Monday, 8 April 2013

Fallow Me

It's been a while since I've written on this blog so thought I'd put out a post today.  I thought this next one would be spring related, but due to winter digging its heels in this one involves yet more snow!  This time I went out in search of Fallow Deer (Dama dama) in the Peak District.  I know the general area well but this species proves to be quite a timid species, always on the alert and always legging it in the other direction!  

Conditions weren't great photography wise, it was pretty overcast, the light was dropping and there were some serious gales kicking up.  I knew this however, would work to my advantage.  Fallow Deer have an incredible sense of smell and extremely good eyesight.  Using the strong gales I wanted to approach down wind to avoid being detected that way.  Animals can pick a shape out very easily if it breaks the horizon so keeping low was a must until I reached the tree line.  Once there I had a lot more free reign as my shape blended into the pattern of the woods.  At one point they walked directly at me!

"Steady now, no pushing, form an orderly queue!"

With the consistent snow coverings, all grazers must have found it hard to find food in these tough times.  These Fallow Deer would club together around small scrapings and feed on the grass below...

 I got spotted once or twice when I tried moving closer, but if you stayed still enough, I found that they lost you amongst the pattern of the trees behind me again.

The one below was one of my favourites from the day, a young fawn looking like he's attempting to keep warm by nuzzling in close to his mother.

Eventually some walkers came through and spooked the deer giving me the view I most often see! But I did quite like the pattern they made running across the snowy landscape in one long line.

After a relatively successful time with the fallow deer I left them to it, looking down I realised its probably time to invest in some hardier clothing! Jeans just don't cut it anymore!


Wednesday, 27 February 2013

NorthShots Winter Wildlife Tour - A Summary - A Focus on Nature prize

I've recently returned from a week long trip to the stunning Cairngorms with the fantastic NorthShots  on their Winter Wildlife photography tour.  I was very honoured to receive such a prestigious prize, awarded to me through A Focus on Nature and kindly donated by Peter Cairns, one of my favourite nature photographers in the UK.

I've visited the Cairngorms a couple of times previously to take photos for my dissertation whilst on my photography Masters, looking at the conservation of habitats and species found across Scotland.  I instantly fell in love with the place and so I certainly jumped at the opportunity to return.  

So on Monday the 16th February, I embarked on an 8 hour train mission to reach NorthShots HQ near Kingussie for an evening of introductions and a hearty meal.  Peter soon announced to everyone that I was there for free, from which I bowed my head and avoided eye contact with everyone for the rest of the meal!  I was from then on known as "The Competition Winner" for the rest of the week, but apart from a bit of gentle ribbing, everyone was very kind, interested in what I was doing and readily made their years of experience available to me through tips and advice.

Scotland is a fantastic place to visit from a conservation point of view, it's full of species that aren't found, well or at all, in other regions of the UK due to habitat and climate restrictions.  It's a step into the past and in some places is as close to a wilderness as you can experience on the island we call home.

Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are one such species.  North Scotland is home to the strong hold of this charismatic species, with small populations remaining in North Wales and North England.  It is our only native species of squirrel here in the UK with its cousin the Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) being introduced from America.  Grey Squirrels are carriers of a parapox virus better known as Squirrel Pox, they are immune to the virus but this then passes on to the Reds when in close contact which can be fatal to them.  The invasive Greys also outcompete the Reds for food, they are able to feast on acorns, these contain tannins that are toxic to Reds and this offers a larger food source to Greys when times are tough.  Red Squirrel survival depends on the eradication of Greys and where they have been removed, Red Squirrel population health seems to naturally improve.

There is ample opportunity to photograph these fantastic animals around NorthShots HQ with a series of dedicated hides.  Simple backgrounds and great lighting make for some fantastic images.  I spent the first morning sat in the 'forest hide' and it was great to see this species once again.

In the afternoon we went for a short visit to photograph an impressive male Capercaillie.  This is a huge turkey sized species of grouse fully restricted to North of the border.  

This amazing species is in real trouble, having already been wiped out from the UK once before in the 18th century.  Birds from Sweden were reintroduced to the country and in the mid 1970s there was an estimated population of around 20,000.  Since then, numbers have decreased drastically and there is thought to be as little as between 1,000 and 2,000 left.

The main threat to this species is loss of suitable habitat - Caledonian Pinewood with trees of differing ages with dense floor cover of blaeberry and heather, along with boggy patches for strong numbers of invertebrates for feeding chicks.  Decreasing suitable habitat can be largely blamed on overgrazing by deer and sheep stocks.  It is also affected by fatal collisions with deer fences, predation by crows and foxes and an increase in abnormal weather patterns during it's breeding season that affects offspring survival.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I try to get a wide angle image to incorporate the subject's environment.  It gives a different perspective to a straight up portrait and from a conservational point of view, I felt it important to include the habitat that is so important to this species.

 As evening came on the first day and we were treated to surprisingly clear skies I walked down to the river side to take some long exposures of the night sky over the mountains.  

On the second day of the tour we started off with a trip over to Neil McIntyre's place for some further Red Squirrel photography and in the afternoon, set off on the hunt for Red Deer (Cervus elaphus).  Being the competition winner I was awarded prime seating position in the back of the pick up with two of the other guides... and everyones gear! Twenty minutes later and a little more crumpled than before we got in, we waited for the deer to show.  Red Deer numbers have soared across Scotland as they no longer have any natural predators.  When they get into woodland they graze heavily on new shoots and devoid areas of essential new growth, which in turn, effects several at risk species that depend on that type of habitat.  Here I slowed the shutter speed right down and panned with the subject to try a new perspective on a common subject and the image becomes a lot more about representing form than detail.

One of the main points I learned whilst being fully immersed in a photography week with Peter Cairns was that a photograph is much less subject, and much more lighting.  In essence, we shouldn't look to photograph rarer/more impressive subjects in poor light over common species in fantastic light, as no matter the subject, great light makes the shot.  So I tried to take this on board whilst out there and will certainly try and work on this concept more now I'm home as it makes a lot of sense!
Here a female Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), one of the best known species in the UK, but captured with great backlighting that just lights up the shape of the incoming duck.

After the fast shooting duck photography we quickly drove to the other side of the loch to fit in a spot of landscape photography! Busy busy on the NorthShots tour and thats just the way I like it and as a result we managed to witness the stunning colours of this sunset at the end of a great second day! 

Day 3 on the Winter Wildlife tour and we were to get our first taste of snow up the mountainside!  Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) were our target species, another species of grouse with an interesting evolutionary adaptation.  Their plumage changes with the seasons, mottled grey in summer to camouflage against the rocky hillsides and turning all white in winter.  They're a firm favourite of mine and they have a very distinguishable, deep rolling call.  These birds are at the very edge of their climatic range in the UK and only reside at the very tops of the highest peaks in The Highlands where the landscape resembles that of the Arctic Tundra.  Increasing temperatures due to global warming could wipe out any suitable habitat in the UK.  The increase of snow sports in Scotland could also be affecting numbers as human litter attracts crows and ravens that can act as predators to Ptarmigan offspring.  
Conditions were tough up the mountain with harsh lighting, timid birds and very slippy surfaces (it claimed 2 canon 1DX's and a 500mm - RIP) but I did manage a few inflight shots and I particularly liked the composition and background of this one.

 Day 4 and I was chomping at the bit to get a photo of this next subject.  The Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus) was my bogey bird from the summer before, having really wanted to get a photograph of these little punk rockers of the bird world but only ever seeing glimpses in the tops of trees.  So the morning was spent sat in front of a dedicated feeding station at NorthShots HQ, waiting and hoping that one of these birds would show up.  In the end we had around 4 or 5 quick visits in 4 or so hours and you had to be fast when they did come down!  Due to the time of day, sunlight was hitting the subject lighting it nicely from the front and with a patch of trees in shadow behind, I underexposed the scene to achieve a really nice dark background which helps make the subject pop.
Cresties are also at the very limit of their range here in the UK and are only found in Ancient Caledonian Pinewoods and some Scots Pine plantations deep in the Scottish Highlands.  They need a substantial amount of standing dead wood in order for populations to survive as this is where they make their nests.  So although plantations may be good for a short time, if and when they are harvested there is little chance for dead trees to remain standing which makes the case that natural Ancient Pinewoods are the best habitat for these birds - a habitat of which just 1% of its original coverage now exists in the UK.

In the afternoon a few of us went to visit a hill side where some of the group had seen Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) the previous day.  Like Ptarmigan, this species is also a master of disguise, brown in the summer months and turning all white in winter....except of course if they're laying low beneath the snow line, in which case they stick out like a sore thumb!  So this individual was pretty easy to spot from a distance and we slowly started to approach it, stopping every 2 metres or so as we edged closer to where it was hunkered down against the gales.  Thankfully this individual remained totally relaxed showing little signs of stress, falling in and out of sleep, preening and feeding which was a great feeling to have a wild animal accept you as a non-threat whilst being as little as 3 metres away.  Like the Capercaillie I also managed to get some wide-angle images that incorporated this species habitat but this portrait works well for me, the eyes staring directly back at me.  

On Day 5 of the Winter Wildlife tour I didn't manage any decent images.  Spent the morning in a hide set up specifically to capture Red Squirrels mid-leap.  They performed really well to start with but by the time I'd sorted out my focusing technique for the difficult task of capturing them mid-air, they got lazy and started walking round instead of leaping from trunk to trunk.  Too many hazelnuts!  So no photos on the last day but it was a welcome reminder that not everything is a success and you need to work hard to get consistently good images.

So that's it for now, the Winter Wildlife tour is over.  This post just includes a small snapshot of the images achieved on the trip and if you'd like to keep up to date on the rest you can follow my Facebook Page here.

What a fantastic trip and I couldn't recommend a trip with NorthShots enough.  So many great opportunities for some stunning photography and all with people who are really passionate about their imagery, Peter Cairns and Rob Jordan who led the tour were great to be around and their enthusiasm and expertise definitely rubbed off.  A big thanks also to A Focus on Nature who set up this prize for me.  If you have an interest in nature conservation and have something to offer, fill out an application and you never know what you might win or who you might meet.

I have my eye on the NorthShots trip to Iceland now, although I'd better pay this time as I don't think I can handle the abuse twice! Competition winner, over and out.

Friday, 1 February 2013

A flick of a switch

After the last evening of heavy snowfall in Derbyshire I headed out for an early morning wander for a final stint in what may prove to be the final snows of winter.  I was headed for a group of lone trees in a field in The Derwent Valley near to my home where I often walk my dog.  I thought they would make a distinguished subject if a particularly nice sunrise were to turn up.  More than anything, I think these photos can represent how fast light can change and completely change a scene infront of you.  Hopefully this may inspire a few of you who are in to photography yourselves and looking to improve, to stick around a subject a bit longer.  Things may change, scenes unfold, different things will happen and its that change of perspective that could really make a difference.   It may even persuade you to get out of bed a bit earlier and see a few more sunrises, especially in winter when the sun rises at a much more acceptable time than the selfish sunrises of summer that appear around 4.30am!

Anyway, the photographs below were all taken within 40 minutes of each other so this wasn't even a long time to endure.  I could have been more than happy wandering off with just the first image in hand, but I waited, and I think it really paid off.

When I arrived at 8.08, mist cloaked much of the landscape as this particular field lies right next to the river Derwent.  The pre-dawn colours meant that blue was dominant in the sky, and with the mist and snow these hues were reflected nicely creating an overall wintery glow to the scene.

 By 8.15, the sun was on its way up, the mist was beginning to clear and the sky was starting to add a little more colour to the backdrop.

 8.33 and I walked over to the tree behind for a change of subject to see if a single tree might work better.  I'd walked back into the mist, the sun had risen over the brow of the hill and the oranges reflected across the whole snowy scene to give a somewhat false impression of a warm morning - it was not!

 8.40 now and I headed back to the first set of trees to take advantage of the low winter sun.  With the sun now just heading above the horizon, long shadows stretched right up to me and positioning my tripod and camera so it just peeked through a fork in the middle tree, it created an entirely new picture once again.

I finally turned around a few minutes later, happy with my images to witness a completely different landscape unfolding behind me.  I'd noticed a jogger making his way around the fields, waited for him to run into the frame and snapped this at 8.48.  And so I ended with a rainbow.  Things are always better when you end it with a rainbow!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Red (Deer), White (Snow) and Blue (Toes)

This morning, at long last, came the most eagerly anticipated event of 2013....snow!  
Having been falsely promised a white christmas, I leaped at the opportunity to get out and finally take some snaps in what may prove to be one of the few days of snow we get this year.  Having decided on my subject the previous day I set out at dawn in hope of catching up with the local populations of deer in the Peak District.

 I arrived at the site still in low light and a small group of female Fallow Deer (Fama fama) were feeding not too far away.  I approached these for a while but they were proving to be rather skittish and the light really wasn't on my side as they were mainly hanging around under the trees.  Having seen a distant Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) stag on the drive through I went off in search of a grander acquaintance.

I started walking up in the general direction of where I thought I'd seen the lone male and after about half an hour of trudging through snow I saw my first sign.  When it comes to tracking, I'm no Ray Mears, but I thought these antlers poking over the hillside were a good place to start...

Having not had much luck with the Fallow Deer, I wasn't holding out much hope but as I crawled over the brow of the hill that one stag become eight.  Red Deer males are the largest of land mammals in the UK, they can weigh up to 190kg and have up to 16 points on their antlers.  When you multiply that by 8, it becomes quite an intimidating prospect, especially when you're lying on the ground.
After a while, when they realised I was little threat they relaxed and the pictures I had in my head the previous evening were coming to light as the snow got heavier and I was able to incorporate one of the most impressive species found in the UK.
 Red Deer no longer have any natural predators in the UK with Lynx, Bears and Wolves all locally extinct.  This means that Red Deer have little pressure on their growing populations, and when they get too large in numbers they can have detrimental effects on vegetation.  
 This is particularly a problem in Scotland where the majority of the UK populations exist and their overgrazing of woodland areas changes the natural plant structure and denies new growth - an important factor for woodland birds such as Black Grouse and Capercaillie that feed their chicks on invertebrates associated with new plant growth.  To keep the effects of overgrazing down, Red Deer populations are controlled and their numbers maintained at an appropriate size.

 Although this species can have negative impacts on our environment when populations get out of control, they are still an important part of our natural heritage and fantastic to see, especially in the snow.  I think the photo beneath is my favourite of the day when this male paused briefly to stare back at me through the falling snow.
I also took a few wider images in order to place them in their environment and I really like how it then becomes more about shape than detail.

To finish, I spotted another small group in amongst some woodland and this offered another perspective.  A more abstract approach as the deer almost blends in to its habitat, and again it's more the shape that takes over as this stag is only just identifiable against the falling snow and the trees.  The photo then starts looking more like a drawing than a photograph and finished the day off nicely!  

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Mythical Beast that is the Yorkshire Red Squirrel

On Monday the 17th December, a small group of us set off in search of the mythical beast that is the Yorkshire Red Squirrel.  Having photographed these critters in Scotland before, I couldn't resist the invite but could their Yorkshire cousins be found?  You hear so much about grey squirrels being the doomsday for reds in England that I didn't hold out much hope.  Could this underground, post-apocalyptic group of reds surviving in Yorkshire be found?  In short....yes....but almost not!

We set off at 7am and with the weather worsening by every mile north, it wasn't looking good.  3 hours later we were somewhere in the vicinity.  Our goal was to find the Snaizeholme Red Squirrel feeding centre as this was to stand the best chance of catching a glimpse.  Up and down farm tracks we drove, getting stuck once and on the edge of a muddy slope at that...  We eventually ditched the wagon and took to foot, up and down farm tracks we walked....nothing!  If the feeding station was proving elusive, surly the reds would be even more mysterious.  Just as it was looking like the 3 hour journey up north was for nothing, our saviour turned up.  A Yorkshire Dales National Park Ranger with a sack of peanuts!

The red squirrel is the only native squirrel species to the UK with it's American cousin the grey being introduced in the 19th century.  Since then the greys have spread and decimated populations of our native.  Grey squirrels are carriers of a parapox virus better known as squirrel pox.  They themselves are immune, but this then passes on to reds when in close contact which can be fatal.  The invasive greys also outcompete the reds for food.  Grey squirrels are able to feast on acorns, these contain tannins that are toxic to reds and offers a larger food source to greys when times are tough.  Red squirrel survival depends on the eradication of greys and where they have been removed, reds seem to naturally improve their population health such as Anglesey, Brownsea Island, Yorkshire and most of Scotland.

As you can see from the top photo, the weather was never on our side and it drizzled for most of the day!  I initially started using my telephoto lens (400mm f5.6 - top picture) and whilst the photo looks quite good, the low light meant I needed a high ISO to gain any usable shutter speeds with my longer lens.  I do love my camera, but it doesn't handle noise from high ISO's well and so unhappy with the results I chose to ditch the portraits and go wider!  I attached my smaller lens and steadily went in closer, this kind of approach gives a very different feel to the images as you can now add in some of the environment in which your subject presides.  In this case woodland.... afterall this is an important part of the story of the subject and I quite like the different results from using a telephoto to blur out the background.
 I exposed for the trees in the background and used a bit of fill flash to make the foreground subjects pop and stand out.

 After getting a few wide angle images I was happy with, I set myself a new challenge of getting photos of the red squirrels running about.  These guys are FAST!  The low light didn't help on the shutter speed front so I tried to work with what I could get and used the slow shutter speeds to get some movement blur and panning blur with a bit of flash again to help freeze the subject.

Hope you like the results, hopefully there'll be more red squirrels soon to come from my trip to the cairngorms in February.  With any luck, a very snowy cairngorms.  Delicious!

Monday, 12 November 2012

The seals of donna nook

The months of November and December bring one of the best chances to see the UK's largest breeding seals up close and personal as huge numbers of these Grey Seals haul themselves landward to breed and give birth.  One of the most popular and accessible destinations to see this spectacle first hand are the beaches of Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire Coast.

These impressive creatures gather in their hundreds in November, and as we visited on a saturday did the crowds!  It was great to see so many people getting out and enjoying nature, but made photography on the day a bit more challenging!  Nonetheless the seals were within metres from the boardwalk and put you right in amongst the action, really giving a sense of scale as to how big these animals are.

The vast majority of the time the seals would lay down, rest, wallow in the intertidal mud and occasionally let out a grunt or other indescribable noise, seemingly unbothered by the masses of people watching them.
Dotted in and amongst the mounds of blubber were lots of newborn pups.  These have distinctive white fluffy coats and large black eyes inevitably receiving a chorus of 'aaaws' from the crowds that they so rightfully deserve!
 The pups of Grey Seals weigh around 14kg at birth.  They quickly balloon in size due to the mothers' milk being 60% fat, ensuring they too will develop a thick coat of blubber to survive the cold waters of the North Sea.

 The bulls of the group offer the most chance to see action on the beaches.  They are huge, regularly weighing between 300 and 400kg of blubber and muscle.  They patrol small areas of the beach in order to protect their mating rights and can be very aggressive to one another.  They'll regularly let out roars and slam their stomachs against the ground to make loud booming sounds, showing off their size and weight in order to intimidate would be attackers.

 If the slams and roars don't work, theres only one option left...almost a tonne of grey seal coming together in a vicious battle.  These fights can get extremely violent and use up lots of energy so it is essential to win.  They use their huge weight and strong jaws to tussle and bite each other leaving the majority of battle hardened males bloodied and scarred.  
Although you have to feel sorry for the loser thats left licking his wounds, it is an impressive spectacle to witness first hand and an important part of nature.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Captive Creativity or Cheating the System?

During my time at Nottingham University we had several photographic trips around the country.  Some of these were landscape orientated, some all about science and some offered the opportunity to photograph animals up close and personal. And I mean up close....

Trips to The British Wildlife Centre (above) and The International Centre for Birds of Prey offered a unique chance to look at some spectacular animals in incredible detail.  The keepers at both sites are extremely accommodating and bring out lots of their animals for closer looks, enabling shots that would take an age and a half to plan and carry out in the wild. 

Specific photographer days at the BWC enable access into the animal enclosures.  This enables you to take photos within a natural environment, a fox in its natural habitat for instance.  An awesome opportunity it might be, but you can't help but feel like you're cheating!  It's a little too easy, a little too structured and a little too predictable.  Even with the increasing confidence of Urban Foxes, you'd struggle to find one that would feel comfortable coming this close to people in the wild, so no matter how natural a scene it may look, it is in fact a very unnatural scenario.

The plus side to these kinds of opportunities is of course the chance for a different shot.  A change of perspective for a well known species.  Something you wouldn't think possible in the big wide wild...

And if photographs like this are taken in captivity it takes away the need for close up, human disturbance in the wild, so who's to say thats a bad thing?  

Another positive of taking photographs in captivity is the chance to practise and hone your skills.  The ICBP fly their birds of prey in falconry displays and this offers a fantastic opportunity for target practise with fast moving subjects.  If you're able to sort out what preference you have for your focusing, and settings in a place where the birds are repeatedly flown in front of you, giving ample opportunity to try out different options, you're much less likely to panic in the wild should the chance come along.

In my dissertation book on the conservation of species in Scotland, I certainly utilised the opportunity to get portrait shots of a couple of species that would be nigh on impossible in the wild.  For instance I had flight shots of wild White-tailed Eagle taken in Scotland, but to accompany that I used this portrait I took at the ICBP to depict the detail.  Rightfully captioned as captive and used to accompany wild shots I felt it only added to my piece on the species.

I'm still undecided as to whether captive animals offer a creative prospect or an easy way out.
Is it creatively cheating or cheating creativity? Who knows!  I'll let you make up your own mind.

Either way as long as you don't try and fool your audience into thinking the subject is something it is not, then I can't see it being too much of a problem.
I shall leave you with this, a Spectacled Owl at the ICBP, one of my favourite subjects at the place, and when it closes its eyes, I'm pretty sure it turns into a Furby....