Monday, 16 October 2017

Ophelia please darken my door

Well the old neighbourhood just ain't the same. Look at this - this was taken out of my office window at about 4pm, but it appeared to be verging on dusk such was the effect of the dusty and smoky atmosphere brought northwards by Ophelia. It started early afternoon when things began to appear a little hazy outside. I went to a meeting where I couldn't really just stare out of the window and when I came back it was verging on apocalyptic. Very strange indeed and I'm a bit miffed that I didn't have a real camera with me that would have interpreted it rather more accurately than my phone which was doing its best to turn the scene into a sunny Samsung day! I think I managed to get vaguely get it to stop mucking about with it, but all I can say is that it if wasn't like the below then it was damn close. Everything was yellow, a dull sepia, as if somebody had stretched a pair of tights over the sun. The effect was quite amazing actually, one of those events that we may not witness again. An hour later it had cleared up considerably, the band of polluted air taken further north, but I imagine that there will be all sorts of amazing photos from up and down the country that emerge in the coming days.

The funny thing is that Canary Wharf didn't really appear any more windy than normal, and sitting here typing this at home it seems to be pretty calm outside. As a patch worker this is a bit of a shame, as I was hoping for the Bald Ibis/Gannet double tomorrow morning. On that subject, the patch was not on fire this morning in the same way as yesterday. From dawn to around 8.15 there were quite a lots of Wood Pigeons, up to c80 Redwings and four late Swallow, but the big numbers of finches just weren't there. Nor sadly the Woodlarks. Still, I am up to 107 for the year, which is already better than 2016 by one, and there is still quite a lot of time left in which to add to it. Woodcock is probably the only regular bird missing, and Bullfinch if I'm lucky, anything else will have to come with a fair slice of jam I suspect. Speaking of which, Hawfinch would be just fine.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

A momentary lapse

It had been a wonderful morning on Wanstead Flats - two Short-eared Owls, a couple of Brambling and stacks of other great viz-mig. Then an aberration occurred, and shortly after I found myself looking at this.

From certain vantage points, Wanstead Flats can look pretty amazing.
And then this.


Ok so this isn't Wanstead, or even close to Wanstead. It is in fact Wales, and this is the Rock Thrush that for some reason I was actually a bit miffed I didn't get to see yesterday. This is my first proper twitch since November last year, and confess I really enjoyed it. Apart from the seven hours in the car of course. Unfortunately Wales is a really long way away, but for whatever reason, and being somewhat bloody-minded, I decided that I could bear it for the sake of this bird. Being a total wuss I only left on positive news though, which meant I didn't get there until about 2ish which could have backfired rather badly. However it also meant that I got a decent session on the patch, which netted the two year ticks above and was hugely enjoyable. I did however miss out on two Woodlark shortly after I departed, which caused no end of local chortling. Looking at the above photo, I think I'm fine with it....

Am I restarting twitching? No. I just wanted to do something different, and I wanted a day out. As it happened I got the best of both worlds, and the welsh scenery is nothing short of magnificent. I've seen some birds in god-awful places, and I've seen some birds in some spectacular places. This is right up there with some of the best of them, and apparently only just down the road from where I saw a Marmora's Warbler back in 2010.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Abiding memory of confiding

I nearly considered going on a twitch this weekend. Happily Mrs L was already out so instead I took my daughters swimming whilst all my mates filled their boots with Rock Thrush, so my Saturday is mine again. However it did get me thinking about how I did actually enjoy seeing rare birds a few years ago. I am not sure why this isn’t the case anymore, perhaps it is just because any rarity these days is likely to be a complete scrum. Did twitching become more popular all of a sudden? Or is it that digital photography’s mass appeal has made it to birds? I am not sure, but a twitch these days holds little appeal - as the recent pathetic scenes at a Norfolk PG Tips only served to confirm. I didn’t go and I am glad that I didn’t.

A few years ago however I did go, and I have some fabulous memories that are dominated by the bird and not by out-of-control crowds. The Steppe Grey Shrike in Lincolnshire comes somewhere near to the top of my list. It was a long day – nearly nine years ago now - starting out by driving to Yorkshire. It sounds crazy but looking back it was kind of normal. Anyhow, we had  successfully seen a Two-barred Crossbill on a farm somewhere and having dipped a Pied Wheatear at a Caravan Park near Bempton we were headed back home via what we had heard was another decent bird, a Steppe Grey Shrike. This is a very similar to a Great Grey Shrike (excubitor), but actually falls under the Southern Grey Shrike (meridionalis) group – this one is known as pallidirostis and is a paler version that breeds in Central Asia, a seriously long way away. Back then I don’t think I knew any of this, all I knew was that it was a rare bird, a Shrike, and that I liked both of those things.

We drove through the endless flat landscape of Lincolnshire fields until we found the spot. A few cars were parked up, and a few hundred yard away we could see a small line of birders along the edge of a field. Optics unpacked, I slung my scope and tripod over my shoulder for I was a proper birder back then, and we made our way out to join them. As we came along the muddy margin the bird flew directly towards us, past us, and landed on somebody’s head. Gah!!

It was astonishing, it really was. For the best part of an hour this crazy little bird used people, scopes, tripods, camera bags, you name it, as perches from which to hunt. It had clearly never seen people before and was completely unafraid. I had never seen anything like it, and to this day it probably remains the least wary bird I have ever seen anywhere. I was spellbound and captivated – moments like this are so very very rare, and I knew then I would never forget it. And that holds true today – it is still one of my most fondly remembered birding moments. I’ve seen rarer birds, I’ve seen many Shrikes, but this one is still top of the heap. Being a massive fan of social media, I tweeted out a random photo of it last week and clearly it struck a chord as people from far and wide responded that they too remember the event incredibly clearly.

I've included a couple of photos from the day. Back then I wasn’t really very skilled and did not understand that pointing a camera directly at the sun wouldn’t likely result in a decent picture. Julian Bhalerao however did a far better job, and sent me this photo after the event of the bird perched on my scope with a very youthful looking me behind it.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

I must be dreaming

It has started. Remarkably a couple of days ago saw my first direct photo sale outside of printed publications. Two landscape photos of Wanstead Flats have been requested as prints from the my website, the appropriately-named The one with only birds on it, ahem. They’re of the copses at dawn, and I think they will look rather nice printed up. They’re not going far, the lucky owner seems to be pretty local, which makes sense given the subject matter. I am dead chuffed, this is exactly what I had hoped for. Well, I say that, but a 20m x 20m canvas of a Wheatear to hang from The Shard would have been quite nice…. Anyway. I can’t retire yet is the bottom line, but I am a little bit closer and I am very grateful. Small beginnings and all that.

There are number of other things I am exploring whilst awash with enthusiasm. The first is an exhibition, which despite the outlay could generate some interest and potentially some momentum. I think I have enough images now that are of a sufficiently decent quality to potentially present something rather nice. No gulls obviously. And then the elephant in the room is whether photography tuition is something I might explore? One on one, my full undivided attention for an hour or for a morning on how to get the best out of your camera and the available light locally. Or potentially abroad, where the opportunities for bird photography are far better. I’m lucky/stupid enough to own two prime lenses suitable for bird photography, and I’ve seen first hand the effect that using one of these for the first time has on somebody used to something much smaller. That smile that spreads across their face as they realise that the kind of photos they had dreamed of might actually be possible after all.

Actually perhaps it is me that is dreaming, I have no time for any of this!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

My desired life - you can help!!

I work in a bank. In an ideal world I would not work in a bank, I would spend every single day behind a camera, taking photos of birds, plants, landscapes, cities. Anything but people. I could get quite good I reckon, practice makes perfect and all that. The reason I don't do this and that idealism is not reality is that I would be destitute. Utterly poverty-stricken. Over the years I have perhaps earned a few hundred pounds from bird photography. A couple of magazine covers, a few quarter pages, a handful images in books that more often than not get me a free book. You can't eat books. 

I am not sure how you earn a living wage from photography. I think you have to run tours, have to learn how to put the clueless in situations where they cannot possibly fail. I have not tried, but am not sure I could hack it. It is the stuff of waking nightmares surely? But you have to start somewhere I suppose. So....

For many years now I have had a separate website devoted to galleries of my photos, generally what I consider the cream of what I have taken. I am pretty ruthless as to what makes it on there, and I frequently have a massive self-critique session and cull a few more. No doubt there are a few duffers on there that I am too emotionally attached to to get rid of, but largely I think they represent the best of the last six or seven years of not inconsiderable effort. Taking photographs of birds is not easy, in fact I would put it out there that it is bloody difficult. Sometimes hours of planning fizzle out into nothing and you get up from the mud in depair. Equally sometimes five random minutes can produce something sensational and you have to pinch yourself that it really happened.

Up until now my website has just been galleries - a visual feast for the casual visitor. However I have discovered that there is a free add-on where you can market your work. I've decided to give it a go, nothing ventured and all that. I've spent a bit of time revamping it, uploading far larger files that will reproduce nicely in a variety of formats - most are 4000 pixels wide, that's massive. Now I know that birders are notoriously tight, fine, I accept that. But think about it? Only a small number of people need order a couple of prints and that could be just the start I need. Have you any idea how much my lens cost? It's ridiculous, honestly absurd. Quite how so many people seem to have one I just can't fathom. Anywhere you go and there are tons. Tons that are seeing a poor return on their investment - and I'm not just talking about the ones attached to people who haven't a scooby. I'm talking about mine - it spends almost all of its time in a cupboard gathering dust. It is aching to get out there and earn its keep. Trust me, I do actually know how to use it, and your generosity could allow me to stop working in Canary Wharf and to spend my days fulfilling my destiny. And I need a new camera - mine is five years old and a total wreck. It had a new shutter last year but there is only so much you can do. So, are you looking for Christmas Cards this year? What about a calendar for 2018? A mug? Or - and this is novel - a framed photo of a bird to hang on the wall? If you are, please visit the link below and go wild. My dreams thank you.