Well, it’s 7 days now since here in Kent (along with most of the UK) we “enjoyed” hard frosts and quite a bit of snow. It’s so infrequent now that when it does occur I (and I’m sure 1000′s of other photographers) rack our brains to think of where to go in order to capitalise on this short lived event.
For the last month, or so, I have set up a bird feeding station quite near to where I live on the North Kent Marshes to see what I could pull in different to the usual woodland species that I have photographed time and again in subsequent years. With regular visits I could see that I wasn’t getting anything particularly interesting coming in aside from tits and greenfinches. So, I decided to go to Knole Park where they have a large herd of fallow and sika deer. With a wonderful hard frost, I enjoyed a good few hours from dawn, milking the conditions for all it’s worth!
This was the first time I used my 200-400 f4 that I acquired a couple of months ago and it really proved it’s worth with me being able to shoot close-ups and contextual, without moving or adding tele-converters.
For all the sika deer photographs, I used a Manfrotto monopod as continually altering the legs on a tripod can be both tiresome and time consuming which may result in missing a shot. For the fallow deer buck image, I hand-held the camera while laying down, utilising the VR.
I was just sitting down, upwind from this sika and it came closer and closer, sniffing the air every few steps.
The day after, heavy snow was forecast for the Sevenoaks area, predicted for around 12 o clock. I wasn’t going to miss this, so arrived at 9 and just waited. The fallow were very shy and with such a strong wind, understandably, took shelter in the wooded areas.
After the above encounter, it was a full hour before I got anywhere near close enough for a decent size image. I came across 4 bucks and by keeping a respectful distance, they took little notice. And, as if on cue, the snow REALLY started to come down. Perfect!
A few days later and with snow still on the ground I headed to my hide on the marshes where I witnessed the most extraordinary thing! As I walked to my hide to top-up the feeder I noticed a fieldfare in a hawthorn, not 4m away! Amazing. They are generally very wary so what on earth was it doing, just sitting there? I stood and watched as it sat and picked off nearby berries. The camera was in the car so I walked back the 100m or so, fitted the camera to the tripod and returned, only to find it was still there! It remained so for the next minute, allowing me take a few shots before it dropped to the ground, picked up a few berries and flew off to join the rest of the flock. I guess, it’s the hard weather that makes wildlife bolder.
I then got comfortable in my hide, observing greenfiches, blue and great tits come and go and then a bird appeared on a thistle seed-head I had only ever seen a few times before and certainly never photographed. A lesser redpoll. I took a few tentative photographs as it fed frantically on the seed-head. It flew to a nearby hawthorn then immediately returned. I let it feed for a while, took another shot and this time it took no notice. This was a rare opportunity to get close-ups of a bird I hardly see, so didn’t hold back in the amount of images Thankfully, quite afew came out sharp!
All images on this post were taken using a Nikon D300, 200-400 f4 and, more often than not, iso 800. For the redpoll shots, at f5.6 I used a shutter speed of 1/1600 sec.
On the 12th February I returned from 6 days in Eastern Poland photographing bison, birds and the primeval forest of Bialowieza. This was not my first visit, that was some 8 years ago when I visited alone and, with the aid of a guide, photographed bison for the first time. For some years thereafter I was determined to run a tour, to give others the opportunity to experience what I had and, after coming across renowned Polish nature photographer Marek Kosinski, this was to come to fruition!
After months of exchanging emails, we eventually came up with what we considered to be the perfect itinerary for the all-round nature photographer – 2 days bison photography, 1 day in Marek’s garden hide photographing birds and the other in the Special Protected Area of Bialowieza forest.
Joining me was Phil (who had already attended several of my workshops) and Paul (member of Malling Photographic Society) and we were eager for snow! The previous week had been exceptionally cold with temperatures plummeting to -30 and below and over 20cm had fallen. What we didn’t need was an overnight thaw!
On arrival, we were greeted by Marek’s driver, Stanislav, who would drive the 4hrs to Bialowieza village, where we would be staying. It was 3pm and as we stepped into the open at Warsaw airport, there was a real nip in the air, to say the least! Stanislav was a jolly fellow but unfortunately didn’t speak any English! No problem, the word toilet is a fairly international word! As we headed east, we kept track of the outside temperature on Stanislav’s dashboard….-7, -9, -10, -11. The snow became more and more prominent which buoyed our moods further.
We were greeted by Marek at the guest house, a lovely wooden building, and as we were the only ones staying there, we had the place to ourselves with a large double room each. It was warm and homely with tea and coffee making facilities. Perfect!
Shortly after arriving, we headed across the street, in crunching snow, to where we would have our evening meals and, also, breakfast on days 4-6. Breakfast for tomorrow and the day after would be packed so that we didn’t waste any time fussing over formalities. The days were short and we were eager to make the most of the conditions. Dinner was superb, as it was on all the evenings with our host making a special effort to give us something different each time. This was washed down with hot, fruity tea and at the end of the meal (after a cheeky request from yours truly) we had a glass, or two, of vodka! When in Rome we thought. The lady, Vera, had “improved” upon it by adding spices and the like and was far thicker and sweeter than normal vodka. Very moreish! As we tried to communicate with her I noticed how many of the words were similar to Czech and since I knew a spattering (my girlfriend of the last 7 years is Czech) we were able to get by and understood how pleased she was that we had asked for it. Usually, Viera said, when people come here they ask for wine or beer and I say no, I do not have wine or beer. This is Poland, we drink vodka! And so, every morning, after breakfast and after the evening meal, a small glass was poured for us and it’s true what they say, it really does help with the digestion! Vera prepared our packed breakfast and lunch at our evening meal so we were able to take it with us. Marek would be providing the hot tea and coffee.
Days 2 and 3 – Bison
Sunrise was at 7 so we arranged for Marek to pick us up at 6, incase of wonderful, early morning light. Although Bison are huge animals (Europe’s largest) they are free to wander where they please and so sightings are not guaranteed. However, Marek lives here and knows the area better than any other and has, pretty much, 100% success. In the summer they are incredibly difficult to locate as they spend the majority of their time in the forest. In winter, however, high quality hay is put out for them in woodland clearings and fields to supplement their feeding in order to limit the natural death rate of the population and to reduce their impact on the forest vegetation.
Due to the snow and cold (on average, -15 C) Marek had little problem in locating them in the fields and meadows, but were, for the most part, absent from the woodland clearings.
It’s not possible to get that close to them, (they are wild, after all) with the exception of lone bulls, so a lens of at least 300mm was needed and a 1.4x teleconverter pulled them in further. We were lucky to have a range of lighting conditions from sunshine and cloud to colourful sunsets and in the case of the latter, hand-holding a 70-200mm enabled us to show the bison in relation to it’s surroundings.
Marek noticed the herd were making their way to the railway line, which they often crossed, so a a bit of a route-march was in order if we were to capture this unique moment. Fortunately, they paused long enough prior to climbing the embankment to the track, for all of us to get into position.
With the sun setting and the light becoming more and more interesting, we spent a rather frantic 20 minutes or so getting various compositions with the day culminating in a beautiful sunset.
Our coldest morning, at -17C, made photographing a little tricky, at times. There was a bit of a breeze too which probably brought the temperature down closer to -20 and so, for a while, I would don a balaclava. The conditions and the bison made it very much worthwhile, however.
Needless to say, due to the cold conditions, clothing is an important factor to keep yourself warm and dry and a layering system of technical clothing, certainly works best. You don’t cut corners in these temperatures! Here’s a list of what I took.
Thermal base layer – Woolpower Merino leggins and top. The best. Quite pricey but you stay warm and dry and importantly, body-odour free!
Trousers – Winter lined Craghoppers. I practically live in these in the winter in the UK anyway! Windproof and partially waterproof and extremely quick drying.
Fleece top – Regatta, full-length zip winter fleece.
Jacket – Jack Pyke Hunter jacket. Wind and waterproof and a good length, preventing your back from getting cold. Silent too.
Footwear – Leather walking boots with thermal liner and 3 season walking socks. Feet stayed warm except during long periods of inactivity when cold would set in a little. It’s avery much a compromise between mobility and warmth and even Marek (who was wearing German made winter boots) was suffering from cold feet on a few occasions! Nothing serious though, you just stomp your feet and move a bit
Gloves – Arh, the age-old problem of keeping your hands warm but at the same time being able to adjust your camera’s controls. I wore tight-fitting thermal liners with Helly Henson mittens over the top which have a slit in the palm and thumb. You can’t beat mitts for warmth!
Hat – Just a standard thermal hat. it wasm’t windy at all, which made a huge difference. I took the balaclava with me and did wear it once. On the 2nd bison day when there was a bit of a breeze at -17. Very cold indeed when numb-face would set in!
Nikon D300 x 2
12-24mm, 28-105mm, 70-200mm f2.8, 300mm f2.8, 1.4x tele-converter, SB800 fllash-unit (never used), polarising filter, Nodal Ninja panoramic head (forest scenes), cable release, Manfrotto 055 CL tripod with either Manfrotto B&S or video head.
Marek managed to find a herd in the forest which gave us a fabulous opportunity to photograph them within this habitat.
Day 4 – Marek’s garden bird hide
No need for an early start today so we did the civilised thing and ate breakfast at Vera’s house. And, what a treat! Pancake rolls, bread with cheese and meat washed down with tea and coffee and, er, vodka! What a perfect start to the day
Marek’s hide is roomy enough for 3 persons with camera bags and nothing quite prepares you for the sheer quantity and diversity of birds that come down to feed. Marek has put up lots of attractive perches and the whole spectacle can be viewed through large panels of one-way glass. Much better than squinting through mesh. There was also a heater which made the whole experience that much more comfortable and enjoyable.
Time just flew by! At first it must have sounded like rapid machine gun fire coming from this camouflaged wooden box but, after an hour or so, we all began to be more selective. Light was excellent throughout the day with most areas bathed in sunlight. My most used lens combination was a 300mm with 1.4x tele-converter attached which, with the D300′s crop factor taken into account, gave me a 630mm lens. Phil had the same set-up as me and Paul had a zoom which he found to be really useful as very often, jays would make an appearance. Here’s a list of what we saw.
Hawfinch (the star of the show as far as I was concerned!)
Sparrowhawk (flew through twice)
Mid-way through, Marek, invited us into his home for a coffee which also gave us the opportunity to look through his new coffee-table book – Poland Nature. The book is a testament to his patience, determination and skill as a nature photographer and even a quick browse will give you an idea as to why he is one of Poland’s most respected photographers in this field. We each bought a signed copy as a memento of our stay (and to help Marek pay for the many kilo’s of bird food!) and I suggest if you don’t want those poor little birdies to starve, you will do the same! Also, the pictures are REALLY good! After coffee, we returned to the hide and continued for a further couple of hours until the light was too low to continue. A thoroughly enjoyable day and a nice break from bison tracking.
After dinner, we strolled around the village. It was -20, or thereabouts, so all layers were once again necessary! Bialowieza is a delightful village made up, for the most part, of small wooden houses, typical of that area. Quiet and unassuming. This is all part of it’s charm. One thing you do notice is that even though the roads are compacted snow and ice, everyone still gets around. Cars don’t doodle. Everything carries on as normal. It was quite a shock coming from a country where a centimetre of snow creates havoc and becomes the number 1 news story! we looked around and photographed the Russian orthodox church and then a walk into the park led us to it’s lakes where we couldn’t resist taking pictures as the sun set.
Day 5 – Strictly Protected Area
Aside from the bison, my defining memory from my first visit was of The Strictly Protected Area or SPA. Although Bialowieza National Park covers an area of about 105 km.sq; much of this is managed with smaller protected areas within. The finest part is the SPA, a truly spectacular forest covering an area of 57 sq.km. An untouched, primeval forest, the largest and finest of it’s kind in lowland Europe. Massive, several hundred year old oaks and spruce stand 50 metres plus tall as a result of the nutrient rich soil. A stunningly beautiful, yet eerie, place where no forest management takes place and the only means of transport within the forest is horse and cart. Where trees fall, they remain and, should one fall across a path, it is cut by handsaw and dragged aside by horse. Among the tangled vegetation and fallen, decaying trees, wolves, lynx, boar and bison roam. Black storks, lesser-spotted eagles and all 10 species of woodpecker exist within this area, not to mention the endless list of flowers, fungi and insects.
A full day was set aside for this. There is no way you can appreciate and do the forest justice with your camera in a couple of hours. We had uninterrupted blue sky all day. In total we walked in the region of 7 km but with frequent stops for photography, we barely noticed it at all. The silence was deafening, occasionally punctuated by the sound of a woodpecker drumming on the enormous trees which echoed through the forest. The highlight was when Marek took out his bird call recorder and played that of a middle-spotted woodpecker. Within moments it flew to the top a nearby tree and bagan drumming which it did with such intensity that it caused the snow on it’s branches to fall! A really funny and wonderful sight.
The sun was still shining as we left the forest and so we took the opportunity to shoot the snowy landscape and distant birches.
Our day and, indeed, the trip, ended with Marek taking us to a local restaurant where we enjoyed a relaxing meal washed down with a glass of cold Zubr (bison) beer. Warm and friendly, it was the perfect way to round up an exceptional 6 days.
I am leading two back-to-back tours next year, with the same itinerary. The first is already full but I have vacancies on the second, being February 9th to 14th. For more information, please see here.
Here’s what Phil and Paul had to say about it…..
“If you are interested in photographing Wild Bison, numerous bird species, in an unspoilt, rural and remote location then a photographic tour to Eastern Poland with Robert Canis is the place to go.
I have just returned from a six day tour with Robert to this wonderful area. The tour included primeval forests, which have been untouched for around 150 years where you can experience total silence. Here you will find giant Oak, Spruce and Hornbeam; when they eventually die and fall this is where they lay, so providing decaying matter for insect life and small animals on which to live.
Organized by renowned UK based wildlife and nature photographer, Robert Canis, the trip was very well run, with maximum photographic time spent on various locations. For this tour Robert teamed up with Polish photographer and botanist, Marek Kosinski whose guidance and expert local knowledge of the areas visited ensured the best photographic opportunities. Finding wild Bison in vast meadows or inside the forest is no mean feat, but with Marek as a guide we were soon able to find and photograph these magnificent animals.
Once again many thanks, my memories of Bialowieza will remain with me.”
“Just a few lines to say how much I enjoyed the 2012 Bison workshop in Poland.
Organisation in both countries, by Rob and Marek, faultless, everything through flights / accommodation / meal arrangements to our local expert / guide / photographer in Marek Kosinski – I would find it difficult to propose any changes that would improve the experience. The only problem (or challenge if you refer) being getting photo kit through the carry on check in limits!!
Every location visited resulted in an opportunity for capturing either the Bison or some stunning winterscapes – a testament to Mareks’ knowledge of both the Bison and area.
Jumped in feet first with this workshop – not having attended a previous workshop, or spent a serious amount of time doing wildlife photography, but will almost certainly book some future workshops.
Nothing was too much trouble for either Rob or Marek. Be warned tho’, Robs enthusiasm can be infectious……..”
Last week, I returned from my Bison of Bialowieza Photography Tour. It went extremely well with perfect, snowy conditions and freezing temperatures of around -15 C. Marek Kosinski, top Polish nature photographer and guide, found us plenty of bison on which to train our telephoto lenses. His garden bird hide kept us more than occupied with visiting hawfinch, brambling and jay to name but a few and, on our last day, a visit to Bialowieza’s Special Protected Area had us in awe of this magnificent forest.
A full trip report with lots of images will be up soon but, for the time being, here’s one of bison crossing a railway line. A very special encounter, indeed.
I am running back to back winter tours next year. The first date is already full but I have places available for the 2nd, being February 9th-14th. Click here for more information.
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.
No ‘new’ images as it were from the last week due to the appalling weather so here are some from a couple of weeks ago. All taken over a course of a few hours. Once again, I had little to no expectations of there being decent weather. I left my home in cloud but 15 minutes later on the marshes, things were very different. Complete white-out one minute and sun the next. No time to set up a tripod as the light was changing so rapidly so shot away, often using a beanbag on the car’s roof or simply setting the camera to iso 200 and shutter priority of 1/30 sec or so letting the camera decide upon the aperture. This way I was sure there wouldn’t be any camera shake. I don’t often work like this as I much prefer to use a tripod but there are occasions when you have no choice. If I were rich enough to own a D3s I could have set the camera to iso 800 or higher, resulting in a faster shutter speed and smaller aperture, but I’m not, so you do the best with what you’ve got!
No sooner it stopped, it would start again.
It won’t be long now until the wigeon move northwards to their breeding grounds. With their high-pitched whistling call, the North Kent Marshes will be a quieter place.
The marsh was sodden with the mix of rain and snow melt which made the going hard at times, but the conditions that evening were fantastic. There are few places I enjoy more than this remote corner of north Kent, especially in winter
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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