I have always had an interest in wildlife perhaps we all do in varying degrees. Watching the BBC natural history programme ‘Wildlife on One’ on TV had me joining the dogs in their garden kennel watching the birds on the bird feeders (I blame my parents!). That was as serious as it got through my childhood. Eventually, I grew up and discovered the amber glow of beer and the lure of the opposite sex so wildlife interests were kicked to the kerb.
Then in 2005 I went for a walk with my family along the banks of the Weaver Bend and a flock of about 30 waders flew past with vivid white wing bars and I did not have a clue what they were? Thus the wildlife bug had returned and began to chew away at the back of my head (they were of course Black-tailed Godwit). This epiphany moment was when I was in my late thirties and two decades went by without any of the fieldwork that the likes of Bill and Frank put into their birding on the marsh. Needless to say my ID skills and experience has got some catching up but it’s all a learning process and skills come with time. Perhaps, a day in 2010 really put me on the road to photographing birds and it dawned that I needed more than just a field guide… I spotted what I thought was a non-breeding plumaged Great Crested Grebe in the water on No 6 tank, Frodsham Marsh. On closer inspection it was not a Grebe but a Skua of all things (I said I was learning)! I again did not have a clue to what type of Skua it was? I fumbled with my camera phone and scope trying in vain to capture a record shot to review later or at least show to someone more knowledgeable. All I ended up with was a dark blob flying away harassing the Black-headed Gulls. I am still none the wiser as to what type of Skua it was?
So I decided on a super zoom camera with 50x optical zoom as my budget was quite low. It turns out that you really only get what you pay for and I was getting a really good portfolio of different sized black blobs. To say this was frustrating is an understatement, the very reason for buying a camera was to ID birds and the camera was too slow to focus. So, I ended up going down the DSLR route and in February 2011 purchased a Nikon D7000 with a 70-300mm zoom lens. The day I bought the lens I drove to the marsh with the camera only partially out of its box (I was keen). As I arrived I spotted a white, Black-headed Gull sized bird that turned out to be a male Hen Harrier, which had been reported earlier on. I had never seen a male before so jumped out of the car, ran to the back and got the shiny new (matt black) camera out of its box and fitted the lens and switched it on. No! I had not put the battery in and after a frantic search in every box and bag (meanwhile harrier is flapping away) I concluded I must have left it at home where I had partially opened the boxes. I drove like a nutter and got held up by another photographer (Steve Dolan) who was making his way off the marsh and who at the time I did not really know. I was flashing (my headlights) at Steve and he pulled out of the way of the maniac behind and, with window down, I screamed thanks and by the way there is a male Hen Harrier! I got home, which at the time was on Marsh lane, and the battery was not there. It turns out I had put it in the camera bag I had bought and that was in the car all along, Grrr! I returned to the marsh but the Harrier had gone. This is quite typical of the things that happened early on as trying to get to grips with a DSLR and using it in one of the semi-automatic modes, to take full advantage of its capabilities, isn’t easy. There are so many things to remember such as focal length, ISO setting, aperture setting and should stabilisation be on or off. Graham Manson (a keen wildlife and fast jet photographer) advised me to buy “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson it made a huge difference to my understanding (not my photo’s though at first). I upgraded to the sigma 150-500mm in the summer of 2011 and the extra reach of that lens made a big difference.
I had nice shots of Great White Egret and Short-eared Owl amongst others but the lens, being quite slow, needed plenty of good light. This though can cause washed out shots at midday and can be very frustrating, you think you have a great shot in the viewfinder only to get home and import into your software and its rubbish. The difficulty I had at first was deciding whether it was me, the camera body or the lens that was preventing the type of results I thought I would get with this super zoom lens. It turned out to be a bit of all three. The camera can have auto-focus problems, the lens is quite soft at 500mm and I was expecting to be able to shoot a sharp shot of a flea on a rats back. I upgraded to the sigma 120-300mm f2.8 in March 2013 with 1.4 and 2 times tele-converters and along with the new Nikon D7100 have had a higher percentage of decent shots. This in some way is down to the equipment but is more to do with what I know is achievable from a camera with a sensor that is vastly inferior to the human eye.
On many occasions fellow birders have said “go on Paul you can get a shot of that”. This is because birders use incredibly accurate spotting scopes and the human eye, so a bird can be Identified and viewed that is relatively small in the scopes eyepiece. If a subject does not fill at least half of the cameras viewfinder it will invariably be blurred or washed out with poor detail. This then is the big problem, how do you get a Sedge Warbler, for example, close enough to half fill your viewfinder. The answers are patience, use your car as a hide, use RSPB sites (or similar) and camouflage. You just have to be prepared to take a lot of shots and one may be the super sharp, well composed piece of luck you have been waiting for. Lastly Bill asked me to write my settings down so here they are;
I use aperture priority (or Av for the dark side), the largest aperture available (so f5.6 with 2x converter on my setup) some say set it at f7.1 to use the lenses sweet spot but I don’t, ISO on the lowest setting to get a shutter speed the same or more than my lenses focal length (which is 1/600th of a second for me with a 2x converter) if handheld, always remembering that even if you are rock steady if the bird moves and your shutter speed is too slow it will be blurred, I only use the centre focus point and move it around to get it over the birds/fleas eye. These are my settings others may use different ones but they seem to work for me. The one thing you have to be aware of is depth of field. Quite a lot of the time you can have the bird’s eye/beak in focus but the tail is out of focus when the bird is facing you and this is where aperture choice can make a difference. I have not cracked it yet as I am still learning but that is the next challenge, we just need some birds at Frodsham Marsh to practise on.
Paul using a black & white filter on this image sets the portrait of birder Peter Nicholls (seated) and is evocative of a bygone time but with a modern feel.
Firecrest a real Frodsham Marsh rarity.
‘The Birds of Frodsham Marsh’ Facebook caption
By far Paul’s most infamous photo that sparked off mini-hysteria in the twitching fraternity was this ‘Whatwit’ a pale-headed Black-tailed Godwit which turned up on No 6 tank and promoted a paper in Birding World. One of those birds that occasionally servers a curve ball and teaches us all a lesson. To paraphrase Bill Shankly ‘Some people believe birding is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’
There are very few photographs of Common Swifts in the stage of mating and certainly none that we know that are so graphic as Paul’s image
‘Watch the Birdie‘, this now outdated instruction, usually given to children to get them to face in the right direction for a photographic portrait. The ‘birdies’ were animated props that could be made to squawk or warble and so attract a child’s attention and with that we say no more. Eds