Tag Archives: pygmy cormorant

Wetlands once more

One of the advantages of having been born under an Aquarian star sign is that I love water.  I have always been happy in it, on it or beside it whether it be fresh or saline in its nature.  Given that it is home to an array of wildlife that you just don’t see in any other environment I’m glad I am as comfortable being in it as I am especially as it opens up the possibilities of some very different images and experiences.

Those of you who know my work of old may recall a trip I made to Bulgaria a couple of years ago and wrote about here.  Given my almost lifetime obsession with the Grebe family  the time spent with them, in particular the Black-necked Grebe which has to be one of the most striking birds of all the wetlands in Europe, was one that I was really looking forward to taking a small group of guests to experience once again in the same region of northern Bulgaria around the shores of the mighty Danube river.

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As you can see the Black-necked Grebes once again excelled and this was the very first shot of the trip, taken on a drizzly first evening after the first flight of the day from Luton airport while everyone was getting used to how the challenges of working from a floating hide could best be managed.

The water levels at the area I had spent my time previously were even higher this Spring and as a result were too deep for many of the birds – they can’t dive that far to search for food – and so although we tried a session there which involved flippers and a lot of swimming, we were mostly working in a new wetland area not far away.  The amount of foliage was much greater which made manoeuvring that bit harder and getting a clear shot also that bit harder too but on the occasions when these striking birds did then it was always a treat.

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Over time the foliage, and in particular a long channel (the deepest area of this particular wetland where I could only just touch the bottom) which was full of bright yellow flowers at times provided a very picturesque setting in which to photograph the birds, whether they be Grebes or Ducks.

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Of course there were plenty of other settings and species to work with as well and the beauty of working in a floating hide like this is that given time to slowly and carefully (and therefore unobtrusively) re-position yourself most viewpoints, foliage allowing, could be achieved. The pockets of reed beds provided a great setting for Pygmy Cormorants to rest and dry their wings or the constantly singing (and very loudly too) Great Reed Warblers to proclaim their territories.

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Because the water levels were that much lower than I had worked in here in the past and also because of the increased level of foliage, there were greater numbers of long-legged water based birds to be found too.  They would be standing stationary around the fringes or on bits of foliage waiting to pounce on one of the many Marsh Frogs or Fire-bellied Toads that there were in the water.  They were very wary and so approaching them in the hide was a slow and careful process but there were some very close encounters with Night Heron, Grey Heron and even Little Bittern: it’s a very different experience being at water level with these birds.

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I’d never had a clean view of one of these smaller relatives of the European Bittern we occasionally see here in the UK and when this individual moved into a great position on a willow tree (surrounded by water and reeds) it took me almost an hour to work carefully into position for a clear view.  When the sun then came out fleetingly and lit him up perfectly in the shadows it was well worth it though.

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Around the fringes of the wetland areas were an array of passerines – while getting changed into our wetsuits every session we would be serenaded by Cuckoo, Nightingale and watched over by a Red-backed Shrike – the bird diversity here is as good as it has been the dozen or so years I have travelled and photographed in Bulgaria I’m pleased to say.  One bird that was well into its breeding was the extraordinary Penduline Tit and his fantastic construction of a nest had been taken up by a female and he was busily providing food for her almost constantly and so we spent a very enjoyable afternoon trying to capture images of him as he returned.

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But I was always drawn back to the Grebes in particular.  The one European species I have always ironically found the hardest to photograph well is the Little Grebe or dabchick as I fondly still call it.  They are very shy and retiring and although I have plenty of images from iconic and less-visited locations at home they have never really done them justice.  Of all the species here it was them I wanted to really try to work with this time if I could.

They could be heard all around the area – if I had to count I would have guessed at least a dozen pairs, some in close proximity to one another too.  But they remained as elusive as they always seem to be.  They are small and adept enough to dive and swim underwater to feed in the tightest of reed beds quite happily so have little need to come into the open patches of water except to move speedily to another sheltered area.  As a result opportunities with them for the first couple of days proved frustrating and environmental in their nature.

Blog 16Mind you when the environment consists of the aforementioned yellow flowers though then it does produce settings that really sing and with amazing texture to the images as well.

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Blog 18On occasions though patience and perseverance is rewarded, and although it was an encounter that totalled less than a minute when one bird popped up from his dive almost in front of me in beautiful morning light and a setting that was nigh on perfect too then the hours of wading, avoiding the leeches and having to clean the wetsuit of mud twice a day was more than made up for.

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Stunning birds (and probably my favourite family of them) a stunning location and great company (thanks Martin, Jeff and Peter for joining me and my good friend Emil for helping pull it all together as always).  This aquarian will be back in the water again soon for sure.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.




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



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.



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.



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.



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!



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.



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.