Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Wagtail tales

On Sunday I wanted to get out and play with my returned lens. Although the sun was shining in the afternoon there wasn't much to be seen on the marsh - apart from a distant and lost cockatiel! Giving up I headed for the local nature reserve to look for tufties. They'd gone, as had the sun.

Back to the car and the key fell apart as I unlocked the door. Then the car wouldn't start. Thinking this was a problem that has sorted itself out after a rest of a few minutes I took another stroll round the pit with the camera as the sun was shining again. Part way round the path I remembered that the chip had fallen out of the key once before, causing the car not to start. I checked the key and the chip was missing. When I got back to the car again I scrabbled around looking for the little bit of black plastic among the equally black shale on the ground.

After a good few minutes and a thorough search I called the AA. I'd have fifty minutes to wait so I had another look for the chip. In no time at all I found it! A quick call back to the AA and I was on my way to the litter pit, which was uneventful. Just a lone swan on one of the small ponds was worth photographing.

Heading out to the river I stopped off at a favourite spot and had a wander along a footpath through a field. Although I saw a kestrel there wasn't much else around. Walking back past the car I saw some pied wagtails in another field and tried creeping up on them. Very flighty birds in my experience, although they will come close they don't like people approaching them. I sat and waited but they worked their way away from me. A flock of starlings made for some interesting attempts at backlit group flight shots, but I didn't pull them off. Next port of call was the mere.

There was precious little to be seen in the way of wildlife until the geese started to rise up in the distance. I thought I might be able to find some where I could get some closer shots of them and set off along the single track road. Passing a farmstead I spotted two pied wagtails, very close to the road, in a field that was being ploughed. Stopping the car I grabbed some shots of what looked like a young wagtail, then got the car closer. The bird stayed put, although the other one had flown off. The field was somewhat higher than the road, so shooting through the open window gave me an apparently low level view.

The light was poor, it was getting late, so I deliberately underexposed in order to keep the shutter speed high and the ISO low. It seemed to work.

Monday was a day of work, apart from shooting the coal tits in the garden, which I also did this morning. The restless little birds are getting to be an obsession. But given good light I reckon I'll get some decent shots.

Work beckoned, but when I was making my evening meal I was distracted by a bobbing, yellow and grey bird on the rockpile by my pond. A grey wagtail was looking to get a drink. The silly bird could have flitted over to the small pool I made as a bird bath and got a drink easily, but it wouldn't leave the rocks! I might make a step down to the water by he rocks for any other daft birds to take advantage of. The only photos I managed were taken through the window, and it was overcast so the detail isn't fantastic. A nice first for the garden though, and probably a result of having the pond.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The fat lady has yet to sing

With warm sunshine forecast to disappear in mid afternoon I left it a bit late to head north in search, obtusely, of southern hawkers. My delay was caused by a family of coal tits hanging around in the garden visiting my hemp-filled seed feeder and one of them discovering the niger seeds I'd placed in a teasel head that I had stuck in the ground hoping to get goldfinches in a picturesque pose.

First off I took my camera in the garage while I did some work, and when the coal tit landed on the teasel I stopped work and did my best with the lens available.

With the work finished and the coal tits still around and not disturbed by me moving around the garden I set up the tripod and remote release, pre-focussing the 70-300VR on the seed feeder. Not all the shots were in focus - the feeder swings as the birds alight. A couple were both in focus and showing the bird with its head out of the feeder! For a first and brief effort I was quite happy with the results.

Setting off around ten I would be at the dragonfly site well before lunchtime if all went to plan. It didn't. I hit a traffic jam and after a u-turn and following an alternative route I hit another. I hadn't even reached the motorway. When I did I was lucky not to turn down the slip road, which was solid like the motorway. Not being too far away from, and heading in the right direction to, a disused quarry I went there for a mooch.

The hoped for peregrines weren't in evidence. Not visually. There were some raptor-like calls echoing round the cliffs, but nothing I could pinpoint. The usual jackdaws were there in numbers, and the pair of ravens. On the water were three or four dabchicks among the coots and mallards. Standing high on the cliff looking down into the clear water it was fun to see the little grebes diving and swimming out of sight in their search for food. So high above them was I that even at 300 the lens was pretty useless to capture these small birds. A longer lens and a polariser might get some interesting results on a sunny day though.

Other bird life seen were jays, and heard were numerous tits in the birch scrub. There were plenty of toadstools around, most having been chomped by slugs or well past their best. I spent a few minutes trying to get a decent pic of a small clump, but a tripod would have been beneficial even with flash. Fungi are more difficult than birds to photograph!

Given the location it seemed a good idea to take the short drive to the hills and the hilltop quarry where the black darters live while the sun was still shining and warm enough to let me leave the sweatshirt in the car.

The recent rain had changed things up there. The small pool wasn't so small, and it was hard to get around with leaky boots on my feet! There were a fair few black darters around, but all in the rushes that had been dry last time I was there, and not as many as earlier. The big pool was a different matter. Far fewer darters, a couple of emerald damsels, and some hawkers. There were at least two common hawkers laying eggs in the marginal rushes. A tricky place to try and photograph them from dry land. A pair of waders would allow a better angle, but being in the water might prove more likely to spook the hawkers. They are spooky enough.

My first efforts were with the 70-300VR, but I wasn't happy with them, and at one stage a hawker came far too close for me to focus on it. The Sigma 70-300 would have been okay. You can't have everything.

It was fascinating watching the dragonfly at such close quarters, twisting its abdomen into all sorts of shapes as it sought out stems to insert its eggs into. Once they are in that mode they become more approachable, but sudden movements make them fly off.

I switched to the macro lens and flash set up, hoping I could get another chance at a real close look. I wasn't quite so fortunate, but I did get some shots where the hawker wasn't partially obscured by juncus. I also got a very wet foot as I inched close enough. A small price to pay.

Activity slowed and I called it quits. On my way home the sky began to turn grey and the rain wasn't far behind. More rain and cooler temperatures are supposed to set in. The fat lady may sing this week after all.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Last chance dragons?

This morning I was photographing my friendly robin, singing his head off again, when a coal tit landed on a feeder, grabbed a seed and flew off to deal with it in the hedge. This rarely happens when I'm in the garden so I stationed myself as close to the feeder as I dare and focused on it. It needed a heavy crop, but I managed a half decent pic (within the limits of the crop) of this frustrating little bird.

A fleeting glimpse...

I hadn't gone looking for dragonflies this afternoon and was surprised to see a few common darters, including a tandem ovipositing pair, and a brown hawker at the litter pit. Because I wasn't expecting them I hadn't taken the macro lens, so it was a good chance to try out the 70-300 on them. It proved less than ideal on the darters, not too bad on the hawker which landed on the grass. What did I say about the browns settling high up? Shooting without flash the depth of field wasn't great, but it was okay.

 Tatty wings are to be expected in late September

With a few dragonflies on the wing I set off for the dragonfly pond, only for the sun to dim. A solitary male common darter was spotted. So I took a photo of a toadstool which had an appealing colour and texture before leaving for home.

If the sun shines tomorrow I might go take a last look for southern hawkers. Then again, I might not.

Monday, 20 September 2010

New toy and pond progress

I got to really like the Sigma 70-300, at first for close up stuff and then finding it useful for wandering round with. As value for money it is hard to fault, but once the macro lens was purchased it's limitations in that department were shown up, and it's 'agricultural' operation grated compared to my Nikon zoom - the lack of stabilisation was also a problem for Mr Wobbly-Hands. So I bit the bullet and got myself the Nikon version. It's great! Not had the weather or the time to put it to much use, but my resident robin posed the other morning.

Slight crop

A rainy Sunday saw me scratching my head for subjects, until it went dark and I took a couple of snails into the garage for a studio shoot. Using the macro lens, flash bracket and flash with a Lumiquest Mini Softbox I got some reasonable results. A better 'set' than a big rotting log is required!

Today was supposed to be fine, but it was showery. I just managed to gather some clay to provide a substrate to plant water plants in the pond in a dry spell. When the rain drifted away I added the clay to the pond and pressed some plant roots into it to add to the few I had planted in upturned turf sods. Once they all take hold it will start to look a bit more naturalised and the greenery will cover the exposed pond liner.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The kindness of strangers

The interweb is a great place to find information. Some of it hidden away like the file name of a photo that revealed the location of some apparently obliging dragonflies. On Sunday I went to look for the pool and found it easily enough. The guy with the camera on a tripod pointing at a plant was a give away. Two others were pointing their cameras at vegetation too. The pond was so small there wasn't much space for me! I soon spotted something, got my camera from the car and set about staking a male ruddy darter - the first I'd ever seen. Quite obliging it was. In short order it had my macro lens in its face.

Although that was something I had hoped to see and photograph what I really wanted to get a shot of was a southern hawker. The ones I'd seen elsewhere were not in the habit of settling. I was assured they did so at this location. When the sun was shining and really quite warm they were hawking round the pond, inspecting the human intruders into their domain and chasing each other. When a cloud passed in front of the sun they disappeared. The original couple with cameras were replaced by another pair, and one of them soon spotted a resting hawker. Obviously more attuned to their habits than I. Southern hawkers perch closer to the ground than I had expected. Brown hawkers seem to perch higher, head high or above and I expected the southern hawkers to do likewise, but they were all alighting around knee level. Eyes down for a full viewfinder.

After he had taken a few shots of the first hawker to be spotted the original photographer on the scene let me have a go. The insect was completely unperturbed by our attentions.

After this yet another photographer arrived. Making it three grey-bearded men poking camera lenses in the faces of insects. Only one of them being daft enough to lay on the damp ground exposing his bare arms to the nettles...

One of the blokes pointed out some shield bugs. There were a lot of them about, and different species too. When you get a real macro view of them they are intriguing little bugs well worth seeking out with a camera.

There being only so many ways to photograph a perching southern hawker, and with my mission achieved, I headed on over to the nearby nature reserve where I fully intended to cough up the fee to use their hides. However, hardly had I crossed the car park towards the visitor centre than my Tourettes kicked in and I began mumbling obscenities to myself. There's something about clean walking boots, spotting scopes and Berghaus jackets that raises my bile. I availed myself of the toilet facilities, thumbed through a few books in the shop so I could choose which to buy off Amazon, and left.

Rather than hang around I took a very scenic route home, stopping off in a pay-and-display (without paying or displaying) to listen to the final overs of the one day cricket international. Then it was home to stick my pics on the screen and see what I'd got.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Still a few about

Unexpectedly the sun shone. I'd promised myself another trip to the moorland quarry in the hope of finding some inert hawkers. Climbing the hill I saw that one of the cows was not as other cows. I retraced my steps and clambered over the fence into the next field. Although the bull looked placid enough and was in with plenty of cows I wasn't in the mood to find out.

As soon as I approached the first pond I saw hawkers and copulating black darters on the wing, and a few emerald damsels in the rushes. They were all rather difficult to pin down. I tried a few fungus shots but really needed a tripod and gave up. Wandering around I tried some spider shots that I was too idle to put the flash on for. While I was doing this I hard a rustle of dragonfly wings and expected it to be a common hawker nearby, so the light insect that settled on my right hand I assumed to be afly of some sort. When I looked it turned out to be a male black darter, and it wasn't for moving either!

As usual I disturbed hawkers, commons in the marginal rushes and the surrounding heather. When I saw one settle it would fly off before I got close enough for a shot. It was quite sad to see a pair of black darters wasting their time laying eggs in a puddle on the path. That's nature for you though.

Hearing a whirring in the margins I crept as stealthily as I could towards it. A common hawker flew away but three emerald damsels remained. One male clasping another that was clasping a female in a wheel. I saw this earlier in the year with banded demoiselles.

At the smaller pond there were plenty of black darters in the air, some paired up, and some paired hawkers that I couldn't get an ID on. With the sun shining brightly it was warm enough to strip down to the t-shirt. As soon as the sun went in it was cool enough to require the replacing of the fleece. Then it rained. Heavily. I took shelter in the wood where I took a lazy pohoto of a fungus of some sort. Lazy because I used the in-camera flash. It turned out quite reasonable considering.

It was a passing shower and I was back out again. It continued to prove difficult to get any decent dragonfly photos. A pair of hawkers settle on a vertical rock face, but my stalking skills let me down. I tried some less flighty subjects. Lichen are really fascinatingly shaped creations when you look closely. Static they may be, but they're still tricky to photogtraph. Practice is required, and probably a tripod.

There were a fair few grashoppers around, and they were quite approachable. Not always hopping off when I prodded them. I assume the rain had cooled them down a bit. They can be kind of cute! More time should have been spent with them in retrospect.

Another shower passed over as I was taking a walk away from the quarry. Only a light and brief one. Then it came warmer than ever. A final look around the ponds revealed nothing that I managed to capture with the camera. A couple of hawkers, possibly migrants, patrolled the large pond  and clashed, wheeling away together noisily over the heather clad slops around the pool.

Rather than brave the bull I took the longer route down the hill, then had a wander round the overflow from the reservoir, and along it's banks. By the time that was done I was about beat - and hungry. Interesting though, as I think I found a spot roe deer might frequent. It's close to a place I stumbled across a small herd in the pre-dawn darkness when fishing one time. It's a fly infested bog though!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The nights are drawing in

As the days shorten dusk comes earlier, so it's time to get in the garage again. My first attempts in the 'studio' gave me food for thought.With a little improvisation I have improved on the set-up somewhat. Still a way to go, but the basic idea is sorted.

By juggling the off and on camera flash levels, and the position of the flash on the tripod I got somewhere towards decent results in as far as softening the shadows went. being able to review each shot immediately makes it really simple to make changes. Digital is brilliant!

It's surprising how quickly snails move, so the ability to rotate the 'set' was handy, as was having the camera free from a tripod and flash cables. A bit of wood dumped on some gravel wasn't the most convincing 'set', but at least with things as small as slugs and snails it shouldn't be too difficult to improve on that. It would be fine for woodlice and other bugs though. One thing's for certain. Working with the subjects on a raised platform is much easier than trying to photograph then at ground level!

I think a better solution to the lighting would be two off-camera, diffused strobes triggered wirelessly with no flash from the camera itself. Although I am quite happy with what I've managed so far.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

One more look

I made the most of the Indian summer and set off to look for dragonflies. The damsels are all but done now, just an odd blue-tailed and emerald have been seen this last week, a few darters are still about, but the hawkers are still active. So much so that one flew ahead of me as I drove down the lane to the litter pit, where a male common darter looked in through the passenger window when I parked up!

The hawkers never settle, and their flight paths are so unpredictable they are tricky to frame in flight. There were brown hawkers around, at least two, and another smaller hawker that I couldn't get an ID on. I'm guessing at migrant hawker, but it is a guess.

I was photo-less until I spotted a male common darter perched atop a reedmace head. Maybe it's the time of year but it was readily approachable. The only problem being that the reedmace was well in the bed and I got wet feet framing my arty shots - I couldn't get close enough for anything more detailed! What was evident, even on the LCD screen was that the first shots I tool with the 70-30 were far less clear than the ones I took with the 150, even though the darter was smaller in the frame with the former.

Approachable darter

A brief look at the newt ponds was pleasant but not much was seen apart from another possible migrant hawker that refused to have it's portrait taken. Home or the dragonfly pond? With the sun still shining and warm I took the latter option. Alas an overturned lorry caused me to arrive about fifteen minutes later than I should have, by which time the sun was just off the pond. Nonetheless a brown hawker was flying and a couple more took to the wing ahead of me. I followed one visually and it settled. A little high, but it settled. I took one shot as a record shot before creeping up on the insect. I didn't get any closer before it flew off. They are quite skittish. Also quite cryptic when resting and the first sign I get is when one takes off in front of me.

Unapproachable hawker

It was pretty quiet, apart from a brown hawker making an occasional foray over the pond or  round the surrounding trees and shrubs. Another hawker flew past me, close to the water's edge, when I was looking at the marginal plants and sniffing the water mint. Probably a brown hawker, but it looked more olive.

Leaving the dragonfly pond I went for a mooch round the hidden pond thinking that it should still be in sunlight, which it was. As I approached the water it crossed my mind that I had yet to see one of the fabled black darters known to frequent this pond. No sooner had I had the thought that I saw a black darter! It proved to be a confiding one that was intent on soaking up the last of the sun by basking on a fence post. I spent quite some time photographing it, even having the time to fit a couple of extension tubes and get in really close without it flitting away. I still managed to leave the ISO setting on auto and mess up the first lot of shots...


It would fly up at times but settle straight back down on the post - once on my head! Eventually my model got bored and deserted me. I carried on round the pond and saw another darter fly into a hawthorn where it perched on a haw on an inner branch. This had the making of a great photo, but the physical approach to a good viewpoint was blocked by branches. I did the best my capabilities allowed but it was not really good enough.

What might have been

The evening light was glorious. Typical of this time of year. I should have made more of it, but my bones were tired and my stomach empty.

Must try harder

Monday, 6 September 2010


I almost didn't take a camera with me when I went looking for pond plants. As it turned out I put the wrong lens on it. As soon as I stopped to look at one small pool a brown hawker flitted past my eyes and began egg laying among the broad-leaved pond weed. I guess there isn't a perfect lens to take everywhere on the off chance. It will never be long enough or wide enough for what you see. An 18-200 zoom is versatile, but always seems to fall short when some interesting small creature is spotted. But then so does a 70-300, and I bet an 80-400 would too.

However, a crop produced a result that shows what was going on - after a bit of work.

Before the rain arrives

With the pond resting I made the most of another sunny Sunday afternoon for a wander with the camera in a couple of the usual haunts. The local nature reserve was quiet and, like everywhere, turning autumnal. I was too lazy to put the flash bracket on the macro lens so tried shooting pond skaters in the dipping pond without it. depth of field was a problem given the way I was forced to shoot - lying on the board walk trying hard to keep the camera out of the water! I couldn't quite get close enough without overbalancing, so a half frame crop.

Leaving the pit I headed into open country, where a sheltered track between a hedge and a pine coppice (edged with willow and oak) proved to be the favoured spot for a number of green veined whites and speckled woods. Trying to photograph the speckled woods as they worked their way down among the grass was futile without the flash. Too late I attached the flash bracket. This brought better results on some flies feasting on one of the last of the umbellifers.

My last efforts were of a green veined white that remained in situ for longer than they usually do. Had it not been for a blade of grass between me and the butterfly this would have been a better shot. Still one of my better butterfly pics though.

With one more day of dryness predicted I'll make the most of it with the camera before knuckling down to some real world work.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Neglected dragons

In my excitement over my pond I forgot to mention that I went window shopping for lenses on Saturday and called in at the dragonfly pond on my way home. It was before ten and although bright it was quite cool. Even so the usual common darters were around but nothing else that I saw. No doubt they were flying later when the day heated up.

I managed to get close to a couple, choosing to forgo the flash and take a chance on hand holding with available light. Apart from the rather cluttered background this one is quite nice.

It won't be long before the dragonflies are no more for another year. Time to start looking for winter visitors of the feathered variety.

Pond blog : 8

My mate, Martin, who gave me the pond liner said I could have some rocks too. Yesterday I called round to laugh at watch him building a garage, and to have a look at the rocks. he talked me into loading some in the back of my car. I also had a look at his pond, made with a moulded fibreglass liners, which is nicely mature after just over a year. I'll be cadging some plants and snails off him later!

And so to work. The rocks have been piled up loosely to provide hidey-holes for frogs and toads. Some of the pile of sods have been used to level out the pond edge and the rest upturned in the dip by the fence, which is levelling off nicely. I'll top up the levels later today and start planning the planting

Friday, 3 September 2010

Pond blog : 7

Having been offered some carpet FOC I decided to go with carpet and sand!

Not a lot of sand, just enough to smooth the contours under the carpet.

The carpet was just about the perfect size.

The liner was quite a bit larger than the hole required. I suppose I could have dug a bigger pond.

Instead I made a last minute bird bath.

All that is left to do now is some landscaping, and then the pond can be populated with plants - I saw a midge laying eggs while the water level was rising!