Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Bird project 30 - Lesser redpoll

Carduelis cabaret Lesser redpoll

Location: Garden at edge of West Calder, West Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Bright midwinter sunshine, chilly, breezy. Birds returned throughout day.
Photograph quality: 1-2.

Comments: I wasn't expecting any more new species this year, as Christmas family commitments will take up most of the remaining time. However, the birds came to me yesterday, feeding in the garden of my parents' new house, which I was helping to decorate. Amongst the dozens of tits, finches, crows, pigeons, and other assorted birds that visited the feeders through the day, one caught my eye early on - a smallish, brownish bird with a splash of red on its head. I needed to confirm it was what I thought - a redpoll - as other birds looked more like linnets (with pink breasts; they turned out to be male redpolls). At least four were present on the niger seed feeder at one point, sometimes skirmishing over position.

Most of these pictures were taken through double glazed windows, so critical sharpness and contrast were lost. However, the birds showed well, especially when they perched on a small plum tree opposite the house, and in the sunshine (the feeders remained in shadow) the photographs came out quite well overall (all shot at 1000mm handheld).

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Bird project 29 - Barn owl

Tyto alba Barn owl

Location: Roosting/nest box on island, NE corner of Marton Mere, Blackpool (my location was the embankment path to the east).
Conditions: Late afternoon, through dusk into the early night. Bright, light cloud; persistent breeze; cold, becoming very cold indeed after dark.
Photograph quality: n/a; video only (equivalent to 3); note, there's a lot of noise due to high ISO, and although I've applied heavy vibration reduction, the shot still waves about quite a bit, as the wind caught the huge lens (the tripod I use is really not designed for this sort of thing). Still, you can make out the bird(s).

Barn owl 1 from Barry on Vimeo.

Comments: I staked out the box a few months ago, but with no luck. I tried a technique I'd not used before, using the camera and long lens mounted on a tripod, filming in HD, as I knew any glimpses would be brief, and it would be typical that I'd be looking away when it happened. This way, I could review any activity at home, speeding up the footage. I tried this method again today, as a couple of birds (possibly including an unseasonal juvenile) had been seen in the box regularly recently, and the weather was good (almost mild earlier in the day, and bright and dry, although the cold wind really bit later on).

Barn owl 2 from Barry on Vimeo.

There are a few advantages to video over stills in this case. First, the nest box is too far and inaccessible to allow any reasonable quality shots - even at 1400mm, it is small in the frame. Second, video works better in low light, as you can use much longer exposure times per frame (as slow as 1/30sec if shooting at 24fps) without worrying about blurring (as this is acceptable in video frames, but not for stills), and since the sensor is downsampling from 22MP (in the case of my camera) to 2MP (full HD), noise even at the highest ISO (25600 for video) isn't as obvious. Since these birds are active at dusk, maximising light is a priority - especially since I needed to keep as much focal length as possible (I started at 1400mm, only swapping down to 1000mm and finally 700mm when the light had almost totally gone). Still, it would be nice to try out the Canon C100 or C300 cameras, which now do ISO 80000 (even higher than the 1Dx's maximum of 51200 for video). Getting any kind of good shot is probably not possible at this location, sadly.

So in this footage you see one bird preening itself, looking out a little (first video), then a second showing its face, and doing some strange head bobbing (it also turned its head nearly upside-down, in that special owl way) in the second video. It was good to see wild ones at last - I saw a captive bird a couple of months ago, close up, but this is just as special.  I've included some screen grabs in case you don't want to sit through the videos.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Bird project 28 - Snow bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis Snow bunting

Location: Beach opposite sand dunes, south of Blackpool, UK.
Conditions: Very strong wind (gusting to gale force), thick cloud, drizzle; high tide, mid afternoon.
Photograph quality: 2-3 (nb I took better quality shots the next day, e.g. this one).

Comments: We get these birds around the coast here on and off through the winter, but it's not predictable. Sometimes they stick around for a few days, as this flock of around 8 birds has recently. I went searching for a single one last winter at Fleetwood, but it never showed. This time I was luckier, though when I arrived at Starr Gate, I wasn't hopeful.

The tide was nearly at its maximum, the light poor (these shots were taken at ISO 5000), and the strip of beach above the high tide mark was busy with dog walkers and windsurfers. I spent some time photographing a flock of turnstones flitting from one unoccupied patch to another, then I noticed a pied wagtail. This was very lucky, as it was feeding with the snow buntings - I wouldn't have noticed them otherwise, their camouflage was too good. But once I had seen them, I worked fast - more people were approaching in the distance, so I took about three dozen photos before the birds disappeared. I may try to go back tomorrow, as the wind should be lighter, and I'll time it for lower tide, when people should be more spread out (and a weekday should be less busy anyway).

It seems appropriate that what is likely my last new species of the year has a wintry name.