Angry Birds

I always like to set myself targets at the beginning of each year to help push myself into achieving goals and no matter how big or small they may be, ticking them off is always a good feeling. This year, I wrote down several species of bird I would like to work with and without doubt Little Owl was high on that list. I’ve struggled time after time with them, so many ‘almost’ shots, fleeting glimpses, but nothing memorable. A brief encounter with one in the southern regions of Morocco in 2016 was as good as it ever got for me, I was happy with my images but they just weren’t the shots I was looking for. Fast forward to May 2018, to the month where I was photographing Tawny Owl chicks fledgling, I would often see a Little Owl sitting on a nearby fencepost in the morning. The post was on private land and there was no access - unfortunately resulting in no images and after that, I didn’t see the owl again. I soon forgot about Little Owls but as time went on I found myself scrolling endlessly through Facebook, when luckily, a Little Owl hide popped up on my timeline. I am somewhat reluctant to use hides for species I know that if I put the effort into I could photograph them by myself, but on this occasion l quickly enquired and in the same week I found myself hopping the boarder into Wales for a session in the hide. Gary Jones, the owner of the hide and now a good friend of mine, has done an amazing job and the hide allows for so many different images of Little Owl to be achieved. I did two sessions in the hide last year and I took thousands of images, some of which were of the chicks that were still hanging around towards late September. It really was a relief to finally have Little Owl images I was happy with! To say the least the hide was amazing and I knew that my best chance of photographing them again this year was to return to the hide and that’s exactly what I did! 

Returning to the hide filled me with joy and I knew that I had to make the most of my time there and to try and shoot different images than what I did previously. All-in-all this year I have visited three times (so far) and I have left with incredible images and I was always smiling... To the left of the hide is a tree where the chicks fledged to last year and where the adults have been roosting and sitting when taking a break from feeding the young. During my second session in the hide the adult male perched in a few spots in the tree and because I couldn’t get the 600mm through the side window I had no choice but to use the 300mm and this is where my old-faithful lens came in handy. Looking through the viewfinder with the 300mm attached my images were incredibly wide and I knew it was important at the time to get everything right in camera, most importantly the composition and luckily I did. When editing I purposely didn’t crop these images and the wider view, including more of the tree, looked better then a big crop to try and fill the frame and I always remember reading photographer Arthur Morris’s blog where he said “add green whenever possible” and that stuck and worked perfectly for these images. These habitat styled images really show just how easy Little Owls can get lost and blend into their habitat which I find rather remarkable as their feathers are identical to the trees pattern - I also think because of their tiny size being in such a big tree appearing small in the frame makes then look rather cute and a little less angry than they usually do! 

One of my favourite images I have created at the hide so far was this headshot. It is an image that I have had in mind as soon as I saw how tightly the owls were framed when using the 600mm lens. The only hindrance to making this image was the minimum focus distance on the lens as the owls really do land that close which is bewildering! When this male owl landed it was just far enough away for me to focus and I knew that this was my chance. As it grabbed a few worms and scoffed them down it looked up for a brief second, staring straight down the lens - I fired a few shots and fortunately one ended up being sharp! Shooting at F4 created a few problems as the depth-of-field was incredibly small and as you can see the beak isn’t in focus, although this doesn’t bother me too much. So long as the eyes are sharp and in this case the chest feathers were as well, I am happy with the photo! By shooting the image landscape to begin with it made the owl seem tall in the frame and then in LR cropping it into a 2x3 portrait ratio the crop naturally made a frame-filling image and I only had to crop the corners of the image marginally so that there was no background showing. Little Owls always are the grumpiest owls of them all and without doubt have an angry expression to their face and this is exactly what I wanted to show! It is incredible to be so close to wild Little Owls without causing any disturbance, even the sound of cameras does not bother them!

I take two lenses to the hide, my 600mm F4 VR and 300mm F4 as I’ve mentioned. I use both lenses extensively however you could easily get away with using at 70-200mm or 80/100-400mm as a zoom lens would be more practical, especially if you want to photograph them in flight. The 600mm does have it’s advantages and is perfect for frame-filling close-ups which is just my style and the reason I use it - regardless of how cumbersome it may be - is because of how razor sharp the images are that it produces. The detail for the close-ups is breathtaking and that’s exactly what I need. Surprisingly, even with the 600mm I can create shots of them in habitat as the hide is operated on a working dairy farm and the owls often land on the fences and posts that are around. These images are personal favourites of mine as they’re different to your normal owl on a post and aesthetically they look interesting! Because the hide is surrounded by a farm it is even possible to have a cows back-side as your background! Each time I have been the hide the action has been none-stop and once the adult female started leaving the nest you could not take a break from clicking your shutter. As one owl left, the other arrived and this continued for the whole duration of the sessions. It is amazing to see Little Owls like this and to see how hard they work to provide food for their young! The hide really is fantastic and I have always walked away with amazing images. Kudos to Gary for working hard to create something amazing, in one respect I am massively jealous!! 

Eagles Aplenty

I have been lucky to encounter White-tailed Eagles several times in the past whilst travelling around western Iceland and the Isle Of Skye, but without doubt the best place to photograph them up-close and personal is aboard Lady Jayne with Mull Charters on Loch Na Keal, the Isle of Mull. Mull boasts amazing views of eagles and this was my main reason for visiting and I knew I had a pretty good chance of seeing one. From home, the drive to the Isle Of Mull was 6 hours and after a stopover near Dumfries, I was quickly in Oban and waiting for the ferry. I was buzzing with excitement, Mull had been high on my list of places to visit and finally I got the chance to go. After disembarking the ferry on the other side, it was a quick drive to the hotel, drop the bags and then head back out to find some wildlife. As well as eagles, otters were high on my list of species to see and straight away I was very fortunate to photograph two... It took a little while to find one, but after searching though the binoculars the sight of not one, but two otters was pure happiness. I watched from the road to begin with because they were a small spec in the distance, but as they neared it became apparent that it was in fact a mother with her cub! As they came on to land near where I stood I got my gear ready and waited for my opportunity. With my 600mm ready I took my chance to get close when mum went off fishing and left the cub sleeping on the seaweed. I managed to get close and hid behind a rock and as I settled and got comfy, so did the otter cub and it sadly went out of view. Every few seconds it would sniff the air and I could just see it’s nose poking up. Whilst mum was still out fishing the loch became very calm and soundless, so you could hear her crunching down on her food and before I knew it she was heading back in my direction. By this point the light was fading as she hopped out of the water and that’s when my heart began to race. I had never seen an otter before and this was my first encounter with one, it couldn’t have been better. With the 600mm I was creating frame-filling images and since the light was dull I didn’t need a high shutter speed as she wasn’t moving all that much. She stopped and paused many times, looking in my direction before returning to the cub for cuddles and play time. This was a very special moment and made me realise why I love wildlife and the great outdoors so much. Just when I thought things couldn’t get much better both otter cub and mum lifted their heads up and looked straight at me... What a night and what a great start to my time on Mull.

It was now time for eagles and I had two boat trips planned for the following two days. On route to the Ulva ferry port the sight of yet another otter made me smile as I was still buzzing from the previous night and by this point I was itching to get out on the water to see eagles! Getting aboard Lady Jayne was exciting and as we cruised towards where we would be photographing eagles seeing Great-northern Divers was a real treat. I have always admired all species of divers so getting to see them was amazing! As we continued further into the loch It wasn’t long before the words ‘eagle above’ came from Martin and within a blink of an eye the biggest raptor in the U.K. was right in front of me and it was from that moment on that my love for White-tailed Eagles was ignited. I have only ever seen them from a distance and I never really gave much thought of their size but as an adult soared past I was in awe, they are massive! Throughout both trips on the water it was the juvenile birds that stole the show as it seemed all my best images were of them... Don’t get me wrong, the adult eagles were still performing well in front of the camera but my errors burnt me on more than several occasions. One particular juvenile bird on the first trip missed it’s catch on more than once and each time pulled up and dived with more determination. When it pulled up, wings spread and looking down at the prize, it made for amazing images and finally, on the third attempt, it caught the fish. To photograph the White-tailed Eagles I used my old-faithful 300mm F4. Whilst only at 300mm, I was still able to create a variety of different images including close-ups and habitat shots. I much preferred including the habitat, the distant mountains which included Ben More made for more atmospheric photos and more often than not I am more inclined to shoot this way... The trips really blew my mind and as I said, I’ve seen eagles before, but never like I did on Lady Jayne. The views of them were truly thrilling and I am sure a none-wildlife lover would still be in amazement, just like I was!  Before I knew it my time on Mull had sadly come to an end, I guess time flies when you’re having so much fun. It is a truly tranquil and beautiful island and to be jam-packed full with some of the most iconic British species made it hard for me not to fall in love with it. A trip back to Mull is already in the pipeline as I am more than keen to get back there and see/photograph more eagle and otter action as well as other species that call Mull home. 

Seldom Seen

Seldom seen, the Long-eared Owl is an elusive bird to find, but in Staffordshire, there are small isolated pockets of perfect habitat where several pairs thrive and raise young each year. My annual excitement for June and July is photographing these chicks and I count myself very lucky to know the whereabouts of these owls and there is one pair that allow for jaw-dropping views. As you navigate yourself through the darkness, following the shrieks of the young, it can become a daunting task to find them as you tread through the thick undergrowth and more often than not it can become a wild goose chase. It’s not an easy task to keep yourself sane as you stare into the pitch black, it’s a scary place, but being in the company of the owls and the anticipation of creating the next image keeps you going. The call of the chicks echos through the dark and this year one pair of Long-eared Owls that I have access to have had a brood of two. Their calls go back and fourth from one another and it’s always a tricky decision trying to decide which to head for. Over the last weeks I have made several visits to see the chicks and in that time I have easily had my best encounters with these amazing owls - I have even managed a quick glimpse of the very elusive adult female as she delivered food and that memory will stay with me for a long time! Once you find the chicks the photography side of things is easy, as the settings are always the same and have been for me ever since I began photographing owls at night - 300mm, F6.3, ISO 500, 1/200. By knowing your settings and dialling them in beforehand, you can really take the thoughts and worries away from the technical side of photography and really enjoying shooting, another plus being that if you need to be quick - which you have to be with these owls - you can. Once you’re stood there, submerged in photographing something so beautiful, you really are in awe as Long-eared Owls are hard to come by and you rarely see them as they are masters of camouflage. From the first time I saw these chicks in early June to the last time I visited which was several weeks later, there was a massive difference in appearance. They had transformed from balls of fluff to almost adult-looking owls in no time and it just goes to show how quickly they can develop. The best thing about seeing these owls is by far their eyes, there is nothing better. It makes you question are the cute, or evil? As their burning orange eyes stare through you... They really are gorgeous. I only get to see these owls several times a year which makes each encounter very special and I am already looking forward to next years visits where I hope the same adults have another successful brood! 

Tawny Owl Diary - Every New Beginning Has An End

As a wildlife photographer I find it hard not to get attached to the species I photograph, especially species that I put all of my time and effort into finding. Tawny Owls have always had my heart and seeing chicks, hearing their call and being in their company has always been special to me, ever since I found my first one several years ago. I have been lucky over the years to find and photograph several chicks and this year has been no exception, as towards the beginning of May I was lucky to find two in a new location. The smaller of the two chicks was a real poser, preferring to roost low down in the trees, whilst the other was really high up, almost always out of sight. In all honesty, these were some of the best views I have had of Tawny Owl chicks in daylight and throughout all of my time I spent there I was smiling, I was just so happy to be there in the moment photographing something so precious. I guess it’s hard to explain to someone the feeling I felt if they’ve never been in a similar situation, but it really was magic and these encounters are memories that will certainly last a life time. Unfortunately, this blog takes a sad turn, as with all wildlife, you cannot stop the inevitable and sometimes you have to accept whats happened and move on because thats nature. Every new beginning has an end and the end for this chick came far too soon. As perfect as this chick was sat for photography, from an owls perspective it was unsafe. Below the branches it was precariously balancing on was a small stream and it was sat above this stream every time I was there, either snoozing throughout the day or at night it would be calling and moving from branch to branch over it. The last time I visited it was moving around the trees, it looked as if it was trying to move higher up. It was calling and flapping its tiny wings as it tried so hard to move and at that point it was getting late as my plan was to photograph it the following morning, hopefully in better light - so I headed home to get an early night ready for the morning. My alarm rang at 4.30am and I was back to the chick just before sunrise and I noticed straight away the chick wasn’t where it had normally been sitting for the last few days. I wasn’t surprised as I assumed it had moved higher up in the trees to join its sibling. I began to search and found the bigger owlet and as I searched harder I had no luck. Weird, I thought, I didn’t want to give up and I checked every inch of every tree before throwing in the towel, something I didn’t want to do. I still had hopes and thought it was well camouflaged but when I returned a few hours later to have another look I saw something that almost brought me to tears. Face down in the stream was the Tawny Owl chick, I can only imagine it passed away from drowning or the exhaustion of trying to get free. I was deeply saddened, but nature is nature, sometimes it is raw, eye-opening and not at all how you had hoped, but most importantly I was lucky to see this chick alive and photograph it in all it glory before its end…

Urban Peregrines

Peregrine Falcons are a bird I have always admired but at the same I never thought I would get the chance to photograph them, however, that soon changed after being told about a pair that nest not too far from home! The mill building they nest on is hard to miss and without the mass amounts of photographers stood by the roadside, you wouldn’t even know the Peregrines were there. To my dismay, I really regret not visiting sooner and spending more time there to work on different images and tell a better story, especially images of the chicks being fed and watching them grow from little fluff balls to fledging chicks. My first visit was very late on in the year, several days before the first chicks fledged. It was an eye-opening day, purely because I had not seen Peregrines quite like this before. Watching them dive, hunt and care for their young in such close quarters was unreal to say the least and at times photography took the backseat as I watched. With the two chicks still in the nest I focused on just photographing the adults as they perched around the building in various spots. From time to time the female would take flight and soar about before attempting to catch prey. I remember watching the sequences of Peregrines diving and catching prey in New York on Planet Earth II and I was mesmerised but to actually see it happen, to watch them fold their wings back and reach top speed is simply jaw-dropping… WOW I thought and it certainly put a smile on my face! What was even more ‘wow’ was how close the adults would land and it was even better with the 600mm as I was able to make incredible portraits without cropping a great-deal in post and as gruesome as it may be, getting images with food was easier than I thought. Because the chicks were ready to fledge the adults would bring food to the nest and then fly away almost instantly to entice them to fly. It didn’t work at the time I was there but seeing the female sat at  the top of the building, with the remains of what looks to be a pigeon as its lifeless wing hangs down, was a sight to behold!

After my first visit I knew immediately I had to return, I was hooked! Most importantly, I wanted to photograph the chicks once they had fledged. My second visit was early on a Monday morning, upon arrival I was informed by my friend Andrew and other photographers that one chick had fledged on the Saturday before and the other chick was ‘missing’ - it had left the nest but no one knew where to… It took a bit of searching but the call of another photographer alerted us to its whereabouts - a garage roof over the road, safe and well, right next to a fire station. I couldn’t believe where this chick was, sat between two rows of houses whilst workmen worked around it, cutting gardens and hedges, it was somewhat surreal. The other chick was sat high up on the mill building, out of sight with no chance of being photographed. With excitement running through my body I was in awe, everything was perfect - the light, the distance and the background… I was free to move around the chick, enabling me to pick and choose between varying backgrounds, my options: blue sky, lush green tree, or the mill building. I opted for the mill building, simply because that is where the birds have decided to nest and it shows just how urban they are, plus, the out-of-focus red brick creates a more pleasing image. I guess it’s encounters like these you can only dream of and it definitely felt like I was… To try and not cause any disturbance to the bird the shoot was over very quickly, I got my images and moved away, however whether I was there or not made no difference, the public were walking by with no issues. The bird was content, the only issue it had was the roof tiles it kept slipping on! After I left all together and headed home I received news that the Peregrine had hopped down from the garage roof onto the driveway of the fire station, it was then taken care of and returned to the roof of the mill where the adults could watch over it. Next year I plan to time my visits much better, such as getting there much earlier on in the year so I am able to spend more time with the Peregrines and focus on story telling properly with both adults and hopefully more chicks!