At the end of last year I had some good luck with Hawfinches in the garden (see blog post from December 2017). But shortly after their visits became less regular and with spring upon us I thought that my chance to improve upon the shots already bagged was unlikely. But noooooooo!!! Just at the end of March more opportunities presented themselves. I now have 5 (!!!) coming to the garden, including a couple of gorgeous bright individuals.
So it was back under the Lenscoat hide! And what a treat I received.
These images really show off an unusual feature of their plumage - the ends of the glossy blue-black secondaries (I think, although it could be inner primaries?) are bizarrely shaped. Despite searching the web I couldn't find any definitive explanation for the curious shape, although some literature suggests they may have some significance in courtship.
Shooting data: all images taken with Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm ISII and 1.4 extender. Aperture f/7.1 or f/8 and a shutter speed of around 1600. ISO either 1250 or 1600.
Post processing: raw conversion to TIFF using DPP, then PS with MacPhun/Intensify for fine detail and finally selective sharpening with Nik Output sharpener applied around the eye, feather edges where the colour changes (mostly on the head and neck/nape), bill edge and legs.
This winter has been notable for the frequency of visits by certain finches. I've already posted about Hawfinch and this time it's the turn of the Siskin to take centre stage. They are a rather smart, delicate, finch that in the past has been a very rare visitor to the garden with only the odd one perched briefly in a tree or flying overhead. However, this winter there's been a small flock coming sporadically to the feeders -- which translates into getting under the LensCoat portable hide (aka one large camo blanket) and sitting by the feeder for hours.
Once the birds found the feeders the next step was to encourage them onto settings that were, well, not on the feeder itself.
The first obvious opportunity off the feeder was underneath, but birds on grass, are, well, not very interesting. I mean take a look at the image below. It's nice enough as a photo, and a cracking male Siskin. But let's be honest, grass as a scene is, well, boring with a capital "B"!
And while I'm being critical, the light's somewhere off to the left side - note that the right-hand half of the bird is in shadow. This individual just kept hopping closer and closer to the blind, and as it got closer it moved to my right, and hence the poor sun angle (when compared to my position relative to the feeder).
Next to the feeder used to be a mature sycamore, some 50 ft or so in height, towering over the back of the house. This tree fell a couple of months ago (narrowly missing the house - phew!) and what's now left are a handful of small stumps. In the clean up process these were rather over zealously pruned, leaving me with a couple of featureless perches, and providing, as beautifully illustrated in the next image, bird on stick, or more precisely, bird on big stick.
Bird on stick = also BORING, although a (small) step up from bird on grass.
I'm not one for routinely messing with perches and so forth, but when in the garden I feel I can afford myself a little latitude - the birds are already attracted by seed, so a little creativity with the environment around the feeder seems ok.
Although we have a large garden, improving the photographic opportunities and getting birds off the feeders didn't require anything too elaborate. Birds are like labrador puppies - award them and they will (if you wait long enough) come and use the perch you provide, although they will also stand on the ones just out of site, or behind a twig or somehow hide from view. So one tip is to minimise the number of perch options with a little selective pruning.
All I did to improve the photographic options was move a couple of moss and ivy covered logs that were lying around the garden and place them under the feeder. In the end, I had the remnants of the sycamore tree and a couple of moss covered logs. These were obligingly used by the Siskins, which takes me nicely to my two favourites - one of a smart male, sporting its black crown and bib, and then a less colourful streaky female.
In the first, the male Siskin is perched on what's left of the fallen sycamore. The white out of focus circles are hail. The hail shower was super light and blowing around all over the place - simply too erratic to work with slow shutter speeds (for streaky snow) - so I went fast to freeze them. Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/1600 @ f/6.3, ISO 1600.
And in the final shot, the female is perched on one of the old logs I'd simply positioned under the feeder. This Siskin spent most of its time hopping around on the ground, but for a few brief seconds it hopped up onto the log. Of course there were a few sunflower seeds strategically placed just out of view, to encourage such action. Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/1250 @ f/6.3, ISO 1600.
What do I like about these two? Well, a couple of aspects that I think are worth mentioning - background and head turn:
* Background: both images have a clean, out of focus, and light coloured background. This is not by chance. I've positioned myself under my camo blind exactly where these two elements come together. Due to the natural contours in the garden, the ground falls away behind the logs and stump, putting the background further away and ensuring it remains nicely OOF, even at f/6.3. This is all part of the planning.
* Head turn: with perched birds I find that a slight turn of the head towards the camera is often an extremely important element to nail. The male's is good, but in fairness the female is closer to parallel than I'd like, although still not bad. This is all about timing. Little birds are nervous eaters, continually looking out for predators (neighbour's cat, Sparrowhawk), turning their head one way then the other. So I only press the shutter when they turn towards the camera. In practice, I'm often predicting the head turn, as it can be so brief that they turn towards you, and then turn back before you can react. Whilst fps help, it's actually being aware of this behaviour and depressing the shutter at the right moment that's key. Also, when under the blind I'm using silent mode at 5fps (the chatter of 14 fps will spook some birds).
For some final reflections, Siskins are not classically ground feeders, and so what I'm missing is a classic "Siskin feeding on a thin alder or birch twig" shot. There are some aspects of a shot that epitomise a bird's habitat, character and/or behaviour, and those to me are richer images. To get that shot in the garden will require dipping further into perch set-up than I typically like, although I'm not totally against giving it a go.
Hawfinch is never an easy bird to see, being particularly wary, but this year has seen unusual numbers of this elusive finch across parts of Europe. In the UK The British Trust for Ornithology saw a 12% increase in observations submitted to their online system BirdTrack. They were popping up everywhere, and in good numbers. Even the media found this a worthy story to cover, with articles appearing up in tabloids, broadsheets and local papers.
And that story has certainly being repeated here in Switzerland. I see them periodically in the local woods, but this past few months they've been popping up all over the place -- I've seen them while walking to the shops and even while waiting for the train. But best of all has been a couple of birds that have become regular visitors to the garden giving cracking views and photo opportunities! My wife is ever amused by my habit off disappearing into the garden and hiding under my portable camo-hide (Lenscoat LensHide), but you certainly need it for a bird like this. Silent mode on the shutter release also a must if you don't want to spook the bird.
Sporting a predominantly rusty-brown/buff plumage with accents of black and grey, massive bill and large head, this is one smart bird. Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/320 @ f/5.6, ISO 2500. Nice head turn - take a read of my article Head Games on how a good head turn can really make a shot - but shame the feet are just hidden from view.
And WHAT a beak - this bird truly is the avian "nutcracker"! Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/500 @ f/5.6, ISO 2000.
WOW!!! DOUBLE WOW!!!! If you want an experience like no other then take a tandem paragliding flight. And yes, it's a break from wildlife photography, but maybe next time we'll get to fly with some birds (on occasion an eagle does drift by!!).
The entire flight was AMAZING. The video (GoPro on a selfie stick) is just a glimpse of how amazing the flight was, but it doesn't even get close to what the experience feels like. Words simply don't do the experience justice, but that hasn't stopped me from talking about it for days!!!
I can't recommend Wing over Chamonix enough. Everything was highly professional, smoothly executed, and just damn fun. Put this on your "must do" list and take a flight with Olivier - it will take your breath taken away! Oh, and stump up the extra for an XXL flight (45 minutes - 1 hour, weather depending) - worth every penny/cent!
For further information, contact Olivier Laugero at Wing over Chamonix.
Where: Chamonix (1 hour drive from Geneva airport)
Launch: Plan de L'Aiguille (first stop on the Aiguille du Midi cable car).
Parking: there's a large car park just before you enter Chamonix, which is only a 5 minute walk from the start of the cable car.
There are a number of birds that can be found in the Swiss Alps that are quite simply "blow your socks off cool". Lammergeier, also known as Bearded Vulture or even Bone Crusher, is one of those! This is a big bird (not yellow!!), with a wingspan of somewhere over 2.5 metres (which dwarfs something like a Golden Eagle). It is truly magnificent and in adult/sub-adult plumage, true to its name, it sports a little goatie beard!!
Classified by BirdLife International as Near Threatened, a successful reintroduction programme, started back in 1986, with the first wild hatched birds occurring in 1997, has established a healthy population in the Alps. Current population estimate is 200+ individuals in the Alps, while globally no more than 6,700 mature individuals (BirdLife Data Zone species fact sheet).
With a little luck, only a couple of hours drive from Geneva, you can get jaw-dropping views of this stunning bird while surrounded by the splendour of the Alps. Now you of course need heaps of patience - during a stint of 7-8 hours on a mountain pass you may only get one or two viewings. And then it's a bit of a lottery as to whether or not the bird flies close enough, on the right trajectory and in the right light. But when they do appear, and they "behave", then wow!! Bearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland
I've been living in Switzerland now for 7 months, and Bearded Vulture is definitely becoming one of my favourite alpine birds to photograph. I have a 1Dx Mkii mounted on a tripod and attached to the 600mm + 1.4 extender, and a 7DMkii with the 100-400mm II slung over the shoulder. The latter provides a really potent combination for when the birds are close - the two images above are both full frame and taken with the 7D Mkii and 100-400mm II combo. Bearded Vulture (4th year), Valais, Switzerland
Above is a 4th year/sub adult - not quite as majestic as a full adult but still an imposing bird as it flies by.
For those interested in AF settings, for birds in flight I find tracking sensitivity especially important. This controls whether the active AF point will stay "locked on" the subject or quickly switch focus if the focus point moves off the subject, such as to something in the foreground or background, as may happen if I fail to keep the AF points on the subject at all times. I set this to -2. i.e. stay "locked on" and don't switch focus to the background/foreground too quickly, together with AF Area Selection set to AF Point Expansion, either 4 or 8 point. My tracking skills are something I'm forever striving to improve and I have to remind myself to pan "through" the bird to avoid it getting ahead in the viewfinder. The telltale sign that I'm panning too slowly is that in a sequence of shots the subject increasingly gets closer to the leading edge of the image. Bearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland
And whilst the frame-filling fly-bys (is that Maverick and Goose!!??) with clear blue skies give you great bang for your buck, I'm a big fan of "habitat" shots, giving a sense of place. Bearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland
Hanging out at the mountain pass is a wonderful way to spend a day. And if the vultures are not putting on a show, then you will be entertained by the ever present Alpine Choughs, and with luck another two bird specialties of the Alps: Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch. Alpine Accentor, Valais, Switzerland White-winged Snowfinch, Valais, Switzerland And while waiting for your target bird, the "office" view isn't so bad (pano with iPhone 6s)!
If you're interested in a custom workshop photographing these avian wonders and polishing your bird in flight skills, then send me a message.
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