Read Tom Mason’s top wildlife photography recommendations for the month of February – just because it’s cold, doesn’t mean you can’t shoot!
Male and female stonechats: perfect subjects for February. All images by Tom Mason
So it’s February, the days are slowly getting longer and the first signs of spring are certainly on the way. Snowdrops are out and although it’s a short month, there is a lot happening in the wildlife calendar!
For us wildlife photographers, this is a great time to be out shooting, with the still short days often giving wonderful low-light conditions, while the turbulent weather presents multiple opportunities for a variety of images. This month I’m focusing on three birds that are certainly worth getting out in search of: the short-eared owl, the stonechat, and something of a wild card for the more adventurous, the ptarmigan.
Short-eared owls (a.k.a. shorties)
For me, the shorties are a subject that signifies wintertime. Of course they are found in the UK all throughout the year (restricted to upland areas and coastal islands for breeding), but in the winter, bolstered by European migrant birds, their numbers increase. With them working hard to hunt for food, they are both more visible and found in a much larger range of areas, making them perfect to get out and look for in February.
A short-eared owl in the landscape
Where to find them
Two words: rough grassland.
Short-eared owls hunt for small mammals, and in order to find a high number of these, you’ll be looking for rough grassland. Areas of long grass, with tufts and short sections mixed in, are perfect. Also, areas that are a little higher than surrounding flood meadows are often the most fruitful, as they provide an island out of the flood water for the small mammals, making for a rather perfect hunting ground for the shorties.
Huge numbers of shorties are found along coastal grasslands and nature reserves, with popular areas often having high densities of owls within the space of only a couple of fields. A good way to find out about local activity is to go on local bird-watching forums and groups, where sightings are often reported, giving a good indication of locations to visit.
When you get to a location, scanning with binoculars is often the best way to locate the owls. They fly low, so look for a large, light brown bird with slow, regular wing beats between glides, moving up and down. They will often fly for a few minutes before perching up on a fence post or prominent branch, sometimes leaving and returning to the same location multiple times. A good chance to slowly get a little closer. When they’re changing direction, their wings will quickly turn upwards before diving down onto a vole, and even at a distance this can be a sure giveaway of a shortie. Once you’ve got your eye in you’ll soon be spotting them with ease!
Some good spots include:
- RSPB Nene Washes
- RSPB Bempton
- RSPB Rainham Marshes
- Elmley Marshes
- Severn Beach waterfront
When it comes to kit, it’s often about reach for shorties. Sometimes they come close, but in most cases you’ll need something in the range of 300-600mm, depending on the style of image you’re going for. Super telephotos with wide apertures will give you the best flexibility to work with in the early dawn or as the sun sets, but with shorties often visible and flying all through the day, prosumer ultra zooms also offer a good solution.
I usually have my Nikon FX body on for better ISO performance, however a DX camera is also great for some additional magnification. I would certainly recommend a decent tripod or monopod, as when it comes to photographing short-eared owls there can be a lot of standing around, and so having the camera mounted and taking the weight off makes for a far more enjoyable day, as well as enhancing your support for those later-in-the-evening images, and maintaining good telephoto technique.
A short-eared owl in a tree
Photographing shorties can be a little tricky as although you are working with birds in flight most of the time, rarely are they above the skyline. As they make frequently unpredictable movements as they hunt for mice and voles, keeping pace can be a struggle.
You’ll want to ensure you are in AF-C (servo mode) for continuous focus, but then it comes down to a little trial and error and personal preference. I usually leave my Nikon DSLR in single point in AF-C. With the owls moving between different areas of foliage and flying low to the ground, group modes and 3D tracking modes often have a hard time keeping pace, so I tend to rely on myself to ensure my AF point is over the bird’s head. This is generally more reliable, and I’m well practised in it.
Exposure-wise, unlike when photographing birds in flight normally, we don’t really need to apply any overexposure to counteract backlighting from the sky, but we do need to pay attention to any hard light that may come in and out of frame, especially in the later evening or early mornings. This hard light can be used to great effect, underexposing to use the sidelight as a rim or main fill whilst dropping your background into deeper shadow for more dramatic images. If you are using auto metering modes, harsh sidelight can trick the metering as the bright highlights are only visible once the subject is crossing through the light. So be aware and ready to dial in some underexposure to ensure you don’t clip those white highlights under the wings! On cloudy days the exposure is a little simpler, but just be sure to push the ISO a little to ensure you have a 1/1000sec or greater shutter speed to freeze the action.
Using hard side light to capture a short-eared owl in flight
With that in mind, it’s often a process of long days standing on field edges hoping the owls come close enough for a few fly-bys. I’d recommend a flask, a down jacket, and a good packed lunch!
Other subjects for February
The stonechat is a fantastic little bird: buff orange in colour, the males with a darker head (more pronounced in the summer). They stand upright and squat on vegetation or fences, and can be wonderful subjects to spend many hours photographing.
A stonechat in bracken
What to look for
Finding stonechats can be relatively easy if the habitat is right – generally grassland with wooded edges and ferns is a good location, or along coastal dunes in winter, where the birds will settle up on higher pieces of fence, darting down to feed.
From a distance they can be easy to locate with their obvious “chat chat” call that, once you have your ear in, is easy to locate and differentiate from other sounds. The birds may move down a row of fencing or over rough ground, so slowly approaching and stalking while staying low to the ground can yield great results. The birds can be rather confiding (meaning they tolerate humans getting close), which means that it’s possible to get decent images even at 200 mm, with a little perseverance. A great location in London is Richmond Park, where in the winter stonechats can frequently be found in the ferns and around the playing fields.
A stonechat in portrait
With the birds a lovely buff orange, it can be nice to work to produce simple portraits through the foliage, especially using matching ferns. Getting low on the ground, find gaps in the vegetation to use as “windows,” photographing through them to isolate your subject and produce pleasing bokeh.
Dropping down to your widest aperture may seem the thing to do, but with small birds, having a little more depth of field ensures total sharpness, and as long as you’re parallel to your subject at close range, you’ll still get wonderful out-of-focus regions.
- Richmond Park
- RSPB Minsmere
- Cley Marshes
- Bradgate Park
- Coastal scrublands - countrywide
Wild card – the ptarmigan
So for this month’s “wild card” species I’m throwing in the ptarmigan! Arguably some of the UK’s coolest birds, these grouse are only found on the highest slopes of the country, at altitudes above 600 metres or so, and are hardy little fellows, spending the entire year in mountain conditions.
Get used to seeing snow if you're going to go looking for ptarmigan!
I’m going to get this out of the way early. If you’re not comfortable in the mountains, don’t go looking for ptarmigan! Even in the best weather, the UK’s mountains can be challenging places, and so if you want to find some, but aren’t one hundred per cent confident in your ability, book a guide! There are many photographers and mountain guides who know the locations and areas and will ensure you have a safer and more successful day. If you do go alone, check the forecast, dress appropriately, tell someone where you’re going. If in doubt, come down!
What to look for
Ptarmigan are ground feeders, so scanning the ground ahead is key. If not looking, the first you’ll see of them is a covey flying away! Look for patches of snow with vegetation showing through, as these are places the birds feed. Sometimes it can seem like nothing is visible but if you wait and sit for a while, often small movements will start to show the birds’ positions. Some groups can be rather confiding, especially those used by walkers and hikers, so in many cases, staying closer to known paths and routes offers the best chances for photographs.
What to shoot
Simple, clean, winter portraits look great and are a perfect goal for the first time out. Carrying just a single lens and camera is the best and easiest option, and favouring a long telephoto zoom will give the best scope. Leave the tripods at home and opt for resting the camera on a rucksack as this will mean you carry less stuff but can still support your telephoto lens.
Remember that when shooting on snow, you’ll need to overexpose to ensure those whites are white, working with the histogram to ensure you don’t clip any details. After shooting, be sure to wrap your gear in a large plastic bag, get the air out and then place it back in your rucksack. Then don’t open it as soon as you get inside, instead allowing a good few hours for it to warm slowly, reducing the risk of internal fogging!
If you can stand the cold, ptarmigan are perfect candidates for soft, white portraits
The Cairngorm ski centre is a great place to start
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