Tuesday 19 January 2010

New Era and Upton Warren's Stars

Late in 2006 I decided that the bug of bird photography had really caught me, and that it wasn't just a flash in the pan interest soon to be replaced with something else. Grabbing my credit card, I took a deep breath and ordered the Canon 100-400mm L lens to replace the Sigma 70-300mm one I'd used until then. I wanted more reach and stability - my hands aren't the steadiest out there.

Since then I've not regretted the decision once. It's a cracking lens, light enough to carry around all day, has IS so cancels out my shakes and has decent reach. It has allowed me to build up a wide and varied collection of images of birds (and other wildlife) and some of the shots aren't bad at all. It has also taught me how to approach certain species so as not to disturb them, and in doing so encouraged me to learn more about the world I'm in.

However, in this game you can't help but look at what your friends are using, and in a lot of cases this has been the larger end of the Canon range, prime lenses. Expensive, usually heavy and rather bulky. I've seen my friends upgrade their kit to the likes of 300mm F2.8, 500mm F4 and others already had the bazookas of the 600mm and 800mm lenses. Longer reach, better image quality. Green eyes.

So, middle of 2009 I decided that I would start looking out for an upgrade. Several lenses took my fancy, including the 300mm F2.8, the 400mm DO and of course the 500mm F4. After reading up on each, especially noting owner's reviews, I decided on the trusted favourite of bird photographers, the 500mm F4. Coupled with a teleconverter, this would give me 700mm, with IS and AF. A very tempting prospect.

Anyway, you're all probably bored of this waffle now, so I'll cut to the chase. I bought one on Saturday, 2nd hand from a very nice chap called Dave, over in a small village on the outskirts of Cambridge. He threw in the TC for a bargain price too. So as of now, I have joined the Big Lens Brigade.

"Is it as good as you hoped it would be?" I hear you say. In a word, yes.

It's a whole new world. On Sunday with the sun shining, I went to my trusted favourite spot of Upton Warren, and the additional reach of having 700mm over 400mm means all the hides suddenly become genuinely useful for photography. Before, I considered the Hen Pool, Flashes feeders, North Moors and Spider / Concrete as being only really any good, provided the birds were close.

Sunday, starting in the North Moors, I chatted briefly to a chap (Richard, who was filming from there) about the bittern, and he informed me that it had been walking around on the ice. Within minutes, out it came and repeated the action, wandering for perhaps 10 minutes along the back of the frozen lake. Long lens means better shots, though the light was awful, so there's still something I can blame my rubbish shots on.

From the East Hide, birds in the water that would have previously been really cropped, were on the verge of being too close. The lens also seems to aid tracking birds better, though that's probably because the subject is simply larger in the frame to follow.

In the morning sunshine, the teal, snipe and many shovelers looked lovely, and I took a fair few shots to try the new set up out. With the sun moving around, I opted to change sides of the pool, and tried my luck from the Bittern Hide. Fleeting glimpses of the kingfisher were a pleasant treat, though it didn't perch as the surface was still mainly frozen. A water rail was making the most of a hole made by rats to the caged bird seed, and hopping inside for some food. And the woodland birds were fluttering around, including several beautiful bullfinches.

Then, with some unfortunate timing (2 of my 'tog friends had just left), I was told of the other bittern, showing itself off in the open, over at the feeding station at the Flashes. Needless to say, I scuttled over there as quickly as possible, and sure enough, there it was, some 70 yards away mooching around in the grass.

The light wasn't great by then, and the bittern managed to position itself so a weed was in front of it generally, but even so, what a spectacle! It didn't seem to have much joy in hunting, grabbing at the grass and seeming rather ratty when nothing was caught.

Not to focus entirely on the bittern though - a lone grey heron perched in the dead tree, and looked almost prehistoric as it posed in the last of the day's sunlight.

I'm still gathering together my pennies to get the additional extras needed to use the lens, but on initial tests, I'm more than happy. The image quality is amazing, colours seem clearer and I don't have to crop the shots so much, meaning there is less noise to contend with.

I'll get more pics from the day sorted during the week, but the bittern shots are already on my gallery along with the heron. I'm looking forward to adventures with this new set up now and hoping it's as fun to use as my trusty old 100-400mm is.


Kevin Groocock said...

Very nice, Pete. Pleased to hear about your new lens. Images with your "old" lens were very good, now fantastic. I shall look forward to more. That Bittern is superb.


Reg Telescope said...

Great pictures. Was that your Skoda parked behind my Golf on Sunday?

I wondered if it was you in the North Moors Pool hide, but when I saw that monster lens poking out, I assumed not!

Sorry if I missed you.

Pete Walkden said...

Cheers chaps.

Yes that was my Skoda parked up. Had to squeeze it in where it was as when I arrived the car park was full.

Steve Seal said...


Max Silverman said...

Pete.Congrats on the new lens.This leaves me as the only local birder with a 400 lens which I'll have to stick with because I can only just carry it around let alone a bigger lens.

Great shots of the Bittern.I've got a few shots recently at Brandon but always a long way off and not too good.

Pete Walkden said...

Hi Max, my 100-400mm isn't going anywhere, other than perhaps for a service. But you're right about the additional weight. You should see the size of the new bag I have. I'm sure my holiday suitcase is smaller! The lens itself isn't that heavy; more awkward from its bulk.