photographing marsh harriers
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.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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