Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Pied Wagtails...The Invisible Roost

Recently I found myself reacquainted, by fortune alone, with a more subtle but equally engaging annual wildlife spectacle. It had been raining for the past three and a half hours, the wind lashed and swirled its decent, robbing of warmth and chilling like ice under the cover of this cold December night. I had just been to a Bristol Natural History Society talk with guest speaker Oliver Smart, a wildlife photographer, where he talked about his visits to Alaska, Shetland and Finland illustrated with excellent images and interesting insights. Stepping off the bus and began walking through central Bristol. I passed shoppers pressed by the rain to quicken their pace, head down, busy with their own purpose of pursuit. And as I closed in toward the handful of London plane trees on the centre which are passed daily by 100's of feet I became acutely aware of two trees, I stopped on the spot and stared amazed into the branches and the deep impenetrable black of night that lay beyond.

Pied wagtails hung as if in suspended animation, the two trees sharing an estimated number of 130, if not more, individuals. I tried counting them in clusters of 10's but the density like a shoal of fish, made accurate counting difficult. The street light above the tree where the majority were illuminated with gave a softness to the white of their feathers with row upon row of long white under tail feathers extending below them. As I watched one or two would switch elegance and join the smaller group in the a joining tree in little bounding flights over the short gap, and the heads of passers by, that bridged the two trees. I felt the rain against my face still gazing up whilst around me I could have been one of the few smiling in the rain. People passed by me and benith the tree, unaware, unconcerned. Street lights and the traffic caught the rain in the beams of light and the wind still made its presence felt, although a little more sheltered than whilst I was waiting for the bus. It struck me how vulnerable they appeared. Usually the purpose of these roosts among other things is to provide shelter and warmth but this tree was not obviously so. Its branches resembled nothing more than sparse sticks offering little protection to escape the weather. Notably I have also read how roosts take advantage of the warmth produced by fairy lights each night. A number of trees near the centre have Christmas lights yet these pied wagtails paid them no attention and seemed in no rush to leave their chosen roost. It was dark by 4:30 that evening and it was now 10:30 so they appeared perfectly settled. During my time in Cumbria I discovered a regular roost near Penrith town centre last winter. I visited it again a couple of weeks ago and believe it may have moved however small groups were still observed moving through within the vicinity. I mention this as during last winter the tree they were using was lit with lights and sheltered on all sides by buildings. Among the humdrum of people and traffic, the lights, the general commotion, I left them and continued home.

My second visit came two days later. This time I hoped to watch their nightly ritual from dusk as they gather and roost as well as take some photographs. I arrived fairly early. A chill was setting in as the area became increasingly thrown into shadow by tall buildings that blocked the suns red bathe of light. The shadows creped along, scaling the buildings upward inch by inch, minute by minute, as if gradually submerging the area under a rising tide, the waves of shadows lapping at light. I watched the gulls circling and diving in between the two layers, rising and falling, their white feathers soaring into the fiery warmth of the last of the suns red rays, plummeting back to a land locked earth of shadow before reclaiming the sun once more. I was hoping for a raptor, the pigeons were flocking with their usual nightly acrobatics, no such luck however.
It started off with one. A classic little dot of a wagtail crossed the blue high above, punctuated occasionally by the chink of a flight call audible above the traffic. As I waited every now and then another would cross the heavens from the buildings to my right, over the pedestrian area, and disappear over the buildings to my left. It grew to a handful every so often with groups now appearing. And the more that disappeared away over the buildings the more I doubted that they may have moved. The surrounding light had now ebbed away. The vibrancy remained, washing the sky in an intensely soft peach watercolour. And as each bird came and went like the one before it my mind eventually got the better of me and I decided I would check the nearest location in the direction they were travelling  I did a loop of the second area with not so much as a chirp, it didn't feel right so I went back to the original plan.
Back where I'd first found them and eventually after another 10 minutes or so I re-found them. They gathered on the rooftops and assembled, still distant, as large clusters. Large groups took to the air in fluttering flight and, for what are small birds, took up a surprising proportion of the sky. They never bunched close as starlings would instead preferring more space, my observations would suggest. The whole thing is rather quiet and unobtrusive to witness. The groups flew around a little over the roost site and the Christmas shoppers, flying in a sweeping curve. Half a dozen or so birds committed themselves and flew in at first. The roost gradually gathered strength with a steady pour of birds quite literally bouncing in one after the other. It was not so much like someone pulling a giant plug as with starlings but a steady broken drip. I must admit by this point my concentration on unfolding events had been distracted setting up my camera as with a faint dusk trickling into darkness I felt I should try to capture something while I still can.

Its funny how people don't necessarily tend to notice things unless it flies in their face or bites them on the arse. Little things like a jay flying overhead, easy to miss I suppose, or say...well over 100 birds sitting in a tree. For the most part they are ignored or go unnoticed however, people are interested. When a tall guy turns up with tripod and camera to photograph a tree in the middle of Bristol people are inquisitive. (Incidently, I must mention that the tall guy did look rather conspicuous with a wacking great white lens.) People first ask what are they? The second question is pretty much always, what are they doing here? I was also asked once if there was anything people could do to help them? I caught mumbles on the periphery of my hearing of some questioning why anyone should want to photograph some birds in a tree, I find it ironic as to who is more mistaken. In truth all the questions are valid, the birds are taken out of context when viewed in an urban environment and most people I've talked to say the same. It's not the 'expected' place assumed by the vast majority.

I've recently been reading Mark Cocker's book Crow Country where he explores the magic behind the life of rooks and roosting as a particular fascination. Its made me think more about the act of roosting in all species and the mechanisms which they operate. Theories of warmth and predation protection all have a place but there is a series of deeper layers that constitute a complex web of interactions that govern roosting he suggests. The first time I saw the wagtail roost in town I noticed each bird was spaced out and visually look at intervals, they looked like the illustrations of atoms in the school science books. Why for instance would they not choose to roost closer together? Along with other ideas its fascinating that behind the simplicity greater things are at work.

The third visit to the roost recently as a result of me being late at the gates to photograph waxwings, finding the flock had stripped the last of the trees and moved on, had me waiting for a bus and not far from the centre so I went to observe them again rather than photograph. This time I noticed certain birds moving away from the obvious roost. After investigating the vicinity once the birds became settled I confirmed my hunch after finding another roost among an ivy clad tree. With no street light directly illuminating them and nestled among the ivy they kept a very low profile. I ask myself if most don't notice the obvious ones then how many have unlocked the secret roost? I rather like the secret roost.

So, I guess I'll leave you to find a pied wagtail roost. Winter is a great time for many roosts.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Armathwaite and the river Eden- a little nostalgia

You know, they say there is something primeval about staring into the very heart of a fires flames. That something deep within the recesses of our mind stirs, just slightly. The smoke, the heat, the smell of burning wood. The hypnotic quality of its dancing flames. Fire, I find, can be more than just fire...

There are things in life that shape us. They are more than they initially appear. Of all the memories I have from the three years of my course a group trip to Edenbrows remains as vivid as if it were yesterday. In fact it has been over two years since that night in the first year of university when our group spent an evening by the camp fire. I decided that before my time in Cumbria comes to a close I would walk in my own footsteps one last time and re-live the time we spent as a group. It felt a fitting end to the three years.

The river Eden itself is one of the cleanest and healthiest rivers in Cumbria. Its path has gorged itself out of the soft sandstone to form the high sandstone cliffs and sandy shores it currently has today. The remains of semi-ancient woodland aside its banks make the river a good spot to look for spotted flycatcher. High Stand and Coombs Wood are also worth noting as other woods in the Armathwaite area.

So to begin. The trip was organised by our lecturer. The plan was to navigate the footpath that followed the river and eventually rendezvous with him at Edenbrows. "Feel what its like to carry the weight of a rucksack on your back." as I seem to remember him saying. We were dropped off by minibus beside a track, everyone tumbled out, slung on their rucksacks and he drove off.
Back on that same track myself two years on and everything was flooding back. As soon as I recognised where I was to the memories fell into place. "Oh yeah, this is where we started.". Even now, strangely, I could see the minibus parked there as if it actually was. Even though the track was empty the memory was powerful. I felt our group with me once more, equally vivid, and in that moment I walked with them and they beside me as I set off in these footsteps.
A little further down the track and I came across a large group of greylag geese 30+ strong. Experience has taught me scanning flocks is a good practice to adopt and at the very least doesn't hurt (unless its widgeon, but I guess thats another story). A Pink footed goose? In June?? Really??? I must have checked 15 if I didn't check 20 times. Well, that's crazy but true.
On I went and eventually I was following the river. In places the paths had eroded to a single file track, the ground as warm in colour as the sandstone itself. The rivers banks were lush and the rocks worn smooth. All the while I seemed to remember every path in surprising detail. I came across a wooden boat still chained to the bank as it was all that time ago. There was a certain picturesque quality to a little boat, the sandy bank and the cool water that I remember appealed even back then leading to a quick stop amongst some of the group for a few photos.
For a short walk it didn't half turn up its own fare share of moments. I remember how we took a slight detour at one point down the wrong way only to find a dead end. It was a little like watching a group of confused sheep as it was only a narrow single file track and one person simply followed the next. There was then the usual moments pause as the confusion spread as to "why exactly the line has come to an abrupt halt and doesn't seem to actually be getting anywhere?". The person at the front then had to signal to the one at the back and the message went down the line one by one. "Oi! Dead end! Turn around!".
On finding more boats a second time I remember us joking to ourselves amongst the group that we were tired of walking, no one would mind if we borrowed a boat for a little while and rowed to camp. Even just to see the look on our lectures face as we casually rowed past him exchanging pleasantries at leisure would have been classic we thought.
I also remember that one incline that, after a rather gentle ramble, soon put all our leg muscles to the test due to the gradient when the group had to transverse it to the top with our backpacks. Feel the burn as they say. It was slightly comical at the time to see us tackle the task at hand. At the top some of us got a fleeting glance of a roe deer disappearing down the slopes of the woodland to the river now bellow us. Another highlight for me.
Passing what people had dumped beside the river, and making good progress as we were nearly near camp, we came across a entire door so I seem to remember. As adventurous students we decided, as you do, that it would be absolutely brilliant to burn on the campfire if only we could get it to camp. There was visions of six of us all hauling this entire door into camp as if to say "Look at that for team work!...Right, lets burn it!!"

For me on my own walk I had by now begun to reach the same destination as was camp for us that day. Edenbrows came into sight and the track into the wood led me from the river to the heart of camp. From the farmland over the railway tracks the distinctive song of yellow hammers could be heard. By now it was late afternoon and standing by the fire pit of camp I simply sat and soaked up the atmosphere of the place. The green yert had gone. There was a serenity I can not describe to the river and to this place. I felt the warmth from my heart radiate. Here's to good company and a beautiful world.
I still had one last stop to make before I put a line under my time here.I refound the camp I once came to with Rob, Alex and Rachel. I must agree it is a much nicer spot. The heart of Edenbrows is a coniferous plantation making it dark, bare and rather void of life but here the canopy is light and airy. Beneath a large beech tree I lit a small fire and listened to the river in the cool of evening. The river itself was no more than a stones throw from camp.
And in the spirit of the occasion I had brought along marsh mallows for toasting as we had done as a group. In fact our lecturer had led us along so many times with visions of cold beers, a roaring fire and toasting marsh mallows we had all got caught up in the idea. That night when it came to sitting around the camp fire we soon realised we might be in danger of marsh mallow overload as everyone had brought a packet. Cain had even brought an entire tin. We all smiled at how funny the situation was. And now enjoying marsh mallows again myself and watching the flames I feel time slip. Its a fascinating experience to reflect upon how I have grown and been shaped by my time in Cumbria.  This journey for me was very much a spiritual one. I am surprised by how much I can remember. Deep within us all there is something more, I'm sure of it. But its up to us to find it.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Secrets and Treasures- Part 2

So to pick up where I left off, here we are in Silverdale for a few days where we hoped to uncover and explore the beauty of this place and it's rich wildlife.
Not more than fifteen minutes from getting off the train on our way to Eaves Wood and we were stopped in our tracks at the amazing sound emanating from the branches of this holly tree. The drone of hundreds of wings that came from within the tree sounded like an entire wasp nest or bee hive. The volume of sound was the thing that struck us. The trees pollen rich blooms were obviously extremely productive. On this warm day the insect were out in force. Truly an unexpected surprise to hear and enjoy. (P.s, Apologies for the recording being slightly quiet.)

The disused quarry above Eaves Wood offered another experience. This time like a small slice of dry american wilderness in scale and dusty atmosphere. Nesting raven and jackdaws could be heard. The call of a Peregrine alerted us to its presence but we failed to locate it.

Soft evening light falls on the coast looking towards Arnside on the second evening of our travels. I'm pleased with this image. Its a great coastline to explore. Turnstone, Curlew, Shell duck and numerous oystercatchers were noted.

A couple more from the garlic wood. It's quite hard to capture the scale and direct the eye to parts of the image without appearing too cluttered.

The main objective was to explore and so images of everywhere we went were not all photographed. Highlights of the trip included: Marsh Harrier, Willow Tit, Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler, Black cap, Avocet + chicks, Little egret, four Otters, Little grebe, Great crested grebe, Bullfinch, Nuthatch, Tree creeper, Raven, Peregrine, Skylark, Pochard, Pure white Greylag, Pink-footed Goose (presumed injured, Leighton Moss), Red Deer, Roe Deer, Lapwing, Wheatear 

Friday, 25 May 2012

Silverdale, Lancashire- Secrets and Treasures

  Although like much of Britain it has its own fair share of agriculture Silverdale and Arnside sure do live up to their designation as an area of outstanding natural beauty. I've always found myself bypassing the Lake District and heading here. It's a gold mine of little woods, mostly National Trust owned, and other varied and wildlife rich habitats. For me this place really is something special.
Usually I've found myself gravitating to Leighton Moss predominantly every time I visit, its hard not to, but recently I took a trip with my sister to investigate the area inside out as best we could in three days. We knew there were secrets to unlock and treasures to find. Here are a few..I will post fully part 2 shortly when I am able....

I have never before seen a wood so extensively carpeted with wild garlic. It is fair to say that you have to have wandered through an area of wild garlic to truly appreciate the pungent aroma that filled the air around us. Fogarth wood is private access but can be viewed from the public footpath running along one side.

A taster of other places...

Looking towards Arnside

 Limestone Pavement (c)Helen Williams

 Yet to be identified: Damselfly

Warton Crag: Orchids...

I have also never seen orchids flourish in such numbers. Spring in Britains woodlands is really something special.

Part 2, coming soon...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Coloring Black and White images

I'm interested in black and white images at the moment. Adding coloration to black and white images is image dependant I feel. It doesn't always work, so I found a couple of old images I thought might suit. The backgrounds were already quite monochromatic so turning them into black and white proved to give slightly more impact. In the case of the mandarin duck I also tried to lightly suggest some colour in its reflection.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The last go around

Well here we are. I started this blog to document my progression as a naturalist and photographer whilst studying at university. Now, with my last assignment handed in, I find it has achieved what I set out to do. I woke up this morning and just lay there, the full gravity beginning to finally sink in. The film I have spent months working on is finally done and dusted. It took so much of my time that there was always something to do. It's a strange feeling, idling for time.
I decided I would explore some more of the area around Penrith whilst I had the chance. There's always so many places to explore. I wish I'd have explored more from the start. But, even if I did I'd probably still be saying the same thing right now. I have however seen so much and done so much, its been great.
I set off for somewhere new. Where was easy, a fellow bloggers timing was perfect. No hanging around, no if's or but's, just grab a map, bang, I'm going here and out the door. The way it should be done.
Wheatear on the top
(record shot)

The wood was certainly alive. The bluebells are almost carpeting in full bloom now. I hope you enjoy'd the sound recording. Thanks for following.

P.S. This is not the end of this blog. I won't stop posting any time soon. I have plans, places to go, photography to improve and images to capture, don't you worry.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Fine and dandy

 Large clouds, blue sky's and carpets of yellow. Need I say more.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Strange geezer...

.....a very very confiding wild grey heron.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Snake head Fritillarys

Thought I'd post a few of these. They're quite hard to get a good composition of without leaving dead space which draws your attention away from the subject. I tried to look for a better group of them but none I could see were suitable..

I hope to see if I can return once more have bloomed and the flowers open further.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

New Forest pony's

I saw the potential to turn the above image into black & white as the clouds lend themselves to a dramatic monochrome mood.
In the early morning light the sky's burst magenta. The tonal pallet I am pleased with.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Lady In Red

f/3.2, 1/160 sec, Iso 400, 50mm
These were taken in the last rays of light.
I don't have a macro lens so I just did my best to attain focus and cropped during editing.

If you would like to see more images and read where I found them visit...

....this is a blog for assignment work and will only have 4 posts posted, but you are welcome to read them.

Experimental Section
(Oh no?!?)
(Arty farty crap for those that like this sort of thing)

These images were taken on a miserable day at a local lake during a student photographic trip to Wales. It did however allow us to try out using slow shutter speeds on the ducks.........with limited success.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Norfolk abstracts

The combination of snow and sand windswept into formations was an intriguing phenomenon . I like the completeness of the image with various points of interest (grasses, prints, snow lines, etc) distributed across the frame.

The white snow almost takes on a paint like quality in this image. I am divided as to weather I think it works or is instead rather crudely processed. The association about what the relationships between us and nature was more the point that I had in mind when I took it.

I had a great couple of days in North Norfolk and encountered quite a few new species that I had never seen before, and had some amazing views too. I am very very pleased to have had the chance to go and see this part of the country. The weekend didn't disappoint for one second, an absolute blast. Thanks to those who went and those that made it happen.

Friday, 3 February 2012

A few from Ullswater

I ventured down to Ullswater a few days ago to look around for good sites that I might be able to return to at a better time with the intention of getting some practice at time-lapse photography. I took my camera to experiment with how I would approach framing the landscape. Here are a few of the better test shots...

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Going wide...

I've been looking at getting a wide angle lens for a while. After weighing up my options I decided to go for a 17-50mm lens for cropped frame sensors. Sigma has developed new-ish FLD glass, heard some good things about it, and, given the limited number of wide angle lenses generally available, particularly those designed for crop sensors, it seemed like the way to go. Here are some test images....
Experimenting with the perceived relationships of distance between subjects-compression effects of varying focal lengths
35mm (aprox)

Hopefully I can use this new lens creatively for wildlife like so many of the unusual images from those photographers who push the boundary's
I wish you all prosperous year, embrace the snow and who knows the way the weather in the uk is going...three springs in 2012 anyone??