Finnish Predators ..........
During late September I was running a trip for Natures Images to Finland to concentrate on the iconic predators that roam the wild forests along the eastern border of Russia. This is the third time we have run this trip but in the past we have been in early July. This year I wanted to try and photograph these beautiful mammals in the autumn colours. This is a high risk trip and you can spend many hours sat in a small hide waiting for something to show up. During July you have light for most of the night so stand a much higher chance in getting images but during late September it is dark by 7.30pm and it is a long cold night waiting for morning. I have spent many hours sat in these hides and I have failed more times than I have had success but once you have got the bug you just can't give up. We were based at two locations for this trip with our targets Wolf, Bear and Wolverine.
Our first stop was at a remote location near Kuhmo which is owned by a good friend of mine Lassi Rautinen. Lassi has been feeding Bears and Wolves for many years now and his hides offer the best chance in seeing these elusive predators in the wild. Wolves were the main draw for our group and during our week in the hides we had some fantastic encounters on most nights. It is so exciting seeing a wolf edging its way out of the forest and into the clearing. The wolves in particular were very active during the early part of the evening.
We had four individuals visiting the feeding site and it is an amazing sight watching them make their way across the clearing. The Alpha Male would always lead the way followed by another large male. The Alpha female was always the last to appear as she seemed more nervous. At one point we had four wolves in front of our hides and you have stop and pinch yourself, it is just hard to believe that you are witnessing one of Europe's most elusive mammals.
Most of the nights the wolves would turn up once the sun had set behind the forest so the light levels were low, meaning high ISO's. Modern digital cameras produce amazing results at high ISO's. In the days of film or even early digital models it would have been impossible to get these shots. On one evening though the light was exquisite and the wolves decided to come out a bit earlier. The light was amazing as it filtered across the swamp and as the wolves stepped out into these pockets of light you can kind of pray for light like this and with such a beautiful subject.
During the middle part of the trip we then headed further south to another location to try and photograph another elusive mammal, the Wolverine. This site is fantastic for this species and that's why we make the effort to go. Again I have spent many hours in the hides waiting for this powerful predator and it is such a thrill to see one in the wild. During previous visits I would have to wait in the hide all night for maybe a ten minute glimpse, but not on this trip.
Within the hour we had our first wolverine turn up and throughout the afternoon we had eight different individuals turn up. It was constant with so much activity; this site has just worked so well this year. We had a female with her two cubs turn up and they gave us the best opportunity. Like I said it is amazing to see these wonderful predators in the wild. This was a new location for me as I have only been to Ero's original site; this is so much better with better light and setting.
So after such a successful session with the Wolverines we headed back to Lassi's for another go at the Wolves and Bears. You are probably wondering where my Bear shots are but I didn't manage to get any images of them as they would only come out at night. It was a bit disappointing as I really wanted to capture the Bears in the autumn colours but hey that's why Finland keeps drawing me back. I will finish off with a few more Wolf shots though and to be honest I feel we had such a good luck with the wolves because they can be very difficult at times. Thanks to the guys that came on this trip with me as you knew it was a risk but I think it paid off.
28th October 2015
Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears .......
During early September I was in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. I was co-running a trip with Mark Sisson and this was my third time visiting this wonderful part of the Alaskan coast. Our target for this trip was to try and capture the dramatic images of the Brown Bears that congregate along the coast each autumn. The Bears are waiting for the Silver Salmon to run as they migrate back to their spawning grounds. This natural event is so important to this population of Bears as they need to build up their fat reserves ready for the onslaught of winter. I fell in love with this place three years ago and it is without a doubt one of the best experiences that you can have in the natural world.
This year was an exceptional year for the Silver Salmon and the guys at the lodge where we stay said it was the best ever for terms of numbers. Surprisingly their where less bears around than what we have encountered in previous years but it didn't matter because at least there where here. As we did a u-turn to land on the beach in our small bush plane we flew over two bears fishing in the estuary, a welcome sight. Last year on our trip we had many opportunities to photograph a female called crimp ear and her two young cubs. She was back for another year and her two cubs had survived the winter and were looking in great shape.
These cubs were crimp ears first and she has done so well to get both of them to this age. It was such a good Salmon run though and the cubs were looking pretty well fed. She is an expert at catching Salmon and it is an amazing sight to witness as she charges through the water after her prize.
In previous years it was much easier to catch these kind of images because it was much harder for her to catch the Salmon, not this year though as the fishing was so good. It did give us lots of chances to photograph her with her catch.
During this trip the tides dictate to when we are likely to find the bears and so by high tide the Bears find it hard to catch the fish in the deeper water and so find somewhere peaceful to rest. This year was different again because the bears then headed up the creeks to continue their fishing which was great for us because the autumn colours seemed really intense this year.
I love the excitement in trying to capture the bears hunting the Salmon but I really liked the opportunities to photograph Crimp Ears cubs as they were so photogenic. The portraits of her two cubs are some of my favourite bear shots.
Crimp ear had her favourite spots for fishing but throughout our stay she was being challenged by another female bear for the right to fish it. Once this female turned up she would usually back off taking her cubs with her but on one occasion she had just had enough of this intrusion. I have got to say this was the most exciting 6 minutes of my photography career as crimp ear finally stood up to this other female. It was an amazing spectacle to witness and the old adrenalin was pumping as the fight unfolded just a few feet away.
Crimp was so much smaller than this female but she is a real scrapper and eventually got the better of her. She managed to get around to her back and gave a nasty bite to back of her rival. The sheer power of grizzly unfolded before our eyes and our respect for them went through the roof.
So there you go another selection of bear images to add to my portfolio and I am already looking forward to next year. I am going back in late June next year to try and capture some different type of images but whilst we were there David offered us a chance to go back in early September to run another trip. We have already sold a few places but if you would like the opportunity to join us on this amazing adventure then please get in touch via email or you can book through the Natures Images website www.natures-images.co.uk/holidays. I would like to thank all our guests that shared this amazing experience with us and I would also like to thank David and Joanne for making it such a warm experience. Thanks also to Dave, Brian and Rick our guides, your knowledge gets us into the right places. I will just finish off with a few more of my favourite from this wonderful place.
6th October 2015
Denali National Park .........
During the early part of September I went to Denali National Park in Alaska. This American flagship park has been high on my list for a very long time but this year I really made an effort to go. I am glad I did as Denali is a wonderful location and the wildlife that can be found here is so abundant. Denali was made a national Park in 1917 with the sole aim to protect this huge expanse of wilderness that incorporates Mountains, forests, high meadows and open tundra. Mount McKinley or as we should now call it Denali towers over the range. My main target for this trip was to photograph the elusive Moose and Denali is without a doubt one of the best places to see this iconic species.
Denali is not only famous for its wildlife, the autumnal colours are spectacular and is really one of the highlights of Denali. My timing had to be right for the colours and when I first arrived they were just coming on strong, by the end of my stay they were really at their height. The moose can be found throughout the park but during the early stage of their annual rut they can be found at certain locations. The female moose head to the open forests to feed on the last of the willow and not far behind them are the big bulls and boy they are big. These Bull Moose are some of the largest in the world and it is a great experience being so close to this impressive animal.
I have tried to photograph Moose on many occasions over the years and usually it is just a single sighting every couple of days. Not in Denali every time I went in search of them I came back with something in the bag. Speaking to the locals that have been photographing them over the years it is really critical with your timing as the moose kind of gather in certain spots along the park just prior to the full on rut. The females make the most of the last of the willow before it dies back and then they head deep into the forests with the males in tow. I didn't want to just get images of the males though and the females can be equally as impressive.
Denali is also good for so many other species and during my visit I got lucky with some great bear encounters. My only experience of bears in Alaska is along the coast and these bears are huge compared to ones you get in Denali.
Along some of the high points in the park you can also see and photograph Arctic Ground Squirrels and Willow Grouse.
The other species I was really hoping to get was the Caribou. Again Denali is excellent for this species and whilst I was there I got a couple of opportunities to photograph them. They were a lot harder than the moose and usually along the higher ridges but it were worth the effort. They looked great in the fall colours. I would really like to go back and have another try with these.
Denali really is a great place and I loved every minute exploring this wonderful park. The wildlife is remarkably tame as there is no hunting inside the park and the people I met there were really helpful and friendly. Thanks to Mike and Cathy for the great tip on the moose, next time I go hope you can join me. Naturally I will finish off with some more Moose images. After Denali I went on to Lake Clark National Park to do our annual Grizzly Bear trip. I will post a blog soon.
18th September 2015
Iceland Land of Fire and Ice .......
During early June I was in Iceland. This was my forth trip to this wonderful location and everytime I go Iceland throws up a few surprises. I was co-leading a trip with Edwin Kats for Natures Images but I went out with Ed and a good friend Steve for a week just to recce before the trip started. Now Iceland is not renowned for its warm conditions and I have experienced all kinds of weather here, just in one day. When the light is good though boy is it good. Our first stop was at Lake Myvatn which is in the north east of the country. I have travelled to many parts of Europe in search of images and I would put Myvatn in a top ten destination for wildlife photography. There are so many species here and in good numbers too. I had a few target species myself that had eluded me on previous trips and one of them was the Common Scoter.
I have a thing for ducks and my first trip to Iceland in 2010 was to just to concentrate on a couple species. Common Scoter was one of them but it eluded me and has done ever since. So you my might question my logic spending a week working with a little black duck but I enjoyed every minute of it. They are very elusive and shy by nature and so getting close to them can be tricky. We found a small pool with a resident male and it was perfect for putting a small canvas hide along the edge. Then the wait would commence. The resident male was not stupid and would spend most of his time on the far side of the pool. Every now and then though a female would fly in accompanied by four or five other males and so all hell would break loose. The resident male would then start chasing the other males away and try to keep the female to himself. The action would only last few minutes but it was intense and it gave me so many opportunities to catch some great action. It was a long wait but worth it.
It was great fun working with the Scoters and I loved every minute of it. Myvatn is such a good place to spend time around and the beauty of working from a small hide you never though what is likely to drop in. Long-tailed Ducks are another elusive species but a pair would show up on the pool most evenings.
There was always a Red-necked Phalarope or ten that would drop by too. The other iconic birds of Lake Myvatn are the Slavonian Grebes. Most of the small pools around the lake support a breeding pair. One of the most beautiful birds of the area though is the Red Throated Diver.
The tundra surrounding the lakes is also excellent for many other species during the short summer breeding season. The long day light hours and abundance of food attracts many species. Black-tailed Godwits travel back to Iceland from their wintering grounds in the UK each spring and these beautiful birds evocative call can be heard on the moors around Myvatn. These moors are alive with other wading birds too like Whimbrel, Dunlin and Golden Plover.
The Tundra also supports a healthy population of Ptarmigan which are resident and good numbers of Geese breed in the more secluded parts.
Lake Myvatn is fed by underground springs and in turn deeds into the Laxa River. This river is an excellent spot for one of the most beautiful birds of Iceland, the Harlequin Duck. These stunning birds can be found feeding amongst the rapids of the river and it is a joy to witness them battle the strength of the river. I have photographed this species many times so I decided to try a different approach on this trip. I used a slow shutter speed to try and show the movement of the rushing water. I had to take a lot of images because I wanted the head of the birds to remain sharp. A lot of waste for only a couple of images, thank god I don't still use film.
It is much easier when they are resting on the bank to try this sort of image. The image below was a new technique for me. This male was resting near to this small waterfall but I couldn't get both in the same frame, so I took two images and stitched them together. It doesn't look that effective at this size but looks great big on the screen.
After my time at Lake Myvatn I then headed south to the Jökulsárlón Glacier (Ice Lagoon). This is another place that I would put into my top ten places to visit for wildlife photography. This location is excellent for photographing birds feeding amongst the icebergs and growlers. I have spent a good amount of time here in the past but I have never really had the great light that I know you can get here. On a couple of occasions I finely got lucky. There were some good numbers of birds around too especially the Common Eiders, a species that drew me here in the first place.
The Lagoon was also excellent this year for Arctic Terns which were breeding in big numbers on the tundra by the side of the lagoon. The Terns look great against the setting sun especially when that subtle light hits their delicate wings.
When I work with my 500mm lens the nature of the lens usually means you go in tight but I think in a location like Jökulsárlón it works much better to incorporate the environment. I also used a variety of lenses for my visit this year. What was great about this year was the various species that could be found in the lagoon. One morning we had a small group of Razorbills and Guillemots.
These Razorbills and Guillemots looked great resting on the blue ice and so by placing them small in the frame really showed the beauty of the setting. I might have gone a bit too small at times though.
Another great species that we saw in the lagoon was barnacle geese. This species mainly breeds in Greenland and Svalbard but a small population has started to breed in Iceland. I first saw chicks on my first visit and was surprised to find them breeding here. It was only a short visit but enough to grab a few shots.
Iceland Gull was another new species for me in the lagoon and at first we were not what sure what we looking at. Although it is called Iceland Gull it doesn't breed in Iceland and can only be found in the winter. It breeds in Canada and Greenland but there were quite a few birds hanging around the lagoon. Again they made great subjects especially against the deep blue ice of some of the icebergs.
So there you go another trip to Iceland and a whole set of new images to add to the bag. Iceland really does through up some surprises and goes to show you never though what you can get from a location. That's why I always like going back. We are not running a trip there next summer but we are planning on going back in 2017. If Iceland is on your agenda then please get in touch because we do know the place well now. I will finish off with one of my favourite shots from the trip, another Iceland Gull.
1st September 2015
It seems a long time ago that I was in Finland but I have only just got round to processing my images from this trip. I have been to Finland many times now and this wonderful country and its wildlife keeps drawing me back time and time again. This year I planned my trip to coincide with the late winter as I wanted to target the elusive forest grouse, black grouse and capercaillie. I wanted to get images of these beautiful birds in winter conditions but this can be tricky as the timing has to be critical.
This winter was a hard one in Finland and by the end of March showed no sign of relenting. My first visits to a black grouse lek in the Kuusamo region proved unsuccessful as it was still too cold for the males to visit their lek. With temperatures hovering at around minus -25 it was no surprise and after a four hour stint in a hide in those conditions I wished I had stayed in bed too. It was a real shame because the conditions were perfect and where what I was really hoping for.
Eventually the temperatures started to rise and the male black grouse started to drop down to the lek to perform their elaborate courtship ritual. I always feel that these early days during the season give you more opportunities for capturing fighting males as they have not worked out the dominance at the lek. I have covered most things in Northern Europe now but spending those early mornings at a black grouse lekking arena is certainly one of the most rewarding experiences.
After a few days of warm conditions the temperature started to drop again. Most of these images were taken on one particular morning where the temperature had plummeted to -20. As I was driving to the site I could really see the potential but you have this nagging doubt that the birds won't turn up. After an hour and a half there were no birds in front of the hide but I could see them in the tops of the trees. Then one bird flew down and the rest followed. The conditions were amazing with a thin veil of mist clinging to ground and with clear skies it wasn't going to be long before the sun rose which would produce some lovely backlighting for the scene in front of me. You need luck on your side for wildlife photography and boy did I get it on this morning.
My other main target for this trip was capercaillie, again a bird I have photographed many times before but just feel I will never finish. These pictures were of a rouge male which is not as good an experience as photographing them at a traditional lek but it does allow you to work in a different way. Rouge capercaillies are quite rare but every now and then a bird turns up. This one had set up his territory on the slopes of a ski centre and had been attacking the skiers.
Again it was cold conditions and so I positioned myself to shoot into the early morning light which would then pick up the capers breath as he called. The early morning light as it filtered through the trees was great at highlighting his beautiful fanned tail too. I went to see him a few times throughout my trip which enabled me to get a range of images in different conditions. I must stress though that I only spent a maximum of 20 minutes with him once we had found him which was more than enough time and we feel didn't waste too much of his energy. When you are working with grouse in this way you are done by 9.00 so I then spent some time at a few other locations.
There is a very special river in Kuusamo that stays ice free during the winter and it attracts a huge amount of dippers. Most of the rivers are completely frozen over and so that is why this small stretch attracts the numbers. I have been trying to get an image like this for a while now but it has proven difficult as I am using a very slow shutter speed to blur the movement of the water but of course dippers very rarely stand still so it has taken me a while. Whilst in Kuusamo I also went to Oulanka National Park and back to a hide which gives you a great opportunity in photographing golden eagles and other species like great spotted woodpeckers.
After Kuusamo I then headed a bit further south to try and photograph European brown bears. I have been to Martinselkonen many times but it has always been during the summer’s months. We have always had a 100% success rate here when we have run trips but I wanted to try and some different images of the bears in the snow. Easier said than done.
After eight nights and a total of 120 hours spent in the hide I didn't get one sighting of a bear. The long winter had caused the bears to come out of hibernation a little later than usual and also the deep snow was a hindrance for them to cover the distance to get to their feeding site. It is a long time to spend without taking any images but I was able to set up a feeding station during the day which was attracting a number of small birds like great tits, redpolls and bullfinches. I also had some very tame red squirrels coming to the feeder too.
On my last night in the bear hide I did get an eight minute session with a young male that came through. It was so exciting seeing him it felt like my first encounter with a bear. He looked so good in his winter coat and the winter conditions really set the scene. During my time in the hide I had some wonderful conditions which would have looked amazing with a bear in the scene. Ah well that's what takes me back to Finland time and time again. I have been running trips there now for a number of years and I am going back next winter during March and April to run a Finnish winter trip and then also do a winter bear trip. Both trips are fully booked but if you would like to put your name down for 2017 then just drop me an email. Thanks to the Antti and the guys at Finnature and to Markku and his family at Martinselkonen. See you next year.
24th March 2015
Highland Winter ........
At the beginning of March I was in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland co-leading our annual Highland winter trip with Neil McIntye for Natures Images. I think this was our sixth year in doing so and it has become a permanent fixture in our calendar. I have been travelling to Scotland for many years now, when I was younger I kind of took these trips for granted but as I get older you really start to appreciate your time in this wonderful part of the UK. We had many targets for this trip and were successful in finding most. The way we organised the trip for the guests was to split the group into smaller numbers with Neil taking half to his local Red Squirrel feeding site. I then took the rest of the group up into the hills in search of one the most beautiful animals the Mountain Hare.
Mountain Hares are stunning animals throughout the year but they really do take some beating during the winter. Most turn white in the winter which acts as the perfect camouflage which they need to avoid their main predator the Golden Eagle. I went up looking for the Hares on most of the days of the trip. At first the weather was mild and there was not a lot of snow lying on the ground but as the week progressed the winter conditions had returned and they was a good dusting of the white stuff. On most of the days we bumped into this lovely male which had not turned into his winter coat. It is not unusual to find a hare like this as it really is in their genes. He just doesn't turn. He was a great character though and he allowed us some really close views.
The following day we went back up and heavy snow had fallen through the night. I thought it would be hard to spot the hares but they are creatures of habit and usually rest in the same forms each day. He was in his usual place but you could hardly see him because of the snow that had built up around him.
It was good timing as just after we took some images he decided to get up and go for a wander. So he shook off all the snow and the shot was lost.
We came across some other Hares during our time here too. A female was usually in close attendance to our brown male. She was a little bit more nervous but if you took your time you could get close to her too. It was great to have a different Hare to work with and a real bonus that her winter fur was more the norm.
Another target whilst in Scotland was Red Deer. The Alvie estate is a great location for this iconic highland Deer and Graham the resident stalker has been feeding the deer during the winter months for many years. As a result the Deer have become unbelievably tame and it is so hard to believe that you are actually photographing wild Deer. I have wanted to go to Alvie for many years but I really wanted to capture the Deer in the winter conditions. On the days that we went up the conditions were perfect. Thanks to Graham too for letting us go at such short notice.
This was my first time at Alvie or so I thought as I actually spent a week at the bothy near to where Graham feeds the deer back in the early nineties. Graham remembered and knows my friend John that I went with, small world. It won't be my last time either because it is such a great experience and you can get some good shots. It helps when it is actually snowing and boy did it snow on this day.
At first there were just some light flurries but as the afternoon wore on the snow got heavier. The deer were eventually covered in snow too and they made great shots as they headed down through the trees to where the food was put out. I can count on one hand the chances of photographing subjects in these conditions as it is son rare to be in the right place at the right time.
The great thing about Alvie is you are not stuck in a rigid position so you can move freely and also change lenses. This is great at producing a range of different shots from tight heads shots and also incorporating the environment of the Deer.
It was going to be hard to beat Alvie but the other subjects we covered were Crested Tits, Red Grouse and Ptarmigan. Crested Tits are a real speciality of the Spey Valley and is high on everyone's target list.
Ptarmigan are not easy birds as it is a relatively long walk into the deep corries of the Cairngorms where these beautiful birds can be found during the winter. The effort is worth it though just to see this bird. They can be remarkably tame at times and allow a close approach.
As the week went on the weather turned mild again and as quickly as the snow arrived it had disappeared again. I still went back up to the mountain hares though for one last time as I wanted to capture the brown male again. He was in his usual spot and it was great capture some different images of him and his female which was still close by.
Well that is a selection from my recent trip into the highlands and I will no doubt be back again next winter. The winter theme continues as I am just heading off to Finland for another of my annual trips to hopefully photograph Boreal Owls and Black grouse. I want to try for Brown Bears in the snow as well as they are just coming out of hibernation. I will post some images on my return.
12th March 2015
Japanese Winter .........
During February I was co-leading a trip by Natures Images to Japan with Edwin Kats. This was my second visit to this wonderful country and its beautiful wildlife. I always enjoy going to a location on a second visit as I am more prepared and know what to expect. It was always going to be hard to beat my first trip as we had the perfect conditions but this trip certainly did that. Now I don't speak Japanese and most people only speak a little English so we used our same guide as the previous trip. Harumi was our guide and she delivered everything we had asked of her, what a star. Our first visit on our whistle stop tour was to see the Snow Monkeys just north of Nagano.
We had arranged for three days to be spent at the Monkey Park. The weather conditions are so important here and just prior to us arriving lots of snow had fallen. So everything was fresh for the first couple of days. Now the park gets a lot of visitors and I do find it hard with all these people around. Most of them go to the thermal pool where the Monkeys hang-out during the day so this year I avoided going myself. I think the best shots are along the river anyway and because of all this fresh snow it was easy to make to images of them.
Last year I was trying to capture an image of a youngster riding on their mums back but didn't quite manage to do so successfully. So I concentrated on this bit of behaviour whilst I was there. Still only managed a few results though.
Another shot I didn't manage last time was of the youngsters play fighting. That is why it is always nice to visit again because you can work on different images. These two were really playful and kept getting scolded by their mums.
Our next stop was the island of Hokkiado and so we headed back to Tokyo to catch an internal flight to this fantastic island. Now I think I have mentioned before that I love Cranes and the most beautiful species is the Japanese or Red-crowned Crane. I was really looking forward to this part of the trip and to try my luck at photographing them again. I apologise to the people that don't like Cranes as I have found it difficult not to process too many but in the end couldn't resist.
There are a number of places to try your luck at photographing them and one of my favourites is the Arkan crane centre. It is a very civilised place and the two old Japanese ladies that serve curry and rice are very nice, it is a great shame that they are retiring, I will miss our conversations. The cranes are excellent here too and they are tempted with corn, so big numbers visit.
This beautiful Crane was nearly extinct and to think we nearly lost it as a species. It was thought to be extinct in Japan but a few pairs were found to be breeding in the Kushiro marshes and a recovery programme was put in to place. Now there are just over a thousand cranes in Hokkiado. The Cranes do all sorts of things so it is good to build up a portfolio. Lots of preening happens between feeds and because you are close you can do lots of detail work.
They also do a lot of displaying at this time of the year and you can capture some great shots of this elaborate courtship ritual.
There are other areas to visit around the Kushiro marshes especially early in the morning and later in the day. Harumi took us to a great place to see the Cranes fly in from the surrounding fields back to their night time roosting sites.
The other great spectacle at the Arkan centre is the feeding of the White-tailed Eagles. This happens every afternoon and the action is fantastic but brief. It is a great place to capture this impressive raptor in flight and we got lucky with some good conditions. Light snow was the order of the day and it wasn't too much to fool the auto-focus.
The great thing about photographing the eagles at Arkan is the snow that lies on the ground as it acts as a giant reflector which is great at retaining the detail it the feathers.
We spent four days at Arkan which was great because it gave us the time to work on lots of different shots. One thing I missed last year was the chance to capture the cranes performing their elaborate dance routine. On one of the days a pair started to perform it and then others started to join in, it was great to witness.
After our dance with the Cranes it was time to move on to our next location which was Lake Kussharo. This is a great location for photographing Whooper Swans; well it is when you can get to it. A huge storm was hitting the area and all the roads in and out where closed. This meant we were confided to our hotel for a couple of days. It was very frustrating as we were only 15km from the Swans but we just couldn't get there. Eventually the roads to the south opened and we could now move on to our last stop on this trip. We headed to the town of Rausu which is on the Shiretoko peninsula.
During the winter large numbers of Steller's Sea Eagle winter on the peninsula. Most of these birds come from Kamchatka in Russia. During the latter part of the winter great rafts of Ice appears along the coast on Shiretoko. The ice drifts in from the Sea Okhotsk. It is not pack ice like you get in the Arctic but comes from the huge Amur river along the border of China and Russia. As the fresh water ice breaks up it then drifts with the currents to settle of the coast. It is always hit and miss whether it appears but we got extremely lucky as a few days before it wasn't close by. But the huge storm that came in and left us trapped at the hotel in Kussharo brought in the ice. Perfect timing for our boat trips and eagle encounters.
The best way to see the Eagles is by hiring a small boat which takes you out each morning. We had two days out on the ice and the guys that own the boats are local fisherman. The eagles have been following the boats for years and so recognise a free meal when they see them. The fisherman throw out dead fish to attract them down and at one point we counted over thirty birds. It is amazing being this close to such beautiful birds in such a wonderful setting. It is great for getting intimate portraits and trying to capture them in flight when they come in.
It is also really good for White-tailed Eagles and again it is amazing to be this close to a wild eagle without having to be in a hide.
After our short stay in Rausu we then had another couple of days to try and get back to the swans at Lake Kussharo. By this time the roads had all re-opened and so we could get back. It would have been a shame to miss out on the Swans and so we were thankful for the chance to go back. Next year we decided not to run a trip to Japan but I am regretting not doing so as I would dearly love to go back. I will be putting a trip together for the following winter though, so if you would be interested please drop me an email. I would like to thank Harumi for all her help throughout the trip and I would like to thank the guests that joined me on this trip. Thanks for your patience as we were holed up in Kussharo. I will just finish off with a couple of Swan images.
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, Israel's 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 view 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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