photography hide

Marsh harriers Part 1

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.

marsh harrier flying over reedbed

Male marsh harrier 'floating' over reedbed. Nikon D300, 300mm f2.8, iso 400, 1/2000 sec. f7.

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.  

marsh harrier flying over reeds

Male marsh harrier

male marsh harrier in flight

Male bird.

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.

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Friday, October 1st, 2010 Notes from the field, Techniques No Comments