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!