Tag Archives: nature

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.

Green Winged Jay 1

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

Golden Fronted Woodpecker 2

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.

Cardinal 2

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

_65T4476

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

Northern Caracara 2

Northern Caracara on ground

_65T4953

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.

Crested Caracara 2

Indoor Delights

I think I can see the light at  the end of the tunnel of office based work that seems to have dominated the last few weeks. The sights, sounds and colours of autumn are shortly going to get me outdoors on a more regular basis again, but among the recent indoor activities was a day running another Studio Macro Workshop for Natures Images at the studios of The Flash Centre in Birmingham.

I have run 2 or 3 of these days every year for the last 4 or 5 years now and thanks to Stuart and his ever growing and changing menagerie we are getting more and more colourful and dramatic subjects to work with every time it seems: this Northern Spotted Grasshopper (a resident of Thailand) is a typical example.

One of the aspects of working in the studio environment is the opportunity to really consider the different elements that go into making an image work – changing the setting and changing the background are fully under your control and being able to see the subtle and at times quite dramatic impact this can have on the final image is a great reminder as to how important these elements are wherever you are photographing.  This high-key Fire-Bellied Toad, the head-on White’s Tree Frog and appropriately placed Gray’s Tree Frog show their subjects off in completely different ways.

The next consideration is how to use the lighting options we have at our disposal to add another element, and this pair of images of an Amazon Milk Frog are a perfect example of the opportunity to think creatively and use the lighting to your advantage – low and side-lit on a dark-ish background to best represent the rainforest or backlit through a leaf for something completely different.

The same applies to this pair of images of a Giant Asian Mantis – one in a classic studio setting and on exactly the same branch using coloured backlighting for a dramatic and impactful silhouette – it was good to see Neil Parker’s image taken on this workshop being used as a double-paged spread in Digital Camera Magazine last month too.

We’ve even created an area allowing us to work with water in the studio too now with eye-level images of Frogs in the weed an enjoyable highlight!

All in all it’s a great learning environment as as you can hopefully see a chance to really get in touch with the creative side of your photography which can only help when back in the great outdoors and working with nature’s changeable lighting, backgrounds and subjects too.

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!

Wild Shropshire

Well it’s finally here.  Many of you will know that for the last couple of years I’ve been working on a fairly substantial collaborative project with Shropshire Wildlife Trust in preparation for and ultimately celebration of thier 50th anniversary in 2012.  The cornerstone of the project is my very first book – self-published too – called Wild Shropshire and this week it arrived from the printers and it’s now out there selling – with a very positive initial uptake too my wholesaler advises me!

There’s much much more to the whole Wild Shropshire proposition than the book though and you can read all about the various talk, exhibitions and a brand new photographic competition we’re running for next year too on it’s own bespoke website www.wildshropshire.co.uk .  There’s a separate blog too which I’ll be updating with different stuff to here and I’m even being persuaded to wander into the realms of Facebook on there ….. shortly for that though!  Perhaps more importantly (or so my accountant reminds me) you can also order a copy of the book there – it won’t be available on Amazon and we’re only looking to distribute it locally too so that all the earnings (including contributions to Shropshire Wildlife Trust) look to stay locally within the county too.

At the heart of the whole project is a desire to highlight that in a county such as Shropshire, probably not the first on the wildlife hotspot radar, there is still an incredible array of diversity in terms of wildlife and habitat to be found: if you’re prepared to put the time in trying to find it.  My recent BWPA video award is a typical such example – the lake in question is in the middle of a Telford housing estate and for many not worth a second glance but for almost 2 months I was drawn every morning to record and observe the dramas of one family of Great Crested Grebes and their neighbouring Coots.  How many more such dramatic opportunities play themselves out every day near to your home?

We also want to encourage and inspire residents and visitors to the county to take some time to find their own bit of Wild Shropshire and record it on camera themselves – hence the photography competition which is open to all.

It’s been a great deal of work, has caused several sleepless nights (particularly filling in some of the more difficult gaps in terms of iconic and important species or habitats that I wanted to include) and there has been much help and support along the way from Ellie, Mike, and John and Sarah from SWT – many many thanks to you all, and without getting too far ahead of myself (and also proving that I’m a real glutton for punishment) the next book project is already well underway too!

Hope you find and enjoy this one.

How do you define your Seasons?

The last week or so of warm weather, coming on the back of a really dry few weeks in this part of the world has really marked that Spring is definitely here now and Summer probably isn’t too far away.  It’s also got me thinking about just how as individuals we mark the passing of the seasons in an era when many of us are removed from nature generally.

For many it’s the simple things that impact on how they live their lives – brighter evenings at this time of the year and darker ones in the autumn certainly impact on our social activities.  For gardeners and farmers it’s where they are in terms of the years routines of planting, clearing, sowing, harvesting and so on.  For ornithologists it’s all about what’s on migration and what’s breeding or over-wintering dependent on where we are in the year.

As a wildlife photographer each year is full of projects.  This can be a combination of trips, research ventures, or working on specific species or habitats at certain times of the year when certain activites, behaviours or general presence is either at it’s optimum potential or offering something different. 

It’s all too easy to get into a far too regular cycle here though – and I hear many a conversation based around following the all too familiar path of photographic ventures as the seasons unfold, and whilst this is great if you haven’t worked on certain species before, have a specific set of images that you’re after or want to build on, or want to revisit something you did a while ago and feel you can improve on, then there’s a lot to be said for taking a different focus once in a while too.

This Spring, while I’ve never been too far away from my beloved Great Crested Grebes, and driven in part by the need for some images for a book project I’m working on for later this year, I’ve been getting up close and personal with some of our Spring wild flowers.  It’s been different, has given me the chance to well and truly think out of the normal box I work in, and although it’s not finished yet, there’s some images I’m pretty pleased with and that will round off my portfolio in a whole new area.

So look out for the Lesser Celandines, the Wood Anenomes, the Wild Garlic and Strawberries before they all disappear soon in this heatwave: they may well help you redefine your seasons photography.