Sunday, 20 January 2013

My top 10 "Bird in Snow Moments"

Whilst sitting in the snow today, waiting to get the perfect picture of a Dunnock (thats normal, yeah?), my mind began to reflect on my favourite moments spent photographing birds on snow. Moments like this:

So here are my top 10 "Moments with Birds in the Snow".The countdown begins. Not my 10 best "birds in snow photographs" mind, but rather my 10 favourite moments of photographing birds whilst very cold and wet.
10. Fieldfare, Cuddesdon, February 2012. Cuddesdon is in the charts straight away! This picture, which I quite like, was a triumph of fieldcraft. A heavy fall of snow drove hundreds of these beautiful thrushes into the village. I knew that they would be drawn to the fallen apples (unlike this year, when there aren't any), so I hid myself at the base of a tree in the orchard and waited. It took less than an hour before they were feeding around me. The reflected light from the snow did the rest.

9. Crimson-winged Finch, Oukaimeden, Atlas Mountains, Morocco, April 2008. Richard Campey and I were surrounded by snow when we I took this picture, even though we were in Africa in April. This was our first morning on our first foreign trip together and was the start of a beautiful friendship. Cracking birds too:

8. Male Lapland Bunting, Batsfjord, northern Norway May 2008. No doubting the beauty of a male Lapland Bunting, they take your breath away, if the windchill of -10 degrees has not already done so. But could I get close to one? No. I spent three days walking the tundra of the extreme north of Norway and saw hundreds, but never close. Then I drove past this one... and it didn't fly away. I reversed back for it and fired out of the car window and still it stayed.. for perhaps 1.5 seconds... but that was enough. Just.

7. Ivory Gulls, Svalbard, July 2011. No caption needed. Two pure white angels ghosting past some stunning scenery. Just another day in Svalbard.

6. Harlequin, Rausu Harbour, Hokkaido, Japan, November 2006. Another occasion when I thought I wasn't going to get a picture and it all came good in the end. No DSLR in those days, I was digiscoping in Japan that November. Just getting to Rasu was a challenge, hiring a car and driving hours north-east across Hokkaido, with the freezing Pacific Ocean on the right. Flashing warning signs appeared out of the snow storms, all in a language I could not read. I carried on. I had seen lots of Harlequin on the sea, but never close enough for a satisfactory picture. In Rausu Harbour I found myself crawling along a harbour wall, I think I was stalking some Slaty-backed Gulls, when I looked down into a stream that emptied into the harbour and there, in perfect late afternoon sunlight, were a small flock of Harlequin. And not 20 metres away. The dilemma in these situations is that you want to move fast, but if you do, the birds fly. So you move slow. And start whimpering. Which is what I did until I was satisfied I had a few decent pictures and then I really began to enjoy the scene. Just look at those colours.

5. Stellar's Sea Eagle, Hokkaido, Japan, November 2006. Digiscoping was never going to be the best way to capture an image of the most magnificent raptor on Earth. This bird was going to roost in a roadside tree when I drove past. They are difficult not to miss, standing 150 metres tall and having a bill the size of a small car. I clambered up a wooded bank and set up the 'scope to take a few pictures of this most stunning bird.

4. Lammergeiers, Spanish Pyrenees, February 2010. This trip was a treat to myself before our first daughter was born. I spent six days in Spain, three photographing Lammergeier, Griffon and Black Vulture and three with acute gastroenteritis contracted from the water bottle left in the photography hide. The first three days were the best. Being within 20 metres of these mythical beasts (the Griffin of legends?) was one of the highlights of my nature watching life. When an adult flew in from behind you could hear the "whump - whump" of the wingbeats before an enormous shadow darkened the sky. On one occasion a Lammergeier dropped a large bone from a height, and it crashed down not 20 meters from the hide. Pure magic. And yes, there was snow on the peaks around me, although not visible in this picture:

3. Blakinston's Fish Owl, Hokkaido, Japan, November 2006. Another favourite from the Japanese winter. These are the worlds largest owls, and they catch fish. At night. When the first Blakinston's Fish Owl flew in I was knocked over by their size. And I was standing some distance away. Two birds flew into this pool and began catching fish. I spent nearly two hours watching them and had to keep pinching myself the whole time, and not just to keep warm.

2. Bluethroat, Hardangervidda National Park, Norway, May 2008. One of my favourite photographs ever. This feisty male sung his heart out to me, flitting from birch branch to birch branch, but I couldn't get an unobscured picture. Then suddenly he flew out onto the ice on the frozen lake, landed and sung from the ice, chest puffed out, colours blazing. As was my camera. A magic moment.

1. Gyrfalcon, Batsfjord, Norway, May 2008. And so, to number one, my top moment of photographing birds in snow:

As you can see, it is not the best photograph of a bird in the snow. In fact, I've even had to label it so you can make out what is what. This picture was taken by pushing my camera up against my telescope and the birds in it are nearly a mile from where I was standing. Yet the moment itself was unbelievable. It was my final afternoon in northern Norway and I had yet to see a Gyrfalcon, the large predator of the frozen north. I was walking on the tundra, just descending into a small gully, when I flushed a Willow Grouse. As my notes recorded:

"When it happened, it happened very, very fast. In one moment, at the extreme edge of my peripheral vision, I become aware of two Long-tailed Skuas diving down at something. Simultaneously, the Willow Grouse I have just flushed slams open its wings, air brakes and comes to a halt in mid-air. And between these two events, a huge falcon, pale underparts glowing white from the light reflected in the snow, swoops at the Grouse. "Gyrfalcon!" My brain screams.
The Grouse shoots off low into the valley, pursued by the Gyrfalcon, which is in turn is pursued by two Long-tailed Skuas. As the Grouse, now flying as fast as it can get, approaches the edge of a frozen lake, it realises it is rapidly running out of cover. It drops like a stone and hides under the last piece of vegetation by the lake. The Gyrfalcon stoops and tries to drop onto the Grouse. The Grouse, with perfect timing, just jumps out of the way, leaving the falcon flailing on the snow. There then follows a remarkable stand-off. The Gyrfalcon is within one metre of its prey, but has lost all the elements of surprise and momentum it needs to kill the Grouse. The Willow Grouse, knows that it has a potential killer standing next to it, but knows that if it breaks cover it will be caught, so has no choice but to stay close. I watch in utter disbelief as the Gyrfalcon tries running after the Willow Grouse. On foot! The Grouse is a faster runner and just zips around to the other side of the bush. The Gyrfalcon then tries a few half-hearted dives, from perhaps 10 metres up, at the Grouse but the Grouse is just too quick and evades the dives. I watch for half an hour as predator and prey attempt to take the upper hand. Eventually the Gyrfalcon gives up and flies off, over the frozen lake, leaving the Willow Grouse still hiding by the bush."

Just seeing a Gyrfalcon would have been enough. To witness the incredible scene of one chasing after a Willow Grouse on foot felt like a mad dream, come true. It is without doubt the worst photograph in this Top Ten, but is my Number One "Bird in Snow Moment".

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