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

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Kingfisher, Grove Ferry

First off, I don't claim to be an expert on birds or photography, so if I confuse a silent Chiffchaff for a silent Willow Warbler (or vice versa), or get into a muddle over crop factors then please let me know and I will endeavour to correct my mistake. (Constructive comments are always welcome.) However, I do like to think I've learned a few tricks over the last few years, so perhaps you'll find some of these posts interesting and maybe even useful on occasion.

I've been reluctant to start a blog of this nature before now because a) I've never been one for keeping a diary, and b) having maintained a Flickr page for several years I've always been of the opinion that a good photo should speak for itself without any distracting words. However, I'm often asked how I got a particular shot, how I processed it, or indeed what that thing is on the end of my camera, so hopefully this blog will go some way towards answering those questions.

As there are already a number of excellent websites and photography blogs covering the wildlife in and around East Kent (some of which I've linked to on the right), I don't intend to simply replicate what's already out there. So, as well as describing what I've seen in a given week, I'll also be writing about how I take and process my bird photos, as well as occasionally venturing beyond the Earth and into the realm of astrophotography.

Lunar Apennines

The common thread linking these strands is that almost all of the photos you'll see on this blog were taken with a Canon DSLR mounted at the prime focus of a telescope; the birds and insects with a Tele Vue-60 apochromatic refractor (focal length approximately 400mm), and the moon and the planets with a Vixen SP-102 achromatic refractor (focal length 1000mm and - with a Powermate - 2500mm). There are pros and cons (and misconceptions) to using a telescope instead of a dedicated camera lens - some of which I'll be talking about in future posts - but I have to admit there is something quite appealing in being "that guy who shoots with a telescope" as opposed to being just another photographer with a big white lens.

Plus, telekilnesis has a nice ring to it, don't you think?