Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag ““Wildlife photography””

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

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


“…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?

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!

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

A hesitant Spring…

Spring spring

Finally we have been treated to a spell of mild, dry weather. The cold northerly and easterly winds have been replaced by their southern counterparts and it looks as though Spring has arrived at last. The trees are beginning to bud and blossom and the local wildlife are busy preparing for the next generation.

Of course, the local predators are always around to take advantage of the situation. Very early one morning, I managed to get a photograph of the local fox with a goose eggs between its jaws; it’s remarkable that such a savage jaw could hold a fragile egg with such delicacy.

The swallows have also returned. Initially, in small groups but yesterday evening, there were more than fifty skimming over the surface of the lake. I managed one decent photograph but anymore would certianly lead to madness. A pair of common buzzards have been visiting on a regular basis and trying to keep their distance from the local jackdaw and black-headed gull communities.

The local barn owl seems to have paired up too and appears to be doing well despite the increased competition from other predators. I was about a hundred yards away from one of the owls the other night when it turned and issued a warning screech in my direction. I backed off straight away and the owl flew off. I was only trying to get back to my car!

But the most wonderful aspect of the past few weeks has definitely been the quality of the light. When the light is that good it’s so hard to stay at home! The last picture in this blog entry demonstrates this beautiful light. A single white horse from the neighbouring farm against a broken old fence. I just had to take a picture!

[As usual, please click on any image in order to see a larger version]

Coot runing on water

Great-crested grebe-dawn flight

Common Buzzard spring morning

Hungry Buzzard

Gull fight

Oystercatchers spring mating

A proud father goose

Red fox-egg thief

Swallow feeding

White horse and drain

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.

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