29th May 2013
Down on the Farm ............
Over the past couple of weeks I have been on the farm in Worcestershire photographing Kingfishers at our diving set-up. It has been a long stint with some rewards and good company but I have also been dropping by to visit our other hides on the farm. We have been feeding our Little Owls now for over two years and during that time they have rewarded us with some great photo opportunities. There is something really special about photographing wild Little Owls and when one lands it is really exciting. I have photographed them many times over the years but I still get a real buzz when one drops down. I have had mixed success in this hide and although I was really pleased with my winter shots, I wanted to get some more stuff on them during the spring.
I had a couple of good sessions in the hide and photographed them on many different perches from old fence posts to moss covered stone walls. The light was mixed on my first attempts with bright overcast light but what I really wanted was the late evening light that can be found at our site. Last weekend the weather was beautiful and after the kingfisher session I jumped into the hide. The light was perfect but the Owls were not around at first but after an hour the male started to drop down. He has been really busy feeding his growing chicks and when he gets into his feeding mode he constantly drops down to grab some food.
The female started to join him too and so I was getting two Owls down at once. This has been a shot I have wanted to get for years. They were teasing me at first with one landing and then flying off before the other came in. Then just as the sun was setting the pair settled and I got the chance to photograph them together. I have always said that light is the key and you can't get any better light than this.
The young are growing quickly and we are expecting them to be flying around the nesting tree by mid-June. Last year the youngsters started coming to the feeding site themselves and so hopefully it will be same pattern this summer too. These bundles of fluff are a real joy to photograph but I will miss it again as I will be away. If you are interested in capturing the young chicks we have spaces throughout June so just drop me an email or follow us on Facebook as we update the page on a regular basis.
I also made the effort to spend some time in our new Kestrel hide too. I have been before and got some great stuff of the adult female which was in March. At that time the background was the ploughed field which was really complimentary to her. Now we are into late spring the crop has started to grow and so the background has completely changed. This vibrant green produces something different now. Both the female and male are now visiting the feeding site and on some occasions we can get up to ten visits a day. It really is a great experience to see this majestic raptor at such close quarters.
I have had the pleasure in working with Mark Hancox for years now and he is really persistent and patient in attracting subjects. His fieldcraft skills are amazing and in my opinion a dying art. He also has a good eye for a perch and so when he told me he had found some special perches I know they would be good. We pride ourselves on changing our set-ups around so people can come away with different images.
I am travelling a lot again this summer to some wonderful places but I will miss being down on the farm. Next year I am making more of an effort to be in the UK especially during the spring and summer months. Fingers crossed we keep these two beautiful birds coming because I am already looking forward to spending some more time trying to capture images of them. We still have spaces during June for both Kestrel and Little Owl hides and the activity will be excellent over the coming weeks so please check availabilty on our site www.naturephotographyhides.co.uk.
19th May 2013
Glorious Gannets ........
There are some amazing wildlife encounters to be found in the UK but spending time at a Gannet Colony is one of the best experiences in the Natural world. The UK can boast of supporting some of the world's largest colonies. Some of these colonies are remote and the logistics involved in getting to them are very difficult. Over the years I have visited most of them but one small colony has always stood out for me. Great Saltee supports a small population of this majestic bird but what it lacks in numbers makes up for its accessibility. I first went to Saltee a few years ago where I camped on the island but I loved the place so much I have been back many times since.
The great thing about the colony on Saltee is the quality of the light in the evening as the setting sun can bath the colony in glorious light. I have been unfortunate on many of my visits in the past but on this trip I finally got lucky as the weather was superb for the three days that I was there. I think the best time to visit any seabird colony is earlier in the season as there is so much activity going on. As the birds start to return they perform their elegant courtship ritual. The pair dances together rubbing their huge bills from side to side, as if they are fencing. It is a spectacular display to capture.
The pair also rubber stamp the bond between them by preening each other. Again this behaviour is so elegant and makes a lovely image.
During this early part of the season the Gannets also seem to be constantly flying in with nesting material. They can use anything to build their nest from vegetation to bits of old fishing line, which can and does cause problems once the chicks hatch.
They make great subjects for portraits and some looks can be very comical.
The other great thing about the Gannet colony on Saltee is the opportunity for photographing them in flight. You need two things in your favour and that is the light but also the wind direction. On my previous visits I have either had the light but the wrong direction of the wind or vice-versa. This year I was so lucky to have all the right ingredients and so the opportunity for flight shots was superb. I used my 1DX and 300mm F2.8 combination and the hit rate was amazing. As I was looking through my images I was so impressed with the amount of images which were sharp. The wind was quite strong too and as the birds came back they would just hover in the wind before crashing into land. Some of the poses the Gannets make with their wings are great and so you can get many different looking images.
Saltee really is a fantastic place for photographing this stunning Seabird and I would never get bored in spending time on this island. Natures Images has ran trips to this island which also combines the Island of Skomer, which is one of the best in the UK for seeing that other iconic British seabird the Puffin. We still have a few places for next year's trip which you can find by following this link which takes you to the Seabird Spectacular page. If you have never photographed at a Seabird colony before then this really is a great trip. Be warned though once you have caught the seabird bug there is no going back.
12th April 2013
Finnish Winter ........
Finland is a magical country and the landscape and wildlife is fantastic. I have visited many times over the years and it really is my favourite country to visit. Finland is dominated by the taiga forest and during the winter these forests offer so much to the photographer. My winter trip to Finland is now an annual pilgrimage and with so many new subjects to look for and also trying to improve on the species I have already covered. This year my first stop was the wonderful feeding station near Karmanan. In the past I have photographed three classic northern Finland species at this site in the shape of Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay. Arctic Redpolls also visit but usually in small numbers and I was never satisfied with the images of them. This winter though there was so many birds and so finally I managed some decent shots.
It always amazes me how these small birds survive the harsh winter conditions. I also managed images of Pine Grosbeak which really is a beautiful bird. This is probably the best place in Finland for seeing this species.
I could spend weeks at this location but there is so much to see and do as you are restricted for time. I then headed further north to Norway to the Varanger Peninsula. I headed to the northern fjord of Batsfjord which is excellent for Arctic Sea Duck during the winter months. These Ducks migrate from Siberia during the autumn to escape the big freeze and head to these sheltered northern fjords of Norway which stay ice free. Huge numbers arrive and many different species too. One of the most spectacular though is the King Eider and the male really is a handsome duck.
I went out into the fjord in a small rib which is a great way at getting closer to the Ducks. It is not easy getting flight shots of them as they take off from the surface especially as boat is bobbing around in the swell. The birds also come into the harbour of Batsfjord for shelter and also to feed. You can get really close to birds and so the portrait opportunities are superb. I was really lucky to get falling snow which added a different dimension to the final images.
I am always asked where is the best location for seeing the Aurora Borealis and my answer is northern Finland. During the winter the nights always seem free from cloud cover which is your biggest obstacle in witnessing this natural event. I have witnessed them many times now and it really is one of the greatest spectacles in the natural world. I got lucky again and had some really good opportunities.
The second part of my trip saw me head to Oulanka National Park which is in Kussumo. Again I have been here before but wanted to try and improve my previous images. This whole region is wonderful and again one visit is simply not enough. I went back to a small river which acts as like a magnet for Dippers during the winter as most of the rivers freeze over. This one doesn't and so many Dippers can be found along this small stretch.
I also went back to a feeding station which is excellent for Siberian Jays. The birds are so tame here and it was great to photograph these again. Willow Tits are also a common vister to these feeding site.
Because of my love of Finland and its wildlife I have always been a great admirer of the Finnish photographers. In my opinion they are producing some of the most evocative and original images. One of the most respected nature photographers in Finland is Hannu Hautula and I was very fortunate this year to get the opportunity to visit his private winter feeding site. This location is just so beautiful and it was a real privilege for me to get this chance thanks to my good friend Lassi Rautanien. I have wanted to photograph Black Woodpecker for many years and this is one of the best locations.
What surprised me is the size of this bird and it was so exciting when one decided to pay a visit. It is such a stunning bird and so add that to this location I couldn't really fail. It is also really good for Great Spotted Woodpeckers too.
So for my final part of this trip I headed even further south near the town of Lieksa to try and photograph Wolverines. This is the same place as I go to in the summer but I have wanted to capture them in the winter for many years. Wolverines look their best in their winter coat. It is huge risk trying in the winter because the nights are still long and they mainly come to the feeding site at night but with a bit of luck you can get the chance of one stopping by during the day.
We had that bit of luck because during my time in the hides a female was coming that little bit earlier. During late March she has already given birth and so I guess she was taking advantage of the food and trying to get it before the others that visit the site do. In all I spent 40 hours in the hide for only 30 minutes of photography but it was worth the effort. I love photographing these predators of these northern forests and these are some of my favourite images. I am running a new trip next March so if you are inspired by this beautiful creature and would like to spend 40 hours for the off chance that one might show for only a few minutes then please get in touch. I promise you won't forget it as it is one of the most beautiful mammals on the planet.
27th March 2013
Polish Raptors ..........
At the end of February I went to Poland to photograph White-tailed Eagles from a special hide which over looked a feeding station which was attracting these spectacular birds during the winter months. My friend Sylwia Domaradzka who is Polish but resides in the UK had been telling me about her friend Marcin Nawrocki that had set-up a feeding station which was attracting good numbers. Sylwia had already been during the autumn and her images really impressed me so we organised a trip to hopefully coincide with winter conditions. There are already some excellent sites around Europe for obtaining images of this impressive raptor but what is so special about this location is the sheer numbers of birds, which translates to fighting Eagles.
This was my first visit to Poland and it is a really easy country to travel to and get around. Usually it takes a full day of travelling to get to your final destination but we were at our base by mid-afternoon and preparing for our first session in the hide the following morning. The following morning Marcin picked us up early so we could be in the hide whilst it was still dark, that way we wouldn't disturb the birds. The hide overlooks a frozen marsh and is a huge wide open vista with good all round vision. As the light started to lift I could make out the shape of no less than twenty Eagles that were waiting on the marsh to come into to feed.
The Eagles would wait for the first Ravens and Crows to come in before they plucked up the courage to drop in themselves. As soon as one bird came in though, they all seemed to drop in together. The action was none stop for the first few hours and so lots of aggression was occurring as when one bird was feeding another would fly in to force it off the bait.
It wasn't easy to capture this behaviour because it happens so fast and in a blur of wings and snow it is difficult to judge the precise moment. I had a lot of images with clipped wings that's for sure but the action was so frenetic that I did get a lot of opportunities to capture it. I used the 1DX for all these shots as by using a high ISO rating of 1600 gave me the shutter speeds that I needed. I have now had the 1DX for nearly a year but I haven't really put it to the test for action shots and so I was really impressed and pleased with how the auto focus locked on. When it didn't it was down to my error.
After the initial bout of activity the eagles drift away and so then I could concentrate on getting images of the other birds. Ravens are great fun to photograph and I was also lucky in getting a few buzzards down to the bait too. The Buzzards are very reluctant to come down whilst the eagles are around and so Marcin is planning on building another hide just to attract these. I was really pleased with some of these images and witnessing the behaviour between the Buzzards and Ravens was fantastic.
Later on in the day the eagles start to gather again for another feed and so the action kicks off again. My trip was only a short one and in total I spent three days in the hide and all these images came from those three sessions. It really is an amazing place.
I am always looking at new sites and adding new trips to our programme and so we have put together a short weekend break to this location. In total you spend four full days in the hides and the opportunities that can unfold are amazing. If you are interested in spending some time in Poland and photographing these beautiful birds then please follow this link. Sylwia is going to be leading the trip for me and obviously her Polish is good and she is a great addition to our team at Natures Images. After this trip I went to Finland and Norway for three weeks and so my winter theme will continue and I will post another blog in the next few days.
1st March 2013
I have always had a thing for birds of prey and I have travelled all around the UK and in Europe in search of images of them. One of the first species that I ever photographed was a Sparrowhawk. I had found a natural plucking post buried deep within a pine forest plantation, it was dark as the light never really penetrated through the thick canopy. I was also using film and so I was really limited on the quality that I could produce. I have still kept those old slides and the other day I dug them out to take a look for old times’ sake. They were awful and it has made me realise how times' have changed. They weren't very sharp and the background was messy with distracting lines. At the time I thought they were the best thing since slice bread.
But by looking at those images brought back some great memories of spending time in my little homemade canvass hide and I can clearly remember the excitement once the male Sparrowhawk landed on his plucking post. He was only there very briefly and as soon as he landed he would pluck some of the feathers from the small bird and then started to call. He was calling the female of the nest. Within seconds the female would swoop down and in a blur of wings she would land on the post and start feeding herself. This would happen a few times a day and I remember being so determined to nail the shot I spent most of the summer photographing these elusive forest hunters.
My images were poor because my equipment was basic and film really did have its limitations. Ever since those days I have always wanted to repeat the process but I have never found a plucking post and so my quest went on. Fast forward twenty years and I get wind of Alan McFadyen and his site in Dumfries, I am in heaven and I can finally get some decent pictures of this dashing forest raptor. Sparrowhawks are so difficult to photograph and I think they are harder than most other species, even Golden Eagles. They are notorious in attracting them to bait but with years of hard work Alan has managed it.
I have been to Alan’s hide many times now but in all honesty I have been left a little disappointed with the results. I have just never really had good light to work in but on my last visit the conditions were great with not a cloud in the sky. I had gone up with Mark and on our first morning we had only just set-up and heard the alarm calls of the small birds. They had all disappeared and so we knew the Sparrowhawk was nearby. Then he just flew down from the trees and landed on the post in front of the hide. I will never get bored with this moment as it is such a thrill to see this beautiful bird at such close quarters.
There was still frost on the perch and ground which made a beautiful setting for him. He spent a few minutes eating his free meal and then as quick as he arrived he was off.
It was a long wait until he arrived again but by the time he did the light was fantastic and the sun had shifted behind the hide. The Sparrowhawk then decided to stay for a good half an hour and it was so rewarding to finally get him in the light that this site is capable of producing.
The next day we went in the hide for another stint and tried a different set-up. That is the beauty of the work Alan has put in because it so easy to change the perches around and so you can get something different on each visit. It is very easy for me to say this because it is part of our programme but in all honesty being able to photograph this lovely little male Sparrowhawk has got to be one of the best experiences to get in nature photography. It has got to be the only site in Europe to do so and I am surprised that more people from the continent are not coming over to try. He is coming very regularly at the moment and we have just opened up some more dates in early April. He is now in his fourth year of age which is a very good age for this species so we don't know how long he will stick around. I hope he does for a while yet because I would love to see and photograph him again. If anyone is going to focus on imaging at the NEC in Birmingham then please drop by on the Canon stand as I will be giving a series of seminars. I will be talking about the 1DX and Canons new lenses but I will be showing some of my latest images that I have managed to take with these latest products. There are other speakers lined up as well like landscape guru David Norton and top sports photographer Marc Aspland. Focus is a great event so please say hello if you are by the Canon stand.
My seminar slots are as follows:
Sunday: 15.00 -15.40 and 17.10 -17.50
Monday: 17.10 -17.50
Tuesday: 13.10 -14.00 and 17.10 -17.50
If anybody would like to buy a copy of my book "The Long Journey North" it is available for sale either through my website or at Focus on Imaging.
28th February 2013
Beautiful Bandhavgarh ........
At the beginning of February I went to Bandhavgarh National Park in India. I was co-leading our annual trip by Natures Images to this wonderful location with our main target being the Bengal Tiger. Bandhavgarh is one of the finest reserves in India and is one of the best places to get a glimpse of the rarest of big cats, the Tiger. This has been my third trip and it is a great experience to witness this beautiful cat at such close quarters. It is not an easy trip and at times it can be frustrating but the rewards are high. Last time I was in Bandhavgarh I used Satyendra and Kay Tewari and stopped at their camp in the village of Tala. There was no reason to change and again our stay was very comfortable and homely.
I am always asked what my favourite species is and it is a difficult question to answer but I could never get tired of searching for the majestic Tiger. It is so exciting as you never though what you are going to see and so that edge of uncertainty is what makes it a fantastic experience. The pattern of our trip is the same each day. We are up in the early morning at 5.30 for coffee and biscuits and then head of to the Tala gate. It is exciting at the gate because whilst you are waiting for the permits to be checked and what route system you are going to be given, you know you could be just minutes away from seeing your first tiger.
Once you are through the gate you are in Tiger country and so the excitement starts to build. I have used the same driver for my past two trips now and Hariem is without doubt one of the best to have. His knowledge of the park and in particular his knowledge of tigers is second to none. You are just casually driving along a track and then he spots a fresh pug mark and informs you it is a female Tigress which walked down the track during the night. Then he stops the vehicle and listens for the signs of the jungle.
Nothing occurs and so you move on. Then he spots some more tracks but these are fresher and so the excitement starts to build. Then you hear an alarm call and you might be close. Still nothing and the pattern is the same. You are never going to see a Tiger on every drive but this is the real deal and the Tiger is an elusive mammal, it has to be. After a few morning and evening game drives and still no sighting, you do start to question whether you are going to be in the right place at the right time.
After another drive with no sightings you get back to the gate and hear that other people have had a good sighting and so your fustration is even more. Then on the very next visit your luck changes and finally you get the encounter you have been searching for. On my last visit in 2011 my encounters were of females and so I was really hoping to come across the large dominant male of the Tala range. I was so unlucky last time as we came across him in the chakradada meadows but he was heading in a different direction and it wasn't on our route system, all we could do was watch from a distance as he walked away.
My encounter with him this time though will last in my memory for a lifetime though. We came across him as he was resting by the road. No alarm calls or any tracks, we just found him by the road resting. The best thing about this encounter though was there was just our vehicle and one more so it was a really peaceful experience with no jostling for position by other jeeps. After a brief while he got up and carried on his way as he was just patrolling his territory. Our guide knew his pattern and path so we just headed up the road to encounter him again. Sure enough the Male Tiger was indeed heading towards a route and so we just kept moving along with him. An amazing experience and the two hour encounter will surely take some beating. During our stay we had other sightings but nothing like our large Male.
We had a brief encounter with a young male and female which were brother and sister. They were being driven out of their mothers territory because she was pregnant again. It was nice to see them amongst the meadow grass.
Bandhavgarh is not just great for Tigers as you can see and photograph so much more. The birdlife is fantastic with some real colourful species like Indian Roller and Bee Eater.
Lots of other mammals can be found too and the Hanuman Langurs and Rhesus Macaques make great subjects for photography. Sometimes you get so focused on looking for Tigers you can neglect these species but it would be a mistake to do so.
Bandhavgarh doesn't support any wild Elephants but they are used by the park service to track Tigers and every so often you come across them with their Mahots in attendance. They make great subjects especially for close-ups.
One of the hardest mammals to find in the Indian Jungle is the Sloth Bear and we got extremely lucky with a great sighting as one crossed a track, as he did so he just stopped to take a quick scratch on a tree.
Whilst I was there it was the annual rut of the Spotted Deer or Chittal. This really is a beautiful Deer and the meadows of Bandhavgarh support a healthy population which is so important for the Tiger population. So there you go just a small selection of some of my favourite shots from the trip. I am going back in November next year for another chance to visit this beautiful place. It is not just Tigers, as you can see there are many other species to see. I have only got one place left on this trip and if you are interested and would like some more information then please give me a call or drop me an email. Just to finish off a couple of my favourite shots of the large male, I hope I get to see him again.
5th February 2013
Simply Reds .........
In November last year I was desperate to get out with the camera and just work with a subject over a period of time. It really is the best way of working and it allows you to produce a much stronger portfolio of one species. I wasn't sure what to do and in the end I never found it. Edwin Kats invited me over to his place in Holland as he had been working with Red Squirrels in his back garden. So I went over for a couple of days and gave them a go. It was not easy as the image Edwin was working on was of a Squirrel jumping straight down the barrel of the lens. But I enjoyed it so much and it made me realise how poor my own Red squirrel images were. So I made it my main goal this winter to increase my coverage of this beautiful mammal.
I only managed to get a couple of decent images from my time spent in Ed's garden as the light was pretty poor really and I needed good light to capture the moment when the Squirrel jumped. He gave me plenty of opportunities as he was busy collecting the hazel nuts and storing them for the fourth coming winter. The set-up was really clever and so it gave me some ideas for future shots. The autumn colours were still strong and we used these to create this rich palette of colour.
I only managed a few shots in Holland but my time with these beautiful creatures left me wanting more. Myself, Mark and Alan had built a reflection pool in Dumfries during the summer in the hope we could attract Red Squirrels to the edge which would produce a nice reflection. I have to admit I thought it would take longer for it to start working but after only a couple of weeks the squirrels had found the food. The images that Alan had sent through looked stunning and so at the first opportunity I headed to Dumfries. My first session in the hide was so productive as I had three different Squirrels visiting the edge of the pool as I had placed the hazel nuts just out of view.
The trick was in hiding the hazel nuts as they are not a natural food source really. By hiding them though the squirrels would search through the leaves which I felt made the images more natural anyway.
The following morning I headed back to the hide but the winter conditions had arrived and the pool was completely frozen. Snow had started to fall and within a couple of hours the whole scene turned into a winter wonderland. Reds look great in the snow and I couldn't believe my luck.
The winter conditions never last long in Dumfries and by the following morning the snow had melted. So it was back to the reflection pool but it took me a while to break the ice and fill the pool back up with water. This time I used the more natural green background and with moss at the edge of the pool. By using the two different set-ups produces completely different images.
So after visiting two different locations I had made a start on my little Red Squirrel project. At the end of January I was heading to Scotland to run our annual Highland Winter trip and we have always used Neil McIntyre for part of this trip. Neil has many things to offer in the Highlands and his red Squirrel site is one of the best in the UK. He has been feeding them for over twenty years which is an amazing strength of dedication. I was really hoping for snow but strangely there was a distinct lack of snow this winter in the highlands.
Whilst I was in the Highlands I also spent a few days at Pete Cairns location for this beautiful mammal. Pete has also been working on jumping Squirrels and his site is in a very natural open site which is a great location. The light was great at times and so got some standard portraits in the bag first.
Once I had got some portraits I then attempted at the jumping shots. Again this is far from easy and I took so many images just to produce a couple of sharp ones. It is great fun in trying though and every now and then you just manage to capture one in the perfect pose.
So after visiting four different locations I have increased my coverage of this charismatic mammal. It has been good to compare the different set-ups and I have come back with lots of ideas on how to take the project further. Maybe a jumping Squirrel with a reflection. I have missed this kind of photography when you work on one subject for a considerable amount of time and I am looking forward to spending more time in the UK working with other subjects over the next few years.
3rd February 2013
Time for Snow ..........
We don't get much snow in the UK and when the white stuff finally arrives it doesn't last long. I love photographing subjects in the snow so always find myself frantically chasing around not knowing where to go to get my annual fix. When the forecast was predicting snow I headed to Dumfries to try and capture images of our Sparrowhawk. This beautiful bird looks great in any conditions but I knew snow would make a unique image. It was a long wait with Alan Mcfayden in the hide for this elusive raptor to turn up but eventually he came in for his daily feed. The snow on the bank acted as a perfect background and produced a lovely high key effect.
This little male is a real star and when he does come in the excitement is still a real thrill even though I have photographed him a few times. It was quite late in the day and the light wasn't great but the acted like a giant reflector and so there was plenty of detail in his intricate plumage.
The winter conditions continued for a few more days so I got the chance to visit our other site in Worcesteshire to try and photograph Little Owls. We have been working with this beautiful Owl for a number of years and I have photographed them in the snow before but the encounter was brief and I have been wanting to go back and try again.
The Owl is mainly visiting in the morning at the moment and he dropped in a few times. He is full of character and charm giving you an intense stare every now and then. We feed him on meal worms which also attract a few other birds. The resident blackbird defends them from other species and he aggresively defends his patch but even he gives way to the little owl.
Usually after a few days the snow starts to melt and as quickly as it arrives it disappears again. This time it stayed a while longer and the timing was great because I was heading to Norfolk to run a weekend break. I went a couple of days earlier to check out the area and see if I could find some subjects. My first stop was Salthouse which is a great location for wading birds and again it didn't let me down.
Salthouse is fantastic for getting images of Turnstones as usually these birds are quite shy and difficult to approach. People feed them here though so they are very tolerant of people. Other waders can be photographed here and during our time we managed images of Redshanks and even Golden Plover.
I also concentrated on photographing the local gulls. Black headed Gulls were the most common but also the odd common gull was hanging around too.
I was desperate to find Barn Owls throughout my stay in Norfolk but they were quite elusive and I guess the wet weather with have had over the past year has seriously affected the local population. I had a couple of sightings but not good enough to photograph. After Norfolk I was heading off to Scotland to photograph Red Squirrels which I have been trying to increase my coverage of. I was hoping the snow would stay a while longer but the mild weather settled in and so my fix for the white stuff has been a short one this winter, so far. I will post a blog of some of the images I have achieved so far on this beautiful mammal in the next couple of days.
21st January 2013
Time for Reflection ...........
It has been a long time since I put up a post on the images I have been working on and I am sorry it has taken so long. I have been so busy putting the finishing touches to my book The Long Journey North and then sending out orders I just haven't had much time. I would like to thank everyone that has brought a copy and for supporting me on this project I really appreciate it especially in these tough times. Now that the Long Journey North is finished I want to channel my photography again and over the past few months I have worked on a few images a bit closer to home. I am now going to be spending more time in the UK as I would like to produce a book on the beauty of Wild Britain.
One of the most iconic of British mammals is the Water Vole and it has been a long time since I photographed this beautiful species. Last time I did I spent about two years working on them in a canal in Derbyshire. I would like to revisit this location over the next few years but I wanted to get something in the bag first. Terry Whittaker who is a fellow 2020 vision photographer has been working on Water Voles for a number of years. He offers workshops at his base in Kent which gives you a great chance to photograph them in a beautiful setting. I was giving a few AV shows in the south of England so I booked a few days with Terry to give them a go and what a couple of days.
It was such a treat to be this close to this lovely mammal again and I would recommend a workshop with Terry highly enough. I would like to revisit in the spring as I am sure this site would produce much more.
I love reflections in the water and so by doing the water voles it has inspired me to spend more time at our own reflection sites in Worcestershire and Dumfries. I have very little coverage of small birds visiting water and so my first priority was to visit the reflection pool near Worcester. Mark has managed to attract some great species to our pool ranging from Robins, Tits, Blackbirds and Jays. My own favourite is the stunning Goldfinches. I have never photographed this species before so it was great to do so in such a great setting.
The activity is excellent throughout the day and so you never know what could just drop in.
I have also been itiching to visit our other reflection pool in Dumfries. We built this last summer and we thought it would take a while to establish it. We have been really surprised though by how good it has become and it can be so productive during the course of a day. We set it up for Red Squirrel reflections but we also get lots of other species visiting too. I have always wanted to produce images of Woodpeckers in these kind of settings and we now get three different birds visiting throughout the day.
We also get many other species dropping in and even common birds look great in this setting.
I am going to be spending as much time as possible working in the UK over the next few years and my main targets this year are Pine Martens, Roe deer and I have also been improving on my Red Squirrel images. Our site in Dumfries is excellent for this beautiful forest mammal and I think a reflected image takes some beating. I will post more on my next blog as I intend to start posting much more often and I will show some images of red Squirrels that I have been working on.
27th November 2012
The Long Journey North .........
After eight years of travelling and working in some of the most beautiful and remote regions of northern Europe I have now finally finished my first book "The Long Journey North". This Journey has taken me to the Boreal forests of Finland, the high mountain passes of Norway, the windswept tundra of Iceland and the land of vast ice in the high Arctic and many points in between. I have had the immense privilege in photographing some of the most iconic species of these northern lands from the majestic Polar Bear, to the sheer beauty of a Great Grey Owl, from the intricate details of northern Dragonfly, to the complex lifestyle of displaying Ruffs. This Journey has indeed been a long one but to finally put the finishing touches to it has been a very rewarding experience. I first had the idea for this project way back in 2004 whilst working in northern Sweden. John Aitchison has kindly written the forward to the book which is a real honour because I have admired his own work in the frozen north for so long. The Long Journey North is not just a book of my favourite images it is also a book of my own favourite encounters along the way. I have had a tremendous amount of support from family and friends. I would also like to thank Canon for also believing in this project too. I took the brave decision a few years ago to self-publish the book and also decided to have it printed in the UK so I could be involved from start to finish. This book is only available through my website or at events that I am attending. If you would like to purchase a signed copy of this limited edition book then please follow this link. I am away leading a trip to Bosque del Apache in America and won't be back until the 10th December but Liz will process your order and I will sign and dispatch it as soon as I get back into the UK.
13th September 2012
Hovering Kingfishers .............
I haven't had much time for photography since I came back from the Shetland Isles in early August but two things changed that last week and I just had to find the time to get out with the camera. My good friend Mark Hancox called and he had been working on Kingfishers hovering so I just had to have a go at this special opportunity. I have also just purchased Canons latest camera which is the 1DX and so I wanted to try out my new toy and put it through its paces.
I have also joined forces with Mark to form a new business which is to develop a hide based photography programme. Our new venture is called Nature Photography Hides and we have many different subjects to offer for a one day hide rental. Not only do we offer Kingfisher workshops but we also have Little Owls, Common Buzzards and a small bird reflection pool which are all run at our base in Worcestershire. We are also delighted to have on board Alan McFadyen who has developed a site in Dumfries where it is possible to photograph Sparrowhawks and a lovely reflection pool which is designed for Red Squirrels and small woodland birds. We are planning on developing more sites in different parts of the UK covering subjects like Ospreys, Badgers, Black Grouse and another hide in the Cairngorms for Red Squirrels. We are delighted to be working with other photographers and we will announce this soon on our website.
The website is www.naturephotographyhides.co.uk
So I have wanted to go down to Worcestershire to check out the new hides that Mark has built and the Kingfisher opportunity was the perfect excuse. I used the 1DX for all these shots on my 500mm Lens and my success rate was phenomenal. The hit rate of the auto focus is spot on and the final images are so sharp. The light was good so I didn't need high ISO's in fact I lowered the ISO to be able to get some motion blur in the final images. I was so happy with my 1D MK4 but this camera has taken it to the next level. The only downside is it will mean spending more time at the computer. I used a 1DX in Finland back in July and I was using high ISO's then and this camera gives a much better performance which is what Canon have been trying to achieve. I have no intention of selling my MK4 because I love this camera but to have both is the perfect combination. It is exciting times with Canon especially with their new lenses that are now available.
I am off to Norway this weekend to work with Musk Ox in the beautiful Dovre mountain range. It is a place and a subject that I have wanted to do for years so I am looking forward to the trip. I am camping in the mountains with a Norwegian friend called Arnfinn. I am not looking forward to the walk but I have a week to do it in so plenty of time. Our Kingfishers are working really well at the moment and we have five birds that visit each day. The light is great at this time of the year too and we still have days available during October. So just to finish here are couple of my favourites from the day.
16th August 2012
I had some very good news whilst I was in Finland and it has now been officially announced by Canon that I have been chosen by them to form part of their Ambassador programme as an explorer of light. This is a great honour as there are some wonderful photographers stretching many genres from the world of Sport, Fashion and wildlife. I have always used Canon gear and been very faithful to the brand so it is of great personal satisfaction they have asked me. I will be presenting at many seminars and also testing some of their latest cameras and lenses. Follow the link to check out the complete list.
The first of many seminars will be this weekend as I will be presenting at the Bird fair in Rutland on the Canon stand. I will be presenting my new AV shows “The Long Journey North” which I have been working on these past 7 years. The Long Journey North will also be the title of my first book which is due out in October this year. It has been an extremely long journey for me and has taken me to some of the most beautiful regions of northern Europe. From the Mountains of Scotland to the Arctic Tundra of northern Norway, from the remote Westmann Islands of Iceland to the Taiga forests of northern Finland. At times it has been fustrating but in the end I have reached the goals that I set out all those years ago. I will also be showing “Wild Britain” which is going to be a new project which will see me working more in the UK over the next few years. The times vary on the three days and are as follows
Friday: 12:00-12:40 “The Long Journey North” 15:00-15:40 “Wild Britain”
Saturday: 12:00-12:40 “The Long Journey North” 16:00-16:40 “Wild Britain”
Sunday: 10:00-10:40 “The Long Journey North” 13:00-13:40 “Wild Britain”
If you are planning on going then please drop by and say hello.
12th August 2012
Finnish Predators ...........
Finally I am back home for an extended stay after what seems like seven months on the road. I have been back in between trips but only for a few days at a time so now I am looking forward to a long rest. It has been a manic few months what with running trips for Natures Images, finishing off the book project which is due to go to print during September and also working on a long term project which so far has taken me three summers and I have a feeling that is not complete. In late July I was back in the Boreal forests of Finland running the Finnish Predators trip. This trip had been two years in planning and it was ambitious to say the least in the hope of capturing three Iconic predators of the Taiga forest.
Our aim was to see and photograph three elusive predators in the shape of the European Grey Wolf, Wolverine and Brown Bear all in the space of ten days. To really get the best out of this trip I had planned to visit three different locations which meant a lot of travelling on the days we should have been resting but the effort was worth it to maximise our chances. Our first base was to visit the excellent feeding site which has been run by Finnish Wildlife photographer Lassi Rautinen and his family for many years. Our main target here was the elusive European Wolf.
I first went to Lassi's place a couple of years ago and over the course of 8 nights I wanted to photograph the European Wolf. I never even saw one so this location was going to be hard but it is still the best place in Europe to see this beautiful predator. The Grey Wolf has been relentlessly persecuted by man and now only hangs on in the remotest regions of the planet. The border zone between Finland and Russia is a legacy of the cold war and this strip of land which stretches the whole length of Finland has acted like a natural corridor for the endangered wolf. Even in all this space only around 140 individuals survive.
I went out a few days earlier to make sure everything was in place and so went to one of the hides on my first night. After a long night with no sleep it was getting towards the early morning and I thought my chance had gone for this first night. I was dosing when my friend Julian woke me with the immortal words of WOLF. I looked up but couldn't see anything outside the hide; I looked at my watch to see the time of 5.30 and thought Julian was mistaken surely no self-respecting wolf would be out at this time. Then I saw him, a beautiful Alpha male wolf in his prime heading towards the edge of the lake. It was one of those moments in Nature that has had me hooked for all these years. The male then started to search the edge of the lake for the food that had been placed out. He eventually made his way towards the small hide we had spent the night in and these first images were the result. To be this close to one of the world's most difficult and elusive animals was such a thrill. I still can't believe my luck.
My next few nights were what I was expecting really with no sightings of wolves. They usually move around their territory and so I was hoping they would return once the guests on the trip arrived. That first night the wolves did return and it was such a great feeling that everyone had got images of them. I had spent the night in a different hide and a young male came out of the forest clearing towards the food. These images were different to my first encounter as the wolf was further away but it was great to incorporate him in his forest environment.
After our first couple of nights and with wolf images in the bag we then headed towards our second location for Wolverine. This place is much better for Wolverine because no wolves visit and so they feel much more at ease. I had also been here two years ago so nothing is guaranteed in nature I knew that this would be our best bet. Again the wolverine didn't disappoint us as we had two or three visits a night. They are not easy to photograph as they are so fast and just seem to bounce around. Our second night proved to be the best though because a female turned up in the early morning whilst the light was beginning to get better, so no stupid ISO setting were needed.
After our two nights we then headed back for our last night with the wolves. The group had a mixture of success and some of us getting some more images and others not so lucky. I was in the not so lucky group but we did have a nice encounter with a large male Bear.
That leads me onto our last location for this trip. Now Bears do visit the first two locations but in my opinion there is no finer place for European Brown Bears than our base which acts as our main location for our Brown Bear trip which we have ran now for 5 years. Edwin Kats had already run a very successful trip in June with some stunning images coming from that trip. I was disappointed though because there appeared to be no females with very young cubs visiting the feeding stations. So it was a real bonus when Marku our host told me that three females had now started to appear with their cubs in tow.
The reason the females were late arriving was because of the wet weather of May and June which had put the mating season back a couple of weeks. The last time I had photographed young cubs was back in 2008 so it was great to get another opportunity. They are so cute and photogenic. I photographed them in all sorts of ways but my own favourites are these ones play fighting.
It was also great to capture them watching Mom and they seemed fascinated by her scratching techniques.
They then found this small tree which acted as a great play ground.
This yearling was a little too big though.
Play time usually came to an abrupt end though because of a large male making his way from the forest interior into open swamp. The female would then quickly move the cubs back to the forest so they could climb to safety.
So there you go after eight days travelling over a thousand kilometres and visiting three different locations it was possible to get a decent portfolio on three of the most endangered and elusive predators of northern Europe. If you are excited by the possibility of spending fourteen hours in a small hide in a mosquito infested swamp, using a small plastic tub to go to the toilet, for eight nights with very little sleep then please drop me an email as I am planning on running another trip in 2014. You won't regret it because it has got be one of the best experiences in the natural world. I am a sucker for punishment though and after the trip had finished I went back to the Wolf hides to spend another three nights. I am so glad I did though because we also got to photograph the Alpha female. The last shot is of her howling to communicate with the rest of the pack which was amazing to hear and witness. My lasting memory though will be of seeing the whole pack on the last night as they made their way across no man's land, 9 wolves in total and something for me to cherish for the rest of my life.
10th July 2012
Land of the Ice Bear ...........
I have just returned from a three week trip to the wonderful Svalbard archipelago. This remote and pristine environment is without doubt one of the most beautiful places on our planet. This was my third trip to the high Arctic and I have still only seen a small section of this amazing place. I have always visited Svalbard by using a small yacht as I feel this is the best way of experiencing the wonderful wildlife that can be found. Life on board a small yacht in the high Arctic can be tough and you certainly have to be a certain type of character to cope with these conditions but we did and have survived to tell the tale and show a few pictures too.
The weather was not the best I have experienced and usually you can expect some prolonged calm spells during the summer but our first week was difficult and if I am honest you start to question yourself as a guide during these difficult times. Svalbard can be a difficult place and you just don't find subjects around every corner. During our first week we did manage to find some nice subjects which were feeding in front of the Glaciers. Lots of birds can be found like Fulmars and Kittiwakes.
I have always liked to work in front of the Glaciers in Svalbard as you just never know what you are likely to bump into. I was really hoping to find a Polar Bear hunting in front of one but again this opportunity passed by. We also got the chance to land a few times to work with other subjects and one of my own favourites was the Little Auk.
There are many advantages in working from a Yacht but there are also disadvantages too and one of them is safety in bad weather. The weather was awful at times with low pressure sitting over Svalbard. Our main destination was to get to the pack ice but as we got deeper into the trip it was very apparent that it would be just too dangerous to go. At this point both myself and Mark were under tremendous pressure but in the end we made the right decision and we were rewarded with some of the best encounters that I have had in Svalbard.
It was very dissappointing for the group but I hope that you will remember the special encounter with Smudge our young male friend. Because of the weather we had to find a safe anchor and so decided to anchor near fast ice which was attracting Seals. We witnessed many spectacular encounters with Bears especially the one of a large Male that caught a seal. My own favourite was the encounter of a young male that totally accepted the Yacht.
The fact that we could anchor in such a small bay was a real bonus because the young male totally accepted the presence of the Yacht and so we could get more intimate images. Usually most of the Polar Bear encounters are of Bears walking away or showing anger so for me this was a real experience. We managed to photograph him sleeping, grooming stretching and when he eventually got up some hunting too.
During our stay we also got the chance to photograph a young female but she never really came close enough but I still liked these images of her in context with her environment.
After a few days we got a break in the weather and so managed to land on a small island that I have visited on many occasions. I have never really had the chance to visit in good weather but it was great to visit in some great light. No one hardly visits this island and certainly not the bigger ships but it really is a fantastic place for some very special Arctic tundra birds. The beautiful Grey Phalarope can be found in good numbers on the island and also the beautiful Red Throated Diver breeds.
We still wanted to search for Bears but the Ice was thawing fast after such a wet mild spell but we still managed to get some shots of some of the Arctic birds that spend the summer months here. Eiders are common and where ever you anchor there is always a Black Guillemot.
In total I have spent nearly fourteen weeks travelling around Svalbard and during this trip we managed to find one of the best things that I witnessed. Walrus's are becoming increasingly common in Svalbard after many years of over hunting. They are recovering slowly but most of the animals you find are Males. The females are usually found in smaller numbers further to the east where they Pup on the pack ice. So to find a female with such a young pup was a real pleasure and is one of the most rewarding experiences for me.
So after another short visit to this wonderful place I am left with a feeling of wanting to go back already. I am hopefully planning a return visit in a couple of years time so if you would be interested in joining me on an adventure in the high Arctic then please let me know. I am now off to Finland to work with another species of Bear, the brown Bear. I will finish though with one of my favourites of the young male.
14th June 2012
Reservoir Ruffs .........
....... meet Mr Brown, Mr Black, Mr White, Mr Blond, Mr Grey but alas no Mr Pink. I have just returned from a trip to Varanger in northern Norway where I have been photographing this spectacular bird at a traditional Lek. My reverence is to the classic Quentin Tarrantino movie and as I got to know these birds they just reminded me of the characters in the film. The Ruff has a western Palearctic distribution but this beautiful bird has undergone a serious decline over the past 25 years and strongholds can now only be found in some of the more remote corners of northern Europe.
I went on this trip with my good friend Edwin Kats and our main target was the spectacular displaying of male Ruffs during their courtship ritual. I have been to Varanger before but only during the winter months so this trip has been high on my agenda for many years. The Varanger peninsular is a great place for wildlife photography and during the early spring some classic Arctic Tundra birds can be found. Varanger can still boast of good population of Ruffs.
The male Ruffs start to migrate from their West African wintering grounds during April and arrive back at their traditional lekking arena's around mid may. As soon as they arrive they get down to the business end of establishing their hierarchy. The complex social behaviour amongst the males is fascinating and this courtship behaviour is unique among wading birds. The males at the Lek are made up of three different types; the typical dominant males are usually slightly duller in plumage and at this lek that I worked at they were mainly brown or black. These males were constantly patrolling the lek and would only briefly leave to feed or follow a female.
The other main type of male that patrols the lek are the satellite males. These males are usually more elaborate with beautiful white plumes. When these males drop into the lek it is fascinating to watch the other males displaying and stamping their dominance over these males.
When a satellite male or female is flying overhead then the dominant males start to perform their elaborate display. This involves a fluttering of the wings and also short jumps into the air. They also get very excited and the plumes become much more erect.
When a reeve (female) is spotted then all hell breaks loose and lots of posturing and display flights occur. When a female lands and is showing more interest it then becomes a free for all and lots of bouts of fighting breaks out. This behaviour was so difficult to record in the camera as it is so fast but I did manage to get a few half decent ones.
The most fascinating behaviour is how the dominant males react to the satellite males. When there are no females around these males display to the satellites and really seek their attention. The satellites attract the females but once they have landed the posturing by the dominant males become much more aggressive and on a couple of occasions I witnessed a dominant male more or less lying on on top of male with white plumes and not letting him move. Then other dominant males would do the same, amazing stuff.
Most of the time we were in Varanger the weather was so good and we got to work in some amazing light. All of these images were taken during the night as the sun never sets at this time of the year this far north. We became so engrossed in photographing the Ruff lek that we didn't get much chance for other species but I will go back at this time of the year. We did get the chance to photograph Bar tailed Godwit and a stunning Lapland Bunting.
I have photographed many species over the years and I have to say that photographing and witnessing this spectacular display by this beautiful wading bird has certainly been one of the highlights. So here are just a few images of one my favourite males. We called him Mr Ginger; he was a brave boy but would always get a bit of a beating from the other males.
I will be heading even further north this weekend as I am going to Svalbard for three weeks to hopefully encounter some iconic Arctic species like Polar Bear and Walrus. This will be my third trip to this beautiful archipelago and I am really looking forward to another adventure in this pristine environment. I will update the blog on my return but thanks for reading the blog and I hope you have enjoyed the antics of this beautiful bird.
10th April 2012
The King of the river bank ..........
Over the past couple of weeks I have been working at my good friend Mark Hancox's kingfisher site. Mark has put a tremendous amount of effort into this location and as a result it is now possible to produce some wonderful pictures of this elusive and beautiful bird. Mark was away on holiday with his family and so he asked me if I would like to run a few workshops whilst he was away. It has been a couple of years since I last went so I was really looking forward to getting some more images of this King of the river.
The last time I was here was during September and October so it was nice to be able to get a different range of images from my last visit. The resident pair have been busy establishing their territory and chasing any other indivduals out of this prime location. They were also starting to dig their nesting chamber and so on a couple of occasions they would turn up at the feeding station with mud clinging to their beaks.
Both the male and the female would turn up but I never quite got them together which was a shame as that was a shot I was hoping to get. The beauty of Mark's site though is the quality of the light that you can get especially in the early morning. As the sun starts to rise you are shooting straight into it from the fixed position of the hide. The opposite bank is then in the shade for a couple of hours and if the birds arrive early you can get some lovely rim lighting around them which works a treat against the black background.
The male is very dominant and aggressive at this time of the year and is constantly chasing away any intruders that approach into his territory. On a couple of occasions another bird flew by whilst the male was busy fishing and it gave me the chance to get a few images of him in these threatning poses.
Most of the time though he was very relaxed on the perches and that enabled me to get some images of him preening.
What I really wanted to do though was get images of the kingfisher diving into the water to catch a fish. This kind of picture was only possible with a high speed flash a few years ago but the development of digital photography has really transformed the genre and it is now possible to achieve this with good old fashioned speed. The one thing I needed was good light and at times during the two week period I got some great light to work in.
I had to take a lot of images just to get a few sharp ones and it was so fustrating looking back at the screen only to find the bird slightly soft or that I had clipped a wing. But it was bloody good fun though and every now and then one would just pop out to be perfect. I would really like to thank Mark for this chance and if you haven't yet been to Mark's site then give it a go as it is a fantastic opportunity in getting images of this beautiful bird, he is also one of the nicest blokes in the industry. I have heard all kinds of people's views on the matter of using someones elses set-up but I don't take them too seriously and I really don't care because the bottom line is why do we really do wildlife photography and the simple answer is because it is just great fun. Any way here are just a couple more in the last light of the afternoon.
If you would like to book a day then contact Mark at www.markhancoxbirdphotography.co.uk
19th March 2012
A Finnish Winter Part 3 ...........
....... and a special bit of Norway.
The final part of my blog was my last week in the very far north of Finland and then on to Varanger Peninsula, Norway. This was a private trip that I had organised with my travelling companion Steve Knell whom I had travelled before last year to this part on Scandinavia. We had a very productive trip last year but felt we were three weeks to late and so decided to return a little bit earlier. This time though with Mark Sisson, Nigel Spencer and Julian Cox. We hired a car at Oulu Airport and then it was a case of a 10 hour drive to our first port of call. Last year I had stopped off at a small hotel along the way to Varanger to photograph three special Boreal forest birds in the shape of Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay. I really wanted to return here though because it has got to be one of the best places to witness the Aurora Borealis.
The Aurora Borealis is one of the greatest spectacles that you can witness in the Natural World. I have seen and photographed it before but it is still an amazing sight to see and this time I was treated to one of the best displays that I have witnessed. The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon that has been surrounded by mystery and intrigue over the centuries. The indigenous Sami people of northern Scandinavia tell of a lovely tale that when the Fox runs across the snow field his tail brushes the snow and produces sparks which are the northern lights. We now know the scientific reason behind this natural light show which is all down to the activity of our Sun. Explosions on the surface of the sun produce plasma which then gets caught into Solar winds which head out into space. As the Solar winds hit the earth's magnetic field the particles that they carry cause explosions and that's what causes the Aurora's. If the activity is high then the Aurora's can be exceptionally strong. We now know that the Sun has periods of high activity and so over the next 12 months we are reaching that high point which means very good Aurora's.
To photograph the Northern Lights is quite tricky and basically you need a long exposure to capture it. I decided the best results that I achieved were by using between 10 to 20 second exposures. If I used longer the stars began to trail which I didn't like. I set my camera's ISO setting to 800 and worked with a relatively small aperture of around F4. You need a study tripod for the job and I always use mirror lock-up to combat any vibration once the shutter has been released. If the Aurora was strong I would chose a shorter exposure. I also set the lens to manual focus and then focused the lens onto the affinity point. It is great fun because you never really know what your final result is going to look like and I can see why Aurora hunting can be so addictive.
During the week we had five chances at perfecting our images which was an amazing opportunity. Throughout the day we spent our time photographing the Boreal birds around the feeding stations. Pine Grosbeak's are migratory but they are unusual amongst birds in that they return back to their breeding areas in early winter. Once the Pine Grosbeak's return they get straight down to the business end of pair bonding and finding a suitable territory. Good numbers visit throughout the day but I have a real thing for one the smallest birds in this northern taiga forest zone, the Siberian Tit.
Siberian Tit's are not as common as the Pine Grosbeak's and only a couple of pairs visit the feeding station, add to the fact that they are so fast images of them are not easy to come by. I managed to get a couple of images that I was pleased with but it was a long wait especially in minus 20 degree conditions. With all these small birds around they attract predators to the area much like sparrowhawks are attracted to our gardens. On a couple of occasions a local Hawk Owl turned up and perched on a small spruce tree nearby, the Owls can be quite tame and he allowed a very close approach.
I next target was to head even further north and visit Batsfjord which is on the Varanger Peninsula. I went here last year to try to see and photograph the spectacular King Eider but we were too late as most of them had headed back to their breeding grounds. King Eider are an high arctic breeding species and can be found along the coast throughout Siberia. During the winter these coastlines freeze and so good numbers head towards the large fjords of northern Norway. Other Arctic species can be found here too like Stellers Eider and Long Tailed Duck.
The King Eider is such a beautiful bird and there is nothing like it, it was a fantastic experience to see one at such close quarters. These images were taken from a floating hide in a small harbour which has only just been set-up by a local Norwegian fisherman. It is superb for getting images of them along with Common and Stellers Eider but also one of my own personal favourite, Long Tailed Duck. I have photographed Long tailed Duck in Iceland when they were in their summer breeding plumage but I actually think they look better in their winter plumage.
The reflections of the harbour buildings in the late afternoon light also added to the images and produced this lovely red glow to the water's surface.
We also went out into Batsfjord in a small rib to try and capture the Sea Duck in flight. It is not easy bobbing around in this large fjord and to say it is cold was an understatement but it is bloody cold. King Eider was what I really wanted to get though and so I was really pleased with these two images.
Driving along the Varanger Peninsula you stand a good chance of finding Reindeer and we found them on a couple of occasions. These Reindeer live in a semi-wild state but they are still difficult to get close to. This small group was feeding by the roadside and it we got lucky with the added bonus of the falling snow.
After our time in Norway we had to drive the long journey south back to Oulu but we stopped off again at the feeding station just to give the Siberian Tit one more. I am pleased we did because this last picture is one of my personal favourites from the whole trip, they are such a beautiful bird. So thanks everyone for coming back to read the blog and I am glad I could share these images from this wonderful part of the world. Scandinavia is a fantastic location for photography and I do run various trips here throughout the year. We have put the new programme up for 2013 and are planning on going to some great locations so if you get the chance take a look at www.natures-images.co.uk. I am jumping back onto a long term project about Puffins over the next couple of months and so I will try and update the blog when I get the chance.
14th March 2012
A Finnish Winter Part 2 ..............
During the second week of my trip I was running a tour for Natures Images. This was a new trip for us but I had done a recce the year before with Finnature and so we had a packed programme for our guests. The first day of our trip was to be spent in a hide which overlooked a feeding station for Golden Eagle. I have photographed this beautiful species before on many occasions but I still get an adrenalin rush when one lands and you can see it through your view finder. Usually it is a long wait but the first eagle landed whilst it was still dark and so it was a while before I could get a decent shutter speed.
The weather conditions were extreme outside which was perfect for some atmospheric images. A front was passing through with heavy snow forecast and strong winds were whipping the snow around. I love these kinds of conditions as it adds that third ingredient to your final results and if you have such a beautiful subject like a Golden Eagle in front of you then you can't really fail. At first you have to let the birds feed on the carrion because they can be very nervous but after a short while we could then start to take pictures.
I have always struggled with flight shots of Golden Eagles because although they are a big bird, they are also fast. It is difficult to track them especially in a hide with restricted views. These hides in Finland though give you better chance as your overall view is excellent. To do flight shots you need two birds down at the same time as there can be a lot of aggression with one bird trying to push the other off the bait.
It is not easy trying for flight shots in falling snow as the auto focus struggles to lock on to the subject and usually you have an out focus bird but with a sharp snowflake. I managed to get a couple though but had more success once it had stopped snowing.
I have always had a love affair with Ravens as they are such beautiful and intelligent birds. The hides in Finland are also great for this species and trying to photograph their antics around the feeding station is great fun. It also passes the time away whilst you are waiting for the Eagles to show up. At first they were nervous and were perching in the small trees in the background but once the first one had plucked up the courage to come down the rest quickly followed.
The first part of our Finnish trip was in the Oulu region and we had a great bonus in being able to photograph a rogue Capercaillie. The Grouse family has a trait of producing these Rouge birds and although not common from time to time one does appear. I have photographed Rouge birds before in Scotland so I knew what to expect. Basically rouge birds will display and attack anything in their territory from Deer, Cars and fat photographers, especially fat photographers because they have the advantage of speed. It is a great experience being this close to one of the forests most elusive bird.
Our next destination was to move up to the Kuusumo Region near to the Russian border. This area of Finland is beautiful at any time of the year but during the winter months it turns into a magical place. Our base was in the Oulanka National Park and our main target was Boreal Owls which Kuusumo is famous for.
I have tried for a couple of years now to photograph Boreal Owls in Finland and it has been frustrating at times. This time though I got lucky and we had some great opportunities to get images of Hawk Owl, one of the most beautiful Owls in the region. They are much smaller than Great Grey and the speed at which they fly is amazing, to put it in perspective they are about 3 times faster than a Puffin. We had a lot of opportunities with this individual but in the end I only got 4-5 sharp images, frustrating but great fun.
Oulanka is also excellent for some very special Boreal forest birds too and our group had the chance to go into a forest hide to try our luck at photographing species like Black Woodpecker and Siberian Jay. Both birds look stunning in this winter landscape.
This forest hide has got to be one of the best places I have visited for Great Spotted Woodpecker and at one point I could count 13 indivduals.
We managed to photograph an amazing amount of subjects in our short time frame and I didn't expect to get anything else but on our last day our Finnish guides had a surprise for us. Another Rogue Grouse had been reported but this time it was a Willow Grouse and we managed to locate this beautiful bird. This was a highlight for me because it is a species I have seen many times but never managed to get any images off.
I would like to thank Jenny, Sarah, John, Nigel and Julian for joining me on this trip and I am glad you guys enjoyed this beautiful part of northern Europe. I would also like to thank Jari and Leena at Finnature for making the trip run so smoothly. I would also like to thank Ari our guide throughout the trip and Olli our guide in Kuusumo your knowledge was fantastic and your help much appreciated. I am planning to go back to Finland next winter so if you are interested then please drop me an email or call me on 01509 551768. My third and final part will be in the next couple of days so please drop by again.
12th March 2012
A Finnish Winter ..............
I have just returned from a three week trip to Northern Finland and Norway. I had many targets during this time period with some being successful and others not so. I have come back with a lot of images and so for the first time on the blog I have decided to do them in three separate posts. This is part one which you guessed it covers the first week. I have many places that I would like to visit and one location has been high on my list for many years but has taken me a long time to visit. Riisitunturi National Park is in Finnish Lapland and this area is unique in Finland.
Riisitunturi is an open fjell that is much higher than the surrounding area and during the winter moisture from the frozen lakes meets cold air which forms into Ice and Snow. The small trees on the open fjell then become laden with the snow and start to bend and twist with this extra weight. The whole area looks like a giant chess board or a small army marching across the snow fields. It is an amazing place for photography and it is one of the great wild wonders of northern Europe.
One thing that Riisitunturi taught me though is how hard it is to work with Snow shoes and I have come to the conclusion that I don't have the body shape for using these because for some reason I just kept sinking. So not only do I have to give up smoking I have to lose weight too. My guide throughout my stay was Ari from Finnature and at least it amused him to watch my antics.
This is a picture of Ari and myself at the Riisitunturi Ritz. Ari is great at cooking Finnish sausages on an open fire and as you can see I ate quite a few of these.
I also wanted to go to another location called Kuntivaara which is 481 m above sea level and like Riisitunturi also attracts the moisture to the higher ground. Kuntivaara is different though and the trees are more mixed with Spruce, Scots Pine and Sliver Birch. It is a beautiful place especially in the twilight of winter as the light turns a cool blue in colour.
I also visited Olanka National Park in the Kuusumo region which is a great location for many Boreal specialities. Oulanka is very close to the russian border and during the winter the whole landscape turns into a winter wonderland.
The other main target for me during this part of the trip was to work with Dippers along a small river. Most of the lakes and rivers are frozen during the winter but a number of rivers stay ice free and this can be a life line for the local Dipper population.
On one river we counted 22 individuals which is an amazing number for such a small stretch of water. There were a lot of territory disputes going on as the resident pair were constantly chasing away these invaders. My first visit was in bright conditions which was great to get standard coverage but I wanted to try for long exposures and so was grateful for a change to have overcast conditions the next day.
I have tried this technique before in Iceland with Harlequin Ducks on the River Laxa so was keen to give it a go on this magical river. To achieve this kind of image with a static bird and rushing water you need to choose as low a shutter speed as you can get away with. I have found with experience that around 1/6 of second exposure is perfect for blurring the water. The difficult part is making sure the telephoto lens doesn't move either so I also use a sturdy tripod and use mirror lock on the camera to stop vibration too. Then you need your subject to be perfectly still.
I have found that Dippers during the breeding season are so active that I found it impossible to get a sharp image because they are not still for long enough. This River is slightly different though because the resident pair are so aggressive the other Dippers like to keep a low profile when they can and so stay still for longer periods. Although I still only managed a handful of shots.
The Kuusumo region is also famous for Boreal Owls and throughout this first week we kept an eye out. We didn't have much luck but then Ari spotted this lovely Pygmy Owl perched on the top of this small pine and I managed to get a few portraits of this small owl which is the smallest in Europe.
The next chapter will cover another classic Boreal Owl, along with some more northern specialities and I will post that in the next couple of days.
20th February 2012
Yellowstone Winter ..........
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most beautiful locations on the planet and during the winter months this magical place is one of the finest places for wildlife photography. This was my second visit to Yellowstone and was completely different from my first. On my first visit the winter was extremely cold with a lot of snow but this time it had been the opposite with a very mild period by comparison. This certainly helped in being able to photograph the more elusive residents of the park with species like Wolf. The Elk population usually escapes the harsh winter conditions and head to lower ground but this year large numbers could still be found. This availability of prey has certainly benefitted the resident wolves and we got lucky with a couple of amazing sightings.
It has been my ambition to get images of wild Wolves for many years and I have tried on a few occasions without any success. Our first sighting of this beautiful predator was one of the best things that I have seen and photographed throughout my career, so you can imagine the adrenalin rush that was pumping through me. We had spotted a Coyote first that was feeding on an Elk carcass that had been killed by the Canyon pack just by the side of the road. After a few minutes we spotted a lone wolf coming down a steep bank and heading our way. It paused in the distance for a few minutes and I thought that would be our only chance to get an image of this elusive animal but to my complete surprise it headed to the river and started to cross. It was one of those moments that will last for ever in my memory and I am pleased I stayed calm enough to get the image.
What happened next was just unbelievable as the wolf then headed straight to the carcass which was only 40 feet away from where we were standing. It started to chase the Coyote off the carcass and then fed on the dead Elk for about ten minutes.
We were so engrossed in this wolf that was feeding we never noticed the rest of the pack that was watching us from a ridge. It was amazing to witness the rest of the pack's body language and behaviour as they greeted their companion after he went back up to the ridge after he had finished feeding.
That first encounter would have been hard to beat but on our next day in the Lamar valley we had another encounter with a different pack. This pack was called the Mollies and they had moved up north from the Hayden valley. The Mollies are a very large pack which contains 19 wolves and they have caused some major disruption with the other packs in the Lamar valley this winter. They had killed a young male Bison by the side of the road at Pebble Creek but the park rangers thought it was too dangerous so moved the dead bison further away. We had been there for about two hours waiting for something to show up and I spotted a Coyote which was hunting across the road. I walked down the road to get some pictures but I noticed a Wolf coming out of the trees and was heading to the exact spot where the dead Bison had been. In hindsight I wished I had just waited near to where the carcass had been because now it seems so obvious that the Wolves would come back to that spot.
About three wolves were moving between the trees and I did manage to get some more images but they never came out in the open but I really liked these images and are my favourite from the whole trip. A young black wolf came out towards dusk and started to hunt mice in the meadow which really just topped off our special encounter.
The Lamar valley is also excellent for many other species and we managed to see and photograph most of them throughout our trip. A large Bull Elk was very impressive and we also found a small group of Pronghorn Antelope which was an added bonus because they usually migrate to lower ground too.
It was nice to be able to get some images of this Bald Eagle pair that was perched in this tree by the Lamar River too.
The Lamar Valley is an excellent location but to really get a taste of Yellowstone you have to go into the interior of the park and the only way you can do that is by a special vehicle called a snow coach. We had exclusive use of this for four days and it allowed us to explore the remotest parts of the interior. The Hayden Valley in my opinion is one of the nicest locations in Yellowstone and last time I was here I couldn't see it because it was a complete white-out as we hit it in the middle of a blizzard. This time though we had some beautiful weather and it allowed us to go into the Valley on our first three days.
We found good numbers of Trumpeter Swans along the Yellowstone River and also bumped into Coyotes in the Hayden on many occasions.
The Hayden Valley can also be excellent for Red Fox and the whole group was really hoping to see this beautiful mammal. After our Wolf encounters I thought we had used all of our luck but we did manage to find a Fox and again it was one of those encounters that will stay long in the memory bank.
Yellowstone is such a beautiful place and is a landscape photographer's dream and we stopped off at many different points for this opportunity. I even managed to increase my own landscape portfolio but I don't have too much time to look through them so just thought I would share a couple.
So where are the Bison? Well you can't go to Yellowstone and not photograph this wonderful creature so I thought I would finish with some of my favourites. The weather was very mild for the most part of the trip but on the last couple of days the temperature started to drop and then we really did get a taste of the extreme cold that these hardy animals have to survive.
The temperature went down to about minus 25 and as we headed off in the early morning the conditions were what photographers dream of. The trees and vegetation were covered in hoar frost and so were the Bison. It really was a great way to spend the last part of the trip to photograph this iconic mammal.
I would really like to thank Jake our guide for all his help throughout the trip, his knowledge of the park and the Wolves was amazing and how he spotted that beautiful Red Fox I will never know. Jake your sense of humour matched my own and you were great company throughout. I would also like to thank everyone for joining me on the trip and I am so pleased you got to share all these wonderful experiences. Mark's impression of me washing my hair in the morning was priceless and I am still laughing now. I am planning on returning to Yellowstone next year for the Autumn to cover this location at a different time of the year and I am also going back in the winter of 2014 so if you would like to register your interest then please call me on 07951 945433 or drop me an email and I will let you know all the details. I have a quick turnaround now as I am off to Finland and Norway for three weeks so hopefully I have more of the white stuff to share.
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