities. She was very thin as she had not mastered the hunting technique of catching fish. Hopefully she will make the winter.
Towards the end of our stay the weather started to improve and we headed back up the coast to see if the bears where fishing the creek again. A female and her two young cubs had been spotted and so we were hoping to get lucky and come across them. Our first encounter was a lone female that was hunting the along the beach. It was good light and so really gave us the best chance of capturing hunting images.
Then our own favourite female Crimp Ear turned up which gave us an indication of just how far these Bears can travel. She then started to hunt the channel in the estuary.
Then another female turned up and so we now had three bears hunting this small stretch of beach. An amazing encounter and experience and to top it off, in good light too. Wildlife photography is a lot about luck and we certainly had it on this day with every ingredient coming together.
Then the female with the two cubs came out of the forest and started to head towards the beach. At first she was nervous but then sensed there was no danger from the other females and came closer with her cubs. Amazingly she left her cubs near to where we were positioned as she felt they were safer with us. These sort of encounters are hard to put into words but you do feel very humble and privileged. The cubs then sat down and watched their mother fish. After a short while they got bored and started to play. You can imagine the amount of images that were taken and the smiling faces.
So there you go, just a small selection from my first experience with Alaska and her famous coastal Bears. It was a fantastic experience and I loved every second. I would like to thank all the guests that joined me on this trip and I would also like to thank Pete Cairns and Terry Slater for guiding me in the right direction on the best place to go. Thanks guys you were spot on. I have booked to go back next September and that trip is already full. If you would like to share this experience with me though I have already started planning for 2015 and so if you would be interested then please drop me an email. After Alaska I then went straight down to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. My main target was to capture the annual rut of the Elk. I was also hoping to capture the fantastic Autumn colours. I will post another blog in the next few days so please drop by.
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