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Image of the Month



January 2013


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Each winter, thousands of barnacle geese and hundreds of Icelandic whooper swans visit Caerlaverock in Dumfriesshire and make it one of the best places in Britain to get close to big numbers of wildfowl. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust's Caerlaverock Reserve on the Solway estuary in Dumfriesshire is a very special place.  I spent a few January days here with some of my good friends from Natures Images.  We got up early each day to be in place before dawn to watch the geese coming back to the reserve to feed.  At the end of the day the birds left the reserve again to find safety out on the estuary. In the middle of the day, there was always plenty to photograph with the whooper swans coming in for feeding and then setting off to roost.

Although we had some lovely dawns, they weren't spectacular (although in truth, I'm not sure that any dawn will ever seem spectacular again after Bosque del Apache) and the geese didn't blast off and fly over in the numbers that we hoped for... so I'll just have to visit again another year!!

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We did have a really foggy morning and I really enjoyed trying to make some more atmospheric images.  I'm not sure whether either of the two images in the slide show work - but I like them :-).  The black and white image is the view from the hide back towards Caerlaverock... and you can see some of the hides emerging from the dawn fog.  The second is a colour image (promise!!) with the birds flying in over the fog bound estuary

We didn't really have the snow that was forecast until our day with some captive birds of prey. Alan from Skyhigh Falconry brought some of his birds of prey up to Dumfries and they perched and posed beautifully for us in the falling snow.  It was wonderful to have some really wintry images of the birds... lots more interesting and atmospheric than the usual perched birds but it's tricky to take photographs in snow.  Although it's beautiful and superbly picturesque, too slow a shutter speed results in lots of white streaks on the images and if the snow is too 'fat', big blobs appear.  The camera also has difficulty focussing accurately on the intended subject and instead focusses on the snow... it's all great fun but the success rate is quite frustrating!

Here are my favourites

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I stayed in the farmhouse at Caerlaverock and in the evenings had great pleasure watching the resident badgers uproot peanuts that had been left for them under stones and in a variety of hiding places.  Their strength and ingenuity was extraordinary.   It was fun just sitting and watching.

I had gone to Caerlaverock with a number of images in mind that I had visualised and planned.  I particularly wanted shots of whooper swans preening their feathers, with a good deal of detail in the feathers and with a catch-light in the eye.  Although the swans are incredibly shy and would disappear in a trice if they were startled, they are perfectly at ease in the pools in front of the hides... and I discovered that it's possible to take decent images through glass if you're careful to avoid reflections and dirt on the glass.  

I managed to make a big fool of myself in one of the hides, not for the first or the last time I'm sure!  A local photographer was sounding off about his own cleverness and photographic skills.  I tuned in and out of his pontification. I was busy concentrating on preening swans and tuned in to hear him say something which sounded a bit like "up to 250 hippos"... which unfortunately, I queried rather too loudly  #awkward

I also wanted to get some images of the whooper swans flying from the tower hide... and this led to a really big disaster.  I was up in a hide taking photographs of flying 'hippos' with my camera bag propping open one of two windows.  Predictably the camera bag fell forward into the hide knocking my camera and and tripod to the ground... Canon say that the IDX is tough, but it's not that tough and my precious camera had the scars to prove it.  Canon Professional Services are truly wonderful.

The flying swan images were ok but not good enough so... I will have to go back again next winter! I really love revisiting the same places to improve on shots that I tried before.

For me, the opportunity to see a starling murmeration for the first time, was one of the highlights of the trip.  This year the Gretna starlings had apparently moved a few miles down the road and so we had a bit of difficulty locating the best site from which to watch and photograph them.  We didn't have the best vantage point and had no choice but to incorporate a length of telegraph wire in my shots. Again, I had prepared for the opportunity and had a plan to concentrate on finding an appropriate landscape/skyscape (oops), to lock my tripod into place and then to experiment with using different shutter speeds to try to capture the swirling movements of the starlings as they wheeled across the sky.  I planned to go from 1/6th sec to create blurred wings and try to convey a sense of the movement up to 1/400th for really sharp shots.  It was such fun and although I captured a length of telegraph wire (!), I was quite pleased with my first attempts.


From Dumfriess, I went home for a few days before heading off to Norfolk.  Unusually, Norfolk was covered in a blanket of snow and it created some unusual and different photographic opportunities.  The wintering geese weren't in the fields as expected, the road conditions were really challenging, the grey water lapping against grey mudflats under a grey sky made the waders look...grey but... the carpark at Salthouse, covered in its snowy blanket provided hours and hours of fun!  


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The blanket of snow acted like a giant reflector, the blowing snow created mood and atmosphere and the watery blue sky added some interest and contrast.  I spent a long time trying to capture the serried ranks of gulls with the snow being blown across their bodies and legs.  It didn't get the perfect shot but, I loved the images of the heads of the gulls walking towards me as I was crouched down behind a snowy bank.  

I spent a lot of time lying on the snow and ice trying to isolate individual birds and had a good feeling about some of the images as I was taking them. The conditions and the lighting was perfect and I think that the images are a bit different.  

The exquisite detail in the feathers of the redshank and the turnstone really excited me... and I spent a lot of time trying to capture the pied wagtails strutting along the edges of the icy puddles.

Some of my favourite images from the trip to Norfolk involve an oyster catcher having a bad-hair day.  He made a funny sight with the black feathers on his head sticking out at odd angles and contrasting with his rather mad red eyes and beak.

I quite like these images of wintering geese as they trudged against the driving sleet ... I wanted to get another angle so that I could emphasise the lines on the snow dusted ploughed field - and I almost got what I wanted.  Next time!

The sky was rather heavy with snow and an unusual colour.  Armed with some sandwiches for bribery, the local seagulls hung in the air jostling for sandwich-snatching position.  This was an exercise in over-exposure, in trying to ensure that the delicate colours of the gulls were captured and in trying to capture a sense of the gulls hanging in the air

After my experience with the starlings in Gretna, I was really excited to visit the rooks at Buckenham Marshes.  We weren't entirely sure where to go to watch this extraordinary spectacle but in the end, stood on the platform at the railway station at Buckenham and watched the rooks assemble.

We spent a lot of time in Norfolk set up by the side of the road, hoping for a sighting of barn owls hunting at Burnham Overy Staithe but they were not very cooperative, preferring to keep their feathers out of the extreme wind and sleet!  As we drove around the roads we had quite a few fleeting sightings of these beautiful birds. I managed a couple of snatched shots from the car window of a barn owl on a fence post at the side of the road and as s/he flew off.  Not award winning images but I quite like them.

I promise that the 'real' images are much better quality than they appear on this blog.  I have saved them with low-resolution for fast upload on the internet but the quality has really suffered.  I'm sorry.  I'll eventually work out how to fix this.

Thank you to the George Hotel at Cley for fantastic food and accomodation and to the friends on and outside the Natures Images trip who made this week such a great time.