Tag Archives: winter

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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Winter in the land of the rising sun (part 2)

It might seem odd posting another winter focussed blog as summer only just seems to be giving way to autumn here, but it’s a reflection of just how far behind I remain processing wise!

My trip to Japan earlier this year though was one of many highlights so far so I am keen to do it justice in terms of coverage here: it proved to be so much more than just a photographic trip, more a cultural immersion and with it some real reminders as to just how keeping things simple and calm can really pay off photographically.

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Cranes have long been among my favourite families of birds having enjoyed many days listening to their almost incessant calling and marvelled at their behaviours in both Europe and North America, so the chance to spend time with the Red-Crowned Crane (not unique to Japan but very much an icon of the country depicted as it is on their national airline logo for starters) was something I was very much looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint.

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This is a bird that is a well-established symbol of long life and prosperity here and up until the 18th century when the feudal system was actually wiped out across the country, it was common practice for peasants to place gifts of food (generally fish) in fields where the birds would gather: the birds were a protected species as well.

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With the societal change came changes in agriculture and land use too, which placed habitat pressure on them as well as a removal of protection and they became an easy target in response to demand for their plumage; by the beginning of the 20th century they were almost extinct. Much conservation effort followed once it became clear how threatened they were and from a low of around 60 birds a small but stable population of around 1000 birds has been re-established on the northern island of Hokkaido, and that traditional practice of feeding is very much in evidence at a number of sites including the Akan Crane Centre.

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These days it is more a question of corn in the morning but there remains an almost ceremonial placing of a small number of fish on the snow every afternoon as well, although this tends to act as the time for Eagles and Kites to drop in rather than being of much benefit to the Cranes themselves!

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It’s a popular place for people to visit so the areas overlooking the fields are busy with general tourists as well as photographers, and it’s always great to see so many people drawn to watch even just one tiny part of nature here – it certainly means that the chances of these magnificent birds continuing to remain here have to be high.

And magnificent doesn’t do them justice really as, like Cranes the world over, they will always put on their own kind of show.  Whether it be their awkward looking landing techniques, their extreme sense of excitement at meeting up with friends and family, their sheer elegance or their overtly apparent shows of bonding and commitment, there is much to be gleaned from several hours watching them interact.

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Throw in varying weather conditions (from sunshine through early morning mists, several degrees below freezing and then falling snow) over the course of several days and as always the semblance of a portfolio can be built too.

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These are birds that have been depicted in all forms of Japanese art since the 5th century and a combination of their grace, the incredible cleanliness of a winter setting and quite possibly an increasing amount of time becoming absorbed personally into the respectful and tranquil aspects of Japanese culture drew me towards really simple compositions as well as the occasional experimentation with monochrome which I am increasingly enjoying these days too.

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A stunning bird, beautiful conditions and a real lesson in the benefits of a more measured and simplistic outlook photographically: it’s been a real treat to relive it again with this recent processing too!

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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.

Snow and Seabirds

I spent the week running up to Easter in the Varanger region of northern Norway.  I had gone in search of snow only to find that I needn’t have bothered as there was a major last dump of it here (almost as soon as I had left actually).  My target though was seabirds and in spite of being significantly further north than here in the usually gulf stream dominated Britain, the birds in this remote corner of Europe, well inside the arctic circle, had already started to come ashore such is the intense competition for the best breeding spots.

This was probably best demonstrated by the presence of the ever noisy, but nevertheless my personal favourite from the gull family – the Kittiwake.

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I have photographed these delicate birds on the ice and glaciers to be found even further north in Svalbard, but their nest-sites on the huge cliffs there are snow-free in the summer months.  Here though they were still going through the pairing and bonding rituals that always start their breeding season but doing so in locations that were clearly not ready for nest building yet: they just knew they would be in a few weeks time and were staking their claims now – generally in their usual noisy manner!

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Kittiwakes prefer narrow ledges for breeding and act as very independent couples, but Guillemots are much more social in their approach and during the day were gathering in vast numbers on the flatter more open areas of cliff – again though still covered in snow but increasingly compacted and dirtied by their presence.

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The late evening light and the presence of some deep icy blue shadows on the cliffs across the nearby inlet provided both the light and background to work on a few flight shots, but as you’ll see from the second of these images the sky was so full of birds it was really hard to pick any individuals out!

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The weather was typically variable and when some of the occasionally very squally arctic storms blew in from the north the birds were increasingly reluctant to come ashore and spent their time wheeling around and around the cliff faces.

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Other than the resident Shags that is who took it on themselves to sit out said atrocious weather (the wind whipping the snow around was a bit like having an army of kids armed with peashooters aiming at your face).  Mind you the idiot with a camera trying to take their picture was probably just as bedraggled by the time the conditions cleared!

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When conditions were calmer then the main reasons for my visit became increasingly comfortable setting foot ashore in isolation and these images of Razorbills sitting in pristine white snow were very much what I had in mind when venturing here.

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Some of you will be aware that I have been working on a Puffin focussed project for a number of summers now and when the chance to capture some of them in these really unusual conditions finally arose then for me the trip was made!

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My thanks to friend and colleague Paul Hobson for his company on this trip – one that in spite of the conditions here at home really did the miles to be travelled to find the unusual combination of seabirds and snow.

Arctic Highlights

Although the dramatic displays of the Northern Lights I shared in my last blog post were reason enough to head to the far north of Scandinavia this winter, truth be told they were always a potential bonus rather than the main reason for the visit.

As someone who has always been fascinated by the variety as well as individual characteristics of birds, there have always been certain species that I have long wanted to initially get the chance to see and also spend some time with photographically.  Last summer it was the Harlequin Ducks in Iceland that ticked that particular box but the other equally colourful and unusual member of the European duck family needs a trip to the far northern fjords of Norway in the winter months to find, and that is the King Eider.  Their heads are one of the most unusually shaped of any bird and the dramatic colours are instantly impactful too.  In the winter months they gather in large rafts, along with their close relations Common and Stellar’s Eider, in the harbours where there is a touch more shelter and also food to be found around the piers in the form of sea-urchins.

This particular image was one of only a handful I managed propelling myself around the harbour in one of the more unusual hides I have had the pleasure (if that’s the right word in this instance) of using: trying to steer this using a battery powered silent motor and photograph using a 500mm on a tripod while the tide and wind are doing their bit to hinder rather than help was an interesting hour or so! Thanks for the picture of my struggles Nigel!

We were spending the day with a local fisherman who has become quite an entrepreneur in the field of duck photography opportunities, and along with this trial hide, he also had a floating pontoon in calmer waters which allowed for some equally low profile images of  the Eiders and also Long-Tailed Duck: one of the few birds I actually think looks smarter in their winter plumage.

What a dramatic change that the presence of the lovely low winter sun can make when it appears too!  This floating pontoon also offered the opportunity to add some interesting colours to the water by virtue of the harbour buildings around, and they certainly created some additional impact to the images.

So much so that even when we were checking out other harbours for signs of duck rafts I found myself drawn to using the colours and patterns to add something different to an otherwise everyday image of this Kittiwake.

Back to the ducks though, and our last act with them consisted of some time in the boat attempting flight shots – fortunately when the sun was out as fast shutter speeds really do help when you’re bouncing around as much as we were for these as well as the fact it really does bring the richness of their colours out!

The harbour towns revealed another photographic opportunity too in the form of newly arrived Kittiwakes re-establishing their nest sites for the forthcoming breeding season: a bizarre sight given the temperatures and the fact that it was only early March, but I guess prime spots on buildings like these are much sought after: they also leant themselves to a black and white interpretation.

Away from the coast the other arctic highlights we had come to spend some time with were some of the harder to find let alone photograph birds of these northern reaches of the boreal forest, and especially Pine Grosbeak, also newly returned to the area for the season to come after wintering further south in the country.  Looking something like a large and chunky Crossbill I was genuinely surprised at just how big they actually were, but in that lovely arctic winter light the feeding station we had visited gave plenty of close-up opportunities for the equally colourful males and females.

As a reminder as to just how far north we were (and close to the Russian port of Murmansk) the other highlights of the time here were a rather windswept Siberian Jay and the incredibly quick and flighty Siberian Tit.  These plump but speedy birds barely sat still for a milli-second it seemed so it took some considerable time and setting up to finally achieve a couple of images that we were all happy with: well worth it though,and we were only ever a few seconds walk from the warmth of coffee on almost permanent tap where we were staying too!

Add those magnificent Northern Light displays into the mix and you can see why I can’t wait for another visit here again next winter running Natures Images Arctic Winter trip!

Night Lights

In some ways it feels a bit surreal finally getting the chance to catch up on some of this winter’s photography while it’s 20+ degrees outside and it’s only March, but when the weather was colder and I was further north in recent months one of the genres of photography that I found myself becoming increasingly engaged in was night and low light work.  Mind you with some of the settings and in particular Aurora Borealis opportunities I have just had it would be hard not too!

During the course of an excellent week in the Cairngorms in January we took full advantage of the fantastically clear conditions by engaging in some evening and dead of night photography.

Here you can see Nigel making the most of the clear conditions to capture an image that (had he turned his camera about 45 degrees to the right) might have looked something like this:

There are certain key elements to this type of night photography and if it’s clear pinpoints of stars that you are after as a rough guide on a 24-70mm lens you really don’t want an exposure of much more than 20 seconds or so. There is a precise calculation for this by the way but I’m all for simplicity of thinking!  What this means is that you need to trust the high ISO capability of your SLR and shoot reasonably wide open in terms of aperture (this was around f4). You must trust your histogram too as your camera’s screen will make things look much brighter than they have really been recorded given it’s the only real light source out there! A really good tripod, mirror lockup and cable release (or self-timer) are also key.

The same steadiness of hand came into play when we tried out some low light shots of the ice formations on one of the nearby streams as well.

Here though it was a question of looking for the right sort of slow shutter speed to give the level of blur in the water that looked most appealing (this was around 30 seconds or so) and in order to emphasise the coldness of the shot and setting a cool white balance was set manually. I just loved some of the detail that could be found in the ice here!

Earlier this month I spent a week in Northern Finland and Norway and stayed in a location that has to be one of the best I’ve been to for opportunities to photograph that wonderful spectacle that is the Aurora borealis or Northern Lights.  I was really pleased to have honed my approach to this type of photography already this winter as when the opportunities came (and boy did they come – we had 4 clear nights and some amazing displays) I wear able to slot into the groove and thinking straight away.

There has been a lot of media coverage and interest in this awesome phenomenon this year as it has been unusually visible in parts of Scotland too, but what makes northern Finland so special in my opinion is that not only is it so light pollution free but it’s weather systems are unaffected by maritime influence so the chances of the lights showing are increased.  All of these images were only on level 3 in terms of potential intensity – it goes up to 9 or 10 I believe.

What all of this meant was plenty of opportunity to experiment with looking for big sweeping motions, deciding if landscape or portrait orientation worked best and also playing around with white balance as well.

All of the images bar this last one were taken on a relatively cool white balance, this one however on the warmer setting I tend to use for my wildlife work – I like the greener effect it gives to the lights themselves but am not so keen on what it does to the snow. It’s a matter of preference though so good to be on your game enough to try things out and when you have found a style and approach that’s working then it’s simply a question of standing back and revelling in what nature has to throw at you too.

Although it’s not the main purpose of the trip (I’m not sure how Northern Lights really can be as it’s so weather dependant) I will be staying at the same place again for 4 nights as part of the new Arctic Winter trip with Natures Images next March so if you fancy the potential to practice your night light photography…..

Highland Highlights

Last week seems a long way away already, especially as this one has been a bit of a blur getting ready to head off to Florida for the next couple of weeks – camera very much in evidence and a Natures Images trip as part of the mix as well.

It’ll be quite a contrast to the cold but sunny conditions in the Cairngorms last week – I might have preferred a bit of snow, but if that’s not to happen then this is a very close second as it can be constantly grey and glum there for sure at this time of the year. It meant that temperatures rarely got above freezing giving us plenty of scenic and detail close-up opportunities with the ice to be found on Loch Morlich and the nearby streams.

It also gave some interesting opportunities for close ups of the local Mallards enjoying (if that’s the word for it) the cold too!

On the broader wildlife front, trips into the Northern cores of Cairngorm and around the ski areas elsewhere gave great opportunities for the hardy Ptarmigan and their more common relatives in the form of Red Grouse. You have to admire the way they both cope with these challenging conditions, particularly the hardy Ptarmigans who cope with the wind and the at times extraordinarily bleak conditions of these high peaks.

The additional highlights of the week was some quality time spent with local photographer Neil McIntyre who was helping us and our guests out with his Red Squirrel and Crested Tit feeding sites.

These are both species I’ve worked with before but these 2 setups were simply top class, and we were able to make full use of them in the glorious conditions too – all in all these were for me the highland highlights of the week for sure!

Guess it’ll all be a little different in Florida won’t it?