Harvest Mice

 

 Harvest Mice.

 

   Ever since encountering one of these delightful little creatures posing perfectly on a stalk at the edge of a wheat field, only some three feet away and with the light just right, at a moment when my camera was still in its bag back in the car, I had been determined to “get” them one day. There have been several attempts since to achieve this and a great many hours of effort have provided me with a number of world beating shots of a harvest mouse’s backside as it disappears into the corn. Most frustrating of all is when there is one posed perfectly at the top of a stalk, well within lens reach, but with at least 49 other stalks between you and him. It would almost be better not to see one at all than to see it smiling and waving at you, and not be able to get a good clear shot.

   I know there are many out there who would say that photographing wildlife under what are euphemistically called “controlled conditions” is cheating, as if it is some sort of game governed by a rulebook, but to them I can only say “Get real”. If what you want from your photography is to be able to have the pleasure of looking through your images of various subjects for whatever reason, be it just for the sheer joy of seeing them or to provide cards, slideshows, or whatever for friends and relations, then you will have to accept that, for certain subjects, and in certain circumstances, your choice will be between working under those controlled conditions, and obtaining images which can provide immense pleasure for years to come, or having no images at all. As far as I’m concerned it’s a no-brainer. In the case of Harvest Mice they are such endearing and iconic subjects that it would be a crying shame to exclude them from your portfolio just on a half-assed principle. I’m sure there are many out there who have dropped lucky or even been skilful enough to encourage these creatures into suitable surroundings but they will mostly have been people who have just been lucky, or in a position to invest a disproportionate amount of time in getting their images. These people I applaud but not everyone can be so fortunate, especially those who do not have the good fortune to live close enough to a cereal field to be able to “just pop up the road” frequently enough to sensibly monitor a baited feeding spot.

   I have frequently pointed out in my books and articles that, in the case of many truly wild subjects, it is simply not ethical to intrude on their “space” to the extent that you eventually force it into a “fight or flight” decision. Unfortunately for a subject as diminutive as a Harvest Mouse you will have to be very close, in relative terms, to capture a decent size image. It’s not like an elephant that you can probably get all the image you want from the distance of a football pitch away. For these little guys you are going to be virtually “in their face”. Fortunately, throughout the UK, there are now a number of photographic “workshop” opportunities offering the chance to work with subjects habituated to the species “Homo sapiens”. These workshops typically offer half day courses and give you the chance to get really close without causing stress for the subjects. We are lucky to have one such – “Windows on Wildlife” – down here in deepest, darkest, Dorset who, weather permitting, offers an outdoor setting which allows for very natural backgrounds. As a photographer and Wildlife lover himself he seems to know what both you and his animal allies are looking for and, whilst I am sure that if it came to a conflict of interest then his Mice would win hands down, he offers an experience virtually guaranteed to provide you with images the likes of which few, if any, could realistically be expected to obtain out in the middle of a field. His website is www.deanmasonwildlifephotography.co.uk and his contact no is Dean Mason on 07480 110772.

 

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Small British Mammals

 

Small British Mammals.

 

   I have always believed that the chances of photographing even a small range of British mammals, in other than captive conditions, would never prove to be cost effective in terms of time and effort. I have twice proved myself wrong and on both occasions I was intent on photographing something entirely different. The first time was whilst waiting for an Osprey to fly in and the second time was when photographing Barn Owls.

   The second time was more manageable as it was much closer to home. I was lucky enough to know of a site where a pair of Barn Owls could be seen flying at any time from 1-00pm onwards. There was no consistency to their timing nor frequency of flight. The only answer was to hunker down and be prepared to see what, if anything, the day would bring. The site was adjacent to a farm and sometimes their prey was a full grown rat and at other times a succession of voles and mice of various sizes. If the first catch of the day was a rat then that was the only fly-by for that particular owl for the day. If the catch was an immature vole or mouse then digesting time seemed to be about one and a half to two hours, when another flight would take place. This led to a lot of time waiting for the next flight with precious little to do in the meantime.

   The place I had chosen as a hidey-hole was frequented by a friendly Robin and my guilty conscience at wolfing down my lunchtime sandwiches in front of him eventually led me to share some with him. There was a well vegetated bank behind me and I took to placing tidbits on it in anticipation of his joining me. One day I noticed that a Bank Vole had beaten him to it so I increased the menu to include a range of bird seed mix. Over the ensuing days I was treated to a succession of Mammals such as I had never really expected to come within range. They got used to the idea that it was open pantry time at much the same time that they accepted a heavily camouflaged me as a natural part of the landscape. My total “bag” included common rat, bank vole, field vole, wood mouse, yellow collared mouse, shrew and an assortment of hedgerow birds that grew in confidence as the days went by. 

 

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Bank Vole

 Bank Vole

Young Bank Voles

Adult Bank Vole

Field or Short Tailed Vole

Common  Rats

Shrew

Wood Mice

Wood Mouse

Yellow Collared Mouse

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Gems found in a Suburban Garden

 

Gems found in a Suburban Garden.

 

   I live in a bungalow with only a small back garden, in the suburbs of Poole in Dorset. Its very location is a severe limiter of the range of wildlife species that, even with the help of wishful thinking, I could reasonably expect to have pay me a visit. Yes, of course, I have the proscribed bird table and seed and nut feeders but their regular visitors, although plentiful in numbers, do not fill many notepad pages when it comes to listing different species. However, there can be the odd exception.

   My office window overlooks the postage stamp sized lawn and said window and its accompanying patio door are double and triple glazed. Mr Nikon and Mr Canon would no doubt turn in their graves if they thought anyone would attempt to take photographs through such a barrier, especially in view of the many millions they must have spent developing the refined glass used in their lenses. I am, however, guilty of such an offence – and on more than one occasion. The number of days on which I can sit here with doors and windows open are few and far between and so it is that when anything out of the ordinary pays a call I cannot open up without frightening it off.

   I have attached a few shots of some of the visitors concerned and, though they may not be legion in number, it just goes to show that in the pursuit of wildlife images “you never know what’s round the corner or just about to show up!!”

   The Stock Dove is, to my mind, our most beautiful native dove. Supposedly fairly common, especially in the South-West, I must confess that in all my years of Wildlife Photography I have only ever seen, at least to notice, one other of these beautiful birds. To have a pair visiting the garden, and that right throughout the summer, was a real pleasure. The Magpie, of course, is no rarity and we have a dozen or so frequenting our Close. What interests me with them is to see just how many peanuts they can stuff in their beaks at one time before running off, squirrel-like, to bury them for later. The Starlings were part of a flock of about 100 that spent a day or so looking for leather-jacket larvae on the grass of the central green in the Close. Small raiding parties occasionally broke off to rampage through the local gardens and these were part of a small group of about 20 that graced me with a visit. The Green Woodpecker visits occasionally looking for ants in the cracks of the garden path. These it either eats or rubs all over itself so that their formic acid discharge can clean him of parasites and, finally, some four footed visitors. It’s easy to shudder and think of poison when you see one of these in your garden but, whether you like it or not, I’ll bet there’s at least one living not far from you if you’re in suburbia. Their antics in figuring out how to access any potential food source never cease to amaze me and their ingenuity knows no bounds. This family who (only for the sake of my neighbours) I hope was just passing through, kept my shutter finger active for a number of hours one afternoon.

  

 

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Pair of Stock Doves

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Stock Dove

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Magpie

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Where does a Magpie keep his nuts?

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Adult Starling Mutation feeding normal coloured young

Green Woodpecker “Anting”

So that’s where all the bird seed went.

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Familiarity Breeds Contempt

 

Familiarity Breeds Contempt.

 

   All too often we pass familiar sights and spare them hardly a glance as they seem so commonplace. Some Wildlife species fall into this category even though, on closer inspection, they may prove to be inordinately beautiful.

   The common Pheasant falls within this group. Pheasant species in general tend to be highly colourful but this is probably more apparent and admired because the normal settings in which one encounters “foreign species” are those of a Zoo or Bird Park where they will be at close quarters. How often though, when driving through the country, do we dismiss those distant birds in a field as “Oh, it’s just some Pheasants”. For sheer natural beauty, and as an example of Nature’s design brilliance, there can be little more striking an image than that of a well exposed close-up shot of a Cock Pheasant in full breeding plumage. The females, too, are equally striking though in a more subdued way. The trick is to get close enough to capture images that show every feather detail.

   Pheasants have a lot in life to put up with. Unfortunately for them, properly prepared, they can be very good to eat. In addition they are of a body size that is not too difficult for a trained eye to spot in a wild setting. These two factors have resulted in their being hunted as a food source for centuries. Their seemingly unhurried gliding flight pattern has also contributed to their appeal to the “sport” shooting fraternity as they have not proved too difficult to hit in mid-flight. To compound their misfortune they, in keeping with many Gallinaceous species, have proved easy to breed in captivity. Some publications have their captive breeding as game birds going back as far as Roman times and some even further.

   Although the natural areas of distribution of the nominate species lie in Asia and the East they have spread through many areas such as North America and Europe as a result of deliberate introduction principally as Game Birds. Along the way much hybridising experimentation has taken place to the extent  that what we now tend to write off as “just a Pheasant” is, in fact, the hybrid result of many generations of intensive cross breeding. I find it hard to believe but Wikipedia quotes the annual UK production at 35 Million birds. I have put the “million” as words lest you think I slipped up with my noughts!!

   Most hybrid species are infertile and unable to reproduce naturally but in the case of the Pheasant family this has proved not to be so. As a result what you see in the fields can have a mixed and very varied ancestry, depending on what species were introduced into the bloodline throughout the generations. Hybrid offspring of any species tend to favour one or more of their, in this case many, forbears in inherited characteristics, and, as a result, can often display a significant variation in appearance. This is the case with our Pheasants and it can prove very photographically rewarding to see how many colour forms you can capture images of. The two principal ancestors of our game pheasants are the Ring-Necked Pheasant and the Japanese Green. Both possess strikingly different features and so the potential variations are almost limitless although, in practice, most colour forms do fall within an accepted range. 

 

 

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Gaudy colours of a Reeves Pheasant

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Slow Gliding Flight

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Pair of Melanistic Pheasants

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Pair of typical colour “Game” Pheasants

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Cock Displaying

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Pale Coloured Cock

Most colour phase hens very similar

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4 Different Phases. Never let them be “Just Pheasants” again

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Barn Owls

 

Barn Owls – Tyto alba

 

   Some Wildlife species seem to possess an almost iconic allure and Owls appear to be one of them. In this country probably the most iconic of our native varieties is the Barn Owl. Its allure is no doubt due, in part, to the fact that it is the species most often seen or, certainly, noticed. It’s ephemeral, almost ghostlike, appearance as it glides silently in the dusk or when caught in the glare of headlights sticks in the mind for ever after.

   As a potential photographic subject it can be elusive and, if encountered at all, only be so in conditions of light and circumstance that completely preclude the possibility of meaningful images to the standards now expected as the norm. It is most likely to be seen quartering fields and hedgerows in the twilight and at a distance such that fairly sophisticated camera equipment will be called for to get anything approaching a decent shot.

   I was lucky this year in finding a spot where a pair of Barn Owls could be seen hunting, either in the early morning, or from about one in the afternoon. A convenient hedgerow, full camouflage and endless patience ultimately produced the “goods”. These birds hearing capabilities are incredible and, from personal experience, it would seem that they react adversely to camera shutter noise but if you are well concealed and can react quickly enough then, provided you have a camera with a decent frame rate, you should be able to get a number of images as it glides silently by. The bulk of its flight will be by gliding slowly and silently (a special wing feather feature assists it in this), so, with a little luck, you will not need to have to work at the shutter speed normally required to obtain sharp images of smaller winged, fast flying species such as ducks.

 

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Bearded Tits

 

Bearded Tits/Parrotbills/Reedlings – Panurus biarmicus

 

   Bearded Tits are one of several species that have successfully eluded me over the years. Their elusive success is probably down to the fact that, whilst the species enjoys an extremely wide distribution through Europe and Asia, in this country it is extremely localised, mainly in Estuaries and Salt Marshes where Phragmites Reeds grow, and favouring Southern and Eastern England. During Spring and Summer they are scattered throughout the reed beds, often rear more than one brood a year, and feed almost exclusively on invertebrates. Foot access to reed beds is often extremely limited and the density of reeds and other estuarine plants at this time of year makes meaningful sightings a matter of chance.

   After breeding, from Autumn on through Winter, and with a shortage of invertebrates at this time of year, their dietary requirements change more towards a seed based diet. In addition to this they tend to form flocks, often of some size, and can be seen clinging to the tops of the Phragmites reeds as well as on Reed mace (which, as a boy, I seem to remember we called Bulrushes). They are not the strongest of fliers and neither do they seem to be of a particularly nervous disposition so if you can locate a feeding flock there is every chance they will carry on feeding even if you are able to approach fairly closely.

   I chose Radipole Lake in Weymouth to attempt to lay this particular ghost to rest in December 2016. I made a number of journeys here up till the end of March and was successful on more than one occasion. Initially the closest I got was to meet endless people who had just seen 30 to 40 “100 yards up the path”, but they had normally found pastures new by the time I got there. Perseverance paid, however, and I eventually managed to add a few shots to my portfolio!

 

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Phragmites Reeds

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Gather Ye Violets while you may!

 

            Bulbous Violets

 07/02/16   Busy week of talks and, in between, weather fit only for masochistic photographers. I have noticed, however, whilst driving around, that Snowdrops have come into their own in the last few days. They have been with us for some time in dribs and drabs but have recently made a full showing. This morning’s weather being almost clement, despite a forecast of rain by three, I thought I’d make the most of it and sallied forth a’snowdropping. I visited a favourite site where the flowers, known in antiquarian literature as “Bulbous Violets”, are in a sloping woodland setting together with some ferns and mossy branches, only to find that, in the conditions prevailing, even a mountain goat would have been pushed to remain upright. Did the best possible but a major problem was that, even under the trees, rain damage had been substantial. It doesn’t take many damaged flower heads in a clump to completely write it off as a suitable subject. Careful searching came up with one or two suitable settings, however, so made the most of the day. I shall be checking out one or two other sites in the next few days to see if anywhere escaped the brunt of the weather.

 

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Winter Woodland Birds

 

         Woodland Birds in Winter.

   This is the time of the year when many Woodland bird species, that are normally difficult to see, flock to seed feeders for a “top-up”. If you have feeders in the garden then you will see some species that are probably not around in late Spring and early summer when they are tied up with the time consuming business of rearing a family. For many of them their food requirements change during the breeding season and they are dependent on a ready supply of high protein insects to fuel a fast growing brood. Gardens are not the best of places to supply this kind of a diet especially with our fondness for liberally sprinkling slug pellets and drowning the area with insecticidal spray every time an aphid dares to rear its head. Coupled with this is the fact that many garden flowers, though descended from highly perfumed, nectar providing ancestors so beloved by a whole host of insect species, have, nevertheless, been adapted for cultivation based on a completely different set of criteria  than  would have applied in the wild.                                                                                                                                                      

   Many flowering plants are the results of generations of artificial selection based on factors such as flower size, duration of blooming and ease of management. For some reason when we take species into “captivity” and breed specific individuals together we seem to work on the principle that “big is beautiful”, and select our breeding stock accordingly. Where flowering plants are concerned this often leads to blooms that are substantially larger and far more, dare I say “garish”, than their wild forbears. Along the way many species cease producing nectar and any insect attracting perfume as there is little or no practical need for it in their brave new world. As a consequence the most visually vibrant and attractive garden in the street could be about as sterile as the Sahara from an insect’s point of view.

   If you do feed birds in the garden then make the effort to do so regularly or don’t complain when very little turns up. The birds need food every day come rain or shine and, although food preferences will vary throughout the year, you should be able to adjust to their needs by simple observation of what they are eating most of at any one time. They are perfectly capable of balancing their own diets to best advantage provided that they have a diverse choice of foodstuffs.

  

 

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                    Chaffinch

               Goldfinch

                 Redpoll

                Greenfinch

               Bramblefinch

                      Siskin

                      Robin

                 Nuthatch

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Winter Tits

 

         Assorted Winter Tits.

    At this time of the year, and with the weather as it is, the inclination for Wildlife photographers is to succumb to a dose of the Winter Weather Blues. Despair, dismay at yet another wet and windy day, and a general malaise and lethargy can force the body to seek shelter somewhere comfortable. Preferably in close proximity to a decent heat source and continuous supply of hot beverages, and with a sign over the door saying “Abandon Hope all ye who enter here!”.

   Mope not, for all is not lost. This is an ideal time of the year for small bird photography. Dependent on weather conditions many wild bird populations will be up against a feeding crisis. This is more so for the insectivorous species as the supply of accessible insects will have been severely curtailed by the onset of winter. Not only that but with the very much shorter hours of daylight in which to source food and the longer, often inclement, nights to fuel, winter can be somewhat fraught.

   As a result many species will become more tolerant of human presence than they normally are, especially if you become accepted as a potential food source. This will be apparent even within your own gardens if you normally provide food garden birds as, once the association with food has been made, you will often find then queuing up as you approach the feeding table.

   Many areas of the country will have one or two local sites where substantial flocks of mixed tits build up in the winter months. These are often in Parks or Reserves where the authorities, or even the public, provide a constant supply of food top-ups. In my area the New Forest is a source of such sites and at a number of locations the Public has taken to providing a veritable banquet. These days many feed mixes, fat blocks and balls, contain animal protein in the form of suet, or other animal fats, and mealworms. These latter can now be purchased in a dried form and, once they are used to them, are avidly sought after especially by species which are normally insectivorous and to which a standard dried seed mix is of little or no value.

   If you can locate one of these sites you will often find that, by placing food in a suitable spot, you may even be able to remain in the car and photograph through the open window. So much more civilised than lying in a muddy puddle!

   Tits in particular become very confiding and generally react favourably to human presence especially if you have a bag of feed in your hand as opposed to a dog on a lead!!

 

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                     Long Tailed Tit

                         Blue Tit

                            Coal Tit

                               Great Tit

Marsh Tit

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Why are they called Butterflies?

 

            Butter Coloured Flies

   What photographer can resist the appeal of this group of insects. They seem to be almost omnipresent in that they can be found in a variety of different habitats from the expected countryside settings right up to normal gardens and even busy city centres. We can enjoy the sight of somewhat over 50 different species in the UK. The exact number is somewhat debatable and will depend on where you stand in the world of splitters, lumpers and re-introducers. The first two of these refers to those who, often seemingly pedantically, choose to “split” or “lump” together various species and/or sub-species and the third refers to those who sit in judgement and decide at what point a species,  re-introduced for whatever justifiable reasons, should be declared “native” once again. I have covered this subject more comprehensively in my book “Wildlife Photography on a Budget” and made my sentiments clear!!

   Political bickering apart they make phenomenal photographic subjects. The fact that there are only 50 to 60 species in the UK means that with luck, diligence and a fondness for travel, there is a chance that you could locate and photograph each and every species. There is something of a collector in all of us and whatever form that interest takes for you there will always be an extra incentive if collecting a “full set” is a possibility. Pursuit of this “full set” will force you into undertaking considerable research into characteristics, habitats, seasons of the various life cycle stages and even social contact with fellow enthusiasts. Word of mouth is probably one of the best sources of information, especially in respect of suitable sites to visit, although there are now a significant number of Field Guides available on the subject.

   Whilst the classical mental vision of a butterfly probably involves one of the more highly coloured species displaying with its wings “akimbo”, many species can be as beautiful, or even more so, on their undersides. Devoting time to capturing images depicting various behaviour patterns and from different angles can be quite rewarding and set you apart from the masses who seem to be convinced that the fully spread shot is the only viable option. Whilst not denigrating the incredible beauty of some of these “wings wide” shots the buying, and even viewing public, are increasingly demanding that wildlife images should display the subject “doing something” other than just lying around.

   Amongst the attached images there is one of a male Brimstone Butterfly, said to be the insect that gave rise to the name as, in certain antiquarian literature, it is referred to as “The Butter Coloured Fly”.  

 

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              Brown Hairstreak

       Silver Studded Blues courting

               Chalkhill Blue male

             Common Blue male

               Small Blue male

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  Comma showing “Comma” marking

                White Admiral

                    Red Admiral

                    Marsh Fritillary

        Silver Washed Fritillary male

               Brimstone female

       Brimstone male – the original

         “Butter Coloured Fly”

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