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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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Winter urban foxes

With the growth in recent years of remote control, camera traps and also an increase in their very numbers here in the UK, urban fox images of an amazing standard are regularly being produced by the likes of Jamie Hall, Sam Hobson and Mark Smith.

Taking advantage of the benefits of an urban setting as opposed to a purely rural one is not the sole domain of foxes here in the UK though and when this time last year I headed to Churchill, a small town in northern Manitoba in Canada, foxes were equally as prevalent there. The big difference though is that the winter temperatures are considerably lower (it reached minus 35 degrees celsius during the week that we were there) so snow, ice and freezing winds were very much the norm that they have to cope with there.

The red foxes here are among the most northerly in the world in terms of latitude, and have all the same clever survival characteristics of their more southerly relatives here.  Churchill is the far north point of the Hudson Bay Railway (that and planes its only access as there are no roads into the area, only a few local ones) and aside from its role as a polar bear tourist magnet at this time of the year, it’s port is one of the main hubs for Canadian wheat to make its way to Europe. The last ships had sailed before winter froze the bay, but the area around the docks offered shelter in the form of buildings and general industrial materials piled up making great windbreaks and therefore a magnet for foxes to head for to settle down in the short daytime hours.

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Even the container cars for the trains parked up for the season seemed to be a draw for them in terms of potential shelter as this one seemed to be assessing.

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Once a suitable spot had been found out of the wind it was then a question of settling down for as good a rest as possible – always prepared though to check out any photographers in the vicinity mind!

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The hours of darkness would tend to see them head to the nearby houses and hotels of the town itself in search of any potential throwaways to supplement the general scavenging and meagre hunting of these winter months.  It helped though to know that this was their regular morning hangout though as when some stunning morning light was on offer it made it an obvious place to head for.

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There are two other varieties of red fox to be found in the area – the very rare silver fox and considerably darker cross fox, this latter getting it’s name from a dark line or stripe running down its back which intersects with another running across the shoulders and even down the front legs forming a cross on its back.  Biologically these are in fact the same species but talk to locals who have been here for generations and they will treat them as quite distinctive based on the fact that when the fur trade was at its peak there was more value in a cross fox pelt than that of a pure red fox.  Our lodge owner could even tell us the current values of all the fox types today, but the business is nowhere near its peak of the late nineteenth century when around 4500 cross fox pelts alone were exported through the Hudson Bay Company.

The industrial areas proved the best place to find one of these incredibly beautiful mammals on a couple of mornings: I particularly enjoyed using the buildings and general setting, it’s industrial nature softened by the snow and frost of the winter conditions  to give a real sense of place.

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Cross-fox in industrial setting

Mind you he looked equally as stunning on a pink dawn morning in just the frosty grasses!

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The other species of fox to be found in the area though was the even prettier arctic fox, and this was a real bonus due solely to it having been an extra good summer as far as lemming numbers concerned so above average numbers of youngsters had made it through to have their resourcefulness tested through the winter months.

These are energy-laden mammals who seem like clockwork toys on speed as they bounce energetically around all the time, and I have photographed young cubs and wily adults before but only during the summer months where they grey and browny-grey fur gives them quite a ragged look in my opinion.  In their white winter coats though alongside their hazel brown eyes they have to be one of the most stunning mammals.

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We had come across them out on the tundra when looking for polar bears (this fellow was really hunkered down for what was a particularly miserable day), but the real hotspot for them seemed to be a caged area for food refuse round the back of one of the town’s hotels!  It was an area surrounded by plenty of open spaces  – presumably a park in the summer months; just a snowy field surrounded by buildings at this time of year.

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Throughout the day individuals would trot their way across between the buildings, checking out the cage and also in and around all the other buildings, constantly alert and aware as their pelt is even higher in value apparently although ironically hunting them in the town is not allowed – maybe another reason for them to be attracted to it at this time of day!

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This final portrait hopefully conveys that stunning beauty I referred to earlier!

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Churchill might not be a location that first comes to mind when thinking about urban images of  winter foxes but it certainly proved to be so last winter: reflecting and processing the images some 12 months later the challenges of frost-bitten blistered fingers when working with the shorter lenses on the ground are fortunately a dim and distant memory too!

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Winter in the land of the rising sun (part 2)

It might seem odd posting another winter focussed blog as summer only just seems to be giving way to autumn here, but it’s a reflection of just how far behind I remain processing wise!

My trip to Japan earlier this year though was one of many highlights so far so I am keen to do it justice in terms of coverage here: it proved to be so much more than just a photographic trip, more a cultural immersion and with it some real reminders as to just how keeping things simple and calm can really pay off photographically.

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Cranes have long been among my favourite families of birds having enjoyed many days listening to their almost incessant calling and marvelled at their behaviours in both Europe and North America, so the chance to spend time with the Red-Crowned Crane (not unique to Japan but very much an icon of the country depicted as it is on their national airline logo for starters) was something I was very much looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint.

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This is a bird that is a well-established symbol of long life and prosperity here and up until the 18th century when the feudal system was actually wiped out across the country, it was common practice for peasants to place gifts of food (generally fish) in fields where the birds would gather: the birds were a protected species as well.

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With the societal change came changes in agriculture and land use too, which placed habitat pressure on them as well as a removal of protection and they became an easy target in response to demand for their plumage; by the beginning of the 20th century they were almost extinct. Much conservation effort followed once it became clear how threatened they were and from a low of around 60 birds a small but stable population of around 1000 birds has been re-established on the northern island of Hokkaido, and that traditional practice of feeding is very much in evidence at a number of sites including the Akan Crane Centre.

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These days it is more a question of corn in the morning but there remains an almost ceremonial placing of a small number of fish on the snow every afternoon as well, although this tends to act as the time for Eagles and Kites to drop in rather than being of much benefit to the Cranes themselves!

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It’s a popular place for people to visit so the areas overlooking the fields are busy with general tourists as well as photographers, and it’s always great to see so many people drawn to watch even just one tiny part of nature here – it certainly means that the chances of these magnificent birds continuing to remain here have to be high.

And magnificent doesn’t do them justice really as, like Cranes the world over, they will always put on their own kind of show.  Whether it be their awkward looking landing techniques, their extreme sense of excitement at meeting up with friends and family, their sheer elegance or their overtly apparent shows of bonding and commitment, there is much to be gleaned from several hours watching them interact.

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Throw in varying weather conditions (from sunshine through early morning mists, several degrees below freezing and then falling snow) over the course of several days and as always the semblance of a portfolio can be built too.

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These are birds that have been depicted in all forms of Japanese art since the 5th century and a combination of their grace, the incredible cleanliness of a winter setting and quite possibly an increasing amount of time becoming absorbed personally into the respectful and tranquil aspects of Japanese culture drew me towards really simple compositions as well as the occasional experimentation with monochrome which I am increasingly enjoying these days too.

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A stunning bird, beautiful conditions and a real lesson in the benefits of a more measured and simplistic outlook photographically: it’s been a real treat to relive it again with this recent processing too!

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Working with northern light

For many here in the northern hemisphere, the summer is a challenging time photographically. With the sun almost directly overhead throughout these longest days of the year it becomes necessary to adjust the body clock significantly – early starts and late finishes to work with the best the light has to offer become the norm in a search to avoid harshness.

Head further north and the sun barely sets (if ever once you get deep inside the arctic circle) and then that magical light lasts for much longer and it becomes necessary to switch the body clock around completely and work through the night while resting in the day.

After a brief hint of this (known locally as the ‘simmer din’) when in the Shetlands in late June, I headed to northern Finland earlier this month to work with some of their resident predators, among the hardest mammals to find in Europe. While it is wrong to call wolves, wolverine or bears strictly nocturnal the fact is that the night-time hours are when they are at their most active, especially at this time of the year when it still offers enough light for them.

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Blog-2Wind the clock back just a few years and both these images would have been unthinkable in terms of their clarity.  They are both shot on ISO 3200 and in the case of the wolf image (photographed at approaching 1am) it still only generated a shutter speed of 1/80 of a second!  The wonder of modern digital SLR’s really does allow good quality images to be produced even in these twilight hours.

In days gone by these sorts of low level light conditions would have meant experimenting with slow shutter speeds in a search for creativity, and this is an approach that I have to say I do still enjoy accepting that these images of a wolf gliding through the boreal forest or wolverine scampering along a log are not everyones cup of tea.

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The Wolverine captured in the rich warm light of earlier in the evening is probably much more to peoples taste but the motion blurred effect still appeals to me more.

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When given the chance though, on the very last evening of the Natures Images trip I was running, to work in a site I know well and throughout the evening given a much earlier arrival time of the bears there that night, the chance to really experiment with the late evening and night-time light was one that I really enjoyed.

First of all there was the classic rich warm almost red glow to the light that comes in the last half an hour before it finally sets.

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The low light also gives a opportunity to play with under-exposure to emphasise the highlights it creates as well.

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When the sun has literally just set there often remains a hint of residual pink on the elements at the top of a scene as well, such as these trees.

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When a couple of young bears came around the side of the hide then the opportunity for even more classic back-lighting and silhouettes was presented.

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Once the sun had finally set and the Finnish equivalent of the aforementioned simmer dim took over, it was back to the 3200 ISO as subtle whips of night-time mist curled around the edges of the pool.

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An amazing night, a highlight of the summer so far, and a reminder that when it comes down to it in this game it is always all about light – and, of course, just how you work with it.

A Happy Half Dozen

Although I didn’t realise it at the time I think I had some withdrawal symptoms last summer.  It was the first summer in over a dozen years that has not involved at least one days visit to a Puffin colony.  I had made a trip to one in the early Spring to find them in a snowy setting  but the summer itself was bereft of their company although they were never far from my mind as the last stages of The Secret Lives of Puffins book came to fruition.

Well I am just back from nearly 2 weeks in the Shetlands and one of my favourite colonies on Fair Isle, and I have well and truly had my Puffin fix once again and although time is brief as I head off once again tomorrow to the boreal swamps and forests of Finland, I have just had time to process a happy half dozen of my favourite images from the time I spent there.

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I am not short of images of these charismatic birds, and their characteristics are forever to be found on all the social media sharing sites at this time of the year so it is hard to find “different” images of them for sure, but one aspect I have been consciously looking to work on this year is rather than the uniform defocussed background long lenses bring is rather to look for one where different tones and the resultant shapes can compliment the subject such as the image above and below.

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As for the rest of the images in this necessarily brief post – well they are what they are and hopefully reflective of some of the further approaches I try to adopt to working with the well photographed: they also helped make sure that the withdrawal symptoms are no more!!

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The wonders of wetlands

I suspect many of you have been watching the excellent series of Springwatch that has just come to a conclusion, based from the excellent reserve at Minsmere.  I first went there some 30 or so years ago and all my children visited as part of their early education in the wonders of reed beds and wetlands as a habitat to enjoy: it’s certainly one that is special and increasingly challenged in the UK and across Europe too.

One of the continents greatest areas wetlands is along the eastern end of the river Danube as it gradually makes its way into the Black Sea, and it was to the magnet of these   expanses of water, natural flooding and reed beds that I was drawn to join my good friend Emil Enchev in northern Bulgaria last month along with 3 guests (Nigel, Roger and Ian) who were joining us.

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As you can see it is a wonderfully rich environment and full of life; both flora and fauna.

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These Marsh Frogs (of which there were hundreds, competing with Fire-Bellied Toads to see who could make the most noise) took on a whole new appearance when they filled their air sacs to make themselves heard.

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A half hour spell standing at the spot in the first image one afternoon led to 8 different grass snakes being seen just swimming through – a really rich environment, and one that we had permission to explore using floating hides: simple individual constructions of polystyrene, and a small dome hide which are manoeuvred by either slowly walking or (mostly) swimming slowly through the habitat until finding a quiet place to stop and settle and wait to see what swims by.  Hopefully that didn’t too often include leeches of which there were plenty and we all had a bite or two for our pains!  All worth it for the wonderful low perspective and very individual images that working this way can allow though.

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Those of you who might have followed my work over the years though will know that one of the families of birds I have always had a huge affinity for and enjoyed some incredibly engaging experiences with in the past though are Grebes, and this was an equally excellent time to be there for them in terms of numbers and activity too.

Black-necked Grebes have to be one of the prettiest birds there is when in their summer plumage and at this point in the breeding season large numbers of them will gather in breeding areas to sort out partnerships and nesting locations.

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Being in such a wonderful habitat and at the same time able to work at a perfect photographic level with them was completely absorbing, even when trying to paddle quietly to keep still as I was often out of my depth in the water!

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And when a passing bird gives you the odd quizzical look too it feels like that effort is worth it as you have indeed become part of the scenery.

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There were actually 4 of the 5 European species of Grebes to be found here, and one that I was especially keen to try and spend some time with was the Red-necked Grebe: quite a bit bigger than these and with a different conformation altogether.

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They seemed to be more elusive but this bird, photographed late one evening, gave me something to work on locationally the next day and which proved to be rewarding as an uninterrupted 2 hour encounter that morning was completely absorbing.

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You know that you have really become accepted when birds start to relax and preen, and in this birds case also call for an errant mate!

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One of the facets that I particularly enjoyed about working in these wetlands was just how the light would completely change both the look of the birds but also the habitat, reflections and therefore image opportunities as well – the colours of both these Grebe species were multi-faceted in warm late and early light respectively.

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It meant that keeping a watchful eye as birds moved into different pastels and shades of water created fresh image opportunities aplenty, even when they were just swimming through.

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They may not have featured on Springwatch (mind you those Bitterns were pretty special too) but these beautiful little water birds are certainly one of the many wonders to be found in the wetlands across Europe, and reason enough to ensure it’s a habitat we hang on to.

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