Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag ““Marsh Harrier””

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.


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


“…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

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 of a car and looking down into the canal below. 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 witness 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…

Barn Owl at dusk


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?

News release…

Female Marsh Harrier-spring morning

I apologise for anyone who was recently frustrated by my previous, password protected post. I have now ‘unprotected’ it and I hope you enjoy the news and photographs!

Marsh Harriers…………….

Marsh Harrier with prey

During the third week of May, I received a tip-off from Richard Hampshire of Tophill Low that a pair of Marsh Harriers were believed to be building a nest at South Marsh West. Richard asked me to keep this a secret until he was sure that they were firmly established. As promised, I have maintained my silence and have only made a couple of visits ‘out-of-hours’ and only stayed less than and hour during each of my visits.

Of course it quickly became one of Tophill Low’s worst kept secrets and most of the regulars visitors soon learned of their presence! I understand that the chicks have now hatched and Richard has finally lifted his embargo.

I have posted a few images on my Flickr page during the past few weeks and have received some very kind comments from other photographers and the birding community. I have kept my word and not revealed the location or tagged my images with the location, ‘Tophill Low’.

I sincerely hope that everyone who visits the hide does so responsibly and with the welfare of these magnificent birds foremost in their minds. It would be a tragedy if this pair of harriers were disturbed. The nest-site is within a hundred metres of the hide and even those with limited photographic equipment should be able to obtain some fantastic pictures.

The images below were all photographed during two short visits of little more than an hour. I won’t be back, at least not for a while. I don’t like the crowds and I want others to enjoy their visit too. The South Marsh West hide at Tophill Low isn’t very large and I would guess that not more than ten people could be accommodated with a good view of these harriers. So my advice would be: please don’t be a hide-hog, enjoy your visit and let as many people as possible share in this amazing spectacle. Don’t forget to look out for the nesting Cetti’s warblers too. Although I do hope you have better luck than I did trying to capture an image of these little birds!

[As always, please feel free to ‘click’ on any image to see a larger size on my Flickr page]

Male marsh harrier

Male Marsh Harrier gathering nest material

Marsh Harrier flight

Female Marsh Harrier landing

Male Marsh Harrier - head-on

Ne’er cast a clout till May is out

Egyptian Goose

I should have guessed the unseasonably warm weather wouldn’t last. We’re back to cold nights and April showers. I must admit that everything now looks a lot greener. Over the weekend, a feral Egyptian Goose was present around the northern edge of the reserve. It seemed quite lost and spent a great deal of time trying to find a companion or some other geese that would tolerate its presence. Good to see that a pair Little Ringed Plovers has once again returned to Watton N.R. I’d like to post a photograph but they were a little too distant. The LRP’s were accompanied by several Pied wagtails and one Yellow wagtail. I hope to obtain some better images in the near future.


I managed to get a photograph of a pair of Oystercatchers sharing their genes. A herd of twenty or so Curlew also made regular appearances. Good to see that the Short-eared Owls are still present around Hempholme and the local Barn owls are still following their usual crepuscular pattern of hunting.

Barn Owl-profile

I’ve also been privileged to witness a Marsh Harrier on several occasions. I have been unable to capture a good photograph to date and I don’t wish to tempt fate by sharing the the actual location but fingers crossed, I should be able to get some better images when the warm weather returns.

Finally, I’ve been watching a pair of Linnets nesting during the past week. I just love to hear their lyrical song; it just brightens my day. Here is a picture of the female perched on a hawthorn bush, surveying its territory.


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