America 2019 - The Sunshine State

After already travelling to Iceland, Scotland and The Netherlands, it was now time for the big trip of the year - I love having big trips planned as they’re always the most exciting and this years adventure was state side to Florida! Florida has always appealed to me ever since falling in love with Arthur Morris’ work and in particular, I wanted to see and photograph Burrowing Owls more than anything! It was a nice feeling driving to the airport, I was super excited and it had been far too long since I had been, however the sinking feeling of my camera bag being 8kg too heavy and being told I needed to check it soon put a downer on my excitement! After a few words with a supervisor I was allowed to carry my camera gear with me throughout my travel and I was back to feeling happy. The 9 hour flight was tedious, quite boring and there’s only so much music I can listen too, but before long I was in America and eager to get the hire car and head out birding! Driving from MCO to the hotel it was fair to say birding was going to be easy as I already spotted lots of egrets, herons and various other species of bird. These big trips I take each year are mainly photography based but most of the time I always enjoy seeing new places and relaxing more and thats why I never seem to return home with tons of images. Florida however was different and there was a lot more photography than anything else and that’s why my state side visit is going to be split into two blogs - The Sunshine State and Owl City.

Compared to the UK, birding / bird photography is a million times easier and I really was shocked and before heading to the states, like I do on all my trips, I made a list of target species I wanted to see and within the first full day I am happy to say they were all ticked off... The first main target to be ticked off was Burrowing Owl, which, by a million-miles, will have to be one of the greatest wildlife encounters I have had. They are a species I have dreamt about seeing for many years and I really was amazed to see them in such great numbers, they were literally everywhere and as well as Burrowing Owls being a main target species, so was Tricolored Heron, Sandhill Crane and Anhinga’s. Although it seemed I visited at the wrong time of year, photographic opportunities were coming thick and fast and I absolutely loved it and during the 10 days I was there I managed to visit Myakka River State Park, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Honeymoon Island State Park, Gatorland, St Augustine Alligator Farm and a few other birding hotspots and there was still lots around to see. As I was getting further into the trip, Florida kept surprising me but none more so than when I visited Honeymoon Island. It was Osprey after Osprey after Osprey... it was osprey heaven! I spotted 20 individuals just on one road alone which from someone coming from the UK where sightings of them are far and few in between is bewildering, but sadly the 30+ degree heat and midday sun was too bad for photography... As well as the surprise of dozens of Osprey, so was the sight of a Bobcat on Merritt Island. When driving around the Black Point Wildlife Drive there it was, sat just by the side of the road. At first I really didn’t know what it was but as I approached slowly in the car in disappeared into the shrubs and the only close view I got of it was of it's ears. Even though I didn’t manage to photograph it I was still jaw-dropped as it was my first wild cat sighting and it was encounters like these just keeping on coming and made me fall in love with Florida. What I also loved was that I was able to go out everyday and no matter where I went I was always able to see something interesting and make lots of images, whether that be to the mall, the supermarket, stepping out of the hotel, or even a theme park, everywhere seemed full of life and in abundance too. I kept check of the species I was seeing throughout the trip and what I managed to see was more than I had bargained for, namely Burrowing Owl, Bobcat, Roseate Spoonbill, Manatee, Gators and Racoons, they were all amazing and as I have mentioned in previous blogs, just watching without my camera in hand was much more enjoyable, especially when I had several Manatees surfacing no more than 15ft in front of me! I honestly wish I had spent a month there as the more I explored, the more places I visited, each and every wildlife encounter kept getting better and crazier than the last and just like every other amazing place I have visited, I can’t wait to return in the near future!

Tawny Owl Diary - Working locally

At the beginning of the month I was very fortunate to speak at the AFON Now For Nature Conference which was held at the amazing Natural History Museum in London alongside several amazing photographers from YWPUK. My talk was titled “Nocturnal Wonderland - The Tales Of Staffordshire’s Tawny Owls”, and as the name suggests, my topic was about the Tawny Owls I have been photographing in Staffordshire, which I have been doing for over the last four years. When preparing for my talk and creating my slideshow I knew I had a lot to say as it’s a subject I could ramble on about for hours, but unfortunately I only had a limited amount of time and needed to be quick, concise and to the point. I spoke about Tawny Owls as a species, how to photograph them, the number of individuals I have found, Tawny Owl chicks and certain individual owls I know very well. It was two slides during my talk that inspired this blog post - the number of individual owls I have found and individual owls I have come to know. What working with Tawny Owls has done has enabled me to work close to home which allowed me to work with these certain individuals even if the encounters are far and few in between, but regardless, it has taught me how to best photograph them and where I am most likely to see them. One Tawny Owl that could not be more local to me is Rufous. She is an owl that hunts in the many fields behind my house and an owl that has nested in the woodland opposite my street, but irritatingly, she keeps me awake most nights screeching away, which I do love really as it’s nice to hear her... On occasions, I have also seen her sat on top of my neighbours houses as I make my way to work in the early hours of the morning but of course I didn’t have my camera to document it! She eludes me 99% of the time and she’s tricky to photograph, but even a short glimpse or sound from her fills me with joy. This particular image of Rufous was taken last year, a night before I headed to Australia which I took alongside the country lane that runs beside the field behind my house. When I see an owl along this lane I always know I am in for a good night of ‘owling’ and what’s strange is that where Rufous is sitting I also photographed her partner who is a grey morph owl in the exact same tree, same branch and with same pose... They both must favour this tree for hunting from! 

The map pictured shows just how local all of my Tawny Owl photography is. Those red pins are scattered all around my small hometown of Biddulph and slowly creep towards Congleton and Leek, however I feel no need to go any further. Within those pins are several nest sites, where chicks have dispersed too, dozens of owls I know well and also several other species of owl! Each pin represents an individual owl, but some that are close together maybe the owls partner or the same owl photographed somewhere different within it’s territory. The map to me is somewhat a work of art, it shows all of my progression and dedication to Tawny Owls but most importantly it has led to me understanding them more. I am sure I will continue to find more owls around Biddulph and I can’t wait to add more data to the map, but what I love most about getting to know these individual owls like Rufous is that it is much more exciting than seeing an owl I’ve never seen before simply because I know them and I guess you could say it’s like seeing an old friend... Maybe that sounds stupid, maybe it doesn’t, but these owls mean a lot to me and I hope I get the chance to photograph Rufous sometime soon…

Stop the cull!

Badgers are an animal that I hold very close to my heart. They are what inspired my connection with the natural world and what made me fall in love with watching wildlife. The cull is something that takes this experience away from me. It is a controversial subject for many but let’s be honest it has been going on for far too long and to this day, in 2019, this inhumane act still happens and unfortunately it happens on a daily basis, despite scientific facts, protests and the brave people who sabotage the hunts. Over the last few years Natural England added Staffordshire (area 31), my own county, to the cull zones. The cull has spread like wildfire throughout Staffordshire and during 2018, a total number of 3979 Badgers were culled. Culled either by controlled shooting or cage trapping and one would assume that the ‘controlled shootings’, were not so controlled. I would also assume that there is a high possibility that more Badgers were culled but not reported… I find it very hard to come to terms with these figures and I don’t see a reason why it should continue, it is not fun and it is most definitely not effective - just expensive and unnecessary. 

I am lucky to spend my summer evenings observing Badgers at local setts and the joy I get from that is something I wish everyone could experience. They are adorable, playful, insightful and just cute - I really love being around them. Getting to know individuals is always a bonus, to see their different personalities and to see who’s more curious than the other and more willing to approach. Seeing their nose point towards the sky as they emerge from the sett to smell the surroundings is a sight that gets my heart beating and something I will always love. The suspense and excitement builds up and then finally no more than 15ft in front of you, you have a family of badgers going about their daily life. Thinking back to past encounters with the first sett I worked with is where I had the most fun. It was also the first time I had seen cubs and there was one particular cub that was very curious of me, so curious in fact he would almost always walk right up to me. At first photographing them was a pain as the sett was in a busy public country park and most nights people would walk past and I obviously didn’t want to draw attention to the sett. After a while I began staying later at the sett to the point where I was sat in the woodland in total darkness and this way I avoided people. Just like when photographing Tawny Owls my camera settings were the same - 300mm, F6.3, ISO 400, 1/250 + flash and to focus I used a small torch to light the sett. By the time I was able to photograph the cub it had grown up slightly but it was still super cute and photographing it was a pleasure. It was a long-time coming and overdue, but to finally have images of the cub I had watched grow up was a good feeling! What I do wish is that more people watched and appreciated Badgers, that way hopefully people would have more of a voice for better protection against narrow-minded individuals who try to destroy our natural world… 

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!! 

Isle Of Mull 2019 - 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.