Thursday, 23 June 2016

'Owls For Lunch'

For weeks I had resisted the temptation to jump in the car and speed down to Southampton for some Owl action, A couple of Short-eared Owls had taken up winter residence in a small field on the edge of a residential street which bordered on to an industrial park, prime real estate it would seem for Hampshire’s wintering Shorties, surrounded on 2 sides by footpaths, I had been seeing plenty of good shots posted online. Although I am always keen to get a few more SEO photographs the main reason I didn’t want to zip down the M3 was the light, I’ve taken plenty in crap light, and longed for some sunshine on these charismatic hunters. And mainly because Sundays my only free time during the winter for the past couple of months had been a mixture of cold, grey & wet days. I say wet, the weather had ranged from mildly damp to torrentially moist every time I considered getting the camera out.

It was 2 to go weekends until Christmas, and whilst most people were out doing there festive shopping, my weekends job entailed weeding the flower bed in the front garden. By 10.30am I was all done, plastered in mud and with plenty of sweat beads running down my forehead (sorry not a pretty picture) but the sun was out. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it on a Sunday. I toyed with what I could do, the distance and time it would take me to get there and what I might see when I did get there, and then I thought Owls. They were showing yesterday so why not today, the skies were clear and there was barely any cloud. I raced indoors and grabbed my gear, 25 mins later I was pulling into a quiet side street on the outskirts of Southampton, 25 minutes is no exaggeration either, I literally flew down the A34 and M3. The sky, much to my annoyance got grayer and grayer the closer I got to the coast, to the point that I was almost considering turning around and going home as a few spots of rain hit the windscreen.

You always know you’re in the right place when you see the first guy in camo loitering around a hole in a hedge, I’m sure to many passer-by’s, this is a pretty strange sight, and it does baffle me also, you’re in the middle of a housing estate not the jungle what’s the need for Camo. After a brief chat he was quick to inform me the birds had been out earlier on this particular morning and there had been no sign of them since about half 9. It was now approaching 11.15am. I didn’t hurry to setup my gear but made sure I found myself a good vantage point along the roadside edge of this 10 acre or so area of wasteland that was probably a thriving meadow once upon a time.

Without any owls showing for the next half hour I honed my watching skills by amusing myself at the looks received from local residents and passers-by. Several stopping to make conversation and share their expert birding knowledge on me. I think one woman was pretty convinced the Short-eared Owls had nested their this year, raising about a dozen chicks, I’m not normally so directly skeptical to the uninitiated. But she came across as a pretentious know it all, so I felt I had to put her straight.

It had gone midday and I was just giving heading home some thought when a couple of Magpies glided over tempting up an owl from a midst the grass. Now I was alert, finger poised resting on the shutter willing the bird to come a little closer. The light was poor, but I’d worked with worse, the one great thing about Short-eared Owls is they come ridiculously close if you have enough patience and keep still. It took a while but eventually this gorgeous bird was hunting just 5 or 6 meters away. Coming so close at times to my 600mm that I couldn’t fit it all in frame.

A second Owl much darker in colour joined it minutes later and they both zoomed across the tops of the grassland, dropping down to hunt regularly. It is an amazing thing to see such awesome wildlife in such an unlikely place, an area nothing better than wasteland bordered by train tracks, industrial estate, the Motorway and a residential street. With people walking around it at all times of day and dog walkers letting their mutts roam wild across it. And even though the light was rubbish and the weather depressing it was totally worth the drive!

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Thursday, 2 June 2016

'In A Rut'

I’m not really a big one for photographing captive animals but I guess the odd little visit every now and then does no harm, as long as no-one is under any illusion that the subjects in question are not wild. I had recently managed to encourage my girlfriend into picking up my spare camera body and start shooting wildlife herself with my 400mm lens. As most of our trips out together involve taking in some new species or other, set in a wild countryside location, what better way to spend quality time together?

So as I was saying I had actively encouraged her to get involved and take some shots of her own when we are out and about, in my opinion it was a massive show of commitment to her and our relationship on my part, I mean I don’t let just anyone use my camera gear, most of the time I feel like ‘Gollum in the Lord of the Rings’ guarding my ‘precious’ collection with my life. The thought of having a kidney removed seems more appealing than having my lenses dropped on the ground. So to hand them over for someone else to use, I thought was quite trusting and a very grown up move although I’m sure she would disagree.

With a week away imminent, I wanted to find her something she could practice photographing which looked wild and wasn’t too hard to find, didn’t run away and gave me the chance of a few shots too. So I racked my brains for the time of year, what could we find that wouldn’t cost a fortune and give us some results. Petworth Park crossed my mind, a location not too far away housing an ancient deer park, just over the border in West Sussex a place I remember driving past lots as a kid to visit relatives down in Horsham but one I never recall visiting. The first week in October seemed to be unseasonably warm, so I was a little unsure whether or not a trip to a Deer Park would be worth it. The Reds only seem to kick in with the rut when the weather changes a little colder, so with a warm 12-15 degrees I knew it might be a risky tactic. But then again I have virtually no photographs of Fallow Deer which Petworth hosts a huge population of, so I thought buggar it why not, even if they were captive.

We arrived by 10am and soon spotted several large herds of Fallow. Large bucks with massive antlers grunting in the morning sunshine. Occasionally leaving the cool shade of the Oak trees to see off another interloping male. Females, youngsters and prickets all passed us by within meters of the pathways. The long grass giving a great natural look to the scene and the photographs.

With so many Deer close at hand and not at all bothered by the hordes of people out for a Sunday stroll, the Fallow at Petworth made great subjects for an excited enthusiast keen to take some photographs and for my girlfriend ha ha. We even managed to witness some of the big boys having a too do, nothing massively kicked off but there was plenty of grunting and a bit of chasing. I even came away with some shots I was happy with.

Although not a lot of Deer actively engaged in battle, we both managed some nice shots and enjoyed a trip out which definitely meant that we weren’t getting ‘In a rut’.

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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

'Among The Reedbeds'

Having only ever had a taster of the Somerset levels from a brief Saturday visit earlier in the year and with no autumn holiday previously booked, it seemed like a great place to get away too for a few days as a change of scenery without having to travel too far. My previous visit to the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve had been late on a March afternoon and although promised much, the weather came in and sightings were at a minimum. So having the opportunity to visit again with a bit more time on my hands was a promising prospect.

Unfortunately the weather was very similar to last time with most afternoons grey and overcast, although this time the wildlife on show was a lot more obliging. Working a 9-5 weekday job doesn’t often bring the chance of visiting reserves during the week. But oh how I wish I could do that more often, there were hardly any people around and those that were, were there for the wildlife and not to walk the dog or keep the kids entertained like the usual weekend crowd I encounter.

It didn’t take too long as I entered the reserve before I got a glimpse of a Somerset levels specialist, a very brief flyover by a Great White Egret, always an elusive tick in north Hampshire. It seemed like I was gorging myself on reed bed dwellers as a few minutes later the first of at least half a dozen Marsh Harriers wheeled its way over the tops of the path side standing reed.

With Marsh Harriers in my sights and well within camera range, I quickly headed down to the Tor View hide, situated smack bang in the middle of the reedbed. With great views across the levels to Glastonbury Tor and almost a 360 degree vantage point, it was the perfect place to scan for Harriers.

As the afternoon went on Marsh Harriers of different ages both male and female glided effortlessly over the rows of reed. Hunting and hovering like beautiful angels of death, hanging motionless in mid-air as they sought out prey. I longed for some better light, it never came, but I really couldn’t complain about the great views these majestic birds of prey were giving, all just metres out from the hide.

As light levels dropped even more and the prospect of tens of thousands of Starlings starting to arriving to roost, the adult female was joined by a stunning creamed capped, slate-blue winged male, who happily alarmed the resident Teal as he joined the fray. Dropping down low enough on occasions so I could capture his cracking plumage.

The Marsh Harrier wasn’t the only species making regular flights over the stands of reed, Ham Wall is a great place to see Bitterns and I was not let down from the Tor View hide as several made extremely short flights from one stand of reed to the next. Appearing only inches above the cover as they swiftly disappeared amongst the next band, it was real if you blinked you missed it kind of birdwatching and It took me a little while to get a clear shot as anticipating the movement was the biggest challenge.

There was plenty of other waterfowl on display throughout the afternoon, with Great crested Grebe, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Teal, Mute Swan and plenty of Cormorants alongside the ever present background exploding soundtrack song of the Cettis warbler. I even managed to catch the thousands of Starlings coming into roost, unfortunately they didn’t feel too much like performing and dropped down into their roosting spots with minimal fuss. There is always next time!

All in all a nice couple of afternoons spent enjoying some of the levels finest species. I can’t wait to get back there again soon and hopefully in some better light to enjoy the awesome aerial displays of the Marsh Harriers and maybe catch a better view of the Starling murmuration.

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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Rutting Roe Deer - August 2015

At the start of the July I took the plunge and decided to move in with my girlfriend Donna, we found a nice little cottage just a mile away from where I lived previously with rolling fields at the bottom of the garden and a wide open expanse filled with wildlife just waiting to be photographed. Getting time to explore those fields however proved impossible. If I wasn’t spending all my free time sorting out the garden, moving and erecting furniture I was down at the cricket club keeping the wicket in shape for its each weekly fixture.

By late August I had nearly gone two months without taking a single picture, catastrophe I hear you cry, and I couldn’t have agreed more. Luckily one weekend we had guests, some of Donna’s friends had come down from Cheltenham for the weekend. And having spent the night asleep on the sofa I awoke to a bright warm summer morning. The back fields had been harvested in the week so acres of freshly chopped stubble beckoned. I made my excuses to Donna as everyone else was still asleep and headed off out with the camera. Having photographed Roe Deer near these hedgerows before I hoped I might get lucky again, especially as it was still early just after 7am.

It didn’t take long for my first sighting, I headed up along the footpath and spotted a couple of Roe sat underneath the hedgerow, already sheltering themselves from the warm morning sun. Hoping they might emerge out on to the stubble I positioned myself at the intersection of the hedgerow, where four other hedges met. It proved to be a good vantage point as it was the corner joining point for four different fields. Two still had standing crops so it offered plenty of habitat for cover and for feeding.

A quick scan with the binoculars found Deer everywhere, I couldn’t believe my luck. All were a few hundred meters away but each field had visible targets. I setup my camera ready for the nearest one. The gap in the crossed hedges seemed like a logical place for any of them to walk through so I waited patiently and within minutes I spotted a young Doe peering out at me through the dense wheat crop. She would stand motionless for minutes on end before slowly inching her way out into the open. Where she then really surprised me as she bounded on down towards the gap in the hedge at quite a speed. Pausing just feet away as she caught my scent. Before bolting off through the gap and back out into the Wheat crop the other side.

Several pictures in the bag I was pretty happy, and was soon joined by a chap walking his dog along the footpath. I had spoken to this guy before on several occasions and he gave me an update of what bird species he had seen over the spring in this area. As we stood there talking normally, at times even quite loudly I caught some movement out the corner of my eye, a couple of Roe Deer charging along the track towards us. As they got closer we could see a nice sized Buck chasing a Doe, probably the same one I had just photographed. He was close on her tail and moving at some speed, seemingly oblivious as they both came charging towards us. The Doe eventually dove through a hole in the hedgerow. The Buck was still pretty close behind her, catching sight of us just meters away as he followed her through the hedge.

We were both in a little shock, stood out in the open these deer were not at all that bothered by us, the lengths they’d go to when the bloods up I suppose, like any man! The dog walker chap left me wishing me well for some more shots. Alone again I popped my head around the hedge to see the Doe spring off through the standing wheat the other side. No Buck though, he had doubled back and was well camouflaged among the standing grass verge on the edge of the stubble fields stood alertly among the grass and wildflowers.

I’ve never encountered Roe Deer during the rut before but was pretty sure he had seen me as a potential challenger, no more than twenty feet away from me over the course of the next ten minutes or so he slowly circled me, pausing to sniff the air every now and then and take in the scent along the ground. I happily snapped away trying my best not to make any sudden movements, still shocked this wild beast was just feet away and not spooked by the noise of the camera or my smell. He even licked his lips a couple of times, perhaps I smelt like a female, not something I’ve ever been accused of before.

My wild moment was shattered a couple of seconds later when a loose dog came barreling towards us both, its jogger owner close behind. The Buck sped off across the field to the safety of a nearby plantation.  And the jogger passed by without a care in the world as I gave her a very dirty look! Memory card red hot with shots, and a little more than an hour out of the door I headed home for breakfast with a massive smile on my face. I am still a little shocked by just how close the encounter was and can’t wait to till the annual Roe rut comes again next summer. Hopefully this time I will have far more time to spend with the Deer and maybe get a glimpse at the Bucks going at it. Fighting I mean, going at it in the other sense might have happened to me if the jogger hadn’t of interrupted!

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