It’s rather hard to believe that we are already back in December, and that we are getting into the last of the calendar series for this year! Over the last twelve months it’s been rather different (bit of an understatement there, Tom), with changes to everyone’s schedules and activities. For much of it we have been tethered to our local areas, resulting in a large focus on what’s on our doorstep, rather than heading off looking for subjects around the country or abroad.
But as much as it’s been a shake up to the schedule, it has provided a great opportunity to reconnect with the wildlife we have at home. As December gets underway there are some great subjects to be looking out for, so here are a few ideas to keep you away from the Xmas shopping!
Looking out of the window here in Hertfordshire over the last few days, I’ve had so many great views of red kites. It’s rather amazing to think that only a few decades ago these guys were on the edge of extinction in the UK. Reintroduced in Wales and the Chilterns, kites can now be seen throughout much of the country and are a wonderful subject to get out and look for this month.
Red kites for the most part are carrion feeders, so spend a great amount of time drifting over arable land alongside roads and scrubland looking for a potential meal, generally in the shape of road kill. Additionally, they like to look for scraps like worms and other bugs that have been churned up by farm machinery, or even waste food in some more urban locations, be this on the outskirts of towns or over rubbish tips.
Finding kites can be relatively easy at this time of year: head to a rough high point with a decent outlook and scan the sky for a large bird flapping intermittently in a graceful manner. The obvious brownish red and slate grey are unmistakable, and the forked tail is a dead giveaway. From a distance, using binoculars, it’s often best to first try and work out where the kites are feeding. Sometimes birds will just be passing, making photographic opportunities more fleeting, whereas when they have found food there is a much greater chance of a prolonged encounter. Watch out for diving activity or multiple birds circling in an area for an indication of this.
Working from a car can be the most effective technique, providing you with mobility and essentially giving you a portable hide to shoot from. Pull up safely alongside road edges where the birds are feeding, and work from the window on a beanbag with a long lens. Often for this style of work you’ll be needing a longer focal length for frame-filling images – likely 400mm or more. However, telephotos of around 200mm can also be used for a more environmental style of image. This is especially favourable in moody conditions when skies are dark, and the simple silhouette or shape of the bird can be enough for a creative composition.
When working with birds in flight, often you’ll be fighting the sky in regard to exposure, so compensation is key if you want some detail in the underside of your subject. Overexposing by 2/3 of a stop can be about right to bring back some shadows. Going full high-key can also work well, overexposing a little more for a full white background.
Red kites are a great subject to get out and look for; you’ll soon be spotting them all the time and wishing you had the camera when heading for the food shop, as I so often do!
Speaking of the food shop – although the supermarket might not seem the height of photographic potential, for one subject in the winter months it can be the perfect location. Waxwings are truly a winter highlight. If you’re lucky, these stunning birds – pale buff pink in colour with a gorgeous flash of yellow on the wing – can be found locally, wintering in the UK in order to escape the much harsher winters of Scandinavia. Depending on the berries or lack of them across the water, the UK can sometimes experience boom years when larger numbers of the birds make the jump over to our shores in order to strip our trees of berries and fruit throughout the winter. These years can see large masses of waxwings finding their way to the UK and offering some great opportunities for images.
Tracking the birds down however can be a little tricky, as they are often only in locations for limited time periods, making the most of the berries before heading on. One tip is to look out for the rowan tree – laden with berries, these are a favourite of the birds. The reason that you therefore might want to pay some extra attention on the supermarket run is that the carparks are often lined with these trees. Yes, you might look a little odd standing in the carpark with the tripod and long lens, but it’s certainly worth it to get close to these beauties! It’s a good idea to keep your eyes on the local bird groups for news of waxwings in your area, and when the conditions are good with harsh cold frosts and blue skies, be sure to refresh the sightings in the morning to see if any have been spotted in your direction.
When you find some, often they will be busily feeding, and this can allow for some close-up photography. Working with a telephoto, look for clean backgrounds that offer good separation between subjects, and move yourself to try and work with some foreground foliage for a better depth in your images. If you are in a car park, be careful of the traffic and keep tripods out of the road!
Another staple of the winter months is the incredible natural spectacle of starling murmurations. Across the country, millions of starlings partake in aerial displays, swirling and enthralling anyone who watches. These murmurations can be found over large areas of rough ground or reedbed, but also in urban areas as well, where they roost in old buildings. A quick Google search of your local area will likely throw up a few potential locations within a short drive. Some areas have far larger murmurations than others, but even the smaller spectacles can make for some great images.
In order to get the best out of them, this type of photography will often require multiple visits, with you needing to return again and again in order to firstly get to know where the birds congregate and bed down for the night, and also just to increase your opportunities for good activity. Weather is a key consideration, both for activity and photographic conditions. Cloudy, overcast days, and especially those with rain, are not ideal, with the birds often only showing for a limited time before heading to roost. Cold, calm days with bright skies are the best bet, making for a higher likelihood of good bird activity.
Be sure to arrive early to any location, often at least an hour before sunset, depending on how far the walk to the roost is. When shooting, you can work close or wide; use a telephoto to zoom in on the details of the mass numbers of birds together, or pull back a little and use a wide lens for a more environmental and contextual appeal. I often find having my 24-70mm on one camera and a 70-200mm on my other body gives a great range of options, and due to the less restrictive need for super telephotos, starling murmurations are a great spectacle for any photographer to get out and shoot.
Tripods can be great for locking in images and then using a remote to fire the camera, allowing for slower shutter speeds to showcase the motion of the birds, or you can up your ISO and work with faster shutter speeds to freeze the patterns and shapes that are created as the birds move through the air. Watching a mass of birds dancing through the sky is something rather phenomenal, and as much as you’ll want to be shooting images, do take a moment to take your eye from the viewfinder and just enjoy some of the UK’s wildlife at its best!
Some good locations to get out and look for starling murmurations include:
- RSPB Minsmere
- Aberystwyth Pier
- Catterick, North Yorkshire
- Battersea Bridge, London
- RSPB Frampton Marsh
- Eastbourne Pier
- RSPB Leighton Moss
So that’s it for what has been a bit of a crazy year. Stuck inside, restricted with our movements, we really have had to make the most of the subjects on our doorsteps. It’s amazing to think just how much wildlife can be found close to home, and the number of photographic opportunities that are right here in the UK. I have always found working close to home has helped me produce some of my best work, and by having local projects you can keep coming back, and this will certainly help you develop your own shooting.
Time is always the greatest asset we have as wildlife photographers, so trading time in the car heading off to distant locations for more time with local subjects can be an important way to focus more on our creative eyes as photographers. Staying close and working harder, rather than just hunting down a more glamorous subject in the hope that it will make a better image, is certainly something worth remembering.