birds

Photography in the Dog Days of Summer

Common blue butterfly perched on pink heather blossom

One of the things I chatted about on my recent BBC Norfolk radio appearance was the difficult light and the challenges it presents to photographers in high summer. But there is always something to shoot for….

By the time we reach August., though its still very hot and to us the height of summer, in the natural world the days are already drawing in and autumn is just around the corner. Its already getting a little easier to capture soft light in mornings and evenings and if you rise early after a clear night you might even find dew on the ground.

August is a great time to to visit our lowland heaths where the beautiful pink carpet of flowers is just coming into its own and can make a wonderful backdrop for close up photography.

Common blue butterfly perched on pink heather blossom
Common blue butterfly perched on pink heather blossom

 

Cross orbweaver spider against heather
Cross orbweaver spider against heather

 

August is a good month to spot late dragonflies as well as second brood and migrant butterflies. Most first generation butterflies are getting very tatty by now and make poor photographic subjects but some species have second broods that metamorphose into a second brood in late summer.

The late summer harvest means that hares, who have enjoyed the cover of the growing crops since spring become easier to spot hunkered down in the stubble of harvested fields.

Brown hares nestling amongst stubble
Pair of European Brown hares nestled in their form among crop stubble

Many birds are already preparing for their Autumn migrations and this month I’ve immensely enjoyed watching the fledgeling swallows and house martins practice their flight techniques and feeding up for their forthcoming long journey by swooping around my wildlife pond.

Swallow hunting insects over pond
Swallow hunting insects over pond

Red Kite Soaring

Red Kite Soaring

Red Kite Soaring
One of my favourite birds is the beautiful and graceful native red kite. I used to love watching one above my garden back in Oxfordshire but I now see them very rarely in Norfolk, so I recently took a short break to Wales to enjoy seeing them in flight at a feeding station. Sometimes known as a pirate of the sky, they are generally carrion scavengers with an important role in the ecosystem and take live prey far less frequently than is often thought.

They are agile flyers and will happily snatch other bird’s pickings and feed in mid air. Not all that long ago they were a species wrongly persecuted by farmers and estates to the brink of extinction but populations in Wales and the Chilterns have recovered thanks to a massive conservation and education effort. While they are far from common and poisoning remains a problem, their numbers appear to be rising in Norfolk as the recovery area population disperses and I hope soon to see these elegant birds of prey gracing our skies more frequently.

Little Egret on White

Little Egret on White

Little Egret on White

This little egret and I were each as surprised as the other when we suddenly came face to face when I walked round a bend in the path at my local North Norfolk nature reserve. I only had time to fire three shots off and got just this one sharp against a grey cloudy sky. He’s been a resident all winter and I often see him on the same stretch of the river, but he’s relatively shy. We have both permanent and migrant little egrets in the East of England so I very much hope he sticks around now spring is approaching. According to the RSPB little egrets are relatively recent permanent arrivals to the UK with the first breeding pair being recorded in Dorset in 1996.

Winter Arrives

Female Blackbird in Snow

Female Blackbird in Snow

Just as we were being lulled into the idea of a mild winter, the snow struck, and with a vengeance. In rural mid-Norfolk we’ve been experiencing night temperatures of minus 12 or so, making it extra tough for birds to survive. I put out extra food and make a point of melting the bird bath as its also  important that the birds are able to find fresh water to drink and keep clean, and salt puddles of melted snow water on the roads is not a good option.

This picture is one of one of about 7 blackbirds that visited the garden simultaneously. Many garden birds are highly territorial, so I was careful to spread the food out in patches  which helped keep squabbles to a minimum and save precious energy.

 

 

Zugunruhe

Restless swallow preparing for migraiton
Restless swallow preparing for migraiton
Restless swallow preparing for migraiton

One of the early signs of autumn for me is the steady gathering of swallows, not to mention swifts and martins, into larger congregations as they make the most of the late summer insects to feed up and prepare for winter and their impending trip southwards.

As time for their autumn migration approaches their unsettled behaviour becomes increasingly intense, so much so that German researchers coined the phrase “Zugunruhe” (literally translated “moving unrest”) to describe their increasingly evident restlessness and growing drive to start their long migration.

This season watching them gathering into little groups and whirling and darting around with ever growing intensity has struck a particular chord with me; I am very much feeling my own Zugunruhe, though, in contrast to the swallows, it has much to do with finally completing my prolonged personal migration and settling into my own new long term home rather than setting out on a new migratory adventure!

I can’t wait….

 

 

Courtship Dance

Shag seabirds courting on nest
Shag seabirds courting on nest
Shag seabirds courting on nest

I’m not really a birder, but the hive of activity that is an island seabird colony in peak summer mating season is an impressive sight to behold, and the Farne Isles in Northumbria is one of the best places in Britain to witness the spectacle. No sooner than I scrambled precariously over the bow of the boat onto Staple Island, my senses were bombarded by a cacophony of seabirds, all frenetically busy mating and raising their young, and the pungent smell of guano.

Atlantic puffins are iconic and utterly addictive to watch as they phlegmatically return after each fishing trip, beaks full of sand eels back to their burrows to feed their chicks, running the gauntlet of the herring gulls on the way. But my most memorable experience of the trip was something very different. A few hundred metres further back I found a timber viewing platform and I settled down to watch the nesting guillemots, razorbills and European shags on the cliff edge. I found myself fascinated by the courting and nesting behaviour of the European shags. I watched one proudly bring a large stick to its partners nest and them interact with its female partner in a beautiful and tender courthsip dance which was suprisingly touching to observe. Not a great deal is known about mating behaviour in Europhean shags, but the courting ritual is highly important in partner selection and the pair I oberved seemed, to my eyes at least, to be forming strong emotional bonds of attachment. Watching scenes like those makes me wonder just by how much human beings are underestimating  the sentience of fellow animals on planet earth.

To view all of my seabird images from the Farne Islands select the image gallery menu option The Farne Islands

Ural Owl In Snow

Ural owl on snowy branch

We’ve had an exceptionally mild winter so far, but in December 2010 Britain was covered in snow. This photo of an adult ural owl on a snow covered branch was taken at the Hawk Conservancy Trust mid last December. Ural Owls are predominately creatures of the northern boreal forests and very used to snow, though there are smaller ural owl populations in the mountain forests of Southern Europe. They are closely related to tawny owls; both species are highly territorial and have a fierce reputation for agressive behaviour.

Ural owl on snowy branch
Ural owl on snowy branch

Since my wintery ural owl shot was taken, I have been fortunate enough to see and observe (from a safe distance!) an adult ural owl watching over its young fledgling in the mosquito -drenched Finnish midsummer.

Ural owl chick perched on branch
Ural owl chick perched on branch
Ural owl parent watching young
Ural owl parent watching young

 

Royal Tern Feeding Fledgling

Royal tern feeding young wings outstretched
Royal tern feeding young wings outstretched
Royal tern feeding young wings outstretched

Sea birds are one of our favourite birdwatching species in Britain and in November I took a much needed trip to Fort Myers in Florida and spent a lot of time bird watching and of course photographing on Sanibel Island and in their famous Ding Darling Preserve.

My highlight from the trip was undoubtedly a day on Bunche Beach where a tern colony consisting of royal terns, sandwich terns and forster’s terns had all set up camp for winter.

Many of the birds were fledglings still being fed by their parents. It was great to see the hustle and bustle of the tern colony with individuals taking off and returning from their feeding trips.

One of the royal tern fledglings was floating on the water and from the corner of my eye I saw one of the adult  terns returning with a fish fly in towards him. The adult swooped in until his feet dipped in the water and transferred the fish into the hungry youngster’s gaping beak before lifting off again for another hunting expedition. It all happened in a few seconds and was incredible to watch.