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.