Wildlife photography, Ardnamurchan, June 2016 (Part 2)

Our third full day in Ardnamurchan looked to be stunning so we decided not to miss the morning and got up at 3.15am to drive out to the lighthouse, the most westerly point in mainland Britain. The drive was amazing. Incredible views along single track roads with passing places through some beautiful scenery. I have to admit to being a little anxious about the roads. It’s not the fact they are single track, more that if I had an issue with the car we have zero phone signal and hadn’t seen a soul in an hour of driving. It seemed so remote but overall i guess as it’s the only road through that area, we’d just have to wait for another car if we needed help. We saw Red Deer as we drove, especially in the grazed / farmed areas where vegetation seemed sparse but actually saw little in the way of birdlife or other animals.

Arriving at the lighthouse there was a bizarre moment where we came across a set of traffic lights. It was around 5.30am and there isn’t anyone around and we are sat at a red light just before the lighthouse. When it eventually let us through to get to the car park you soon realise it’s too narrow for 2 vehicles so the lights are necessary.

We had a wander round and despite the great views across the water (this is a top place for sea watching if that’s your thing), came to the conclusion that there was much more to see (wildlife wise) where we were staying and so headed back. We were back at The Folly by 8am! This may seem a bit strange to some readers but I wanted to make the most of the photo opportunities at the Folly, sometimes you just have to see what you might be missing to appreciate it!

 

As I unloaded my gear from the car I popped the camera on the tripod and was wondering just how accommodating the birds around the table would be with me actually standing outside and not particularly hidden. The sun was well positioned over my shoulder even if the light was a little bright by this time. As I was just checking out my settings I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and couldn’t believe when I looked up slowly to see the Pine Marten running around in broad daylight. It’s moments like these where experience pays off and I quickly changed my camera settings whilst keeping track of the amazing creature that had now hopped onto the log where food had been left the night before. I switched to Qc mode (continuous quiet) to reduce the shutter noise (10 frames a second on continuous high speed sounds like a machine gun still) and began to take images. I was scared to move a muscle and any time I looked up was in slo-mo so as not to scare off my subject.

 

It’s moments like this that you dream of as a wildlife photographer and I had no idea how long he (I’ve assumed!) would stay. It may only be a few seconds so despite there being a bit of an obstacle in the image I still took quite a few shots – it’s actually the end of a hand rail that was ruining my perfect moment as you can see in the image below –

 

 

Pine Marten (with annoying white blur!)

Pine Marten (with annoying white blur!)

A beautiful image but (to me) ruined by the white blur of the out of focus obstacle.

Although he was checking on me every so often, he really didn’t seem particularly concerned by my presence. I was partially hidden behind the camera (he couldn’t see my face) and the tripod. I decided I had to take the risk and very slowly lifted my whole rig a few feet off the ground and took some slow steps to my left to eliminate the obstruction. I was walking on gravel but thankfully he stayed put. I was then able to take lots of images unobstructed and just appreciate what a stunning animal this is –

 

 

 

Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

Oh and all those little white specks in the air in the image above – midges! I’ll come to those later…..

Pine Marten portrait, Ardnamurchan

Pine Marten portrait, Ardnamurchan

I shared a few minutes with this stunning animal as it sniffed around and found a few scraps of food from the night before and still couldn’t believe my luck. What surprised me even more was what happened next – he’d clearly had enough of whatever was around the log and so came to investigate me a little closer. He hopped off the log and slunk round the flower pots to see what I was up to –

Pine Marten coming to investigate

Pine Marten coming to investigate

Pine Marten face close up

Pine Marten face close up

He came so close I was not able to fit him in the frame so took some close ups instead. What a moment, doubt I’ll ever forget it and this really was the icing on the cake for our Ardnamurchan experience. By the way, the white spittle above the eye is Cuckoo Spit from when he came through the undergrowth. This wasn’t to be our last sighting either……….

As I’d had such a good chance to get images it meant that I could later experiment with my flash setup if he returned at night. I decided I’d try putting one behind the log and one in front to try and get some “rim lighting” or backlit shots.

A few more of the birds that were our constant company –

Siskin male, Ardnamurchan

Siskin male, Ardnamurchan

Redpoll feeding on ground, Ardnamurchan

Redpoll feeding on ground, Ardnamurchan

Siskin in flight

Siskin in flight

Yellowhammer feeding, Ardnamurchan

Yellowhammer feeding, Ardnamurchan

Yellowhammer feeding, Ardnamurchan

Yellowhammer feeding, Ardnamurchan

For those that may be interested, to get the ground level shots I’m sat in a dome hide with the camera at my feet poking through what would be the hole for the tripod leg. With the Nikon D500 I can use the flip up screen to view whats going on and to focus where required without having to lay on the ground myself. I haven’t really used the live view feature before but I’m starting to find more and more situations that it comes in handy.

Back to my night time attempts. I realise that ideally I should have 3 flash units for this as it would be better to keep two at the front and 1 behind….never mind! next time (i hope).

These first images were really close to what I was hoping for. Unfortunately my pre focusing was a little out so when viewed full size these images arent quite as sharp as i’d like. As a smaller image they work well though –

Backlit Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

Backlit Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

Backlit Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

Backlit Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

So with these images in mind, here’s a tip. Don’t think you can wander out in shorts and T shirt when the midges are in these kind of numbers. I stupidly did this a few times early in the week to either put out or collect my gear and got eaten alive. I was itching so bad! Even in the day it was sometimes necessary to cover skin areas with a deet based repellant (Skin so soft didn’t work for me!) and also we wore head nets when sitting around. Often that’s the key – if you are still they would be on you. My experience taught me to treat this like going out in blazing sun with no protection – you will suffer so make sure you are prepared. By the end of the week I had finally worked out the best ways to stop them getting at me. Has it put me off wanting to move to Scotland? Absolutely not.

Every night we also spotted a couple of Hedgehogs running around, an animal I haven’t seen alive in years down here in Hastings. Grabbing my gear and nipping out quickly to grab a shot was often what got me bitten…..

Hedgehog, Ardnamurchan

Hedgehog, Ardnamurchan

So our final night rolled round and I had one further chance at getting the backlit shots of the Pine Marten that I had in my mind. I made sure everything was correctly set up well in time and waited inside, hoping he would show. He certainly did but turned up when the light was only just dropping and the swallows were still on the wing…..and they really did not appreciate the visitor. They proceeded to dive bomb him as he sat down to eat. I tried to get this situation in a photo but knew that the ambient light would mean I could not possibly get the swallows sharp when shooting at 1/160s with the flash. If it was pitch black they would be but the ambient light would blur them in the images. I took plenty, trying to time the shots with the swallows dives and was looking forward to seeing just how they turned out. The flash behind certainly made the Swallow quite interesting.

Swallow attacking Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

Swallow attacking Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

I didn’t get quite what I was after but following his meal he then went to see if he could get to the swallows nest and we were treated to seeing him jumping through the rafters of the car port as he investigated a possible route. The swallows had chosen wisely and there was no chance of a meal from them and we had our last view of this incredible animal as he slunk back into the grass after leaving the swallows behind.

I enjoyed Ardnamurchan so much I really didn’t want to leave. It really did meet my expectations and then some. The top quality accomodation certainly helped but the variety of the wildlife and the photo opportunities have me hooked. I’ll certainly be heading back here again.

Although our short week here was over, we were heading down to Northumberland especially to visit the Farne Islands, which will be the topic for my next update. All I can say is make sure you have plenty of memory card space, it was incredible!

So i’ll leave you with a stunning panoramic view from one of the rocky outcrops in the bay of the fabulous Lochside Follies –

Ardnamurchan panoramic

Ardnamurchan panoramic

Hope you enjoyed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Ardnamurchan, Birds, D500, Photography, Scotland, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

Wildlife photography, Ardnamurchan, June 2016 (Part 1)

It’s been a dream of mine to visit this area on the west coast of Scotland and this year I finally organised a week in Ardnamurchan followed by a week in Northumberland. I have been up to the Isle of Mull before but flew, and the restrictive nature of flying on the gear I can take saw us agreeing to drive all the way. I live on the south coast (Hastings) so it’s a pretty long trip so an overnight stay was organised for Gretna Green to break the journey.

Now what sums up the days drive from Hastings to Gretna? AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. Ok that’s about it.

Leaving Gretna we had a relaxing drive as we skirted Glasgow, then through stunning scenery around Loch Lomond and through Glen Coe, finally arriving at the car ferry at Corran for the short hop across the water. Once across the water we followed the road to Salen (and grabbed some food shopping) and on to where we would be staying for the week. The drive along single track roads (quite safe with passing places) and the amazing scenery was a sign of things to come. With pristine woodland, mountains and lochside I could quickly see this was a nature lovers paradise. Another 30 minutes drive from Salen to just before Ardslignish saw us arrive at our accommodation at Lochside Follies.

There’s always a moment just as you arrive when you hope that where you’ve chosen lives up to your expectations and wow, did it! 4 unique self catering properties, along with the owners house dot the hillside in some of the most beautiful scenery you could hope for. We had chosen “The Folly” which sits alongside a byrne at the bottom of a wooded slope and faces Loch Sunart and the far hills. In front were well kept gardens, then the (very quiet road), across which was a large area of ferns, low trees and marshy areas through which well cut paths led to the water’s edge of the loch.

The Folly, Ardnamurchan

The Folly, Ardnamurchan

The Folly, Ardnamurchan

The Folly, Ardnamurchan

There is a steep walk up behind the Folly – this is the view, well worth it… You can just make out the Ruin (another choice of accommodation but don’t let the name put you off!) towards the bottom of the image.

Ardnamurchan view

Ardnamurchan view

The great thing about this location was the very friendly welcome and that we were free to wander anywhere on the extensive grounds. I’d already checked it was ok to put up camera traps and a hide just in case I wanted to use them.

Wildlife photography was the main reason for visiting and I was really encouraged by reports of Pine Marten in the visitors book. Our first walk down to the shore line (all within the grounds of the property) revealed Common Seals lounging in the bay just offshore and a shoreline that we were told holds Otters. We also spotted Red Deer just outside the perimeter. Birds were calling from all around, some I was very familiar with such as Whitethroat, Yellowhammer, Chaffinch, Pipits and Song Thrush and others took a little investigation to find out what they were, such as Siskins and Redpolls. After a long day there was just time to set up the camera trap and bait an area with peanuts and peanut butter to see what might be tempted during the night.

I couldn’t help but get up early and wander with the camera. I walked slowly down to the shore line listening to the birds and watching for larger animals. I walked quietly along the shore line and onto one of the small peninsulas just in time to see an otter heading inshore with it’s catch and so hastily grabbed a few shots –

Otter with fish

Otter with fish

Otter with meal on the rocks

Otter with meal on the rocks

I think my inexperience with these animals meant that the otter was well aware that I was there and headed straight over the rocks without even having a look back. Not the otter images I had hoped for but a great sighting even so.

I didn’t take many more images that morning but I did grab my trail cam on the way back in and had a quick check to see if it had been triggered. I was delighted to see that there was indeed some clips, and, even more exciting was that when played back there was no doubt of a Pine Marten in the area. Game on! I now knew that I would be setting up my remote camera and flashes that evening to try to get some shots. I’ve included one of the clips below. The quality isn’t great but there’s no doubt about the animal that triggered it. One tip though…If you are going to put out a trap with a view to finding out what visits when, it helps if you actually set the date and time ….DOH!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/126511863@N06/28029005406/in/dateposted-public/

The light wasn’t the best later in the day but I took some time to photograph birds that were visiting the bird table. There were so many Siskin around, a bird that I tend to only see in winter, and not every year, that I jumped at a chance to get some decent close up shots. It’s surprising just how yellow these little birds are –

Male Siskin on lichen, Ardnamurchan

Male Siskin on lichen, Ardnamurchan

Male Siskin, Ardnamurchan

Male Siskin, Ardnamurchan

There were plenty of the more common birds that I would expect to see such as Chaffinch, Blue, Coal and Great Tits, the odd visit from the Blackbirds and Robins and also the Great Spotted Woodpecker. One other visitor that I definitely don’t get to see in my garden (in fact have ony seen a couple of times at all) was the Redpoll. Another small finch that wasn’t shy.

Redpoll, Ardnamurchan

Redpoll, Ardnamurchan

Redpoll feeding on ground, Ardnamurchan

Redpoll feeding on ground, Ardnamurchan

Later in the day I again walked down to the shore line to see if I could get any otter images. No luck but a bird call from a small tree close by had me pointing the lens and waiting to see who the culprit was. Eventually I spotted a Yellowhammer making a constant single call and moving about every so often. I stood and watched and eventually it flew into the open and perched perfectly on a flowering floxglove flower. I couldn’t have asked for a better perch….

Yellowhammer perched on Foxglove, Ardnamurchan

Yellowhammer perched on Foxglove, Ardnamurchan

Yellowhammer singing from foxglove, Ardnmurchan

Yellowhammer singing from foxglove, Ardnmurchan

I really struggled to get any good images as the light was pretty poor and for once I hadn’t taken my tripod with me so was handholding the 500mm lens. Even with VR on I only just got these couple of useable images from 10 or so that I managed in the short time he perched perfectly on the foxglove.

Having confirmed via the trail camera that the Pine Marten was about, the next couple of nights I baited an area and set up my camera with a couple of remote flashes and waited to see if it would once again show. I don’t have any experience with these animals but I do know they are mainly nocturnal so made sure all was in place at dusk. I fire my remote setup manually using Pocket Wizard Plus X units. One in the camera hotshoe, and one each attached to the flash units, normally placed away from the camera and facing 45 degrees to where I hope the subject will stop. This should stop any red eye issues. Our second night and once again the Pine Marten showed up at around 10.40pm. I took maybe 30 or so images using the remote in my hand and once the visit was over, retrieved my kit and checked the images. Not so good – subject was too small in the image and the images were fairly dark…I’d set up too far away and had the flash unit power set a little low.

The next evening I moved the setup closer and boosted the flash power. This time the images were better but could still use some work. Distance wise the kit was about right but the images were still a little dark. A few tweaks still needed but I did manage one or two images I was reasonable happy with….

 

Pine Marten eating - Ardnamurchan

Pine Marten eating – Ardnamurchan

Pine Marten - Ardnamurchan

Pine Marten – Ardnamurchan

Next update (soon) – more Marten action, Hedgehog, redpoll and more siskins. And Midges…..

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in D500, Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , |

Signs of spring…

Finally, after what seems to have been a winter devoid of decent light the weather is picking up and the glimpses of sun have spurred the wildlife into action for the breeding season.

After a recent trip to Rye where I saw (for the first time despite my hours spent on site) Short Eared Owls, but only close enough for record shots, I thought I’d head down to the harbour really early to catch the rising sun. There’s always the chance of something unusual too but I always feel I need to be the first round the paths to have a decent chance before anything has the chance to spook it.

What I love is that sound as you get closer to the pools and nesting islands at this time of year. The cacophany of the Black Headed Gulls and the shrill calls of the terns overhead is quite evocative and always means plenty of opportunity. I wanted to try and get some backlit shots as the sun rose so made sure I was there and in place around 30 minutes before sun up. I’m still trying to get to grips with the best way to expose for these shots but managed a couple which gave me further ideas for the future. The best thing about being there in place before sunrise is actually watching the sun come up and witnessing the change in the light, quite spectactular when the morning is right.

Black Headed Gull at sunrise, Rye Harbour

Black Headed Gull at sunrise, Rye Harbour

As expected there were plenty of birds wheeling around but I still found it really difficult to get more than a few shots I was happy with, it’s actually a bit harder than it seems! One shot that I did like the lighting on was this interaction between a pair of gulls –

Dawn Gulls, Rye Harbour

Dawn Gulls, Rye Harbour

A good practice but within 20 minutes or so the light has completely changed and time to switch to more conventional shots.

The Black Headed Gulls were in busy mode and many were gathering nesting material for their nests so always a great chance for a photo or two.

Black Headed Gull with nesting material - Rye Harbour

Black Headed Gull with nesting material – Rye Harbour

Black Headed Gull with nesting material - Rye Harbour

Black Headed Gull with nesting material – Rye Harbour

There were also one or two other waterbirds around but it was really noticeable that the bulk of the wildfowl had moved on with only the resident duck species easily visible. One which I see often at distance but it appears to be rather shy at this site is the Shelduck, the first time one has been close enough to get reasonable images – this one was feeding on a shallow bank just out from the hide –

Shelduck - Rye Harbour

Shelduck – Rye Harbour

The ever present tufted ducks were also giving the occasional swim past – this ones a male –

Tufted Duck male - Rye Harbour

Tufted Duck male – Rye Harbour

If you keep your eyes and ears open there is also another gull of interest, a scarce visitor in the shape of Mediterranean Gulls. These are really attractive birds and I was lucky enough to have a couple of pairs spend a short time on the shingle island in front of me –

Med Gull with leg ring - Rye harbour

Med Gull with leg ring – Rye harbour

I have reported the sighting above so that the data can be gathered about the leg ring. I had a quick look online and the ring seems to indicate the bird has come from France. Just a quick hop over the channel then. I would encourage anyone to report sightings as the information really helps build a good picture of the movement of any ringed bird.

Mediterranean Gull - Rye Harbour

Mediterranean Gull – Rye Harbour

No Short Eared Owls on this visit but still some great action and loads to see.

Additionally the garden is also showing signs of spring. As you’ll probably know I try to help nature along wherever I can and so have put out animal wool for the birds to gather for nesting. It’s a shame that the first interest coincided with awful grey skies but still interesting behaviour –

Blue Tit gathering wool from my garden

Blue Tit gathering wool from my garden

Blue Tit gathering wool from my garden

Blue Tit gathering wool from my garden

I highly recommend collecting wool if you see it while out walking or try to source some woolpack insulation, which is what I’ve used in the above photos. This came with a meat delivery for Xmas!

Another tip is to leave apples out for the birds to eat. You may think this is mainly a winter thing for birds such as Fieldfare, Redwing and Blackbirds but they actually still get plenty of attention in springtime. Mostly it will be the Bluetits that will be having a quick snack but if you are lucky enough to get passing (or even long staying) Blackcaps they will love it!

Blackcap portrait of a garden visitor

Blackcap portrait of a garden visitor

Blackcap eating from apple in my garden

Blackcap eating from apple in my garden

 

 

 

Posted in Birds, Nikon D7200, Photography, Rye Harbour, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

One month, 2 goals!

February 2016 has been an interesting month for my photography and I hit two of my personal goals.

Firstly I was contacted by Bird Watching Magazine who were interested in using one of my images for their latest front cover. This is my first national magazine front cover so am really pleased. They’ve done a stirling job with the image of a Little Egret walking towards the viewer with all it’s plumes on display (if that’s the right way to describe it!). I took this image at Minsmere and believe it may have been displaying to another bird that was hidden behind vegetation just in front of me. This lasted for all of around 5 seconds as it took a few steps towards me then the moment was gone as the bird disappeared out of sight. Shows you really need to pay attention at all times or you could miss it!

my first national front cover

my first national front cover

The second goal was reached when the shortlisted images were announced for the Bird Photographer of the Year, a new international competition. I only managed to squeak through one shortlisted image but am really pleased. When you check the names of the shortlisted photographers you can see how tough the competition is. The shortlisted images can be found HERE

 

Posted in Minsmere, Nikon D7200, Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , |