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!
Having spent weeks positioning the hide, my real desire was to obtain images of the parents bringing food back to the nest. Talons clasping marsh frogs and birds for example. However, allowing for light, wind direction and not wanting to move the hide and alert the adults, I only obtained a few images that although were nice to get weren’t quite as I had hoped. With this kind of work you really are at the mercy of the elements. The following images were taken over 3, 5 hour sessions. On some occassions I didn’t get any pictures at all though I always saw them. In total I spent 30 hours over 6 sessions.
The image below has been cropped considerably so you can see exactly the prey it was carrying. A young rabbit as it turned out.
The final image is one of my favourites. It’s all about the wing positioning with the late afternoon sunlight illuminating it’s underside. Although not the fastest birds they were quite hard to track. Indeed, when you are in a hide, your vision is restricted and so I would go by the mobbing calls of lapwings to alert me of their presence. I would then frantically look through each peep-hole to try and locate it. For all the images a 300mm f2.8 lens with either the TC-14EII (1.4x) or TC-20EII (2x) tele-converter was used on a Nikon D300. Stopping movement was the prerequisite so I selected an iso of 400 or 800 (depending on how late in the afternoon I was shooting) and the camera set to either shutter priority or manual.
It was a wonderful experience witnessing and photographing marsh harriers from such close range and even with the amount of preparation involved, I am sure in the future I will attempt to improve my coverage of this stage of their lives. In the next installemt I accompany licenced handlers ring and wing-tag the young birds.
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.
I entered my 3′ sq. hide on the marshes this morning in the hope of photographing a barn owl I have been observing hunting over rough grazing marsh. Rather than obligingly hovering in front of me, it decided to perch on a cattle fence post so far to my left that all I could do was watch from the side peep-hole. It sat there for about 10 minutes then flew off into the distance where it remained for the next hour before heading to roost for the day. I packed up and decided to reposition the hide a little further up the bank. As I did so, I heard a loud splashing sound coming from a flooded area bordering long grass some 20 meters away. It was a hare and it swam a full 2 meters or so to the other side. That was a first for me. Hare’s are renowned for taking the long way round rather than jumping or digging underneath, so rarer still to see one actually getting wet!
Once my gear was packed in the car I headed across the marsh to see if anything was happening. Of course it was, it’s April! Lapwing’s here have already began nesting with many pairs on eggs. I could see quite a few taking to the air, displaying or warning off others from their territory, including pheasants and marsh harriers
I stopped a few meters from a reedbed and could hear the chattering call of a reed warbler. My first of the year. After a while I drove a little further on, following the reedbed and again stopped. Through binoculars I could see a pair of reed buntings, clinging to the stems, momentarily pulled down with their weight then springing straight up again. The males are unmistakable with their striking black head and bib and long tail, flashing white and black when fanned. Just beyond them, a sedge warbler did the same. Spring had certainly arrived with both the sedge and reed warbler arriving from Africa. I then turned my attention to more distant birds. Yesterday I saw my first garganey of the year and looked for more but no luck on that front. But, a few hundred meters away I could see a marsh harrier, nothing unusual in these parts, but this one was carrying nest material, reed stems by the look of things, and then dropped into a dense reedbed. I’ll keep my eye on this pair over the coming weeks and hope that they go on to nest.
I drove back across the marsh, very content indeed, spotting little egrets, coots carrying nest material and hares crossing the track. No yellow wagtails yet, but there is always tomorrow.
Marsh Harriers are my joint favourites, along with short-eared owls, of marshland raptors. Actually, they probably just pip short-eared’s to the post. You see, with short-eared’s we only really get to see them, in southern England, during the autumn and winter when they venture from their upland breeding grounds to coastal areas to feed, mostly on short-tailed field voles. And some years, we don’t see them at all. This is particularly the case if voles are having a bad year. Whereas, with marsh harriers, I see them every time I am on the marshes, regardless of season, but being such a wary bird, I have very few decent images of them. So, this year I will make great effort to turn this around.
My friend on the marshes, Phil, has spent much of his life working on this area, watching and more recently, photographing the wildlife. Living just a mile or so away enables Phil to spend a great deal of time on the marshes and has observed some wonderful spectacles. Although, to his own admission, he is a beginning photographer, his images are testament to how field craft plays a massive part in this field of photography. He has shown me some quite astonishing pictures of weasels, snipe, barn owls and marsh harriers.
I’d just like to point out that there has been no cropping done to these images whatsoever. Some may think this needn’t be pointed out, but as a wildlife photography blog, I think it does. If it were a blog simply highlighting the beauty of nature, showing various characteristics of the species, then fair enough, go mad with the cropping, but since there are others (hopefully!) viewing this who take pictures themselves, I am sure some would be wondering just how much, if any cropping, does occur in my images, given that these birds are so wary. The maximum I carry out is around 10% since I shoot for a stock library, the more you crop, the more pixels you lose. Hence with these images, one might argue more could have been done to obtain a tighter, more’accurate’ composition. But what I take is what you see, more or less! Please feel free to post your comments on this issue should you have thoughts about this.
Phil took me off the beaten track to a reed bed frequented by them. They are so used to seeing his 4×4 that they took no notice of us at all, as long as we stayed inside that is. I had my closest views yet, in all the years I have been photographing on the marshes myself. At one point, a female flew within 15 meters of us. Quite astonishing and breathtaking. There markings are so varied from one individual to another. Females, as pictures here are predominantly brown with a creamy cap whereas males are much paler.
All were taken with a Nikon D300, 300mm f2.8 AFS VR with 1.4x tele-converter, iso 400 at around 1/1250 at f5.6.
The late afternoon sun worked a treat in illuminating the underside of these birds. I hope to get much better pictures over the coming months and of course, all developments will be posted here.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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