“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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Marvellous monochrome

I’m a touch embarrassed how long it is since I last posted some fresh material here on a blog but my feet don’t seem to have time to touch the ground at the moment. Regular followers of my work on my Facebook  page will know though that I have been travelling quite extensively in recent months with a good proportion of it being in Africa in the past year or so (and plenty more to come in the next too), a relatively new continent for me to focus on photographically to this current extent.

It is a region that is dear to many as one where wildlife spectacle, scale, accessibility and opportunity abound and after a number of visits to south, west and east now I have to confess that it is beginning to truly cast its spell on me too.

One aspect of the many images that I have seen and enjoyed from the so-called dark continent is the role of monochrome in the mix.  Maybe it’s a throw back to the first images from here that I gazed at as a child as they were pretty much all black and white in their nature, but I have always felt that it seems to work as a presentation better here than many other areas and it is something clearly recognised by the fine art exponents of the wildlife photography world who have focussed their work here such as Nick Brandt and David Lloyd amongst others. It was something I was keen to explore, especially what it was that seemed to make it work so well here during my travels and it provides the focus for this otherwise disparate collection.

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There are of course some species such as Zebra that are naturally black and white in their markings and so stripping the colour out of this simple scene has really emphasised them.

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The use of a polarising filter to really capture the drama of both setting and sky of the Maasai Mara here is another classic and obvious scenario in which the simplicity that monochrome allows can work very effectively too.

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Sticking with the markings though and selecting a small section of them such as this giraffe to really show the details, and in this particular instance adding a slight colour tint as well, is an approach that I knew worked well thanks to the work of others but as happy as I was to work on these approaches I wanted to develop more of a personal checklist – when should I specifically be thinking black and white?

One of the answers is where texture of the subject is a key characteristic.  Skin, especially when it is hard, leathery and wrinkled really does seem to work well – the removal of colour from these images of Elephant and Black Rhino respectively, especially the final close-up really does emphasise their texture and all its characteristics.

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The same might also be said when it comes to looking for texture in the landscape too: this general scene of grassland filled with game in the Maasai Mara benefits hugely from the simple contrasts between grass and wildlife.

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One of the many challenges of photographing here is the very short periods of golden light at the beginning and end of the day. It means that much photography is inevitably done in the shoulder periods just after or beforehand when the light might normally be considered to be getting too harsh.  Sometimes though this can work in your favour when it comes to thinking in a monochrome way – this backlit Zebra would have have had a very washed out feel if left as a colour image for instance and I simply wouldn’t have even pointed my camera at it. Recognising that the contrasts would work well in monochrome meant it was well worth pressing the shutter.

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The same applies to these running Wildebeest. Albeit that I have deliberately slowed the shutter speed down to create the sense of speed, blur and movement they were shot almost straight into the sun and the background is completely blown as far as exposure is concerned: far less of an issue when you turn it to the white element of a black and white image!

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Sticking with Wildebeest, when you are fortunate enough to witness the drama of a river crossing the chances are that it too will not be in the perfect light conditions; it’s not as if it happens to order after all.  Add a lot of dust into the scene along with the fact that shooting at this time of day can also play havoc getting a nice white balance to your images and the simplicity of monochrome becomes a really good option and one that allows you to be drawn into the action and not distracted by less than perfect colour.

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Of course all these scenarios can work equally well in colour when the conditions are right and absolutely nothing beats golden perfect light, but realistically it simply doesn’t occur all the time so developing an eye that thinks texture and contrast rather than colour alone is a great way to begin to see things here.

In the past I have always had a simple guideline when it comes to monochrome – if it adds something to an image (i.e. it looks better than the colour version) then that is reason enough to present it in its more simple form. Working in Africa has really fine tuned that thinking for me and with the marvellous big cats to be found there more than anything.

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These two male lions couldn’t be more contrasting by dint of the fact that one is clearly pretty handsome and the other has what is best described as a face more full of character. By presenting them both in monochrome their characters, as best that can be gleaned by looks alone, can instantly be compared: in colour the light, setting and the fact that the first is even more striking because of his golden locks would make this less obvious.  As someone who has always been particularly drawn to the portrait side of photographing wildlife, especially mammals, this really appeals as it can make for a more engaging image and one full of personality.  Lion cubs simply have all of this in abundance.

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One other facet that working on portraits like this in monochrome brings across is the role of the background.  In colour the more uniform and smooth the better, and in terms of tones it is always a major factor in where you want to be photographing your subject from so that the colours compliment or contrast the main subject accordingly. In monochrome this is less critical: it becomes about shades and tones, either conventional in their smoothness such as this Cheetah and in the following example of a Leopard, actually having some texture in the grass provides some additional depth to the image that would have proved a distraction if the image had been presented in colour.

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So as much as anything Africa is bringing a fresh ingredient to my observational eye now – thinking monochrome like I used to decades ago when I first started the hobby that has become my cherished profession. And when all the elements of texture, personality, contrast and light all come together it remains as powerful a presentation as it always has.

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