1. Tale of two winters

    February was a very busy month which saw me leading two tours, one to Poland and the other to Finland. The focus for both was predominantly wildlife though we did manage to squeeze a little landscape in too.

    Traditionally, February is a pretty reliable month, weather wise, where you’d expect snow cover and minus temperatures but this, sadly, no longer seems to be the case. I think most of us will acknowledge that the planet goes through cycles. Indeed it has been doing so for over four billion years but it’s the acceleration over the last 3-5 years that has surprised most and is clearly affecting nature. In the past, wildlife would evolve as the conditions changed (which would, perhaps, be over many thousands of years) but it seems to be happening with such speed that many species simply cannot keep up. The polar bear is a prime example where the sea ice is breaking up much earlier (it relies on sea ice for catching seal prey) which, as a result, leads to starvation, infant mortality and even cannibalism.

    My first trip was to northeast Poland to ‘potentially’ (nothing in nature is ever guaranteed!) photograph European bison, elk, birds of prey (especially white-tailed eagle) and smaller birds such as woodpeckers, tits and finches. The region experienced wonderful winter conditions a couple of weeks before with eagles visiting regularly but as time went on the temperature rose, melting all snow and the eagles disappeared. All but two members of the group had been with me the previous year (for some this was their third trip) with high hopes of photographing the eagles on this occasion. Alas, this wasn’t to be the case and although it was a little disappointing not to have had the conditions and eagles that were hoped for we did get some marvellous wildlife encounters. Three 12-hour days were spent in hides in the hope of photographing eagles but such was the group’s upbeat nature that if they were ever to have felt despondent it didn’t show – though for all I knew they could have been crying in their pillows in the privacy of their rooms! I hope I speak for us all that, regardless of the conditions (though we did get a light dusting, sunshine and frost on the final morning), we still did pretty darn well in photographing a wide range of species including bison, common buzzard, raven, elk, wild boar, red deer, grey-headed woodpecker, great-spotted woodpecker, middle-spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, greenfinch, hawfinch, tits, jay, siskin and even mink! Moreover, aside from the photography aspect, the group (as always) got along marvelously and our incredibly obliging and warm hosts made our mornings and evenings very special indeed with their fabulous home-cooked meals and occasional(!) vodka.





    For the wildlife images I used either the 200-400mm f/4 or 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on a Nikon D7200 which, more often than not, was mounted onto a Manfrotto tripod with video head attached. Occasionally, when the situation required it, I would hand-hold the camera – especially when photographing elk – as often there was very little time to set up a tripod and it enabled me to remain flexible both in terms of viewpoint and composition.

    Greenfinches squabbling

    Greenfinches squabbling


    While in the hide waiting for eagles, in failing light, we observed and photographed this  American mink as it went back and forth from underneath the hide (where it had made its home) to the bait. The ravens, as you can see, took umbrage to this and attempted to scare it off but with little success.




    The highlight of the trip was encountering this extremely obliging elk which fed and drank in this flooded forest (carr) for a considerable period allowing us all to get some ‘once in a lifetime’ images of this, very often, shy and difficult to approach species.






    Snowfall and pines

    Snowfall and pines

    We had a few hours to spare on our final morning before leaving for Warsaw airport so we headed out at dawn in the hope of photographing elk. The conditions were glorious with a heavy frost and light dusting of snow but, alas, aside from this very skittish individual we couldn’t find any that would allow sufficient time for us all to get some images. We probably used up all our luck with the elk the previous day!


    Not wanting to waste the morning chasing shadows we stopped and photographed the rising sun over the marsh and sun rays as they penetrated a pine forest which, I have to say, was a very nice way to end the trip.

    Poland-024 Poland-026Poland-027160213_1118

    Never let it be said that my tours are ever all that serious!

    Never let it be said that my tours are ever all that serious!

    One week later and I was in the far north – Kuusamo – in central eastern Finland which lies just south of the Arctic Circle. A stunning region of unending views and crisp, cold air, we arrived with 70cm of snow and below zero temperatures. A real contrast, conditions wise, to Poland where, as the week progressed, the temperature slowly dropped from around -5 to, on the last day, -20. We photographed everything we could hope for except the great grey owl but owls in winter, anyway, are very hit and miss as it is largely dependent on prey availability. Instead, we got some wonderful views (and images) of pygmy and hawk owl both of which tested our reflexes to the max and I don’t think I have ever photographed a bird so fast and unpredictable in its flight path as these! There was an awful lot of deleting upon my return home, I can tell you.

    Aside from the owls, over the four days of photography we photographed frozen landscapes, dipper, golden eagle, siberian jay, willow, siberian, great and blue tit, great-spotted woodpecker, eurasian jay, red squirrel and, for some, a rather distant ural owl. En-route to the eagle hide we had a fantastic encounter with a calf and female elk that were standing beside one another in deep snow just 15 metres or so from the road. They didn’t stay long enough for us to get a photograph but it was great to see nonetheless.

    Among the most colourful and characterful of all Finland’s birds is the siberian jay which kept us entertained on three of the four days where trying to come up with something a little different to the norm was quite a challenge.

    A visit to a mill adjacent to some rapids gave everyone an opportunity to divulge in some landscape photography and, also, to give them a sense of this wonderful place in winter.

    A suspension footbridge crossing the river provided a great perspective. Before crossing it was essential to double check that the camera was firmly attached to the tripod – for obvious reasons!


    And in the other direction…..



    Dave Pressland, keeping it steady.

    David Barker

    Two days were then spent in hides deep in the Finnish wilderness to photograph golden eagles.


    Car journey at dawn to the hides.

    Forest impression at daybreak. Taken from a moving car.

    Forest impression at daybreak. Taken from a moving car.


    The beauty of a siberian jay can only truly be revealed when captured in flight.


    Eurasian jays and great-spotted woodpecker

    Eurasian jays and great-spotted woodpecker


    A male golden eagle did turn up and fed long enough for everyone to get some nice images before flying to a tree at the far end of the clearing, gathering twigs to present to the female for nest building.

    Both are full frame and shows the flexibility of a 200-400mm when working from a hide.


    The following day more small bird images were in order prior to the main course.

    Willow tit

    Willow tit

    Great-spotted woodpecker

    Great-spotted woodpecker

    Willow tit. Keep looking....

    Willow tit.

    Siberian tit.

    Siberian tit.

    In the eagle hide. Image courtesy of David Barker.

    In the eagle hide. Image courtesy of David Barker.

    The eagles didn’t disappoint and the male arrived at 1.15pm.


    Once they feed they often fly to a nearby perch, for a short while, to clean their bill. With this in mind, while he was feeding, I composed the image below and simply waited with cable-release in hand for him to leave and fly to the branch.


    Exactly two hours later they both arrived and fed for almost an hour.

    In this image you can clearly see the size difference between the male and, significantly larger, female.

    In this image you can clearly see the size difference between the male and, significantly larger, female.

    Once the male had had his fill he left and, once again, perched on the tree at the far end leaving the female (which hadn’t fed for two days) alone at the carcase.


    Departing. Eagle impression.

    Departing. Eagle impression.

    Word had it that there was an obliging hawk owl and pygmy owl and so we devoted much of that day ‘attempting’ to photograph these incredibly quick and unpredicatable birds. the success rate was low but it was jolly good fun trying!

    Pygmy owl

    Pygmy owl

    I thought it would be a great shame not to show my clients the wonderfully surreal landscape of a nearby fell-top where due to heavy snowfall and moisture you get these amazing snow sculptures known as tykky (pronounced duurker). We were very fortunate in that during some of our time there there was a steely-grey sky which provided a nice contrast to the pure white snow. As we left, mist enveloped the area.


    With a few hours to spare on our final morning we took to the road for one last go at the pygmy owl and what a stunning morning it was too: minus 20, blue sky and thick frost.

    Pygmy owl

    Pygmy owl


    My thanks go to my guides Marek, Paavo and Olli for all their help in ensuring the tours ran so smoothly and, of course, to both groups for making them such a joy to lead.

  2. Poland: Bialowieza and Biebrza

    Its been a very busy month, to say the least, with me leading overseas tours to both Poland and Finland respectively. In Poland, our aim was to photograph bison, white-tailed eagles and elk while in Finland we hoped to photograph golden eagles, dippers, Siberian jays and, with a little luck, owls.

    Both locations were going through a mild phase with temperatures rarely going below -5 which, especially in Finland, is very rare indeed at this time of the year when -10 to -20 is the norm. However, there was still plenty of snow (60-100cm in Finland) and in both locations we were treated to heavy snowfalls which, goes without saying, can really make an image. But first, here’s a selection from Poland.

    European bison


    Two days in hides were set aside to, potentially, obtain images of white-tailed eagles and since the hides take a maximum of 4 photographers the group was split in two and were rotated so, while a group went off looking for and photographing bison, the other was sat in hide – waiting!

    I obviously couldn’t be in two places at once so I spent a couple of days with two members of the group and a couple with the remaining three. On the day of the ‘Bison Safari’ we got lucky with a bull being located close to the village. We spent around an hour photographing this magnificent beast in wonderful snowy conditions. It’s always ‘fun’ focusing in such conditions where the camera struggles locking on to what is a predominantly contrast-less subject. As long as the subject allows (i.e. it’s motionless) I often use Live View and switch to manual focus.


    Herd of females and calves in heavy snow

    Bison calf

    Bison calf



    Bison feeding

    Bison feeding

    For all bison images I used a Nikon D300s with a 200-400mm which I find to be the ‘perfect’ wildlife lens as it enables you to seamlessly shoot portrait and contextual images without the fuss of removing or adding tele-converters.

    Two days were spent in hides waiting for white-tailed eagles but, alas, although they were seen (one did actually land but it was too distant) they didn’t come down to feed close enough for photography. Such is hide photography where nothing is guaranteed. However, a wild boar visited on several occasions which was a pretty good consolation prize none the less. Other members of the group also captured some striking images of buzzards fighting in the falling snow and of woodpeckers, too.


    Boar running at dusk

    Common buzzard

    Common buzzard

    011Another bison day, different group, and pretty much all the snow we had a couple of days ago had all but disappeared. However, Marek (our guide) located a very confiding herd and we spent an enjoyable ninety minutes photographing from a respectful distance as they went about their business. It was one of the nicest encounters I have had with these animals and there was a part of me that was glad for there not being any snow since it reduced the scene down to a soft pallete of browns and greens


    After several days in Bialowieza we headed to one of Europe’s largest wildlife refuges, the Biebrza Marshes, Poland’s largest national park. Comprising of wide open flood plains, channels, fen and forest this world-renowned wetland is a haven for a multitude of plant, bird and mammal species. Our target species was the elk and, with a little luck, otter and beaver, too.

    Female elk and calf

    Female elk and calf

    We didn’t have to wait too long either. Within 15 minutes of slow driving an elk was spotted laying down in a field the other side of some trees by an eagle-eyed member of the group – Jason! We managed a few images which whetted our appetite for more. A short while after, as we drove down a side road to our accommodation, fresh tracks were spotted. We took a track immediately past them and parked. More images followed a stalk. 017018

    They blend in superbly well and the hardest part was finding a gap through the trees. Fortunately, they would more often than not stand stock-still long enough to secure a few images. Soon after ‘checking in’ to our accommodation we were back out and aside from keeping watch for elk we looked, also, for signs of otter and beaver. An otter had been regularly sighted along an ice-free channel not far from the road. We waited inside the car and obtained some pretty good views at it surfaced and, later that day, we sat in the snow for around an hour and half, hoping that it would do so again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be but it’s always good to try as you just never know.

    With a clear night and morning forecast we headed out at dawn and walked to a nearby forest where we had previously photographed the elk. Within moments of entering the forest two were spotted some distance away. We were optimistic. Due to overnight mist and freezing temperatures a hard frost clung to the birch trees which was just too good to resist, especially as in Southern England winter frosts have been so few and far between.


    Birch trees and frost



    Courtesy of James Godber

    Courtesy of James Godber




    Following taking the above images, myself and Jason joined the remainder of the group who told us that an elk had walked right in front of them. Posing in the morning sun! We, enviably, looked at their images though very happy that they had obtained some marvellous pictures and as all 8 of us stood chatting she appeared on the edge of the ‘frozen’ forest staring at us. We were in deep shade so although she knew we were there, we were clearly harder to make sense of. We couldn’t believe our eyes!


    After a short while she cantered across the snowy meadow, stopped and looked at us. This she repeated, before finally entering the forest on the other side. The excitement and relief that we had all experienced it together, and on the last day too, was to say the very least, the icing on the cake and remains one of the best wildlife encounters (I think I speak for us all here) that any of us had ever witnessed. Pure serendipity! But, as the saying goes, “the harder you work, the luckier you get”.


    The moment we were all caught by surprise. Perfectly captured by our guide, Zenon Borawski.

    Breakfast had never tasted so good and afterwards we, yet again, headed out looking for otter and beaver. As we did so a few landscape opportunities presented themselves. This viewpoint gave us all a great impression just how vast this area is which covers just under 230 sq.miles.


    We returned to the same otter spot as before with a view to sitting some distance away to see if this time we would be lucky but our plan was thwarted by a ‘wildlife photographer’ donned in snow camo that walked to the edge of the ice with camera and tripod. He knelt and stayed for a full 15 minutes (my, what patience!) before standing and well, just standing really. Time was moving on and realising that our plan was futile I decided to move the group onto a site not too far away where we had the chance of spotting, and maybe, photographing beaver. We settled down, patiently waited and soon after the sun had set, two beavers came out and swam in front of us. At one point we could see how one was struggling to get onto the ice from the water and how the other was attempting to help it. It was just a little too far for me to obtain some decent images but it was marvellous to watch. As sunset turned to dusk we got up and headed back to the cars but delayed our journey back to the guest house long enough to soak up and photograph our surroundings bathed in pink, orange and blue.

    033What a day. What a trip! Thanks to James A, James G, Phil, Jason and Paul for really making the tour the success it was. There is really only so much that myself and Marek (and Zenon) can do. We can plan and make sure you are in the right spot at (hopefully) the right time but ultimately, it comes down to how well the group gels. As it turned out, the jokes and jibes commenced from day one! With the combination of great subjects, tales from the day, superb food washed down with a cold Żubr and the ‘occasional’ glass of vodka, how could there possibly be any other outcome! I think we were all sorry when it ended. Thank you guys, the pleasure was all ours!


    The group outside our guest house in Biebrza with our guides, Marek Kosinski, Zenon Borawski and our formidable cook and host, Bronia….and her dog.


  3. Poland photo-tour

    February was a particularly busy month with trips to both Poland and Finland. For the 4th time, Marek Kosinski and I led a tour to photograph Bialowieza’s wild herds of bison, forest birds and the Strictly Protected Area. We were very lucky with the weather with wall-to-wall sunshine for pretty much the entire tour with snow remaining on the ground. The first couple of mornings were very chilly at -15 C providing the group with frost-covered bison images but, as the days went by, the temperature climbed to a very mild (for eastern Poland anyway) +2 degrees. Once our clients departed for the airport I stayed on a further 3 days in an attempt to photograph white-tailed eagles from Marek’s hides as we will be incorporating these in next year’s itinerary.

    Workshop participants photographing bison on our first day.

    The group photographing bison at dawn on our first day.

    I have visited this region a number of times now and unless the bison are in exceptional light or doing something different to that which I have captured previously, I find myself shooting other subjects. It was such a beautiful morning, how could I resist?……



    As the day drew on we encountered a herd of bison on one of the many forest tracks we drove upon in order to locate them. You just never know what you might encounter as a short while earlier we came across a herd of red deer.


    Our first day concluded with a herd wandering across a large meadow at sunset.



    Nikon D300s, 200-400 @ 400mm, ISO 400, 1/1600 sec. f5.6


    Marek’s woodpecker hide was fantastic with numerous species (not just woodies!) making a constant appearance. Great-spotted, middle-spotted, grey-headed and white-backed woodpeckers all turned up as did hawfinch (7 counted at once), siskin, brambling, bullfinch, jay, nuthatch, tree sparrow and greenfinch. We used pop-up 2-person hides which enabled us to position them where we pleased according to the lenses we were using.

    Male middle-spotted woodpecker.

    Male middle-spotted woodpecker.




    Great tit

    Greenfinches squabbling












    Half a day was spent in the magical Strictly Protected Area, the largest and finest example of primeval woodland to be found anywhere in lowland Europe. Even though I have visited this site on many occasions, I always find new images to make. Infact, you could spend an entire lifetime in this forest alone and still only scratch the surface. I forced myself not to be too exacting with my compositions or else you lose the “chaos” that makes this woodland so unique.


    Workshop participant, Chris, lining up a shot.

    Workshop participant, Chris, lining up a shot.



    Marek’s eagle hides are very comfortable with lots of room and heating making the 12 hour vigils very tolerable. On my first day at dawn I captured these buzzards fighting over a meal. I have never been the kind of photographer that gets too hung up on noise and pixels, much preferring to push the camera in order to record the event. Quality is secondary when shooting subjects like this in such marginal conditions.



    Nikon D300s, 200-400 @ 360mm, ISO 4500, 1/200 sec. f4.

    Later on that morning and afternoon, a pair turned up but stayed for just a few minutes. At sunset, a white-tailed perched in a very photogenic tree bathed in warm late afternoon sunlight and remained for half an hour.








    Leaving the hide under cover of darkness.

    Leaving the hide under cover of darkness.

    The following day was not quite so productive although once again buzzards were very close to the hide and I could hear the eagles calling. But, on my third and final day I had the most incredible experience with 4 eagles making an appearance at once and continued to return, at intervals, throughout the day!



    The conditions were just as I had hoped, too – dank with sleet adding a more sombre, atmospheric feel to the images. In between visits by the eagles, buzzards would often drop in to feed, closer to the hide.


    Common buzzard

    It was all go that day. A fox came and stayed for several minutes, much to the annoyance of the ravens!



    Squabbling between the eagles would often break out and it wasn’t until much later on in the session when reviewing images during a quiet spell that I noticed this one which will be appearing in the A Moment with Nature section in the May issue of Outdoor photography. A wonderful experience (as you can imagine) which reinforced my decision on incorporating these hides onto next year’s programme.

    Nikon D300s, 200-400 @ 330mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000 sec f4.

    Nikon D300s, 200-400 @ 330mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000 sec f4.

    If you’re interested in attending next year’s tour to photograph bison, forest birds, white-tailed eagle, beaver and elk, please contact me at rmcanis@msn.com to receive the full itinerary.


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