Monday, 19 December 2011

A week of nothings!

Short-eared owl at Waltham Brooks,  by Christopher Mills.

Having secured some rather nice flight images of the Short-eared owls, I've moved on to pursuing more selective shots.

As of Monday last, my visits have seen me sat in the same spot beside a bush, under a scrim net. A few metres away is a branch I've embedded in the ground, behind it a pleasant backdrop of long grass and dark tree shapes above the horizon. Since the only tripod I possess has a aluminium finish, I've been using the monopod - not ideal, but at that range visual disturbance could be a factor; you have to consider these details with wild animals, their primary instinct is survival. A shiny, reflective surface (even under a net) could cause enough alarm to disturb or divert them. Fortunately the ground is soft enough to thoroughly wedge the monopod into the soil and firm enough support the weight of the kit; trying to hold it in position for hours on end would be tiresome.

The main problem is that the owls have been largely ignoring the perch! I'd give it a 50-1 chance on any given day that it'd be utilised, so the odds aren't great to start with. One female SEO (like Barn Owls, they are generally darker in colour than the male) did land on it on Monday - at gone 4pm when I was on my way back to the car. Typical! On a more positive note, the location I've picked seems good - I've had some fabulous views of the owls over my head and close by; one even landed a few feet away in the grass. I could have taken some half-decent landing or flight shots, but suddenly burst shooting at that range risks disturbing them. I've restricted myself to firing the shutter a couple of times (with camera aimed at nothing in particular!) so that the owls are used to the noise. It's disappointing to come away with nothing on the memory card, but there's no point blowing it for the same kind of shot I already have. I know what I want from the effort I'm putting in, if I get just one good image out it I'll be happy.

Having watched the owls for a while now, there's no clear preference for the type of perch they'll land on - except that it's usually close to some scrub or bushes. They appear comfortable with (or oblivious to) me, so I don't think I need to revise the location or set-up.

Hopefully I'll be able to report back later with a fine image or two. How long "later" will be is hard to predict!

Monday, 28 November 2011

Short eared owls galore!

SEO_22, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

Having been put off Rodmell by the inability of some people to play nicely, I've been concentrating on an area closer to home this week. Waltham Brooks is somewhere I've been a few times before. It's a beautiful location beside the Arun with the south downs as a backdrop - sunsets can really be special here.

Having caught a few "nearly" shots in the week, Sunday presented the best evening light for some time. Rain the preceding evening had convinced me that (despite my preference of avoiding Sundays) it would be worth the trip... and it certainly was! I counted six owls in view at one point - there may well have been more. I didn't get the shot I really wanted, but this will have to do for now!

The big advantage Waltham has over Rodmell is that it's somewhat circular and much easier to get below the horizon line. The owls are already quite near, and basic fieldcraft gets some quite astonishingly close encounters. If there's one thing I need to do to improve my shots, it's stop gaping in awe at their presence and remember to press the shutter release!

The real problem with photographing animals at publicly accessible sites is that it's hard to get away from the masses, particularly at weekends when the weather is good. The best preparation can be wasted if someone in a bright pink hat stands on top of a bank yards from your chosen spot. But that's the nature of the game, people love to watch birds and (whilst I may grumble a bit under my breath!) it's important that we continue to appreciate our wildlife and it's habitat. It would be nice, however, if people refrained from roaming around all over the place with a camera without any consideration for others. Not only is it frustrating when you've put time and effort into selecting a spot for concealment and image potential, but it gives ALL wildlife photographers a bad name.

While I'm on the subject of bad practises - I've seen a number of annoyed postings on the SOS site from twitchers concerned by people leaving the track at Rodmell. Whilst the behaviour of certain individuals was questionable, it would not spoil the chances of viewing from the track. In fact, standing in the open like that is much more likely to disturb the owls - they have no perception of human footpaths! From an SEO's perspective, there would be a group of human shapes, some with predators (dogs) and artificial, unusual outlines (tripods, scopes, etc). Throw in perfume, brightly coloured clothes and talking and you are as much of a problem as someone stomping around the field.

Unfortunately some people simply don't understand the creatures they are watching, or how to act around them.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Year of the Short eared owl?

SEO_2, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

Strong north-easterly winds in late September led to an avalanche of early Scandinavian migrants arriving on our shores! As well as a few Pallid Harriers turning up in the UK, the number of Short eared owl reports (particularly in the south) seem well up on last year. Quite a number of these have appeared in our neck of the woods - Beeding Brooks, Waltham Brooks, The Burgh and Thorney Island all have recent reports of several individuals.

This species is interesting. Fiercely territorial during breeding, in winter months they roost and hunt together in relative harmony. It is possible to find any number of individuals roosting in the same area. They require large amounts of rough ground and are likely to be partial to the same habitat as our resident Kestrel and Barn Owl, given their similar diets. They can be active at any time of day or night, but in my experience your best chance of spotting them is an hour or so before sunset. They seem to favour coastal plains and marshy areas; though farmland with well-managed hedgerows and large verges also seem favoured.

It's a spectacular raptor to watch, no more so than when squabbling and calling, bathed in a winter sunset. I was fortunate enough to experience this last week - at one point (though sadly too dark for pictures) one flew straight at me and cleared my head by a metre or so! As I looked back another one flew past, calling loudly, and the two then engaged in battle above me!

It was a fabulous end to a day which saw me electrocuted, attacked on the posterior by a thistle (ok, I sat on it!) and cursing the lack of light. I'd hung on for an extra 30 minutes after initially deciding to head home, I'm so glad I did.

The shot above really shouldn't have worked - 1/200 is way too slow for anything that flies. Especially at an effective 450mm (when you take the crop sensor into account). It isn't the best I'll ever take and it's heavily cropped, but in the circumstances I was pleased to get just one "keeper". Sometimes blind faith pays off... I do hope they're settled for the winter and there's plenty more keepers to come.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The long walk...

Owl, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills

Well, here we are - November already! To say things have changed a bit since my last blog update in September is something of an understatement. Photography is not the foremost thing in mind in some respects, but in other ways it very much is. Confused?

Employment levels in our household have gone from 100% to 0% in the space of a month (as have my hopes of acquiring that 600mm lens I'd been drooling over). The job market, compared to when I was looking to change in late 2009, is awful. In three weeks, I've had two phone calls from agencies and no follow-ups. Tomorrow, I'm registering for job-seekers allowance. After 18 years of paying into the system, I'm going to take some back. There's plenty of people out there who have taken more than they've put in, so I have no qualms about it.

Obviously, I would prefer to be employed. It's no fun watching my 600mm fund vanish down the mortgage plughole. But it has provided an opportunity to get that website up I'd been promising! It's quite basic, the gallery is a tad clunky and dreamweaver's forgiving nature with case sensitivity has led to a lot of monotonous file name correction. But here it is... tada!

I will be implementing an online shopping interface in the near future and any suggestions or help to improve the site will be gratefully received. I don't anticipate making a living out of it - I've arrived at the conclusion that professional wildlife photographers are mainly tour guides and/or started out with enough money behind them not to have to worry about making a living.
It's an interesting mix of people in the wildlife photography "scene", but appears generally devoid of thirty-something IT professionals with mortgages at the sharp end! I recently saw a tweet questioning why people seem unwilling to go out with their gear in adverse weather... Whilst I agree fully with the sentiment, if you don't have a D3s or D700 and fast lenses, there's little point when the light is poor (as it often is when it's overcast - unless your preferred subjects are static animals). It's a discipline where the photographer does play second fiddle to the equipment at times, there's been many occasions where I've wished I could have got an extra couple of stops out of my D300, or missed a shot taking the teleconverter off the 300mm to get down to f2.8 - or found that the subject is just too far away without it.  I love getting out in conditions that make other photographers want to hide their gear away, but sometimes it just isn't worth the time and effort. Unless it's a particularly special or rare subject, who really wants to see a flat, lifeless, stationary image? Of course landscaping is different - with the right conditions the weather can lend itself to creating a spectacular image.

Back on the subject of the website, I must take the time to thank my wife Helen for her efforts on the website - she's done the majority of the donkey work on this and without her it wouldn't have happened at all. If I can supplement my income and maybe fund some new gear, I'll be happy. The thought of doing weddings, portraits and the like is bobbing around my head. I'll see where the wind takes me... The IT market is dead.

Finally, I can't leave you without an image after all this time away, so here's one from a recent trip to Longleat Safari Park. I'm not sure of the exact species, possibly an Indian Eagle Owl or other bubo species, but it was a fantastic bird to see at close quarters. This shot was taken with the D300 and Sigma 120-300 with 1.4 TC attached. This one came out well, but there were a lot of throw-aways - I had to use manual focus as the lens simply couldn't keep up. It's a fantastic combo for sports, but it can't handle birds in flight!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Osprey at Ardingly

AR_Osprey_09a, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

For the past few days I've been spending every spare moment (which, to be honest, is not that many moments) at Ardingly reservoir.

I'd been to Thorney Island a few times lately, in the hope of seeing the Osprey I knew was there. I picked my spot, set up and waited... hours passed, but just as I was about to head home it appeared over the deeps. I got ready, anticipating the swoop and splash - and it soared up about 100ft, straight over me and out to sea! So it came as a bit of a relief to read on the SOS sightings page that one had been seen at Ardingly.

Of course, knowing where a stopping-over Osprey is located is one thing, getting the shot you want is another matter! No doubt it would be easier to haul myself up to Rutland Water or a Scottish loch where they nest, but the usual factors limit those possibilities. Migrating birds, fuelling-up before making the trip to Africa, gives a small window of opportunity at minimum expense.

Whilst the shots you'll find on my flickr stream aren't world-beaters, they're certainly my best Osprey images yet (my only previous experience of these wonderful birds came last year at Weir Wood). As with any animal with highly contrasting markings, they're tricky subjects to get the exposure right. A crop sensor helps with getting close, but it also increases the depth of field, something that isn't ideal when the subject rarely comes closer to you than the background it's set against. You end up with nasty, cluttered backdrops that do the image no favours at all. Switching the settings between getting as much of the Osprey in focus as possible and isolating it against the background caught me out once or twice, as did keeping the shutter speed in check. Shooting in manual with these conditions makes it all the more difficult, but it feels foreign when I try to use shutter or aperture priority now!

In an ideal world, the bird would come down for the fish right in front of me (looking very suspicious, flat out under a scrim net at the edge of the reservoir!), in consistent light either just before sunrise or just after sunset. Bright sunlight is not ideal - you end up with blown white highlights or areas that are too dark, resulting in "noise" when processing. This was another occasion where I found I was pushing the D300 to it's usable limits; I don't think it did a bad job overall. I just hope the Osprey hangs around a little longer, work has intervened so I won't be able to spend much time there this week.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Kingfisher taking a bath

Kingfisher_3, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

It's been far too long since I last updated this blog! The best part of summer is now behind us, we've moved into the busy time at work and I have more OU study to get on with.

I have managed a reasonable amount of time out with the camera, so I'll write it up when I get the time - kingfishers, hares, buzzards, game birds and more have given me some shots I'm fairly happy with.

For now, I'll leave it at this one - a female kingfisher washing off the oil, sand and other grime from visiting her nest to deliver fish to her offspring. I've never been close enough to see for myself, but apparently the smell is rather strong! No wonder she needs a bath...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

River Arun Pollution Incident South of Horsham

The County Times are reporting that a two mile stretch of the Arun has been polluted to the south of Horsham. Unless they're being very creative with this description, it doesn't take a lot to work out the area likely to be affected. The Environment Agency are onsite investigating.

This could be catastrophic to wildlife around the river. It's an important Brown Trout and Grayling breeding ground. Kingfishers, Grey Wagtails, Herons and other water birds feed here. I await further details...

(click on title for the link to the article)

Friday, 10 June 2011

Andy Rouse Fieldcraft @ BWC

Fox_07, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
I've been struggling of late to find the time to get out with the camera. When I have managed it, there's been precious little to shoot!

On Tuesday I attended a course led by Pro Wildlife Photographer Andy Rouse at the British Wildlife Centre near East Grinstead. I can't recommend Andy's courses enough - it's a brilliant insight into the methods he uses and really makes you appreciate the effort behind his work. Throw in some amusing anecdotes, advice on camouflage, hides and his thoughts on ethics - and it was worth every penny. I came away with plenty of ideas on how to improve my photography and a list of kit that I need to convince 'er indoors is an investment!

After the theory we spent a couple of hours shooting the captive inhabitants at the BWC. Not normally my thing, but with time at a premium right now I'll take whatever I can. I have managed to stick my head in on the Kestrels at Woods Mill, they have five chicks (the same as last year) and appear to be doing well. Sussex Wildlife Trust have installed a camera in the box and are regularly posting footage of them, which is lovely to see.

The second Kingfisher brood should be near fledging at Loder Valley now. I might brave the traffic heading to the South of England Show tomorrow and see what is occurring...

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

More Kingfishers!

KF_14, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
Stick with what you know. That's my motto for the moment - I've had so little success with Barn Owls recently that I've conceded defeat for now. I did spot one bird quartering a field near the A29 on Friday night, after an evening visit to Pulborough Brooks, which may be an indication of things to come. More on that later…

My visit to view the Kingfishers yesterday was really in the hope that the juveniles would make an appearance. These were dashed as they had already been driven away by the adults (apparently the young were first sighted around 4th May - very early, going on my calculations from when the female laid). This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise… the adults were courting again and hung around the nest site for most of the day. Having seen them twice in six hours on my first visit here, it was quite a contrast and amazing to watch. The male came and went, going off from time to time to find a meal for his partner. She waited in the same spot quietly for long periods; the silence punctuated occasionally by his return, with a frenzy of "eeps" that preluded an exchange of fish - and then mating. This happened three times that I observed, two of the three were blighted by light that resulted in images showing nothing more than a messy blue-orange blur (Oh for a D3s!). On the third occasion, I did manage to get a couple of acceptable (but by no means brilliant) images. It didn't help my cause that they chose a distant branch, under thick vegetation and times when light was at a premium. You're always going to be a bit restricted in a fixed hide on a nature reserve anyway, it comes with the territory. One of my photographic ambitions is to find and shoot a Kingfisher on my own terms. But I was generally happy with the day, despite the unfavourable conditions I managed my best Kingfisher shots yet.

So on to Barn Owls. I've had little success tracking them and there have been few sightings in West Sussex. I'm trying to maintain a positive outlook on numbers after the awful winter - so by my reckoning there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, while eggs remain unhatched the male is only providing for himself and the female. Hunting is not as frequent as it will be when there are several hungry mouths to feed. Those eggs should start hatching soon, if breeding is "on schedule" this year . Secondly, we've had predominantly dry weather in the South East for a good couple of months now, so hunting is more likely to be in dark hours. This is excellent news for the Barn Owl; rain means a reduced ability to hunt and less successful attempts at a kill, as they lose the advantage of silent flight and consume more energy. Barn Owls are extremely light for their size; imagine trying to swim fully clothed - that's the battle a Barn Owl has when it's feathers are soaked. A high percentage of owlets starved in the North last year when heavy, persistent rain blighted June - some just days from fledging. We were more fortunate here in the south east, but the rain that came in late July will have hindered the owlets who were learning to catch prey or were searching for their own territory. And then later in the year came the snow…

The main concern is how many birds survived over winter and what condition the females were in. Gut feeling based on these factors is that breeding will be late this year and the size of the broods will be below average. At some point, activity should pick up in the evenings. I'll continue searching; hoping for increased sightings and healthy broods - and keep my fingers crossed for more good weather.

If you're interested in the behaviour of Barn Owls and their young in the nest, take a look at this feed from a nest box down in Dorset. Last time I checked, there were four noisy owlets, that could become six if the remaining eggs hatch!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Kingfishers Re-visited

Kingfisher in flight, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

On Monday I made the return trip I had promised myself to Ardingly and the Loder Vally NR. My timing was good this time around - the brood has obviously hatched as both adult Kingfishers were busily popping in and out of the nest every 20 minutes or so - quite a contrast to the miserly couple of sightings of three weeks ago! I ended up with 4 or 5 shots out of 100+ plus that I was reasonably happy with, although still wishing I had a longer lens! This shot was taken with the usual 300 + 1.7tc combo. Although I've done well enough to capture the bird in flight, the cropping (around 65%) needed means it's not as detailed as I would like. Of course for every image you're happy with, there's a bundle that get deleted there and then and I must have got rid of a couple of hundred "duffers". The bird was too small in the viewfinder for AF to track reliably, so I had to use manual focus, aim where I though it would fly and hope that the shutter speed was quck enough (1/3200) and wide aperture wouldn't render the depth of field too shallow. It just about came off on this occasion.

On the Owl front, still nothing. There were a couple of long, streaky droppings on fence posts this evening and evidence of some vole activity on one of the fields. I do think that the lack of voles is still a factor though - a quick grass check revealed that 3 of the 5 fields surveyed will not support a healthy field vole population at present, for reasons previously discussed. I hope the council instruct whoever does the cutting more carefully this year. I shall be contacting them in the early summer to ensure they are at least aware of the consequences of cutting the grass so short - I'm amazed at the lack of thought that went into it last year. There's still time, but it looks a feint hope now.

To end on a positive note, a Kestrel was hunting this evening on the (presumed lost) Barn Owl's favourite bit of turf, and the "eep" of a Kingfisher was heard as it whizzed along the Arun behind me. What marvellous little birds they are!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Red Kite near West Grinstead

Red Kite over Sussex, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
I went for a walk this morning along the banks of the western branch of the Adur, starting at the Parish Church at West Grinstead and heading towards Partridge Green along public footpaths. I hadn't been walking long when I flushed a large raptor from a tree. Initially, it was so close it barely fit into the frame! Of course, it was facing entirely the wrong way for me so most of my shots were of a very dark bird - when I reviewed the images on the LCD, my first thought was that it was a Golden Eagle! I hadn't realised that Kites were that large, but apparently they can grow to 185cm wing span.

My reason for being there was - you guessed it - Barn Owls. The long, tussocky grass that line the river banks and surrounding land looked ideal. But there was no sign... however I'm convinced that the habitat would support at least one pair, so will return in a few weeks. Barn Owl activity should pick up mid May as the first owlets start to hatch.

While we're on the subject, I paid a fleeting visit to the Farm this morning to check for activity. While there, I inspected the grass; there is nothing in the way of a litter layer underneath the new growth. I put this down to the length of the cutting, and a combination of a late cut and excessive grazing in 2010 - which prevented further significant growth before winter. This resulted in no "grass fall", where the old grass collapses and provides the necessary habitat for field voles the following year. You can tell there are far fewer voles simply by visiting at night and listening - last year you could hear them squeaking away constantly. In comparison, those noises are now fewer and further between all over the Farm.

This combination of factors has degraded the habitat from a Barn Owl's perspective. It may also have been contributory to the male's failure to last the winter (though I understand he was getting on a bit in Barn Owl terms). So you have to question the management of the land - Why cut so short? Could a couple of the fields be left uncut for a year, or cut in rotation? Why do animals need to graze constantly through summer and autumn months? Hopefully, with the formation of the friends group (which I have belatedly added my name to, having been away for the meeting last week), we'll be able to find out. If the land is being managed by people with agricultural experience rather than conservation, this needs to be changed - maybe the Sussex Wildlife Trust can get involved; they have few interests at present in the north of the county. I understand the hay is cut and taken away without payment either way, so there is no financial necessity to maintain it in that way. Are the council able to obtain compensation under the Stewardship schemes? I'd be delighted to be involved if volunteers are required - as long as they buck the trend that most conservation groups seem to adhere to, of organising tasks during the working week. Useless unless you're retired or so wealthy that you don't need to work!

Friday, 8 April 2011

Fruitless Barn Owl Searching

Just a quick update on the Owl situation... I've still not managed another sighting since that first one, which seems a long time ago now! I think she is there; I heard a distant screech a few nights ago at around 11pm. I've taken to late night sessions after several luckless early morning and dusk visits. I figured that if there is a pair, the female will be begging for food regularly and I'd be more likely to hear than see them. On the flip side, if there isn't a pair the lone individual should be out and about trying to find a partner, again with a fair bit of noisy screeching involved. I suspect this more likely at the moment - but this may mean that the bird is going further afield and using a number of roosting sites, rather than staying at the box.

Of course, it should all become clearer in the next few weeks...

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Loder Valley NR

Standard "Kingfisher on stick" shot
A couple of days off work; a rare luxury in the life of a mortgage slave. Tuesday sees me at a SWT-run Wildlife and Farming day... so I figured an extra-long weekend would give me a chance to pursue a bird I've never quite managed a decent image of - the Kingfisher.

My timing, unfortunately, was off. Speaking to a fellow glutton-for-punishment in the hide (who kept me company for five long, cold hours) it seems the birds were quite active at the end of last week, when she had managed to shoot the male and female together. As things transpired, all I had to show for the day were 11 very similar images, bursted in the space of a few seconds. One measly showing as the pair swapped shifts at the nest indicated that the female has laid since Friday, and they are now rotating shifts on their coming brood. I left at 4pm without another glimpse since the sole sighting at around midday. They'll incubate the eggs for three weeks or so, then the action should pick up again as both parents scramble to keep the young fed. I'll pay another visit at the end of April when there should be more frequent showings. It's not ideal - I'd prefer a subject in a more natural setting and doing something other than sitting on a twig. But it's a start, and will give me a chance to get to know the bird until I can locate one of the little blighters that I attempted to track down last year (and found nothing but the occasional flash of azure zooming past me) - without worrying about stumbling on territory around the nest and falling foul of the law.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Nothing to Declare

For anyone interested in the Barn Owl situation - No sightings since the weekend that it was first seen. I have been regularly checking in, and I'd really expect to see some activity by now if there was any chance of a nesting pair. So my gut feeling is she's either moved on, or is a solitary bird who has no need for hunting in daylight hours at the moment. If she has gone elsewhere, of course you start to wonder why... Are there simply too many dog walkers and joggers around the farm? Have the fields been over-grazed by the cows and sheep that were employed as biological lawn-mowers (I'm not particularly up on this subject, but the grass still seems rather short to support a population of field voles to me... and there was little in the way of verge left by the hay cutting last July)? Has the seemingly never-ending building work at the house caused too much disturbance? Unless anyone speaks Owl, all we can do is speculate. However I do feel that there is room for improvement in the management of the site; at the moment it seems little more than a communal dog toilet. Still, the optimist in me hopes she is still there, and a mate will arrive in the coming days. We may just have a longer wait for the young to emerge compared to last year.

Away from Horsham - I've heard of two reports of Barn Owl deaths in the Arun Valley this week. One predated, the other possibly starved. Even the birds that made it through the winter are likely to be poor condition and struggling to condition themselves for breeding. This will have a knock-on effect with small broods and females who may abandon nests in need of food; it doesn't bode well for the future. We need a dry summer and a kind following winter to allow the population to begin to recover.

My focus has switched to the area around Warnham for now - there have been sightings of Barn Owls in the area encircled by the A29, A281 and A24. No luck yet, but then I'm still waiting on the extra hour of light from next weekend to give me more time. Tracking down subjects for wildlife photography and working full-time are not compatible - I guess that's why I encounter few like-minded people of similar age to myself. But I have no intention of waiting 30 years+ to retire so I suppose I'll have to make do - and hope for a lottery win! That £120m Euromillions jackpot next Friday would keep me going for a while...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Barn Owl News!!!

spot_the_owl, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
I had all but given hope it would happen - but this evening I decided to stop off at the farm on the way home for a quick check. I looked around the field, saw nothing and thought I might as well leave. But something told me to hang on... And a few minutes later I thought I could see a white shape moving near the box, which was obscured by a large branch. Having been fooled by a collared dove at Woods Mill, I figured this was probably the same - or one of the many discarded plastic bags those wonderful, considerate dog walkers leave everywhere. I had the D90 with me and a 150mm Macro lens, so I pointed it at the box and fired off a few shots. It was barely distinguishable, but zooming in convinced me it was worthy of closer inspection, so I walked around to the river path. As I pulled myself up the incline and peered through the branches, I saw what I'd desperately been hoping it would be - A Barn Owl!

It took flight, and disappeared over the hedge. I couldn't be sure but my initial impression was that it was a new bird - not the regular male. I headed over to the one field that presently has enough tussocky grass to support any number of voles, and sure enough there it was. Unsurprisingly, a dog walker soon moved it on and it came closer to my position - not close enough for a definite ID... but in my opinion a 75% chance it is a young female from the pronounced wing and nape markings, and a lack of imperfections to her flight feathers. She post hunted for a few minutes, then dashed and whirled over the grass. It was quite an unusual sight; not the graceful hovering I've observed before with other Barn Owls, but a crazed swooping and acrobatic display. She may have yet to perfect the art of vole catching, but she has chosen her territory wisely - there's no shortage of prey here.

And just maybe our wily ol' male is lurking nearby. I certainly hope so, It wouldn't be the same without him. In any case, I quickly left her to go about her business in the fading light. I will pop back in the next few days in the hope of confirming whether my observations are accurate, and hopefully spotting him. If we do have a new girl, I certainly do not want to disturb her as she settles in, so I'll be treading carefully...

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Warnham LNR - Lousy Weather Again!

Siskin, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
Roll on spring. For the third consecutive weekend, the weather has been awful. However I was determined to get out today and the February murk was not stopping me, so I spent a few hours at Warnham Local Nature Reserve. Given the conditions, there was little hope of getting any action shots as such, a shutter speed of 1/200 was about as good as it was going to get. I did consider ditching the Teleconverters altogether and making do with the 300 eau naturale, but there would have been no real advantage in the extra stop in that light... so I went with the 1.4x. Feeders are great in this weather - you know that birds will perch on branches and twigs near the feeders before coming in to nibble; focal length isn't quite as important and with a steady hand, you've got half a chance of a reasonably motion-blur free shot . But 300mm is still on the short side for smaller critters.

There seems to be a lot of action at Warnham at the moment. Numerous Siskins and Redpolls joined the regular cast of finches, tits and thrushes. Species observed at the feeders included:

Lesser Redpoll
Long Tailed Tit
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Coal Tit
Marsh Tit
Greater Spotted Woodpecker
Reed Bunting
Sparrowhawk (swooped in, but left empty handed and was gone in the blink of an eye)
Grey Wagtail
Noisy Children

So although the weather wasn't playing ball, there was plenty of feathered friends keeping me company on a quite horrible day. At least it wasn't raining!

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Something Missing?

Insert raptor here...

On Sunday, I decided to forego my usual approach to wildlife photography in an attempt to raise the bar somewhat. That "usual approach" involves walking around with the camera slung over shoulder, covering as much ground as possible to increase the likelihood of snapping a variety of different species.  More often than not, this yields quantity over quality and good results are largely down to luck.

In the past few visits to Amberley Wildbrooks, I've spotted a number of raptors using a similar flight path alongside a wooded area beside a section of long grass (as seen in my distant Barn Owl shot posted a couple of weeks ago). What marvellous potential - the possibility of capturing a Harrier, Kestrel or Owl floating over the marshy field, with a suitable DOF to isolate the subject against the foreground of golden grass and backdrop of tangled branches was too good to resist. My intention therefore was to hide amongst the tall grass and wait for that opportune moment - however long it took. As I arrived at Amberley, the signs were good; The Met Office were spectacularly wrong in my favour for once, an adult Hen Harrier drifted over the trees toward Rackham Plantation, A Kestrel hovered over a nearby field and corvids harassed another unidentified raptor (possibly an immature Hen Harrier or Short-eared Owl - although easily larger than a Kestrel it was too distant to distinguish). I picked my spot, made myself comfortable and waited. And waited....

Four hours later and with nothing to show for my patience, feet like blocks of ice and hamstrung legs I walked a few hundred yards along the footpath and back, then resumed my position for a further three hours. A fox I'd seen frolicking in the marsh came within three or four feet, but caught my scent and was off as I desperately tried to coax the AF to lock on. He disappeared from view just as I'd switched to Manual Focus... chance gone.  The Hen Harrier didn't return. The Kestrel teased me above the wetlands, then engaged in some peculiar foot-stomping behaviour of which I could only assume she was searching for a stashed catch. To add insult to injury, as I trudged back to the car in the failing light, the familiar ghost-like shape of a Barn Owl could be seen haunting the banks of the Arun.

This time, I was defeated. But in true Arnie style - I'll be back. As any Wildlife Photographer will tell you, patience and determination are essential to getting "that" shot. Unfortunately I'm restricted to one day a week at the moment, so need to be more patient than most.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Big Cats!

This my strangest idea yet - but one which could certainly result in a lot of exposure on the outside chance it comes off!

So, there's been a whole host of reported sightings of big cats in Sussex over the last decade. Two places I'm familiar with catch the eye; around Petworth, extending northwest towards Haslemere and the Devil's Dyke area of the Downs through Fulking and Edburton.

Yes, it's quite nuts... But if there's one shot I love to get it's the one few others have. In any case, I'm not talking about devoting my life to the pursuit of these creatures, just keeping an eye out. If I go missing after an early morning sortie, what's left of me may be found up a tree!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Grey day blues beaten by Kestrels

                                                                    Kestrel @ Woods Mill

The winter weather is my biggest adversary at the moment. The D300 and the lens / teleconverter combo I use on my walk-around sessions is strained by anything other than bright or sunny conditions. With more preparation I could ditch the TC and get a bit closer, but that would take a degree of planning. I simply don't know until the day whether I'll get out at all at the moment, so I have to take what comes. That will improve once daylight starts and lasts longer; the days are lengthening at a faster pace (we'll break three minutes a day by the end of the week!) and the countdown to gaining that extra hour is underway.

So this is building up to yesterday's trip to Woods Mill and then Pagham Harbour, which was a bit of a let down again, in terms of images. You need luck at the best of times on a random, walkabout shoot - and I didn't have much...

Woods Mill provided the best news of the day - the pair of Kestrels who produced five offspring last year are back and courting already. When I arrived at the meadow, the male was sat on the edge of the nest box, with the female in a close by tree. He called, she took off and he followed. I hung around hoping to get them on their return, but being a Nature Reserve on a Sunday, the place was soon filled with noisy children and parents in bright coats, wellies and perfume you could smell from Brighton. There was no way those Kestrels would be back, so after a wander around the surrounding fields moved on to Pagham. One other incidental to report from Woods Mill - the Owl box on the edge of Hoe Wood showed signs of use. I'm fairly certain that a Barn Owl would be the likely visitor, given it's position. Once at Pagham I was again met by a Kestrel! This time a lone male hunting almost directly over me, he then perched in a tree and allowed me a few shots. In poor light and against a lifeless sky, I struggled to get anything usable. I had to open the aperture fully, drop the shutter to 1/320 (which on a non-VR, effective 750mm is just asking for a shaky image) and crank the ISO up. The built-in metering was playing games as you'd expect, so with a small, dark subject you have to over-expose the sky to keep the detail and hope you can pull back the highlights in pp. But hope for the best is all you can do. In the past I've been able to invest when image quality is compromised by the limitations of the equipment, so it's frustrating when this happens and there's nothing I can do about it. I got one or two that were passable as record shots, nothing more.
The rest of my time at Pagham was largely spent hiding under bushes, lying in the corners of fields and peering over hedgerows to little avail. It was as if the local wildlife had taken a look at the weather and gone back to sleep. Or to the pub, perhaps. The saving grace was a Little Egret, who was unperturbed by my presence on Sidlesham Marsh as I walked back to the car park. I rolled off a few clicks - again at silly shutter speeds (1/80!) for the focal length I was packing - and managed a couple of half decent shots of him. Usually the Egrets are away when you get too close; I was grateful for his tolerance of me.

Little Egret, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

Photography wise, it was a poor day. But that was more than mitigated by seeing the Kestrels back at Woods Mill - a reminder that better days (and weather!) are on the horizon. It shouldn't be forgotten (and I think some photographers do forget this in pursuit of an image) that we're invaders on these creatures' turf. As such I can never be disappointed with seeing these animals in their habitat, regardless of what images I come away with. I'll end with more positive Barn Owl news - three different birds have been spotted alongside the A29 between Billingshurst and Beare Green this week according to the SOS sightings page. That's within the Horsham clan's dispersal range. Fingers crossed... It'd be lovely to know that some of them are still around.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011


BarnOwl, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.

Where has it gone? It's been (almost exactly) a month since I last blogged and we're in a new year. Not because I've lost any enthusiasm; I've simply not had the time.

Since that amazing first trip to Amberley Wildbrooks, I've managed just two or three outings with camera. A combination of Xmas (and the usual nonsense that goes with it), bad weather and some odd, unpredictable events have limited my opportunities. Even when I have got out, conditions have been poor - the exception being Sunday last, with a beautiful sunny day spent at Amberley. Although not terribly productive, it produced something I haven't seen since August - a Barn Owl sitting on a post! I'm losing hope a little for the male I was following over the summer; I really had expected to see him hunting during the bad weather over the several (camera-less.... no point in that light) days I visited his regular haunts. So this female made the day worthwhile for me. She appeared as the sun was setting, just after an adult Hen Harrier had swept across the Brooks. In fact, at a distance I initially thought it was the same bird returning. She circled over the Northern end before heading West, back whence she came, then settled on a post. I moved a little closer in to get a better view, but kept my distance so as not to disturb her. She eventually glided off toward Coldwaltham.

I suspect that she came down from Pulborough Brooks, possibly one of last year's brood. She is tagged and in my initial excitement wondered if I'd been observing her grow last summer - but it's probably too far and she looks quite different - wings are held further back and a wider face than the Horsham clan. One similarity with the "northerners" is that I spotted her from a public footpath - crucial to any hope of following her through the breeding season. With my local Owls a doubt - I could find myself here very early during May and June instead. Anywhere on private land would need a license, so to find another Barn Owl to follow without that necessity is a bonus.

Hopefully I'll be able to return at the weekend - but the forecast isn't looking good at the moment. I'd like to get an idea of her movements in more detail... and hopefully spot a male in the coming weeks. It would be fab if I get to see another brood of Barn Owls in 2011.

EDIT: Having studied the distant in-flight shots and compared to the Horsham birds, I'm not 100% sure it's a "she"! Could possibly a young male - but the dark crown suggests otherwise to me. Help on definitive ways of gender ID welcome!