Nikon D500 and Early Morning Ospreys

For a number of years now I’ve been keen to experience the sight of ospreys fishing.  I’ve seen it so many times on television and in images, and it looked incredible.  I had observed a couple of ospreys either sitting on a nest or tree through scopes, but that’s all.

I initially thought that my late August Highlands trip was going to be too late for the ospreys who by that point would be packing up their nests and heading off to warmer climes for the winter.  However I came across a video blog on FB where journalist Andrew Laxton Hoyle documented a trip to Aviemore and a couple of sessions with Gordon at Aviemore Ospreys.  I had only been aware of the Rothiemurchas osprey set-up, so did a bit of research and got in touch with Gordon.  Luckily my trip coincided with the tail end of the season and I booked a morning session for the day after I arrived and was assured that no ospreys meant no payment.

I then panicked – a morning with the ospreys is really expensive, and I didn’t want to screw up!  I did as much research on photographing them fishing as I could and then, two weeks before heading North I made the decision to look out all my old camera gear and part-exchange it for a 2nd hand Nikon D500 which, given everything I’d read about it, seemed like the perfect camera for high-speed bird photography.

This was risky, especially as it only arrived a few days before my osprey session.  On the one rain-free evening I took the camera with the Nikkor 300mm F4 lens attached down to my local Glasgow park and tried it out on the flying gulls.  Wow, impressive.  I used a variety of focusing methods and settled on group focus as the best option.  The camera locked onto the birds extremely quickly and with its incredible buffer (up to 200 images in raw if you use the fast XQD card (also super-expensive, but I figured if I had a camera with such capabilities it was silly not to take advantage of them)) it was easy to capture sharp images of the fast moving gulls. Given that it was my first go with the camera I was delighted with the images I came away with.

QP_15Aug_D500-png_c-0555QP_15Aug_D500-png_c-0855QP_15Aug_D500-png_c-0869

This definitely made me feel a little better about the osprey session although I was still nervous I’d screw up as I drove to Aviemore at silly o’clock on Sunday morning as I was scheduled to meet Gordon at 5am.

I didn’t really know what to expect – certainly I had presumed the body of water would be larger than it was – it was really just a small pond filled with hungry fish.   There were two hides set into the ground to give low-level views one for face-on shots the other side profiles.  There were four of us and we used the face-on hide.

It was still dark as we set-up, again I used the Nikon D500/Nikkor 300mm F4 combo, giving me a focal length of 450mm on the crop-frame sensor.  Gordon left us with a walkie talkie and disappeared to a location good for spotting incoming birds.  It wasn’t long before he was telling us of birds circling above.  Great that they were, not so great that the light was still very poor!

They started dropping at 5.45 – for late August far too early for usable images, but a good chance to test out the D500.  I pushed the ISO up super-high (51200) to allow for a shutter speed of 1/500 at F4 – still too slow really, but I knew these images would be record/trial shots only to get the hang of photography the birds – and of couse hoped they’d keep coming as the day dawned.  The ospreys came down so fast, landed in the water, before scooping up a fish and flying directly towards us before heading away.  Amazing to watch.

These are a couple of the very early images, really just to show what the D500 can do at such a high ISO.  I’ve only slightly tweaked the exposure from the raw files, no noise reduction

Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c_demo-1155Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-demo-1114

…not photographs I’d normally publish, but again, I was impressed at how good the camera dealt with the noise at such a high ISO.  With some noise reduction they look ok as photos of record, it’s certainly possible to make out the features of the birds.

Fortunately though, the birds continued to drop for another hour, and the light by the end was almost ok – if I’d had another 30 minutes of action the light would have been great, but that wasn’t to be…  It was mostly juveniles, just learning how to fish for themselves, so there were a number of failures and abandoned drops – but this was good as it meant more appearances.

It was interesting how submerged the birds are initially

Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1274

and amazing that they manage to haul themselves out of the water, often with large fish in their impressive talons

Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1282

Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1381

…and then fly off.  Stunning looking birds when you see them up close.  So powerful with that intense yellow eye.

Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1236Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1395Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1399

Not all were successful, some dropped the fish.

Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1287

It was a wonderful experience if frustratingly dark and frustratingly short-lived.   I’d never really expected to be so close.   The D500 performed brilliantly and I think justified its existence in my camera bag. As with the gulls it locked and kept focus and even in the low-light didn’t struggle with this.  The large buffer allowed for me to find the bird and just keep taking pictures until it was gone, capturing more of the action.  I used the group focusing mode again with back button focus and it worked a dream, I also only took RAWs.  I’d highly recommend this camera for photography like this.  The 300 prime was also a good choice, although there were times, due to the speed of the action that I missed the wing-tips (see below) which was so annoying! And I’d also recommend Aviemore Ospreys.  A fraction cheaper than Rothiemurchas and a lovely setting.  I now have the osprey bug – not great for the bank balance! – and hope to return a little earlier in the season next year to try again in better light.

Highlands_osprey_Aug2017_png_c-1345

Red Squirrels and Stunning Purple Heather

On my recent visit to the Scottish Highlands I decided to concentrate on just a handful of species – mountain hares, red grouse, dolphins, wood ants (with limited success, they move too fast and I’m not great at macro – fascinating to watch though!), red squirrels and possibly crested tits.

My preference is always to find animals completely in the wild – that’s why I love the hares so much.  There’s no baiting, no hide, just me and the hare sharing a hillside. However, having said that, when it comes to red squirrels, achieving decent photographs without the liberal use of hazelnuts isn’t easy.  I’ve tried a few times up in the Queen Elizabeth Forest near Aberfoyle, but have had limited results, so I decided to book a session in Neil McIntyre‘s hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate.  I have a copy of Neil’s wonderful book “The Red Squirrel: A Future in the Forest” and love the images.  Neil’s spent 30 years photographing the red squirrels and his intimate knowledge of the subjects has produced some fabulous photographs.  I figured therefore that he’d know just how to set up a photographic hide to showcase these little mammals at their finest.

I wasn’t disappointed.  The hide is set deep in the Caledonian Pine Forest and is a completely natural setting except for a couple of jumps (more on those later).  The feeders are hidden behind trees and nuts are pushed into cracks in the bark.   When I was there the forest floor was carpeted in flowering heather which provided a stunning purple and pink backdrop (and foreground) to the images.

No sooner had I settled down than I spotted not a squirrel, but a little wren, perched very photogenically on a tree stump – an island in a sea of pink.  I’ve never managed good wren images – they move so quickly, but this one paused long enough for me to shoot a few frames.  Quite distant, but I think the composition works.

Highlands_wren_Aug2017_png_c-0895

I used two cameras.  The Nikon D610 with my trusty Tamron 150-600mm for the majority of the photographs (I did switch to the Nikkor 70-200mm for a bit too), mostly hand-held or with bean-bag.  Because of its massive buffer and superb focusing ability I used the D500 with Nikkor 300mm F4, tripod mounted for the jump on manual focus.

The squirrels soon appeared.  Hard to know exactly how many.  One had a little hole in an ear, and another an ear with bits missing.  But it’s fair to say they were present and active for the entirety of my stay.

HighlandsAug17-1484HighlandsAug17-1934

It’s such a pleasure watching the squirrels. They are so entertaining, the time just flew by, as did the shutter count on my camera!  The light improved as the day progressed, shimmering through the trees and creating some lovely back-lighting at times.

red-squirrel_36811915112_o

I have so many images of red squirrels, sitting, hunched up with a hazelnut clasped in their paws, so my priority was on other behaviours such as grooming, teeth sharpening and relaxing…

red-squirrel_36983278925_ored-squirrel_36795330766_o

HighlandsAug17-2597HighlandsAug17-2602

HighlandsAug17-4181

I also didn’t want just close-ups…

HighlandsAug17-1289HighlandsAug17-1293HighlandsAug17-1724

 

…but also more distant shots that show-cased the forest, the heather and how small the squirrels really are in the grand scheme of things.  I came away happy that I’d achieved this.

red-squirrel_36983282045_ored-squirrel_36983353045_o

HighlandsAug17-2040HighlandsAug17-1126

 

– and much as I was trying for images without nuts, that’s not to say I don’t have hundreds of those too!

red-squirrel_36174307313_ored-squirrel_36795339056_ored-squirrel_36147390614_o

HighlandsAug17-1262

They made me laugh out loud more than once.   One squirrel, by the sound of it, was desperately trying to get into Neil’s locked strong-box where he stored the nuts.  It then ran across the roof and all of a sudden, stuck it’s head into the hide, disappeared and did the same thing at the other side of the window.  I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or the squirrel.  One also jumped onto a window ledge and sat looking at me for a minute – sadly too close for me to focus on.

When the squirrels chase one another they make little squeaking noises which was quite sweet.  Very hard to photograph the interactions though as they move so very quickly.  It’s also difficult to get pictures of them bouncing through the heather – great to watch though!

HighlandsAug17-2125HighlandsAug17-1234

I’ve seen a few photographs of red squirrels mid-leap – great images, and it’s a shot I’ve wanted to try.  Neil has set up a jump.  The idea is to manually focus in the gap, using a stick which is then removed.  When the squirrel starts to jump, you start taking pictures and hope that one in the sequence is sharp!  The D500 was perfect for this, it takes so many images very very quickly.  Therefore I had quite a good hit rate.  Only problems were 1. the jump was on the side with little other squirrel action, so I  more often than not didn’t see the squirrel in time.  Or 2, the squirrels had sussed out that they could by-pass the jump altogether and leap straight up onto the ledge with the nuts.  Frustratingly they almost all used the jump after having a nut, but were facing the wrong way!!

Here’s the set-up looking from the hide:

Highlands_redsquirrel_Aug2017_raw-1385

I have to admit much as I’m really pleased with the jumping images I took I do feel a little like a fraud – it was a set-up after all and I almost think these kind of shots are comparable to the diving kingfisher set-ups which I’ve always steered clear of…  But!  That said, I’m happy to have achieved them.

red-squirrel-jumping_36174820523_ored-squirrel-jumping_36795848296_o

Not long after I arrived, a crested tit came down to steal a nut.  It appeared a few times, mostly on the one visible feeder (on the odd occasion when a squirrel wasn’t attached to it). I also captured it once whilst it sat in the heather. Not the best shots, but they are a bit different.  There were quite a few chaffinch and coal tits, the latter of which would chase each other through the hide.

Highlands_crestedtit_Aug2017_png_c-0977Highlands_crestedtit_Aug2017_png_c-2498Highlands_crestedtit_Aug2017_png_c-2513HighlandsAug17-2075

All in all it was a great day.  It’s not the cheapest red squirrel hide you’ll visit, but it is a good one and, if there’s snow on the ground when I’m next up in March I’ll be sure to go again. I love all the images, but I’ll sign off with my favourite.

red-squirrel_36174298963_o

If you’re interested in prints or greeting cards of any of my images please visit http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk or, if you can’t find what you’re looking for please get in touch karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk

 

 

 

My kind of wildlife images

I spend a lot of time looking at photographs of wildlife – it’s a great way to learn more about the animals and the possibilities there are for capturing amazing images of them.  But nothing beats actually being out in the field observing them in the flesh.  My aspiration when it comes to wildlife photography is to stick to a few species and spend as much time as is possible watching them.  Not as easy as it might seem, none of my target species are close to home, so for the time-being I have to rely on vacation time, but as I love nothing more than sitting in the middle of nowhere for hours on end watching and photographing wildlife, there is no better way I can think of to use my precious holidays.

Over the past couple of years I have remained in Scotland (and Northumbria), focusing primarily on the Eastern Scottish Highlands, the Isle of Mull and East Lothian.   I don’t want to be one of those photographers who travels to far-flung places just to tick an animal off the list, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  For me, the thrill is observing animals natural behaviours and taking photographs that I find emotive and interesting. The more time you spend with them the greater the chance of achieving this.  Talking to other photographers is another great way to learn more, as is reading books on the subject.  I’ve just finished an excellent book by Marianne Taylor on hares “The Way of the Hare” which I’d highly recommend.

My target species are mountain hares, red squirrels, puffins, gannets and, my favourite animal of all, the otter. I’d also like to spend more time with beavers as I find them fascinating.

I’m going to let the photographs demonstrate what I’m trying to say.

HighlandsAug17-4181

I spent a wonderful day in Neil McIntyre‘s new red squirrel hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate in the Cairngorms.  It’s set in Caledonian pine forest and when I was there in August the forest floor was covered in purple heather – stunning. I’m going to do a full blog on this soon, but in the meantime…   just as I was packing up I spotted this little squirrel lying on a distant branch, probably exhausted after all the hazelnuts it had eaten throughout the day!  I’d never seen this before and finally managed to find an angle unobstructed by other branches.  I haven’t come across too many similar images (although I’m sure they exist!). Neil, who I consider to be “the squirrel guy” told me he’s never successfully managed to photograph this behaviour.

HighlandsAug17-1127

So many red squirrel photographs are close-ups of these adorable animals clutching a nut in their paws – I have hundreds of those.   But this is something a bit different, also from Neil’s hide.  This image instantly appealed to me.  I like the sense of scale and the light. The scots pine trees are huge and the red squirrels so small.

And finally, this red squirrel photo (yes, it does have a nut in its mouth) makes me smile!

HighlandsAug17-1763

This next squirrel was photographed high up a tree at the RSPB Loch Garten Osprey Centre – the benefit of having a cropped frame camera with a 150-600mm lens giving me a focal distance of 900mm.  It’s the first time I have ever seen a red squirrel eating natural food, not nuts.

HighlandsAug17-1527

 

My priority on my highland trips is to visit the mountain hares. I wrote a blog about this a while back, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but ever since I was first introduced to them by Laurie Campbell on the Aigas photography masterclass week I’ve been smitten. In the past year I’ve been up the hill seven times and spent many wonderful hours sitting observing and photographing these gorgeous animals.  They are definitely most active in the winter months when I witnessed all sorts of behaviour.

After an extensive grooming session, this one had a snow bath…

mountainhare02

Here are a few of it grooming – again these always make me smile when I look at them.

mountainhare21mountainhare22mountainhare26

In August, again with the gorgeous purple heather carpeting the hillside, I was able to focus more on facial expressions.  I love the look on this animal’s face.

HighlandsAug17-1956

I had hares yawning and sticking out their tongues…

HighlandsAug17-2022HighlandsAug17-1789

And finally this pair, having a snooze.

HighlandsAug17-2193

Puffins are also fantastic to watch and photograph.  I’ve written about this year’s two trips already, but here are a couple of images to show the kind of pictures I like.

The first is so romantic, the way the puffin on the left is looking up to the one on the right is lovely.  The second is another one that makes me smile.  This puffin spent ages trying to detach these grasses for its nest, without a lot of success, but it did put a whole lot of effort into it!

farneislands_june2017-3422_croppuffin21

I haven’t yet really taken any photographs of otters that I’m 100% pleased with – but I’m on an otter workshop later this year so fingers crossed!  I did photograph this gorgeous otter cub in the Scottish Borders but the light wasn’t great.

otters3

Finally, it is possible to find some species to photograph without leaving my bedroom!  During the spring I spent many enjoyable hours sitting at the window photographing garden birds in my neighbour’s cherry tree.  I can watch birds all day!

bluetit8

For prints or greeting cards of any of my images please visit http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk or contact me karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk