Monday, 8 May 2017

Answer: "It's a Tele Vue."

Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

The question being, typically: "What's that on the end of your camera?"

As the name of this blog suggests, I do most of my photography with a telescope - a Tele Vue-60 refractor to be precise. What it lacks in autofocus and aperture control it more than makes up for in sharpness and colour correction. It's compact and portable and it doesn't need to be stopped down to hit the sharpness sweet spot. Recently Tele Vue embraced the world of social media and - as part of their ongoing 40th anniversary celebration - they asked if they could feature me on their new blog, in particular why I chose the TV60 and why I've stuck with it over the years. You can read the resulting post here:

Three scopes in one: astro-scope, spotting scope and telephoto lens

Astronomers of course need no introduction to Tele Vue, but for those who don't know, they're a Chester, New York-based company founded in 1977 by Al Nagler. Prior to that Al designed lunar landing simulators for the Apollo missions, using his knowledge of optics to create realistic wide-field vistas to aid the astronauts' training.

Tele Vue started out making lenses for large projection-screen televisions, but they've since become renowned for their high-quality eyepieces and telescopes. If you ever get the chance to look through one of Tele Vue's wide-field eyepieces, I highly recommend it. They call it the "spacewalk" experience and with good reason: if, like me, you started out in astronomy squinting through a cheap and cheerful 0.965" eyepiece, the difference is startling. When looking through a Nagler it's as if the eyepiece "gets out of the way", leaving you immersed in the stars (or suspended above the moon if lunar observing is your thing). And if the 82-degree apparent field-of-view of a Nagler isn't enough for you, they also do an Ethos range, which goes up to a whopping 100 degrees.

In the interests of fairness and transparency I should point out that:

a) Other telescopes and eyepieces are available
b) I was not offered any incentive by Tele Vue (financial or otherwise) to contribute to their blog or write this post. I'm just a proud TV-60 owner and I wouldn't dream of parting with it.

See also:
Tele Vue home page
My TV-60 photos on Flickr

Sunday, 8 January 2017

A few thoughts on Google's Nik Collection

Back in March, Google made the entire Nik Collection photo-editing suite available as a free download. Despite my initial scepticism (and wariness of filters that claim to replicate the "look" of film), I have to admit - now that I've been using it for a few months - it is actually really good and serves as a helpful complement to Photoshop. The Control Point technology is particularly useful for carrying out localised enhancements, saving a lot of time compared to manually creating masks.

Selective sharpening using colour range masking

Of course, no amount of software wizardry can turn a bad photo into a good photo, but with a little care you can get some interesting results, as shown below. (Note: my photo-editing steps are usually a lot more subtle than this. I provide these photos as examples because it's easier to see the difference.)

Move your mouse across the images to see them as they appeared before processing. Most of these results were achieved using Color Efex Pro, but the first image (the helicopter over the house) was enhanced using Silver Efex Pro to create a High Dynamic black-and-white luminosity layer.

Helicopter at North Foreland, April 2016 

Stodmarsh Hobby, May 2016

Bright Wake on a Dark Sea, November 2016

Common Tern, May 2016

Stodmarsh NNR, June 2016

The complete Google Nik Collection suite is available at:
It works best as a Photoshop plugin (under the Filter menu), but you can also run each application as a standalone program if you create short-cuts to the individual .exe files.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Birds of Ramsgate Harbour

Given that one of the attractions of going out with the camera is to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a busy harbour wouldn't normally be my first choice of destination. However, a visit to Ramsgate during the winter months may occasionally provide close-up views of certain sea-bird species which, while not being particularly rare, are more usually seen as distant specks flying above the waves.


This Red-throated Diver, photographed in November 2014, visited Ramsgate at a time when the harbour was getting a bit of a reputation for being a Diver graveyard. It wasn't feeding and the only time I saw it do anything other than float listlessly was when it was being harassed by a seal.

Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) 

The R-TD eventually disappeared (almost certainly perished), but this Great Northern Diver, which arrived at Ramsgate the following winter, was in a much healthier condition. During its long residence it demonstrated that the harbour is home to a surprising variety of fish and crabs (at least, it was until the Diver ate them).

Eider (Somateria mollissima) 

This female Eider (a sturdy sea-duck usually seen bobbing up and down a long way offshore) visited the harbour in January 2016. It paddled in, spent about half an hour looking around, diving, and flapping its wings, and then it paddled out again. Fortunately I happened to be in the right place at the right time (for once).

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) 

Although you can't see it from this angle, this Shag, photographed in November 2016, is sporting a blue colour ring (letters AUR). As reported by Scott Haughie, it was ringed on Staple Island up in the Farnes in June and made its way south to Ramsgate (other sightings from the scheme have been in Holland).

Guillemot (Uria aalge)

The Collins Guide says of auks: "Most commonly seen at coasts during and after gales", and so it proved with this little Guillemot, which took shelter in the harbour after Storm Angus had swept through the Channel.

Sea-going species aren't the only birds that make Ramsgate their home during winter. If you're lucky you may spot one of the local kingfishers, as documented by Keith Ross.

See also:
More of my photos from Ramsgate Harbour (Flickr)
Keith Ross's Video Channel (YouTube)

Friday, 17 June 2016

Birds of East Kent: Peregrine Falcon

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent.

Beady Eye

The peregrine makes its presence felt long before you see it: a dead pigeon lies on its back on a windswept beach, its wings spread and its breastbone stripped of meat; a golfer notices your camera and calls out to tell you that you "just missed a peregrine"; fulmars cackle their disapproval as a crossbow-shaped shadow glides over their nests and across the cliff-face. You walk and you walk until finally you see a hunched, powerful-looking bird poised on an outcrop of flint. On the beach below a man is walking his dog, blissfully unaware of the apex predator right above his head, but when you peer through the lens you see that the peregrine is looking at you, not the dog or its owner. A peregrine sees everything and misses nothing. It spotted you the moment you stepped into its field of view, and now that it knows you're looking at it, the peregrine alone will decide how close you will be allowed to get.

Peregrine Falcon

Thanks to works like J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, the eponymous falcon enjoys a near-mythical status unmatched perhaps by any other British bird. Baker's account (I can't really call it a memoir since the author effectively excises himself from the narrative) condenses a decade's worth of observations into a single year, a structural choice which also has the effect of condensing his patient study of the peregrine into a singularly obsessive quest. Reading it, you're left in little doubt that Baker - short-sighted and afflicted with a rare and rather unpleasant form of arthritis (I speak from experience on the latter) - wishes he were a peregrine himself:

Free! You cannot know what freedom means till you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light. Along the escarpments of the river air he rose with martial motion. Like a dolphin in green seas, like an otter in the startled water, he poured through deep lagoons of sky up to the high white reefs of cirrus.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Like dark chocolate, Baker's dense, synaesthetic prose is probably best savoured in small chunks. And yet, for all the linguistic fireworks on display, the narrative is tinged with a wistful, elegiac tone. Baker had good reason to be pessimistic; at the time he wrote his book the peregrine was in serious decline - its numbers ravaged by persecution and pesticides.

But for once, the story has a happy postscript (albeit one that Baker himself didn't live to see). Peregrine Falcons have enjoyed a spectacular resurgence and you can now see them right across the country, repopulating urban environments as well as their more traditional hunting grounds. If you live near a cathedral or a high chalk cliff, there's a good chance you also live near a peregrine. And when you see one for yourself you'll understand why these majestic birds inspire such reverential prose.

See also:
More of my Peregrine photos on Flickr
Keith Ross's YouTube channel (includes a series of short films on the Ramsgate Peregrines)
Peregrine Falcon (RSPB)
Peregrine Falcon (Birdforum)
Peregrine Falcon (Birdguides)

Friday, 8 April 2016

Oare Marshes

Grey Heron in Flight

Alternative Title: A long overdue write-up of a long overdue trip 

The Oare Marshes KWT reserve is a bit further afield than my usual haunts, but I fancied a change of scene and so I took advantage of a warm March day to pay my first visit. The walk from Faversham station is actually quite pleasant if you don't mind a bit of a trek, but it seems a lot of the visiting photographers/birders park along the road that runs through the middle of the reserve, get the required photos/ticks, and then drive off to the next location - sometimes without even leaving their cars! Such is the accelerated and competitive nature of modern life, but you'll forgive me if I prefer a more sedate approach.

Pintail (Anas acuta)

The reserve is quite contained; you can walk all the way around it a lot quicker than, say, the extended Grove Ferry/Stodmarsh circuit. I must have walked round it one-and-a-half times while I was there - perhaps more if you factor in the distance I covered trailing after the mixed flock of Goldfinches and Lesser Redpolls:

Lesser Redpolls (Carduelis cabaret)

For those who wish to give their feet a rest, there are three hides on the reserve. On the day I visited they were all in pretty good condition. They also happened to be completely empty, which is not entirely surprising given that a) there were no birds anywhere near them, and b) they were facing directly into the wind - which made for an eye-watering experience. Fortunately most of the highlight species could be seen quite easily from the viewing points along the road, including this uncharacteristically obliging Water Rail:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

I don't generally keep lists, but on this occasion I jotted down all the birds I'd seen and heard (written that same evening, from memory). I counted forty-one different species, which were - for those who are interested in such things - as follows: Avocet, Bearded Tit, Blackbird, Black-headed Gull, Black-tailed Godwit, Blue Tit, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Cetti's Warbler, Coot, Curlew, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Green Woodpecker, Grey Heron, Greylag Goose, Herring Gull, Lesser Redpoll, Little Egret, Little Grebe, Magpie, Mallard, Marsh Harrier, Meadow Pipit, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, Pintail, Redshank, Reed Bunting, Robin, Shelduck, Shoveler, Skylark, Snipe, Starling, Teal, Tufted Duck, Water Rail, and Wood Pigeon.

Not bad for a first visit, though having read subsequent reports it's possible that I may have walked past a Little Owl without spotting it. Sounds like a good excuse for a return trip...

See also:
More of my photos from Oare Marshes
Oare Marshes (Kent Wildlife Trust)
Oare Marshes Latest Sightings (KOS)

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Birds of East Kent: Curlew

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Curlews in April
Hang their harps over the misty valleys

A wobbling water-call
A wet-footed god of the horizons

Ted Hughes, "Curlews", Remains of Elmet (1979)

What's your favourite bird song? Probably the first birds that spring to mind are Robins or Skylarks (or even a Nightingale if you've been lucky enough to hear one), but for me there are few sounds more evocative in English nature than the fluting call of a Curlew echoing over a mudflat or across a fog-shrouded beach. It has something of a plaintive quality to it, which is perhaps appropriate as the Curlew is now sadly on the UK's Red List due to severe declines in its breeding population.

In the winter at least there are still plenty to see around the coast as the numbers are bolstered by European visitors. In my little corner of the country, they're a common sight at low tide, probing for food with their unmistakable long bills on the seaweed-covered rocks. At high tide you'll often find them sheltering in one of the communal roosts between Foreness and Kingsgate Bay, protected by the cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. You may also spot them on the fields near the North Foreland lighthouse, or flying in loose flocks close to the shore:

Flight of the Curlews

With regards to photography they don't tolerate people as much as the other local seaside birds like Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers, but as they're Britain's largest wader you don't need to be that close to get a good shot. Best advice is to approach very slowly, keep low if possible, and always be ready for that dramatic take-off:

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

And of course, that amazing song.

See also:
More of my Curlew photos on Flickr
Curlew (RSPB)
Curlew (Birdforum)
Curlew (Birdguides)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Two Days in the Camargue

Portrait of a Flamingo

As much as I love writing, if there was one thing I dreaded at school it was having to complete the "What I did on my holiday" essay. So, rather than bore you with every detail, I'm going to boil the trip down to its essentials (i.e. what I anticipate visitors to this blog would want to know about) and let the pictures do most of the talking. If you have any questions not covered by the ones given below then please use the comments section and I will do my best to answer them - though bear in mind that I'm more of a "photographer who happens to shoot birds" than a "birder who happens to have a camera". The object of the trip was not to track down the rarest species, but to have a good time and hopefully get some decent photos along the way. It's also worth noting that the Camargue is B-I-G; two days really only allows time for a whistle-stop tour, but you could easily spend a week there and still only scratch the surface.

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Quick question: Was it worth it?
Quick answer: Absolutely, yes!

Did you have a guidebook to the region?
Most of the guidebooks I could find for sale are a few years out of date, but there is a free booklet online which proved to be extremely useful. It contains maps, species lists, and much more. The English-language version is available via this link:

Where to watch birds in the Camargue Regional Nature Park - France (PDF)

Using Arles as a base, we visited four of the eleven sites listed, as well as the very pretty - and very touristy - town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Fortified Church

So what's the big deal about the mistral?
The mistral is a wind, but it's not like any wind you'll experience in England. When it decides to blow it will do so all day - at the same speed and in the same direction - and it won't ease off until the sun goes down. The Camargue is mostly flat, so there aren't many places you can shelter from it. A light, windproof jacket is recommended.

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

What else should I take?
Sun cream and insect repellent. Make sure you carry plenty of drinking water too; even in September the temperatures can reach the high twenties.

Red Dragon

Best place to go to photograph birds?
There may well be other reserves (that we didn't have time to visit) within the Camargue that provide a similar experience, but if you want to see the key species of the region at close quarters and get photos "in the bank", so to speak, then the Pont de Gau bird sanctuary is the place to go. As well as the famous flamingos, we saw, among other things, grey herons, little egrets, cattle egrets, spotted redshanks, black-tailed godwits, avocets, black-winged stilts, spoonbills, and a sacred ibis (below). Admittedly, with the exception of the flamingos and the ibis, these are all species you can see in England with increasing regularity, but probably not all in one place, and certainly not within a few feet of the viewing hide.

Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)

Recommended eating?
All three of the restaurants we visited in Arles were good, but the Restaurant Le Plaza La Pailotte was exceptional. I had the duck breast (don't tell the wildfowl!) and it was, quite simply, one of the finest meals I've ever had. (And no, I didn't take a photo of my food.)

Rue Porte de Laure

Other highlights that you can't convey in a photograph?
Bats flying above the Rhone at sunset, the strangely soothing background noise of insects (presumably crickets) chirping at night, stumbling upon a bizarre tractor parade in Arles on Saturday evening, still being able to feel the lingering warmth of the sun and the force of the mistral on my face long after the sun had gone down, the sheer physical and historical presence of the Arles Roman Amphitheatre (below), waking up early to see Sirius shining higher in the sky than I've ever seen it before, and of course a welcome reminder that you can't beat a genuine French baguette.

Arles Amphitheatre

Anything else worth knowing?
The SatNav on the rental car was, unsurprisingly, in French. After some fumbling we found the option screen to change the language. English was not one of the available languages. Fortunately, if you know your gauche from your droite, you should be able to cope.

Finally, special thanks must go to my friends Mark, for his organisational and driving skills, and to Tony, for his near-supernatural ability to liken almost any situation to an episode of the old TV show Only Fools and Horses.

See more of my photos from the Camargue and Arles on Flickr.