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Monday, 19 December 2016

Looking away from the sunset - a timelapse video

RSPB Rainham Marshes' location on the north bank of the River Thames, and the elevated 1st floor and picture windows of its Visitor Centre, offers great opportunities to see some spectacular winter sunsets.

When I'm thinking about locations, dates and times to take landscape photos, I often look at The Photographer's Ephemeris. This is an Android or IOS app, and is also available on the web. It shows the direction and elevation of the sun and moon at any date and time at any location in the world overlayed on a satellite view of the location.

Here is the TPE web app showing the south-eastern end of Rainham Marshes with a location pin dropped on the river wall. It shows the angles towards the sun and moon in the late afternoon of Sunday 11th December 2016.

In this view, looking at the angles of the sunset (orange) and the moon (dark blue) and the location and angle relative to the picture window of the Visitor Centre, I found the opportunity that I was looking for - to shoot towards the Centre (away from the sunset) seeing the sun setting reflected in the windows and the full moon rising over the building! (when the moon is opposite the sun in the sky, we see the whole of the illuminated side, so the moon will be pretty nearly full)
So, when December 11th proved to be clear and sunny, (and the forecasts for the following days were for cloud) I headed off to Rainham Marshes in good time to set up and start shooting - 15 minutes before moonrise and an hour-and-a-half before sunset.

I set the camera to take one image per second, and it ran from 2:24pm until 4:03pm - 5973 images.

Processing took a few days:
  1. import the images into Lightroom and adjust the exposure and other lighting settings
  2. export them all to jpeg format
  3. import the jpegs into Photoshop as an image sequence
  4. crop the frame to full-HD, and create the pan and zoom motion
  5. find some royalty-free music for the soundtrack
  6. render the video out to the final file
Here's the video - I hope you like it.

While the timelapse was shooting, I also took this panorama of the sunset - it really was spectacular.

Postscript: Having to choose the day with clear skies the angles weren't quite perfect, and as the sequence went on there was a little cloud low to the east (behind the building in the video). This meant that the I didn't see the moon rise to the left of the building as I had hoped, but in fact the reveal of the moon out of the clouds towards the end may actually be better.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

An interesting thing about bumblebees

I was at Rainham Marshes again today looking for insects and taking some pictures of them.
When I was looking back at my images this evening, I noticed that one of them showed some interesting behaviour that I'd read about but never seen.

This is a male Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) feeding on nectar from a Tufted Vetch flower.
Look at where his tongue goes into the flower. He's cut a hole in the base, and is sucking the nectar straight from there. This is called "nectar robbing", and it sort of "cheats" the flower, because the bee gets the nectar without pollinating the flower.
The Early Bumblebee is one of our species that has a short tongue. This means that with a long narrow flower like this, it can't reach the nectar by the "normal" route through the open end of the flower.
Other common species with short tongues include the Buff-tailed and White-tailed Bumblebees. These also will rob nectar from flowers. Many other insects do it too, as well as some birds (though not in Britain, as far as I know).

At the other end of the scale in our bumblebees are our Carder Bee species and the Garden Bumblebee. These all have long tongues and so can feed in the normal ways from things like Tufted Vetch.

I also saw this Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus sylvarum) queen today - a rare bumblebee that is reasonably easy to find at Rainham Marshes. This picture isn't great for ID (though you can see the black band across the thorax), but shows nicely how she can feed on Tufted Vetch through the open end of the flower.

Aren't insects endlessly fascinating!

Sunday, 29 May 2016

An emerging dragonfly - making a timelapse

The Common Clubtail dragonfly - Gomphus vulgatissimus - is a species that favours slow-moving, silty rivers.

(Can't wait? Go straight to the timelapse video!)

In Britain, the Clubtail's major locations are the Rivers Thames and Severn.
In particular a very popular place to see them, and to watch the adults emerge from their larval form, is the railway bridge over the Thames at Goring.

All dragonflies and damselflies spend the majority of their lives out of our sight as as larvae living underwater. The details are different for different species in different habitats and locations, of course, but in general flying adult damselflies live for about a month, and adult dragonflies live for about 2 months, while all larvae live for at least 10 months, many for longer.
Their life underwater (again different for different species and situations) is spent either swimming and chasing prey or hiding and ambushing prey. Whatever the lifestyle, the larva is shorter than the adult and has only small non-functioning wings but, when the time and conditions are right, it has to transform itself into a flying adult. This is called "emergence".
For a few days before emergence, the larva will be undergoing an extraordinary transformation within it's body. In effect, it will change into the adult within it's larval skin, so that when it decides to emerge, it can climb out of the water onto a stem of a plant or a hard surface and the adult can break out of the skin and fly off.
The process of emergence is probably the most dangerous part of the insect's life, because for a short period (short, but it might be an hour or more), it cannot move to escape predators.

At Goring, the bridge pillar on the north bank is built behind a concrete revetment with the path between and, while a concrete wall is certainly not the most beautiful setting for either viewing or photographing dragonflies, it is none-the-less reasonably easy for us to to get to and see.
Easy for us - but also, as the Common Clubtail likes to emerge on a hard surface, this concrete revetment is ideal for them.

On Monday (23rd May 2016), I went to Goring in the hope of finding at least one emerging dragonfly. It took an hour or so of waiting at the bridge, and I was actually thinking of abandoning the quest, but a larva did eventually climb out of the water. I leapt into action and set up my camera to capture a sequence of the dragonfly adult breaking out of it's larval skin.
I was prepared to hang the camera down from the top of the revetment, but this larva chose to climb up close to the end of the wall, so I was able to set up in a more traditional way.
So with the tripod standing in the water, over the next 70 minutes the camera captured more than 2500 still images of the dragonfly as it emerged.

I was talking to some other dragonfly-searching visitors while this was going on, when one of them exclaimed "it's gone". A few moments' panic ensued as I looked for the adult in the water (on a previous occasion, I have watched a Gomphus emerge only for it to lose it's grip a fall into the water), but couldn't find it. I stopped the camera shooting, and a quick review of the last few images revealed that it had in fact successfully flown. Excellent!

And so to the video. Creating timelapse videos on the computer takes quite a long time. Importing, adjusting and compiling 2500 stills is a big task. It's even worse when the computer is a few years old. Mine was pretty high-end in it's day, but it's day was at least 4 years ago.
It took a week of waiting for the computer to finish tasks, but finally here it is...

On this occasion I didn't see an adult, but here's a shot of one from 2010 so that you can see what they look like!

Common Clubtail - Gomphus vulgatissimus

To complete the tale, while waiting for the dragonfly to appear and emerge, I found a total of 8 other larval skins (known as "exuviae", singular exuvia). I'm told by the BDS Twitter account that this is a promising start, and bodes well for a better Gomphus season than last year.
Let's hope so!

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Learning about bees, and their extraordinary and sometimes gruesome lives

I spent some time in Rainham Marshes' Cordite Store on Thursday taking pictures of a lovely little bee (only about 1cm long) that I found feeding on a dandelion flower.

Andrena chrysosceles

I'm a real beginner when it comes to identifying bees, but I had a look through my copy of Steven Falk's Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland and tried to at least work out the family or genus. I tentatively thought it might be a Lasioglossum.

The Facebook group UK Bees, Wasps and Ants is another wonderful resource for anyone interested in these insects, with several real experts on hand to help with identification, so I posted some pictures and asked if I was right about Lasioglossum. I wasn't! I quickly had a reply telling me that it was a male and was an Andrena species.

Andrena chrysosceles

This is where it starts to get interesting, extraordinary and, as I said, a bit gruesome. 

Someone pointed out that this bee was carrying a parasite - an internal parasite. Look at the tip of the abdomen in the last picture above. At the joint of the last segment you can see something sticking out between the plates. This is the head of the pupa of a Stylops parasite (I don't know what species).

Here's a closer picture. You can see the Stylops on the left, just below the tip of the wings.
 One of the Facebook group people said that this was probably a male Stylops about to emerge into his adult form.


I've now done some searching for information about Stylops. Their life cycle is remarkable. Both males and females develop as larvae inside the abdomen of various Andrena bees. A male like this one will eventually emerge as a flying adult, but the female is flightless and will spend all her life within the bee, with her head poking out between the plates of the abdomen. She releases pheromones to attract males and, once mated, she produces live larvae. These leave the current host to find another (unparasitised) host bee. They hitch a lift back to her nest, where they become internal parasites of her larvae while they develop into adult bees, and so the cycle continues.
Once a bee larva is parasitised, it develops into an infertile adult.

In the end, I did find out what species of bee this is. It's Andrena chrysosceles, which is one of the most common hosts for Stylops in Spring.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

High water and floating debris

Wednesday and Thursday brought us very high Spring Tides at Rainham Marshes, and since I was there on Thursday and since the sun was shining, I made a last-moment decision to see if I could capture the extent of the tide with another timelapse.

I didn't really get in place soon enough, because the tide was already quite well in and filling the gully in the mud that I wanted for my foreground, but I set up anyway and shot nearly 4000 stills over a 2 hour period.

In hindsight, I'm also sure that I could have chosen a better location to shoot from to show just how high the water level was. In particular, I hadn't realised (doh!) that the debris in front of me would float when the tide came right in. I was expecting to see the water surface!

Still - I'm happy with what I achieved.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Weasel and the Short-tailed Field Vole (deceased)

Some friends and I were heading from Rainham Marshes' MDZ to the Purfleet Hide this morning when we noticed a small, fast, brown shape bounding along the path towards us.

The shape quickly turned into a Weasel and it's latest prey, a Short-tailed Field Vole.

As the Weasel approached, it seemed to suddenly realise that we were there, dropped the vole and quickly hid in the grass at the side of the path. Knowing that the Weasel wouldn't want to miss out on this nutritious lunch, we moved on a short distance and waited.
Sure enough, less than a minute later, out came the weasel to claim it's prize and take it off towards the MDZ.

My top wildlife moment of the day!

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Worth sitting in the cold for...

Yesterday's weather forecast promised early clear skies over the Thames at Rainham Marshes, which meant only one thing - a sunrise timelapse!

After a 6am start, and with my location, camera settings and equipment list all planned, I arrived in position just after 7 o'clock and was set up ready to start shooting by 7:15.
"In position" was on the western shore of Aveley Bay looking east towards the QEII bridge.
The weather was good - clear skies with just a few fast-moving clouds coming from behind me and heading almost due east.

All the work for a timelapse is in the preparation and the compilation and editing. Actually shooting the images is all about waiting while the camera does what you've programmed it to do. In this case, that was to shoot one image per second until I stopped it. Once I'd set it going, the next hour-and-a-bit was a little cold, but I was dressed for the occasion and had a flask of Earl Grey to sustain me!  I was even able to set up my chair somewhat out of the wind behind the top bank of the shore.

The sitting in the cold was well worth it. The sunrise was pretty good, and the resulting video came out well.