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!