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Photographing Grebes and Grouse
14th April 2010 - 0 comments
Trip to the Peak District
A 4.30am start saw me arrive at my destination at 7.30am the weather was relatively kind bright but overcast.

My main species to photograph on this trip were Dippers, Red Grouse and Little Grebes. So the first port of call was a well known site for Little Grebes.

Little Grebes

The birds here are so used to people they will let you get very close if you use a little patience and don’t rush at them. I settled down with my camera and tripod and waited for a pair to come close enough to give me the images I was after. The background was a little tricky with a great big tethered barge in the way! So a move of a couple of yards was made and it wasn’t long before the Little Grebes came into view. They were feeding on Caddis larvae that were hidden in the sub surface weed. One Grebe came to within 20 feet of me and allowed me to take several images before scooting off to meet its mate. These two endearing little birds had started to build their nest hidden in some overgrown brambles on the opposite bank and the male was busy adding bits of weed and flotsam and jetsam to the nesting mound. A fantastic bit of behaviour! I had to use a large aperture of F4 on my 500mm Canon lens, as the light was difficult beneath the overhanging trees and a change of ISO setting pumped up the shutter speed a little.

Water Voles

After my encounter with the Little Grebes I then moved on to try and photograph the Water Voles that frequent this spot. A species under threat from vermin American Mink that were either released by so called animal rights activists or turned out into the wild by defunct fur farms, either way the poor old Water Vole has suffered as a result.
The Water Voles at this site can usually be found in the crevices along the bank-side but today there was no sign of them! Voleless I was starting to panic a little then some movement on the opposite bank gave their position away. Remembering that these creatures do not have brilliant eyesight I walked around and “stalked” the Water Voles using the odd tree and hump in the ground as cover. The plan worked and several shots were taken before it was scared off by a drake Mallard landing nearby. No sign of any more voles after that.

I won’t dwell on the Dipper story too much, but they were very elusive at this “honey pot” site and I saw only two birds all day! On leaving I was told that this area had been mist netted a few days earlier so birds could be ringed. So if you want images of birds with two rings on each leg this is the place to go! I did manage to photograph a couple of Grey Wagtails that were nest building on the side of a waterfall so all was not lost!

Red Grouse

The next day I drove up to the higher peaks in search of Red Grouse. After a long trudge up what felt like Mount Everest I arrived at a spot were the Grouse were so approachable that I got within twenty five feet of them. The male birds were busy displaying and defending or establishing their territories and they took very little notice of me. These very confiding birds have provided me with some fantastic images from such a close encounter that it will stay in my memory for many years to come. Such elegant birds of the moorlands and a tragic shame that some of them would not survive until next year as this was an active Grouse shooting moor. I spent a fantastic couple of hours in their company. I took photographs of them on top of heather as well as the classic Grouse head just peering over the tops of the heather at you, the icing on the cake was the last male Grouse that I encountered. This bird was so confiding and for a good forty minutes allowed me to fill my boots and memory cards!

The benefits of being a Wildlife photographer is that even though you have to get up at the crack of dawn and stay out until late you do get to have wonderful experiences with wild birds and animals that other people never dream of.

I just hope I can get more!

Shaun April 2010
Crested Tits and Capercaille - The Cairngorms
13th February 2010 - 0 comments
The day dawned wet and drizzly as I awoke in the Scottish town of Perth. After a 400 mile plus journey I still could not see any snow of significance on the ground. The next stage of my journey took me to the wonderful area of the Cairngorms. The climb up through the lower ranges of the Highlands showed there was snow on the ground and the temperature had dropped again…..more snow?

My journey north had been planned and booked for almost a year as I wanted to photograph birds that could not be found in the south where I lived. Crested Tits, Siskin and Capercaille were on my “hit list”.

The first day in the Cairngorms was overcast with drizzly rain and intermittent sleet, but my first morning in the hide was productive with Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Coal Tit, Siskin and Tree Creeper. Wow what a start! The usual suspects of Blue Tit and Great Tit also put in a regular appearance. What really fascinated me was the sheer numbers of Chaffinches. I tried very hard to photograph them hovering next to the feeder log, but the weather did not bode well for fast shutter speeds even at ISO 800!

After a superb 1st day it was time to sample the culinary delights of the venue I was staying at. All I can say is, I think I will need to go on a diet after 5 days of this superb food and hospitality.

The following day was spent photographing the same species of birds in similar surroundings but from different hides.

I had been given an opportunity to go to a “secret” location to photograph what is probably the most threatened species in Scotland, the Capercaille.

We tracked the bird and found it near to a forestry gravel road. It was very evident that this was a rogue bird as it proceeded to display at us and defend its territory. We were being viewed as a threat and the appropriate evasive action had to be taken to not only safeguard us but also the bird. We spent a glorious 40 minutes photographing what is truly a magnificent bird of the ancient Caledonian forest, an encounter I will never forget.

The next day we had planned to go up to the mountain to photograph Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting but we had 3 feet of snow overnight and that had created problems further up the hill so we had to abandon the trip. But this gave wonderful opportunities to take images of the local highland cattle in the surrounding fields.

Today I was given fantastic opportunity to photograph another rare species, the Crested Tit. There are only small pockets of this bird throughout the Highlands of Scotland so it was an opportunity not to miss! The site was close to the forest and on the edge of a clearing beside a very muddy snow covered bog.
There was no hide to sit in so I had to sit out in the open on one of those cheap fold up seats with snow falling around me! What a magnificent setting, all I wanted now was for the birds to come and visit the feeder and I would be in heaven. I had not too long to wait for the first bird to arrive a lovely little Coal Tit with his distinctive black head with a white stripe down the middle. A couple of the “usual suspects” also paid a visit. The snow kept falling and a couple of times I had to brush the snow of me and my 500mm lens and camera set up. Thankfully I had covered the whole rig with the superb lens and camera cover from Wildlife Watching supplies.

After 45 minutes still no Crested Tits! But then from deep within the forest I could hear the distant contact calls of a pair of Crested Tits and in a flash they were on the feeder furiously pecking away at their free meal. They had missed the perch out completely! How inconsiderate of them!
After an agonising wait they paid another visit this time to the perch first! Brilliant! I fired off countless frames in my efforts to capture useable images for my “A” panel collection for the RPS. Job done! Great poses of the birds with their crests wonderfully displayed and to have two in a frame was very lucky indeed.
The Crested Tits came to visit once or twice after this so I did get a few more chances to take images. What a day.
These beautiful little birds are such iconic figures of the dwindling ancient forest of Caledonia.

My next trip took me deep within the forest to photograph another icon of Caledonia, the Red Squirrel.

On entering the hide it was obvious we had had yet more snow overnight and that the temperature was increasing slightly with a few rays of sunshine thawing some of the snow laden tops of the Scots Pines we were in the middle of. Every couple of minutes an avalanche of snow would fall to the ground with a distant thump. We baited up the feeders with fresh hazel nuts still in their shells and waited, and waited, and waited. After 2 hours I was almost giving up hope of ever photographing a Red Squirrel and then it appeared running down the side of the pine tree in a flash it picked up a hazel nut and vanished. Far too quick for my aging reflexes! To add insult to injury I could hear the little red devil knawing away at the hazel nut in a pine tree up above us! But then to my right another Squirrel came into view (and a bit slower this time) It sat and cracked open a couple of hazel nuts giving me plenty of time to set my exposure to gain a fast enough shutter speed and take a few images.

Sadly it was all over in a flash and our time was up in the squirrel hide.

That night whilst uploading and sorting images onto my laptop I recounted the lost opportunities over the past few days and also remembered some wonderful unforgettable moments I had experienced with wild birds and animals in such magnificent surroundings.
Photographing these birds and animals must be on the “to do list” of any budding wildlife photographer in fact it has to rate highly on any ones “bucket list”.

Shaun February 2010
Visit to Bass Rock June 2009
26th June 2009 - 0 comments
My Visit to Bass Rock June 2009

Oh to have to get up in the middle of the night!

I am glad to report that getting up at 3.30am to travel to Dunbar was well worth it.

We arrived at Dunbar harbour a little before 6.00am with plenty of time to get the gear checked, walking boots on and memory cards loaded. We met with our Scottish Seabirds Centre Guide and clambered aboard our boat and we were off for our one hour steam to the Bass Rock in search of Britain’s largest seabird the Gannet (Sula bassana).

Not far from the Bass Rock the dawn broke and we were treated to the sight of Gannets heading back to the rock crossing some wonderful light from behind thin clouds…..and with a huge oil tanker also on the horizon it was time to start to make a few “arty” images!

A little way further we stopped to “chum” for the Gannets with fish and squid offerings that had the Gulls attention first, but very soon followed by the target species.

Our guide explained how to identify a Gannet that was about to take the plunge, he explained the bird first gives a call then folds its wings and crash dives in normal Gannet fashion!

The trick is to photographing diving Gannets is to identify a potential target bird and follow it whilst firing the shutter all the way down. Easier said than done in a rocking boat with countless other birds and Gannets diving for the same fish offering! I found out it does not take very long for you to fill a 4GB card with out of focus images!

This is the most difficult photography I have ever had a go at. To say it is fast and furious is an understatement!
Out of the many hundreds of images only a few were good enough to keep.

The taster over, we headed on to the Bass Rock and what a sight it was 150,000 Gannets and countless other Gulls, Guillemots’, Shags and the odd Puffin.

Jumping from a moving boat onto a slippery stair step was cushioned by our expert guide and no accidents were encountered. We then made our way up the steps through the lighthouse area and then a winding path of yet more steps until we came to “our patch”. This was a patch of ground that the Ornithologist from the Scottish Sea Bird Centre had cleared of non-breeding Gannets for us. After half an hour of just watching these fantastic birds preening, landing, pair bonding and of course getting used to the smell and sounds I settled down for four and a half hours of flight photography practice par excellence! In the end I became quite choosy as to which bird to photograph and selected those with either bills filled with seaweed or nesting materials and those birds that had the potential to provide the image of “defining moment” quality. I had to do this as otherwise I would have filled my 8 x 4GB cards very quickly.

At lunchtime we made our way back down to the landing stage and helicopter pad and awaited the boat to take us back to Dunbar. Hardly anyone spoke as we were so sad to leave this huge piece of granite rock in the Firth of Forth.

To be so close to such engaging and enthralling birds was a very an extremely humbling moment in my bird watching and photographic career and one that I will never forget. Bass Rock is a “bucket list” experience site that you just have to visit before you kick it!
Great Spotted Woodpecker Success!
22nd April 2009 - 0 comments
How to successfully photograph Great Spotted Woodpeckers and the tricks required.
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New Feeding Station
22nd March 2009 - 0 comments
The start of photographing my Avian friends down at my local farm copse.
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