Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag ““Nature photography””

Dancing on ice

Aurora & fish farm

Pursuing and photographing the Northern Lights can be fun but it does have inherent hazards that can lead to serious injury to the photographer and expensive repair bills for their damaged equipment. For those of us visiting the polar regions and unaccustomed to the cold conditions, then the dangers may go unnoticed. Extreme cold dulls the senses and coordination of mind and body becomes retarded.

On a recent trip to Iceland, I was persuaded, against my better judgement, to venture outside on a cold and very windy day. Within minutes, the back of my jacket was coated with wind-driven snow giving me the appearance of half-man, half-snowman.   Thirty minutes later, a brief lapse in concentration and a rather large wave led to me losing both my camera and lens to the sea. I learned a valuable lesson that day––think twice before executing each and every action.

Last night wasn’t that cold for a January in Finnmark. The thermometer indicated that it was around -12 C but the wind-chill meant it was more like -20 C. It was a severe shock to my senses each time I exited my nice warm car to set up my tripod for the dancing light-show. The aurora was spectacular but as always, brief and capricious. Each time I’d decided on a pleasing composition, the glowing plasma would move to another point in the night sky.

The solar wind and it’s earthly cousin were conspiring to make my life extremely difficult. Recent mild weather added my frustration as every flat piece of ground that wasn’t covered by snow had a veneer of sheet ice that was almost impossible to walk on and often, very difficult to see. Of course, I had had the foresight to bring some crampons for my winter boots but putting them on and taking them off at each location would have been time consuming, so I accepted the risk and left them in my suitcase at the guest-house.

Any photographer that has attempted to set up his or her tripod to take long exposures in windy conditions knows the frustrations of trying to achieve a stable platform. Carbon fibre tripods are a wonderful invention but their light weight makes them vulnerable in anything but a light breeze. Yes, I know that I could have attached a bag of rocks to the hook on the underside of my tripod in order to lower the centre of gravity but that solution may be satisfactory for a static location but entirely unsuitable for such a dynamic event in which the subject is constantly moving.

The hard ice was impervious to the spiked metal feet of my tripod and the frozen ground was just as impenetrable. At each position I had to search out a patch of suitable snow that was not too deep yet offered sufficient purchase. I understand that RRS makes a ‘rock-claw’ tripod foot that may have been more suitable but unfortunately, I had to manage with what I had with me.

The good news is that both my camera and more significantly, myself survived the experience and I returned to Alta with some wonderful images. However, without proper foresight and planning and awareness of the dangers, the outcome may have been very different. Finger’s crossed…I shall keep safe for the remainder of my trip to this beautiful region of Norway.

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

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?

Halcyon days and short nights

Badger emerging from sett

A few weeks ago, my young friend and gifted wildlife photographer Rory Selvey, invited me along to a well-hidden badger sett in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds. We sat there together with his mum and grandmother in the fading light waiting for a badger to appear. We spoke to each other in hushed tones as we watched and waited for these beautiful creatures to appear. After about an hour, a badger poked its head above the tall nettles, sniffed the air and swiftly disappeared. That was it. The moment was all too brief and neither of us dared to press the shutter to capture the moment as we didn’t wish to alert the creature and spoil the moment for each other.

A couple of nights later I returned to the sett alone. Once again, I waited for an hour or so and the inevitable happened. A badger appeared, sniffed the air and promptly disappeared. This time I did click the shutter and got two reasonable exposures. I felt guilty that Rory wasn’t there too and I’d like to thank him for sharing the location with me. I decided to leave them in peace and have not returned. I do hope they have a long and happy life!

Common Tern panorama

Back at the ranch, the local wildlife at Tophill Low appears to be flourishing. The common terns have made a temporary peace treaty with the black-headed gulls and are now sharing one of the floating rafts. The terns are always fun to photograph as they reel, spin and dive into the lake for a small fish before returning to the raft.

Common tern turn

I’ve also been fortunate enough to spot a fox cub or two as they practice their hunting skills amongst the tall grass and nettles.

Fox cub running

Young Fox cub

A pair of Roe deer I’ve been observing for a few months are both looking healthy, resplendent in their new summer coats.

Roebuck - spring evening

Roebuck sillouhette

The local raptors are busy as well and I have been lucky to get some clear photographs of Barn owl, kestrel and yesterday evening, a splendid male sparrowhawk.

Barn Owl

Kestrel perched

Sparrowhawk - male on willow

I’ve also had fun watching the whitethroats and sedge warblers collecting food to feed their respective families.

Whitethroat with blue damselfly

Sedge warbler with spider

Last but not least, several kingfishers are taking advantage of the warmer weather and delighting everyone with their colourful presence. Richard Hampshire (the local warden at Tophill Low) even constructed a humorous perch over at North Marsh which has become particularly popular venue for kingfishers and photographers alike.

Kingfisher toss

I watched and photographed this beautiful male kingfisher attempting to dismantle Richard’s handiwork…

Kingfisher vandal

Well, that’s it for now. I’m off to the Norfolk Broads for a few days next weekend to capture some of their wildlife residents. Meanwhile, please watch this space for a very special posting on Wednesday 26 June!

It was a new day yesterday…

Returning to an empty nest

The sudden shock of my alarm clock waking me at 3:30 am is tough; but the promise of some exquisite dawn light and the opportunity of taking some wonderful images spurs me onwards down the stairs. A couple of espresso coffees later and I am ready to greet a new day. The last of the late night revellers are winding their way home as I drive through Driffield and out into the countryside. A short walk through the dew-soaked grass soaks my boots but that wonderful spring aroma of hawthorn blossom and the silent flight of a barn owl prepares me for sunrise. The path is littered with sleepy buttercups, purple bugle and tall cow-parsley.

The egg bandit

I can hear the calls of the black-headed gulls long before I arrive at my destination. They appear to have won the battle for the occupation of the two tern rafts, leaving a solitary tern to fly from one side of the lake to another with a small fish in its beak, waiting for a chance to entice a female with its present. A gull nest by the side of the lake is raided by one of the local crows and I manage to capture the moment complete with the punctured egg’s contents spilling onto the grass. The local canada and greylag geese are doing well with the adults herding the chicks with flaps of their wings.

Roebuck sillouhette

Canada goose and goslings

A pair of roe deer wander idly across the a narrow spit of land between the two lakes silhouetted by the golden glow of the pre-dawn light. I watch as the morning mist swirls across the surface of the lake and glows fire-red in the light of rising sun. A pair of linnets have made a nest just yards from the hide and I watch with fascination as they forage for food and wipe their dirty short beaks on dry stalks to clean them before embarking on their next trip. Reed warblers flit from stalk to stalk, pulling on the silken spider silk and reeling in their prey like an expert fisherman.

Linnet female

Male Linnet perched

Reed Warbler

Back-lit Barn Owl

All too soon the explosion of colour disappears and the strong sun-light evaporates the mist and the harsh light makes me squint and cover my eyes with my hand. A barn owls makes one more flight before returning to its roost. The cormorants arrive one-by-one muttering to each other in their deep guttural voices. After five hours of observation and photography I’m feeling tired and hungry so I wind my way home via the farm-shop to a few hours of catch-up sleep.

The migrants return

Whitethroat warbling

It’s wonderful to see and hear the return of the migrants. For the past couple of weeks the morning air has been alive with the calls of various warblers and several cuckoos. It really feels like Spring! Barn owls are out hunting most mornings and evenings and kestrels and even the local foxes are all competing for the unseen rodents that remain hidden amongst the new vegetation. Territorial squabbles abound. The return of one of my favourite birds, the common tern is also a delight, though I suspect that the commandeering of the ‘tern raft’ by the black-headed gulls is more than a little nuisance. Still, first come, first served!

Cuckoo on willow

Cuckko on fence post

One of a pair of Great-crested grebes has also been very active. I suspect that the female has an active nest somewhere in the vicinity and the male bird has been fishing during much of the daylight hours. This has given me the opportunity to capture some great moments and to witness this elegant bird in some less than flattering poses. Still, it was interesting to see the huge paddle feet of this species.

Great-crested Grebe

Great-crested grebe rising

Great-crested grebe landing

I was delighted to see the local fox the other day. I watched with awe as it sprung into the air and pounced on an unfortunate short-tailed vole that it swiftly despatched and took back to its den. I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The photographs may prove a little disturbing but that’s nature I’m afraid.

Fox chew

Fox-with rodent and salad breakfast

Fox returning to its den

Barn Owl-Spring evening

It’s an ill wind…

Jökulsárlón winter sunset

For those of you who may be waiting for an update from my recent trip to Iceland, I’m afraid you may have to wait a couple of more weeks. I’m still processing my images and exploring different compositions. The good news is that I am now the proud owner of a brand new Nikon D4 and a 24-70 f2.8 lens!

The story started back in Iceland. We were marooned at a small hotel near Jökulsárlón when the weather closed-in. High winds and blizzard conditions meant that we could not travel so we spent the time braving the brutal conditions on the nearby beach, photographing the sea-ice against the fine, black volcanic sand. I had my Nikon D3s and my favourite landscape lens on a tripod when a sudden large wave caught me off guard and the whole kit and kaboodle ended up in the sea! I was furious with myself but I can tell you; sea-water and sophisticated electronics are not the best of bed-fellows. I e-mailed my home and contents insurance company from my hotel and informed them of the accident. Within two weeks of me returning home, I had a brand new camera and lens and since Nikon no longer manufacture a D3s, I was told that my replacement would be the new Nikon D4. Well, I wasn’t going to argue! I must say that my insurer was first class. I don’t usually endorse products or services on my blog, but I will make an exception and say that Hiscox people were fantastic; with great communications and a very prompt, friendly approach to my first, and hopefully last ever claim.

Barn Owl-rear view hover

The arrival of my replacement camera coincided with B.S.T. and extra of hour of light in the evenings. Though the weather has been cold, it has been very dry and the evening light simply marvellous. It’s been a real pleasure to watch the golden light and deepening shadows at dusk. Tophill Low was unusually quiet for the time of year but at least the local Barn Owls and Roe deer have been active. Richard Hampshire, the warden at Tophill Low has told me of the death of two Barn owls following the recent spell of cold weather. It could be that their food source (mice and voles) has had their population reduced by the flooding. So my advice to anyone photographing these birds is to do so with a heightened sense of empathy. Please be aware that these creatures hunt to stay alive and not just for our photographic pleasure.

Barn Owl-early morning flight

Barn Owl-hunting over drain

Apart from the local Roe deer and Barn owls it has been relatively quiet. I did spot the local one-eyed otter very early one morning and a pair of Kingfishers has been very active. I spotted a pair of Great-crested grebes one morning too. A lonely Redshank is often about and the Pied wagtails have returned to the reserve.

Otter-first light

Great-crested Grebe pair

Roe doe leap

Roebuck & Jackdaw

So how is my new camera performing, I hear you ask? Well, I’ll let my latest pictures do the talking!

…that blows nobody any good.

A cold, cold March

My first Aurora sighting

It’s almost a couple of weeks since I returned from Iceland and I’m still slowly trawling through my catch. I hope to bring you an account of my trip (assuming your interested) in the next couple of weeks. The picture of the Aurora above is one of my favourites from my trip.

Barn Owl-cold Spring morning

Meanwhile, I’ve spent a couple of very cold mornings at Tophill Low and a delightful Friday evening showing some pictures to the good folks of Lund village. Richard Hampshire’s recent blog mentioned the untimely death of one of the local Barn owls. It’s always sad to hear such news but I can confirm that a Barn Owl was hunting this morning as usual, so this must have been another owl?

Black-headed-gull

Cormorant and B.H.Gull

Black-headed gulls were present and diving on the cormorants and curlew. However, it was this morning’s bitter easterly wind blowing directly at me for four hours that finally made me give-up and return to a nice, warm bed.

More later…

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