Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Birds of East Kent: Purple Sandpiper

The second 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.

Purple Sandpiper
Viking Bay, Broadstairs, November 2011

According to the RSPB website, Purple Sandpipers are supposed to be scarce south of Yorkshire, which perhaps explains why some local photographers have been known to risk life and limb (and their camera gear) clambering over wet rocks just to get a photo of one of these birds. However, despite what official sources say, Purple Sandpipers can in fact be found along the Thanet coastline every winter, with the stretch between Stone Bay and Dumpton Gap being a good area to get close-up shots of them. The photo above was taken from the relative comfort (and safety) of Broadstairs jetty.

Often described as "dumpy little waders" in the guidebooks, Purple Sandpipers are slightly smaller and not as bold as the more plentiful Turnstones with whom they share their winter haunts. Their propensity for skulking under the jetty, or creeping furtively along the seawall while picking at the seaweed-covered stone makes them easy to overlook unless you're actively seeking them out.

Distinctive features include a downcurved beak and mustard-coloured legs. The purple sheen that gives them their name is less obvious, but if the light hits them at the right angle, it shows up quite well:

Purple Sandpipers
Broadstairs, February 2010

Don't dismiss these "dumpy" birds; under the right conditions, they can be very photogenic.

See also:
More of my Purple Sandpiper photos on Flickr
Purple Sandpiper (RSPB)
Purple Sandpiper (Birdforum)

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Ocean of Storms

Oceanus Procellarum

At first glance Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms) appears to be one of the less interesting regions of the Moon, presenting to the casual observer nothing more than a vast, monotonous plain of dark grey lava, dotted with the occasional impact crater. But look closer and you'll find evidence of ancient volcanism on a huge scale, unlike anywhere else on the lunar surface.

Here's a 100% crop showing the Aristarchus plateau - an diamond-shaped block of uplifted terrain dominated by the dazzling crater Aristarchus and the 160 km-long Schröter's Valley:

Easily visible in a small telescope, the valley is the largest and perhaps most dramatic example of a lunar rille, a sinuous channel cut (a very long time ago) by fast-flowing lava.

Follow the terminator south and you come to the Marius Hills, a complex of some 300 volcanic domes and hills that - through a small telescope - look like pimples on the lunar surface:

Lunar Orbiter 2 photographed the complex from an oblique angle, giving an idea of the relative height of the domes, and a few decades later the Japanese SELENE/Kaguya mission discovered an intriguing dark pit in the area (shown here in a high-resolution image taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter).

Incidentally, if you move your mouse over the cropped images you can compare the finished versions with one of the original photos, illustrating the dramatic improvement that image-stacking can make to lunar photography.

See also:
Procellarum: The Biggest Basin?
Shooting the Moon: Lunar Photography with a DSLR and a Small Refractor

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Reflex Action

I recall reading somewhere that photographers fall into one of three groups; those who delight in telling you what their camera/lens combination can do (but never get round to doing it themselves), those who delight in telling you what your camera/lens combination can't do, and the rest of us who just get on with it and take the photos.

If you've been following this blog you'll know that I take almost all of my wildlife photos using a small portable telescope mounted directly to a DSLR, thus getting the benefits of an apochromatic lens built to astronomical standards (while also having the option of popping in a diagonal and an eyepiece and using it as a conventional scope). Now I'm the first one to admit that this method has its disadvantages (namely: no autofocus, no aperture control, and no image-stabilisation), but that hasn't stopped some keyboard warriors from confidently reeling off lists of things that such telescopes are supposedly no good for, with "small birds in flight" ranking high on their chart of photographic no-nos.

So with that sage advice in mind, clearly I should give up all thoughts of trying to photograph Sand Martins popping in and out of their burrows like winged champagne corks...

Sand Martin changeover

I should also stop entertaining fanciful notions of catching a Swift screaming through the summer sky...

Swift (Apus apus)

I really should abandon hope of trying to photograph a freewheeling House Martin gearing up for the autumn migration...

House Martin (Delichon urbica)

And I shouldn't even dream of trying to catch a low-flying Swallow hurtling across a windswept beach...

Low-flying Swallow

See also:
More "things in flight" photographed with a Tele Vue-60 and a DSLR.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Birds of East Kent: Black Redstart

This is the first of 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.

Black Redstart
Black Redstart (male), Broadstairs, February 2010

The Black Redstart seems like a good place to start this series, as it was one of the birds that first tempted me into the realm of wildlife photography. Back in March 2005, after stumbling upon the Planet Thanet website (currently dormant, sadly), I saw a report of a Black Redstart - a bird I'd never knowingly seen before - along the coast not far from where I lived. The next day I wandered down with my binoculars, fully expecting it to have moved on, but it was still there and I got some terrific views of it flitting around. Inevitably, my mind turned to thoughts of what a great photo it would have made. This idea lingered in the back of my head through the summer until finally, a chance encounter with a cuckoo convinced me (to paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws) that I was gonna need a bigger lens.

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
Black Redstart (female), Kingsgate, March 2009

I've seen at least six Black Redstarts since that first encounter in 2005, but most of those sightings have been from a distance, with me standing at the base of a cliff while the bird flies to the top, or me watching from the top of the cliff as it disappears over the side. The few times I've been able to get one within range, it's either been half-hidden in shadow or between me and the sun.

All that changed however, when Barry Hunt's spectacular Eastern Black Redstart arrived in Margate for a week-long stay.

Eastern Black Redstart
Eastern Black Redstart, Palm Bay, Margate, November 2011

I generally avoid "twitching" (I'd rather get a close-up photo of a common bird than a distant, blurry photo of a rare bird), but when a bird this handsome (and confiding) shows up in your neighbourhood, you've got to make the effort to go and see it. And, as all those who were there will remember, the EBR didn't disappoint, going about its business completely unperturbed by the array of big lenses pointing at it. Now if only I could find a "regular" Black Redstart that was as cooperative, I'd get the photo I've been after since 2005...

See also:
More of my Black Redstart photos on Flickr
Black Redstart (RSPB)
Black Redstart (Birdforum)
UK400 article on Eastern Black Redstarts

Monday, 10 September 2012


As beautiful as the Kent countryside and its surrounding coastline is, you know that wherever you go, you're never too far away from a road or a housing estate or an out-of-town shopping centre. It's still possible to get lost, but you can never get truly lost, and there are certainly no uncharted territories to speak of - the kind that medieval mapmakers used to populate with dragons and other mythical creatures. (Though if there were an uncharted region on the map of South East England, you can be sure that someone from the current government would try and put a runway on it.)

The thought of hundreds of shoppers dropping their bags and running in terror as a dragon wheels in the skies over the Westwood Cross is a strangely comforting one (well, to me at least), but in the absence of fire-breathing dragons, we have to make do with their insect counterparts. And judging by the number of dragonfly photos I've seen on Flickr recently, I think it's safe to say it's been a pretty good summer for dragonflies (and their damselfly cousins).

Over the last few months, at just one modest-sized pond in Canterbury, I've seen dragonflies of all different sizes and colours, including red ones:

Red on Green ones:

Broad-bodied Chaser

...yellow ones:

Broad-bodied Chaser

...and hawkers with colour schemes worthy of a Formula 1 car:


On reflection, perhaps it's just as well that the dragons' diminutive namesakes don't breath fire, as the above encounter might have burned the end of my telescope.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Looping the Loop and Defying the Ground

Photographing fast-moving targets is about the most difficult thing you can do with a manual-focus scope; by the time you've dialled in the right ISO and exposure compensation - and got the thing in focus - the object of interest is often already receding into the distance. So when I heard there was going to be an air display at the Broadstairs Water Gala last week, I saw it as an excellent opportunity to get some practice in.

The first plane to grace the skies over Viking Bay was an RAF T1 Tucano emblazoned in a special red, white and blue colour scheme for the Queen's Royal Flight. This photo was taken right at the end of the display as Flight Lieutenant Jon Bond performed a low pass right across the bay:

RAF Tucano Display

And how do I know who was flying the plane? Well, his name was printed underneath the cockpit:

Next up was the Aerostars display team. This being the Age of Austerity, the council could only afford to hire three out of the six planes, but they still put on a terrific display, and the reduced number actually worked in my favour as there was less opportunity for me to flail around as I tried to figure out which plane I was going to point my camera at.

Aerostars Display

If you're wondering why one of the planes is blurred in the next photo, it's because they were passing at a relative speed of 400 mph. That I got any kind of shot at all is something of a minor miracle.


The third part of the display, featuring a biplane, was cancelled due to strong crosswinds at Manston, but what we did get to see was great entertainment, and I ended up taking a lot more photos than I had intended to, the best of which you can see on my Flickr page. Of course, now I've got no excuse for not getting a picture of the next rare bird of prey that comes zooming out of nowhere...

See also:

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Marbled Whites

The weather may have suggested otherwise, but we're coming to the end of high summer; that time of year when the birds lie low to recover from the breeding season and - in some cases - ready their wings for the great autumn migration. It's also the time of year when some photographers moan about having nothing to photograph ... as they brush the butterflies away from their lenses.

One highlight of the summer months is the elegantly beautiful Marbled White (Melanargia galathea). Intermediate in size between the small blues and the attention-grabbing Peacocks and Red Admirals, it's easily distinguished by the unmistakable black-and-white checkerboard pattern on its wings. It looks particularly striking when perched on one of its favourite nectar sources, purple knapweed:

Marbled White

The Marbled White isn't rare as British butterflies go, but due to its preference for unimproved grassland you'll almost never see one in a typical garden. Fortunately the person (or persons) responsible for naming it had a finer appreciation for its aesthetic qualities, otherwise it might well have ended up being called the Pied Butterfly.

A closer examination reveals a hint of colour amongst all the black and white - pale blue dots on the underwing:

Marbled White (underwing)

Of course, a telescope is no substitute for a good quality macro lens when it comes to photographing the small stuff; even with extension tubes in place, the closest I can get to a butterfly and still keep it in focus is about nine feet, but that's no reason not to have a go (and at least I know I'm not disturbing it). And, with the draw-tube racked all the way out, the depth of field is so shallow it's easier to adjust focus simply by rocking backwards and forwards slightly.

The cliff-top wildflower meadow where these photos were taken also plays host to grasshoppers, crickets, Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, the distinctive Six-spot Burnet and little orange skippers (though I couldn't tell you if they're of the Small or Essex variety).

See more of my Marbled White photos on Flickr

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Life Aquatic

Over the last few weeks, at a single small pond in Canterbury, I've seen several of these:

Broad-bodied Chaser

...some of these: of these:

Grass Snake

...and lots of these:

Great Crested Newt (larva)

This last one is of particular interest because I later found out that it's a Great Crested Newt (in its larval stage). Hopefully I can get some better shots once they complete their metamorphosis and start venturing out of the water.

Incidentally, on one visit, while trying (unsuccessfully) to get a photo of two mating dragonflies, I heard a splash and looked up to see a kingfisher watching me from the shadows on the other side of the pond. On this occasion, it flew off before I could get the camera on it, but judging by the number of newts swimming around, I expect that, like me, it'll be back.

I can't remember ever seeing a newt (of any type) before, and I'm always pleased to see a kingfisher, but is it wrong of me to be amused by the sight of one highly protected species eating another highly protected species?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Sea, Wind and Fire

I don't make a habit of going out with the camera at 4:30 in the morning and I especially don't make a habit of pointing a telescope at the sun, but this particular shot's been on my mind for a while.

Broadstairs Sunrise 

Distance to the Thanet wind-farm: approximately 7 miles.
Distance to the sun: approximately 93 million miles.

It may not be as newsworthy as the Venus transit but I was fortunate enough to catch a sunspot group (visible towards the right-hand side of the sun's disc). This is AR1504 (AR standing for Active Region) and it was the source of some significant flare activity recently, as shown in this video from NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO).

You'll also notice that the sun is distinctly flattened in this photo. I would offer an explanation, but why go to all that trouble when there's already a perfectly good one available on the excellent Atmospheric Optics website? A warning though before you visit this site: "Checklist" photographers (you know who you are) may be compelled to invest in a brand new set of wide-angle lenses after seeing examples of the full range of weird and wonderful phenomena that can grace our skies.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Grey Wagtails in Canterbury

Grey Wagtail @ Canterbury

The commonest species of wagtail in the UK is the black-and-white Pied Wagtail, which (according to some sources) is actually a sub-species of the White Wagtail, which itself is more grey than white ... though it shouldn't be confused with the Grey Wagtail, which - despite its name - is actually partially yellow ... though not so yellow that it should be confused with the Yellow Wagtail, which - I'm pleased to say - is true to its name and almost entirely yellow ... that is, except for the ones with a blue head.

Okay, so now that's cleared up, back to Grey Wagtails. I've seen them before in the West Country, but until recently I've only ever had fleeting glimpses of them in Kent. So I was pleasantly surprised the other week to learn that a pair of Grey Wagtails had successfully raised a family right in the middle of Canterbury, only five minutes' walk from the station. It took me a couple of visits to get them in the right light but eventually I got the shots I was looking for.

Grey Wagtail

Photographing birds in towns and cities is never as enjoyable (for me at least) as photographing them in the countryside, but one advantage is that they're generally used to passers-by, and - as a consequence - much more approachable. Now I just need to find some equally confiding Yellow Wagtails to complete my wagtail hat trick ... or should that be a "wagtrick"?

Grey Wagtail

For more Canterbury Grey Wagtail photos, check out Mike Gould's Flickr page and Steve Ashton's blog. I'm not sure if this is the same family or a different group further along the river. Hopefully the latter, as Kent could do with more of these delightful and energetic little birds.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Travels of Y114264

Pied/White Wagtail 

On 23 November 2011 a first-year female Pied/White Wagtail was caught and ringed at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire. 173 days later it showed up at Stone Bay, Broadstairs (a full 132 km from the ringing site), where yours truly happened to have his camera with him. As it foraged on the sand in front of the beach huts I was able to get close enough to photograph some of the detail on the ring:

Wagtail ring (blow-ups) 

As you can see, I was only able to get a partial reading of the characters - Y?426? and "NH MUS LONDON" (clearly, the Natural History museum). Fortunately, this was enough information for the BTO to identify it as Y114264. These types of small numbered rings are usually only reported when the bird is found dead or caught by another ringer; typically, reports are more likely to come from colour-ringed schemes, as was the case with this Waxwing I photographed in December 2010.

So why go to all this effort to trap and ring birds (the majority of which are never seen again)? To quote the BTO:

"Ringing birds is essential if we are to learn about how long they live and when and where they move, questions that are vital for bird conservation. Placing a lightweight, uniquely numbered, metal ring around a bird’s leg provides a reliable and harmless method of identifying birds as individuals.
Although we have been ringing birds in Britain and Ireland for over 100 years, we are still discovering new facts about migration routes and wintering areas. However, the main focus of the Ringing Scheme today is monitoring bird populations. Ringing allows us to study how many young birds leave the nest and survive to become adults, as well as how many adults survive the stresses of breeding, migration and severe weather. Changes in survival rates and other aspects of birds’ biology help us to understand the causes of population declines." 

There is, of course, also the personal satisfaction derived from transforming what would otherwise have been an anonymous member of its species into a recognisable individual with its own story to tell.

So, if you find or photograph a ringed bird you can report it to Euring Web Recoveries and the body responsible for that ringing scheme will send you a report detailing the bird's history.

See also:
BTO Bird Ringing Blog
Summary of all Ringing Recoveries for Pied/White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
BTO Birdfacts: Pied Wagtail

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Photographing Earthshine

Crescent Moon with Earthshine (revisited)

I generally try to avoid going back and tinkering with old photos because - as with any creative endeavour, whether it's writing a story, composing some music, or making a film - there comes a point where you have to say, "Enough's enough," and walk away from it. However, I was recently contacted by a production assistant at Popular Photography magazine saying they were interested in using my image "Crescent Moon with Earthshine" for a "How-to" feature in the June 2012 issue*.

The original image was composed back in April 2007 and close inspection shows quite a lot of noise and signs of oversharpening (as well as some obvious artefacts from where the two stacks were spliced together). I've learnt a lot about processing since then - and newer tools have become available - so I decided I could do a much better job if I went back to the source files and reprocessed them from scratch.

For those who are interested in the technical nitty-gritty, the images were taken using a Canon 350D (Rebel XT) DSLR connected to a Vixen SP-102 achromatic refractor (focal length 1000mm). Earthshine (which is the reflected sunlight from the earth illuminating the shadowed part of the moon) is easy enough to capture on camera, but normally results in a severely over-exposed crescent. To retain the detail on the crescent I shot 31 images at 1/60 sec, ISO 200, and to expose the earthshine I took 11 images at 0.5 sec, ISO 800. I then stacked and sharpened these images separately using the freeware tools AviStack and RegiStax, before combining them in Photoshop using a layer mask to create the finished version you see above.

This new "redux" version is a big improvement on the original, and is probably the best I could do given the quality (and quantity) of the original 350D image files. Some flaws are still apparent: the dark band between the earthshine and the crescent is a little distracting and the earthshine itself could be brighter. These are issues that could be fixed by capturing more images at a wider range of exposures - and then combining them using HDR software.

But that's a project for another day...

*And in case you're wondering, yes they did use it, and yes they did pay me.

See also:
Shooting the Moon: Lunar Photography with a DSLR and a Small Refractor
Earthshine (NASA Science)
Planetshine (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Digital Darkroom: Liven up dull photos

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, what you hoped would be a good photo comes out looking a little dull. In my case it's usually because I wasn't able to get enough separation between the bird and the background, and/or it wasn't in direct light. Fortunately there's a four-step technique you can apply in Photoshop that will restore some life to your image without adding extra noise.
  1. Duplicate the background layer. (If your image already contains adjustment layers, combine them all into a new layer by pressing N followed by E while holding down the Shift, Ctrl and Alt keys.)
  2. Boost the Saturation by +75.
  3. Apply Gaussian Blur with a radius of 5 pixels.
  4. Change the blending mode of the layer to Screen and reduce the opacity to 10%. (You can control the strength of the effect by changing the opacity, but don't overdo it!)
Here's a before-and-after example for comparison. Move your mouse over the image to toggle the effect.

Eastern Black Redstart, Palm Bay, November 2011

The beauty of this technique is that you can record these steps as an Action in Photoshop and then apply them to any image with just a single click.

...or you could just download the Action I've already prepared for you here:

To install the file in Photoshop, go to the dropdown menu in the upper right corner of the Actions palette, click on "Load Actions..." and navigate to wherever you saved the file.

Of course, no amount of digital trickery is going to turn a bad image into a good image; nor is this method a substitute for proper adjustment of Levels and Curves etc., but it is a quick and easy way to improve images which require that little extra "punch".

Monday, 7 May 2012

2.5-Dimensional Slideshow

Those of you who visit my Flickr page may have already seen this, but a lot of work went into it, so I make no apologies for airing it again. All of the birds in this presentation were photographed in East Kent, and all of them were wild (even the Kestrel):


I say a lot of work went into it, but how much? Well, to create the pseudo-3D effect, you first have to isolate the foreground element (the bird) from the background. This is done in Photoshop by duplicating the background layer, adding a mask and painting it so only the bird is revealed. You then have to remove the bird from the background layer by careful application of the clone brush (or the Content-Aware Fill tool if you're lucky enough to own a newer version of PS). The next step is to import these layers into Adobe After Effects, place a suitable distance (z-space) between the foreground and background elements, create a virtual camera to track in (or out), choose positions for your start and end keyframes, decide on the length of time it takes the camera to move between these keyframes, and render the animation.

...and that's just one shot completed; now you have to do the same again for all the other images.

Here's a behind-the-scenes screenshot showing a typical camera move being set up in After Effects:

There's a lot of trial and error involved in getting it just right, but the process does become simpler once you've worked through a couple of images.

While synching all the shots to the cues in the soundtrack*, I found I had more clips than I needed, so here - for those who are interested in extras - are the "Deleted Scenes":

If I haven't put you off and you want to try making your own 2.5D slideshow, a step-by-step PDF tutorial can be downloaded from this page:
Note: Even making just an 85-second video was very time-consuming; this is not the sort of project you can knock off in a single afternoon.

Incidentally, if anyone knows where I might find a tutorial that explains how to replicate all the After Effects steps in Blender, I'd very much appreciate it if you left a link in the comments.

*The music for the slideshow is of course Aquarium from Saint-Saëns's Le carnaval des animaux, used to such memorable effect in Terrence Malick's 1978 film Days of Heaven.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sand Martin Colony at Bishopstone

Walking along the stretch of coast between Reculver and Herne Bay can feel like stepping into another world when you're used to the white chalk cliffs that otherwise dominate the East Kent coastline. Here, the cliffs are comprised of soft clay and sandstone, which leaves them very vulnerable to erosion - but also makes them the perfect habitat for Sand Martins to build their summer breeding homes.

Sand Martin Colony

The Collins Guide rather wonderfully describes the Sand Martin's call (an audio clip of which can be heard on the RSPB page) as "a dry voiceless rasp as from coarse sandpaper" - which seems appropriate when you consider their building material of choice. Although the Bishopstone colony is easy enough to locate, the birds themselves are not so easy to photograph as they fly in and out of their nest-holes like winged bullets. During a visit last week I witnessed the results of a mid-air collision as two semi-dazed Sand Martins slid halfway down the cliff before regaining their senses and immediately rejoining the others. Fortunately, such incidents are rare, and sometimes a lull in the action presents a photo opportunity:

Sand Martin

Otherwise, trying to track individual birds in the midst of this aerial chaos is a big ask for even the fastest camera/lens combination, so the best technique would seem to be to set your focus slightly in front of the cliff and keep firing away until you get lucky. I'm not a great fan of this shoot-and-hope style of photography, but sometimes there's no other choice. Also, given that the cliffs (which are north-facing) are in shadow most of the day, you may find you'll need high ISOs to adequately freeze the action. And, as you'll be aiming above your head for prolonged periods, a tripod or monopod might help to take the strain off your arms. I hope I'm not making this process sound like an exercise in futility, but when you do get a shot worth keeping it can be a very rewarding experience.

Evasive Action

Anyway, whether you're there to take photographs or to just enjoy the spectacle of a few dozen noisy hirundines flying over your head, the Sand Martin colony at Bishopstone is well worth a visit.

See also:

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Company of Kestrels

Getting sharp photos of birds in flight is difficult enough with conventional lenses, let alone with a manual-focus telescope, which is why - as much as I appreciate Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks, Hobbies, Buzzards and the like - Kestrels will always be my favourite bird of prey.

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

I saw this handsome specimen working the cliff-top at North Foreland, but I had to follow it all the way to Kingsgate Bay before I got the shot I was looking for (above). It then proceeded to tail me all the way back to Stone Bay. A case of a raptor using a photographer to flush out potential prey? Wishful thinking on my part perhaps, but it's nice to imagine that it wasn't just me who got something out of the encounter.

Hovering Kestrel

Now if only other birds could master the art of hovering in one spot...

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Foxes Live

Fox on roof #2
Fox on a roof, January 2010

A few days ago I was contacted by a researcher for Windfall Films asking if they could use one of my photos for a documentary about urban foxes. The program in question is called Foxes Live: Wild in the City and it starts on Channel 4 on Monday night. Fiona, the researcher, went on to explain:
"To give you a bit more information about the show it will be broadcast live on Channel 4, over four nights at the end of April / beginning of May. The idea is to look at our current knowledge about urban foxes and to learn more about these fascinating creatures. Our ultimate aim is to mobilise the nation in an attempt to study the fox population across the UK and, working with academic researchers at Brighton university, we hope to contribute up-to-date research to the scientific literature on urban foxes. We also intend to look at people's experience with, and opinions of, urban foxes and to consider - from a scientific perspective - issues such as whether foxes deserve their often-negative reputation."
Sounds good to me, but you have to wonder if the focus purely on foxes will be enough to sustain viewer interest over the duration of the series. The scattershot approach of Springwatch (the program Foxes Live will inevitably be compared to) isn't to everyone's taste, but one of its strengths is that if you don't like a particular feature, another one will come along soon after to replace it. And, as with any live TV show featuring animals, there's a lot riding on whether its bushy-tailed stars are willing to perform on cue.

Of course, where I live, foxes pretty much own the night. Seeing them after dark is one thing; getting a decent photo of them during the daytime is a different matter entirely. So, after many frustrating near-misses with the camera, you can imagine my reaction when, one morning in January 2010, I heard some magpies kicking up an almighty fuss and looked out my window to see a fox standing in full view on my neighbour's roof. This fox was soon joined by a second and the two proceeded to follow each other back and forth across the rooftops. They were up there so long I even had time to switch the 50mm lens for the TV-60 (400mm), enabling me to get the photo shown above.

Last spring I was treated to an even closer view when a vixen and her cubs used the gap behind my garden shed as a temporary bolt-hole. I admit I did use some strategically-placed dog food to get the cub in the right position for this shot, but it was worth it.

Fox Cub
Fox Cub in my garden, May 2011

Incidentally, I was asked to sign a release form formally granting the program-makers the right to use my photo, and, buried in amongst the usual legal-speak, I was amused/alarmed to see the eyebrow-raising text "throughout the universe, in perpetuity". On this occasion I was content to sign the form, as I don't consider the photo in question to be as good as the ones on this page (if they use it all it'll most likely be a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment), but it serves as a salutary reminder that you should always read the small print.

Foxes Live begins on Channel 4 on Monday 30 April at 8pm. For more details (including videos and an interactive sightings map), visit their website at

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Venus and the Moon

If the weather is clear later today (which doesn't seem very likely at time of writing), Venus and the crescent moon should make a nice pairing in the evening sky. Venus of course has been at its brilliant best in recent months, so brilliant in fact that you can see it in daylight if you know where to look. It helps if the sun is shielded by a building or a tree, but the real trick is getting your eyes to focus to infinity while staring at an apparently featureless blue sky.

The moon and Venus, June 2007

Your chances of seeing Venus during the daytime are greatly improved if something prominent like the Moon is nearby, as it was during the occultation of 18 June 2007. The image above was taken at half past four in the afternoon, shortly after Venus emerged from behind the moon's limb.

Venus will continue to dominate the evening sky for the next month, before passing in front of the sun's disc on June 5th-6th (the last such transit until 2117!).

Monday, 23 April 2012

Whimbrel at Kingsgate Bay

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

Today saw a brand new bird for me in the shape of a Whimbrel. First reported yesterday by Simon Mount on the Planet Thanet website, it had relocated to Kingsgate Bay where it was feeding on the dry part of the beach. It was a little wary, but its "circle of approachability" (for want of a better expression) was a lot smaller than any Curlew I've ever tried to photograph. By keeping low and moving slowly, I was able to get close enough to secure some pleasing shots in the excellent conditions (the forecast rain didn't arrive until the afternoon).

Walk like a Whimbrel

Other birds noted today included a pair of Shelducks and a Peregrine Falcon at North Foreland, and lots of noisy Linnets moving around the area.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Digital Darkroom: Seamless composites in four easy steps

This is the first in an occasional series in which I share processing tips and tricks.

If you've got two or more photos of a bird against a plain background (usually a blue sky), there's a quick and easy way to turn them into a composite image like this one:

Bittern (composite)
Bittern (composite), Grove Ferry, January 2012

As well as being fast, this method also avoids the unsightly halos often seen in composite photos where the sky colours don't quite match. The steps below apply to Photoshop, but most photo-editing programs will have similar functions.

1) Open one of the images you want to cut from, select the Magic Wand Tool (W) and click anywhere on the background sky. The "marching ants" outline will show you what's been selected.

2) From the menu, choose Select > Inverse. Now only the bird should be selected. If you find that other areas (like bright clouds) are still selected, switch to the Lasso Tool (L), click on "Subtract from Selection" on the Options bar, and simply draw a loop round the offending area to remove it.

3) Choose Select > Modify > Expand (1 pixel). This will ensure a smoother blend into the background sky. 

4) Click on Edit > Copy. You can now paste the selection into another image as a new layer, and position it with the Move Tool (V). Repeat these steps for any other images until you've built up your composite. (To save time, and to ensure consistency, I would leave any Levels or colour adjustments until after you've assembled the composite, rather than performing them on each individual image.)

Note: It's also worth pointing out that if you publish your finished work online, it's good practice to include the word "composite" somewhere in the title, lest anyone should think you really did capture four Alpine Swifts in a single shot...

Alpine Swift (composite), North Foreland, April 2010

Friday, 20 April 2012

North Foreland: Linnets and Wagtails


I took a walk out to North Foreland the other day not expecting to see much, and in that sense I wasn't disappointed, as the only birds of interest were some Linnets gathering nest material near the lighthouse, a lone Sparrowhawk flying high over my local park, and some Pied Wagtails (including one White Wagtail) foraging around the coast between Kingsgate Bay and Stone Bay. The wagtails were, as always, hard to approach, but I eventually got some half-decent shots by hunkering down next to the cliff and waiting until one ran past me. Shame it was in the shade, but you can't win them all.

Pied Wagtail

I saw and heard no sign of the Twites that have been frequenting the area over recent months. The last mention of them on Planet Thanet is from 4th April, so perhaps they've returned to their breeding grounds. If so, I'm glad I got to see these bushy and very vocal little finches when I did.

Incidentally, if you're interested in the difference between Pied and White Wagtails, this article on the UK400 site is worth a look:
The Separation of White and Pied Wagtails