isle of sheppey
Short-eared owls are one of my favourite birds and each winter, here, on the North Kent Marshes, we often get them in fairly high numbers. This is entirely dictated by, of course, their food supply being mainly short-tailed field voles. These small rodents have cyclical populations and in turn determine how many “shorties” will be present. On those years (approximately every 7-8) where vole numbers are at their peak, so too are the owls. This year, though not exceptional, was pretty good and a pair took up residence on an area of private rough grassland I had been photographing barn owls on that winter. The 2 rarely mixed. When the barn owls were hunting, shorties were absent and vice versa. Birds of prey are notoriously territorial (for good reason!) and so, I guess, it wasn’t that surprising. I’d spent a couple of months photographing barn owls, the results of which can be seen here, and so when the shorties began to stake claim on the area, I was keen to get some images.
Initially, I would visit at all times of the day and weathers. It was soon apparent, however, that they were far more active from midday on and significantly less so in the morning so I decided to concentrate on that part of the day and shoot other subjects at first light instead. I used a combination of a semi-permanent wooden hide, dome hide and my 4×4 which really proved it’s worth during wet weather when access to the site would have been nye on impossible!
They would use certain parts of the field more than others for a period of time until, I guess, they exhausted the food source, and so, for the following 2 images, I set up a dome hide adjacent to a hawthorn. I’m not keen on using fabric hides in such exposed areas. It doesn’t matter how well you peg one of these down, they just act like a sail and if the guy ropes hold, the hide poles themselves, don’t! But, sometimes, there is no alternative. On occasion, I have used a hide framework made of dexion with a Fensman hide cover thrown over it which is far more stable. Ultimately, you simply can’t beat a solid wooden hide.
The two images below came as a result of slowly and at intervals, driving my 4×4 down the rough track where they were hunting. I stopped a good 100m from them but then the wind picked up, hail started to fall and the owls took cover. After about 45 minutes, the wind subsided and the sun shone, providing ideal hunting conditions for them.
My favourite image of this species to date taken moments after the above. It flew around my car and then towards me. The 300mm f2.8 fitted to my D300 had trouble keeping focus due to the background and so I did so manually until the last moment. Out of 6 shots this was the sharpest and the one with the nicest wing position.
To say I am overwhelmed by the popularity of this image would be somewhat of an understatement! I put it up on 500px yesterday and already it has been viewed by 1600 people and counting! Thank you for all the nice comments and to the 111 that have added it to their favourites. Surprisingly, I hadn’t put it on my website within the galleries but, I have now where you have the opportunity of purchasing it as a fine art print.
To purchase one, please click on the image below which will take you to website gallery page.
Here’s a little background information. It was taken on Elmley Marshes National Nature Reserve in North Kent, an area I have been documenting for the last 15 years. Conditions such as this are not all that uncommon over there where, with the combination of freezing winter temperatures and fog, rime frost is formed and produces spectacular conditions in which to photograph. Having spotted the image I had to work quickly as the sun was rapidly rising and burning through the mist. With the camera secured to a tripod and set to its maximum height, I had to stand on tip-toe to prevent the fence posts from merging with the land.
Nikon D2x, 12-24mm @ 16mm, 1/15 sec. f16, iso 200, 0.9 ND grad filter, Manfrotto 055 tripod, mirror lock-up, cable release.
The image was used full page in an extensive article I wrote for Practical Photography magazine on Discover Winter Wetlands. The article can be viewed here.
Well, I don’t need to tell you what a dreary February it’s been! And so, as a result, it hasn’t been the most productive month in terms of taking pictures. Hides are in position and hares on the marshes will have started doing what they do best….running and boxing, but, the light is so darn awful! It has, however, given me the chance to catch up with all image processing and agency submissions which in turn should (hopefully) free up my time over the next month or so to concentrate on taking pictures. Here are a selection taken earlier in the month when the weather was more favourable.
Those of you that follow me on facebook (that’s where you will get my latest news on projects and workshops) will know that for the last month or so I have been attempting to photograph barn owls. A permanent wooden hide is in position and so far my efforts haven’t been rewarded as much as I would like. Activity at present is quite sporadic so I’m hoping that with the possibility of young to feed in late spring and summer, I’ll have stronger pictures to show here.
Lapwing numbers are incredibly high at the moment reaching several thousand strong on the marshes. Courtship displays have already begun and once again I am sure I will endeavour to record this aspect of their lives. Due to all the rain, breeding condititions are good too with lots of pools and flooded areas throughout the area.
Shortly after sunrise on a perfectly calm, misty morning, I began shooting general views and close-ups of a reedbed.
On the way back I noticed a pair of swans and lay on the ground with the 300mm f2.8 resting on a beanbag. It was still quite misty which not only injected atmosphere into the scene but cut down the overall contrast.
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!
Back in April I posted a blog on photographing marsh harriers or rather my intention to do so. As I said back then, they are a truly iconic bird of the North Kent Marshes and incredibly wary. Even with fast, telephoto lenses I knew that in order for me to get decent images of them, I would need to work at a nest when their flight paths would be more predictable and there would be a chance I get parents bringing back prey items. A licence was obtained from Natural England in the winter which would allow me to photograph near the nest site. Marsh harriers of north Kent most frequently nest deep in reedbeds on a floating mass of aquatic vegetation often in water several feet deep making predation less likely but I wasn’t interested in getting that close which, no matter how carefully you introduce a hide, will stress the birds out.
Instead, I opted for positioning a 4 sq.ft. wooden hide, approximately150m from the nest, making sure the parents returned, then left it for a week to give them plenty of time to get really used to it. I then moved it closer at 20m intervals over the following week or so until I was around 50m away. This was done once myself and photographer friend, Phil, were happy that the young had hatched. How did we know the young had hatched? Well, during incubation the male brings food to the vicinity of the nest whereby the female, who does the majority of the incubating, then flies up and catches the food which the male drops, known as an aerial food pass. When both parents were bringing food back on a semi regular basis, we knew the eggs had hatched. This is very important since there is a much stronger bond between parents and young as opposed to when they have eggs.
With the hide being 50m from the marsh harrier’s nest, this may seem like it is still an awfully long way away but in such an open area it literally feels as though you are on top of it! Also, if I work too closely, when the birds are flying around the adjacent reedbeds, I would have to tilt the camera up further than if I were working from a greater distance. The marsh harrier pictures you see here are from the first few sessions. Time of day and wind direction played a vital role. Photography was only possible first thing in the morning and late afternoon when the sun was low in the sky so as to illuminate the underside of the bird. And, if the wind direction was blowing from the nest site to me, the birds would fly away away from me as such large birds prefer to fly into the wind giving them greater maneuverability so as to accurately land on or near the nest. I wanted side or head-on shots so needed the wind to be opposite to this. As you can imagine, this often limited hide sessions to just a few visits each week. Thank goodness the young remain in the nest for around 40 days! In the next installment, pictures of parents with prey.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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