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Monday, 30 November 2015

A Lake District Holiday - landscape and weather

I've just got home from a lovely holiday in The English Lake DistrictFor the first time ever, I stayed in the Lake District for more than a week. It was great!

Panorama from the summit of Wansfell

Every year for more than 2 decades, some friends and I have spent a November week in The Lakes - always staying in the Ambleside area, and for the last few years in Troutbeck. This year, I decided to extend my week with my friends and book the same holiday cottage for myself for the preceding week. Of course, I invited them to join me whenever they could.

This post is all about the first week, which I specifically planned to be for landscape photography.

Sunday was dominated for me and everyone else in the area by Storm Abigail, which was passing over the north of Britain. This being my holiday, I wasn't paying attention to the news, so I didn't know that authorities were advising everyone not to travel in Cumbria.
I set out in the morning planning to do some photography in Borrowdale. I successfully passed through some shallow floods across the roads on the way to Grasmere, then it was pretty easy until I got to Borrowdale.
Finally, north of Grange, I came across a flood that was obviously too deep for my car to cross, so I turned back a little and ventured up toward Watendlath and stopped at the famous, and very well photographed, Ashness Bridge. 

Most images you see of Ashness Bridge view down the valley with Keswick and Skiddaw looking magnificent in the distance. All I could see looking that way was cloud, mist and rain, so with plenty of water flowing and falling down through the bridge, I pointed my camera up towards it.

Ashness Bridge
As you can see, it was still raining, so I was constantly fighting rain on the lens.

Ashness Bridge

My next intended subject in the area was Castlerigg Stone Circle. Sunrise over the circle was my ultimate target, but I thought that for now I'd take a look and recce the scene.

If anything the rain was harder when I got there, and the wind certainly was. Happily, the wind was blowing from behind me as I set up to try out the angles, but I still didn't manage to keep all the rainspots off my lens. I shot a panorama as best I could in the wind.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

I decided that as soon as the forecast looked good for sunrise, I'd come back.

My ignorance of the extent of flooding now started to become clear.
I had already decided that one of the floods I had successfully traversed heading north through Rydal would be impassable in the other direction (for my car), so I expected to go east on the A66 then around via the M6.
The A66 was closed. I decided to head south and try to get around Rydal via the roads over the back of Loughrigg. No luck. I got across to the Ambleside-Coniston road, but found half a metre of water heading to Ambleside and was told of a whole metre depth towards Coniston. Maybe Langdale would be clear. I met other travellers who clearly thought that I wouldn't get through.

Anyway, to cut this already too-long story short, I ended up getting "home" via Carlisle and the M6 - 4-and-a-half hours and 100 miles from Keswick to Troutbeck.

Call me weird, but I found this more an amusing adventure than anything else. I didn't feel in danger - I was confident that I wouldn't try any flood that would leave me stranded, and that if the worst came to the worst I could park up somewhere and sleep in the car.
I must admit, though, that my sense of humour had become a little strained by the time I reached Carlisle!

Monday was a lovely day! It was windy and a bit squally, but the sun shone and there was some blue sky so I walked up Wansfell straight from the cottage.
On the way up, I passed through a brief shower and saw this lovely rainbow.

Just as I reached the front summit, I was hit by a squall of sleet. The sleet stopped as soon as it had started, but the wind continued. I could stand up, but I wondered just how sharp my hand-held shots for this panorama would be.
Panorama from the summit of Wansfell

It worked out ok. This is a view of more than 180 degrees and includes a distant but great view of a lot of Lake District fells. The path down to Troutbeck goes off to the left of the picture, Windermere is obvious, Ambleside is in the centre with the Langdale Pikes beyond and the Scafell Pike ridge beyond them, and the ridge to the "other" Wansfell summit is on the right.

The first of my friends arrived on Tuesday afternoon, so on Wednesday morning we drove out in more rain up over to Ullswater to visit Aira Force. Floods seemed a possibility again, but proved to be no more difficult than very large puddles. When we got out of the car to walk to the Force, the word "rain" really didn't do justice to the conditions.
Photography conditions were " challenging". It was a real fight to keep water off the front of the lens. I took an umbrella and cloths, but eventually I only really got one decent shot of the Force. This was from the bridge at the top.
When we got down to the lower bridge, the dark, spray, wind and rain completely defeated me, but my friend managed a phone image of me to show the conditions.


One thing that images obviously cannot capture is the sound. I didn't have a sound recording equipment with me, but I can tell you that the sound was fantastic - loud, deep and constantly changing. I almost enjoyed the sound more than the view!

More friends arrived on Thursday evening, and Friday proved to be another lovely bright day. We kept the walking very simple and took a stroll around Tarn Howes. The place was popular (it always is), so landscape photography opportunities were scarce, but this bench makes an interesting pattern.

A seat at Tarn Hows

At last - The weather forecast for Saturday suggested that skies would be clear. A Castlerigg sunrise was on!
We (four of us now) arrived at the stone circle 30 minutes before the published sunrise time. There was already one other photographer there who was concentrating so hard on his shot that when I walked up and spoke the poor chap jumped out of his skin!
It was a beautiful morning, and the previous night's snow looked amazing on the tops as the sun's light slowly extended across them.
News of the possibility of a nice sunrise had obviously got around because as the next 45 minutes passed, more and more photographers arrived. Though we were all intent on capturing the view to the east, I swung my camera round to look towards Blencathra and capture the more general scene.

The circle is surrounded by fells, of course, so the horizon is higher and sunrise over the fells is later.
While I waited, I shot several panoramas. This one was just a few minutes before the sun finally appeared. The cloud has lost a little of it's orange. but you can see the rays of the sun shining across just beneath it.

Sunrise at Castlerigg Stone Circle

Finally, at around 8:45, the sun rose. It was worth the wait, and with quite a small aperture, my camera captured a lovely "starburst" effect for my final shot of the morning.

Sunrise at Castlerigg Stone Circle

Monday, 2 November 2015

Fungi fun near Milton Keynes!

Yesterday was a lovely sunny day - so I spent a lot of it kneeling in damp leaf litter taking images of fungi!

I was with a small group on a fungi photography workshop led by photographer Bob Brind-Surch and the mycologist Justin Long. Bob runs a number of UK workshops on various aspects of wildlife photography and also leads photographic safaris in Africa. He works with experts on the particular subject of the workshop, so not only does Bob help with techniques from his extensive wildlife photography experience, but the subject expert provides insight, ID and other fascinating information on whatever you are photographing.
Please take a look at Bob's website if you are interested in joining any of his workshops. 
(I don't want to put you off, but I am the "expert" that works with Bob on the dragonfly photography workshops at Wicken Fen)

I'll admit straight away that I know little about fungal biology and even less about identifying them. So - thanks to Justin for ID-ing everything. Some of these are from memory though so, if I've got anything wrong, don't blame Justin.

My first subject was this Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina). There were several around in the leaf litter, but this one was the richest colour. The others were larger, but older, so they had faded a bit. This one was about 5cm tall.

Amethyst Deceiver - Laccaria amethystina

I spotted these Oak Pins (Cudoniella acicularis) just below head height up the trunk of (you've guessed it) an Oak tree. There were a lot more of them, but these four formed a nice little group in this crack in the bark. Each one of them is less than a centimetre tall. I struggled for a while to work out how to get my tripod close enough with the trunk "in the way", but got it right eventually and was able to focus close in to the group.

Oak Pin - Cudoniella acicularis

In between finding and identifying fungi for us to photograph, Justin was away foraging and collecting some lovely extra specimens for us. In particular, I liked this White Saddle fungus (Helvella crispa), which he had collected with the soil that it was growing from. This, he set up on a fallen tree trunk in a convenient place for photography - no kneeling for this one!
In the darkness of woodland, natural light is not always great for photography. One of the techniques that Bob recommends is the use of simple (and cheap!) LED video lights. For this image, the highlight from behind the fungus is direct sunshine, but the right-hand side of the fungus is lit by an LED light.
For me, this give a wonderful sculptural feel to the image.

White Saddle fungus - Helvella crispa

This next one is a rather weird but wonderful fungus. Actually, I think they're all weird and wonderful, but it seems to me that this one is different from many others, as it grows on pine cones, has the stalk offset from the centre and has spines rather than the "usual" straight gills.
I didn't get the name from Justin, but I think it's Auriscalpium vulgare. This is another quite small fungus - the cap is less that a centimetre across. The stark image against a black background was created simply by lighting with a flashgun from below and to the right.

Auriscalpium vulgare (I think)

My last picture for today was more for fun than anything. I finally got out a wide-angle lens to show a bit more of the background, and here's a Fly Agaric (Amanita muscara) and Bob demonstrating some of the finer points of photography to one of the others in the group.

Fungi are a great subject for close-up or macro photography. I'm not sure that I'll ever learn a lot about identifying them, but they're certainly a colourful, varied, fascinating and beautiful group of organisms.
Many thanks to Bob and Justin for a great day!

Friday, 11 September 2015

A morning Heron

Just a quick note today to show you this rather nice simple image of a Grey Heron that I saw yesterday. One of my tasks when I volunteer at Rainham Marshes means that I am usually the first to walk around the trails in the morning. At this time, when the trails are empty of people, it's not unusual to find the wildlife using the paths and bridges.

The bridge behind the Purfleet Hide seems quite popular with Grey Herons.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) on a footbridge handrail

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Cutting a leaf and creating an animation

I had the great pleasure, today, of watching a Megachile leaf-cutter bee actually cutting a leaf.
I got the camera up as quickly as I could - I missed the start, of course, but then got 20 images as she worked her way around a perfect part-circle.

Here's an animation from those 20 images.

This was all handheld, so nothing was aligned properly.
In the past, I have manually adjusted and aligned each individual image to create an animation. Modern software, however, has some amazing tools to do this sort of thing for you.

After a little research in the help files and with a bit of experimentation, I was amazed how easy it was to create the animation using Lightroom and Photoshop. That's the beauty of top-notch software, I guess!

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Mainly hoverflies

Yesterday was another day at Rainham Marshes for me, and (except when I was sitting in the cafe drinking tea) I spent all my time photographing insects.
I bumped into Howard on the way in and walked with him down to the woodland. In the Cordite Store, he pointed out a hoverfly defending territory just next to the tunnel. 

Eristalis intricarius hoverfly

Eristalis intricarius hoverfly  Eristalis intricarius hoverfly

I didn't know the species, but Howard told me that it was Eristalis intricarius - a bee mimic. This is a male, and he was chasing after other insects that came close. Even butterflies got his attention, though as soon as he realised they weren't a rival or a potential mate, he soon came back to hover or perch.
It took a while to get any images, as he was quite unwilling to let me get too close when he was perched and, when he hovered, he did so for only a few seconds. The hovering image is the better one of only 2 that I managed to capture.

If you know Rainham Marshes' Cordite Store, you know that there are a lot of buddleias nearby, and one of these is where I found another hoverfly - but this one was dead!

Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) with prey

It was the prey of this lovely Crab Spider (Misumena vatia). I've not seen it, but I imagine that the spider hides between the flowers and then rushes out to ambush any suitable prey that lands close by.

There are several of the big Volucella hoverflies at Rainham Marshes. The one I see most often is the largest - Volucella zonaria.
Volucella zonaria hoverfly

This male was not far outside the Cordite Store, just around the bend to the left as you leave the tunnel. He kept buzzing around me then chased away, only to return  a few moments later. He even perched on my hat for a few seconds, but I wasn't quick enough with my phone to take a selfie with him.

I'll finish with a couple of butterflies. There's a nice little sheltered patch of grass between the Adventure Playground and the Cordite Store. There's a narrow path through the grass, but it's a dead end, closed off by encroaching brambles, so it's not well frequented.
There are a number of Ragwort and other flowering plants there, and these attract several butterfly species.
In particular, yesterday, I was interested in a Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) that was flitting between flowers. In the end, I wasn't as successful as I'd hoped, but I did capture this unusual angle of the butterfly resting on a grass stem.

Brown Argus butterfly (Aricia agestis)

Several male Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus) flew in, too. I didn't see any of them feed on the flowers, but this one did perch attractively for me.
Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus)

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A first record for Rainham Marshes?

When I got to Rainham Marshes on Saturday for a day as a "visitor" rather than my usual "volunteer", I planned to spend the day doing my own thing making images of insects. I didn't have a firm plan, just that I would explore the wildlife garden, the woodland and the grassland beyond to see what I could find.

One of the advantages of being a volunteer, however, is that you sometimes get an opportunity to explore away from the public trails. So it was on Saturday. A member of staff asked if I would take some photos of insects on and around an old pile of sand next to one of the service roads. A researcher working at Rainham had been studying this pile of sand and was excited about the species he saw there, but didn't have a camera with him to take pictures.
Here was a good focus (pun intended) for my day, so of course I said yes.

I had seen this sand pile before, so I knew that it had several species of solitary wasps and bees digging burrows in it.
I wasn't trying for beautiful images - that wasn't the brief. Most of the time I was getting images like these - a bit out of focus here, a bit of motion blur there, and always pieces of untidy vegetation all over the place!

(tentative IDs added later...)
Pantaloon Bee (Dasypoda hirtipes)

Ammophila sp.

Ornate-tailed Digger Wasp (Cerceris rybyensis)

One insect in particular, though,  posed perfectly and luckily this turned out to be the most interesting one. I got several dozen shots at various exposure settings while it cleaned it's abdomen.

Beewolf - Philanthus triangulum

If, unlike me, you know about solitary wasps, you'll know that this is a Beewolf (Philanthus triangulum). I didn't know this at the time, but found out later when I posted an image on Facebook. Howard didn't know what it was either (an unusual occurrence!), but Matt Smith in the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants group quickly helped me out with an ID.
Now knowing what it was, Howard was able to tell me that it might well be the first record for Rainham Marshes - excellent!

This was the only individual of P. triangulum that I saw. It didn't stay around for long, and I only saw it on this grass stem, not on the sand. Now that we know that at least one has been seen, we can be alert to the possibility of finding more. Hopefully, it won't be long before we have more records.

Adult Beewolfs (beewolves?) are vegetarian, feeding on nectar and pollen (I guess that this is why my picture above shows lots of pollen grains on the insect's thorax), but it lays it's eggs in paralysed honeybees, which it stores in a burrow in the sand. The egg hatches and the larva has a nice honeybee to eat!

Check those sand piles!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Early shots with a new lens

I sold my macro lens a while back. I thought I wouldn't need it, because I could use extension tubes on my 300mm prime lens for my insect photography.

Of course, I came to regret that decision. I could still get shots of dragonflies and butterflies, but I hadn't realised how much I would miss getting really close to my subject.

So - here I am some months later with a new macro lens!
Lots of owners say how good the Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro lens is. Now I can find out for myself.

Here's an Oedemera nobilis beetle on a head of Hogweed, and a Ruby-tailed Wasp.

Oedemera nobilis

Ruby-tailed Wasp

Insects are still a top subject for me, but close-ups of flowers can be amazing, like this Bramble flower
Close-up of a Bramble flower

Close up, flowers and plants can take on an abstract quality. Teasel, before it flowers, has these tiny points in a perfect pattern against a background of green
Close-up of a Teasel head before the flowers are open

This rose in the garden has a beautiful soft look and feel.
A Garden Rose

I'm going to enjoy using this lens!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mostly dragonflies and a butterfly

I managed to get out for a couple of hours this afternoon, and went to Woodwalton Fen. It was rather cold and windy (and I had the pleasure standing in the open during a brief hailstorm!) but in the more sheltered rides there were a few dragonflies and butterflies.

This Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) must have very recently emerged. His wings are very milky and he hasn't even opened them yet...

Areas that have not been mown this year (but were last year) have new reed stems up to about 50cm in height. These were where dragonflies and damselflies were most numerous.
There were plenty of Large Reds...

 ...several Hairy Dragonflies...

 ...immature Scarce Chasers...

...and even this Small Copper butterfly.

There are a lot of Flag Irises in flower at the moment. I found this one in a nice position with a reflection of the blue sky behind it.

Monday, 16 March 2015

A Ghost over the Marsh

For nearly two weeks, a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) has been seen over the rough grassland at Tottenham Marshes in North London.

We don't know where it roosts through the day, but as the sun sets, it comes out to hunt.

I've been over to see it twice so far, and yesterday evening shot these video clips.

The Barn Owl hunts both by sight and hearing. It flies soundlessly with even the rush of air over it's wings silenced by fringes on the feathers on the leading and trailing edges. This not only means that any prey (voles and other mammals) don't hear it coming, but also that there is no interference with it's own hearing. The facial disc helps to focus the sound, and the owl's ears are at different heights on the side of it's head to improve the ability to sense the direction of the sound.

I was watching the owl with friends from the Friends of Tottenham Marshes. Please like and follow their Facebook page or visit their website.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Wild sounds from my archives - Pink-footed Geese at dawn

It would be difficult to describe Snettisham as a beautiful place. At low tide, from Snettisham on the Norfolk side of The Wash, there is no land but mudflats for 15 miles across to Lincolnshire. There's a shingle bank, with a line of homes or holiday lets, behind which are some brackish lakes.

In winter, at dawn, it's bleak. If it's a clear morning, it's cold, too...
...but, for wildlife watchers, bleak can be beautiful because this is the scene of an ornithological spectacle.

Right here, as we stand on the shingle bank looking out across the estuary; as the sky lightens before dawn, a mile out across the mud we can just see a dark line. With the help of binoculars or a telescope, we can see that it's a large flock of geese.
Suddenly, following no trigger that we can see, they start to fly. The flock rises quickly, several thousand birds, and turns straight towards us. We now start to hear them. Starting as a low rumble, the sound gets louder as they approach. They are all calling - keeping the flock together - as they fly over our heads.  Finally the sound fades as they head inland to spend the day feeding on the fields.

Pink-footed Geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) in January 2011.
One wave has passed over us - just the last few stragglers can be heard.
Then another low rumble starts and another wave approaches...

Friday, 6 March 2015

A cascade of musical notes from high in the sky

Whatever my mood, hearing a Skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing somewhere overhead never fails to lift me up and bring a smile to my face.
I always have to look for him. Usually, he's way up high or far away but, occasionally, the song will be louder and I'll find him closer. Then I can see his wings whirring and his beak wide open shouting his fitness to the world.

I've long wanted to record the sound of a singing Skylark so, with Spring in the air at Rainham Marshes yesterday, I decided to give it a try.
The Southern Trail is the best place to find them. I settled on one of the benches between the Purfleet Hide and the Marshland Discovery Zone and waited for a Skylark to take to the air.

This one came closest. He circled over my head (I guess at about 50m up) and then gently drifted out over the marsh, eventually to land out of sight.
I did my best to follow him with my microphone. It's a parabolic reflector, so it has great sound-gathering power, but it's very directional. Any sudden changes in volume in the recording are caused by me not quite getting the mic pointed exactly at him.

There are plenty of non-Skylark and non-bird sounds! There's no way to avoid this at Rainham, surrounded by industry, road and rail. The background rumble, the motorbike and the people calling their dog are just "atmosphere"!
...and be warned and prepared for another bird song at 1 minute and 45 seconds. It's loud and it's a... Cetti's!

The resulting recording is a good start, but I definitely can do better. Maybe next time.
I don't have a good image of a flying Skylark, so here's one perched
on a fence at Rainham Marshes in 2011!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Skulking amongst the reeds

The Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) is not a particularly common bird; not particularly rare; neither large nor small; not difficult to identify...
...but I'm not alone in always being delighted to see one.

You see, Water Rails are normally shy and elusive. You rarely see them fly. They live in wetland, amongst reeds and other dense vegetation. They not only live there, but they are perfectly adapted to the habitat. A smaller, sleeker, grey-and-brown-coloured relative of the Moorhen, they have a narrow body to fit between reed stems. The word "skulking" seems perfect for them  as they move through the vegetation in shallow water searching for small food items with their bright red, long, pointed bill.
I just described them as grey-and-brown-coloured, but that really doesn't do them justice.

Seen close-up, the plumage may not be bright (which would be very poor camouflage in a reedbed), but it is beautifully patterned and very smart. The grey face, neck, breast and belly has a slightly blueish feel, and the brown back is flecked with darker, almost black, feather-centres. The flanks have a delicate black and white striped pattern, and under the tail is an inverted U-shape in white similar to the stripes on their larger cousin, the Moorhen. The pointed, bright red bill and red eye completed the picture. Definitely a handsome bird.

You hear them more often than you see them. They have an eerie squealing call, which they sometimes make in response to another loud sound. If you're out in the reedbeds at dusk and a Cetti's Warbler sings, don't be surprised if a Water Rail squeals in response.

I've not managed to get a good recording of the squeal (it's on my list for 2015!), but in March 2013, at Rainham Marshes, I was lucky enough to capture this sound recording of a less-often heard, slightly tremulous courtship call.

Just occasionally, a Rail will venture out into the open. Even then, it's rarely far from the safety of that jungle of reeds... and when it appears, it's always great to see it!
Since the beginning of the year, though, visitors to Rainham Marshes, with a little patience, have been able to see a couple of Rails who seem to have become used to people. I shot these clips over a period of just an hour.