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!

 

Phragmites reeds

Phragmites Reeds

Reed Mace

 Reed Mace

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Female 1

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Female 2

Male 2

Male 3

Male 1

Male Bearded Tit 1

Male Bearded Tit 2

Bearded Tit Male 2

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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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Little Grebes

 

            Little Grebe.

 

   These delightful little birds are also commonly referred to as Dabchicks. Although found on a variety of pond, lake and slow moving water habitats they are not the easiest of birds to photograph due to a normally secretive nature sensitive to disturbance. On those waters that they do frequent they are normally to be found around the margins where there is a reasonable density of aquatic vegetation, reeds and rushes, amongst which they hunt their prey. Their diet consists of fish, aquatic insects, molluscs and crustaceans. They have a number of “similar at first glance” cousins – two of the much rarer ones are also featured here for comparison purposes – Slavonian and Black Necked.

 

   Part of their appeal must be down to their appearance. They are small and “dumpy” and look as though someone has yanked their tails out leaving a fluffy “stump” behind. They are extremely agile in the water and their normal evasive action consists of diving rapidly beneath the surface and virtually disappearing. You can often wait with bated breath for their reappearance until you are convinced they must have drowned. A distinctive cry from the far side of the waterway will highlight the errors of your supposition as they are capable, with the help of their curiously “lobed” feet, of travelling enormous distances without the need to surface, thus frustrating all attempts to train your lens on an anticipated re-emergence point. They fly infrequently but will often attack interlopers or evade perceived threats by seemingly “running” across the water surface.

 

  One of their more endearing features is to carry their stripy coloured young on their backs for the first few days after leaving the nest and, much to my regret, this is one of the behaviour patterns I have yet to capture. What better “reason to go on” could one wish for?

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Similar looking Black Necked Grebe
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               Adult Little Grebe

          Little Grebe stretching

                      And again

           Taking a flying walk

            Mother and young

            Still dependent young

          Just about independent

              Fully independent

          About to take a Damselfly

                  Just surfacing

               Full Adult Little Grebe

  The very similar Black Necked Grebe

          Also similar Slavonian Grebe

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Great Crested Grebes

 

These beautiful birds must be every budding Wildlife Photographers dream. Apart from their unusual design and the constantly changing shape of their head gear, they have a very strikingly bright red eye which positively glows if it catches the light. Being fish eaters the target, of course, is to catch one eating a fish.

 

This target is a fairly obvious one but there are some other patterns of behaviour that are just as exciting, and difficult, to capture. As with most Wildlife subjects the majority of behavioural movement is fairly rapid and there is never enough time to bring your camera to bear and be on the right settings quickly enough to capture most behaviours. The only way to be in with a chance is to find a spot from where you can view a Grebe closely enough to provide you with an image size that suits both your wishes and the limitations of your gear. If you can do that then train your lens on your subject and keep it there.

 

You may end up with square eyes and a wait of sometimes hours, but at least when action occurs you only have to press the shutter release and not have to try to line your subject up and adjust your settings to suit the patch of water that it has inconsiderately moved into since you last did so!! Attached are some images displaying some of the possible actions.

Patience is the key!!

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The weed dance

The weed dance

Grebe stretching

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Showing off

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Feather adjustment

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How’s about that then

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Onto a good thing – The Striated Caracaras

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Get your kit off

Republished from 29/11/2012

Back in the days of slide photography I was on a trip to the Falkland Islands and came across some Striated Caracaras. These are one of the World’s rarest Birds of Prey and must rank as one of the smartest. They are popular in captivity for public flying displays because of the “tricks” that they can be taught to perform. In the wild they appear to be totally fearless and will actually come up and go through your pockets. I must confess that I allowed this one to see where I had put my lunch and, if left to his own devices, it would have taken just a few minutes to effect a “breaking and entering”.

In these days of “digital” this would not be a difficult set-up to “manipulate” but in the days of slide it took a little more arranging. I had hoped to sell the shot to Lowepro with the caption “He knows when he’s onto a good thing” but by the time I got round to it the bag had been discontinued!