Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag ““Tophill Low””

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 – 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

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

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: 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


Grey Heron - flying with eel

Greeting the dawn


Marsh Harrier and rabbit

Sparrowhawk - male on willow


Great-crested grebe-dawn flight

Whitethroat warbling

Cormorant-returning to roost

Kingfisher hover_3

Roebuck - golden light of sunset

Spring spring

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