Sunday 11 October 2020

Red Backed Shrike And Vigo The Bearded Vulture

When I first got into bird photography, I would drive all over the country in search of species to photograph and add to my extensive galleries. In recent years though, partly from my choice in a career, and earning less money than I did when working in the IT sector, I have been less inclined to go see rare birds, unless they really "float my boat".

Readers of this blog will know that I love raptors and any predatory bird, so when I learned of a red backed shrike not that far from home, I thought I ought to get out to see it.

Having seen several great grey shrikes over the years, and one rather lovely woodchat shrike, this would be the second red backed shrike for me, but actually the first one seen in the UK. I found one in Lindos whilst holidaying there.

This individual has been spotted in Sutton Park, in an area alive with birds and insects, and it was on the latter that the shrike was feasting upon. I quickly located the shrike in a crab apple tree, but it wasn't the best spot for a photograph. Sure I took some, just in case it flew off never to be seen again, but I hoped it would follow the same behaviour of the other shrikes I'd observed before, and have a loop around the area where it would go to feed.

Sure enough, after a while in the apple tree, the shrike took flight, and I saw which direction it went. I, along with a couple of other people, followed it, at a respectful distance. This was what I had hoped for, and the shrike proceeded to perch up on a number of bushes and trees, over a period of an hour or so, as it hunted in different areas of the park. All the while swooping down to catch insects, both from on the ground and from the vegetation.

The loop it was using was thankfully smaller than some I've seen in the past with the great grey shrikes, which can cover miles at a time. Then, when it looked like it was perhaps going to return to where it started, and I'd first seen it, it vanished into a thicket of gorse, and didn't reappear for over an hour. I guess that might have been where it had a larder, and was where it rested for a while.

Whilst the shrike was chilling out, I took the chance to grab a few shots of one of the common redstarts also feeding around the area. I also saw a spotted flycatcher, which was another first of this rather restricted year for bird watching.

When the red backed shrike finally resurfaced, it again went to the crab apple tree, and began the loop once more. By then though, I had amassed a few images, and decided to head home.

For a bird of prey fan, I couldn't possibly have failed to notice the sightings of the juvenile bearded vulture nicknamed Vigo, that had been roosting and feeding around the Derbyshire Peak District. And I had been very tempted to visit, but she was proving to be difficult to see at times. To my shame I decided not to bother going. I could probably have found time between little owl workshops, but the thought of driving up there, then walking miles and not seeing it was off-putting.

Then she left, and was seen around Norfolk. And most recently Lincolnshire. Whilst eating my breakfast I saw a report pop up on my phone from Bird Guides about the vulture being seen near Cowbit in Lincs, and I decided to see exactly where in Lincs it was. Then it dawned on me... I knew the area, having been there before for wildlife with my friend Ian. And it was only a two hour drive away...

Two hours, thirty minutes later I was driving towards where the sighting had been made, and I saw her. I was trying to get across a busy road, and I could see her flying with an unhappy band of corvids surrounding her. Most distracting when trying to drive!

Thankfully I was able to get across, park up and had the camera out in seconds to capture shots of the first bearded vulture I've ever seen in the wild.

One word for her. "Wow".

She was enormous, dwarfing the other birds around her, even large species like red kites and buzzards.

Then she vanished into a small coppice. Having taken a number of images against a bright sky, I decided to walk along the road a bit, so as the sun would be behind me if and when she flew again.

A wise move, as she broke cover, and flew across the field in front of me, then circled round behind, out of view.

That was when she flew right over my head. Way, way too close to fit her in the shot, so I chose to put the camera down and just admire her as she sailed over. Wonderful!

I had hoped on my drive up to simply see the vulture, but to have enjoyed such a view, without the need for binoculars was exhilarating.

She then powered off across the fields, and with the help of a band of very merry birders, we relocated her in a tree. Incredible that such a massive bird could simply vanish when perched in a leafy tree. I simply couldn't get a clear shot. And then she broke cover, and flew away again.

Following her to another tree, I could see her again, but by now the forecast rain was approaching, and the skies were very dark. Given how rubbish the light was when I was photographing her in the trees, I have to doff my cap to the sensor in my new mirrorless camera (Canon R5) at how much detail and colour was recovered from the images.

The rain started to fall, and she took flight again, heading into a private estate. The farmer / landowner, bless him, then invited a few of us first on the scene, to drive down a track to see if we could get a view. We did, but the rain was really starting to come down, and I thought it was probably wise to head home.

Two "twitches" and two fantastic results. Maybe I should get out more...?

Friday 7 August 2020

Little Owls To The Rescue

"Has he disappeared from the face of the planet", I hear you ask. I'm guilty of yet again neglecting this blog, though this year has been an unusual one.

With CV19 preventing travel to Mull during June and most of July, the tours I had planned on the island, both bespoke ones and those co-run with Andy, have had to be postponed for 12 months. Needless to say, this has left a whacking great hole in my earnings for the year.

So as soon as the lockdown eased, I drove over to the farm where the little owls live, and have focused almost entirely on them since.

This is a bit like history repeating itself, in that the first year I watched the pair, I was able to watch the parents taking food into the barn, and the nestlings fledge, or branch as it's called for owls. And like that first season, just the one owlet made it to the trees.

As I am unable to see into the nest, I can't ever tell if the eggs all hatch, or if the nestlings make a meal of one another, or if they are lost when branching. All I get to see is an inquisitive and very fluffy character staring at me from the foliage of the oak tree one day, and I can tell you, it's always something special to witness.

Unlike the first time I observed the family, I was more familiar with the sight of the owls this year and less wowed by the novelty of it all, and noticed a lot more this time round, and I have to hold my hands up. I got it wrong. It's not the male that I see, that does the lion's share of the work, but the female.

How do I know? Well when watching the owls before the owlet branched, I noticed she had a patch of ruffled feathers around her underside, and when she preened, I could see her skin. A brood patch, and only the females get this. It's a good job I didn't publish an article about it in a local wildlife magazine. D'oh!

The male tends to sit further down the line of trees, and while I have seen him bringing in food, he's generally on lookout, sounding an alarm call should a buzzard, or more recently red kite, stray too close.

As with previous years, I enjoyed watching the female come down for food, repeatedly, and take it into the barn. During this stage of the nesting, I was able to practise getting flight shots, and found the 100-400mm lens was best for this, as it allowed a wider view initially, then zoomed in when I could guess where she'd fly.

And by rigging up a beam, I was also able to capture some more running shots, with the female scuttling towards me.

When the lockdown eased in July, I opened the site up for workshops, though with a change because of the social distancing measures. Rather than the clients sitting with me in my car, they have had to use their own. And it's been great, to be honest. While I miss the banter in the vehicle, the clients are able to have all their gear to hand, and not perhaps be concerned about messing up my car.

On 15th July, on a day off between workshops, I called into the farm like usual, and spotted something rather fluffy in the oak tree. An owlet! Naming it "Acorn" which seemed appropriate, I scanned the trees for siblings, and tried to listen for other hissing calls.

During a subsequent workshop, Acorn was perched down where the male likes to watch out from, and suddenly we heard hissing, the begging call of an owlet from within the barn. Was there another?

No. The owlet that I had assumed could only walk and climb, could fly already, and had flown from the furthest tree, out of sight, and back into the barn. If it could fly from the trees, might it fly down to the roof soon, and entertain the paying public?

Barely a week later, on a Sunday afternoon, I called in briefly to have a look, and down fluttered Acorn, to the roof, to beg for food from its mother. Fantastic.

Since then, both clients and I have been enjoying some wonderful views of Acorn and its mother, on the roof and occasionally on the perches. Acorn isn't quite ready for those yet, as I have seen it fall off of the barn roof a couple of times, though always flying off, to style it out.

Currently Acorn is tending to entertain clients as it charges around on the roof, occasionally flying or jumping, but mainly just standing there, looking utterly gorgeous.

Hopefully the family will remain safe and well right through until mid October when the relationship between parents and the offspring breaks down, and Acorn will have to find its own territory elsewhere.

If you would like to join me for a workshop, please take a look at the website page (Click Here) and either fill in the contact form, or drop me an email. Spaces are going fast, and the owlet, Acorn, is getting less fluffy with each passing week.

While the workshops are never going to make up for the lost income of the postponed Mull tours, they are providing some sort of a living for me currently, and entertainment for me that is going to last long in my memory, and has firmly put a smile on my face.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Lockdown Photography - Macro Stacking

Lockdown continues and while I was tempted to capture more images of the birds visiting the feeders in my garden, I felt it might be more productive to learn something new, and try a technique I had been considering for years now, after meeting and becoming friends with Oliver Wright. Now if you haven't seen Oliver's work, check it out on his website (here) and dive into some of the macro images he's captured.

Some of you will be thinking, hang on Pete, you've done loads of macro already. And you'd be correct, but all such images were from one single shot. With macro, the depth of field is so narrow, that bright conditions are needed to capture details, using a small aperture. Even then, using perhaps f11 for images, only a small portion of a subject might be in focus.

What Oliver does, is stack images. There are loads of other macro photographers out there that do this of course, but what appealed to me from his brief demonstration to me, was that he does it hand-held, without any tripod or slider, so it'd be something I could potentially do when out and about. Summer for example can be a time when birds seem to vanish during long stretches of the day, or perhaps the light is too harsh or heat-haze is killing focus on other opportunities, and has been a time in previous years when I have turned my attention to the invertebrates around where I am standing.

So with lockdown in force, I grabbed my Canon 7d mk2, 100mm f2.8 IS macro lens, extension tubes and headed out into the garden. The pond is a hive of activity most of the time, and I have photographed the small wolf spiders that hunt on its fringes before, but now I was trying something new. Didn't take long to locate one, so now it was down to me putting into practice what I had seen Oliver doing several times before.

The idea is simple. With the lens wide open (at f2.8), you obtain focus on the subject, then without changing it, rock the camera back and forth whilst taking shots. In theory capturing tiny sections of the subject with each shot. Sounds simple enough, until you realise that the rocking has to be the same length as the creature, so barely registering on your muscles as movement, the light can change of course during the process and the main issue, the subject can move too. And when it does, it's usually something you don't realise has happened until post-processing later on.

Mooching around in the vegetation in the garden started to reveal a hidden world. As well as spiders and flies, there were small beetles and shield bugs too.

And the garden wasn't the only place to look for creepy-crawlies. I recalled several times having seen a spider on the wall of my porch, so went out front to look, and sure enough, found it near where it normally is.

It was a nursery web spider, and it was hiding in the small pocket of shade offered by a bolt protruding from the brickwork. And it was kind enough to remain motionless while I faffed around beside it, taking numerous sets of shots.

The benefit of working on subjects around the house and garden is that I have access to my PC immediately, so can look at what I've captured, and if I need to try again, I can.

Post processing stacks of images is in itself quite fun. There's a procedure for it, which might seem daunting at first, but is actually dead easy, and PhotoShop does all the work for you.

I decided to help others learn this skill by writing an article on my website, and it can be seen here:

Pete Walkden Photography - Focus Stacking

And some of the results from recent sessions can be seen below.

These were all captured with the Canon 7D mk2 (though one was with the Canon 1DX) and 100mm macro, plus the Kenko extension tubes. I am tempted to get the 5x macro lens, the Canon MP-E 65mm for much more detailed images, as the revealed detail on these images of the tiny creatures is what fascinates me. But lockdown also restricts deliveries, so I might have to wait for a while on that, and perhaps hold on to my pennies, just in case.

One unexpected bonus I found yesterday when crouched down low in the overgrown or "wild" section of my garden yesterday was the presence of birds, also looking for invertebrates. Whilst I looked, I had a very close encounter from a willow warbler, and then moments later a dunnock hopped by. Raised a smile to see so close.

Let me know if you have any questions on this technique, either in the comments section here, or via email (

Lastly, for anyone interested in finding out about macro photography in general, before going on to tackle this technique, please take a look at this great article below:

Pixpa - Macro Photography - A Complete Guide

Sunday 29 March 2020

March Adders And Lockdown

I've said numerous times in the past, that I ignore my garden and what visits it. I am guilty of spending time pretty much anywhere but being at home when looking for wildlife to photograph, but this past week, with the lockdown enforced from the Coronavirus pandemic, I have begun to appreciate the garden once again.

The start of March saw me on Mull running an otter workshop, followed by a fun few days back home in the company of Lyndsey, who was collecting Andy's new car from the dealership where my brother works. After she'd headed back north, with the house being so quiet I was as usual keen to get out, to find wildlife, and top of the list were adders.

There aren't many locations to see these snakes in the Midlands, but I discovered one through research some years ago, and through a lot of walking and looking, worked out where to find them, on the site. With a forecast for sunshine, I drove over, and started to scour the areas I knew for them. The male adders would have emerged from hibernation during February, and by now some of the larger females would also be out.

As with a lot of wildlife spotting, you need to "get your eye in" and then the snakes start standing out from their surroundings.

The day ended with me having seen four individuals, which wasn't a bad tally. I managed some relatively "clean" shots of a couple too, which isn't always possible with where the snakes tend to bask in the sunshine.

Then as I was contemplating a return visit, the lockdown came into force. Stay at home was (and still is) the message, and only go out for essential work or shopping. Well, my work isn't essential on any level, when faced with this virus, and my freezer was pretty well stocked already. Truth be told, I had been monitoring the news globally, and had guessed something like this lockdown might be enforced, so had picked up odds and ends prior to it kicking in.

Confined to the house, I woke on the first morning, and looked out into the garden. It was a mess to be frank, with brambles and ivy encroaching from all sides. Armed with secateurs and gloves, I spent most of the first couple of days of the lockdown, fighting was might be called Battle Of The Brambles. I won, eventually, but my fingers suffered from the thorns and their ability to pierce any gardening glove.

Whilst pruning I did notice the birds that were visiting the feeders, so once I was happy that the garden was in a decent state, I turned my attention to my camera again. Initially, setting up in the conservatory with the 500mm on a tripod, I found that few birds save the plucky blue tits were coming in. It's funny, given how often birds here see people, that they are so wary of them, compared to those I see in the Highlands, when photographing the crested tits, for example. But flighty they were, and I needed to do something.

Part of the problem is having the conservatory door open. Perhaps the birds are used to seeing it closed, and it looks different. Only time will tell if they get used to it. But I employed my bag-hide to help mask the shape of my camera and tripod, and it also helps hide me somewhat.

Next I needed to set up some perches, and a bit more pruning was needed to make some of the backdrops to the shots, cleaner. Then it was (and still is) a case of standing still behind the tripod, and waiting.

By far the most frequent visitor is the humble blue tit. I think there are two pairs coming in. They mostly aim for the suet balls, but are quite happy to pick from the seed mix tray or the sunflower heart feeders.

A bird that always makes my heart sing when I see it, is the long-tailed tit. And I've noticed that a pair seem to be busy in the far corner of the garden, hopefully building a nest. They're collecting spiders' webs from around the shrubs, but every so often coming to the suet ball feeder to keep up their energy levels.

There are three pairs of robins around too, and one pair of coal tits.

In recent years, when I have spent an hour watching the garden's birds, I have noticed a lack of greenfinches. Thankfully that trend has reversed, and there are at least three pairs coming in.

Goldfinches are also around, chattering as they wait for a turn on the feeders. Always a treat to see, and brighten up the dullest of days.

At the beginning of the month there was a male blackcap constantly hogging the feeders, trying to chase off other birds, though strangely the blue tits scared him away! Since I've rigged up the camera, he's gone into hiding. Typical. That said, I did see a female yesterday, and a rival male, so perhaps he's busy with other things now.

A pair of nuthatches are vocal most mornings, so I got up early one day this week to try for some shots. Yes, you guessed it, no sign of them until late afternoon...

As well as a busy wren zipping around the hedge at the back, there is also a pair of goldcrests around, so when I spotted one flitting around the lower branches of the evergreen tree, I was out in a flash, armed with my Canon 7D mk2 and 100-400mm mk2. You need to be quick to capture images of these tiny birds (smallest in the UK) so I ended up with many shots of empty branches, or blurred tails. But thankfully a couple of decent images.

The star of the garden though, has to be the bullfinch, and from what I can tell I have at least three pairs coming in. One I have seen in previous years unfortunately has lesions on one of his legs, so he can't perch up on the feeders. Doesn't seem to be affecting him though, as he hovers to take seeds. And he is absolutely gorgeous in colour.

There's another vibrant male, with no such problems on his legs, and he almost glows, though he needs to remember to clean his beak after nibbling on the freshly growing buds on the trees around the garden.

And finally a young male, with a subtle pinkish colour, but is no less beautiful.

And of course each male has an accompanying female, stunning in their own way.

So after ignoring my garden in recent years, it has now become my saviour, and provides me with something to occupy my mind and point my camera at, during these trying times. Stay tuned for more posts...