Harrier heaven

May 31st, 2015

Australia has two species of harriers (Family Accipitridae, Genus Circus). The Spotted Harrier and the Swamp Harrier.

Swamp Harriers. The sheer shy nature of these birds makes them incredibly tough subjects to photograph. These raptors prefer to live in the vicinity of healthy wetlands where they nest in the reeds and hunt low over the marshes and surrounding fields. I have seen many a harrier in my nearly ten years of bird photography. In fact, there has been a pair living and nesting near my house in a small swamp near the town of Penrith, NSW.

However, they are extremely difficult to work with using conventional disguise techniques such as shooting from a motor vehicle. In the past, my best opportunity to photograph one hunting was at Pitt Town Lagoon sometime in 2007. I was still learning lots and totally screwed up the shots. Totally. The bird was soft and the wings blurred due to the low shutter speed used. At that time I have not woken up to the best method of flying bird photography; shooting in full manual mode. When you set the shutter speed and aperture based on your subject, it does not matter what kind of background it flies against (white sky, dark mud) you will still maintain the same exposure on the bird.

Recently I became acquainted with a property owner in the Hawkesbury who has a substantial amount of good harrier habitat. The first time we met, we were road side chatting and watched as three Swamp Harriers (male, female and immature) all hunted over the expansive fields of his. It was pure magic. He was gracious enough to give me access to the property so off I went.

The first morning I was “blessed” with thick fog. It was so thick I could not see 30 meters in front. The perfect morning sunrise came – somewhere else, not where I was of course – and the fog persevered. As it broke in areas I was lucky to note a Swamp Harrier land in a dead tree. Wearing my camouflage outfit, I started to make my way towards it. I got to about 45 meters from it really slowly through cold water and mud when it flew. No Swamp Harrier worth his weight will tolerate human presence within at least 100 meters usually. Often this comfort zone is far greater. Once the fog lifted, I walked around to some more likely areas and was greeted with an overall sighting of five (5) Swamp Harriers and two (2) Spotted Harriers. It was just awesome, especially that I was able to take some grab shots of a Swampie that surprised me from the left as I was photographing a bunch of spoonbills in a shallow pool. It is at times like this when years of flight photography experience comes in handy as I aimed and fired in about one second as I locked onto the raptor in flight in some nice light!

This morning, I headed back out at dawn in my full ghillie sniper suit. No harrier will see me as long as I stay still. On the way, I found a road killed hare so I took that along for bait.

I walked out to the same spot I caught the harrier last week and placed the hare in a likely location approximately 20 meters from where I plonked myself under a tree. There was again, one problem. It was raining ever so slightly. I sat in drizzling rain waiting. Having barely sat for five minutes when two Swamp Harriers shot up from the reed beds some 400 meters away and slowly made their way towards me. I was excited, but not excited knowing the light was poor and I was still on ISO6400. That is not necessarily the best for image quality, but good enough to record the action. As they approached they emitted these beautiful hawk-like whistles that I have never heard in my life. One perched on a wooden fence post about 20 meters from me, the other circled and checked out the hare. My shutter was on silent mode, which is pretty quiet, but can only fire off one frame at a time. When I changed the camera to fast frame rate, the sound must’ve sounded like gun fire to this bird and it slowly turned and headed off. Then its mate launched and circled a couple of times, giving me awesome opportunities to photograph it from 25 meters away. There was the problem of light though. Wish there was no cloud, as I would have had the most PERFECT morning light for the shots. Instead, I got some crap light and 1/400th of a second shutter speed at ISO6400. Hardly ideal for flight, but I could just manage.

As the second bird disappeared, a third emerged some half an hour later and gave me good views. Slowly, the light began to improve and I could dial the ISO down to 3200. Still not great, but better.

A male Swamp Harrier appeared and gave me an awesome flight in front filling the frame at 700mm as I was talking to my wife on the phone. Believe it or not! :)

When my luck ran out and I was sick of the rain, I made my way back to the car and managed to get some flight shots of a gorgeous Spotted Harrier too. It was another awesome morning at Richmond, but again, poor atmospheric conditions made for tough shooting.

My luck will strike hopefully the third time around. The photos were taken over two mornings.

 

Stay safe, and happy shooting!

 

Spotted-Harrier-1B7A9584 Spotted-Harrier-1B7A9589 Spotted-Harrier-1B7A9917 Spotted-Harrier-1B7A9922 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9610 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9611 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9614 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9788 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9821 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9842 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9848 Swamp-Harrier-1B7A9851 Swamp-Harrier-3200-1B7A9820 Swamp-Harrier-3200-1B7A9846 Swamp-Harrier-6400-1B7A9792 Swamp-Harrier-6400-1B7A9794 Swamp-Harrier-6400-1B7A9795 Swamp-Harrier-6400-1B7A9797

 

Nature Photography

Think like a bird – the anatomy of a photograph (or two)

August 19th, 2014

ANATOMY OF A PHOTOGRAPH

 

They say luck favours the bold or good things come to those who – not wait – but make an effort. Often, it is a combination of effort with a bit of luck, and that is what I walk talk about here.

While there are a few different ways bird photographers may go about capturing their photographs, I prefer to try and stalk my subjects in the field or use knowledge I’ve built up over many years of observation and in the field photography. It may sound funny, but you probably heard the old saying that “To catch a fish, you have to think like a fish”.

Does that sound about right?

Well, in my opinion, to photograph a bird, you have to sometimes think like one, put some effort in and make quick decisions in order to capture a moment. This means you may be in a better position to capture a special moment depicting your beloved subjects. When you spend a lot of time observing birds in their natural environments, then couple the observations with some theory in the form of books, journal articles and other written documents, you should be able to come to conclusions when out in the field. At least, you should be able to put yourself into a position where your chances of capturing a good photo of natural behaviour dramatically increase.

That is exactly what happened to me last Sunday afternoon. I began my short raptor session by finding the female of my local pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles cruising above the trees beside Castlereagh Road, Castlereagh, with her offspring from the previous year. That’s the second time I have observed her with her young in about a month and both times conditions were favourable for their hunting behaviour. Both times, we had strong westerly winds blowing, making the glide over the treetops effortless for the pair. I suspect, based on the ruggedness of her primaries, that she has been busy setting up her nest for this year’s breeding and chances were her mate was putting finishing touches to the nest. Perhaps she was already incubating, but wanted to take a break from incubation. I find it interesting that there appeared to be no animosity toward the young bird. Often the adults of many raptors would chase the young off into the world by the time they’re ready to nest again.

 

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Female Wedge-tailed Eagle

Female Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Female Wedge-tailed Eagle

Female Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

Immature Wedge-tailed Eagle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We actually observed an adult White-bellied Sea Eagle locking talons with a first-year bird in Broken Bay in May. The adult chased the youngster and as they ascended to great height, they locked talons honking as they spiralled towards the water’s surface. Once they got close, both birds released their lock and flew their merry way. That was some spectacle I can tell you! The area around Broken Bay was so overloaded with first and second year sea eagles that it was ridiculous! Not ten minutes went by on the boat without seeing a new youngster! It was insane!

White-bellied Sea Eagle duel

White-bellied Sea Eagle duel

White-bellied Sea Eagle duel

White-bellied Sea Eagle duel

 

White-bellied Sea Eagle duel

White-bellied Sea Eagle duel

Sea eagle pulling up in front of me

Sea eagle pulling up in front of me

 

Map of events with sea eagle

Map of events with sea eagle

 

 

 

 

Sea Eagle incoming

Sea Eagle incoming

 

 

Once I parted from my wedgie pair, I was able to let the dogs out for their daily run. However, interestingly, I noted my Castlereagh pair sea eagles flying together in front of a gully on the escarpment, as if to advertise their territory. Although, they should be still incubating, or at least have one or two very young chicks waiting in the nest. Both sea eagles returned towards their nest gully very quickly, which I was able to confirm with my binoculars. As I rounded the dogs up and left to drive home south along Castlereagh Road, I was romanticizing in the hope of seeing some more cool action to top off the day. As I approached the Cranebrook Road intersection, I could not help, but see the adult White-bellied Sea Eagle hunting low over the trees where the wedgies were about an hour earlier. Could it have been one of my adults from the nest? Already? I was here within minutes of seeing them a couple of kilometers away. I pulled over quickly, got out with my camera and waited a few seconds (spot 1 on map). The adult sea eagle had no time for me, it kept flying NW along the tree line then turned north towards the back of Church Lane and the rural properties that line the area there. I quickly thought to myself how cool it would be if it swooped down near Helen’s Lake, which is directly opposite the private entrance of Helen Dixon’s property, which is inside the quarry. I thought if I were a sea eagle and wanted to use the wind to my advantage and take a quick shot at a few waterbirds, I’d be coming in over the east to the lake, swoop down low and try to take a coot or duck.

These thoughts rushed through my mind in a matter of seconds if that, so I quickly turned my vehicle around and hightailed up towards Helen’s Lake. While the lake is not really called anything, I like referring to it as Helen’s for obvious reasons.

As I passed the Church Lane exit onto Castlereagh Road, I could see the adult sea eagle making its way north and it was about 600 or so meters away. Lucky they are big aye?

When I got to Helen’s private access road entrance (spot 2 on map), I could quickly check and as I had predicted, the bird turned into the strong westerly and started to descend over the paddocks towards Helen’s Lake. I was so lucky that there was a quick break in traffic that I could quickly chuck a u-turn and pull up on the gravel on the lake side of the road. The eagle bore down on the coots that were swimming around the far side of the lake (spot a on map). The ensuing panic was incredible and many splashes were the audible giveaway of quick-diving waterbirds to escape the eagle’s talons. It flew low until it passed the scared bunch of birds, then pulled up high into the air and gained altitude to dive at the lot closer to my side of the lake (spot b on map). I was afraid to move, despite being in between two power poles close to each other, in case I throw the sea eagle off course. I was way too worried about it noting my movement. Therefore, I stayed put.

The sea eagle came in low again, the coots closest to me screamed and dived in a desperate hurry to get away. The sea eagle pulled up when it reached the shore closest to me and I managed to fire three frames off as it sharply ascended and began to head north, parallel with the road. Soon after, the sea eagle flew across the road (well overhead) and headed in the direction of the river. I was literally gobsmacked. That quick assessment and anticipation had worked wonders. Was the raptor reading my mind? I doubt it very much. It was probably doing what it would normally do and I was very fortunate to put myself into the right spot at the right time.

 

 

Nature Photography

Wolgan Valley and Blackheath adventure

January 31st, 2014

WOLGAN VALLEY ADVENTURE

 

Many years ago, my wife and I visited the beautiful Wolgan Valley looking for another route to the famous Glow Worm Tunnel. While I was a little nervous climbing up into unknown territories and tracks, I was immediately in awe of this gorgeous valley with its tall cliff tops and beautiful scenery just in your face every which way you turn.

It took me nearly ten years to return on a December Saturday to revisit the beauty I had remembered from this area. As I drove into the valley I noted that the road was now sealed most of the way. I am not surprised, as I reckon the guests at the newly built Emirates Resort would not be appreciative of being driven on dirt roads. Oh diddums!

 

Canons on top of a Wolgan cliff

Canons on top of a Wolgan cliff

Yours truly atop the mountain

Yours truly atop the mountain

A beautiful cliff face

A beautiful cliff face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The familiarity with the vast landscapes greeted me and I was just elated, felt like I entered another world. I briefly stopped along the road side to enjoy some home-made tum (Lebanese garlic dip) with some beautiful Lebanese bread and some water before moving on. A small family of Jacky Winters (a kind of flycatcher, relative of the Eastern Yellow Robin) was busy hanging around the area; their calls giving away their presence to me. It was here too, where I saw White-browed Woodswallows, a first for me in my life. Not that I am a stupid twitcher or anything like that going around ticking a senseless list  so my ego can grow as I boast about seeing yet another species while even sitting on my toilet at home. No my dear reader, not at all. It’s always nice to see a new bird for the first time and I was certainly not in this area to tick off any bird species. You see, I can understand ornithologists or bird watchers/observers who genuinely go to a spot and observe the birds in that spot. They may spend time with the birds rather than running around with a list of species they may see, ticking them all off in the process so they can say they’ve seen such and such in 2013 or in the month of December, or in their street, or in their suburb etc. I think you know what I think now. That cannot be enjoyable and certainly has no merit in my world, hence why I say twitchers are a stupid bunch and I would not give one the time of my day. No way!

Anyway, as I travelled further along, I was surprised to note a snake half curled up near the road’s edge. By now, the road was dirt and more to my liking. I pulled over to the side and activated my hazard lights. Being a potentially venomous snake, I quickly got a 70-200mm lens out with a Canon 5DMarkII so I can stay a safe distance away. Also, the colours of the snake appeared like a Tiger Snake, which is extremely venomous and can be aggressive. I inched closer and closer, yet the snake was not moving. This is not good I thought. As I inched even closer, I noted some ants busily moving around the torso of the snake. I then realized that the snake was dead. It was lying there with glassy eyes. Not the best way to see my first Tiger Snake either. I prefer snakes to be doing something other than being dead. Makes me mad at some drivers who may aimlessly stare at the steering wheel rather than being aware of what lies on the road in front of them.

 

As I pulled into my destination, I was taken aback by the sheer height of the cliff top, which I was going to climb to some 400 meters above road height on some goat track. Not an easy feat at all, especially since I planned on taking most of my camera gear up the trail with me as well; all 12 or so kilos of gear plus water. The directions to the trail were pretty good and in no time I was starting my ascent on the hillside at an angle that appeared to be something like 45 degrees! I was pretty tired in no time and was cursing the boxer, who in the 1950s could run to the top in some 22 minutes. After the first four hundred or so meters of trail, the terrain flattened out a while so I could rest as I walked easy. Then the goat trail started. At an angle somewhat even steeper than the first section, it was kind of frightening in places due to the close proximity of the edge of a small drop off to the trail. My large backpack has a habit of putting me off balance if I am not careful, so I had to be super cautious. The surface was a mixture of looser stones and dirt, leaves and twigs. Quite uneven actually. However, I braved on thinking that even seven year olds can climb up here, or so the story goes. Therefore, camera backpack or not, I can do it. I was, in fact, dreading the climb down, knowing that some places I may need to use my backside to slide on, as walking down on this type of surface could be hazardous. I had some fantasies of seeing this mysterious Black Panther that legends talk about, but sadly that was not the case. Maybe one day.

The last 60 or so meters saw me in a crevice between two pagodas and a rather steep section (still), though there were small trees and other things like rocks to grab whilst scrambling so overall it was not at all that bad.

When I got to the top I felt like screaming in elation of having done the deed. I drank a little water, knowing I had brought limited supplies, having left the vast majority of my life juice in my car for later.

Once on top, the view was just breathtaking. Standing about 400 meters above the Wolgan Valley was indeed a Godly experience, well, in my opinion anyway.

I spent probably two hours on top, enjoying the view and I even rang a mate, lucky that Telstra had one or two bars of signal. Though the line was not really great overall.

On the way down, I began to feel my thighs and calves working quite hard and I was already not looking forward to the build-up of lactic acid from the strain. However, a man must walk on and on I walked.

By the time I reached the small creek at the bottom of the mountain I was ready to jump in and cool off. However, all I managed to do was scoop the water into my cupped hands and wash my neck, face and head with the cool, refreshing water of the creek.

I stretched a little and got in my car, heading back towards Lithgow and the Blue Mountains. Near Blackheath I stopped to visit an old spot where I discovered a pair of nesting Sooty Owls two years earlier and began the stakeout near their old nest tree. I was lucky to have seen the male come out of his day roost (a tree hollow) tree next to me. From further up the hill I could hear the faint sounds of a begging sooty, whether a chick or a female it is hard to say as I was not in a good position to explore an unknown gully at night alone. A pair of fledged Powerful Owl chicks also kept me busy filming/photographing for a couple of hours.

This day was a most memorable day, for I achieved a dream of climbing a pagoda in the Wolgan Valley and survive it too! Not bad at all. Thank God I have been busy training for the last few months with my martial arts class, as it had paid off big time.

 

Great Knot - not the one twitchers salivate over.

Great Knot – not the one twitchers salivate over.

Tree Fern HDR

Tree Fern HDR

Rainforest

Rainforest

Rainforest HDR

Rainforest HDR

Sunset HDR in B&W

Sunset HDR in B&W

 

 

 

 

Powerful Owl fledgeling

Powerful Owl fledgeling

Powerful Owl fledgeling

Powerful Owl fledgeling

Male Sooty Owl

Male Sooty Owl

Nature Photography

Lost Hope

November 17th, 2013

You may be wondering why I would title my most recent blog entry in such manner. The answer is simple. It is about Hope, a young (male) White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) who hatched sometime in the second week of August 2013. Interestingly, only one eaglet was in the nest when I first visited and photographed from our hide that we built purposely for photographing the progress of my local pair of sea eagles. Finding the nest was difficult enough in the first place, having taken me a few years of searching when I had the spare time available. Getting to an eye-level – elevated – shooting position was also a challenge. Luckily, the terrain where the nest tree is located is a combination of escarpments, gullies and rock outcrops and fortunately, about 20 meters back from the sea eagles’ nest is a rock ledge about a meter and a half above eye-level with the nest. All we had to do was build a photography hide.

My first session was on September 1, Sunday. It was a glorious morning indeed with a six am sunrise, light spring chill and the spectacular bird song of dawn greeting me as the light became more prominent. At this stage the little eaglet was not christened at all, since the “hope” part was yet to occur.

Mum flew off the nest at sunrise and sat nearby. Dad arrived about three hours later sans food.

I managed to shoot a fair bit of HD video using a Canon EOS 5D MarkII, which is an awesome tool for the job. Trouble began some 10 days later when about three kilometres away, a Rural Bushfire Brigade preventative back burn apparently got out of control and started to make its way to the general area of the nest gully. We all had an incredibly stressful few days as I watched the fires creep closer and closer along the leaf litter covered forest floor. On September 13 or sometime around then the fire stopped burning a mere 200 meters north of the nest gully. My initial devastation turned to hope. Hence the name Hope was given to the sea eagle offspring. Hope was now doing well, he grew fast and at nine weeks of age (about three weeks from being able to fly and leave the nest) he was doing really, really well. I was able to stand 15 meters from him in plain view at eye level on my way out one afternoon and he was just standing there watching, unafraid. I was quite amazed, as I was expecting him to move around or look somewhat agitated and try to hide low down in the nest or behind one of the upright branches supporting the nest structure. He was not at all worried or stressed.

Then sadly, another fire started around October 15th around three kilometres away near the town of Springwood and it worked its way along the mountains, out towards the Nepean River near Yellow Rock / Mt Riverview and before I knew it, on October 17th, Hope’s nest gully was alight and smoke billowing across the entire face of the escarpment. The event was – or appeared to be – catastrophic! I was literally crying as I watched from near the town of Castlereagh as the flames engulfed the leaf litter on the ground, lit up the trees and just burned everything in their path. I was certain that Hope had no chance and he was about 10 days out from being able to actually fly away.

Once the fires were over and the smokey haze cleared, I could see the nest gully still green, untouched, and Hope’s nest tree intact with the surrounding 30-40 meters of trees also in good condition. On November 11, my friend Peter finally made his way into the area. He found the nest empty and the floor below within about a 30 meter radius also empty. At this point, we still have minor hope that Hope, somehow, somehow, just managed to escape. However, two experts in the field of raptors (Dr. Steve Debus and wildlife artist/photographer Steve Tredinnick) both agree that it is most likely that Hope had perished.

I can tell you nothing is more painful than not knowing the outcome. There’s no closure, no result, no certainty, just a big empty hole the departure of this little white fluff ball turned big boy of an eaglet has left in my heart. I am utterly crushed and the hope to see Hope will keep me going strong, however, not knowing his fate is the hardest thing of all. I attach a few photos of our hide building adventure, of Hope’s parents Elvis and Deanna.

I am sitting in front of the hide. (behind me on right of picture).

I am sitting in front of the hide. (behind me on right of picture).

Peter standing in front of hide.

Peter standing in front of hide.

Hope at five weeks of age. Little brown bits coming through the white.

Hope at five weeks of age. Little brown bits coming through the white.

This is our photography hide.

This is our photography hide.

Hope keeping his cool on a 37-degree spring day.

Hope keeping his cool on a 37-degree spring day.

Hope at three weeks of age.

Hope at three weeks of age.

Elvis on the lookout perch.

Elvis on the lookout perch.

Deanna, the mother, hunting at the Penrith Regatta Center.

Deanna, the mother, hunting at the Penrith Regatta Center.

Hope at nine weeks of age.

Hope at nine weeks of age.

Elvis, Hope's dad keeping his eye on me.

Elvis, Hope’s dad keeping his eye on me.

Early February visit outside the breeding season and in light rain.

Early February visit outside the breeding season and in light rain.

The nest tree viewed from below.

The nest tree viewed from below.

Sunrise in the nest gully

Sunrise in the nest gully

Hope at nine weeks of age

Hope at nine weeks of age

Nature Photography

Australia Post Stamp Issue to feature my images

April 30th, 2013

On May 11, 2013, Australia Post will be releasing a four stamp issue of one of the little jewels of the Australian bush; the pardalotes. Now those of you, who know these birds, are aware of the sheer beauty of these little passerines. In my neck of the woods, I only get the Spotted and Striated Pardalotes. And the Spotted appear to be far more common. However, they are just stunning, and colourful.

The idea of the stamps is over a year old when the Post’s philatelic researcher contacted me for a couple of shots. Ideally they wanted me to supply all four species, but I was not able to due to only having the abovementioned species in my image catalogue. So I gave them the photos and those were to be used as base images for the absolutely stunning paintings for the stamps. The paintings were created by the incredibly talented Christopher Pope, who would have to be the most talented bird artist Australia has. His bird paintings are simply breathtaking; there’s no other way to put it. Check out his work on http://www.christopherpope.com.au

Anyway, this is a brief update of my privilige to be able to contribute to such fantastic projects showcasing our beautiful wildlife. 

I thank Hillary from Australia Post and Christopher for the opportunity.

 

Here is a sample of the stamp and my original Striated Pardalote image, which I captured in Gordon Road, Schofoelds at the little creek crossing, in September 2009. There is a colony of these pardalotes living near there. Only if they knew they have become world-famous!

Aussie Post stamp issue

 

Nature Photography