Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

A farewell presentation

Kingfisher flight (rear view)_4896485233_o

After ten years and thousands of wonderful hours taking photographs at Tophill Low, I’m moving on to fresh pastures.

This doesn’t mean that I shall become a stranger at the reserve. It just means that I shall be pointing my camera in a different direction and exploring other aspects of photography.

As many of you will know, my enthusiasm for photographing our local wildlife is only matched by amnesia when it comes to identifying any bird species! But then again, I’ve learned such a lot from everyone—it’s just a pity that I fail to remember their names!

So, in order to thank everyone for their tremendous kindness over the last decade, I intend to give a presentation on Thursday 16 May at the Education Centre at Tophill Low from 18:30 to 20:30. It will be an ‘all ticket’ evening with proceeds donated to the Tophill Low Volunteers fund. Tickets will be available in early March from Tophill Low and unfortunately, will be limited to around 43—the capacity of the venue. Price: £5.00 for visitors to the reserve and £3.00 for members.

I can promise that it will be a fun and entertaining evening. I will be giving away all my wildlife secrets—well most of them. I hope to show the audience some my successes as well as my many photographic mistakes and how my photography has evolved. I shall be giving advice on the following:

  • Equipment
  • Camera Settings
  • Fieldcraft
  • Light and Colour Temperature
  • Sharpness and Focus
  • Birds in Flight
  • Post-Production
  • Ethics and Wildlife
  • Q&A

So, please buy a ticket and come along and enjoy the fun!

A Valentine’s day – special

I thought I would enter into the spirit of the occasion and share a few photographs taken over the past few years at my local wildlife reserve at Tophill Low.

…and not a single bottle of wine in sight!

Mute swans mating_3


Shelducks mating_3


Roe deer-mating


Oystercatchers spring mating


Mute swans mating_2


Malard mating


Fox cubs - friendly


Gadwall-mating in Winter


Greylag Love


Kingfishers - Mating


Lesser Black-backed Gulls mating



Cormorants - Mating


Coots mating_1

The whole amorous act only lasted a matter of seconds. Just as well as the females’s head was below the water during the brief action.

Common Terns-mating


Canada geese - mating


Black-headed Gulls-on the nest



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and ‘Yes’, I shall be dining alone again this evening! I wonder why? 🙂

History Lessons – Grey Heron with Eel

Heron with EelGrey Heron with Eel – 14 July 2013 – [500 mm + 1.7 T.C. 1/800 sec f 6.3 ISO 320]

For the eighth in my ‘History Lessons’ series I have chosen my photograph of a Grey Heron with an eel.

On the evening of Saturday, 14 July 2013, I was sat watching a group of four Herons and a few Little Egrets on the opposite shore. Nothing much was happening—just a few dabbling ducks and a lone cormorant perched on a nearby mooring post.

You can read about what happened next in an earlier post , ‘Hard to swallow‘. That was certainly an evening to remember and I still have around three-hundred RAW files from that encounter—all taken in the space of fifteen minutes.

The wetland areas of Tophill Low provide a perfect habitat for the Grey Heron. The number of herons breeding in Britain and on the Continent has been growing steadily for many years probably due to the recent run of mild winters. Despite their plain grey colour, they area wonderful species to photograph. Large enough to ensure perfect focus and sufficiently stationary to enable an interesting composition—try to avoid using the central focus point on your camera and hence positioning the subject in the dead-centre of the frame.

Here’s a few more of my photographs of the Grey Heron taken over the past few years at Tophill Low:

Summer Heron

Heron shadow

Heron silohouette

Heron misty dawn

Heron flight

Heron chase

Heron and Cormorant

Thanks for reading. By the way, did you notice the butterflies in the second photograph? Honestly?




History Lessons – The Kingfisher

No Fishing‘No Fishing’ – 15 June 2013 – [1/800 second f 8 IS0 1600]

For the seventh episode of my ‘History Lessons’ series, I have chosen this picture of a Kingfisher from over five thousand images in my photographic library.

Why I have chosen this one? Well, I could have picked several others but this photograph has a combination of being both unique and humorous at the same time. I believe it was the warden, Richard Hampshire who designed and built this rather cheesy sign—he does have a wicked sense of humour. It was erected near North Marsh Hide and proved to be a popular backdrop for many photographers visiting Tophill Low during the summer of 2013.

I remember seeing a few photographs from fellow enthusiasts complete with a Kingfisher perched on top of this sign and less frequently, with a small fish too. When I arrived at the hide on the evening of Saturday 15 June, a Kingfisher was already present. I spent and hour or so photographing the bird on various perches including the ‘No Fishing’ perch. Suddenly, the Kingfisher noticed the protruding nail and began to explore it with its beak. That was it! That was worth waiting for.

Undoubtably, Kingfishers have become the number one attraction at Tophill Low for both photographers, bird-watchers and the visiting public. With the success of a breeding pair at the Hempholme hide this year—and only a few metres from the hide—their popularity is set to continue. Of course, we should not forget that the Kingfisher is a protected species and every visitor has a responsibility to minimise any disturbance to the nesting site and to these magnificent birds.

Looking back through my records of the past nine years, I have been lucky to capture some truly exciting moments.  I have photographs of Kingfishers perched, diving, preening, eating, courting, mating and excreting. Below are a few more of my photographs of Kingfishers taken at Tophill Low. I hope you enjoy them too.


Kingfisher - preening May morning_34877753416_o

Kingfisher with fish_5_5001821510_o

Kingfisher on reed_2_9561392604_o

Kingfisher flight (rear view)_4896485233_o


Kingfishers - Mating_34877745186_o

History Lessons – Elephant Hawk Moth

Elephant Hawk moth blogElephant Hawk Moth – [1/40 sec f16 ISO1600 Nikon D800 105 macro lens]

Saturday, July 16, 2016

I was sitting on a log in the cool shade behind the warden’s office at Tophill Low. A painful knee had limited my wildlife photography for a while and it was good to be back at the reserve. I had been invited to witness the daily ritual of the emptying of the moth-traps by expert naturalists, Martin Hodges and Doug Fairweather.

I watched as Martin carefully lifted the dome of the trap and reached inside for an egg box. Doug was poised with his notebook as Martin lifted each specimen with his pencil and uttered unpronounceable latin names at a machine-gun pace. Every so often the pair would pause and debate the proper identification of a moth and maybe consult a battered copy of their pocket-sized guide to moths.

The captive moths were of all sizes and colours—from micro-moths that I could hardly see—to wondrous beasties that were maybe a couple of inches in across. Some moths were more cooperative than others and allowed Doug to patiently transfer them with the tip of a pencil to the log where I was sat.

The Elephant Hawk moth was a handsome specimen. I hovered above it with my macro lens and carefully squeezed the shutter. I chose not to use flash on this occasion as I envisaged a more natural background. I found a small pink flower nearby and laid it along the edge of the frame and took a few more photographs of this new composition.

It was an interesting morning and I believe that the moth count was quite impressive too. Just before I left, Doug spotted a Deerfly (the females have that nasty bite) and nonchalantly placed it on his arm for me to photograph. A brave man indeed.

Twin-lobed Deerfly - Chysops relictus - blogTwin-lobed Deerfly (Chysops relicts) – [1/400 sec f16 ISO 1000 D800 105 macro lens]

A few months later, I suffered a computer hard-drive error and lost all of my RAW files form June to December 2016. Luckily, I did have some JPEG copies of some of those images but nevertheless, it was an important lesson to have learned. Don’t forget to back-up your important files before it’s too late!

History Lessons – The Fox & Newt

FN_1Fox with a Great-crested Newt (1/320 second f 5.6 ISO 1250)

The evening of 5 July 2016 was clear and warm with a light breeze blowing from west. I arrived at Tophill Low after work to find the car park  almost empty. My arthritic knee was painful but I was determined to venture outside and take some photographs so I slowly limped down the road towards ‘O’ reservoir.

When I arrived at the hide, several Little egrets were wading in the shallows. Most of the nesting wildfowl had already departed leaving the egrets to fish and squabble with their own kin. The lagoon was bathed in a soft warm evening light as the sun set behind the hide. The light was sufficiently intense for me to use a high shutter speed and capture some action images as the birds plunged their dagger like beaks into the water.

Around 8:30 pm, I was getting ready to leave. It was an hour before sunset and I was ready for a pint when I heard a barking scream from one of the egrets. I turned to see a fox on the shore about 50 metres away. A quick glance through my viewfinder confirmed that my shutter speed of 1/250 second was rather low for this shaded location—especially with the equivalent of a 700 mm lens on my camera. I quickly raised the ISO to 800 for the photograph below and to ISO 1250 for the other images on this blog.

I had been using my Nikon’s continuous auto-focus setting (AFC – 9 points) in order to capture the action of the egrets but this setting was unsuitable for the fox. I quickly changed to single point auto-focus (AFS – single point). I have found that this setting to be most useful for static or slow-moving mammals and it has the benefit that the focus point will not suddenly jump to the background vegetation.

I could see that the fox had something in its mouth but it was difficult to determine its prey. (I never bring my reading glasses with me when I’m photographing as there is always the temptation to become distracted scrolling through my images.) It was later when I emailed my photograph to the warden Richard Hampshire, that he confirmed that it was a Great-crested newt. The fact that it had fully protected status under the UK Wildlife Act, was irrelevant to this hungry fox.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see the fox devour the newt and I half expected it to return to its cubs with this morsel. Perhaps, the newt’s toxic skin may well have been too unpalatable for her young cubs digestion? (Though I note from my friend Marc Baldwin’s excellent web site Wildlife Online, that foxes rarely bring small animals such as voles back to their cubs, preferring to eat bite-sized prey as they continue to hunt.)

Thank-you for reading my fifth episode of my History Lessons blog. Five more to come over the next few weeks.

FN_2Fox  (1/250 second f 5.6 ISO 800)
FN_3Fox with a Great-crested Newt (1/400 second f 5.6 ISO 1250)
FN_4Fox  (1/320 second f 5.6 ISO 1250)

History Lessons – Short-eared Owls

SEO_1Two Short-eared Owls (1/3200 second @ f 6.7 IS0 1250)

My photograph above of two Short-eared Owls is the subject of my fourth ‘history lesson’.  It’s one of my favourite owl pictures taken during the winter of 2011/12. I had made the long journey to Hempholme meadows, on the outskirts of Tophill Low, several times during December of that year and had been lucky to have seen a pair of SEO’s and a Barn Owl during each short visit.

The owls appeared to frequent a part of the shooting estate that was covered in scrub and small birch trees—making the photography very challenging. The pair of SEO’s hunted singly and I never seemed to be able to get both birds in the same frame. In fact, I was always delighted when I managed to achieve a positive focus lock on any of the owls as they flew between the branches.

I’d arrived at the perimeter of the field in the early afternoon of 15 December 2011. The sky was a pale blue and the low sunlight turned the dead grasses and branches a rich golden colour. I had my 500 mm lens on a gimbal on my Gitzo tripod with my Nikon D3S attached. I was also using a 1.7x tele-converter on this lens giving me a focal length of 850 mm and an effective aperture of f 6.7.

I photographed several Roe deer while I was waiting for the owls to show. Just after two-o-clock, two SEO appeared and began hunting. Within twenty-five minutes they had both moved on to another field. Pity, as I had been enjoying myself. The light was good and I had managed to get several photographs of the owls during that short period.

The best of the photographs were my last ones of that day. The two Short-eared Owls met briefly as they rose in the sky above the scrub to venture onwards. At that moment, I managed to capture four consecutive frames of the pair and of the four, this one I considered the best. The chances of both owls being in perfect focus in the same frame were immense but I’d had a very lucky day.

Here’s a few other of my photographs from the same afternoon…





The next episode in my series of photographs from Tophill Low will follow in a few days.

History Lessons – Fledgling Marsh Harrier

JMH_6Fledgling Marsh Harrier (13 July 2013) — 1/1600 sec @ f5.6 IS0 800

It was 13 July 2013, and I arrived at South Marsh West hide at Tophill Low shortly after sunrise. The weather was warm and clear and I was hoping to photograph the pair of Marsh Harriers that had recently nested some sixty metres away.

Heron_1Grey Heron (13 July 2013) —  1/1600 sec @ f5.6 IS0 500

I amused myself photographing a Grey Heron as it landed amongst the reeds. A warm mist was rising from the surface of the lake and the Heron’s reflection was mirror perfect. Some two hours and fifty frames later, I was getting impatient—wondering if perhaps the Marsh Harriers had moved on. Just before eight, what appeared to be the female rose in the air and circled around the tops of the willow trees.

I didn’t realise it at the time (I’m the world’s worst birder) but what I had mistaken for a female was actually a young, fledgling Marsh Harrier and this was probably its first flight. If I remember correctly, it was Martin Hodges that pointed out my mistake when he read my blog and saw the photograph at the head of this post. Martin also introduced me to a new term for an immature Marsh Harrier—Duracell, after the copper topped battery!

I watched the bird for an hour or so and made another thirty exposures before it returned to its nest. My preference has always been to photograph a bird in flight against a natural background rather than the sky. However, I had to take care that my auto-focus points did not jump from the bird to the adjacent foliage. I always employ continuous auto-focus on my camera and use the back-button to engage it. I normally select the central nine point focus area for most of my bird-in-flight images.

1/1600 second may sound like a very fast shutter speed but is probably the minimum for a flight shot to ensure that the subject remains sharp, with maybe a hint of movement to the wing tips. I also had to take care that my depth-of-field was sufficient to cover the rather large wing-span of these marvellous raptors. I knew from a previous visit that this lens combination (I was using my 500 mm f4 plus a x1.4 teleconverter—which gives an effective aperture of f5.6 and a focal length of 700 mm) would provide sufficient depth-of-field of around three metres at a distance of sixty metres. Just enough!

JMH_1Fledgling Marsh Harrier (13 July 2013) — 1/1600 sec @ f5.6 IS0 500
JMH_3Fledgling Marsh Harrier (13 July 2013) — 1/1600 sec @ f5.6 IS0 500
JMH_5Fledgling Marsh Harrier (13 July 2013) — 1/1600 sec @ f5.6 IS0 800
JMH_2Fledgling Marsh Harrier (13 July 2013) — 1/1600 sec @ f5.6 IS0 500
JMH_4Fledgling Marsh Harrier (13 July 2013) — 1/1600 sec @ f5.6 IS0 800

I wish everyone a Happy New Year and there will be the fourth ‘History Lesson‘ post in early 2018.

History Lessons – A Vixen urinating

Vixen - urinating‘A vixen urinating’

For the second instalment of my History Lesson series I have chosen this photograph from my archives, ‘A Vixen urinating’.

I know it’s a little rude. You may also find it odd that I have picked a pretty ordinary photograph of a vixen scent marking from the five-and-a-half thousand images on my computer but please be patient, I have an interesting story to tell.

On Sunday 6 November 2011, I was up before dawn and arrived at the reserve about thirty minutes before sunrise. It was a cool morning but the forecast was for any lingering mist to clear to leave a fine day. I had just unpacked my camera when a fox appeared on the river bank. I quickly made a few exposures but the results were disappointing. An exposure of 1/15 second at f4 ISO 3200 was the best I could manage and although the fox was in focus, there was sufficient movement to blur the image. Unusually, I didn’t discard this file so here is my effort…


Thirty minutes later, with the sun now above the horizon, I managed to get a much better photograph of the same fox.


Five minutes later, I had another opportunity to photograph the fox again as it suddenly leaped into the undergrowth and pounced on its prey. It’s the kind of photograph that every wildlife photographer wants in their portfolio. Unfortunately, it was not to be. At the critical moment, some foreground vegetation obscured the scene. Ho-hum!


Never mind, it had been an interesting morning and I had also managed to get some good photographs of Long-tailed tits, a Goldcrest and a Sparrowhawk.

I must have been keen back in 2011, because I returned to the reserve for a second time in the afternoon at around 2:30 pm. The sun was due to set at around 4:20 pm so I had a couple of hours of patient photography. A waxing gibbous moon rose above the horizon into a pale blue sky.


I passed the time photographing cormorants as they returned to their roost. I was getting ready to depart when I saw a fox strolling along the shore-line. It stopped for a few moments to scent-mark a small bush and then disappeared into the undergrowth. I made a few exposure and hoped that the 1/200 shutter speed was sufficient.

I processed the RAW file, cropping it down to a 4:3 format and posted it to my Flickr account. The photograph appeared to be quite popular—I suspect that the search engine results from my title, ‘A Vixen urinating’ had more to do with its reputation than any artistic merit on my part!

A few year later, I was contacted by a designer from the Swedish punk band, Rävjunk. They had seen the image on Flickr and wished to use my photograph as an album cover. He promised me a copy of the album when it was released. True to his word, a copy of the band’s L.P. and three C.D.’s arrived a few weeks later. I must admit that I have never listened to their album but it still has pride of place on my wall as a conversation piece.


More ‘History Lessons’ in the next few days…

History Lessons – The Jumping Rabbit

Rabbit_6The flying rabbit © 2013

I thought it may be a good idea to write a short account of some of my favourite wildlife photographs taken at Tophill Low and provide a few technical details too. I know it’s Christmas and a selection of twelve may have been more seasonally appropriate but I’m a reluctant blogger—so ten it is.

Several people have kindly told me that they really admire, The flying rabbit. It certainly is one of my most memorable photographs and although one-or-two people have asked me if the image had been Photoshopped, it hasn’t. So here’s the story…

A few years ago, there used to be a continuous spit of land that spanned across the lagoon dividing the waters on each side. Sadly it disappeared a few years ago when the water level rose and countless cattle hooves  loosened the soil. It was a magnificent feature and one that I exploited to the full. It was a popular shortcut for many mammals including roe deer, foxes and very occasionally, rabbits too.

Back in early May 2012, I was in my usual spot waiting for some activity. The evening sun  was setting directly behind me providing a spot-lit effect to the landscape. I watched as a rabbit wandered along the shore towards the point where the two lagoons intersect. I was rather disappointed that it decided to wade rather than jump the small gap but I was happy to witness such a rare wildlife moment. I took a series of eight exposures and the image below was number six. At the time, I was using a x1.7 tele-converter on my 500mm Nikon lens with a D3S camera. I have since learned through experience that a 1.4 tele-converter gives the optimum sharpness for my camera and lens combination.

Rabbit_1[for those interested in the exposure details, it was 1/800 second @ f9 ISO 1000]

Exactly three weeks later, I was once again, enjoying the evening sunshine when another rabbit approached the water from the opposite direction. In anticipation, I quickly checked my shutter speed (I normally use aperture priority mode) so I bumped-up the ISO to give me a nice healthy shutter speed of 1/2000 second. Hooray! It jumped and more importantly, my photographs were reasonably sharp and correctly exposed. Here are two images from the series, taken at 10 f.p.s.



I was pleased with my photographs and never thought there would ever be a repeat. A year went by and I was sat, bleary-eyed, waiting for sunrise. It was just after six and the sky was clear but the dawn-light was blinding. This was challenging photography, even though I was using RAW—too much exposure and the highlights would be irretrievable—too little and I would end up with a silhouette. The ‘gods’ must have been with me that morning as I judged the exposure perfectly.


Out of nowhere, another Easter bunny came running at pace along the spit of land. I checked my settings carefully. I’d already changed the colour balance on my camera to ‘warm light’ which  to my eye, gave an accurate representation of the dawn light and because I was photographing into the sun, my shutter speed was an astronomic 1/6400 second.

Wow! Another actor entered the scene, stage-left. A beautiful male tufted duck. Would the cow jump over the moon, perhaps? I followed the action using a short-burst and back-button focusing. Several frames later I relaxed. As I checked the sequence of images on the LCD I was relieved to find that they were all properly exposed and delighted to see that there was one frame where the duck’s head was not obscured. That was an unexpected bonus.




So my thanks to all those rabbits who took part in this, the first of my History Lessons blog entries. As usual, please ask any questions and/or give  feedback on my post.

A Merry Christmas to you all!

—Tony Mclean 2017

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