Wednesday 26 December 2018

Top ten bird images from 2018

I managed to whittle a long list of 36 down to just ten, and of course now I am anxious that I have not picked the best ten. As if I don't have important things to worry about... On the plus side I have kept more images this year than last, 390 vs 320, so that is a move in the right direction. If you recall this time last year I bemoaned the fact that I had taken fewer decent photos than the previous year. The year prior to that I did exactly the same! Pleasingly I have somehow in 2018 managed to stop the rot, though I am not sure how as I felt I was far less productive. From the top ten there are four from Bulgaria and Romania, three from Costa Rica, and one each from Oman, Florida and Wanstead, which pretty neatly describes my photographic year. Let's start close to home.

I undertook almost no photography in Wanstead this year. In fact that probably goes for the whole of the UK. To those that consistently manage to take decent bird photographs in this country, hats off to you. Living in London does not help, but I have driven enough miles now only to arrive at scenes from hell that you won’t find me contributing to any UK weekly roundups. I want no part of it, bird photography in the south-east of England is a sadly lost cause to me. Maybe if I lived in Scotland things would be different, but here there are simply too many people with cameras converging on the same places and the same birds. I photograph birds for pleasure, not to get into a bun fight or to become embroiled in an internet flame war. This is why the remaining nine of these ten images were taken abroad where peace, quiet and solitude are all still achievable. This Stonechat is the rare exception, and I am still intensely grateful to the local birder who saw me attempting to close the distance and didn’t come over to see what was going on or have a chat. For me it is a facing-away head turn that makes this image, it is one of my favourite poses of all.

This White-collared Manakin was a complete grab shot whilst heading across La Selva OTS in Costa Rica to bird one of their forest trails. Somehow I fluked both the backlighting and the exposure, and it  turned out to be one of my most pleasing images from the trip for its simplicity. It looks like a complete set-up, a nice branch, a dark background, directional lighting etc, but it is nothing of the kind. At the time I was just pleased to have seen it as Bob had seen one earlier!

I don’t think I really knew why Lesser Violetear was so named. Then I took this. Like the photo above there are more than a few elements of fluke about it, sometimes notable images can be just that, but I was delighted as I did not even know this was a thing. Amazing, and on such a tiny bird too. The sharpness of this image also shows what the equipment is capable of resolving – you ask yourself why ALL your images don’t exhibit this level of detail! I knew even nine months ago that this image was going to feature in my year end review.

Costa Rica was a birding trip. I took my camera but did not expect to create the sort of situations that I know contribute to decent photos. Although the birding was full-on there were brief opportunities for photography, most often after lunch when the birding would have been slower. Of course I was slower too, and the light was pretty dreadful, but nonetheless I found some decent situations around the feeders that were generally a feature of all the places we stayed. Most of the time the perches were sub-optimal, but by concentrating on some of the nearby plants you could get a more natural looking image. Of these, this Talamanca Hummingbird stands out.

Mick and I split up and headed across the Omani desert scrub in search of birds. The sun had just risen over Al Hadd and the light was stunning. As ever the question was whether we could find subjects in the short time available in order to make the most of it. Mick did, and discovered that this Desert Wheatear was so photogenic that he had to drive up the road and get me so that I could enjoy it too. Even though I have tons of images of this species I simply cannot resist them. It perched on a rusty bit of dead machinery, the window of an abandoned car, and then this pleasing twig, but never stayed still for long preferring to be on the ground feeding.

The plains of Balgarevo are founded on a rich red soil. This supports many grasses and flowers, so for the most part the available backgrounds are green. However the steppe here is criss-crossed by tracks, and if you can somehow get in a position where you are looking straight down one of these you can ensure the background to your photo captures that deep ochre. Whilst photographing a Tawny Pipit on the ground I sensed the opportunity and shifted myself and my camera a few feet to my right so as to be able to look straight down a tyre rut. Luckily the bird remained there. I have the same photo in green, but much prefer this one.
I had a Collared Pratincole image in my mind before I travelled. If I am honest this is not quite it but I worked very hard for this and came away pleased. I would like the background to be more blown, and the bird to be sharper, but overall I can't complain too much. On the day my fieldcraft was lousy and the birds were not very cooperative. And the mosquitoes were unbelievable! 

Like the last two images this was also taken on my trip to Romania and Bulgaria with Mick, and was shot from the car window opposite a Syrian Woodpecker nest hole we had been given information on. The tree was on one side of a driveway, and the grey background is the wall of the house. We positioned the car on the other side of the road and staked it out. Sure enough the bird came in, albeit that it was very very nervous, eventually coming to the hole with a huge grub. It had been described to us as an abandoned house, so we were very surprised when shortly afterwards somebody rolled up and reversed their car into the drive! The bird scarpered, and so that one brief moment with the grub turned out to be the only one. Looking at the images on the back of the camera we knew we had done well!

Back in 2012 I spent four days on a whirlwind tour of eastern Bulgaria with a few friends. It was not a photography trip and whilst I managed a few record shots time was not on my side. For this repeat visit six years later photography was the sole reason for travelling. Sites previously visited were earmarked for more time, and one of those was Lake Durankulak which is just south of the Romanian border. This is a well-known site for Paddyfield Warbler and so on the first available morning we went there for first light. It was golden, absolutely perfect, but also blowing a stiff breeze. This caused the monopod-mounted lens – particularly the large hood - to act like a sail and swing wildly back and forth on the single point of pivot. Add to that the reeds going in all directions, and the general reluctance of the birds to ascend and sing in these conditions, as well as all the usual problems of trying to get close enough to a small bird and you can see why I have included this in my top ten!

 I had wasted the morning light on day one of my recent Florida trip, and was not expecting a midday grab shot of this Tricoloured Heron to have any promise whatsoever. However when tightly cropped to get rid of distracting elements it’s actually rather nice. A feature of almost all the birds in Florida is that they are incredibly tame and with today’s megapixels even the very centre of a frame can generate an image that is easily good enough for the web.


  1. Excellent. None of mine would have made it into your top 100 probably but I'm happy looking at yours! Merry Christmas.

  2. Pretty damn good. What’s the story on the lens problem you mentioned a while back?