Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

An environmental issue for Driffield – Windmill Hill sewer.

Sewage discharging from the chamber

I hope to bring to the attention of the relevant authorities a problem with the drainage system at the bottom of Windmill Hill in Driffield.

Mini

It appears that every time there is a downpour, the combined sewerage system cannot cope with additional surcharge and the manhole lid is displaced. I witnessed such a heavy shower last Sunday morning. I noticed that most of the raw sewage was running down the road and into The Beck, though some did accumulate outside the entrance to the Memorial gardens in Northend Park.

The sewage running down the road was turned into spray and atomised by the busy traffic. All of this was happening right outside the entrance to the children’s playground.

Two dogs

The people of Driffield are very proud of the purity of their local chalk stream and quite rightly so. Are we really willing to let the poor maintenance of our drainage system affect our health of our children and the purity of our local watercourses?

Spring, slowly turning into Summer

Originally posted on Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary:

Fox - paddling pose

Firstly, please let me apologise for the long wait for my first blog-post of the year. I’ve been spending a lot of my free time preparing a self-published book of my black & white street images.

I have managed to get out with my camera most weekends and now that the daylight hours are at their longest, I’ve ventured out on the odd evening too. I plan ahead as best as I can and try to pick the days with a favourable weather forecast but animals and birds can be fickle creatures and I often return home ‘empty-handed’.

I’ll save my readers a long boring summary of the year so far, except to say that it has been good one for my photography and I was extremely fortunate to photograph a rare Common Crane as it flew over Watton Nature Reserve on 12 June.

[As usual, please click on any…

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Spring, slowly turning into Summer

Fox - paddling pose

Firstly, please let me apologise for the long wait for my first blog-post of the year. I’ve been spending a lot of my free time preparing a self-published book of my black & white street images.

I have managed to get out with my camera most weekends and now that the daylight hours are at their longest, I’ve ventured out on the odd evening too. I plan ahead as best as I can and try to pick the days with a favourable weather forecast but animals and birds can be fickle creatures and I often return home ‘empty-handed’.

I’ll save my readers a long boring summary of the year so far, except to say that it has been good one for my photography and I was extremely fortunate to photograph a rare Common Crane as it flew over Watton Nature Reserve on 12 June.

[As usual, please click on any picture to see a much larger version that will look great on your tablet or screen!)

Common Crane in flight

Curlew - dawn flight

Great Crested Grebe - Dawn Light

Black-headed Gull - dawn

Female Reed Bunting

Dawn goose

Roe deer buck - Spring evening

Another Dunnock with insect

Otter watching me

Fox with rabbit

Wren watching

Early morning Barn owl

Long-tailed tit singing

Lady Linnet

Cormorant landing during a thunderstorm

A Perched Kingfisher

<aGrey Heron evening light

Marsh Harrier hunting_2

Ice-fishing adventure, Alta – Norway

Hauling the sled

Who would have thought that ice-fishing on a frozen lake at -15 C would be so much fun?

I’ve just returned to the warmth of my guest-house after spending the morning fishing, a few kilometres south of Alta, with my guide Børre from the local tour company Glød. I was picked up around 10:00 am from the town centre and we chatted as we drove the short distance to a snow covered golf course—a rather surreal location surrounded by frozen, fresh-water lakes.

Sunrise near Alta

Although the sun had not risen above the horizon it had turned the tops of the surrounding peaks a beautiful salmon pink. Børre gave me instructions on how to put on my snow shoes; not an easy task wearing gloves in the sub-zero temperatures. It felt very strange and distinctly unnatural walking with enormous plates of plastic strapped to my feet; I guess that I walked like a young girl trying on her mother’s high-heeled shoes for the first time!

Børre turned out to be an experienced and confident outdoorsman. He even has his own Husky & sled and explained that he much preferred that method of transport to the modern, noisy snowmobile. Although a native of Alta, Børre had travelled extensively and had just returned from an extended trip to Svalbard, an island between Greenland and Norway. It is famous for its Polar bears and thanks to its duty free status, a place where a bottle of Vodka is cheaper than a litre of milk.

Børre was playing the role of the ‘Husky’ today. I stumbled along in his wake as he effortlessly hauled a bright orange plastic sled on a harness behind him. He pointed out some reindeer tracks in the snow and the point at which a recent dog-sled had almost overturned, as I fumbled with the controls of my camera with numb fingers in the cold, clear mountain air. After a couple of kilometres we reached our destination; a huge twenty-foot teepee constructed of birch spars covered with canvas, with a hole at its apex.

The tent

Drilling the hole

We removed our snow-shoes and Børre and I strode out onto the surface of the frozen lake. Using a huge auger, he drilled a six-inch diameter hole through the thick ice. He handed me a tiny fishing rod and what looked like a large metal ladle with holes in for preventing our hole from freezing-over again.

Børre returned to the tent to light a fire and cook our lunch, whilst I sat on ‘Rudolph’, his affectionate term for an old reindeer hide, and dangled my plastic maggot in the vain hope of enticing a trout or perhaps an arctic char or two. I guess I must have looked like the proverbial garden gnome as I sat patiently and and waited for a bite.

Børre setting-up the tiny fishing rod

An hour our so later, I was summoned back to the tent for lunch of poached salmon and hot coffee. The fish was cooked to perfection and poached in little foil parcels with finely chopped red peppers, tomatoes and onion-grass which we ate with a wooden fork and was quite delicious! The strong black coffee, poured from an old soot-blackened pot that hung above the fire, was very welcome too. We talked about the traditions of the indigenous Sami people and mourned the loss of the traditional skills of fishing and hunting. It was good to see that Børre was doing his best to prolong these skills and educate the younger generation of northern Norway.

Børre cooking lunch

Leaving Børre to tidy up, I retraced my steps to my hole in the ice. Another twenty minutes of fishing and it was time to leave. The sky was still clear but the wind had picked-up and it had gotten noticeably cooler. This was indeed a unique experience and one I would recommend to anyone visiting this area. Børre was an excellent guide and teacher and like most Norwegians I met during my short trip, was highly intelligent and spoke perfect English.

Note: no fish were harmed (or caught) during the duration of this trip!

Please feel free to ‘click’ on any of the above images to see a larger (2048 pixel wide) version.

Photographing the aurora – Alta, Norway

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

It’s almost a month now since I returned from a wonderful trip to Alta in Norway. I travelled there alone with the sole intention of photographing the Northern Lights. In hindsight, I was extremely lucky. The conditions during my short stay were almost ideal with clear, star-studded skies almost every night during my ten day stay. I don’t believe that the weather over there has been quite as good since returning to the U.K. I guess those ancient Norse Gods must have been smiling down on me.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why on earth I chose Alta in Norway to spend two weeks of my well-earned, annual vacation? I suspect that privately, even some of my friends think I’m border-line certifiable. Well, there is sound (sort of) logic behind my decision. Let me explain…

Last year, I travelled to Iceland with my Squiver friends and enjoyed the experience. Even though we only got to see the northern lights on one evening, it was spectacular. Far better than the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen and without the smoke and the crowds! Perched precariously on steep and loose glacial moraine and watching the light-show unfold was an amazing experience but one I admit, for which I was totally unprepared. I fumbled with my camera controls in the inky blackness and failed to get a sharp focus on the stars. I struggled getting an adequate exposure and had no time to explore alternative compositions. I was so very envious of my Canadian friends to whom this was second nature and who effortlessly snapped away and produced some absolutely stunning images. I was angry with myself but at the same time, I was hooked!

So, during the past twelve months, I’ve been surfing the web, searching for a location that would be both accessible and scenic and with a stable climate, clear nights and with good prospects of an auroral display. The small city of Alta in the arctic circle appeared to fit all of the above criteria. It was further north than the popular Norwegian city of Tromso and and more importantly to me, it attracted far fewer tourists. Personally, I hate being distracted by large numbers of other photographers all getting in each others way and spoiling my images with the light from their head-torches.

I stayed at the wonderful Baarstua Guesthouse, some fifteen minutes from the centre of Alta. The owner Bente lives in a beautiful family home right opposite the guesthouse and was extremely helpful throughout my stay, giving me plenty of advice and organising taxis and car rental. There is no doubt that Norway is expensive but staying at this guesthouse, equipped with its own small kitchen, enabled me to survive within my budget. I even hired my car from the local franchise of ‘Rent-A- Wreck’.

Aurora streams - Alta

I pre-booked a couple of evening ‘aurora hunts’ through a local adventure company Glød, before I visited Norway. This turned out to be a wise move. The local knowledge and experience of the two guides Anton and Katrina, proved invaluable and gave me the confidence to hire a car and explore the landscape by myself for the remainder of my trip.

Winter in northern Norway is cold. I experienced a range of temperatures from an almost tropical -10 C down to -35 C near Suolovuopmi! You need to dress for the conditions. A down-jacket, insulated boots and thermal underwear are essential. Handling your camera in such temperatures can be difficult. I have never yet found an ideal pair of gloves that would give me the necessary tactility and insulation. At temperatures below -20 C, your skin will begin to freeze in minutes. I thought I’d escaped without injury until small blisters appeared on the pads of each of my finger-tips when I got home. Camera batteries are much less efficient in really cold temperatures. I kept a spare battery in my inside pocket each night, just in case.

Witnessing the aurora for the first time is an almost spiritual experience. Yes, scientists have researched the phenomena and can fully explain the physics behind the spectacle. Nevertheless, the feeling of wonder and awe still remains. I admire both its beauty, rarity and its ephemeralness. To me, photography is all about capturing that unique moment in time; so very different from other media such as film or video.

Visiting Alta has also given me the opportunity of experiencing the polar winter with its unique ‘blue-light'; albeit at the tail-end of the season. Winters back home have become boring. Snowy conditions and minus temperatures are rare and are considered a nuisance rather than an event to be embraced and enjoyed. I like the cold and the ice. Everything appears so much cleaner and brighter. Here’s an excerpt from my daily diary that may give you a flavour of my nocturnal adventures…

Aurora and moonlight - Duggelv

Last night’s aurora was a doozie! For a few minutes, I swear I could have read a newspaper from its bright, green light. It was fantastic to see the winter landscape lit by an alien green glow and see its reflections on the surface of the sea. For a short spell, there was so much activity that I didn’t know which way to point my lens. I even wished that I had a fish-eye lens so I could capture the whole sky! It was stunning.

I set off about 8:00 pm, heading south along the E6 to a previously researched location on the shore of a fjord: one of Slartibartfast’s* award winning designs. I set up my camera in the middle of a snowy field and waited patiently in the deep powder snow. I guess it was below -15 C as my nose hairs tingled with each intake of breath.

After about fifteen minutes, I heard a man approaching me from the local farmhouse. He was curious to know the reason I was stood in the dark in the middle of his field. Satisfied that I was a genuine English eccentric, we chatted about the Aurora and the local wildlife, mostly foxes and otters.

Suddenly, I saw a luminous green light out of the corner of my eye and turned to see the stunning arc of an auroral rainbow spanning the whole sky. I reached for my camera and began to photograph this cosmic spectacle. The farmer tried to continue our conversation but eventually retreated to the warmth of his house when he realised I was totally engaged with my photography.

Aurora over the new Alta Bridge - Norway

I stayed and photographed the aurora for about an hour, trying many different compositions and camera settings whilst the aurora continued to wave and shimmer across the moon-lit sky. Eventually, I returned to my car, fingers frozen; as was the grin across my face. I drove back towards Alta, stopping at several previously researched locations; each time the aurora continued to oblige. I even managed to photograph the auroral lights above the recently completed suspension bridge over the fjord at Kåfjorden—perhaps a first?

* A character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy/science fiction series created by Douglas Adams.

Aurora over Langfjord - Alta

The whole trip was a wonderful experience. My camera equipment (Nikon D4 and D800) operated flawlessly despite the sub-zero temperatures. As I sit here at my desk, listening to the wind blown rain battering against my window, I really wish I was back in Finnmark, Norway.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/great_driffield/sets/72157640174073284/

Another year over…

Dawn Fox and Mallard

It’s been three long months since I posted my last blog entry and I would like to apologise to my regular readers for my tardiness. The debacle over the sale of Watton Nature Reserve dented my enthusiasm for wildlife photography and following a period of reflection, courtesy of a short spell in Scarborough hospital, I decided it was time to re-evaluate my photography. I felt that I was becoming stale and needed a change of direction and a new challenge, so I eventually decided to revert to my former interest in monochrome ‘street-photography’. So, for the past few months I have been pounding the streets of the coastal towns of Yorkshire and documenting the life of these sea-side resorts.

I did consider selling my long lens and camera(s) but a good friend and mentor suggested that I should suspend my decision for a year or two. Three months later and I am very glad that I heeded his advice. I am enjoying my new project and to be quite frank, there are a lot of similarities between these two photographic genres. They both require excellent observational skills, a good sense of anticipation and more than often, fast reflexes too. In fact, I believe that they compliment each other and I can see me participating in both fields for the next few years.

One of my resolutions for the 2014 is to put together a book of my wildlife images taken at Tophill Low. It will be a self-published book, probably using Blurb and I intend to include the best of the photographs I have captured over the past four years. I don’t suppose it will ever make it to the shelves of a book shop. However, I hope it will provide me with a permanent record of my visits to Tophill Low and a reminder of the many friends I have made at this very special place.

Anyway, that’s enough of my struggles with my inner-self. It’s 2014 tomorrow and a whole new chapter. I would like to thank Richard Hampshire and all the volunteers at THL. A Happy New Year to everyone and may at least some of your dreams come true! I’m off to northern Norway in two weeks time to witness the frozen landscape and photograph the aurora. It should be fun!

Oh! and here are some pictures taken at Watton Nature Reserve a couple of days ago…

Fox running

Fox - geese and teal

Northern Pintail in flight

Little egret - blue sky

Winter wren

Kingfisher on willow

The end of the affair…

Watton NR August 2013 panorama

Watton Nature Reserve has been my second home for the past few years. Situated on the edge of Yorkshire Water’s Tophill Low, it was bought by the Environment Agency a few years ago and it has been, at least to me, the jewel in the crown and a safe haven for the local wildlife. But now it is up for sale and quite frankly, I’m heart-broken.

My good friend Richard Hampshire, the warden at Tophill Low, has published the details of the sale in his latest weekly blog. I would urge everyone to read it in order to gain a history of the site and more importantly, the details of the sale. Here is the link: http://tophilllow.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/watton-nature-reserve.html The guide price for the auction sale is £50 k. I wish I could afford to buy it but unfortunately, this is well beyond my means.

During the past few years I have spent hundreds of hours and taken thousand of pictures at this beautiful location. I have lost count of the number of sunsets and sunrises that I have had the good fortune to witness. I have watched roe deer running and jumping, fox cubs fighting, herons and cormorants fishing and cuckoo’s calling. Every beautiful moment has lifted my spirits and enriched my life.

Of course, there may be an outside chance that a sympathetic individual, or perhaps a group of nature lovers, may purchase the site and allow the wildlife to remain undisturbed. How I hope that this will happen. I suppose that I will have to wait and see. The one thing I can promise is that I will continue to maintain a keen interest in this unique habitat and will be watching, and watching very carefully!

Here’s a selection of images taken over the past few years that I sincerely hope will influence a prospective purchaser to maintain this site as a sanctuary for our local wildlife…

Sunrise-Tophill Low

Barn Owl look_2

Barn Owl-rear view hover

Red-Fox head detail_3

Vixen-with rabbits foot

Roe deer - dawn mist

Roe deer stag - silhouette

Redwing

Grey Heron - flying with eel

Greeting the dawn

Cuckoo-calling

Marsh Harrier and rabbit

Sparrowhawk - male on willow

Greylag-Goose_flight

Great-crested grebe-dawn flight

Whitethroat warbling

Cormorant-returning to roost

Kingfisher hover_3

Roebuck - golden light of sunset

Spring spring

Serendipity

“…the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it”.

Heron Teasel and Butterflies

I believe that this unusual word accurately describes my approach to wildlife photography and in common with most people, I do like surprises. Today, I’ve reached the ripe old age of 58, so I guess I should continue to savour each and every one of these special moments.

To illustrate my point… late one evening, I was carefully studying the grey heron in the photograph above. The warm light of the setting sun was illuminating the reeds and providing a perfect back-drop to the plain grey of the heron’s plumage. As the heron slowly stalked its prey along the line of the reeds it eventually reached a point where several butterflies were feeding on the purple flower heads of the teasel bushes. I made a few exposures and then suddenly, the heron took off. I immediately pressed the shutter and hoped that I had captured the moment, but still had to wait until I saw the enlarged version on my monitor a home.

Yes, I was lucky. The heron was sharp. Compositionally, there was a strong diagonal line running across the frame and the trail of water from the heron’s feet gave the image a sense of dynamic movement. With a perfect background too; you can tell I was pleased.

A few days earlier, I was in another hide with John, a fellow photographer, trying to explain the best camera settings to use for ‘bird-in-flight photography’. I needed an example to demonstrate these settings when an immature gull suddenly came into view. I quickly made a couple of exposures. I thought about deleting these example frames but must have got distracted. Later that evening, I met up with ‘gull guru’ Martin Hodges in the car-park and I quickly showed him the two images of the young bird. He suggested that I e-mail the images to him but of course, I forgot.

A day or so later, Martin sent me a reminder e-mail and I quickly sent him my photograph of the young gull. He then asked me if I had other pictures as well, so I sent hime the second frame. Marin eventually concluded that it was a juvenile Herring Gull; but a rather rare leucistic variety. Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather…even a gull’s one!

leucistic juvenile herring gull

Well, that’s enough talk for now. Here’s a few more special moments from the past few weeks I hope you will enjoy. Please don’t forget to ‘click’ on an image to see a much larger version on my Flickr page.

Fox - summer stroll

Fox cub wink

Marsh Harrier and rabbit

Greenshank-Summer passage

Hard to swallow

Grey Heron - flying with eel

I was watching a group of four young herons a couple of weeks ago when one bird suddenly grabbed a huge eel from the shallows. The eel must have been at least a metre in length and was almost as tall as the heron. The bird struggled with the slippery, writhing creature but eventually made it to the safety of the shore. Almost at once it was surrounded by the other herons, who all wanted a piece of the action. The young bird flew-off with the eel dangling from its beak to another part of the lake that was thankfully, just as close to my position.

The heron took all of fifteen minutes to swallow the eel. Repeated proddings with its dagger-like beak and multiple dunkings in the lake failed to despatch the eel. After a quarter of an hour, the heron finally summoned up the courage to swallow the eel.

The heron may have been replete but it looked decidedly uncomfortable afterwards. It kept sipping water from the lake and repeatedly wiping the eel-slime from its beak on nearby rocks. I guess it was a case of severe indigestion. I was very fortunate not only to witness the whole episode but I was also lucky enough to capture a few hundred frames from the fifteen minute sequence.

Grey Heron with Eel

Grey Heron - swallowing eel

Three young fox cubs have also provided me with some entertaining moments during the recent long hot summer evenings. It has been fun watching them exploring their new territory and chasing each other with their boundless energy.

A pair of fox cubs

Three cubs

Fox cub running

The roebuck has been rather reclusive during the past few weeks so it was great to see it a couple of days ago with its shiny new antlers and beautiful new summer coat.

Roebuck and ducks

Finally, I watched with awe as a young kingfisher hovered in the air like a hummingbird, some twenty feet above the lake. It seemed to hover for ages but in reality, it was only for a few seconds; enough time to allow me to capture a couple of dozen frames. Another wonderful and infrequent sight.

I guess I must be blessed.

Hovering Kingfisher

Herons, Harriers and a Halcyon

Grey Heron - early morning flight

I have been lucky to experienced some wonderful morning and evening light during my recent trips to Tophill Low. The significance of good light should not be underestimated and often make the difference between a standard photograph and one that excels. Of course, as a nature photographer, a well-lit stage is one thing but without a leading actor, the performance would be dreary. Fortunately, the last couple of weeks has seen a siege of local grey herons on the reserve and the presence of these marvellous birds has become the focus of my recent photography.

The grey heron is rather a large bird, almost a metre in height and with a wing-span the height of a tall man and like most of us humans, their crowns get whiter with age. My first experience of photographing of herons was in Amsterdam. I turned a corner to see a large heron perched on the roof a car and looking down into the adjacent canal. I suppose the locals get used to having paintwork to the roof of their cars damaged by their sharp claws!

Heron Stretch

Grey Heron reflection

Heron posing

Grey Heron-summers evening

I’ve also spent a couple of hours checking on the progress of the nesting marsh harriers. Their young are due to fledge within the next week or so but unfortunately, work commitments mean that I probably won’t be around to witnessing the event. Never mind, at least I was able to grab a few more images of both the male and the female harriers as they flew in and out of the nest. I must admit that I much prefer photographing these birds against a natural setting rather than against the sky. However, this is not easy and requires quick reactions and good technique. In these circumstances, I always set my camera to manual exposure and hope that the autofocus acquires the target rather than the background vegetation.

Marsh Harrier (male) evening light

Female Marsh Harrier landing_2

Male Marsh Harrier with prey_2

I was sitting in the hide at Tophill one evening when this beautiful fox appeared out of nowhere and peered over the recently constructed sand martin retaining wall at the lake a few metres below. I managed to fire-off a series of exposures before the fox stared-up at me and calmly wandered away. Always having you camera ready has its rewards.

Fox exploring

I recently spent a couple of days photographing Kingfishers in Norfolk with some degree of success. I hope to give a few more details about the experience in a future blog, so do watch this space! I also spent a quiet evening at the north marsh hide on a rather dull evening. I was luck enough to capture this beautiful young kingfisher as it posed at the end of this thin, diving perch. I was also delighted to have both of these kingfisher images selected for a few days each on the BBC Nature web site. Thank-you, aunty!

Kingfisher triumph

Kingfisher perched

Finally, Tophill Low is having an open weekend on the 20th and 21st of July in partnership with the BBC Summer of Wildlife. I will be leading a guided walk at around 7:15 pm to look for the local barn owls. I’ll also be showing a few barn owl images as a slideshow before the event, so everyone is welcome to come along but places will be limited. Please see Richard’s blog for details…

http://tophilllow.blogspot.co.uk

Barn Owl at dusk

Addendum:

Richard Hampshire (the warden at Tophill Low) has just contacted me to tell me that my picture of the ‘female marsh harrier’ landing was in fact the first view of one of the fledgling chicks, probably taking its first flight. It’s the middle picture of the three marsh harriers in my above post. Please feel free to click on the image to see a larger version. So my work commitments doesn’t mean that I will miss out after all!

Thank-you Richard; what would I do without your expertise?

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