The pleasures of Patagonia

I simply can’t believe how long it’s been since I posted any content on here: a combination of even more time away than normal (a good thing I guess as that means lots of travel and photography) and a higher than ever work pile when back in the office has meant processing let alone writing about things has taken very much a back seat.

As part of the long catch up process though I have enjoyed greatly recalling the pleasures of travelling in Patagonia at the tail end of last summer: northern hemisphere summer that is as it is the end of winter in this part of the world.

It takes a long time to get to the much vaunted Torres del Paine National Park in the southern end of Chile but boy is it worth it. Even a very average landscape photographer like me can’t fail to be compelled to stop and attempt to do the spectacular scenery here justice and whether it was dusk, dawn or in the first sunshine of the day when clear conditions allowed I made sure we stopped the vehicle and bagged some scenics such as these.

The towers hiding in the middle of the last of these images is the feature that gives the park its name.

The reason for the trip though, at least this part of it, was to search for and photograph the iconic and much vaunted pumas.  The puma, sometimes also called the cougar or mountain lion, has a geographic spread that runs pretty much all the way from this southern tip of the Americas up to and through the United States.  Throughout most of this spread though it is hugely persecuted – shot and hunted for either sport or as a so-called threat to farming livelihoods. It is an expert stalk and pounce hunter so catching sheep is pretty straightforward for them given the opportunity.  Here in the protected boundaries of the Park (and some adjoining estancias as well) this is an area where hunting has long been outlawed though and as a result some (but certainly not all) of the pumas here are more tolerant of people allowing you to get close, and on foot too, to observe and photograph them.  The trick though is finding them and so working with 2 expert local guides along with my good friends from Buenos Aries who have been here on many occasions now, we stood a better than average chance of finding these needles in a very barren haystack, as the first vantage point we based ourselves made clear.

As you can see quite an awe-inspiring view but a daunting one as well.  We needn’t have been worried though as within what seemed like a few short minutes we spotted a puma heading along the shoreline beneath us.

As it made it’s way along it was clear it was carrying an injury as it was limping so whilst Jorge made his way down to check things out for us we watched from on high, but sadly she limped off out of view and we decided following was unfair on her so left the scene for other locations.

This was a spot we returned to the next day and this time spotted another individual, moving freely way across at the top of the hill on the other side of the lake: it looked a long walk but stripping down to just one lens and camera body we headed off for the hour or so’s trek to find her and boy did she let us close.  She had settled in a not very visible crevice so after waiting patiently for her to move on she eventually passed right by us en route to her new resting spot as well.

I only wish the one choice of lens I had made for the walk had been a shorter one.  I had never imagined she we would pass a mere matter of feet away as the first of these images show.  This new location was equally inaccessible and as you can see the light was approaching the harshest part of the day and so we left her alone and headed back around the lake, still in awe of being able to walk so closely to such a magnificent feline.

Aside from puma searching we were quietly picking up an array of other images on our travels with landscapes typical of the steppe type or mountainous habitats here never far away though, either as stand-alone entities or as a quirky element in a wildlife image.

Whilst the flamingos were undoubtedly attractive, the main mammal to be seen pretty much everywhere was the guanaco. These are the impala equivalent of the grassland here – and the main prey species of the puma too and so watching them, their behaviour and demeanour was always a big clue as to whether there might be one of the cats in the area.  They made great subjects in their own right mind.

There were raptors galore in the area as well and the chances to photograph Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, White-throated Caracra and the tiny little Chimango Caracra were all grabbed willingly.

A lengthy session with an incredibly tolerant Variable Hawk was a real highlight on the raptor front though, offering the chance to really add some texture to the scene by careful positioning and use of the branches around him.

But the trip was all about pumas really and so the last couple of days, as so often seems to be the case, were the most productive of all with a chance encounter (in some roadside bushes as we were heading back to the hotel) with what turned out to be one of the famously tolerant individuals.

Returning the following morning we enjoyed a fantastic session with her before she eventually decided enough was enough and headed off over the far side of an escarpment where we could not follow.

To spend time in this fantastic environment and location and be able to walk and photograph on foot with these lithe, powerful and magnificent animals is right up there in terms of wildlife photography experiences for me.  I certainly can’t wait to take a group there again next year.

On this occasion I had scheduled, thanks to Pablo and Jorge’s help, some time across the border in southern Argentina too based at an incredibly remote estancia (about 6 hours drive from the nearest town of El Calafate) based near the network of lakes of which the mainstay is the famously blue Lago San Martin.

The scenery here is equally as dramatic albeit different and particularly so when seem from the top of the mountains.

The estancia was literally by the shore near the sandy spit in this image, and climbing up here involved taking full advantage of the semi-wild horses there looked after by the inimitable Gringo – possibly one of the last true gauchos to be found in Patagonia.  The world is moving on for characters like him – he lives here cut off from civilisation on his own through the winter tending the horses and with just his dogs and medium wave radio for company.  Heaven knows how many of his bones he has broken in his rodeo riding days too, and how many cigarettes he still smokes but he was a true gent in guiding us and the horses across streams and over rocks to get to this vantage point.

The reason we were here though was for the other iconic species of the region – the Andean Condor. With a wing-span approaching 10 feet these are the ultimate mountain glider and after spotting some in the distance we all began to shout as loud as we could to call them in.

Now this might seem a strategy completely at odds with attracting wildlife, but for these birds noise means activity and activity means a potential meal opportunity and so from the safety of the air and with their fantastic eye-sight they will always come and check it out.  And gradually they drifted closer until we had frame-filling fly pasts and the chance to see just how they twist their necks to ensure the best view too. What a bird and what a sight!

We even managed to capture some of them on the ground taking advantage of a fallen guanaco too.

Around the Estancia itself the noisy and affectionate Austral parrots would drop in most late afternoons and the rustic buildings that make up the stables here were a great feature for any landscape photography breaks too – both daytime and night time as well.

This is still a wonderfully unspoilt part of the world. Clear night skies (weather allowing) are essentially unpolluted and throughout my time in both Chile and Argentina I was out at night at every opportunity to look to capture the scene both in still image and also timelapse as well: still something I am coming to grips with. A huge thanks to all who travelled with me, to Pablo and Jorge for making it happen and Robert, Marcial and Gringo too. Here’s to 2018!!

“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside….”

One thing I do know and appreciate fully is just how fortunate I am to travel to some amazing places and enjoy some amazing sights as far as the natural world is concerned: it’s not something I take for granted at all and a genuine privilege at times.  As I sat on the top of a small and isolated stretch of coastline on the island of Yell in the Shetlands last month though, once again in the course of leading a trip for Natures Images I was struck though just how much this habitat, environment and the species that we were working with over the course of the ten days or so we were there were quite frankly up there among everything I have seen and experienced in my travels to date.  It was a quiet little spot that I know of old and sitting with the camera resting on the ground just listening to the sound of the waves below, the feel of the breeze on my face and the (unusually I grant) warm sun on my back watching Fulmar soar alongside me and the distant shrieks of an Arctic Tern colony it was as good a reminder that you don’t have to go that far to get both great experiences and great images: it is always about getting in tune with where you are and the coasts of the UK are probably where I am able to re-tune the quickest.

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Having joked about the presence of the sun it was a particularly settled period of weather in the main on that front for us and coinciding with the longest days of the year the so-called Simmer Dim of almost perpetual daylight here, it certainly provided some great opportunities to work with the many seabirds to be found here in some great photographic conditions; the seemingly ever soaring Fulmar, the increasingly successful bully of the cliffs the Great Skua (so often a rather dull bird when it comes to portraits but not in light like this), the noisy flocks of Guillemot and their precarious cliff ledge breeding habits, the constantly active Arctic Terns with whom an enjoyable hour of experimental shutter speeds proved great fun, and the unbridled joy of an encounter with an otter, freshly swum ashore with another meal of crab to devour.

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One thing I have vowed to do this year is to come back with more images that give a sense of just where I have been working rather than simply concentrating on the species that I am there to work with.  Given that Hermaness, situated right at the top of the island of Unst and therefore as far north as you can go in the UK, is one of my long-stated favourite three places on the planet, then this was somewhere I really needed to try to bring this resolution to bear.  The dramatic and ever expanding Gannet colonies here provide ample opportunity for this, either as tight long lens glimpses of their colonial life (as well as the array of coloured netting that forms the basis of their nests) or on a shorter lens to simply take in the sheer grandeur of where they breed.  Blog 7

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The slow shutter speed of the next image has rendered the flight of the birds over the sea as curved white lines which adds an intriguing element to the image, and I even tried some monochrome renditions as they give a fresh perspective on the texture of the place as well.

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It wasn’t all sunshine and calm seas though as some strong north-easterlies set in for the last few days of the trip but it certainly made for a different feel to the coastal landscapes, this time at Sumburgh Head, as far south in the main cluster of the islands as you can get.

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Strictly speaking you can go further south than this and head to the isolated island that is Fair Isle; although geographically it is half way between the Shetlands and the Orkneys it is considered part of the former.  This is one of my absolute favourite places to photograph Puffins and I have been here on many occasions, either guiding or when working on my own for The Secret Lives of Puffins. As a result I have countless thousands of images of the birds here and so coaching guests aside I tend to apply the style that is influencing me most at the time when photographing well known subjects in personally well visited locations like this.  This time it was my fascination with texture and colour when it comes to backgrounds and foregrounds when working with a long lens (infinitely more creative than just the single uniform canvas), the joy that interaction between them can offer photographically and of course the landscape itself: but landscapes of Fair Isle and the iconic Sheep Rock in the background simply can’t avoid having a Puffin in it!

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I do so like to be beside the seaside…..

Wetlands once more

One of the advantages of having been born under an Aquarian star sign is that I love water.  I have always been happy in it, on it or beside it whether it be fresh or saline in its nature.  Given that it is home to an array of wildlife that you just don’t see in any other environment I’m glad I am as comfortable being in it as I am especially as it opens up the possibilities of some very different images and experiences.

Those of you who know my work of old may recall a trip I made to Bulgaria a couple of years ago and wrote about here.  Given my almost lifetime obsession with the Grebe family  the time spent with them, in particular the Black-necked Grebe which has to be one of the most striking birds of all the wetlands in Europe, was one that I was really looking forward to taking a small group of guests to experience once again in the same region of northern Bulgaria around the shores of the mighty Danube river.

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As you can see the Black-necked Grebes once again excelled and this was the very first shot of the trip, taken on a drizzly first evening after the first flight of the day from Luton airport while everyone was getting used to how the challenges of working from a floating hide could best be managed.

The water levels at the area I had spent my time previously were even higher this Spring and as a result were too deep for many of the birds – they can’t dive that far to search for food – and so although we tried a session there which involved flippers and a lot of swimming, we were mostly working in a new wetland area not far away.  The amount of foliage was much greater which made manoeuvring that bit harder and getting a clear shot also that bit harder too but on the occasions when these striking birds did then it was always a treat.

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Over time the foliage, and in particular a long channel (the deepest area of this particular wetland where I could only just touch the bottom) which was full of bright yellow flowers at times provided a very picturesque setting in which to photograph the birds, whether they be Grebes or Ducks.

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Of course there were plenty of other settings and species to work with as well and the beauty of working in a floating hide like this is that given time to slowly and carefully (and therefore unobtrusively) re-position yourself most viewpoints, foliage allowing, could be achieved. The pockets of reed beds provided a great setting for Pygmy Cormorants to rest and dry their wings or the constantly singing (and very loudly too) Great Reed Warblers to proclaim their territories.

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Because the water levels were that much lower than I had worked in here in the past and also because of the increased level of foliage, there were greater numbers of long-legged water based birds to be found too.  They would be standing stationary around the fringes or on bits of foliage waiting to pounce on one of the many Marsh Frogs or Fire-bellied Toads that there were in the water.  They were very wary and so approaching them in the hide was a slow and careful process but there were some very close encounters with Night Heron, Grey Heron and even Little Bittern: it’s a very different experience being at water level with these birds.

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I’d never had a clean view of one of these smaller relatives of the European Bittern we occasionally see here in the UK and when this individual moved into a great position on a willow tree (surrounded by water and reeds) it took me almost an hour to work carefully into position for a clear view.  When the sun then came out fleetingly and lit him up perfectly in the shadows it was well worth it though.

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Around the fringes of the wetland areas were an array of passerines – while getting changed into our wetsuits every session we would be serenaded by Cuckoo, Nightingale and watched over by a Red-backed Shrike – the bird diversity here is as good as it has been the dozen or so years I have travelled and photographed in Bulgaria I’m pleased to say.  One bird that was well into its breeding was the extraordinary Penduline Tit and his fantastic construction of a nest had been taken up by a female and he was busily providing food for her almost constantly and so we spent a very enjoyable afternoon trying to capture images of him as he returned.

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But I was always drawn back to the Grebes in particular.  The one European species I have always ironically found the hardest to photograph well is the Little Grebe or dabchick as I fondly still call it.  They are very shy and retiring and although I have plenty of images from iconic and less-visited locations at home they have never really done them justice.  Of all the species here it was them I wanted to really try to work with this time if I could.

They could be heard all around the area – if I had to count I would have guessed at least a dozen pairs, some in close proximity to one another too.  But they remained as elusive as they always seem to be.  They are small and adept enough to dive and swim underwater to feed in the tightest of reed beds quite happily so have little need to come into the open patches of water except to move speedily to another sheltered area.  As a result opportunities with them for the first couple of days proved frustrating and environmental in their nature.

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Blog 18On occasions though patience and perseverance is rewarded, and although it was an encounter that totalled less than a minute when one bird popped up from his dive almost in front of me in beautiful morning light and a setting that was nigh on perfect too then the hours of wading, avoiding the leeches and having to clean the wetsuit of mud twice a day was more than made up for.

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Stunning birds (and probably my favourite family of them) a stunning location and great company (thanks Martin, Jeff and Peter for joining me and my good friend Emil for helping pull it all together as always).  This aquarian will be back in the water again soon for sure.

 

There’s more than one star in Texas

If you talk about Texas with most people here in the UK there are a number of things that will probably come to mind initially: cowboys, George Bush, oil, Dallas, JR…. the list goes on in terms of iconic ingredients that make up the story of this, the 2nd largest state in the US both in terms of size and population, but also at times probably the most controversial too. It’s known as the lone star state, part of the deep rooted sense of independence that it still nourishes but when I visited around this time last year there were several stars to be found as far as I was concerned.

One of the many enjoyable parts of my work is the chance to visit new places both for their own sake but also as a rec. for a potential future trip that I might be running, and so it was that hot on the heels of 2 weeks in the wintery conditions of Yellowstone I found myself in the t-shirt surroundings of south Texas, a combination that always makes packing a challenge and arriving at McAllen airport in lined snow boots look just a little out of place.

I was meeting local photographer and guide Ruth Hoyt for a few days introduction to the bird photography ranches that have quietly mushroomed in this corner of the country as the draw of strikingly colourful birds, unique as far as the US is concerned, are to be found. None more so probably than the Green winged Jay.

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Green Jay

You can just see the intelligence in that look can’t you? Vivid green wings and an almost superhero like blue and black mask to its face just add to its overall impact.

The reason these unique species are here is simply one of geography: being situated in the far south-west corner of the country and right on the Mexican border of the Rio Grande river sees a number of central American species drifting up and clipping this corner of the country alone.

As you might expect in the big state many species are on the large size – the golden fronted woodpecker (highly spotted black and white wings and bold yellow and red patches on a buff coloured head) simply dwarfs our largest here.

Golden fronted Woodpecker

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There are some bizarre named ones too – Pyrrhuloxia for instance is as complex a non-Latin bird name I know anywhere but it’s certainly a striking species.

Pyrrhuloxia

Some are clearly named after just how they look – the iconic male Cardinal is clearly based on the appearance of the Roman Catholic robes associated with that position, although the female is frankly just as spectacular in my view.

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Cardinal female

Some are named after their behaviour too – the long-billed thrasher does exactly that to the grass and shrubs in search of insects to feed on.

Long billed Thrasher

Given that we are in a state of the south it was also apt to come across mockingbirds quite regularly too.

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But at a personal level it was the raptors that really drew me in. This is the wild habitat in which to find harris hawk – a common sight at falconry centres across the UK but here surviving in the dry shrub grasslands that these vast ranches now consist of.

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Vultures here (often referred to locally as buzzards which can be very confusing) are of the new-world varieties and therefore very different to those in Europe and Africa: there are Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures to be seen with the same prevalence as Common Buzzards are now to be found at home in the UK, although they are maybe not quite as pleasing on the eye.

Turkey Vulture

Then there is the caracara. This is known locally as the Mexican eagle, and is a species I have photographed in southern and Central America before, but it is truly at home in these vast empty ranches surviving on snakes, rabbits, hares and ground dwelling birds such as the highly prevalent northern bobwhite quail (a favourite of the hunting fraternity here in the same way as pheasants at home). They are as uniquely impressive a bird as you can imagine and a real experience to see up close, whether the brightly coloured adults or the more muted but equally distinctive juveniles.

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Northern Caracara on ground

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The quail themselves were equally as impressive, scuttling around at breakneck speed, scrambling in the dirt for insects and seed and it was nice to see a game bird in its natural habitat in comparison with the plethora of pheasants we have at home.

Northern Bobwhite male

Northern Bobwhite scraping ground

The other really enjoyable feature of photographing here is the chance to work on some real old-school style bird photography.  Ruth and I had seen the fabulous looking Black-crested Titmouse around at one of the blinds but failed to get an image we were happy with: they are even speedier than long-tailed tits here at home.  So we focussed on finding a really nice complimentary perch and trying to encourage the bird to use it for a good couple of hours one evening and after lots of oohs, aahs and near misses the final results were well worth the enjoyable time spent.

Black crested Titmouse

So Texas may be a state of controversy and opinion that doesn’t always fit easily with all, but there are pockets of it starting to see that it’s natural resources are worth cherishing, conserving and presenting to a different audience who simply wants to appreciate them in their environment. They and the amazing array of birds that they have on their ranch properties are to be applauded and appreciated as well, and I have indeed pulled a return trip together for next Spring, full details of which can be found here:

Natures Images: South Texas Birdlife

This is truly a mecca for bird photographers – great species, great places to work with them and what a bird that Caracara is! Hope you might be able to join me with the many avian stars of Texas next year.

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Black-browed beauties

In my last post here I talked about my high levels of excitement when spending a number of days photographing King Penguins during the course of my visit to the Falklands last year. They were only half of the story though in terms of my anticipation – the other half belonging fairly and squarely with the chance to spend some time in and among breeding Albatross.

There are 22 species of albatross, some 17 of which are classified as globally threatened.  They are the ultimate sea-faring birds, spending huge amounts of their lives flying across the roughest seas of the planet, those that wrap themselves above the continent of Antarctica.  They are the stuff of legends (think Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner) and for a long-term bird lover before taking it up professionally photographically, a further rite of passage.

During the 3 week trip, I had planned for us to visit two colonies of Black-browed Albatross, the predominant species of the Falklands and where some 70% of the worlds population actually breed. The first of these, the ice-breaker if you like, was a reasonably small colony but nicely located one and planned on a day when there would be no other visitors so we had the place completely to ourselves; it was on the island of West Point.  After a short walk from the landing point with the local warden we reached the brow of a hill and looked down to the gathering below, perched almost perfectly on top of a dramatic coast line.

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Like a white scar cutting through the surrounding tussock grass, an array of birds were perched on their cone-like nests, intermingled with Rockhopper Penguins filling in the spaces it seemed, all seemingly calling or clacking their beaks at each other; looking up the perfect early summer sky was full of gliding birds as well – all in all a truly uplifting sight.

After initially taking the scene in I felt I really needed some time to simply soak up what I had come to experience – we were going to be here all day so there was no rush – and so I made my way through some of the tunnels in the tussock grass to an extreme edge of the colony and found a single bird sitting patiently and simply sat down.  My camera stayed in the bag for a full 30 minutes or so as I simply absorbed where I was and just how special it felt to be sharing this small corner of a remote island in the south Atlantic with this stunning bird.  Who knows how far it had flown in its life to date – countless thousands of miles no doubt – or what weather and conditions it had experienced too; for now it was just the two of us here on the cliff top and both seemingly totally at ease with each other too. The camera dod come out of the bag eventually and I was treated to some great wide-angle images, an attempt on my part to really give a sense of just what it felt like to share this time and space.

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As with all of the birdlife here, fear of human presence didn’t really seem to come into play so providing I showed respect and acted sensibly all the birds here remained very relaxed at all times.

The skies above were full of birds gliding too and fro and given a combination of their low flight paths and huge wing spans of some 2.5 metres I found myself in the unusual position of using a wide-angle lens to photograph them in flight too!

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Throughout the day I found myself watching as much as photographing, enjoying the opportunity to capture simple portraits, little aspects of behaviour such as grooming, and given the incredible bonds that these birds have once they have committed to being a pair for life, the high levels of affection they demonstrated towards each other too.

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West Point was an amazing place to spend the day with these beautiful birds – their naming extremely clear given the subtle striping across their eyes.  It was though just the appetiser, because 24 hours later, given the opening in the weather that I had planned in hope for basing us at this western edge of the Falklands for a number of days to allow it to come, I was again on a boat and headed to the far north-west of the archipelago, a journey of some 6 or 7 hours, and to the remote and uninhabited island of Steeple Jason.  This is a place that has long been very high indeed on my bucket list; it’s a challenge to get to (the boat journey is pretty much head on into the prevailing winds and they most certainly can blow down here, although local boatman Michael Clarke did a great job of getting us there and back safely – thanks) and totally uninhabited.  With permission and accompanied by Rob McGill, the warden responsible for it though, we had a 48 hour opportunity to visit what is home to the largest colony of Black-browed Albatross in the world – some 200,000 pairs.

The shape of the island is testament to its location and the weather it has to cope with, it’s narrow high escarpment cutting down its centre like the scales standing proud on a dinosaurs spine.

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Head to its westerly end though and after battling through the surrounding tussock grass, the sight (and sound)  of the colony is simply breathtaking.

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There are birds here as far as you can see – all of the white in the above shots are birds on the ground and in the same density as those in the foreground.  A walk around the edge of the tussock grass you can see edging the colony here simply revealed more and more over the horizon and wrapping off towards the far side of the crags.

When faced with monumental choice like this it is very easy to be overwhelmed photographically.  My first thoughts, and appreciating just how lucky we clearly were being in terms of the clear blue skies, was to capture the bigger picture – the setting and scale of these first two images.  Sticking with the setting which is equally as breathtaking I then concentrated on some contextual portraits as well as looking to isolate individual birds with both long and short lenses, looking to work as creatively as I could with the light and angles available.

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Before I knew it the sun was starting to set, warming the light but also casting shadows across the colony too so after one last set of shots it was time to retire briefly to the research hut and among the food that we had brought out with us the somewhat surreal option of Waitress frozen cheesecakes among the fare!

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Sleep for me was brief, such was the level of adrenalin still flowing, and as the sun rose a few short hours later, we made our way round to the other side of the island to work with the new days light direction – effectively the other end of the colony.  Again it involved a walk through the tussock grass (it is mostly over 3 metres high so a tussle to get through in places) and as this cleared and the rest of the colony was revealed the true scale of this place really hit home.

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The white stripe here that is stretching out and round the far distant point is all breeding Albatross.  The previous afternoon had been spent round the corner and none of these birds had been visible at all – they are all additional!  The total colony stretches some two and a half miles around the coast here, and look in the far distance and you can see how it is starting to stretch up the side of the hill too.  I have been lucky enough to visit some amazing seabird colonies in my life but nothing like this!

As the sun crept up into the sky, gradually lighting the colony, it was back to work with the combination of lenses looking to capture place, work with said light and isolate behaviour.

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The interaction process is not only a reinforcement of the bonds of a relationship, but for the first season ashore in adulthood it is actually a process birds go through in terms of finding and selecting a life-long partner so it is a serious business of courtship too and a joy to watch.

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Before I knew it it was mid-day (time flies so fast when you are completely absorbed) and time to leave: my 24 hours here was done and the long boat trip back awaited.  After one last shot of the truly amazing scene the return journey was one full of reflection – what an experience, what a sight, what a stunning spectacle of the natural world and more than that what a privilege to have been able to experience it.  Now I just can’t wait to go back: the birds will be returning to their colonies about now but for me it’ll be another 12 months until I get to go back but it’s most certainly worth waiting for.

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Kings of the Beach

Well that seems to be another summer that’s gone.  It’s been a really busy one and I’ve been away for most of it but a return to home and the office for a few weeks not only offers the opportunity to catch up with the mountains of administration that all walks of life necessitate, but also some time to try to get stuck into a mountainous backlog of processing.

It seems apt to be looking at some stuff from the tail end of last year since it’s the season that lies immediately ahead once again, and the 3 weeks in question spent in the Falkland Islands were among the highlights of the last year as a whole:  they are an archipelago deeply rooted in the memories of my generation for sure.

Part of the anticipation of the trip was that I have always held a belief, as a long time bird enthusiast and of seabirds in particular, that to spend some time photographing what I called a proper penguin (king or emperor – the immediately identifiable ones I guess) and time in a large albatross colony were a rite of passage that I needed to go through.  Emperors still await (that would/will hopefully be my dream trip) but the Falklands promised both these opportunities and in putting the itinerary together for the group I had travelling with me I had ensured we had a good amount of time to really focus on these south Atlantic specialists.

The king penguin has made a really steady increase in numbers here and although focussed almost exclusively in one location, Volunteer Point, numbers are now in the order of 1000 breeding pairs.  This is nothing compared to the monster colonies of South Georgia but is still very impressive and I was really excited all the way through the 3 hour drive from Stanley for the first of four days to be spent there in the course of the trip.  The last 2 hours of his were spent navigating the bogs that make up the majority of the islands it seems and I was very grateful to the 4WD and expert driving of Nobby who was looking after us for these journeys.  It wasn’t the best of weather but I was like a teenager with a new toy as we settled on the beach after arriving, back into the wind and rain and my very first king penguin in front of me at last!Blog 1

Pretty soon there were a pair, one in the sea and small groups gathering on the shore too and things were well and truly underway.

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It was clear that the time here was going to be all I had hoped for and more.  I have always believed that when putting trips together it is better to spend a really good amount of time at the best locations rather than try to go everywhere and end up undergoing things at the places that are working best.  All it needs is a bad or disappointing day and that could be it as nowhere works perfectly all the time.  This proved to be a good call here as over the course of the four full days spent at Volunteer there were not only a myriad of different opportunities as a consequence, the time needed anywhere to really get under the surface of the place and how it works behaviour and timing-wise, but it also allowed time for the weather conditions to change and offer variety in terms of lighting too, and although the bright overcast light worked well there were different images to be gleaned when the sun came out.

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It almost looks tropical with that sea colour!

The breeding cycle of the King Penguin is almost unique in that they take over a year to raise their young and as a result are only able to breed in 2 out of each 3 years.  This means that at almost any time of the year you will find birds in an array of stages of the breeding cycle in the colony and so there were groups of breeding adults but also sub-adults coming into their second year, fully fledged and just preparing to head out to sea for the first time and for pretty much the next 10 -12 months.  It meant that the beach was a busy place of birds coming in and going out but also gathering to socialise.

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At times it looked like they were almost on some sort of military parade and some of the grouping really did take on an array of anthropomorphic characteristics well worthy of caption competitions.

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They were also very curious indeed as Sue found out!

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A few hundred metres inland from the white sands of the beach was the main colony and here there were an array of different stages of the breeding cycle to be discovered with some already standing on freshly laid eggs, some late youngsters from the previous year, one year olds who hadn’t quite got the courage to leave the creche area yet and some adults in their “between breeding” spell undergoing a full moult; a process that takes around a month during which time they basically stay ashore in the colony full time.

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These ranked masses provided a whole new context from an image perspective and I was really glad on the last day when the wind changed direction and they faced the right way for these large group shots: they reminded me of the warriors guarding the emperors tomb in ancient China. Mind you I don’t think he would have wanted any guards looking as scruffy and unkempt as those mid-moult did.

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The youngsters were equally lacking in the general cuteness stakes at this time of year and even when put side by side with an adult which confirmed the similarities in terms of conformation it was hard to imagine that in just a few weeks time they too would moult and turn into their prettier elder relatives.

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Given his shape it was equally hard to believe that this particular one had had too much of a hard time in the juveniles creche while its parents were at sea fishing for it in the winter that had not long finished.

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Those mid -moult and transition to adulthood looked the most peculiar and at times they would pounce on an unsuspecting adult in a quest for food too, one that was turned down as they were on their own now.

Blog 14aBlog 15Mind you there were occasional spats between adults too. One minute they would be standing there seemingly at peace in their interaction then one would stand up on its toes to show off its height and slap the other.  It was very comical to watch but only occasionally did a more aggressive beak prod take place and the surprise of the victim was clear to see.

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Mind you it wasn’t long before they had kissed and made up.

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Whenever I spend any time with any large, numerate and extremely approachable subject I am always keen to pull together a number of more intimate portraits as well as behavioural and environmental images and the combination of settings and therefore backgrounds gave additional opportunities to do this.

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In the last of these he was catching a quick 40 winks and I loved the way he did so with his feet in the air and his tail spread on the ground to stop him falling over.

The weather in the Falklands is capable of changing very quickly and it’s also a place where the wind blows almost incessantly too.  As a consequence there was plenty of time spent sheltering in the hut on the beach when the downpours were just too much, but they never lasted too long as the wind always seemed to blow them through quickly enough and on a couple of occasions when the rain stopped and the sun came out the resulting storm light was simply breathtaking and a great chance to use the Lee Grad filters I had been kindly given by them to try out before the trip.  These are some of my favourite images of the total trip, the combination of light, blowing sand and a stunning subject was quite breathtaking and I hope they do the moments justice.

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When this light coincided with low tide there were also a few fleeting reflections on the beach to be found too.

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My time at Volunteer Point well and truly lived up to all my expectations and it’s a place I am equally as excited to be looking to revisit towards the end of next year when I will be running a trip there for Natures Images once again.

I hope to cover the second rite of photographic passage here in another blog in the next week or so but in the meantime the final word for this one has to be with the undoubted king of this particular beach.

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The Love of the Lek

Ask anyone who loves the avian world and has been fortunate to visit or photograph at the lekking site of any member of the Grouse family and I am sure they will all tell you that to greet the dawn of a new day with a displaying male (and sometimes many more) just outside your hide is right up there in terms of their experiences in the natural world.  It certainly is among mine and although I have been fortunate enough to have many such experiences a week in the forests and mountains of Norway this Spring was as good as any – hard earned but ultimately right up there.

The undoubted king of the family in Europe is the Capercaillie, threatened and declining fast here in the UK due to the lack of suitable habitat, but still strong in the less developed spaces of Scandinavia. Finding the exact spot where they will choose to settle the disputed hierarchy of males and ultimately attract the females of the area though is a challenge and one I was as ever grateful to my good friend Ole Martin Dahle in helping with – the site where I have enjoyed working in the past had seen a change of top bird and after a few nights camped out awaiting a dawn visit, there seemed to be no pattern to where things were happening other than it wasn’t where I was!  Upping sticks and moving to a more remote spot in search of a second site a further frustrating night followed with everything happening out of view, but a final adjustment and it was sixth night lucky as everything finally came together.

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The dominant male always takes up his position early (around 2.30 am in this instance and having spent the previous couple of hours in a nearby tree) so for a good hour or so it is always a question of quietly looking through a crack in the dome hide window (everything is well covered for obvious reasons) and enjoying the sight and sounds as best you can.  Eventually the light levels allow an image or two at high ISO’s (thank goodness for higher spec DSLRs) with single silent shot mode essential so as not to disturb things.

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The spot where he had chosen to lek really couldn’t have been better mind – the very first rays of the rising sun fell perfectly on it as he continued about his posturing, making the iridescent nature of his feathers really shine when the angles were right.

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Although there was another male hanging around in the area it is clear this guy was top dog, and it wasn’t too long before the females in the area started to gather, initially in the trees surrounding the lek site but eventually one of them dropped to the ground for a closer inspection.

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His displaying reached a new level of frenzy before the mornings courting eventually came to an end.

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Over the course of the next few days each and every one of the seven females that were around that morning will and did mate with this dominant male before retreating into their corner of the forest to lay their clutch and raise their brood of youngsters alone.  The whole courtship process at the lek is a completely essential few days in the overall breeding success of the whole of this area of forest so simply to witness it, let alone photograph and experience it in a way that is sensitive to what is happening, is always a genuine privilege.

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Having worked so long for this particular morning there was just time to enjoy a different lek site with a close relative of the Capercaillie – the more diminutive but considerably noisier Black Grouse.  Although big lekking sites with several birds are often the norm, more isolated locations that attract lone birds who spend several days and weeks displaying for a mate seem to be more the norm in the coastal woodlands of central Norway, but this is no less engaging as a consequence.  Black Grouse often appear after sunset for a late evening display and this was the case here – an 11pm visit in the dim light punctuated by the extraordinary set of calls that they make and which if you haven’t heard them before can be listened to here. Too dark to photograph he left after an hour only to return again around 3 am and once again it was a question of patiently enjoying the spectacle and taking the occasional image as the light continued to get better and better and better, initially on the distant background but eventually falling on the bird and lekking site too – note the frost on the ground in the early shots for a clue how cold it still is here overnight at this time of the year!

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In the last of these images you can see him starting to leap into the air, an integral part of his amazing displays and given that he was entirely on his own in terms of both rivals and females too it says a great deal for his will power and persistence that he managed to keep this up for a good 2 hours in total!

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Eventually he moved briefly off to a different area for a final check that he was on his own and then headed off for the day to return again that evening to continue his quest once more!

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Nature offers some amazing sights, sounds and experiences and the Spring lek is definitely one of them for me and one I look forward to engaging all of my senses in again too.