Seasons change in their scenery

Those of you who are Simon and Garfunkel fans (or even The Bangles as they did their own cover version as well) might recognise this line from their song A Hazy Shade of Winter.  I am not long back from a fortnight in Finland, a trip that was very much planned with some winter imagery in mind.  Finland however had a mild spell in February and as a consequence things were just that bit further ahead than normal, and as a result this became a trip of two seasons – there were still some cold conditions though (-28 degrees celsius the overnight low), along with some heavy snowfalls (20 cm in one day) and some mild afternoons and heading south some fields showing that winter was over for the year. The result was an unusual array of opportunities that reflect just how nature begins to change as the season of Spring beckons.

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The Whooper Swan is Finland’s national bird, and one I spent a great deal of time working with in Japan earlier this year. These two were in a winter setting that immediately took me back there – along with their familiar calls.

They are however just returning here after wintering further south in Europe and so far more attractive to them were the fields and farmlands where Spring was already in place and they could look to refuel before the final push to the north of the country a few weeks later for breeding.  I really enjoyed photographing these beautiful birds in this different setting.

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These Spring like conditions also created opportunities to work with the light and colours in a forest hide in the Oulanka National Park too – subtle lighting around this Great Spotted Woodpecker and classic backlighting on this Siberian Jay among the highlights.

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In these conditions I wasn’t hopeful that the main target for the hide, Golden Eagle, would actually turn up.  With the weather this mild, the female will already be on the nest and the male less interested in visiting his winter feed site.  I needn’t have worried though as he did turn up: and again when returning to the hide a couple of days later when the weather had turned wintery again, falling snow completely changing the feel of the whole place as you can see from these images taken over the two days.

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This changeable couple of days also worked well when spending time with a pair of Black-bellied Dipper who were busy pairing up and checking out local nest boxes as they planned for the imminent season ahead.  Falling snow and slow shutter speeds all added to the variety of opportunity.

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A personal priority for the trip was to spend some quality time with one of my favourite birds – Black Grouse.  The lekking season had already started in earnest thanks to the mild spell and so I enjoyed a total of 6 mornings being settled into the hide by 5am in anticipation of their dawn arrival and displays. The first 3 of these were at a lek site near Kuusamo – just inside Lapland, and still very snowy and cold so it was no huge surprise when the first day was a no show.  The second was more successful but the birds chose to lek just a little over a large snow ridge: very enjoyable but only a few images were possible, the spraying snow from their wings as they squabbled particularly appealed to me.

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The final morning here was absolutely perfect in terms of light and conditions, but sadly another no show: quite a sunrise mind which more than made up for it!

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The final 3 mornings were a few hours south at a lek near Oulu and here the snow was patchy but clear; cold mornings meant heavy frost coverage and some fantastic light with which to photograph the amazing antics of these endearing birds as they strutted their stuff and undertook the occasion sparring match with a fellow lekker.

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A great experience, and one that was matched on my final evening in the Oulu area when quite by chance we happened across a Great Grey Owl hunting in some fields near the road.  It was late and the light was not fantastic but the high ISO capabilities of the 1Dx really helped out and again; although not award-winning images, it was a very special hour spent with this simply gorgeous bird, the first seen in the whole Oulu area for the last 30 days so a really fortunate find.

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The final leg of the trip took me across to the town of Lieksa near the Russian border to spend 3 long days (15 hours at a time) in a hide in the hope of seeing the extremely elusive and rare Wolverine.  Here the snow had very much taken a back seat and Spring was taking over and Wolverine females will already have young kits in their dens so any sightings are to be much appreciated given their increased wariness at this time.  We were blessed with a couple of good visits quite close to the hide, some climbing (which as you can see confirmed she was feeding young) and on the final day a flurry of snow which to me was a fitting end to the nature of my overall trip.

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I had had a whole load of pre-conceived images in my mind when planning to run these two trips. The more travelling with my camera I do though I have come not to expect anything and simply look to go with the flow – work hard on the decision making (and thanks to Antti and Era respectively on this front too) but leave nature to create the opportunities.  Once again she didn’t let me or my guests on the two trips down, revealing some very different images to those I had perhaps thought of some 12 months back.  Clearly she knows best after all!

Winter in the land of the rising sun (Part 1)

I’m a little embarrassed as to how long it’s been since I added any content to my blog.  I have however been away a lot and spent most of last month enjoying my first ever trip to Japan – somewhere I had long been intrigued with from a cultural perspective and at the same time looked excitedly at wildlife images from, in particular during the winter months.

The country and photographic opportunities didn’t disappoint – if anything they over delivered, and as a result I am going to have to split my experiences into two such is the quantity of material generated – that and my increasingly weak editing skills!

The bread in the sandwich of my trip was time spent at it’s start and end on the main island of Honshu, where the bulk of the population and the major cities are based.  North of the iconic Mount Fuji the Japanese Alps near the city of Nagano are among the most wintery of settings at this time of year (the winter Olympics were held there not that long ago after all) and it is in this region that one of the most iconic of the countries animals is to be found at its most accessible – the Japanese Macaque or more commonly dubbed Snow Monkey.

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This is a species that is native to Japan, and as you can see it’s alternative name is most apt: in fact it is the most northerly living of all primates (excluding humans that is) and with none living in a colder climate.

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In the early 1960’s the Jigokudani Monkey Park was opened in the hills above the small spa settlement of Yudanaka.  Originally it was for scientific study purposes of the monkeys behaviour during which they were observed climbing into some of the hot baths (or onsens as they are called locally) to collect some soya beans placed there by the scientists.  The monkeys soon discovered the benefits of enjoying a warm bath during the winter months it seems and now they are regularly to be found taking the waters, and have become a significant visitor attraction as a consequence.

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Each spa session was different for them and because there is still food distributed around the area to encourage them to visit (they are wild monkeys however habituated they have become and would head off to the surrounding forests every night and return in dribs and drabs in the morning) they weren’t exclusively spending time sat in the waters; it certainly seemed to me that they were genuinely getting some real benefit from the warmth of the water and all the steam it generated.  It was also a good place for them to undertake both personal and communal grooming.

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On leaving the pool they took on a very different appearance but their metabolism (they don’t sweat for instance) means that what would concern us in terms of catching a chill on leaving the hot waters simply doesn’t apply to them.

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During the 5 days I spent here over the two visits there couldn’t have been greater contrast in terms of the weather conditions to work with these highly photogenic subjects: initially it felt like Spring was coming as all the snow on the surrounding hills started to melt, and then it was heavy blizzards through to being over 3 foot deep on the long approach paths through the forests and hills to reach them.  Falling snow certainly added a very welcome addition to the bathing images mind!

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With the arrival of the snow also came the chance to move away from the iconic (and therefore very popular with other visitors) area of the spring itself and concentrate on working in a more natural habitat of the snowfields and surrounding trees and I found these settings actually the most absorbing of all, and the chance to really appreciate just how tough it is for them: this monkey (like many others) was literally shivering while he sat trying to conserve energy in the worsening weather.

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When not just sitting it out like this it was a question of foraging for either the meagre enticements the park staff put out twice a day or taking advantage of the natural food on offer around too.

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Although there was also time for play for some of the younger members of the troop.

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These conditions combined with highly photogenic subjects and a simplicity of setting and context in which to work, offered a great chance to really work on the building blocks  of composition and image construction.  Japanese art is all about simplicity and seeing these subjects here, and those I’ll cover in part two, I can fully understand why. This trip was a great reminder of not over-complicating the content of an image.

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Aside from the photographic lessons though, my abiding memory of these hardy animals will be there ability to be both individuals as well as part of a community – never too proud to share or extract a few degrees of warmth from each other.

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When they sleep like that you can see where they got their wise reputation as a group of 3 from!

Between visits here I headed north to the island of Hokkaido for some real winter and some avian delights which I’ll add as a second blog as soon as I can.

A Jungle Book

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It might seem a touch odd writing about a trip to India I took earlier this year just before Christmas, but there are actually a couple of reasons.

Firstly I am increasingly finding that a period of reflection on images gleaned, particularly when there are a lot of them and which a big trip generally results in, tends to actually make the editing process quicker, easier and less wrapped up in the emotion of the experience too.  A personal thing this (doesn’t suit everyone, I know) but it does mean that there’s a lot of material from this year yet to emerge from hard drives and still to look forward to!

Secondly this time of year is about family and I know my parents have been waiting for this blog in particular so there’s an aptness there as well.  Why are they so interested – well when I was young we lived in India for a number of years so for them it has a special place in thier lives and memories; for me most of said memories are based on their photos and slides of the time, but whenever I’ve been back to the sub-continent since the smells have always triggered what recollections of early childhood I have off again, and this trip, my first to Bandhavgarh was no different.

Of course the majestic tiger was an obvious target photographically, but this is the area that Rudyard Kipling loosely based his tale around and so it was always going to be more than just a one species experience.  In fact the word jungle itself is derived from the old sanskrit word jangala which literally means uncultivated land and not the dense rainforest that it is often considered to be.  It’s a description that perfectly describes the national park here especially at it’s early morning best.

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It’s this combination of light and shade along with distant calls accompanied by nearby unseen but overhead movements in the combination of Sal trees and bamboo, that makes the experience of time spent here so exciting: that and the fact that you never quite know what will happen on any game drive.

Much of the noise is made by troops of Grey (or Hanuman) Langurs. They are inquisitive and quite numerous around the park as well as the surrounding villages but they make for a great subject to work with photographically in any setting: I particularly like working with them in a backlit setting too as their fur worked perfectly with the sun behind them.

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This last picture of the group sitting on a rock reveals another important feature at Bandhavgarh – and that is the huge rock escarpment that rises in the middle of it, site of its historic fort.

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The combination of steep slopes covered in vegetation and interspesed with these open grassy meadows (this one is the Rajbhera meadow) are what makes up the key elements of the habitat here – perfect for an array of indigenous species to co-exist.

These meadows in particular are key to the Chittal or Spotted Deer – good grazing areas but they need to keep their wits about them at all times as they are in the open there too.

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You can also see how well they are able to hide but the way they blend into the scenery here is nothing compared to the ability of the apex predator of the park – the tiger: Kipling’s own Shere Khan.

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It’s very easy for a tiger to simply disappear: and this is in the open areas of the meadows never mind the thicker undergrowth.  The result is that finding opportunities to photograph them requires a lot of patience and a great deal of local skill and knowledge which our guides Satyendra and Kay Tiwari and their team most definitely have.  Even working within the tight constraints of the permit system here we were able to enjoy a couple of excellent encounters and one morning in particular with the heavily pregnant Wakeeta who as trying to shake off her now almost sub-adult offspring, is one that will live long in my memory banks as she walked elegantly through trees, clearings and then eventually across the path beside us in the early morning.

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There aren’t any wild elephants in the park but they are to be seen as they make up part of the parks own patrols for it’s general management: they make a good photographic opportunity too either for close-ups or when left on their own to enjoy a dust bath in the way only elephants can.

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Those who know me well will know that I can’t resist a few bird images wherever I go, and these Oriental Turtle Doves, Red-vented Bulbul and Little Green Bee-eater were among the common sights around the village where we stayed so simply had to be photographed!

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Hopefully some images that give a good feel of the wildlife of this part of central India, the origin of the Jungle Book itself.  It was my first trip to this part of the country but not my last – I have plans to return in 2015 with dates now set so if you are at all interested in joining me then just drop me a line.  It’s not a place where you can strictly guarantee anything but there will always be encounters and they are all special: when things do fall into place with the queen of the jungle (in this case) then it’s the icing on the proverbial cake.

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Simple seasonal pleasures

Like many photographers, I think that autumn is one of my favourite seasons: after all it heralds the return of good light for a greater percentage of every day, as well as the arrival of new colours to work with once the late tired leaves of summer finally decide to give up their green.

For me it’s the time of year when I start returning to my woodland birds, and the combination of light and colour along with the myriad of settings I can work with will simply never bore me – this year has been no exception already and I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities with these Blue Tit’s Goldfinches and Nuthatches amongst others in the coming weeks.

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I know for many autumn is all about the deer rut when it comes to wildlife photography and the antics of Fallow and Red Deer in particular are equally as engaging a sight, and proof positive that you don’t have to travel the world to see dramatic behaviour and beautiful mammals.

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For a combination of reasons, this year has been excellent as far as fungi are concerned; this has long been an arena I have enjoyed photographing in offering as it does a very different approach to my normal work.  With some insect life to add a different dimension, some creative lighting approaches and revisiting using a wide-angle lens for some contextual images it has been as absorbing as ever once again.

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Blog 9I’ve also been taking to the air locally for a project I’m working on at the moment, and from above the intense colours of autumn have even more impact – this time in late afternoon light whilst dodging the showers.

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3rd time luckiest…(so far)

Like everyone who attended I suspect, I thoroughly enjoyed the Wild Photos conference in London this last weekend. It was very easy to be inspired by professionals at the very top of the wildlife photography tree as well as heartened to see the next generation coming through.  There were certainly some thoughts, approaches and techniques that I will be considering and building into some of the projects I have planned for the coming weeks and months too.

One of the clear messages that came through though was the need for dedication and what I like to call stickability: others might call it sheer bloody mindedness, but it’s the drive that makes you keep going out in the belief that this time might just be the occasion when something special happens.

Although it pales into insignificance in comparison with a 90 day vigil  in a hide in remote Kamchatka for just 3 images of the incredibly rare Amur Tiger which we heard about at the conference, simply keeping on going back to places that you know work well and have serious potential (especially if you have certain images in your mind that you have pre-visualised there too) is an approach that I have always worked on and encouraged.

On a very small and personal scale, a third visit to the now very popular glacial lagoon at Jokuslaron in southern Iceland earlier this summer proved the benefit of this.

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I first visited here nearly 10 years ago now, and this was my third visit in total.  Like much of Iceland it is now very popular, very well photographed and during the normal working hours of the day also pretty busy with people stopping in on their way round the island.  Fortunately at the time when the light has the potential at least to be at it’s best then it is less so, but it’s not a place you can expect to have to yourself anymore.

In spite of having stayed there for a number of days on both previous visits, I never felt this was a place I had done justice from either a landscape image perspective or with regards to the wildlife to be found in and among the icebergs floating here on their way to the sea having broken off the vast Vatnajokull glacier.

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The quality of images that have been taken here are very high now, and I don’t consider myself really to be a high quality landscape photographer, but on this visit was both determined (and ultimately lucky with the way weather conditions worked out) to at least feel I was doing the place justice when it came to the magical scenes of broken pieces of ice on the black sandy beach at the mouth of the lagoon as well as the incredible colours of the lagoons ice itself.

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Still very much work in progress, but these were certainly the best representation of the nature of the place that I feel I have achieved yet.

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A closer look at this last image reveals a Great Black-backed Gull perched on top of this particular multi-coloured piece of ice; in and around the icebergs were large numbers of Arctic Tern who nest in a large grassy area adjacent to the lagoon and working with the tides, use them as a base to fish from and rest on.  These make a great background and setting for the birds as they go about their business.

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Although I have been lucky with a beautiful male Harlequin duck here in the past, the star bird here though (and more reliably present), for me has always been the Eider.  Emerging from the seeming chaos of ice across the still calm waters of the further reaches of the lagoon, these elegant ducks look very much at home.

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The final morning though this summer offered the best conditions I have had in terms of the different elements that go into the small in frame type of photography that they offer here – mirror calm water, intense colours in the icebergs and the fantastic early morning light that these northern reaches can offer in the early hours of a summers day.

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All you then need is the ducks themselves to swim into exactly the right places and the icing lands well and truly on the cake.

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With the usual resident Snow Bunting also playing ball (albeit briefly) and allowing an iceberg created background I knew this was a special morning.

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None of these images are going to be prize winners – the bar is way way higher these days.  What they are though is a simple reminder that persistence does pay off, and as my autumnal targets are just about to enter my sights then this, along with the messages of the conference, is an always welcome tonic.

Alaskan adventure

Last month, at the end of a 7 week spell of non-stop travelling, I was able to embark on the second leg of my year of bears when I visited the beaches and creeks of Lake Clark National Park in Alaska.

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It was the first time I had been to this particular state and my expectations of having the chance to see and experience just what a true wilderness it is were well and truly met – even in the small plane transfer from Anchorage to the park which involved a beach landing (a first) the views out of the window were truly breathtaking inspite of the rain.

At this time of the year these coastal beaches are a true magnet as far as bears are concerned.

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The reason is all down to the fact that the creeks, that are a constant feature along the beaches, run inland to the spawning grounds of the various species of Pacific Salmon, specifically here in early that being the Coho, or as it’s locally called, the Silver Salmon.

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As these fish look to make their way upstream, when the tide is low many of them get caught or delayed in the extreme shallow waters (Alaska has some of the biggest tides in the world so it can happen quite easily) and this represents the perfect opportunity for the areas bears to engage in a true feeding frenzy and pile on the pounds ahead of their impending hibernation.

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At times, such as these two images, it really was like picking up sweets from the floor for them.

More often than not though it meant standing in the mouth of the stream watching carefully for the signs of a fish looking to make it’s way through, and so every low tide we would join whatever bears there were gathered there for the key fishing periods of 2 hours or so either side of low water.

Over time we got to know the individual bears quite well, especially this particular female, called Crimp-Ear because of a slight kink in one of her ears, and she was extremely reliable as a subject to work with, turning up in whatever the weather – early morning sun or afternoon wind and rain made little difference to her!

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As is the way here, there was plenty of rain and wet days were more the norm but this didn’t prevent the chance to go out and work – in fact the relatively flat low contrast light conditions were ideal for thinking in monochrome terms and some of my favourite images from the whole trip were taken with this end result in mind.  Bears are a great subject to work with in black and white as there is so much texture to their fur too.

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You can see that fishing was just as successful in these conditions but sometimes the bears could look miserable and fed up with the rain though!

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Because the main focus and priority for them is fishing and taking on as much extra poundage as they could (I think the best session Crimp-Ear had was 9 salmon in just one low tide), and also because hunting in the national parks is banned (unlike the rest of the State it has to be said), the bears are extremely unfazed and uninterested in people watching or photographing them. The sheer isolation of the place is in itself a control on numbers as are further park rules limiting group size.  The result is a no-hide and very open and engaging experience, and at times some very close encounters indeed.

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Lying on the sand as a bear walks up to you and then almost stands over you was both a thrill and a privilege that I will never forget.

She then showed more of this gentler side to her nature and also just how relaxed she was too by wandering off, making a small scrape in the sand and settling down for a short sleep in the open.

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The biggest thrills though came on the very last day when a combination of weather and events all came together for a fitting finale – great fishing activity and cracking light to work with proved a heady and intoxicating combination: the sudden burst from rest into running mode, the focus and concentration on the signs of where the fish had gone, the huge splashes of water thrown up during the chase all offered fantastic photographic opportunities.

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And then to cap it all a mother who decided this was the time to bring her cubs for us to see!  After allowing them to suckle she then decided to leave them with us as she had a short session of fishing herself – quite extraordinary to think she felt they were safer left with humans than alone as potential targets for the other bears in the area, and a testament to how relaxed all the bears here were with our presence too.

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As for the cubs themselves, well they were as cute and mischievous as you would expect before Mum finally decided it was time to head off along the beach.

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This was one of the most enjoyable trips I have ever done and one I can’t wait to repeat (plans are afoot to return in 2015 so if you’re interested in joining me drop me an e-mail), and although the memories are many, lying in a creek with a short lens as a bear walked by, lying on the sand looking up at a bear and just simply the chance to once again experiment with different photographic styles given the array of weather conditions we had to work with, will be right up there amongst them for sure.

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Now next month…it’s Polar Bears!

The Secret Lives of Puffins

It seems like a long time since I added any content to this blog – and quite simply that’s because I’ve been away for the last 7 weeks.  With images from False Bay in South Africa, across a wide array of locations in Namibia and then the Salmon Run and Grizzly Bears in Alaska all awaiting processing then I can promise a bit more on the update front in the next few weeks though.

During the time I was away though my latest book was formally published.

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The Secret Lives of Puffins is a collaborative work with well-known wildlife writer Dominic Couzens.  Dominic and I actually went to school together (a long time ago now mind) and spent a fair amount of time in our teenage years learning the art and craft of birdwatching together: coach trips to the likes of Dungeness and Pagham Harbour with local RSPB groups still reside in the memory banks.

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He has gone on to make a successful career writing about the natural world and I now do the same but using a camera, so when we caught up a few years back it seemed apt to see if we could work together on a project of some sort – the result is this book.

For me it has been been a labour of love for the last few summers – spending time with an iconic and highly engaging bird in an array of locations, in all weathers and all hours of the day at times – and put simply I’ve loved almost every minute of it.

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What we wanted to achieve was a blend between a pure coffee table book of images and a heavy, fact-laden read about just one species: using images and extended captions to illustrate subtleties of behaviour, fact and science and accessible copy to both inform and enlighten and lots of images to encourage frequent browsing.  Hopefully it delivers on these fronts and you should be able to find it in “all good bookshops” as they say or the usual online retailers too, including the publishers own website:

http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-secret-lives-of-puffins-9781408186671/

The content covers a whole host of locations (many familiar, some less so), captures an array of behaviours (and explains just what’s going on) and some less familiar looking Puffins in their non-breeding phases too – hopefully there will be something for anyone who, like me, loves this ever popular bird.

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I’m now in the final stages of pulling together a new talk and slideshow on the book and project which will be getting a number of airings in the forthcoming talk season, so if you are around any of these locations and want more details just drop me an e-mail:

27 September Derbyshire Ornithological Society

1 October Peterborough Camera Club

8 October Shropshire Wildlife Trust: Newport branch

11 December North Staffs RSPB Group

6 January Guildford Camera Club

10 April Gwynfa Camera Club

There should be a feature or two in various magazines to look out for too in the next month or so.

Thanks to all involved who have helped this particular body of work reach this final stage – sharing the same publisher as the Harry Potter books certainly has a nice feel to it!

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