A short drone video of the amazing Kensington Metropark in Michigan, U.S. during Fall 2018
A short video clip of a Red Kite feeding in a local meadow, on a windy day. A second Red Kite attacks the raptor from above:
Recorded with a Canon 7D mkII and a Canon 300mm f2.8 L series lens
In the past few weeks, I have spent a huge amount of time studying why the Red Kites have not been feeding as regularly as they had been. I believe that the pair of local Buzzards may be part of the answer to the recent change in behaviour.
In my early days of wildlife photography, I believed that in mainland England, the Buzzard was top of the food chain and was the dominant raptor. I then observed some contradictory displays with some Red Kites dive-bombing a feeding Buzzard and Crows attacking the Buzzards in flight. There was not much in the way of retaliation from the Buzzards, which made me think they weren't as tough as I had imagined. I was wrong.
In the last few days I have seen an incredibly dominant display by the Buzzards, which has elevated them [IMO] once more to the very top of the English birds of prey food chain.
A very smart and cautious raptor, this Buzzard sat watching me as I watched him for circa 3 hours without moving. He always stayed hidden in the foliage of a near-by tree, using his excellent camouflage, until he at last popped out onto this branch [above].
I watched the male Buzzard flying from high in a tree straight towards the ground, where it collided with huge force into a female Pheasant. This impact resulted in both birds bouncing up off the ground about 3' in the air and then immediately launching into a flight-chase through the woods at the edge of the meadow.
On another occasion the male Buzzard set off from his watchful position and chased a pair of Crows around the meadow with an amazing display of aerial dominance. I was impressed at the agililty and acrobatic capabilities of the large raptor, with the corvids fleeing quickly into another field.
Two Red Kites had been patiently circling some food in the meadow and had landed in a nearby tree, watching and waiting for their chance to feed. About 20 minutes after they landed in the tree, I saw a Buzzard arrive in the next tree along. It just sat there without making any fuss or any noise. The two Red Kites flew off and didn't return for the rest of that day [several hours]. The Kites clearly understood the 'pecking order'. No challenge was necessary.
The Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) is a medium to large raptor with a range that covers most of Europe and Asia. The Buzzard measures between 40 - 60cm in length with a 110 - 140cm wingspan. This raptor can weigh 0.4 - 1.4kg. The Common Buzzard is an all year resident of the UK.
It was well worth the wait !
After spending the last decade trying to improve my wildlife photography skills to the highest possible quality level, my Osprey fishing images made a national newspaper. A 2-page centre spread no less. The Daily Star "Poster Power".
The caption reads:
BREAKFAST ON THE GO:
An Osprey lifts off from a loch near Aviemore in the Highlands after diving into the water (inset) to grab a trout.
I am so happy that a very wide audience will have seen one of my best images across the centre pages of their newspaper on May 1st 2018.
Light is everything...
Every wildlife photographer I know talks about light. Some do not like the harsh bright sunlight and actually prefer cloud cover, some are fortunate enough to live in Florida, where light levels are incredibly high. Myself, I live in the UK, where it rains almost every day, with grey skies and very low light levels are normal. Thank goodness I am moving to the U.S. next year :-).
I am learning, after more than a decade of wildlife photography, to give up with weather forecasts as they are wrong 9 times out of 10 on this tiny Island in the North Sea. I am also learning [very slowly], that you do not need clear skies all day. It only takes just a brief break in the clouds, while the wildlife is active. A good example is my most recent Kingfisher shoot, where I managed to capture my best Kingfisher image, and hence the reason for this blog.
My main photographic passion for the last 7-8 years has been Kingfishers. It started with me being thrilled just to see one of these incredible birds, but I moved on to perched images and then a ‘Kingfisher with a fish’. Next I wanted to try and capture a Kingfisher hovering just before the dive [with a little wing tip blur]. Of course, we always try to improve and after this I wanted to 'capture the moment' when the Kingfisher explodes from the water with a fish with splashes and water droplets everywhere.
To freeze a Kingfisher in its ascent from the water, back to its favourite perch, you need at least 1/2500 second shutter speed, faster is better. Depending on the quality of your camera body, an ISO of less than 4000 is highly desirable [very sensitive topic for some]. The level of background ‘noise’ is always debated, but I feel that high ISO noise in the background is poor. Aperture [depth of field] should in my opinion be between 6 and 8, to get the Kingfisher eye and bill in sharp focus, along with the fish.
So what does all this mean ? Well you need a high level of ambient light, especially when you consider most of this photography is taking place in a dark tree lined stream, pond or river.
I have learned to use periods of cloud cover and low light levels to practice my technique and to study the habits of the Kingfisher. I watch how it seems to stand tall and hold its breath moments before diving. By using this 'poor light time' wisely, I have developed some patience to wait for a break in the clouds that will allow the camera settings discussed above, to be realised.
During my most recent shoot, I had more than six hours of cloud cover, forcing my ISO setting up above 8000. Then, when there was a short break in the clouds, I was able to adjust to the ideal camera settings of 1/3200 sec, ISO 1250 and aperture of 7.1. The result is my best Kingfisher image, shown below in 72dpi low resolution [due to continued theft of my online images]. Note everything is © copyright protected for the same reason. You will need to take my word for it, but it looks awesome in a 3' 300dpi print.
I mentioned luck in the title of this blog, because even with great ambient light and all of the correct camera settings, you still need a lot of luck. A few examples of the luck you need are shown below:
1. Kingfisher eye/s open
2. Fish facing the correct way or at least looking like a fish in the case above !
3. Water droplets not obscuring the features of the bird and fish
4. Good wing position
5. Oh, and actually in focus - sharp
It has taken me between 7 and 8 years to get this image that I dreamed of, now what is next ?
After tracking down and finding a local brook where Kingfishers frequent, I thought I was set up for many months or even years of great images. How wrong could I have been ?
And then they were gone ! What happened ? Could they have succumbed to a predator ? Both the male and female ? Possibly while in their nest [tunnel] ? I was quite aware that the pair of Kingfishers should have been building their nest and maybe even sitting on eggs around this time... But if this were the case, the male should be fishing for two. For several weeks, there was no sign and more worryingly, not even the sound of Kingfishers along the brook where they had [not so long ago] been fishing most days.
Everyone who has tried to track down and photograph Kingfishers in the wild will know it is far from easy. In my opinion, Kingfishers are one of the most alert and nervous birds in the UK. Had I scared them off ? This is quite possible as I tried to get closer and find that perfect perch with a great featureless background !
I decided I had to try and think like a Kingfisher !!
To the best of my knowledge, Brown Rats, Mink and maybe Sparrow Hawks are the most likely predators in Oxfordshire. If I were a Kingfisher, how would I avoid being caught by one of these threats ? Then it dawned on me... The area that I had previously been successful had the banks cleared a couple of months ago, but now the grass, trees and nettles were flourishing in the spring conditions and were overgrown, creating perfect hiding places for predators to wait and strike. So I went about cutting back the over-grown bank side vegetation in the small area for which I have access. Within 24 hours the Kingfishers were back fishing as they were before the period of silence. Both male and female choosing their favourite perches as if they had never been away. While I am thrilled to see they are both alive and doing well, I am concerned to see the female fishing. I read on social media that plenty of Kingfishers around the UK are sitting on their eggs right now. I hope this pair are just a little late and that I start to see that tell-tail sign of a fish being taken away from the brook with its head furthest from the male Kingfisher, ready to pass to it's mate.
Fingers crossed these wonderful birds do raise a couple of healthy chicks this spring.
I am blessed to live in Oxfordshire, when it comes to Red Kites. They are plentiful and quite reliable if you set out to photograph them. The biggest challenge is to find a spot of blue sky for your background, as a typical English white featureless sky will 'bleed' into the head and neck feathers resulting in a wash-out.
Right now [April] the Kites are flying around our skies in pairs and the occasional trio [usually a second male, hoping to move in on the female after a squabble]. Today in Abingdon, there were two groups of Kites. Each group consisted of three pairs. Amazing to watch them using the thermals to glide around the countryside.
Below are some images of my local raptors.
For the last month, I have started to work on my own local patch of middle Oxfordshire. I am attempting to photograph the fast and elusive Kingfishers in their natural habitat. They are one of my favourite birds, as I find them fascinating to study and a challenge to photograph.
It is early days, but so far so good, with a few sightings and some early images taken (albeit with poor backgrounds and far from ideal lighting).
The small river I am focussing on is well away from any human activity, so these amazing creatures are very nervous. I will have to be very quiet and stay well hidden to be successful. Although the beginning of Autumn is usually a slow time for Kingfishers, the birds I have been watching are very busy and I estimate each bird is taking at least 10-15 fish a day. First activity starts before sunrise, which doesn't seem right for a bird that needs to clearly see it's breakfast before it can dive !
I will no doubt update the local Kingfisher endeavour over the coming weeks, as I plan to focus all of my attention here for a while...
This image above is one of my local male Kingfishers, in a typical pose, forcing me to shoot into the sun light, causing the very dark background. The small white tip on the end of the bill indicates that this is a juvenile bird, maybe 14-18 months old, but not fully mature yet. Its plumage is in very good condition [feather perfect], so I am pleased it seems to be in good health. This image was captured at at 500mm, f4, iso1600 and a shutter speed of 1/800sec. My Canon 1D-X and Canon EF-500 telephoto lens were sat upon a large bean bag for stability. Time stamp was 10:07am.
It may just be that I had a lucky day, but I'd like to think that my field craft is slowly improving as I learn what to look for and where our wildlife hunts for food. Combine this with a greater situational awareness and - well, I struck lucky this week in finding a busy Little Owl.
It is a strange feeling which I'm sure some of you have had, when you feel that someone, or something, is watching you. It is fair to say that the Little Owl spotted me long before I spotted it. Even with my best Realtree camouflage gear on and being as quiet as I could, there it was, peeking around the side of an old tree, that was covered in ivy:
I already had my 500mm lens fitted on the 1D-X and mounted on my Wimberley & Tripod, so I managed to shoot a few images before the Little Owl disappeared. A few minutes later it popped up several feet away on a clear branch, where I managed to get another few images. I then chanced my luck and quickly popped on a 2x convertor and increased the ISO to try and fill the frame a little more. I was really surprised when the Little Owl remained in place and allowed me to take another half a dozen images, before it dropped down into the long grass below.
There is a certain satisfaction when you go out to find an Owl in a new location and are actually successful. It doesn't happen too often for me. Mike
Along with many other Midlands based wildlife photographers, I am struggling to find the rather elusive Short Eared Owls (SEO) this winter. The usual hot spots have had a few showings and indeed, I have seen the SEO at distance and at dusk on a few occasions.
The weather forecast was looking good, so I decided rather than a late afternoon session as usual, to try the other end of the day - sunrise.
My drive to the unkept field where I hoped to find the Owls hunting at first light takes me just under and hour, so setting off at 06:15am to be in place and set-up by 07:15am. Expectation during the drive was high as the sky was almost cloud free and the temperature was just about 1oC. PERFECT.
No sooner had I clipped the 1Dx and 500mm lens into my Wimberley, I saw the flight of an Owl in the distance. Damn ! The light was still poor. ISO 1000, speed set at 1/1000/sec, a quick check of a test image was looking dark on the back of my camera body. It will be okay.
A couple more quick test images, zoom in and see what was flying - a Barn Owl - Wow !
The Barn Owl was flying and diving into the long grass, over and over. I counted 7 unsuccessful dives, but all of this taking place over 100 yards from my position. The Barn Owl stayed low and sometimes dived within one or two seconds of the previous dive. Lots of voles I have to assume.
The Barn Owl had flown back and forth along the far edge of this field twice now. I glanced over my shoulder to see that in another minute or two the sun would appear over the horizon and the available light should improve dramatically. It was starting to look good. I just needed the Owl to fly a little closer. Even at 75 yards, I would achieve a good image using the 500mm lens.
And then it disappeared off into the small copse behind the field. The sun finally rose but just too late.
I waited another two hours, enjoying a healthy and happy conversation with a local farmer who was walking his gorgeous Boarder Collie. No more Barn Owls and also no sign at all of the Short Eared Owls either.
As in previous blogs, the images I captured this morning are not worthy of a place in this website gallery, so will only appear here in this blog.
Thank you for reading. Please click the like button to the right of this text if you enjoyed reading this blog. Mike
The Cumberland River is a circa 700 mile long waterway that skirts Nashville, Tennessee, US and is a wildlife haven. A first place to visit for this photographer, each winter.
This year the weather is so mild (+74oF) that the wildlife activity was different from previous years and the hunt for food was nowhere near as frenzied as usual (for late December).
A focus on the Great Gray Heron, but always with a watchful eye to the sky, for a pair of Bald Eagles that have their nest close-by.
The Heron Rookery had around eight birds and the warm weather made this look like Natures Airport with birds flying in and out constantly.
The Bald Eagles were seen twice this morning, but both times at long distance and the images were poor quality and not worthy of a place on this wildlife gallery website. The Cumberland River Heron rarely disappoint the travelling photographer and although less active than they are in freezing conditions, a few keepers were possible on this trip.
At sunrise the big Red Deer Stag is manoeuvring his large herd of hinds away from the well worn 'walker footpaths' and into the large open field. He seems frustrated at the last two or three to follow him and snorts hot breath from his nose and mouth in disappointment.
At the top corner of the field, around 75 yards from the herd another male strides into view. The confrontation is not a physical one (that most photographers dream of witnessing), but a stare and an aggressive stance, is enough to deter, this time.
During the next three to four hours as I watch the behaviour of this dominant male stag through my 500mm lens, I cannot help but feel sorry for him. He is constantly on the move, rarely stopping to eat grass or vegetation like the hinds, until eventually he clears some ground and sits down. At each end of the field there is a challenging male of similar age, sat watching and waiting. This large dominant Red Deer is clearly exhausted, his eyes close with long delayed blinks and his neck seems weak at holding up those large and rather long (12 point) antlers and at one moment he starts to lay his head down to sleep, but quickly and abruptly sits bolt upright again.
Moments later he is up again and walking in between his hinds, tasting the air and checking out the safety of his herd.
This constant patrolling of the herd never stops while the sun is in the sky, even though the hinds spend a lot of time sitting and watching, along with the two stags that are waiting for their chance to move in.
It is not an easy life...
For more images taken on this day, please follow this link:
I'm not sure if Kingfishers will always be my favourite topic to photograph, but these stunningly colourful birds have been right up there in my top three for the last few years (along with a couple of raptors: Osprey and Bald Eagles).
My most recent Kingfisher shoot, was rather disappointing. I only saw the juvenile male Kingfisher twice in six hours and it only had one dive. It was successful in catching a small fish, but it flew off up-river to swallow the fish, rather than sitting exposed and vulnerable.
It did sit on its perch for a while enabling a few nice portraits, but I quickly realised what the problem was.
Overhead there were two rather vocal predators that preoccupied the young male. Instead of looking down for a fish meal, the Kingfisher was looking skyward as a Peregrine Falcon and then a large Common Buzzard took turns in frightening this beautiful Orange and Blue fisher (see image below of the Juvenile Male Kingfisher looking up - not down).
Undeterred, I will return to the river again soon, hoping to get that 'amazing moment' captured on digital media - forever.
Watching the weather forecast all week and looking forward to some Red Kite photography on Saturday morning. The weather was predicted to be clear skies and warm from sunrise at around 5:55am :-)
Bait prepared, lenses cleaned, batteries charged, snack and a drink in the fridge.
Alarm goes off at 4:15am, up with a spring in my step and chasing through the morning routines...
Breakfast eaten, gear in the car and off. 40 minute drive to my favourite place for these local raptors. Arriving half an hour before sunrise, there was complete cloud cover with hardly any breeze. The Met Office got this part of the day wrong. Undeterred I set up my 500mm lens with a 1.4 Ext and my Canon 1D-X body, then put the bait in my usual place and sat down to wait...
After 3 hours I had not taken a single Red Kite image. This is unheard of in this part of the world, usually there would have been 2 or 3 Kites circling the bait and spreading the word to their mates. NOTHING. The weather had improved and there were blue skies a gentle breeze and about 25oC.
7 hours and just a couple of long distance images taken. A complete waste of time.
I had my suspicions why the Kites were not feeding and on my journey home, I was proven right (for once). The farmers were very active in the fields today and the Red Kites were following the tractors around for their favourite food - worms ! One field (where I couldn't stop the car) I saw more than 6 or 7 Kites just above the Tractor. I hope to learn from the events of today, but I have a feeling this will not be the last time I head home disappointed and without any keepers. The image below is the best of a bad bunch :-(
As is now customary, I have decided to completely refresh my gallery website by starting again with a different software, called Squarespace.
After reading many reviews, I decided to give it a try, even though there appear to be several obvious shortfalls, such as protecting images from copying. I am hoping that the function is in here somewhere and I just need to find it.
Surely a website designed for photographers would help them protect their copyright © ?
Anyway, I would appreciate your comments and thoughts on this new layout and presentation of my images.