Friday, 18 May 2012


I've just got back from a few days in north-west Germany visiting my daughter. I had the opportunity to do a bit of birding. I find it a bit difficult where she lives in the Ruhr because it's so industrialised, but there are a few sites. Further east, in the catchment area of the river Ruhr, it's flat and featureless, mostly agricultural, with few hedges and large open fields. There are a lot of patches of mature deciduous woodland, mainly very tall oak, which are good for the traditional woodpeckers, warblers, tits and Nuthatch, as well as raptors, which are commoner than in the UK. Although the Germans are conservation minded, reserves seem to be few. A lot of the woodlands seem to be protected and one sees signs "Naturshutzgebeit" which roughly means national park.
I had a look on the web and found a good site just north of Munster, called Riesenfelder, which translates as "paddy-field". Rice was never grown there - it is, in fact, a huge old disused sewage farm covering 640 hectares. It was divided into settlement beds of one hectare, and these were regularly scraped off and the fertiliser spread on the local farmland. It's now been converted to a huge wetland reserve, with various sized ponds, extensive reed-beds, emergent vegetation and a network of paths and hides. The area attracts the usual wetland species but there are a few nice ones, such as Penduline Tit, Bluethroat and Great Reed Warbler (none of which I saw). It's also good for north-south migrants, and there is a specific wader pool. The birds are quite distant, so it's a 'scope job, and not so good for photography. The best place for that is up the tower hide for flight shots.

This is the wader pool. There were 14 Greenshank and a Little Ringed Plover on it.

Common Swift from the tower hide. There were probably over 1,000 over the reserve.

It all depends on the light. Some over-enthusiastic birders might like to call this a Pallid Swift, but that doesn't occur there. It's a Common swift.

A couple of pairs of Ruddy Shelduck are present, but I suspect are a feral population, as you have to be much further east for the real ones!

Another small reserve lies on the River Ahse, a tributary of the River Lippe, east of Hamm, near the village of Oestinghausen. This is an area of water meadow managed for wetland breeding birds such as Curlew, Lapwing and Snipe. It's only about 50 hectares, but can be great. A few pools are scattered about, good for Garganey, and raptors are quite common. On the day I was there I had Common Buzzard, Black and Red Kite, Goshawk and Kestrel, and a possible distant Hobby. There is an excellent tower hide, great for flight photography, and a new 360 degree hide overlooking a wader pool. The build quality is reminiscent of a brick outhouse - the Germans don't do things by half! I have seen breeding Red-backed Shrike on the reserve in the past, but not this time. The best bird was Icterine Warbler, of which I found two singing males (apparently there are over 20 pairs on the reserve. One posed nicely for me from the tower.

Reed bed and pool.

360 degree hide (well, OK, it's 180).

View from.....

View from the tower.

Icterine Warbler. The dark upper mandible and prominent yellow patch between base of bill and eye, and the long primary projection help with identification, but the lead coloured legs clinch it.

 Black Kite.

Common Buzzard. This is a very pale one, but it's not uncommon to see pure white ones.

Male Kestrel.

It was nice to catch up with Crane again after our two at Ruston Carr.

All bird photographs were taken with Canon EOS 1D Mk IV and 100-400 zoom. Scenic shots with a Canon S90 compact.

It'll be good to re-visit these reserves later in spring, and in autumn if possible.

Friday, 4 May 2012


As I intimated from the last post, things have moved on!

Main camera: Canon EOS 1D Mk IV: - much improved over the Mk III, which was a bit of a dog that lost Canon a lot of business to Nikon. The auto-focus problems were never solved with long lenses and many of my images were soft. Quality was great on straightforward stuff, but the Mk IV is a different beast altogether - awesome. The higher pixel count, low noise and high ISO range makes life much easier.

Back-up camera: Canon EOS 7D: - very convenient and easy to use - possibly the best combination for "walkabout" bird photography combined with the 100-400mm zoom. A bit on the noisy side, though.

Canon 500mm F4 IS USM: - I've had this for ages, and it's getting a bit long in the tooth, and it gets heavier the older I get. Looking forward to the Mk II version, which is somewhat lighter! (but not on the pocket).

Canon 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 IS USM Zoom : - a surprisingly sharp lens, especially at 400mm. Good for flight photography.

Canon 24-105mm F4 IS Zoom: - have just acquired this, so still evaluating it, but it focuses very close for plants, fungi etc.

Canon 17-40mm F4 Zoom: - an excellent all purpose lens for landscapes, people etc.

Canon Mk III 2X and 1.4X Converters: - both of these new converters are excellent, with imperceptible loss of quality. I use them a lot with the 500mm to really pull things in.

Sigma 150mm F2.8 APO MACRO DG HSM: - very sharp and nice to use, but flimsy. Has been back to Sigma twice after falling apart.

I also have a selection of old lenses acquired from various sources over the years, which occasionally get an airing: Canon 24mm F2.8, Canon 50mm F2.5 and 100mm F2.8 macro, my old Dallmeyer telephoto, and a cupboard full of old Canon and Pentax film stuff which isn't worth a cent to sell, so I'll keep it.

Gitzo GT3541LS carbon fibre tripod with Gitzo GH5380SQR Systematic head : - at last a rigid tripod I can manage to carry. The head is excellent - easy control with one hand and compact for air travel.

iMac: - the best purchase I ever made! Forget Microsoft woes. Stress free computing (well, almost).

Adobe Lightroom V4: - I've just upgraded from V2, so no comments as yet. Virtually all my post processing is done with LR - it's easy to use, and the sharpening module is excellent. I import all my stuff into iPhoto on the iMac, and when I click the edit button it automatically opens LR. Makes workflow relatively easy, but I still need lessons on file management! I don't possess Photoshop CS. I occasionally use Apple Aperture, which came with the iMac - it's almost as good as LR.

Epson PHOTO R2880 inkjet printer: - for the rare occasions that I print. The driver for iMac isn't that great, though.

Setting up the cameras for bird photography can mean a lot of trial and error to get all the various parameters and custom functions to do what you want. If you can't be bothered to struggle with this, I suggest you visit Arthur Morris's "Birds as Art" website ( and fork out $20 for his set up guides for the 1D Mk IV or the 7D. It'll be e-mailed to you, and you can set the camera up straight from the box and get out there shooting. A.M.'s website is my favourite, and his blog is a mine of information for all bird photographers.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

I was a teenager when I first got into bird photography, as a means of recording what I'd seen, but then it almost became an end in itself. The first camera was a Petri Flex5 SLR, with a Hanimex 400mm F6.3 lens. I don't think I bought the standard lens for it 'til later. The telephoto had a pre-set diaphragm, so you had to decide on the aperture before the shot, but anything above F8 and the image was too dark for the manual focussing. There was no in-camera exposure meter, so you had to rely on a hand held one, which didn't always tally with what the lens was looking at. Usually, by the time you had sorted out exposure, focus and framing, the bird was long gone. Eventually the lens diaphragm collapsed, so it became junk. I upgraded to the "in" camera at the time, a Pentax Spotmatic, which had built-in through the lens metering, and a Dallmeyer Adon 14 inch F4.5 lens (equivalent to about 350mm) - a British product, believe it or not. It was robust and sharp, reasonably priced (I couldn't afford the equivalent Kilfitt model!) and I still have it. I eventually progressed to the Canon A system, and onward to the EOS cameras, the digital derivatives of which I use now.
The films of the day were still dominated by black and white negative stock, which I developed myself. Judging by the amount of dirt on the negatives, I must have used water straight from the nearest ditch. Colour print film in the 1960's was dire to say the least. Slide films were limited by their speed. Kodachrome 25 was best for colour, but too slow (at ISO 25) for birds. Kodak High Speed Ektachrome at ISO 160 was reasonable, but colour saturation wasn't great, and it had very poor exposure latitude of about half a stop. There was an American brand called Ansco, at ISO 200, but was virtually devoid of colour and had grain the size of golf-balls. Eventually, decent high speed colour slide stock came along with Fuji.
My first ever photographic outing was to Filey Brigg, where, unbelievably, there was a Grey Phalarope, of which I got some pictures - a bit "dot in the distance", but I was hooked.
Here are one or two B&W golden oldies - heavily digitally manipulated from scanned negatives! They were all taken around the late '60's, early '70's.

Guillemot, Bempton. This was a Dallmeyer shot.

Flight photography was very hit and miss. You pre-focussed at a distance that would give a good image size, and then tracked a bird in the hope that it would fly into focus - then you relied on your reflexes to get a sharp shot before it flew out of focus. You wasted a lot of film!

Kittiwake, Filey Brigg. A Hanimex shot.

Red-backed Shrike. Filey CP. Another Dallmeyer picture.

Red-breasted Merganser, Scarborough Harbour. Dallmeyer lens.

Most birds needed to be tame, or you needed a hide to get close.

All of the above nauseating nostalgia serves to demonstrate how technology has moved on, with today's digital, auto-focus, auto-exposure, image stablised, high ISO gear making it easy for anyone who can press a button to get acceptable bird pictures.