Tag Archives: whiskered tern

The wonders of wetlands

I suspect many of you have been watching the excellent series of Springwatch that has just come to a conclusion, based from the excellent reserve at Minsmere.  I first went there some 30 or so years ago and all my children visited as part of their early education in the wonders of reed beds and wetlands as a habitat to enjoy: it’s certainly one that is special and increasingly challenged in the UK and across Europe too.

One of the continents greatest areas wetlands is along the eastern end of the river Danube as it gradually makes its way into the Black Sea, and it was to the magnet of these   expanses of water, natural flooding and reed beds that I was drawn to join my good friend Emil Enchev in northern Bulgaria last month along with 3 guests (Nigel, Roger and Ian) who were joining us.

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As you can see it is a wonderfully rich environment and full of life; both flora and fauna.

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These Marsh Frogs (of which there were hundreds, competing with Fire-Bellied Toads to see who could make the most noise) took on a whole new appearance when they filled their air sacs to make themselves heard.

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A half hour spell standing at the spot in the first image one afternoon led to 8 different grass snakes being seen just swimming through – a really rich environment, and one that we had permission to explore using floating hides: simple individual constructions of polystyrene, and a small dome hide which are manoeuvred by either slowly walking or (mostly) swimming slowly through the habitat until finding a quiet place to stop and settle and wait to see what swims by.  Hopefully that didn’t too often include leeches of which there were plenty and we all had a bite or two for our pains!  All worth it for the wonderful low perspective and very individual images that working this way can allow though.

Blog 6 Being at the beginning of the breeding season as we were many summer visitors to the area were busy pairing up and establishing both nests and relationships, including the very vocal Whiskered Terns, one of the freshwater birds of this family as opposed to the more often seen coastal species.

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Those of you who might have followed my work over the years though will know that one of the families of birds I have always had a huge affinity for and enjoyed some incredibly engaging experiences with in the past though are Grebes, and this was an equally excellent time to be there for them in terms of numbers and activity too.

Black-necked Grebes have to be one of the prettiest birds there is when in their summer plumage and at this point in the breeding season large numbers of them will gather in breeding areas to sort out partnerships and nesting locations.

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Being in such a wonderful habitat and at the same time able to work at a perfect photographic level with them was completely absorbing, even when trying to paddle quietly to keep still as I was often out of my depth in the water!

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And when a passing bird gives you the odd quizzical look too it feels like that effort is worth it as you have indeed become part of the scenery.

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There were actually 4 of the 5 European species of Grebes to be found here, and one that I was especially keen to try and spend some time with was the Red-necked Grebe: quite a bit bigger than these and with a different conformation altogether.

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They seemed to be more elusive but this bird, photographed late one evening, gave me something to work on locationally the next day and which proved to be rewarding as an uninterrupted 2 hour encounter that morning was completely absorbing.

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You know that you have really become accepted when birds start to relax and preen, and in this birds case also call for an errant mate!

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One of the facets that I particularly enjoyed about working in these wetlands was just how the light would completely change both the look of the birds but also the habitat, reflections and therefore image opportunities as well – the colours of both these Grebe species were multi-faceted in warm late and early light respectively.

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It meant that keeping a watchful eye as birds moved into different pastels and shades of water created fresh image opportunities aplenty, even when they were just swimming through.

Blog 18But one morning that will long remain with me alongside some of the other great Grebe experiences I have been fortunate to witness, saw the final sorting out of the pairs of Black-necked Grebes and very real establishment of where they wanted to nest in the coming weeks – fighting it seems gets the testosterone flowing too!

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They may not have featured on Springwatch (mind you those Bitterns were pretty special too) but these beautiful little water birds are certainly one of the many wonders to be found in the wetlands across Europe, and reason enough to ensure it’s a habitat we hang on to.

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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.