Saturday, 17 January 2015

Black-headed Gulls

Many British animals are overlooked by people everyday. I myself am guilty of overlooking the seemingly 'common' species on our doorstep. Whilst out with my camera, I couldn't help but notice the number of Black-headed Gulls I kept seeing. Lakes, coasts, cities, farmland, all habitats teeming with these birds, yet I rarely photograph them. I decided to therefore try out some different techniques on these birds, to practice my craft, and what better subject than a bird of which there are 2.2 million of over winter in this country. They are a sociable, quarrelsome and very noisy birds so they make for great action photographs, yet they can provide a beautiful subject as well - as you will see.

I began by photographing Black-headed Gulls at sunrise. If you get the right weather, mornings on lakes can be extremely beautiful. Light mist, combined with the rising winter sun can create this wonderful golden light, as seen in the pictures below.

The golden hours at dusk and dawn are perfect for photography. The lighting and colours are so rich and it is also the time at which most animals are at their most active. I think that places can be transformed at dusk and dawn. Locations which do not justify a second glance during the day can be transformed into a magical setting.

Black-headed Gulls are often more populous in urban landscapes. I was able to get much closer with my camera when I photographed the birds in Bristol. I used a 10mm lens to take the photograph below and the Gull was maybe a foot away from the camera. I used a flash to freeze the action but the slightly longer shutter speed has created some slight blur around each bird, which I think shows the movement of the birds well. They are a sociable, quarrelsome and very noisy birds meaning that when one finds food, the others soon notice and try to fight over the best bits. I did fear for my camera and hands at one point whilst out in Bristol.

Another technique I have been using is panning. I have never really done this with wildlife so thought I'd try it with Black-headed Gulls. For those who don't know what this is, I will explain. If you pan with your subject, keeping it in the same position of the frame and use a long exposure of around 1/30th of a second, your subject will be sharp but the background will become blurred. 
I really like the technique - it shows movement really well and can produce interesting colours and textures in an otherwise boring background. The photograph below shows the type of image produced. 

I personally prefer this photo (below). The composition creates a more chaotic scene, showing the nature of these birds well. It looks, to me, more like a painting than a photo, showing that you can create very artistic photos with a camera. 

I am going to continue photographing these birds, to reveal more about their lives and to attempt to show them in a more pleasing manner than many people think of them. Watch this space. 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Kennall Vale

One of my first projects at university has been to document and study the habitat of Kennall Vale nature reserve in Cornwall; a small woodland valley owned by the Cornwall wildlife trust which sits on the remains of a granite gunpowder industrial site which ran until 1910.
The area is a beautiful place from the moment you enter; oak trees towering over the pathway, fungi glistening at your feet, the sounds of Goldcrest and Grey Wagtails calling in the trees.

Some of the trees in the Ancient Woodland are phenomenally large
The site is most famous for the river which runs through it and the abandoned ruins of the disused mill houses. I did take a few photos of the river using a long exposure but did not spend too long as it is a shot which has been photographed on many occasions. Here are a few views of the landscape including the river:

River Kennall flowing through the woodland
The moss on the trees emphasises any light which shines through the canopy
The fibrous roots which grow out of the entire length of the stem of
Common Ivy allow it to grow to extreme heights on buildings
I was keen to try and find as much fungi as I could in the woodland area. The damp and mild conditions and the autumn season make woodlands perfect for fungi. I found in total around twenty different species and photographed the best ones.

Sulphur Tuft Fungi, Hypholoma fasciculare
This was my favourite picture that I took of fungi. The Sulphur Tuft is a common woodland fungi, most commonly seen in periods of heavy decay such as autumn. It is a toxic fungus which if eaten can cause you to feel very sick. I used a shallow depth of field (f2.8) to achieve a nice blurred background to seclude the fungi. I then used a reflector underneath to brighten the stems and I shaded the tops to reduce glare and overexposure. 

Mycena spinosissima
Although not the best photo I took, it took me just over an hour to get this image right. I added leaves to the base of the fungi and to the background to get rid of any distracting green patches of moss which were common in the woodland. I then had to get the exposure right. I ended up underexposing the photo by one stop so that the background would be much darker. I then used three separate reflectors to light up the fungi to make it stand out. 

Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus
I loved the colours created by the autumn leaves on the floor in this photo. I wanted to throw them out of focus by using a wide aperture of f2.8. I then reflected light onto the fungi to make it stand out. 

Candlestick Fungi, Xylaria hypoxylon
Unidentified species
 The plants of Kennall Vale can also not be missed. Ferns, Ivy, Moss and Bracken cover everything in the woodland, from trees to old buildings. I tried to experiment with different angles when photographing a lot of the plants as I didn't want to stick with my usual small aperture photographs.

I got right underneath this plant and used a fish eye lens in order to get as much of the landscape around it in the photo as possible. I wanted to make the plant look huge, when in actual fact it was only ten centimetres off of the ground. I exposed for the highlights in the sky and waited for the sun to shine through the trees so that the greens in the plant would stand out even more.

As well as it's beautiful landscapes and huge array of Fungi and plants, Kennall Vale is home to many birds including Grey Wagtails and Dippers. I was very excited to photograph Dippers in particular because I had never seen them before.
I had to arrive to the site early to photograph the Dippers. I arrived just before sunrise so that I could get myself into position and set up my equipment before the birds became active. I was using a Canon 500mm lens and a Canon 6D. Around twenty minutes after sunrise the Dippers began to show. I saw two in total.

Dipper, Cinclus cinclus
The light was very poor when this Dipper was hunting. I was forced to use an ISO of 2500 which my camera did not cope very well with. The photo is therefore very grainy. However, I still really like the photo that I took. The composition works well and the dark light kind of represents the elusive nature of the bird. I watched a pair or around ten minutes before they flew off and did not return.

The Grey Wagtail showed a lot better. The individual in the photo below was in front of me hunting and cleaning for around forty five minutes. At many points it was within my minimum focus distance...

Grey Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea
I am very happy with this photo. The eye is perfectly in focus and the shallow depth of field has made the background a very nice tone and brown which compliments the yellow and grey of the bird. There is still detail in the wall that the Grey Wagtail is on which I like. You can see the fallen leaves which indicates to the viewer that it was taken in Autumn.

Overall, I am very happy with the photos that I have taken at Kennall Vale. It is a magical place and is most certainly one which I would recommend visiting if you are ever in Cornwall.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Shetland 2013 - Otter family

During the summer of 2013 I visited the Shetland Isles as a photography trip. This was the first holiday which I had planned solely for wildlife photography.
Shetland was been a place I had wanted to visit for many years; the first BBC wildlife magazine I ever read had a picture of an Otter on the front - and subsequently inspired me to get into wildlife photography seriously - and Charlie Hamilton James, one of the first photographers I begun aspiring towards, is well known for his work on Otters and his countless hours of film and thousands of photos on the species greatly attracted me to the Shetlands.

I'll admit that I wanted to go to Shetland to photograph Otters. I will also admit that this was very naive of me. Otters are not easy to find and certainly not easy to photograph, so I was going to need a lot of luck to do so. I knew however that even if I didn't see any Otters during my trip that it would be worth it. The bird life on Shetland is incredible and I was bound to get some good photos and experiences out of the journey.

Now, I don't want to bore you with a lot of writing so I'll get straight down to the business of weather I found any Otters or not...
I spent 10 days on Shetland and spent each say searching and waiting for Otters. I saw my first on the second day, I was in the camper van with my mum, parked next to an inlet and I spotted and Otter pop its head out of the water and quickly dive back under. I was in complete shock and grabbed my camera and went to get into a better position. Unfortunately it didn't return but I was amazed to have seen one and know that they are definatley around.
I then saw one the next day, this time it was a Dog Otter - read my previous blog for more on this.

After that I spent the rest of the holiday searching for good locations, in between photographing Puffins, Terns, Razorbills, Guillemots, Seals, Dunlin and a whole lot of wildlife. I decided on the last day - after no great views or photographs of Otters - to go to the Isle of Noss. The Isle of Noss is a haven for birds, particularly Puffins and as I was soon to find out... Otters.

I went onto the island with my Mum and as soon as we got off the boat a lady said to us that they had seen a family of Otters on the island recently and if I was lucky, I may see them. So I led down by a kelp bed (up wind of course) and waited. My patience over the trip had paid off at this moment when a female Otter burst out of the sea onto land with a crab in her mouth. I was ecstatic and couldn't help but take as many photos as possible to treasure the moment. Soon after, two pups came out of the water and begun biting the female... I was watching a family of Otters... me, a 17 year old boy. I didn't think in a million years that this would happen but it did. It was the single best wildlife encounter of my life and I don't think I will ever forget the moment.

Here are two of the photos that I took on that day:

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Shetland part 1 - tracking Dog Otters

From the first moment that I thought about going to Shetland, I always wanted to see and photograph Otters. That was the main reason for me going. However I also knew that it wouldn't be likely for me to see one close enough to get any decent pictures.
The work of Charlie Hamilton James and Simon King are what attracted me to the Shetland islands. Their stunning documentaries and countless photographs of the famous but elusive Shetland Otters. Most of the footage I had seen was of dog Otters, these are male adult Otters which are a lot more solitary than the females who tend to stay with the cubs. I assumed therefore that I would be more likely to see a Dog Otter than I would be to see a family. 

So the story of how I saw my first ever wild Otter goes as follows.
Me and my dad were studying a map of the island we were staying on to look to see if there were any potential locations to watch Otters. I was looking mainly for sheltered inlets or 'voes' close to fresh water (I'll explain why later). My dad pointed out a place named 'Otterswick' which at first seemed to be to obvious but I thought I'd go and have a look. 

In and around low tide is the best time to watch Otters on Shetland because this is when the kelp beds are out of the water and the Otters can be seen searching for crabs and fish in the shallows.
I arrived at the location around 1 hour before low tide. I begun by slowly walking through the fields which overlooked the rocky beach, looking for any signs of an Otter as if there was one there already I didn't want it to spot me.
I couldn't see anything so I went onto the beach to see if there were any signs and there were. I could see clear Otter prints in the sand which ran for about 30 metres from the river to some rock pools. I followed the tracks and at the end of them was a half eaten Velvet Crab and by the smell I could tell it was still fresh. At that point I turned round to see if there were any other signs of where he had gone from that point and to my amazement I saw a single Otter gracefully sliding into the water from a kelp covered rock, where I had been stood just 2 minutes before. 
At that point I was in such shock that I couldn't physically move my hand to lift the camera up but instinct told me to drop to the floor to avoid being spotted, so I did and smashed my shins on the way down. My heart was beating at double speed and I lifted up my camera and begun firing shots, even though the Otter was around 50 metres away from me so they were nothing special. Luckily he did not spot me or catch my sent because I was down wind at the time.

Bad quality but I didn't care as I was watching a real life, wild Otter...

The Otter quickly dived under the water and surfaced again around 50 metres from the shoreline. He would repeatedly dive under the water and on most occasions surface with a fish which is pretty incredible. He would be under water for around 30 seconds at a time which was the time that I would move to get a better view, so as he came up I would drop down into the rocky shore and get wet because I wouldn't look where I was putting my foot. I spent about 10 minutes running and lying down to get a better view but he was always too far out at sea for me to be able to take good photos.

I spent around half an hour watching him hunting in the kelp beds which was such a privilege for me. I had hoped to see Otters on my visit, maybe get some photos but I didn't think that I would watch a Dog Otter hunting. 

After half an hour he begun to head towards the rocks on the other side of the wick. I looked over and could see that there was a field above the rocks that he was heading for so I slowly and carefully made my way over. I made sure that I was still down mind and out of sight and started walking through the field to the point that I saw the Otter get out of the water.
To my amazement, about 10 metres below me, the Otter was out of the water cleaning his fur. *Otters need to wash after every hunt to maintain the waterproof properties of their fur, as these are river Otters NOT sea Otters*. I then had a tricky decision to make... I was so close to the Otter and the area was so calm that if I were to take any photos, the Otter would be spooked by the sound of the shutter. So I decided not to take photos and enjoy the moment for as long as I could. The lighting was poor and my lens was misting up anyway so......
When the Otter finally stopped cleaning he headed under a rock which was about 30 metres away where I was able to take this amazing photo - wildlife photographer of the year maybe?

Yep... that is an Otters tail...

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Frog Blog - Part I

Spring is a great time for wildlife photographers and nature lovers alike as all of the animals are becoming active again, the flowers are beginning to bloom and new life is starting. This year I wanted to start Spring off with something which I haven't photographed before and I thought why not make it simple and go with the Common Frog...

I was lucky to go out in the first week of spring and within about 5 minutes I came across a corner of a pond full with Frog spawn, being closely guarded and nurtured by two adult frogs. Frogs can lay up to 4000 eggs and lay numerous batches each year. I'm always amazed  by how much one female can lay and enjoy looking closely at each egg and realising that there is a future frog in each one however on average only 5 out of 2000 tadpoles will survive to become adult frogs

I began photographing the frogs and chose to use my Canon 100mm L Macro lens. This was the top choice for me as the detail produced is fantastic, the minimum focus distance is 15cm so I was able to get very close to the subjects and also being able to go down to f2.8 allowed me to get some really nice shallow depth of field shots. 
Most of the time the frogs were under the water, probably because it is safer and they were nurturing the spawn, but they kept surfacing for air every other minute. This looked instantly like a great shot as only the head would come out of the water. The detail on the eyes was something I wanted to capture as well. I set my camera to auto focus and was holding it parallel to the waters surface (trying my best not to drop it) and I waited for one to surface. 
It was very hard as each time one came up by the time I focused in it would descend into the water again. I was patient however and managed to get some shots which I was really happy with. 

I was really happy with this photo but I think if I was to take it again I would have got closer to the water the be more level with the frog.

When I went back a couple of days later one of the frogs was out of the water which allowed me to get some different type of shots.

This particular frog, when out of the water, didn't seem phased by my presence at all. He allowed me to get extremely close and didn't move or even twitch. This allowed me to get some really cool close up images of the eye. For this photo below I was only around 20cm away with my lens, the photo isn't cropped in. 

Thank you for taking your time to read this, please leave a comment of your thoughts. I am hoping to try and take some underwater photos of the frogs soon which should be fun and hopefully I will have some good results to show. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Early mornings and golden light...

I've begun a new 'project' type of thing, where I have been trying to perfect my bird silhouette photos. To do this I have been using the sunrise as a backdrop. The reason I am doing it at this time of year is because you don't have to wake up too early to watch the sunrise (at the moment its about 8am) whereas in the summer you'd have to be up at 4am to have any chance, so although the title says 'early mornings' it's not actually that early...

I've been going to a site which is only about a 10 minute walk from my home which is at the top of a hill making for a good view of the sunrise. There are lots of fence posts as it's near a farm and there are plenty of Robins, Blackbirds, Sparrows, etc. which make for perfect subjects for silhouettes.

This is the fence post which I have been most commonly using as the sun rises perfectly behind it creating a wonderful silhouette and a bright glow. The mornings have to be clear for it to work but some small clouds or plane trails make for interesting pictures as well.

That brings me on to my next point. With this 'project' I am very much restricted for many reasons. Firstly for these silhouettes to work it needs to be a clear sky but there has been around 4 clear sky mornings in the last 3 weeks where I live. Secondly I have to leave for college on weekdays before the sun even rises. Lastly there is only a 10-15 minute window of time when the light is perfectly orange or 'golden' and if the birds to not comply and land on the perches in this time then I wont get any photos. 

So down to the photos. The first time I went to this location I knew what I wanted and set up my camera and set down some bird food to entice the birds in. However they weren't  interested and instead ate in the fields opposite. One bird however did perch on one of the fence posts but not the one I wanted. I was still able to get a nice photo with the beautiful orange light behind. I think that the plant around the fence does make for a more interesting composition as well.

I also tried to take some photos of flying birds as the golden light had gone however my camera didn't want to focus on the birds so left a slightly out of focus image which would have been great. This one was of 3 swans.

The next time I went was this morning. The light was amazing and their wasn't a cloud in the sky. I set up my camera (Canon EOS 60D  |  Sigma 150-500mm) and also set up my GoPro to time lapse the sunrise. I then waited until the sun began to rise. The birds were definatley a lot more co-operative and were eating my food before sunrise. I was slightly worried that they would finish it all before the sun had even risen but luckily they didn't. The sun rose at precisely 8.03am (in case you were wondering). The whole atmosphere and look of the area changes as soon as the sun peeks over the horizon. Everything turns orange and the birds behaviour changes. They begin to sing frantically and are more eager to feed. 

Many of the birds were using the fence post to feed which allowed me to get some nice shots but they weren't posing perfectly so I think another trip is in order. Before they feed they line up in the trees waiting for their turn which also made nice photos. Here's the best ones from this morning:

This is a robin which wasn't singing but was actually yawning... The different shades in the background were produced by small clouds and plane trails and made for a great backdrop.

I really like this photo but am not really sure why. The light was fading at this point but I still managed to get a dark silhouette and I fell the composition is quite nice.

This is a robin and although this is a nice silhouette its quite boring as the bird isn't singing or doing much.

So that concludes this part of the 'sunrise saga'... pretty catchy. I am definatley going to be taking some more as its actually really fun to do. Please tell me what you think of all of these photos, ones you like, ones you don't like... Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Top 5 wildlife encounters of 2012...

This year has probably been the best year in terms of my wildlife photography/filming and encounters. I hadn't made any big plans to delve deeper to find bigger, better species but they just seemed to arise due to my improved knowledge of the areas around me... I'm going to start with number 5 and then make my way down to my overall top wildlife encounter of the year:

5 - Dolphins off of Cornwall...

In October of this year I went on a family holiday to St Ives in Cornwall. I bought my camera and telephoto
lens in case I saw something worth photographing but I didn't have high hopes.

On the first day I went down into the harbour just to have a look around, see the bird life and maybe take a few shots of the wading birds on the beach. I was looking out to sea when I discovered that there was disturbance in the water as if someone had just jumped in, so I had a look through my camera which was on a tripod at the time. I couldn't see anything but still waited just to check when suddenly 2 dolphins leaped out of the water around 2 metres high... I couldn't believe my eyes but my wildlife photography instinct took over and caused me to press on the shutter. I took my eye away from the viewfinder and could begin to see that it was a pod of around 10. This is the first time I had ever seen dolphins in UK waters and is a moment I would never forget.

I checked camera to see the photo which I had just took and saw that I had managed to photograph one as it was jumping over another dolphin - although it wasn't the best picture I was definatley pleased with it -

I was then sat watching them for around half an hour and hadn't realised that behind me were around 50 other people watching the same thing.

4 - Great Tit family film...

In early spring of this year I was walking through my local woodland in search of signs of mammals. I standing near to a tree on a hill with my binoculars when I began to hear very faint squeaks coming from behind me, the kind a mouse would make. I turned around but nothing was there so I just assumed I was hearing things. I then heard it again so looked around once more but nothing was around I though the tree can't be making that noise surely, so I went over to the tree and put my ear up against it and could hear it louder and then noticed at knee level there was a hole.

I looked up the hole and discovered a nest of 8 little chicks all screaming for food. the light was shining in so I could make out all of them without needing to use a torch which could have harmed them. I backed away from the nest to see if the parents would arrive to feed them so that I could see what species it was... After around 2 minutes two Great Tits had arrived and each had its beak full of caterpillars. They flew into the nest and then within a matter of seconds were back out and didn't seem to be phased my me at all.

I spent much of my time in Spring filming the family and monitoring the health of the chicks. Unfortunately 3 of the 8 died along the time in the nest but 5 fledged, Great Tits fledge after around 16-22 days. I didn't see the chicks fledge unfortunately but I managed to track down 3 of the 5 within the next week and they seemed healthy and were eating well.

To spend so long with this family was a great experience and particularly to be accepted by the adults was amazing - one was perched on the end of my boot at one point.

3 - Kingfishers...

Before this year I had never seen a Kingfisher and was hugely shocked to see one on a river just 5 minutes away from my house.

I went to this river in search of birds and small mammals and was surveying the quality of the river - depth, turbidity  fish life etc... There were indeed plenty of fish including Bullheads, minnows (Kingfisher lunch) and one black fish, around 20cm long, which I couldn't identify. The river was also clear but in times of heavy rainfall become heavily sedimented and would flood which wasn't so good. I decided to sit in my hide and see what arrived...

Firstly a Yellow wagtail came which is a great bird, then two Grey herons, Moorhens, Mallards and couple of swans but then I suddenly saw a flash of blue. My first thought was a Kingfisher but then knowing my luck I though it couldn't be but then there perched on the other side of the river was a beautiful male Kingfisher. It was the most amazing bird I have ever seen and I was in complete shock.

I began going to the site every day for the next couple of weeks trying to film it but it wasn't easy and the river kept flooding due to a weeks heavy rainfall.

I managed to get some film of it though which was amazing and it was great to have this experience so close to home.

2 - Short Eared Owls...

Like the Kingfisher, before this year I had never seen any Owl before in my life. So when I got a tip off of a local site which was known for Short Eared Owls I was very excited. I went down to the site and was surrounded by about 10 other photographers all with big 600mm lenses with their Canon 5D's and what not and then there was me on the end with my 60D and 150-500... 

After about an hour of waiting I saw emerging from the distance a very large bird flying over the grassland in a zig zag pattern, to cover as much land as possible. As it got close I noticed that it was a SEO and it flew within around 10 metres of me and filled the frame of my camera. It was amazing to see and be so close to this giant bird. I managed to get a few shots at the time and came back many times and saw it each day at around 4.30pm and always got some nice photos. 

When leaving one day I was going past a sheep field, which was just behind the grassland where the SEO was. I noticed perched on a fence post was a Barn Owl eating what seemed to be a vole. It was too dark for photos but I was watching it for a good 20 minutes through my binoculars  So I had now seen two owls in the space of a week, amazing.

1 - Diving with Grey Seals...

In June I went to Lundy Island with my dive club. Lundy is famous for its healthy population of Grey Seals so we were expecting a good day out. I'd seen Grey seals before on land but they are completely different animals when under water. 

We suited up and jumped into the water and were finning at a depth of around 6 metres in the kelp. Within about 20 minutes a seal emerged through the kelp and swam over to us. It was amazing, I was within touching distance of it and the visibility was brilliant so I was able to observe the elegance of this seal. 
The seals were so playful and inquisitive. One was trying to bite off my fins which I wasn't happy about but it allowed my to stroke it along the back, which was an unforgettable experience. 

The seals seemed to be more interested in my brother who was diving with me, they like smelly things. They were going right up to his face and were swimming all around him. Luckily I had bought my underwater camera which allowed me to take some shots (I'm not that good of an underwater photographer by the way). 
Here's a Grey seal spreading the love with a little kiss

This was an amazing experience and has given me a lot more respect for these animals. I will never forget it.

I hope that next year brings just as much excitement as 2012 has... Merry Christmas everyone...