Some of you may (or may not!) recall an earlier post here where I spoke about my intention to photograph barn owls over the coming few months on private land, in my home region, on the North Kent Marshes. That was 3 months ago and the fruits of my labour (many, many hours) can be seen below. They were taken both from a small wooden hide and my car, depending on the time of day and where they were seen hunting. More often than not the single bird was either too distant for photography or the light too poor. This is an ongoing project and I hope that over the coming months and years, more (stronger) images will come as a result. At this current moment in time, the field is now being occupied by a a pair of short-eared owls which I am enjoying watching and, occasionally, photographing.
Regardless of whether I take any images at all, it’s wonderful to be out overlooking marsh and estuary either as the sun is rising or setting.
For all images, except the landscapes, I used a Nikon D300 with a 300mm f2.8 adding, occasionally, a 1.4x tele-converter. The 300mm never focuses as quickly with the converter and I would much rather sacrifice image size over sharpness, anyday! Also, having a smaller image allows you to produce contextual images, showing the bird within it’s habitat as opposed to a frame-filler which may be more commercial but says little about the environment in which the bird inhabits.
This remote little church lies very close to where I photograph and I couldn’t resist a slight detour en route to the owls.
An unexpected fly-pass! White sitting in my car I saw it land on a nearby oil drum. Not the most fetching of perches, I thought, so I just watched for a minute or two as it preened. I had the camera in my hand and when it took off it flew infront of and then beside me. This is full frame and out of the 6 or so shots I managed to get, this is the sharpest and with the best wing position. Sometimes, you just get lucky!
I originally wrote this piece two years ago but, since many who read this were not following the blog back then, I thought this would interest you.
A little over 3 years ago, I fulfilled an ambition I had held for years, to photograph common buzzards in the wild, in Kent. Why? Well, up until 10 years ago they were quite a rare sight around these parts (North Downs) but over the years they have moved further and further east to a point that it’s now unusual not to see one while out on the hills. There are now close to a thousand pairs in Kent and I personally know of 3 nests which I am dying to work on over the coming years.
OK, so they are incredibly common in the west and north and hardly magnificent golden eagles but there is just something about them. The way they soar, their call…….. As I visited my woodland birds feeding station over the years or, indeed, sat in the hide photographing them, the desire would burn deeper and deeper to photograph this beautiful bird. I am privileged to have access to a lot of land within their territory and so, the previous October, decided to commit the following 4-5 months to this project. But everything, and I mean everything, had to be by the book. Birds of prey are notoriously shy and keen-eyed birds so, unlike a blue tit at a nut feeder, where you can come and go from your hide without them so much as batting an eyelid, with buzzards, in this part of the world, not a chance!
The following was then carried out.
* 5′ sq wooden hide erected (adjacent to a hedge to break up it’s outline) under cover of darkness, so buzzards didn’t associate it with humans.
* Stockpile of road-kill rabbits stored in freezer. Thanks Martina!
* Continue and wait for hard weather to commence photography.
* Hide left alone for several weeks.
* December. Once a week. Rabbit put down pre-dawn in front of hide. At night, if rabbit not devoured by birds, was taken and put up a tree to stop foxes taking it. Put back down following morning…….
In mid January we had hard frosts lasting a couple of weeks so I took the opportunity to get some shots. I entered the hide 2 hours before sunrise. 11 hours later one arrived and fed but the light was poor. It got terribly cold in the hide, very rarely going above freezing. I would, occasionally, ignite the stove for a few minutes, wrap a blanket around me and wear a balaclava. Winter, neoprene lined boots made by Le Chameau helped keep my feet warm (though they froze after 5 hours). I firmly believe in making yourself as comfortable as possible, since the more comfortable you are, the longer you will wait and the more likely you are of getting the shot. I tried, again, a few days later and this time one appeared in good light but something was missing….snow!
Then, at the end of January we had a substantial dumping with poor visibility, lasting for several days. I needed a break in the weather to entice the buzzard’s from where they had been sheltering from the terrible weather. I then had the forecast I’d been waiting for. A clear day, blue sky all the way. Perfect! This would surely tempt them out to look for food. I got everything ready the night before and woke at 3. With all the snow I knew it was going to be tough driving and there was no guarantee that I would even reach the hide. I gingerly made my way to the spot where I needed to park the car but first there was a hill to get up. I had a bit of a run-up but the Mondeo only made it half way. Four attempts later it got me to the top. I now have a 4×4! When I reached the hide, there was over 18 inches of snow. I staked the rabbit down (this is to avoid it being carried off), set everything up in the hide, took snacks out of wrappers (to avoid noise) and sat back, waiting for light and, finger’s crossed, buzzards.
Then, at about 10 o clock, one arrived and fed for over 30 minutes. It took my breath away to be this close (15m) and knowing that all the hard work had not been to avail. The low perspective was achieved by attaching a tripod head to a piece of MDF with tent pegs pushed into the ground with the lens protruding through a nurses-sleeve about 6 inches above the ground. I attached one-way mirror film to small perspex panels at eye-level so I could see clearly outside without being seen.
Several hours passed and then an immature bird turned up and, just like the one previous, spent around 30 minutes feeding, oblivious to the photographer who, at this point, was the happiest man on the planet! Several hours passed and then an immature bird turned up and, just like the one previous, spent around 30 minutes feeding, oblivious to the photographer who, at this point, was the happiest man on the planet!
The video, below, was taken using my point-and-shoot compact camera so please excuse the rather poor quality.
All images were taken using a Nikon D2x with 300mm f2.8 and 1.4x converter (sometimes without) with right-angle finder attached. I ached for days having spent several hours with my head between my legs peering through this!
Of all the projects I have undertaken, this has certainly been the toughest but without question the most satisfying. Hamilton Holt’s quote comes to mind….”Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Work, continuous work and hard work , is the only way to accomplish results that last.” But, why do they have to be so strenuous!
This is probably the best picture I have of a barn owl. Compared to many out there, it’s nothing special at all. The lighting’s flat and it’s a little too much over to the right. The one thing I do like, however, is the wing position. It’s not hovering or floating but heading straight for the camera. It was taken some years back on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent on a small patch of grassland that is a mini nature reserve. I attempted photography from the car through a gap in the hedge but clear views were few and far between and more often than not the bird would hunt the far side of the field.
Although barn owls can be seen quite regularly throughout the North Kent Marshes, their movements are rather unpredictable, preferring large expanses of rough grassland and marsh as opposed to following the predictability of a reedbed. Indeed, many of the top barn owl images you see today have been taken in Norfolk where their population densities are greater than here in Kent.
Over the last week I have secured permission from the land owner to place a couple of permanent hides on the site so, with Christmas and New Year out of the way, normality can resume and I can start work on attempting to get some half decent images of this beautiful bird. I’m not sure I can produce anything better or significantly different than what has already been done but I’ll certainly have fun trying! Over the last few months I have seen short-eared owls regulalrly use this site as well as marsh harriers and hen harriers so I look forward to spending many cold mornings and afternoons in my hides.
I thought I should post this sooner rather than later while the heavy snow most of us experienced is still in everyone’s mind.
Here in north Kent we had a severe dumping in the early hours of Thursday morning so the following day I headed off to the marshes to see what I could get. At the entrance to the reserve a covey of grey partridges scraped the ground to find food. They formed a tight group and it began to snow providing me with a window of opportunity.
I drove on a little further but it soon became clear that as well as I know this area, I would be foolhardy to continue as I couldn’t make out the difference between track and marsh.
Apologies for the lateness of this post. I really should have added it shortly after Marsh harriers Part 2, back in mid October but I have been awaiting detailed information regarding this practise before committing it to a post.
A month into photographing a pair of nesting marsh harriers, I accompanyed two very experienced ornithologists, Rod Smith and Brian Watmough who were hoping to find a number of nests in order to wing tag the young birds. This is a relatively new practise and 2010 was only it’s second year. Initially, ringing the birds was the only option but of course the only time data could be collected was when the bird was deceased. With wing tagging however, simply looking through binoculars can inform you both of it’s origin and year it was tagged. It is therefore far easier to collect data such as age and where it goes throughout the year. One bird, for example, that was born on the Isle of Sheppey, has been seen in Lincolnshire! But why I ask myself should a bird leave an area that has an abundance of food and fly 100+ miles? Just one of those things I guess.
If I remember correctly, 4 nests were identified as possible sites to tag the birds. The first 2 revealed nothing even though I had myself been photographing the parents bringing in food to one of them. This isn’t unusual however. Reedbeds are so dense that visibility can be just a metre or so and when you have a large area to cover, regardless of how much you have pin-pinted it’s location, you can quite literally be on top of it and still not see it. After around 30 minutes they decided to move on to allow the parents to return and resume feeding. On the third nest, we got lucky. As I stood, some distance away from where they entered the reedbed, I could see a huge pair of wings flapping among the reeds. A sure sign they had located the young and were now in the process of gathering them.
Once brought out they were taken to the car where both ringing and wing-tagging would be carried out. Two tags were attached. A blue one which indicated the year (in this case 2010) and a white one which indicated location which in this case was for the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.
As I looked on I could see how experienced Rod was in doing this. Totally confident in the way he handled them and maneuvered the birds to get them into the position he needed.
After exactly an hour (to the minute actually according to the image EXIF data) they were taken back to their nest. I had never seen a nest of a marsh harrier before so upon borrowing a pair of waders, I followed.
I was instantly amazed just how deep the water was. At at least 2 feet deep it was the ideal place to keep the eggs and young safe from predators such as foxes.
Upon reaching the nest site I had just a few seconds to get pictures since as soon as the birds were released, rather than modelling perfectly in the centre, they scattered in all directions!
I have to say I was a little disappointed with the nest. I had visions of a monster structure, perfectly entwined amongst the reeds. Instead, it was a simple nest of flattened reeds. But it was practical. It served it’s purpose, which afterall is what it’s there for.
It was a perfect conclusion to two months spent photographing these magnificent birds of the marsh and with approximately 30 nests on Sheppey, it looks as though they are going to flourish for many years to come. Hooray to that!
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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