Sunday 18 December 2011

I Spy a Roe Deer…or two

There’s a number of things I believe that contribute to successful wildlife photography – the equipment used, knowing how to use this equipment, knowledge of your subject, stealth, patience, field craft, the time of day, the time of year but perhaps one of the biggest is plain luck and timing.  The last few times I have been out, is to photograph Roe Deer.  I know a good place to go, I know the best time to go, I know all their routes, I have the equipment and have the means to stay stealthy but out of the 23 sightings on these two outings I had barely any decent images to show for it, why? It had a lot to do with luck and timing.

There are three methods I find useful in seeing and photographing Roe Deer:

Method 1 – walk through the woods quickly and as quietly as possible with a fast, light lens of around 200-300mm and there is a good chance you will spook them, where you might then get a ‘grab’ shot as they have the habit of stopping and looking back. Downside, your images probably won’t look good as you’ll just see the back end of them as they’re running off, plus you are disturbing them unnecessary.

Method 2 – sit yourself down hidden with a decent longish lens, somewhere where you know they move through and hope you get lucky.  Downside, you can wait hours without any guarantee that you will have any success.

Method 3 – walk quietly through the woods, stopping every now and then to watch and listen for them.  This is the way I use most of the time, especially at this time of year when it’s cold.


With Method 3 I can, on a windless day where there’s plenty of cover, literally stumble upon a Deer so really need to be concentrating, listening and be on the look out.  What often looks like a lifeless, empty wood is often the opposite.  The images above and below look like typical woodlands at this time of year, yet the one above there is actually a Deer watching.  (See the last image to see where).

The one below, moments before there had been a Roe Deer that ran across from right to left after we stumbled across each other.  As I quietly approached this spot, I was hidden from the Deer's approach by some holly bushes and trees and so we didn’t spot each other until we got to within about 4 metres.  It was very dull so wasn’t even worth trying to take a photograph, besides, I was best equipped for a more static opportunity. Had I arrived moments earlier I would have been further away and maybe had a the chance to photograph it in some open ground without it seeing me.  Moments later I may have missed it completely.


The following photographs are taken from my recent two visits and are the best of what opportunities came to me.  Notice that all have the Deer staring in my direction.  Image 1, 2 and 4 is because I used my shutter to get their attention, as they were moving from a clear spot back into cover.  Their standing still also helped in keeping down motion blur in very low light.  They can’t see me as I use some netting which I drape over myself.  Image one you can see some quite intense looking as she can hear my shutter but can’t smell or see me.  I only take one or two images so as to not create too much disturbance, so after anything from a few seconds to a minute of staring, they carry on.

Image two he saw me but stopped for a moment to look back at me before disappearing into the background.

With any one of these instances, arriving sooner or later could have involved in a better chance of an image or maybe missing the chance completely – it was just down to timing and luck.


Below shows how easy it is to miss these shy and alert Deer and, what appears to be an empty wood, may not be so.  Although on this occasion, it wasn’t a photo opportunity because of the denseness of the trees, had it been coming towards me from a different location, I would have had time to hide and wait in a spot of my choosing.


Just to show some of the failures.  1st – branches in the way causing problems focusing, I usually manual focus because of this.  2nd – cut off by trees and an example of the usual glimpse gained.  3rd – blurred through movement in low light.

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Sunday 4 December 2011

Prestwick Carr Shorties

Prestwick Carr has gained a bit of notoriety for its Short Eared Owls, though I’ve had little joy in having much glimpse of them whenever I have been there.  I’ve seen all the British resident owls, but this is my favourite – that amazing stare it has and piercing eyes – so it was this that made me spend from dawn to dusk on a cold and windy day in the hope to get more than just a glimpse and maybe a decent photo opportunity.

I knew that most of their activity was mid to late afternoon, but I new also knew that this was when they were likely to attract the audience of onlookers and I was hoping to watch and photograph them under more ‘natural’ conditions.  The sun was just rising on an almost completely clear, cold morning and as I approached their main location, I could see in the distance one of them was at least active, but out of nowhere the wind picked up and it started to rain!  By the time I had reached that point there was no sign of them flying – obviously the brief down poor had driven them to cover as I could see two of them sheltering in a pine tree.  They'd probably already been hunting during the dawn so that would probably be it until the next usual appearance.

It wasn’t until just before 1:00pm that saw the next SEO activity as one of them flew low from nowhere and landed on a fence pole.  After a minute or so it regurgitated a pellet and dropped to the ground, disappearing into the long grass.   However, for a while at least I had forgotten the cold and my enthusiasm had been recharged.  I was though, starting to think this was going to be another day of just glimpsing them and it certainly wasn’t going my way in my chances of photographing them.

At early December the sun was low in the sky, shining directly into my eyes and camera lens creating a harsh light and despite the sun being out still didn’t give me a very high shutter speed without upping the cameras ISO. 


With dark clouds gathering in the south west, threatening to block out what little light there was and possibly even bring rain, I was not raising my hopes but kept telling myself to wait just a bit more time.  I was rewarded with my patience a couple of hours later by the sight of, at first one owl flying around, followed by another until there was eventually around 5-6 of them flying past (though at some distance), hunting over the long grass, performing aerial acrobats between each other and landing on the various posts or the ground, though never really getting very close.

Typically with their appearance it became cloudy (only where the sun was, clear sky elsewhere!) and was intermittently raining and at best, I was only getting 1/800th of a second which with a 500mm lens plus extender, I was working borderline with camera shake (no IS on the Sigma).  From the start I was focusing manually for the best results as a combination of poor light and extender meant, even on the 1D series camera, it was struggling with the twisting and turning of these owls.


Not great images but my best yet of this owl and will no doubt have to make another trip to Prestwick Carr.  Even if none of them turned out, it was still worth the wait just to watch these beautiful and idyllic owls flying and hunting in the dull light of winter.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Red Squirrels Revisited

After my previous and unexpected encounter with Red Squirrels earlier this week, I thought I would go out again this time with the intention of trying photographing them properly using more ideal equipment.  I new it was going to be a long shot – the chances of them being there again in such numbers (they’re normally rare around here) was slim, but I figured they were out in force because of the abundant food supply of Autumn Beech Nuts and so were stocking up for Winter so they might still be around.


Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t so good on arrival, it had been raining early morning and was still overcast and dull, so as I positioned myself in the same spot as before, set my camera at maximum ISO (6400) though, in the dark shelter of the woods, at best I was getting 1/200th of a second shutter speed at this stage – not ideal.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to see much, but within twenty minutes I spotted my first Red, down on the floor digging through the leave litter but too far away to bother trying to photograph.

SMP_3171One of the things I like about sitting in a quiet wood with nobody else about, particularly early morning, is just to listen to the various sounds around. Because of the recent rain, the wood canopy was still soaking and water was falling as if it was still raining, making a background noise as it hit the falling leaves on the ground.  This made it difficult to hear other noises as normal, though I could still hear various sounds – Blue and Great Tits, Magpies giving off warning calls, rustling in the tree tops and chattering from the Red Squirrels and over cautious Pidgins every now and then taking flight making a clatter with their wings.  Occasionally I would hear a more distinct ‘rustle’ which could only be made by a much larger animal.

I was positioned in a dipping slope and had my lens set up pointing towards where I expected to see the squirrels, but to my left a particular rustling got closer and closer when out of the corner of my eye about six metres away I could see a Roe Deer looking at me.  These are very curious animals, and with my back against a tree and netting over my lens, it probably wasn’t completely sure about me and I avoided looking directly towards it, hoping it would just ignore me, but a loud bark made it obvious that he was alerted to my presence and he quickly moved away for a short distance before again stopping to look back at me.  I was able to take a couple of pictures, though at 1/40th of a second, hand held with a 500mm lens they weren't very good.  He then vanished into the undergrowth, barking loudly as he went.

With only glimpses of the Reds and the light not improving, I was beginning to think it wasn’t going to be my day so just decided to have a wonder through the woods.  It’s interesting how, in a mixed type woodland, one part can be so completely different from another.  As I walked along I went from one part which was brightly coloured with the falling leaves, full of the sounds of song birds, to a part of the woods which became noticeably colder and completely without a sound – not even the water drops hitting the ground, it was a bit creepy though the reason for this, I’m sure was the lack of tree foliage which gave less cover for birds and being more open so more exposed and colder.

Eventually, as I approached a patch of woods similar to the one where I previously sat, I noticed a movement on the ground in the distance – I was in luck – another Red Squirrel.  I sat down from a distance and made myself confortable hoping it would eventually move closer.  Watching, it followed a typical pattern of finding food sometimes eating it on the ground but usually going up into a mid height branch it eat it and groom.


Although there were others around that I could see and hear, this was the only one on the ground or getting anywhere near to photograph.  It’s ironic that when I had my 300mm lens they were much closer.  Now that I had my 500mm they were much further away and I was in fact, getting a less closer shot than on the previous occasion despite having an actual magnification of double than before!  Being marginally brighter, it was still below what was needed to prevent camera shake and movement blur.  To add to this, whilst in the trees, the squirrel was moving between areas of darkness to bright back lit patches making exposure very difficult.  Most of my images were blurred, over or under exposed and not one was I completely happy with but they do help to illustrate the events the day.


Wednesday 2 November 2011

Autumnal Woods

With some time off, I thought I would get out and take some photographs of this years Autumn colours before the leaves have completely dropped.  With this in mind I decided to be more leisurely kitted out with a full frame camera, wide angle zoom, macro lens a 300mm lens good for telephoto landscape shots and a tripod.  The forecast was for a rare clear and sunny day which would help increase the colours.

I tend to have an image in my head whenever I go out to take pictures, in this case it was the first rays of dawns sunshine creating shafts of glowing light and illuminating the canopy of leaves.  Unfortunately when I arrived at the woods, it had only just stopped raining and there was no promised sunshine, just greyness.  By the time the sun did come out, it was it was late morning when it was more harsher and it was patchy.  I found myself sitting at a particular place, waiting for the sun to come to come out only for it to disappear as quickly as it came so it didn’t quite get the images I had visualised but when the sun did appear, it did make the woods look amazing.

I think for most people who take landscapes they do it to try and capture a moment in time and and the beauty of what they see.  When I got home and looked at the images I had taken, I was very disappointed – they were nothing like what I had seen.  I supposed it’s because it’s not just about the visual colours but the sounds and feelings of the moment, being out in nature, quiet and peaceful with just the calls of song birds, a Tawny Owl in the distance and a Roe Deer barking.


At one point, early afternoon I had been in the same spot for about an hour and a half quietly trying some macro and ‘artistic’ shots, when I realised I wasn’t alone. Up in the canopy I heard some rustling and ‘chipping’ sounds, looked up to see a couple of Red Squirrels chasing each other.  On the ground further up a couple were feeding, digging in the layers of falling leaves.  It had been over a year since last seeing reds here and I had start to believe the greys had taken over.

It was great just to sit and watch them, but I was kicking myself for not having the right photographic equipment at hand.  The best I had was the full frame 5D, the 300mm and converter attached – not ideal.  Amongst the leave litter the lighting and surroundings were ideal.  Patches of golden light, the red coat of the squirrels along with the red, yellow and orange fallen leaves and logs for them to pose on.  If only I had my normal camera I use for wildlife and 500mm lens!  I could return another day but no sunshine was forecast for the foreseeable future (this part of the woods is dark)  and besides, these are rare now, the chances of seeing as many as there was around at this time – about 5 or 6 – probably wouldn’t happen again for another 50 visits, if at all.


Red Squirrels are very shy animals and I don’t know if they saw me, they were certainly occasionally looking in my direction but maybe I was far enough away that they weren’t bothered by me so I was able to watch them for around an hour though the warning calls in a different direction from my position, by Magpies suddenly made them disappear.  It amazes me just how well they can do that.  You can surprise one, watch it go up a tree right next to you and you simply won’t see it again.

On this occasion, I was just about to leave when all returned again.  I watched them for a further half hour when, above my head on the tree I was hiding behind, I heard the typical scorning chatter of a Red Squirrel. Looking up there was one looking right down at me.  If they didn’t know I was there before they did now!  They were gone again, only this one stayed long enough for me to take some pictures of it while it continued to ‘tell me off’ before it too disappeared.  It surprises me that Red Squirrels are ‘bullied’ by their grey cousins as whenever a wild Grey Squirrel is surprised by a person, it will shot up into the trees and be gone.  The plucky red will stop first, give you a load of Red Squirrel abuse, then go up into the trees making more noise at it goes.  For me it gives them a bit more character than the greys and, along with their visual charms, makes them one of my favourite British mammals.


Below, a few images taken the day before of some Pheasants