Tuesday 29 March 2011

Monday 28 March 2011

A Red Kite Day

A walk along part of the Derwent this weekend I had hoped to see, amongst others, some Red Kites, which seem to have been a bit few and far between recently.  Since their re-introduction back into the Gateshead area in 2004, this has been a popular place to see these amazing birds of prey, which is almost a guaranteed place to spot them circling in the skies with their high pitched shrill.  My first stop was the Nine Arches Viaduct which gives a good high view over the valley. 

The air was full of the sound of a couple of  Red Kites calling to each other, but were staying hidden amongst trees, calling from opposite ends of viaduct.  As I approached one of the calls, which involved climbing up a steep bank, it stopped, so I returned back to my original location, only for them to start again.  Suddenly I spotted one of them in the distance and whilst keeping my eye on it, I felt inside my camera bag to get my camera out (already attached with a 1x4 converter).  Unfortunately, it was still just a small image in the viewfinder, when a shriek above alerted me to the other one almost right on top.  Despite dialling in some exposure compensation, the bird still ended up quite dark plus the shutter speed was lower than ideal for hand holding such a lens on a moving subject.  No sooner had they appeared, they both drifted off into the distance, so I tried a few other locations where I have regularly seen them.


With no luck at my second spot, I moved to the last one which, as I approached, I again heard their unmistakable call, but again couldn’t see anything.  Eventually I could see the Kite making all the noise in some trees about 150 - 200 metres away being mobbed by a crow.  Also noticeable was the numbered tag on its shoulder – 76.  Going to Northern Kites website (http://www.northernkites.org.uk/)  I could identify this particular bird as a male Kite released in 2006. 

From a distance, I just sat and watched when another photographer approached after having recently driving past me and had walked back, presumably curious as to what I was photographing.  Courteously he checked to see that he wasn’t disturbing anything, he pointed out in the field, what looked like a dead pigeon and another bird, which must have been put there deliberately, possibly by another photographer trying to bait them for a better picture, though he didn’t hang around long.  It also occurred to me someone had put out some poison bait – a number of these beautiful birds have been deliberately killed by this means in the area. 


Overhead I could see what No. 76 was making all the noise about – another Kite but with no tag suggesting a previous years hatchling.  My guess was that 76 was not happy about the arrival of another Kite after this easy meal and went up to ‘greet’ it.  After a few aerobatics, they both disappeared as did my fellow photographer.


Not long after 76 and the other Kite returned and it looked like they were going to make a grab for meal in the field, when suddenly six people complete with cameras long lenses strolled out of nowhere and stood up taking pictures of the Kites, shutter blazing.  The other photographer must have been originally heading for the hide further down the road and when he found out what was happening, told the photographers in the hide who then came out on mass.  Unfortunately, their presence must have spooked both birds as they drifted back up away from the commotion.

When I first started wildlife photography back in the days of film, I never saw another photographer.  Since digital became popular there has been a massive increase in others taking pictures of wildlife.  Maybe from a selfish point of view, I don’t think this is such a good thing, but I have also noticed that the etiquette, general understanding and wellbeing of the animal they are photographing is often not there.  My worry is that my hobby and interest in photographing and watching wildlife that I love, will not be possible in the future because of the damage done by photographers whose only interest is to ‘get the picture’.  I’m not saying that these half a dozen people are in that bracket or have any less right to enjoy photographing this subject, but I would have thought that a bird of prey such as a Red Kite which relies on having such a keen eyesight, that can find a small dead animal from high up in the sky, will probably be a bit nervous of a group of people standing out in the open, noisily talking to each other and so would unlikely come down a hundred metres in front of them to feed.  So would they have also realised this and at least taken precautions?


76 and rival in some aerial sparing


I figured the Kites would return and the group would loose interest and return back to the hide so waited it out, which, after much discussion about camera equipment amongst themselves, did.  After about an hours wait the Kites did return, slowly circling at first, then flying down to tree level, 76 again, making a run but pulled up, this time the arrival of a family walking down the lane, presumably to the hide, as it is otherwise a dead end.  What a time for a usually empty, largely unused hide to be popular I thought!  I decided, or more over my rear end did, that it was time to get up and call it a day.  I could have happily waited another few hours for the inevitable snatch and grab that probably 76 would have made, but with all the disturbance, it may have been late in the evening or the next day before that happened. 

I left with mixed feelings.  On the one hand I managed to get some of the best views I have yet had of Kites, but I was disappointed with my own images considering the opportunity.  Technically, they weren’t great and I most definitely need to practice more hand holding a 500mm lens with a converter on both in relation to focusing and exposure as well as preventing camera shake.  Hopefully I will get more opportunities such as this one.


76 making a run at the food


Sunday 20 March 2011

First warmth of Spring

I thought today, I would do a quick 3km walk along the cliffs from Souter Lighthouse to South Shields, with the weather looking to be sunny and reaching the heights of 10 degrees.  I got there around two hours after sunrise so the sun was still quite low in the sky at this time of the year though it was quite strong – not good for photographing landscapes but giving me a good shutter speed for photographing anything else.

I soon came across my first subject to photograph, some Jackdaws on the cliff edges.  They showed a certain wary curiosity towards me, not quite sure how they perceive me pointing a large lens directly towards them.  There’s no doubt that some animals see this action as some kind of threat, the corvidae family are supposed to be very intelligent and these Jackdaws, after a while, settled down but would still every now and then just look at me as if to wonder what to make of me.  The sun wasn’t such that it was too strong yet and was just at the right angle to make the birds stand out.  I just had to make sure I waited before taking a picture, that the light caught their eyes.


A short distance on was Marsden Rock, a 100 foot sea stack near the cliffs.  This was once quite a famous local attraction, up until 1997 being much larger with an arch which, with erosion and a storm, broke away from the main section leaving a small stack next to it which was demolished.  It’s used as a nesting area for seabirds of which I could see Cormorants and various Gulls and the odd Fulmer.


Marsden Rock


A smaller stack near Marsden Rock


Further along the walk and inland next to the cliffs is an area of grass known as The Leas used for people walking there dogs, cyclists and just general walkers and at first glimpse, not much for wildlife, but I could hear some Skylarks.  Unfortunately I had forgotten to pack my binoculars and lovely sounding birds were not in the air singing as you would normally expect but in the grass which in many areas just tall enough to hide them.  After some eye straining, I eventually saw one nearby which popped its head up and was clearly responding in song, to another singing Skylark nearby.  Obviously they were sorting out territories as the neighbouring one came over and a brief skirmish ensued.  I didn’t manage to get anything in focus from this as I had a converter on and was manually focusing anyway due to the difficulty of getting a focus lock with such a small subject in grass.

Hearing Skylarks always make me think of warm, sunny summer days from my childhood and it gives me a good feeling.


No sooner had I just managed to get closer enough to get a reasonable size in my view finder when a dark shadow flew over and the edgy Skylark few off.  I was just a few Crows.  These seemed a bit more obliging to be photographed.  Crows are very common in this country and over looked by me as a photographic opportunity.  It’s not until you sit and watch them that you realise they are quite photogenic characters, though from a technical point of view, difficult because of the dark plumage – though nothing normally a bit of exposure compensation can’t sort, or some editing at the RAW stage on the computer.

My walk finished at Trow Quarry where I had hoped to maybe spot a Little Owl, but without the binoculars, I had little chance.


Sunday 13 March 2011

Braving the rain

With it being another wet, dismal weekend weather-wise and the various forecasts contradictory, I flipped a coin to decide to go out.  To be honest, I haven’t been too motivated as much this year with the predictable weather of wet, windy, greyness, it just demoralises me.  Heads I go out in the cold and rain, tails I stay in the nice warmth and just relax.  When heads came up, I was thinking of calling it best out of three.

When I left, it was raining a bit, by the time I reached the coast it was raining a lot.  Things perked up when I quickly came across a mixed flock of Sanderlings and Turnstones by a rock pool and decided to sit back and just watch them for a while before getting close.  They were right next to an area where people who had braved the weather were walking pass, so they would fly off to the tideline when someone approached then run across the sand back to where they were feeding.  I waited until the next time they were spooked by a passer-by then positioned myself so I might get some shots, which worked.  First, some of them approached, poking their head over the sand bank checking me out, then sprinted across in front of me to the rock pool.  Despite the poor light, I was able to get a few decent images, though, as standard recently, the ISO was cranked up to 1600 so I could get a decent shutter speed.

Whatever they had found to eat amongst the seaweed, was worth their continuing flying off and then quickly returning.


I eventually moved off to another part of the beach and decided to have a closer look at mounds of seaweed to see what was in it as far as possible wader food and was surprised as to how much man-made junk was amongst it – netting, plastics, tin cans, bottle tops and bits of material.  Some of the seaweed was quite colourful – to be honest, not something I’ve really looked closely at and noticed.


Stormy view looking across to Blyth


St Marys Lighthouse on a grey, wet Spring


With the rain becoming heavier, I wasn’t too concerned about my Mk IIn camera as it’s water resistance (I hope!) but I didn’t want push my luck with my expensive tele lens which isn’t, so packed up and had a wonder around to see what else was about.  I thought the frogs might be around in the small pools of water further inland, as this time last year they were active but spring has been colder this year, so maybe next week.


Hmm…not quite in the spirit of the sign me thinks