Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag “Photography”

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.

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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.

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

Heavens above

Heavens Above!

I had been planning a trip to this abandoned church for a few weeks. What I needed was a clear forecast with no cloud cover and a late rising moon. So, on the evening of Wednesday 15 August 2012, with the favourable conditions, I set off with my camera and tripod. The church is situated about a mile from the nearest road and about six miles from the neighbouring town. It’s also located in a deep valley, which I hoped would provide a safe haven from any surrounding light pollution. Those of you that are lucky enough to live in the East Yorkshire area will probably have already guessed the location. Unfortunately, as I do not wish to ‘awake’ or provoke the owner of this historical site, I shall have to remain silent on the subject to everyone else.

Talking of silence, being alone in an old church grave-yard, miles from anywhere in the middle of the night, is something that everyone should experience at least once! The sounds of the birds subsided slowly as the light faded. Even though there was no moon, it was still light enough for me to move around without my torch; and I really wanted to prolong my torch batteries for the walk back to the car. Thankfully, there was also a light breeze that kept the biting insects at bay. I must be honest here and admit that on a couple of occasions, I shone my torch into the surrounding bushes when I heard a mysterious rustle. Mostly, it was very peaceful. I could hear the screech of a Tawny Owl and the odd Bat would fly past, but fortunately, there wasn’t a zombie or a vampire to be seen!

I arrived at the location shortly before sunset. I scouted several promising view-points but kept changing my mind. Eventually I decided to use my 14-24 wide angle zoom at 15mm from inside the church with the lens pointing in a north-westerly direction. It took until around 10:00 pm before I had everything ready and the interval timer set on my Nikon D3s. I adjusted my camera to manual focus, selected Jpeg quality for a change to keep the file size small, opened the aperture to f4 at ISO 200, and set the exposure time to 30 seconds. I’d programmed the interval timer to give me exposures with one second between frames and then I pressed go. A quick calculation convinced me that an hour or 120 frames would give sufficient frames to make a pleasing star trail.

Unfortunately, everything didn’t quite go to plan. After thirty frames, the camera’s sequence suddenly stopped. I fiddled about with the Intervalometer settings but to no avail. Eventually, I just decided to reset the camera after each thirty or so frames. [Note: I eventually discovered that a D3s shutter speed is slightly more than 30 seconds and by using a 1 second interval it would ‘catch-up with itself’ and fill the buffer after 30 frames. [I have since learned that the interval between each frame should be a minimum of 3 seconds]

After an hour of listening to the constant clockwork click of the mirror and shutter, and jumping up to reset it every 15 minutes, the deed was done. I took a couple of ‘black-frames’ with the lens cap on just in case I needed them later for noise removal purposes [I didn’t], and waved my low-powered torch around the internal walls of the roofless church during a couple of exposures. Finally, I raised the ISO from 200 to 800 and opened the aperture fully to 2.8. This gave me an extra three stops additional exposure value, and so I made a couple more exposures at this setting too.

I arrived home around 1:00 am and loaded the images into Adobe Lightroom 4 before I had a beer and retired to bed. Next morning before work, I made several adjustments to the first frame in the sequence, including cropping, and then applied these changes to the rest of these 119 Jpeg images. I then exported these images to a new folder on my computer’s desktop. I downloaded a shareware copy of StarStaX for my Mac and loaded the files. I followed the instructions and moments later I was delighted to see the completed arc of stars. I quickly added a foreground layer in Photoshop [instructions here] using one of my light-painted frames. The result was Ok so I posted it on my Flickr page.

The following evening I took another look at my image. Yuk! I’d stood there for an hour or more and this image did not reflect the location or its ambience. I went back to the original files, recreated the arc of Stars and then chose one of my last frames; where I had increased the exposure by three stops. This time, the shadows were convincing and the image went some way to representing my pre-visualisation of the scene. Of course, it also removed my woefully inadequate attempts at light-painting.

So what did I learn from my adventure? Trying something different is always the key to increasing my creativity. Perhaps next time, I’ll do some research beforehand and practice in my garden first!

Finally, if you downlaod a copy of Time Lapse Assembler, then you can use your original files to make a neat little movie.

Steam, Smoke & Laughter

Yesterday evening was Driffield’s annual Steam & Vintage Rally parade through the centre of town. Action kicked-off around 6:00 pm and the fun ended around sunset. The main thoroughfare was lined with spectators, many of them families with young children, all come to enjoy the steam powered spectacle. Of course, the real enthusiasts had probably spent the day at Driffield’s show-ground, talking to the proud owners of some of these magnificent machines. However, although I appreciate the wonder of the design and all those gleaming metal parts, I find that it was the people and their often humorous costumes, that I really wanted to photograph.

Saturday evening was the last night of the London Olympic Games and everyone appeared to be in high spirits. There didm’t seem to be any theme to the fancy-dress element of the parade; the more eccentric the better. Thick brown smoke wafted around in the evening breeze and you could smell the hot metal of the boilers on the towering traction engines. One thing that struck me was the absence of the usual fast food trailers. The pubs and cafés on the high street did a roaring trade. However, it was the local chip-shop that seemed to being doing the bulk of the business. In fact, I suspect that a trip to the chippy was the reason behind the rally in the first place! The whole event sparkled with good humour and I, and several other photographers, didn’t have to work too hard to get a great picture or two.

One of the main attractions this year were the steam powered cars. If you would like to know more about this rare and eccentric mode of transport then please visit this site, Steamcar.Net Here’s a picture of a wonderful Stanley car I took with, I presume, the owner by her side.

Couldn’t resist taking this photograph of the crowd as the first of the traction engines trundled into town…

The arrival

It was the children who were the real stars of the show. Here’s a few examples of their little boiler-suits and their sooty faces from my Flickr pages:

Chewing the wheel

The gloves

Bubble girl

Waiting

The costumes were fun too. Here’s another couple of humorous examples:

The pink straw

Pirate

Perhaps my favourite image of the evening was of this fantastic lady, relaxing with a glass of wine on the wheel of her huge traction engine!

Wine & wheel

It’s Hip to be Square

Wolds-Tree and Storm Clouds

I’ve always liked the square format ever since I borrowed a friends old Rolleiflex 2.8F TLR back in the early nineties. Since then I have owned several square format cameras including a second-hand Rollei SL66 and a chrome Hasselblad C. I still own the Hasselblad and use it whenever the muse takes me, though I must admit that I fell in love back in 1978, when I first saw one on the cover of Elvis Costello’s ‘This Years Model’ album. Now, in the digital age, nobody makes a square format SLR, though a square digital back can still be had for the price of a small family car.

There’s something I find so precise about the square format; it sort of forces you to study your viewfinder in order to achieve the best possible composition. There is a danger of producing images that are actually too formal if you don’t take care but I find it most useful to use the square format with wide and ultra-wide lenses. So as you may have gathered, I enjoy using the square format and have employed it in many of my latest landscape and seascape images. Though it may not always be apparent, I usually spend more time deciding on the position of the post-capture crop than I do with the rest of the processing of my image. Here’s a few examples from the past couple of week that you may enjoy:-

Wolds-Wheat Field and Sky

Wolds -Tree and Barley

Abandoned chapel and tree

Of course, there are many occasions when a square format will just not suit. I tried it with this image of the Sir Tatton Sykes’ monument, but eventually settled on this rectangular crop. I encourage you to check out the wonderful rich detail in these images, so please feel free to click on them to see a larger version on my Flickr page.

Tatton Monument-Sledmere

The more astute of you may also have noticed that these images are all a rather strange colour! Yes, I used Nik software’s Silver Efex Pro to convert the colour files into black & white and then I carefully toned them to match the mood of the moment of capture. I used to do an awful lot of dark-room work in the pre-digital days and I was always very particular about the toning of my images. Most of the time, I did not wish to create a full sepia effect and I hated to see prints that had the colour of a ginger biscuit. I found that if I carefully diluted the bleach, it provided me with much greater control of the toning process and I could achieve quite subtle effects; tones that I have tried to emulate some of the images below with Photoshop.

…and then here are times when I feel that a full-blown sepia effect is warranted. Most of these photographs were taken within an hour of sunset and in the images below, I tried to match the rich warm glow of the arable fields of the Wolds.

Wolds---Cloud and Field

Wolds-Car and Clouds

Thanks for your continued support and I hope to post another blog entry soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of the summer and your photography.

St Swithin’s day

Flamborough Head-sunrise

I left my house at 3:30 am last Sunday morning, St Swithin’s day, for the short drive to Flamborough Head. When I arrived, the car park was empty, just the sweeping light from the lighthouse enabled me to negotiate the steep path to the beach. The tide was ebbing as I set up my tripod with my Nikon D800 and my 14-24 lens. No need for filters just yet; not until the sun had risen. Setting my camera on aperture priority at f22 at ISO 100 gave me a thirty-second exposure. I set my focus manually, ignoring any hyper-focal distance. I just made sure that the foreground shingle was in focus, knowing that the immense d.o.f. of this lens would cover the remainder of the cliff features in the frame. I left my white balance as default as I knew that I could adjust it later in Adobe Camera Raw (A.C.R.) Now, I’m not a huge fan of ‘cotton wool’ surf, but the beautiful tones of the pale blue, pre-dawn light was irresistible and I made several exposures with camera set on mirror-up and using a hand-held cable release. Here’s the best of the ten or so exposures I made…

21 minutes before dawn

I like the quarter moon peeking out in the top of the picture. Just wish there had been less movement of the clouds. Still, I love the ethereal, translucent tones of the sea and the rosy glow on the horizon.

A few minutes later, I had settled on a promising location for the actual sunrise. Two clumps of kelp would provide foreground interest and a 3 stop neutral density filter would give me longer exposure and a 3 stop hard graduated filter would give balance, taming the bright sky and allowing me to capture the shadow detail of the white chalk headland. I checked the placement of the horizon line of the graduated filter by using the preview button on my camera to stop down to the actual taking aperture, in this case f22. I poured myself a cup of black tea and waited for the actual sunrise. I learnt from my previous mistake with stray reflections from the Lee SW150 filter holder and used my hand to shield the rear of the filters from any direct light. I also remembered to close the shutter blind on my camera’s viewfinder. The picture at the top of this post was the best of six exposures. (1.6 seconds at f22 at ISO 100 at 16mm on my 14-24 Nikon lens on my D800)

A few minutes later, the dawn light had disappeared to be replaced by a beautiful golden glow. I spun around and looked up at the light-house perched precariously on the cliff edge. The sky was a deep blue and I liked the composition I had achieved with my 14-24 lens. Unfortunately, this lens won’t take a polarising filter (and if it did, it would probably only lead to an uneven sky) so I left my 24-70 with its warm polarising filter in my bag and settled on a 3 stop soft grad to cover the sky and the top of the cliff. Some unusual rock shapes in the foreground and a pleasant cloud pattern provided the remainder of interest. (1/20 second at f22 ISO 100 using a 16mm focal length)

Flamborough Head---Lighthouse

So, all three photographs were taken in just over an hour. I climbed back into my car at 6:00 am and spotted another photographer walking towards the beach. I just waved a cheery ‘good morning’ and secretly congratulated myself for getting up so early.

To really appreciate these images you’ve got to see them on a large scale. So please feel free to click on any of these three images to see them open in their true splendour. I’ve already made two large test-prints of the first two photographs in this post and they look stunning, especially together—they are sort of twins, one cool & one warm.

A New Dawn…

Sunrise-Tophill Low

I promised myself that when I bought my Nikon D3s last year, it would be my last camera. After all, it met all my needs: a fast frame rate, wonderful low-light performance and a battery that lasted for ever. Here we are six months later and I have already broken that promise. When Nikon announced the D800 a few months ago, I admit that my interest was more than a little perked . With a resolution of 7360 x 5812 against the D3s 4256 x 2832 and a pixel density of one-third the size was definitley tempting. I could envisage the possibilities long before the glowing reviews began to be published.

In wildlife photography, reach is everything. My 500 mm lens, even with a teleconverter, often meant that with the D3s, I had to severely crop an image in order to obtain the image that I had pre-visiualized. So, I took a deep breath and ordered the Nikon D800. I have had the camera now for less than a week and I’m already impressed with its capabilities. To me, cameras are tools; I don’t follow trends or buy equipment to boost my ego. I rarely discuss my purchases and although I treat my equipment with respect, I have long since stopped reading the pixel-peeping reviews of the latest and greatest.

It’s far too early for me to report any firm conclusions of the D800. I will leave that to another blog entry when I have fully explored the camera’s potential. Suffice to say that my early impressions are extremely positive. So rather than bore you with any further technical details, here’s a few images that I have taken with the D800 during the past week…

As usual, please click on a picture to see a larger version.

Swans-misty morning

Barn Owl in flight-profile

Barn Owl-hovering

Grey Herons-in the rain

Little-Egret

Duck at dawn

Yes, I know that in my last post I said goodbye to the fox cubs. Well, maybe not!

Fox cubs chasing

Fox cubs-fighting

Goodbye Fox, Hello Terns

Fox cub face

I’m happy to report that the two fox cubs I’ve been observing for the past several weeks are doing well. They have both gained their independence and are now exploring their new territory. Recent rain and bright sunshine has tripled the size of the vegetation making it extremely difficult to get a reasonable photograph. So I will leave them in peace and wish them well.

Well, when one door closes, another opens. I have spent the past couple of days over at the Tophill Low marshes. I must admit that I’m not a great fan of gulls. Their endless raucous calling is not sweet music to my ears. However, the graceful flight and the rather less objectionable voice of the Common Tern is at least, bearable. The breeding season for the gulls and wildfowl is well underway and it has been fun watching the mating displays and territorial battles.

One particular pair of Common Terns caught my attention. Mating over, the male bird flew off to find its partner a fish. This happened several times, on each occasion the female accepting the gift of a small fish. Just before sunset, the male bird returned once more with a plump looking fish but despite several attempts, the female declined the offer and the male Tern gave up and swallowed the meal. Here’s a few photographs that illustrate some aspects of their courtship behaviour…

Common Terns-mating

Common Tern-with fish_1

Common-Tern with fish_2

Common Terns-sharing

The local Shelducks have been active too. Several pairs have been fighting over territory, both with their own species and with the Black-headed gulls. Lots of splashing and wing flapping and the occasional nip to the rear of their rivals…

Shelduck-pair

Shelduck-bite

I was very lucky to see what I believe to be three Temminck’s Stints on Sunday evening. Bird identification is one of my weaker points. So I have a call out to the warden, Richard Hampshire to verify my sighting. Richard has forgotten more about birds & wildlife than I shall ever know, so I await his expert opinion. Anyway, three birds flew in together and stayed for about thirty minutes. These birds are very small, about six inches long in old money, so I apologise now for the quality of the photograph. [Edit – Richard has just informed me that this bird is a Common sandpiper — now I feel a right fool! Just goes to show that you’re not to trust anything I say when it comes to bird identification!]

Elsewhere on the reserve, I was delighted to see a pair of Great Crested Grebes pay a brief but welcome visit. I even managed to get a passable flight shot despite the dense, early morning mist…

Great Crested Grebe - pair

Great Crested Grebe - in flight

A pair of local Roe Deer also put in an appearance on that misty dawn morning…

Roe deer - dawn mist

I must confess that in the right light, I cannot resist taking a picture of a Swan. This one was in full attack mode with the golden evening light picking up the details of its fine white plumage.

Mute Swan-at sunset

Finally, don’t forget to click on an image to see a larger version. Before I return to my boring but essential domestic duties I will leave you with one of my recent humorous images that I must admit, always makes me smile. The flying rabbit!

Flying rabbit

Cuckoo – one flew over and perched.

Cuckoo

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird – William Wordsworth

I could hear a Cuckoo calling as I walked wearily towards the reserve in the pre-dawn light. The dew from the long grass had soaked through my boots and my socks were already wet. I settled down in a convenient spot and waited for the sun to rise. There was just a light breeze and the morning mist danced around the surface of the lake. As the sun rose above the tops of the trees the landscape was bathed in a golden light. I poured myself some hot, black tea from my flask and waited. Suddenly, the Cuckoo I had heard earlier perched on a nearby branch and began calling. The light was perfect and my camera clicked. It was fascinating to watch it make its characteristic eponymous call. I had always assumed that a Cuckoo’s beak must have needed to be open wide in order to emit such a penetrating call. But no, the ‘cuck’ was almost breathed through a partially open bill and the ‘oo’ occurred with its beak closed, resonating deep from within the chest cavity of the bird. If I’d been more familiar with the video controls of my camera, I would have recorded the whole event; but instead, I just watched in awe and disbelief.

Cuckoo-calling

When the Cuckoo moved to another, less convenient perch, I turned to face the mist covered lake. I thought I’d try to capture a silhouette that would do justice to the morning light and managed this shot of a distant Greylag goose greeting the dawn…

Greeting the dawn

The local vixen made a brief appearance complete with its breakfast for its two hungry cubs.

Fox with supper

The Canada goose family in the background managed to avoid the fox’s attention this time but I did notice that its six chicks had now been reduced to four. (Note: it’s now down to three!) The gander is particularly defensive at the moment; taking on everything that invades his territory. Here’s a photograph of the gander chasing off a Greylag that got too close. I can tell you that the greylag lost a beak-full of tail feathers during this encounter.

Goose-Chase

The doe Roe deer are still present but I haven’t seen the stag for a week or two. Their coats are now looking a bit less tatty and have taken on a rich, rusty appearance. Here’s a picture of one of the females grazing on the shore of the lake and being harassed by the local Mute Swan.

Roe deer and Mute Swan

The local Barn Owl was out hunting most mornings and evenings, even in the rain. Pity it never got really close, but still it was a marvellous sight.

Barn Owl-returning with prey

Finally, I was rewarded with a good close view of the vixen’s new cubs last night. They both seem fit and healthy and are now, clearly quite independent from their mother. I hope to get some further photo opportunities in the near future, if it ever stops raining.

Fox cub

As always, please ‘click’ on any picture to open up a larger version.

Bayerischer Wald

Lynx_2

Sunday 5th February saw me struggle out of bed at 4:00 am, sweep six inches of snow from the car and drive along foggy and wintry roads to reach Manchester Airport. The driving conditions on the Wolds were poor and I was relieved when I made it to the M62. It was below freezing when I reached the airport and I was delighted that the flight to Munich was still on schedule.

Bayerischer Wald is in Bavaria, West Germany and is largely unknown here in the U.K. It is a huge area of forest that spans the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. There are two main centres on the Bavarian side: one at Lusen and the other a few kilometres away, in Falkenstein. If you are consulting a map, then Grafenau and Spiegelau are the two nearest towns. (This link gives detailed information about the area)

I met up with my three Dutch friends (and fine photographers) Michael, Michel and Gert at Munich airport and after a short stop at a shoe store, so Michael could replace his clogs, we headed for the car rental. Formalities over, we loaded the car and drove NE for a couple of hundred km. Michael’s Sat Nav took care of the route finding and we watched with wonder as the outside temperature gauge dropped from -5C to -15 C. We arrived at Altschonchau around eight, too late for dinner so we had to console ourselves with several glasses of the local Pilsner lager. The Hotel Moorhoff is in a superb location, only a couple of kilometres from the entrance of the park and looking out over a wild and wintry landscape covered with over a metre of snow.

After an 8:00 am breakfast and short stop at the local supermarket to stock up on some goodies, we headed for the Park entrance at Lusen. Our intentions were to photograph the European Wolves and Lynx that are kept in large enclosures on each of the reserves at Lusen and Falkenstein. Several species of native european animals including Brown bears, lynx, wolves, bison can be found here. It is, I suppose, a sophisticated zoo but one with plenty of photographic opportunities.

European Wolf

I must confess that it did trouble my conscience to be photographing captive animals. I would much rather photograph creatures in a completely natural setting but this is not always possible. So, I forgot about my personal conflict and just concentrated on obtaining the best possible photographs in the short time available. All the animals appeared to be in good condition; though I refused to photograph the Owls in their tiny aviaries.

During the week, we visited both centres. The one at Falkenstein had a wooden bridge construction that spanned over part of the very large wolf enclosure. You could take excellent photographs from the bridge but most resulting images would suffer from the dreaded ‘zoo perspective’ (looking down at the animal or bird rather than the ideal, which is shooting at their eye level). Setting up your tripod on the bridge is permitted but the adjacent foot-traffic will prevent you from achieving a perfectly sharp shot. Of the two centres, I prefer the one at Lusen.

Wolf-eating

The highlight of the week was the feeding of the wolves. Accurate feeding times were difficult to discover but at the Lusen reserve, around 2:00 pm on Wednesday, the body of a deer was unceremoniously dumped from a truck by two keepers and the following feeding frenzy was probably captured by at least a score of photographers. Not exactly natural, but what a spectacle!

Wolf-eye

Lynx_4

Photographing the two female lynx at Lusen was a delight. The conditions were perfect. Bright, low sunshine and all that wonderful snow to throw light back into the shadow areas and reduce the contrast. The Lynx look and act like big pussy-cats and it was wonderful to see their breath condense in the cold morning air. I used my 500 f4G VR lens on a tripod for most of the week. I wish I had brought a second body for my 300 mm as well. Most of the photographers appeared to be from Germany or Holland and most were packing their expensive cameras with long lenses. I was interested to be shown a new gimbal head that was designed and manufactured by the owner, Alfred Krappel. It seemed to function very well indeed. I’m not sure that the world needs another gimbal but if it did, then the EKI model sure looked good and solid.

I found it unusual to see so many photographers using hand carts to transport their heavy photographic equipment within the two reserves. Their shiny and expensive carts probably had snow-tyres too! A good idea but not practical for those like me, who travel by plane. Maybe it could catch on at my local reserve of Tophill Low? Maybe something to explore as I get older?

I was glad that the cold temperatures had little effect on my camera’s battery capacity. We all took measures to prevent condensation forming when returning to the hotel. I just kept my bag zipped-up for a few hours until it reached the ambient temperature. It was cold, though! One day, my bottle of coke turned into a ‘slush-puppy’ and my chocolate bar, as hard as a ship’s biscuit. It may have been cold but at least it wasn’t windy.

European Bison

We tried several times to get some good photographs of the European Bison. Unfortunately, when they were close enough to photograph and not obscured by trees, they stood in a depression that hid the lower half of their bodies and legs. Still, after some patient waiting I did manage a couple of decent photographs. We also tried to photograph the Brown Bears but they remained stubbornly uncooperative.

I really enjoyed my trip to Bavaria and found the whole photographic experience exciting, but artificial. It left me feeling a little guilty for playing the part of voyeur. Still, it didn’t take long for me to convince myself that you don’t get many opportunities to witness and photograph such events in the wild. Carpe diem.

I would like to thank my Dutch friends for their kindness and generosity and patiently acting as translators throughout the whole trip. We all had a great time and had the good fortune of sharing some huge portions of excellent food (except the Italian/Indian restaurant in Grafenau — please give it a very wide berth), exquisite Pilsner lager and some terrible jokes. Thanks guys—see you soon!

Notice that the only photograph showing any ‘zoo perspective’ is the one above! Deliberate?

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