Sunday, 12 December 2010

White-tailed sea eagle @ Amberley

White-tailed sea eagle successfully evades photographer... rats!

Wow, what a day!

After reading the reports of a White-tailed sea eagle at Amberley Wildbrooks on the Sussex Ornithological Society's sightings page, nothing was going to stop me making the short drive down to see if it would return today. It did not disappoint, and what an amazing sight. It flew in following a pair of buzzards, who looked tiny in comparison. It sat in a tree in the middle of the brooks for a couple of hours, then left the tree and dropped to the ground (possibly to eat) for a while. After a brief return to its' perch, it then left the area and was last reported flying west from Hayling Island.

The only disappointment is that the attached, heavily-processed shot was the best I could manage. But I'm not overly bothered - I'm still on a high from seeing the bird (and in Sussex!) and there was never the possibility of getting close enough to capture anything special (although missing it departing while I changed viewpoints was galling). That's on hold for a visit to Mull. There was enough to keep me entertained without the eagle... my first shots of a Stoat, Hen Harrier and observing some spectacular duelling Buzzards. There was also Kestrels, a Sparrowhawk, melanistic Fallow deer, Lapwings, Fieldfares, Redwings and various other waterfowl, passerines and a grumpy Robin - they always seem to take offence at my presence!

My first Stoat shot!

The downside to events such as this are the sheer number of people that descend on the area. I'll be going back when things are back to normal - if the incredible array of species on display today is anything other than a complete fluke, I can see it becoming one of my favourites. And of course, it's another handy stopover between home and Pagham, my preferred haunt of the moment.

Hen Harrier v Crow

Overall, a rather good morning's play at Amberley. Hopefully there will be plenty more of them like this.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Another Dog Attack at Chesworth

Yet again, following the attack on a cow a few weeks back, a dog walker has been unable to control their pet(s) at Chesworth Farm. This time a pair of rare Hebridean Sheep are the unfortunate victims. These incidents are reported because the grazing animals are owned by someone - how many wild animals are harassed, injured or killed by dogs at Chesworth? We'll never know, although I have heard of deer being killed and have personally witnessed a Staffordshire Bull Terrier chasing a fox. Fortunately, the fox escaped on that occasion. And don't get me started on the amount of s*** that I have to clean off my shoes that selfish dog owners can't be bothered to clean up, or worse still the plastic bags left hanging from hedges and posts containing mutt excrement. It's high time that Horsham District Council recognised the value of the habitat on the farm to wildlife and (at the very least) insist dogs should be kept on the lead, possibly banning them altogether from certain areas. There are many other places within the locality that dogs can be exercised (the A24 immediately springs to mind!).

Personally, I believe that dogs should be kept on SHORT leads in ANY location that they are likely to come in to contact with wildlife (in fact, save for working dogs, I don't understand the need to own one at all - pointless creatures that serve nothing except human emotions). Quite simply, if you don't have sufficient provision on your own property to exercise the animal, be prepared to keep it under close control whenever you leave the house.

Rant over!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Barn Owl Bother

You wait weeks for a blog update then two come along at once!

I paid a visit to the Barn Owl farm this afternoon. With the amount of lying snow, it's more likely that the Barn Owl (and possibly Tawny's) will be seen during daylight hours. They may even resort to taking small birds as voles and mice will be inactive and hard to find under the snow. After walking around the fields for a couple of hours, the only evident raptor was a Merlin (which was a pleasant surprise!). One interesting point to note was a nest box I've not seen before - in the trees, at the back of the field with the box I already knew about. I have one serious reservation about the placement of the box: to access it any Owl would need to get past some Power Lines - a hazard known to cause many Owl deaths. It's also unlikely to be chosen as a nesting site as there isn't a clear run into the box. Even more concerning to me was the lack of any apparent disturbance to the snow that has built up at the entrance to the two boxes over the past two days. Now maybe our Barn Owl prefers to roost away from the nest box when he doesn't have a mate in it (as appeared the case in the summer, once the Owlets approached a state of readiness to leave) - I don't know enough about his habits to verify this. But logic suggests that in conditions such as this, the nest box would be an ideal refuge. There was also very little disturbance to snow on fence posts in his usual hunting spots or on nearby ground. He will be doing the majority of his hunting from posts to save energy, so that's also worried me slightly.

Of course, my concern may be unfounded. We know what a prolific hunter he is from earlier in the year, so his prowess around the fields that usually teem with voles could mean he isn't needing to hunt for long during the day. In fact if I did spot a Barn Owl my first thought would be to establish if it were a new female - those first year birds are going to be struggling to find territory and sustain themselves, especially with such an early onslaught of cold. So any incoming young female could well be more visible than our established male.

In general, I do fear for the Barn Owl population given the sustained cold and deep snow cover all over the country. Elsewhere the situation will be even worse - a lot of broods were late and small due to prolonged rain during June in the North and West of the country. We may be counting on our Southern birds to maintain the population, I just hope enough of them can last the winter - or numbers may be decimated.

Best laid plans and all that...

Gull @ Pagham Harbour
Where does the time go? December already, snow all over and a mug of mulled wine to warm the cockles. I had a few days off work last week, so I took in a few Nature Reserves and spent time at a couple of new locations. If I'm honest, I was disappointed with what I came out with at the end. But then that's the nature (no pun intended) of wildlife photography - no creature cares what days I have off! Yes, you need the technical ability to increase your chances of nailing the shot; but luck is king with wildlife. If it doesn't show up - you don't get a shot. No matter how good you are with a camera. You can, however, increase the chances of finding your quarry with knowledge of the subject and making yourself hard to spot. I'm finding this more difficult to do in the winter with less cover - as I've learned the hard way. I need to remember at times that it's been 7 months since I took serious interest in shooting wildlife (thanks to that Owl!) and every trip out is a lesson.

l enjoy shooting wild animals - not farmed or captive. Wonderful as it is to go to Petworth and get close to the Fallow Deer there, it still feels like "cheating" somewhat. It's why I'm 100% up front with my images... You'll always know the circumstances of a shot from me. Recently, on a forum I frequent, a chap posted up some shots that he had taken on a day at the British Wildlife Centre. Fantastic images of a Short-Eared Owl and a Tawny, but he omitted to mention that they were captive birds and didn't respond to posters who asked. I was aware as I'd already seen the shots in question in the BWC's flickr group, but it isn't my place to pass that on. I feel it's down to the individual, especially if he wants his images taken seriously. It's an unwritten rule when shooting "wildlife" that you state if an animal is captive or trained. In competition, it usually is written - Jose Luis Rodriguez, winner of the 2009 WPOTY but later disqualified, knows that only too well.

So anyway - to reconcile my rueful showing over those days off, I consoled myself with a visit to Warnham LNR to shoot the "commoners" at the feeding stations. Which brings me to another little rant! Nature Reserves - the clue is in the name. Don't bloody well go to one wearing rainbow coats, bright pink Wellingtons and talk loudly to your friends when entering hides. Neither should you take young children who are incapable of keeping quiet (I know, I have one) or plaster yourself with enough perfume/aftershave to gas a badger at 500 yards, or be there at all if you are unable to turn the autofocus beep or flash off on your camera. It is a NATURE reserve - not a place for people to distress/disturb animals (or fellow observers) with their lack of common sense. I sometimes wonder who/what these places are really there to benefit...

I'll sign off with the detail behind the image. This is one of my favourite shots from Pagham Harbour last week - I think it is a Mediterranean Gull in it's winter coat. He was hovering almost Kestrel style above a pool with long grass in front and behind - I had to work the contrast and colours a bit to negate the impact of the grass in the foreground, but I think it came our pretty well.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Short-Eared Owl / A Timely Reminder?

Short-Eared Owl at Pagham Harbour

On Sunday I escaped the confines of every day mundanity and spent the day doing what I love... kneeling in wet grass, trudging through sticky silt and mud (that at times I wasn't sure I would be able to remove my feet from) and breathing the beautiful Sussex air. Oh yes - and imprinting the lives of animals onto a crop sensor comprised of photosensitive diodes.

I started at Petworth, checking on what the Fallow Deer were up to, then moved on to Pagham Harbour for the rest of the day. High tide was higher than I'd expected, so I initially concentrated my efforts in the bushes and scrub that lined the paths on the Western side. This proved rather disappointing. A few Goldfinches flitted between the bushes, stocking up on the plentiful supply of berries; Starlings danced around the Lagoon and a young fox slept partially obscured by long grass. I moved on, heading North - I had hoped to make the North Wall but a chance encounter with a birder delayed me somewhat and diverted my attention. He'd flushed a Short-Eared Owl from scrub alongside a field and kindly gave me directions to the location. I managed to hide my ignorance when asked if I'd seen any Avocets on the Ferry Pool with a simple 'no, not yet...' when in reality I wouldn't have known one from a Flamingo (I have now righted that!) and headed off. After negotiating a footpath back to the coastline - despite having no real idea of where I was going - I found myself gingerly manoeuvring through mud, seaweed, grass and silt. The watery mud overtopped my boots and made for uncomfortable progress, but suddenly from the verge rose what initially appeared to be a huge Kestrel. As it turned to fly over the hedge, I saw the face was flat and a big golden eye sparkled in the sunlight - it was obvious that the creature was an Owl. I leapt over the stile and into a field, where he loitered before a murder of Crows took offence to his presence and saw him back over onto the coastal flat. Again I jumped over  (holding on to camera complete with fully-extended monopod for dear life) and fired off a few shots as he fleetingly headed in my direction before turning back toward the sea. I knew that it was too distant for the shots to be that good... but this was an experience I simply wanted a record of. Now I know it's there - and chances are it will stick for the winter - I'll be back; and trying to be a little more subtle and creative in my approach.

To be honest, it wasn't the most productive of days and (given my self-important ramblings last week) brought me back down to earth somewhat. I'm barely out of nappies in my photography life... I have a long way to go before I'm consistently getting brilliant images that I'm not only proud of, but make the people who look at them think "Wow!".  I sat down and reflected on this at the end of the day and thought about what my goals are from photography. I concluded that it's fairly simple - to convey the wonder of the natural world to others; make them see what an amazing planet we have been graced with and encourage them to protect (and improve) it for the benefit of all of its' inhabitants.

It was still a great day out and I've added a wonderful raptor to the list of those I can say I've seen in the flesh, in their natural habitat. For those interested in the technical details - this was shot at 1/1000, f/6.3 at 500mm (300 + 1.7 TC). RAW, Manual Exposure, Auto WB and 51-point 3D AF. Minimal editing (cropped and colours).

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Looking Ahead

Not even a week of GMT and it's sent me into near clinical depression! The thought that I'm a "weekend warrior" until March is not a pleasant one, so I've been thinking about my plans for next year. There are two (possibly three) Barn Owl pairs to follow - although this is highly dependent on females replacing the two that were lost in the summer, I remain cautiously optimistic on that front.  I'm determined to find and shoot a Kingfisher; I know of at least four birds in the area and it can't be that hard to track them down. Another target I've set myself is to find an Otter. I've never seen one in the wild, so that's probably a tough ask in Sussex where they are still rare, but I gather there are several rivers in the county with them present. One possible project I'm really excited about: I've recently discovered an active Badger set in woods not too far from home, which is just off a lightly-used public footpath. I'll be investing in a hide and developing a lighting setup - which will be completely new to me - to shoot the Badgers. I want to keep the bar high and push myself on both photographic and environmental knowledge - this includes starting the pursuit of an Environmental Science degree with the OU in early 2011. It'll take time, but I hope in the end it'll get me away from sitting on my backside all day in an office... I've realised in the past few months that outdoors is where I want to be - working to improve the world we live in. Preferably, that'll involve some photography as well. But even if it doesn't, I'll be a happy hobbyist.

I've spent a lot of time looking at the work of professional and well-known Wildlife Photographers lately and I'm convinced I can be as good as them. In fact, I don't think I'm all that far off - the difference is time and budget.  Maybe that's a bit arrogant - some of these guys have been doing it for years and have a wealth of experience of remote areas and wild animals that would happily chew on your gizzards given a chance - but it's a self-belief that at times I've lacked in other areas of my life. The very fact I have it spurs me on... I have a good grasp of the technical and lighting aspects of photography, bucket loads of patience and I know what I need to work on creatively.  I reckon I can get there with the right level of support and determination.

Monday, 1 November 2010


I'm not usually one for petitions; they rarely achieve what they set out to do. But this one is worth signing - even if the comments are largely from people concerned more about fishing than the effect Cormorants have on other wildlife.

Sign the petition to remove the Cormorants' status as a protected species

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Killing for "Pleasure"

Reports of the demise of UK's largest animal - a Stag known as "The Emperor" - may be premature. There is some confusion over whether he has indeed been killed or it is a fabricated story to discourage trophy hunters.

Regardless as to the fate of the animal, it has sparked some interesting debate. On the face of it, it's an easy one for the anti's to get upset about; rich person kills wild animal to stick it's head on his wall... guaranteed to outrage every mortgage slave with a vague interest in Wildlife. For me, the issue is nothing to do with who (might have) shot the Deer - I just can't fathom why we allow the killing of any living thing in the name of "sport". The defences commonly offered by those who partake in these actions are as ridiculous as those who see it as a class issue. "It's always been this way in the countryside" and "These *insert animal here*  need to be managed or they destroy the environment" are two frequent reasons excuses offered.

On a completely unrelated piece of research I conducted a few weeks ago, I happened across the interestingly named "British Association for Shooting and Conservation".  Good grief, do they really expect any normal, reasonable person to believe that this is anything other than a desperate PR ploy to justify a pastime? In fact, vast swathes of their website seems dedicated to forcing home the idea that it is perfectly legitimate to enjoy murdering animals with a gun. No end of ethics codes, conservation ideas and even a handy factsheet for Journalists - all about how wonderful shooting is for the environment.  Don't get me wrong; I have no problem with controlling diseased animals or where there is a risk of a high level of inbreeding that would threaten a species in the long run (though this never seems to have been applied to the Windsors). What I object to is people getting enjoyment and/or making money out of it. As with most things, money perverts what is right and decent - and there are regular reports of predators being poisoned or shot to protect game stocks, but precious little accountability and prosecutions are rare. Obviously the BASC is well used to batting defensively as they've felt it necessary to issue a Press Release that reeks of self-importance and denial that any wrongdoing has occurred in the killing of "The Emperor", whatever the circumstances. Far more nauseating, however, is this article on the Guardian's site by a chap called Glynn Evans. In particular, this line from the opening paragraph "Nothing compares to the thrill of the stalk. The feeling as you select a beast, approach it, take aim and fire to ensure a clean kill is unique, as is the feeling that you are doing something importanttakes some beating in the bullshit stakes. I also enjoy stalking deer, Mr. Evans, however the end product of my stalking is a picture that you could hang on the wall, rather than some antlers and a dead stag.

Like hunting with dogs, I think it's time we put an end to these high-brow pursuits that are "acceptable" simply because the people who carry them out have influence with the lawmakers of the land. It's not about class or money - it's about respecting the creatures that have had the misfortune to evolve on the same planet as us. If you desperately feel the need to shoot a gun - go clay pigeon shooting. There are far more humans causing a nuisance on the earth than wild animals - let's start culling them... Hedge Fund managers would be a good start.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

More days like this, please

Curlew at Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve
I fell asleep on the sofa on Sunday night. Usually, I don't get to bed until gone midnight - my internal clock ticks a late night and early morning beat... just not in the same 24 hour period.

The reason for my exhaustion was a day spent at Petworth, Burton Mill Pond and Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve. Out of the house at 7am, I was waiting eagerly for the gates to open at Petworth Park. My disappointment at a lack of any notable mist or fog given the cold overnight temperatures was compounded by the late arrival of the gatekeeper. By the time I had parked up, donned the boots and hauled myself into position along with a handful of like-minded individuals, any hope of significant vapour in the air had disappeared as the morning sun quickly made light work of what little there was. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed the morning; plenty of posing deer and good shooting light (the results of which can be found on flickr).

Highlights from Petworth:

* Nearly getting trampled by a short-sighted stag
* Chuckling at the guys (with equipment far more expensive than mine) shooting directly into the sun
* After all the rutting, the first stag I've seen to get his wicked way with a doe
* Realising I'd not paid for parking and dashing back to the car park - to find I'd got away with it.

On leaving Petworth, I headed for Burton Mill Pond, a Nature Reserve three miles South. No decent pictures to be had here, although I did spot a Great Grey Shrike (first time I've seen one of these), Kestrel, numerous Woodpeckers, and a Pagani Zonda! After completing a round tour, I moved on to Pagham Harbour - another Nature Reserve - and what a marvellous place it is! Within 20 minutes of parking, I'd seen a Peregrine Falcon, Buzzard, Kestrel, Kingfisher, Little Egret and a number of Curlews. And that's just the birds I recognised. Unfortunately, I had to curtail my visit as time was against me. But I headed home rather pleased at my day's work and chomping at the bit to get out again.

Unfortunately It does seem that the weather is taking a turn for the worse, so I may spend the weekend sorting through my back-up and the thousands of pictures that really need to find their way on to it. And I might just stick a few more on Flickr too...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Petworth Deer

Fallow Stags Having a Slight Disagreement!

This morning I decided to pay my first visit to Petworth Park. I've heard about the Fallow Deer that reside on the National Trust land and figured that this was as good a time as any to see for myself. I hoped that there might be some rutting going on, but wasn't really expecting much conflict. All accounts I've seen to describe Fallow rutting indicated more pontificating and running away than serious action... How wrong could I be! Granted, it wasn't wall-to-wall, no holds barred fighting to the death, but plenty to keep me going. I eventually had to call home and grovel for forgiveness as I plainly wasn't going to meet my 2pm deadline - I was having too much fun!

But breaking the curfew has a price - I've had little time to review the morning's efforts. Initial impressions are that whilst I've got some decent shots, composition needs some work and I really needed 1/1000 upwards for the rutting. Exposing correctly for the contrasting dark brown and white colouring of the animals was also a challenge - especially in bright sunlight with heavy background shadows. I'll go through them in ernest tomorrow night and get the best of them on Flickr.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Rural Affairs

I've been perusing various consultation documents and plans released by DEFRA and Natural England over the past few days. Their aim is to establish a direction for conservation. An "invitation to shape the nature of England", they call it.

My problem with this is that DEFRA being involved in any conservation plans is fundamentally wrong. Rural affairs and conservation are two completely separate areas, albeit that they are commonly entwined as, naturally, a great deal of biodiversity matters would be pointless to address in urban areas. We've already destroyed those particular places in terms of habitat for most creatures, save for the odd "Nature Reserve" - where people can take their screaming children to gawp at a goat and a few ducks. Hell, they might even get lucky and spot a Heron before it quickly disappears at the sound of class 6 arguing over coloured crayons.

Farming and Agriculture often go hand in hand with the words "countryside" or "rural". But it can be just as destructive to biodiversity as building a block of flats. Every year we - as a race - are using more land to grow crops: ruining it with fertilizers, stealing from the water table for irrigation, meticulously raping the ground for every last nutrient to produce more and more for supermarkets to sell at the lowest possible price. Cattle mutilate grass meadows; woods and forests are cleared for agriculture; gamekeepers and farmers shoot or poison any creature that gets in their way and build ever larger, more modern barns and outbuildings. To me, there is little in these actions that are common with conservation and protecting our fast-disappearing natural landscape.

DEFRA should have nothing to do with biodiversity and conservation. Food and "Rural Affairs" are in direct competition with Environment - which should have a wholly separate organisation to counter the problems caused for the environment BY food and rural affairs.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Plato wins, but a rather uninspiring day

The BTCC is done for another year. After the excitement of 2009, with three drivers still in contention going in to the final round, I was hopeful of a repeat performance and plenty of thrills and spills at Brands Hatch yesterday. There were four pretenders to the crown, although the RML Silverline Chevy of Jason Plato was the odds-on favourite.

Alas, my hopes of an incident-packed, edge-of-the-seat day of racing was not to be. Plato ran away with it, all but securing the title by winning the first race and then making it official with further domination in race 2. The agonizing over where I should place myself was hardly worth the bother - not a notable incident occurred all day pretty much anywhere. There were the predictable offs at Druids, Paddock and Clark Curve but by and large the guys who mattered behaved themselves. Even race 3, where all was done and dusted, turned into something of a procession with Andrew Jordan leading from start to finish.

So my plan off setting up for action and staying at Clearways for most of the day didn't do me any favours. At least the racing was exciting last year - even if the bumper-busting photo opportunities were similarly limited. Unfortunately, 2011 sees the finale move to Silverstone. The only way it could get worse (for non-media accredited photographers) would be to go to Rockingham - don't get any more silly ideas please TOCA.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Quali Day at Brands Hatch

Shaun Hollamby eats dirt

Back from Quali day at Brands - quite happy with the images I got today. Lots of playing with low shutter speeds and panning, the horrible grey murk enabling me to get low speeds even through the fences. I'll put them up on Flickr when I get the time, but for now I've manually uploaded this one to the blog. You can always bet someone will put it in the gravel at Paddock Hill - it was Shaun Hollamby and the AMD Golf's turn in Free Practise 2. Looking forward to the racing tomorrow - early start to claim my place; I've yet to figure where exactly that will be. Jason Plato is looking good for the BTCC crown, but watch for Matt Neal and his trademark punt up the inside. He'll be desperate for points and knows that a ballast-heavy Plato might be slower off the start...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Light Extinguished

Finally, some decent weather! The rain and cloud that have blighted the past couple of weeks cleared yesterday, so I headed to Woods Mill after work. To my dismay, it was patently obvious that Autumn has caught up with me - by 6.15pm the fading sunlight was confined to the tops of the tallest trees. I realised that we have nearly reached that point where after-work photography is reserved for indoor and low-light shooters. Even landscapers will be cursing the darkness in a few weeks.

My enthusiasm, however, was not dampened. So at 7am this morning I headed back for another go - morning light had to be better, right? No - Not when you have to be in the office for 8.30. After wandering around for an hour, I headed rather miserably back to the car with nothing to show for it except a few shots of dimly-lit berries. As I packed up, light streamed into the car park and the sound of previously silent passerines filled the air. It's going to be a long 5 months until the light returns; sitting on my backside, looking out on asbestos-ridden, 1970's, pre-fab business units in the a*** end of Worthing with 18 wheelers rumbling past all day.  Of course, this doesn't mean that the wildlife disappears - in fact it will be a useful time for finding and observing nocturnal animals. Winter can also prompt shy creatures to venture out when food is scarce and I can have a go at star fields, trails and light painting. Plenty to keep me entertained until spring arrives.

And of course there's the BTCC @ Brands Hatch to look forward to this weekend. I have a few spare tickets, if you'd like one drop me a line.

Monday, 4 October 2010

All Change

Yep, I've had a bit of a fiddle with the blog. It seemed rather uninspiring to look at, so I thought I'd brighten it up a touch.

Plans are in development for a "proper" web site for February/March next year. I need to find the funds for kit upgrades!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Woods Mill Roe Deer

WMRoe03, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
I stopped in at Woods Mill on the way home from work tonight - I needed my fix, even if it was just carrying the gear around for a while! Luckily, a pair of rather juvenile-looking Roe Deer turned up to keep me entertained. They were startled by a dog walker (my pet hate - get a big enough garden or lose the mutt) but appeared again a few minutes later. The light was against me from the start - despite the BBC's earlier claim of sunny intervals there was nothing of the sort - and I struggled to get to the DOF / ISO / Shutter combo that I needed. Lots of RAW files straight in the Trash, but a few were just about acceptable to put up.

It's the first time I've seen deer at Woods Mill. I hope it isn't the last.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Fingers Crossed For a New "Mum"

It's been confirmed that there is no sign of the female Barn Owl, so it appears Dad raised the five himself (certainly from late May, when the female was last seen). What happened to her is unknown, although the pile of soft, white feathers I remember finding under the power lines around that time seems too much of a coincidence now.

I'm keeping everything crossed that another female comes in for next year. Given the hunting is excellent in the immediate area, I think the chances are good. A lot depends on the success of other nests in area. Incidentally, I spotted a dead Owl on the A281 near Lower Beeding recently, I didn't have time to stop and check it for a ring - by the time I'd made the return journey the carcass had been carried off (probably by a fox or similar). We seem to have had winds from the North and West of late, so it is possible it was one of the Horsham owlets.

If we are not lucky enough to be blessed with the presence of a pair at the Horsham site, I'll need some more Barn Owls to follow next year - I've fallen in love with these birds and I'm not prepared to go without keeping a record of them! Obviously there may not be the advantage of a public footpath at another site, in which case a Schedule 1 licence would be needed for photography; I'm half expecting to need to apply for one for the Kestrels given their drop in numbers. While I have Woods Mill in mind, there are a couple of empty Owl boxes that I'm keeping tabs on (it would probably be easier to talk to the wardens, but I'm never there before 5pm!) and of late the larger box has had signs of droppings nearby - that's enough to get me excited. I'll be keeping an eye on this over the winter.

November through to March is going to be so depressing, I can't wait for the clocks to go forward - and it's still a month until they go back!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Fame at last?

Ruddy Darter, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

This shot of a Ruddy Darter has appeared in the "your photos" section of the BBC's Nature Site. Let's hope they appreciate me making it available for free... hopefully there will come a time (the sooner the better!) that I'll be making a living out of it - or at least supplementing my existing earnings. The contrast between being stuck on my backside in the office all day and being out there with my camera couldn't be greater.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Busy... but managed to fit in a visit to WNR

Swanfoolery, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

Work is keeping me on my toes at the moment, so not much time for Photography. I did get a day off on Monday and dropped in to Warnham Reserve for a few hours - there wasn't much going on but just as I was leaving (without any say in the matter, unfortunately - 6pm is kick out) there was an almighty commotion, as a pair of swans arrived unannounced. The resident pair still have juveniles tagging along, and were in no mood for entertaining. They certainly let the visitors know they weren't particularly welcome!

I am regularly putting my head in on Barn Owl territory on the off chance - no sightings though.

Monday, 13 September 2010

There's Still Plenty Out There...

Common Hawker, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

It may be quieter than spring, but warm Autumn days can still provide interesting subjects. And with cooler temps, cold blooded creatures are that little bit slower to get going in the morning. Even so, it took an hour or so of trying to get a shot I was happy with of this Common Hawker (I think - I'm not too clued up on Dragonflys) at Warnham on Sunday.

The Quiet Time

September is a strange month. No longer blessed with light until 9pm, the struggle starts to find the time to get out and use the camera. To compound this, subjects are harder to come by. Most nests are now empty (save for a few late broods), migratory birds are well on their way to warmer climes and activity dwindles. Reports of activity are also harder to come by. When the weather turns, so does the desire for walking and other outdoor pursuits that bring people close to wildlife. Things may pick up as winter approaches and food becomes more hard to come by.

I've been scouring t'net for blogs and news about Barn Owls. In particular, I've been trying to get a feel for how successful this year has been for breeding. From what I can gather, it's a bit of a North/South split. Whilst down here we enjoyed a fine June and start to July, the North of the UK experienced something of a mixed weather bag this summer. There are reports of up to 25% of young Barn Owls dying of starvation in the North East during July. The middle of summer is a crucial time for the young - they're learning to fly and then hunt. Rain is bad news - for quiet, efficient flight their feathers are very light and not at all weather proof. Consequently a wise Barn Owl stays out of the rain, but will be forced to venture out if it lasts too long. The effect of bad weather is two-fold; adults can not provide food and the owlets cannot develop their own means of sustaining themselves; it seems many perished as a result.

In the South, however, the buzz is more positive. Plenty of reports of 2+ broods, few failures and good weather that lasted toward the end of July. We've had fewer periods of prolonged rain and hopefully that's given the class of 2010 a head start as they disperse from their nest sites. More circumstantial evidence from the roads - I've been keeping an eye out on the A24, A27, M23 and other main roads I use frequently - just the one squashed object that vaguely resembled what could have been a Barn Owl so far. And as road kill goes, it's pretty distinctive. Of course major roads aren't the only roads they die on; minor rural routes are also a big threat and casualties are less likely to be seen or reported.

The real test for the young 'uns starts in the coming months. It'll be interesting to see if and where any of the "Horsham five" ringed birds turn up. The other concern is whether our missing adult female is replaced (I'm assuming the worst) - if she is it more likely to be an inbound dispersal from another nest rather than one staying around. Fingers crossed...

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Ozzie2, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

I've finally found (and got a picture of!) one of my favourite Raptors. The Osprey is a magnificent bird, specialised in catching fish and therefore most likely to be seen near the coast or large inland lakes. It is quite often referred to as a hawk - but this is incorrect. The Osprey is, in fact, the only member of the Osprey family. It is vaguely similar to a Buzzard (particularly the Honey Buzzard, with a lighter underside than it's Common cousin) in size and appearance.

This was a fleeting encounter at Weir Wood near East Grinstead. She circled over the West End of the Reservoir a couple of times before diving and pulling out a rather large trout, which she then carried off over the trees and into the distance. I could have done with a little more light - this was taken at around 7am with the sun still to rise above the trees - and have had to increase the exposure and lighten shadows in Photoshop somewhat. But it's an Osprey - so who cares! I don't know how long she'll hang around before she heads for the continent, hopefully another couple of weeks or so. If not, it's another one to look out for next year...

Friday, 27 August 2010

Snetterton Touring Cars... At last!

                                                        Jason Plato - RML Silverline

It's taken a while, but I've finally got around to sorting out my BTCC images from three weeks ago.

When I arrived at the circuit at 7.30am the skies were grey, the rain was falling and it generally looked like being one of those days were light would be at a premium. I set up accordingly, begrudgingly leaving the Circular Polarizer (which helps negate light reflecting off bodywork and windows) and setting out with the 1.4 TC on the 300mm lens, with 1.7 stashed in the pocket in case it brightened up a bit... How wrong can you be. Once in position at the Esses, move and you're going to be struggling to find a decent spot - so when the sky cleared and made way for bright sunshine, it was bad news. For motorsport, unless you're lucky enough to catch a smash or other incident that requires a fast shutter speed, you really want to be below 1/400th of a second. You also want a wide aperture to blur out the background as much as possible, otherwise you're freezing the wheels and end up with a bundle of shots of cars that looked parked and a background that takes the eye away from the main subject. Realistically, you're always going to struggle to achieve the ideal shots in bright sun without the aid of Neutral Density filters - which at present I don't own. So this made leaving the CP behind a bad choice, which cost me the ability to get down an extra couple of stops.

By the time Race 2 came around, the position of the sun was against me. Reflections can kill car shots and without a media pass, you're very limited as to where you can get the necessary angles. Thankfully Snetterton is one of the better circuits for this - had it been Thruxton I doubt I'd have come away with anything I was happy with. Even so, I'm still tutting at the schoolboy error of leaving the CP behind... It shows the importance of planning your day properly and taking the right kit with you.

The image attached to this post is Jason Plato, who had a pretty good weekend, cutting the high kerb at the Esses (probably getting a bone-crunching bump on the way down). Click on it to get to my Flickr and see the best of the rest from my day out in Norfolk....

Saturday, 7 August 2010

All Gone... Nearly

Tiring work, being an Owl
It appears that congratulations are in order... Dad has performed miracles, seemingly on his own, to successfully raise 5 owlets whom have all now left the nest, bar one.

Having not seen any of the young for three days, I assumed they had all flown. However, late last night there was suddenly a owl-sized white bundle hurtle down from the nestbox and land on the post at the front of the tree. At 9.15pm on a cloudy evening, it was near impossible to identify which bird it was... but from the way it proceeded to throw itself ungracefully into a large nearby bush I think it can be safely assumed to be one of the juveniles.

The adult male has not returned that I have seen, although he has been spotted around the farm. So we know he is ok and has likely decided it's time the youngsters looked after themselves. A good plan, but he may have done himself out of a roost in the process! It will be interesting to see how long the homely juvenile is tolerated. Young Barn Owls very rarely stay around the area they were reared; average distance of dispersal is around seven miles, but some go further. It's possible - if it's a female - that she will not be driven away if mum is no longer around. If it's a young male he will soon be given his marching orders when Dad decides he wants his nestbox back.

I'm as certain as I can be there is no second brood, which always seemed at the far end of optimistic. We won't see much of him/them now until early 2011 with any luck. If we do, it probably means feeding isn't so good - and I'd rather think he's keeping well and has no need to hunt during the day. We could do with a mild winter; the lengthy cold last year has, according to estimates, decimated the Barn Owl population. There could be as few as 1,000 breeding pairs left. A mild winter would increase the chances of this year's brood and older birds surviving to breed and start increasing numbers again.  Juvenile Barn Owls across the country are entering a critical stage - the next three to six months are likely to be their toughest as they look for a home and experience their first winter. 50% of those who don't make it will be killed on roads. Please keep an eye out for them when you're driving, particularly on major roads, it might just save an Owl's life.

There's obviously been little to shoot over the past week, so I've posted up one of my favourite shots - three of the young napping at the front of the box. It proved near impossible to get this, the bright bush you can see at the bottom of the frame and the dark leaves of the tree usually obscure the front of the nest box completely during summer. On this occasion a gust of wind somehow swirled around enough to blow them in different directions.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Missing Mum (and where's Dad?)

Missing: Adult Female

My hope that the adult female is sitting on another clutch of eggs seems unlikely now. This morning it became clear that the Owlets who remain completely dependent on Dad are still sleeping in the nestbox. I dug back into the pictures I've taken since May and found the shots I got from the only time I recall seeing Mum and to me she looks like she needed a good meal.. two months ago. My fear that she has met her demise seems - sadly- more realistic. On the other hand, I'm no expert... it may be normal that the younger female Barn Owl is less "stout" than a male of advanced years.

Also bothering me is that Dad hadn't shown up tonight by 9.30pm when I left. A number of the juveniles were hopping between posts and flying around the field, but no sign of him. Maybe he's decided that they need a little encouragement to hunt for themselves? It seemed to be working, if that was the case. To end this update on a more positive note, the eldest Owlet may well have left the nest for good. She has been seen catching her own food and has not returned to the field (in daylight, anyway) for a couple of days. If so, she looked well set for the journey ahead. She needs some luck now finding her own patch - away from roads and with plenty of rodents to keep her going through the winter. Her first year will likely be the toughest.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

More light, please

Panning is so much easier with cars...

It's been a fascinating few days. The young Barn Owlets are well - all five of them. To be perfectly honest I really wasn't expecting to see them all still alive, their tendency to flounder in the grass can't have escaped the attention of the foxes, who are but a stone's throw away. The two eldest of the brood are now roosting elsewhere, returning to the nest each evening shortly after dad to get their dinner. Number one is looking in fine shape and is regularly perching on posts and making lunges into the grass, although I have still yet to see her make a kill. If she has anything like her dad's hunting prowess she has a very good chance of surviving her first winter - statistically, four out of the five won't. But I have a good feeling about these Owls, there is enough food to support at least two of them in the locality and relatively few hazards. A mild winter would be a bonus.

From the photographer's perspective, decent shots have been hard to come by. The combination of dark clouds and late-showing Owls have been beyond my D300's ability to get anything like the shots of the previous week. I've taken to panning at down to 1/30 - if nothing else it's good practice for Snetterton in a couple of weeks time!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

What... No Owls?

Well, tonight was a a bit of a write-off. With no sign of the Owls at 9pm I was starting to think they may have been fed in the afternoon and consequently were having a bit of a lay-in. Finally, there was the familiar screeching from the tree (Barn Owls do not "twit-twoo", that's the Tawny Owl - and strictly speaking you're more likely to hear the "twoo" bit on it's own) and two of the owlets emerged. This in itself was a little odd - on past form when one is awake they're all up and calling to be fed. But there was a surprise in store..

The adult male appeared some 20 minutes later, followed soon by the oldest female owlet. It seems she is now roosting with dad away from the nest. In normal circumstances she'd soon be off, but with the adult female still unaccounted for she may well stay. She's not been seen for six weeks now. The optimist in me hopes she is sitting on the next brood; though I fear she may no longer be around. Sadly, Barn Owls have a high mortality rate and rarely live beyond 3 years in the wild.

The tardy appearance of the Owls meant no (usable) pictures of them tonight - instead I've posted up my first Bullfinch shot that I took yesterday morning. And what a handsome bird it is.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Barn Owl - photography tips

Picture - Juvenile Barn Owl (female). Exposure settings: 1/100, f5, ISO 800.

I've never been one for early mornings, so I've surprised myself with the ability to rouse myself regularly at 4.30am in recent weeks. This morning, however, it was in vain. Silence from the tree (where the young roost) and no sign of the adults. Had I returned for the umpteenth consecutive evening my family may start to have trouble recognising me, so I'll be back tomorrow.

I'll take the opportunity to explain the challenges facing a photographer when shooting Barn Owls in the evening. Ideal conditions generally occur at the beginning and end of the day when you are relying on natural light (i.e. the sun). Currently - nearing the end of July - we're talking from 6am to 9am and from around 4pm to 7pm on a clear day. You don't want the sun too high or you lose any shadows and the resulting image looks rather flat, but you need enough natural light to keep the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject. With birds in flight this is vital - ideally you need to be at around 1/800 or faster for a Barn Owl (higher for smaller, faster birds). I'm basing the following tips on my usual kit for the job - a D300 with a non-VR 300 f2.8 lens and a 1.7x teleconverter. This gives a focal length equivalent to 750mm on a 35mm camera at f5. Not ideal, but then I can't find a buyer for my kidney at the moment to fund a 600mm f4 lens and D3s!

So how do you achieve this when they're showing up at 8pm or later? Compromise. You'll have to surrender a bit of quality in the overall image to get something other than a whole lot of dark and grubby colours. You'll want to be in Manual mode to start with for maximum control of your exposure. The easy option is to take down the shutter speed, but get too low and you'll see motion blur or camera shake evident. The former can give a picture a bit of life when used appropriately, the latter is your worst enemy and will render your shot useless. This is where VR (IS on inferior equipment!) is handy, or a monopod to help support your camera and/or lens. Steady hands are a bonus. Realistically, 1/500 is as slow as you should go until the other options are exhausted - unless of course your bird is stationary. You can also open up the aperture, but remember that IQ is better on most lenses when stopped down a couple of times. Then there is ISO - the sensitivity of your camera's sensor to light. Most current DSLRs will comfortably handle ISO 800 without too much noise (grain, in old money) - even 1600 can produce acceptable results. When post-processed with Noise Reduction software (Photoshop CS5 is brilliant at this) it's a handy option. If you have a D700 or D3/D3s you'll know that these beasts can go further and still get usable images - if not then your kit is wasted on you. Give it to me and buy a D90 or D3000 instead!

It's worth bearing in mind that the background light is likely to change rapidly and play havoc with metering, so to a certain degree you should ignore it - only address this if it goes way out. Watch out if you are switching between very bright and dark backgrounds (sky vs trees, for example). The exposure settings that are acceptable for one could be completely inappropriate for the other and you'll need to adjust quickly.

So in summary... Keep the shutter speed above 1/500 unless you're still needing light at your lens's widest aperture and above ISO 800. After that, it's time to give up and go home - or just stay and admire the beauty of these majestic creatures without worrying about where to point your camera.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Barn Owls: Dad and his girl

BarnOwl72, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
Let's get this show on the road...

For the past three months I've been spending a lot of time at a local farm observing a pair of Barn Owls. They have successfully raised 5 owlets who are now developing their flying and pouncing skills and will no doubt be hunting for their own prey in the near future.

For now, Dad is providing sustenance. Usual pattern is he returns to the nest area and plants himself on a post - then the juveniles take a leap at him in an attempt to get a meal! This sometimes results in rather amusing and ungraceful bumps (quite a contrast to the normal regal way that these birds hold themselves) and occasionally fantastic images.

Here's one of my favourite shots so far - The eldest owlet (a female) comes in to take a vole - I've captured the moment as she plucks it from her father's beak. Of course it could be a peck on the cheek to say thank you for being such a wonderful dad, as all daughters should do every now and then!


It's all very well looking at these pictures and thinking 'ooh, isn't that a nice shot'... But what's the point unless you share them? So, that is why this blog has come to exist - I want to share my passion for photography with other people, and hopefully provide some decent shots for them to admire. I'm also an opinionated sod, so it's entirely possible I may not be able to help commenting on football, finance, current affairs... in fact pretty much anything!

I hope that whomever finds their way here enjoys themselves and may be inclined to return...