Tag Archives: Natures Images

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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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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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!

Bears…Round 1

When I was putting the finishing touches to my trip commitments for 2013 it dawned on me that this was going to be what my now no longer teenage son might call a ‘bear good year’.  European Brown Bears in Finland, Grizzlies in Alaska and Polar Bears in Canada all in the same calendar year is certainly something that really whetted my photographic appetite.

To kick this off, I spent last week in the taiga forests of northern Finland, close to the Russian border with my good friends at Martinselkonen who I have visited and worked with for a number of years now, and if the rest of my bear sortees live up to this first week then I’ve got even more to look forward to than I could have hoped for.

It is actually three years since I last visited the bears here in Finland, so I was keen to see what had changed if anything in this time.  One of my favourite hide settings in the past was by a small pool area: this has been moved to a new pool location with beautiful pristine trees and swamp surroundings, but although the evening light on my first night there was stunning there was just enough of a breeze to ripple the water: the setting was still picturesque enough to work with mind.

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Almost immediately the sun had set and the silence of the empty taiga had really set in (aside from the odd call of Greenshank or far off nesting Cranes), the breeze finally gave up it’s effort and as a result as other bears visited during the so-called hours of darkness, the reflections were almost crystal clear.

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I was really grateful for my new Canon 1Dx at this point – I was having to shoot at ISO 3200 which I have seldom been happy to do before, but the resulting images were as clean and detailed as I could have wished for, so when an ever-watchful mother and cubs passed through around 3am it meant I was still able to photograph the undoubted highlight of the night.

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One of the nicer settings here is what is dubbed the swamp.  In reality this is an area of classic wetland bog – peat based, covered in moss and interspersed with grasses, bog cotton and the occasional silver birch or conifer in an are surrounded by forest.  It’s an area of open ground through which several bears will routinely pass during the course of the night.

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It’s also a habitat in which the bears look very much at home, especially in patches of fresh spring growth, but its downside is a surfeit of mosquitos which bothered the bears as much as me it seemed – my first night here was so hot that I was down to t-shirt and shorts in the hide which was not a pretty sight at all but clearly the many bites I had by the morning may mean I underestimate my appeal, even if it is only to midges!  I also didn’t have the same claws on offer to swipe them away as this young female did.

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Given there presence at the pond the previous night I was really hoping that some of the cubs that were around in good numbers this year might put in an appearance and sure enough a cautious Mum eventually appeared out of the forest, naughty youngsters in tow and already up to their high jinks in the background.

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Whenever they were around they simply couldn’t help but have fun – whether it was a poking out of the tongue (albeit using Mum as a safety shield) or just larking around with each other and splashing up as much water as they could muster in their play.

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There were some yearling cubs around as well at times and they too were just as naughty as the little ones so clearly it takes a while to grow up for Bears too!

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When however a large male appeared on the scene though then mother and cubs, after an initial and speedy assessment of things, would generally beast a hasty retreat into the forest so the cubs could take to the safety of the trees there.  When this happened during the so-called night it offered the chance to play around with slower shutter speeds which is a style I have always liked: the streaks of the cotton grass really add to the sense of their pace and urgency.

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On my final night though I was able to get an even closer appreciation of the size, strength and power of the male bears and just why the small cubs have to flee like this.  I was offered the chance to use what is dubbed the suicide hide.  In essence there is a ground level opening to photograph using short or wide-angle lenses and requires you to lie in the hide effectively looking up at extremely close bears.  It was too good an opportunity to miss and as I lay there watching this male at home in his habitat just some 5 metres or so away then any concerns over mosquitos were completely dispelled: the words are often over-used but it was a truly amazing experience which I can only hope the images can do justice to.

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This youngster just settled down in front of me: like all the bears he was well aware of my presence without any doubt – they could all see the lens move, hear the shutter going and probably my heart beating too.

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The setting was pristine and the evening light at times perfect and the shorter lens really allowed the setting to dominate whilst allowing the bear to remain a significant part of the image too.

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Of course the night here just had to be summed up by the cubs though – as they frolicked around the chance to capture some ground level portraits using a 70-200mm lens allowed for an intimacy and feel that I have not been able to achieve in the past.

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So round one…tick.  If rounds two and three can match it really will have been that bear good year.

Heavenly Hortobágy

When I was a keen bird-watcher and before the photographic side of things really took over my love affair with the natural world,  I remember visiting the Austria:Hungary border back in the early 1980’s and gazing over the then imposing border fence at the distant specks that were displaying Great Bustards.  Hungary was inaccessible really for the likes of me to go and enjoy the riches of it’s birdlife, but the Hortobágy region, an area of flat grassland/wetland habitat, was one I longed to visit such was the diversity of species and subtly different habitats it offered.

Fast forward to today and things have changed dramatically on the political front, but in the natural world the area remains a well managed example of how farming and wildlife interests can work together when there is an understanding and collective approach, and as a result the diversity remains intact, from wintering Imperial Eagle to summer breeding Bee-Eaters and huge numbers of migratory Cranes passing through each autumn.

I have been there a number of times now, and was this year leading a trip for Natures Images so was able to share the cracking hide based opportunities that local conservationists Janos, Atilla and co have quietly established here.  In the style that Hungarian photographers have pioneered these are all glass fronted in their construction, a reflective coating ensuring that the birds can’t see in and with the added benefits of no moving lens hoods sticking out and a fantastic vista from inside too: the 2/3rds of a stop of light lost in the process is the tiniest of compromises.

The habitat here is wonderfully varied and the combination of permanent and substantial yet movable hides gives the opportunity to work at fixed sites as well as be a touch more opportunistic, and one such hide placed near an ever drying wet area in the grasslands gave an excellent chance to spend a morning with the long-legged and elegant Black-winged Stilt.

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With the glass front running right down to the floor of the hide the chance to photograph at ground level really emphasised the length of legs these birds have.

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This Spring had seen good numbers of all 3 species of Marsh Terns (as opposed to the coastal Terns we are more used to seeing here in the UK) and during the morning several pairs of dainty White-winged Black Terns alighted in the dry patches starting to appear and reinforcing their pairing off.

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One of the permanent hides, built on a platform in the heart of a reed-bed and again allowing water level photography appeared to be THE haven for Whiskered Terns though and they too were at the early stages of nest-building and the associated courtships.

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The pool area the hide overlooked is a setting I have enjoyed photographing Pygmy Cormorants in the past and they didn’t disappoint with much swimming, splashing and classical wing-drying activity throughout the afternoon.

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With the occasional (and intensely coloured) Ferruginous Duck floating by and the sound of Great Reed Warblers among others in the surrounding reeds it was once again a great place to see more of the areas diversity of birdlife from.

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The grassland habitats offer an excellent selection of food for some of the small birds of prey, and the careful placement of nest boxes to ensure their continued presence in the area means that the tower hide that allows the chance to photograph the incredibly pretty Red-footed Falcons here also gives the chance to enjoy watching their behaviour on an almost non-stop basis as well: I spent 23 hours in a 35 hour period here over the course of 2 days and can honestly say I wasn’t bored for a single minute with preening, feather cleaning and very regular mating activity to observe and photograph.

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Even an afternoons heavy rain shower provided a welcome chance to both record the conditions and also the drying out process required afterwards!

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There were chances too to photograph some of the colourful ad iconic Central and Southern European birds too and although I wasn’t able to fit in the Bee-Eater hide that guests did I was able to spend a short time with an obliging Hoopoe and an excellent couple of days with the stunningly colourful European Roller.

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The Rollers too were busy bonding, food passing, mating and generally establishing themselves in a strategically placed nest box – often overlooked when compared to their Lilac-Breated African relatives the setting here with an intense dark brown background though really made their colours sparkle in my eyes.

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On the outskirts of the Hortobágy National Park sits the town of Debrecen, and the mixed deciduous woodlands that surround it are as rich with birdlife as the grasslands themselves, and a couple of drinking pool hide setups there gave ample opportunity to work with both difficult and more common UK species in a different setting – Hawfinch and in particular Turtle Dove have seen massive declines here in the UK but were regular visitors here.

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Again on previous visits I had enjoyed photographing a number of Woodpecker species including the Middle-Spotted that we don’t see here in the UK – mind you once he’d had a bath then it would be a test of anyones identification skills to be absolutely sure which species he was!

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The bathing opportunities were taken as much advantage of as the chance to drink and it was equally enjoyable seeing a Hawfinch and the easily overlooked and highly colourful Common Starling enjoying themselves, often with great vigour.

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And these last two images summed up the week and the photography here perfectly for me – a combination of everyday and challenging species to work with and fantastic behaviour to watch and capture due in part to the thought in the settings but also due to the amazing views that the glass-fronted hides offered.  With no frontiers preventing me you can be sure that the Hortobágy and Hungary will remain on my photographic agenda for some time to come.