Tag Archives: Mark Sisson

There’s more than one star in Texas

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

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

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

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Green Jay

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

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

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

Golden fronted Woodpecker

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

Pyrrhuloxia

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

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Cardinal

Cardinal female

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

Long billed Thrasher

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

Northern Mockingbird

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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.

Harris Hawk

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

Turkey Vulture

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

Northern Caracara

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Northern Caracara on ground

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

Northern Bobwhite male

Northern Bobwhite scraping ground

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

Black crested Titmouse

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

Natures Images: South Texas Birdlife

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

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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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A bad hair day…..

It’s been a crazily busy start to the year but I’m now managing to do a bit of catching up with the post processing: sometimes it’s not a bad idea to do this a few weeks after the event so to speak as I find I am able to be a little more detached from the experience and objective about the images I select for processing.

In late January I enjoyed an all too short but extremely enjoyable 4 day trip to Lake Kerkini in northern Greece to concentrate on photographing the Dalmatian Pelicans there, a trip on which I was helped by my good friend Emil Enchev, an excellent Bulgarian-based wildlife photographer.

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At this time of year these exotic looking birds, who enjoy an unusually friendly relationship with the local fisherman as you can see above (unlike the Cormorants who regularly get chased away from their nets) are coming into their breeding plumage and colours and become exceptionally tolerant and curious of people – especially  when there’s the possibility that said fisherman might be sharing some of their catch with them!

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The most noticeable change  comes in the coloration of their pouch which takes on a truly vivid orange colour quite unlike any other Pelican species that I’ve photographed before.  As one group gathered just offshore on the first morning though I couldn’t help but notice the other plumage change in the form of their head feathers which seems to grow both excessively and chaotically at the same time.

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As the morning’s wind blew it was clear that they struggled to keep their feathers under control!

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It did however add a certain something to their character and personality though which was becoming more apparent as I worked on more intimate close-up portraits: the bright orange contrasting with their almost curly feathers provided lots to work with both in the foreground as as a splash of colour in the background too.

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A year previously I spent some time photographing Brown and White Pelicans respectively in Florida and had noticed that the way they hold their heads has a huge impact on just how they come across – beak down and they look menacing but lift it up and they look much more friendly – a contrast that really stands out in these next two tight portraits of the same bird just a few moments apart.

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The comical side of their nature was never more evident though when they gathered close to the shore as the fisherman looked to throw some remnants of their catch into the water for them – at which point all hell would break loose as they fought to grab a single fish.

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There have been a number of high profile images of this behaviour taken in the last couple of years and as dramatic as it is, from a personal perspective I found myself much more drawn to the tranquil scenes and photographic opportunities that involved a single bird and which the bright overcast conditions really complimented, especially when they continued to throw in a little “look” with their almost foppish hairstyles at the same time!

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I really enjoy this type of photography – one subject in one location and offering an array of options to build a mini-portfolio that does them justice as it does lead to a more interesting set of images than racing around constantly.  I look forward to enjoying more time with these dandy Dalmatians again soon!

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Arctic Adventure…Part 2

Although the landscape, the general environment and simply the sense of wonder of the place is a huge part of Svalbard’s attraction, the wildlife (although requiring a fair bit of work to find in good situations) is as dramatic and enjoyable to photograph as anywhere I’ve been.

Such is my love for seabirds that when I first visited here these Little Auk’s were as high on my personal priority list as Polar Bears, and it was a pleasure to once again spend an enjoyable evening in their presence such is their personality and character.

We were slightly earlier this year and they were earlier in their breeding cycle and as a consequence even more chilled out in terms of their behaviour!  They nest under the rocks of the many scree slopes here, and some of the patterns on the rocks themselves were worthy of images in their own right.

We managed to enjoy a number of walks around the beautiful early summer tundra too, and here the lichens and flowers were just beginning to take a hold and announce their presence.

One of the highlights of this habitat here is the stunning Grey Phalarope (confusing called Red Phalarope by the rest of the world it seems) who had just arrived to beginning their short breeding season, unusual in that the colourful male does all the work of nest-building, egg incubating and chick feeding/tending: the even more showy female simply provides the eggs and then returns south, so we were in a very narrow window of time to enjoy the presence of both genders.

For most though Svalbard and the arctic is all about a couple of large mammals, and whether it be swimming, sleeping or playing there is no getting away from the larger than life personalities of the Atlantic Walrus – thankfully making good increases in population here after it’s almost devastation in the whaling era.

Among the highlights of a number of engagements with these bulky beasts was a more tender moment spent with a young mother and calf, resting and feeding on a large ice floe in front of a glacier: the youngster was almost certainly just a few days old and hadn’t grown into his wrinkles yet!

No trip here though, and certainly no blog recounting one, would be complete without Polar Bear – this truly is their domain here.  Finding them is always exciting but doing so in a setting that really does them justice rather than the snow and ice free beaches that many of them are left to spend the summer scavenging on, is somewhat harder.  Our plan had been to head up to the pack ice to look for such settings but the weather and winds conspired against us on this occasion but we had no sooner returned to the one bay we had found with a covering of ice than an adult make successfully caught a seal – an amazing hunting feat and a privilege to watch.  It was clear this was a good area to spend some time so we duly anchored up and spent 3 days there and were reward with some of the most relaxed and absorbing behaviour in front of us during that time, the highlight of which was a young male, probably 3 years old and enjoying his first summer away from Mum!

He spent an entire afternoon parading around the ice, hunting and even playing with some of the bits of seal left behind by the larger male the day before!

Wandering off that evening we settled down for some sleep and planning to move on the next day, only to awaken to the fact that he had returned and he too had gone to sleep on the ice beside the boat!

The advantages of a small yacht had really come to the fore – by being moored up where we were for so long we had effectively become part of his environment in the same way as a hide, and he was truly relaxed in our presence treating us to some truly engaging images and an experience I for one will never forget.

A fitting highlight of another great adventure in this wonderful part of the world and an iconic image to close that for me sums up this magnificent mammal in his kingdom.

Arctic Adventure…Part 1

I’m a few days back from an enjoyable, challenging and ultimately rewarding 3 week trip to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.  It seems that it’s done nothing but rain back here while I’ve been away (and since my return too) and compared to the sustained spells of high pressure that this remote location in the far north normally enjoys and has when I’ve been in the past, the weather gods were looking equally angrily on us.

That said I’d decided to place a lot more emphasis on capturing images that really gave a feel for the location rather than simply concentrating on the wildlife to be found there on this particular trip, and the grey skies leant themselves to a monochrome approach, whether enhanced through processing to that format like above, or left to the natural shades as below.

I was also keen to work on some stitched panoramics too – I know they won’t look their best on the size constraints of the web but it’s a format that really helps to get the size and nature of the mountains and glaciers across in my view – jagged peaks that caused the first Dutch explorers to name the main island here Spitsbergen.

When we did have some occasion to enjoy the beautiful tones that the midnight sun (it never sets here) has to offer we were always keen to take full advantage and the evening spent with this group of young male Walrus in front of a beautiful glacier will long remain with me – it’s an image I think really sums this place up.

We had timed this visit a few weeks earlier this year to give us a better chance of finding the areas in front of the glaciers still frozen over and increasing our chances of Polar Bear sitings, but as here in the UK it had been an unusually mild winter in Svalbard and already this ice had gone.  This process does however leave some beautifully shaped and colourful icebergs behind though and they are another key landscape feature I was keen to work with: this is the same ‘berg from  different angles and demonstrates just how the angle of lighting here can dramatically change an image.

A close look at this last image will show some signs of the seabird life that takes full advantage of their presence – either as a resting place or simply because they can act as a magnet for their food in the surrounding seas: we would regularly look to explore them for Kittiwakes and Fulmar especially.

The colours at times were simply stunning and leaving the subject small in the frame really allowed the landscape to dominate, and the same approach worked well when we spent a beautiful evening on a true gem of an island, full of tundra-based breeding birds including the elegant Red-Throated Diver.

It was also an approach I enjoyed trying out with the main target for the trip Polar Bears as well and this very simple composition is one that I particularly like.

I begun by saying it was a challenging trip because the weather wasn’t on our side, and this came to a real head when for the basis of comfort, safety and also in an attempt to ensure we could maximise photographic time we had to give up our original goal of heading to the pack ice that residers to the north of the archipelago.  It is traditionally the best place to see Bears, but with a combination of good luck, perseverance and patience we ended up enjoying some amazing encounters with in particular this extremely relaxed young male, and I’ll look to share some more images of him and also some more of the wildlife in a Part 2 to follow next week: there’s just too much to share in one post from a 3 week trip!!

Compositional clues

I found myself processing a few images this afternoon in the mass of loose ends I’m trying to ensure are all tied up before I head off to Svalbard for the next 3 weeks (yes….a terrible chore but someone has to do it!).  Nothing particular mind-blowing image-wise, but I found myself sorting out some Guillemot images from a recent trip to The Farnes.

Guillemots were not the main reason I was there – you’ll guess what it was based on the previous post – but when I saw this one enjoying a good preen then it was too much of a temptation not to grab a shot.

There’s some nice behaviour going on and I’ve taken the classic approach to composition giving the bird plenty of space to be looking into as far as it’s general body position and shape is concerned. Sure enough a few moments later the preening stopped and the classic image that makes for a design editors dream popped up too based on the same compositional approach.

Loads of space for copy on the left (imagine a double-page spread), a nice clean background (perfect for copy to sit on) and space across the top for a headline too!

But then it was the image I like best: it conforms to all the above in terms of composition and design usage but because it breaks the rules just that one little bit by having the bird looking out of the image whilst it’s feet and body look in it has a natural tension that works in a different way altogether.

It’s minor observations and this sort of thinking when it comes to composing your images, seeing them before they happen and waiting for the moment, that I really enjoy and look for even when it’s a couple of minutes distraction by a bird that I love but wasn’t there to photograph: hopefully there’ll be some of Brunnich’s Guillemots to process when I’m back from Svalbard too!

Puffin Fun

I’m spending every spare couple of days I have this summer working with Puffins – one of my favourite birds – for a specific project I have on the go at the moment.

Alongside picking up some decent images I also thought this short video which I took on a wet grey evening on Skomer last weekend (remember the cold and wet?) was a bit of fun that really sums up the inquisitive personality of these characterful birds.

Hope you enjoy it!