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....

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Ultimate Fishing

The osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is an easily recognisable bird of prey species and a fantastic representation of successful nature conservation in the UK.  These impressive raptors were forced to extinction across the British Isles during the early 20th century, largely down to victorian egg and skin collectors.  In 1954, they made their return and naturally recolonised to the now famous Loch Garten RSPB reserve in Scotland.
Ospreys are widespread birds of prey and can be found from Florida to Argentina, and right the way up to Scandinavia.  The birds seen here that are gracing the Scottish landscapes during the breeding season are mostly from North and West Africa where they spend the winter months in the heat of the equator.  They are a largely monogamous species, to both partner and nest site, returning year after year to breed with the same mate at the same location.  Males and females can easily be distinguished from one another when seen in close proximity.  Here the smaller males sits at the bottom of the tree whilst the larger female perches at the top.  

Ospreys are fantastic hunters with fish making up 99% of their diet.  They are perfectly adapted to a life of collecting fish with closable nostrils to stop water entering during dives, impressive vision attuned to seeing movement underwater and backward facing scales on their talons to better grip their prey.  Here the male poses with a freshly caught pike.
The majority of the time spent photographing ospreys, like most animals, is spent waiting!  Waiting whilst they sit in their tree, waiting whilst they fly off for food and waiting for them to do anything but stand!  But when they do start to move it's definitely worth the wait and seeing them inflight or with a freshly caught fish is an amazing experience.  To finish here is a 3 image sequence of an adult returning to its nest site. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

We're in business.

The website is finally up and running!  It took a while but I'm finally at a stage where I feel happy to release it.  So far I have released five images into each gallery, many are still yet to come along with some of my favourites from my trip around Scotland, so keep checking back as it will definitely be changing in the coming days and weeks.  Cheers for dropping in and I hope to see you again soon.