From birds of prey to spiky friends, September is full of exciting wildlife within photographic reach. Tom Mason provides some photo tips
All images by Tom Mason
September, finally, my favourite time of the year!
While this might just be because it’s my birthday in September, more likely it’s because the ninth month always signals the start of some of my favourite photographic highlights. As autumn creeps around, everything starts to feel different: the cold freshness in the mornings, the smell of wet wood and leaves in the forest, and the burnt orange palette of colours coming through. It’s magical.
With the sun a little lower, the light improves daily, and with the shorter hours it also brings the chance for a bit of a lie-in to repair those panda eyes from the summer! Of course, wildlife is changing too, offering new opportunities to get out and explore photographically. So here are a few subjects that are certainly worth a look this September!
A little patience and planning can net you great images of these majestic birds
When it comes to birds of prey, kestrels are instantly recognisable for their characteristic hovering, an amazing feat of aerial skill. Kestrels spend a lot of time in flight stationary, hovering over roadside verges, arable land or even parks in city centres, their eyes fixed on the floor for a meal. If you make the most of windy days, September can be a great time to get out and see kestrels on the wing.
Having declined in the 1970s – which was thought to largely be down to changing agricultural practices – kestrels have slowly been rebounding. They’re found throughout the UK, and you’ll be able to spot them just about anywhere, as long as the habitat supports an abundance of food. This can be anything from voles, shrews and mice to larger insects, worms and beetles. In September with youngsters independent and now on the wing, they can be a little less wary of humans while they focus on finding a meal, often providing opportunities to get closer for images.
Of course, being birds of prey, kestrels’ eyesight is impeccable, so in order to get close often some kind of concealment is best deployed. If you find a location where you’re regularly watching kestrels hunt, look for obvious perches that they return to, such as fence posts, dead protruding branches, or buildings. Situating yourself close by gives you the best chances for perched images. Working from a hide, parked car or under a scrim net will aid comfort for long stakeouts, as well as allowing the birds to become far more tolerant of your presence for continued photographic opportunities. If the ground is firm below your chosen perch, a handful of mealworms can provide a great additional temptation for the birds to sit and stay a little longer. Just be sure not to over-feed and encourage dependency. But a few well-placed handfuls can certainly be a lifesaver for first-year fledglings in the colder months.
Golden evening light is never a bad thing
When setting up for images, think about your position and framing ahead of time. Move to the perfect position and angle and get eye-level where possible for the most flattering portraits. Look for interesting foregrounds and backgrounds as you move around your chosen perch before entering your concealment, as once you’re in position, any movement is going to ruin your chances of a close encounter.
For most shooting purposes, you’ll need to be using focal lengths of at least 300mm, though if you find a more tolerant bird, a 200mm lens might suffice. Pre-focus once you’re set up, and often I find having a remote control in my hand useful so as to reduce movement for the first few frames when the birds drop in. If you see or hear the bird approaching (a repetitive “kia, kia, kia, kia”) – don’t move an inch. Let the bird settle in position. Once it’s down, shoot frames conservatively in order to get the bird used to the sound of the shutter – this is somewhere a silent mirrorless camera or DSLR in quiet mode comes in handy!
Take your time and shoot in short bursts for the best chances at keeping your bird in position for an extended session.
As kestrels are masters of flight, it’s also great fun to try and capture them on the wing. They are often far easier to pick up in the viewfinder than other birds of prey, staying still for sometimes 10 seconds or more. If you’re lucky and find one constantly hunting, watch the direction it’s moving and try and get ahead. Often kestrels will hover for a few moments before swooping a little further along a line and hovering again. You can use this to your advantage and get ahead, waiting in position for the bird to come to you. A far more effective way of getting close than trying to stalk the bird, as they will instantly see you!
As you’ll likely be shooting against the sky, you’ll need to accommodate with some overexposure, often around +2/3, in order to gain some detail in the underside. However, it’s best to work in the early morning or evening light when the sun is low; it’ll illuminate the underside of the bird, and result in a far nicer exposure.
Oystercatchers gather by the shoreline
With the summer drawing to a close in the far north, many shorebirds are already making their way south for the winter, looking to spend time on our shores and feed around our coastal habitats. September is a great time to get out and explore beaches and other tidal regions in search of oystercatchers and knots and other waders, which can be found all around the UK, providing great photographic opportunities.
Getting low is key here, as well as closing the distance between you and the birds. Scanning the shore with binoculars, make a mental note of the direction of travel of any birds you see, and then work to get ahead, giving them a wide berth so as not to cause disturbance. Once you’re in position, get low on the ground and work from a prone position – be sure to pack your waterproofs and wear clothes you don’t mind getting roughed up as you crawl, army-style, into position!
Patience and stealth can net you some fantastic images
In terms of camera support, a tripod can be great for static positions if you don’t plan on being too reactive with your subjects. However, if you want to move around, a beanbag can be more flexible, especially if you place it in an upturned frisbee to help it slide across the sand – pro tip right there! Do remember to take them away again though, as plastic frisbees have been playing havoc with wildlife in recent years.
Patience is the game here, as waders can be rather flighty. Be sure to take your time. Edge forwards slowly toward your subjects, or just let them come to you if they are moving in your direction. Due to the low angle, even smaller apertures of f8 from a super telephoto lens can render great backgrounds, so top-tier pro lenses aren’t a necessity, and more prosumer-level superzooms can make fantastic images, while also being far lighter for pushing around on the ground!
The low angle makes it easier to get this distinctive background
A whole day lying on the sand can be pretty tiring on the neck, so think about using your camera’s vari-angle screen if it has one, or using a right-angled finder. Your neck will thank you later!
With the winter closing in, hedgehogs, now more than ever, are getting stuck into some final feasting before looking out for a great hibernation spot! As wildlife photographers I always feel it’s our duty to do the little bit we can for our native and local wildlife, and so this month, if you’re able, why not help out your local hogs that sadly have suffered severe declines over the last few years, and are now endangered in the UK?
Often coming into gardens at night (if you’re lucky), hedgehogs can provide a great photographic subject. Leaving out a little dog or cat food (not fish based) can really help them out in the run-up to hibernation while also tempt them a little closer for images. Also be sure to leave out a little dish of water, but never milk, as this can cause diarrhoea and real issues for our spiky friends!
A furtive garden hedgehog
Using a patio light or some diffused flash, remote cameras can work well, or even just lying down outside and wait! As hedgehogs can be spooked easily, be sure to work slowly and shoot only a few frames at a time, especially if using additional lighting.
Having rescued a hedgehog with my girlfriend this year (Reggie is healthy and back in the wild after a few days at the vet!) why not also think about giving the little guys a home? A hedgehog house positioned under a hedge or bush within cover can provide great shelter for the winter, and by cutting a few holes in the garden fence (low on the ground), you’ll aid the hogs in getting around and finding a mate when spring rolls round again. This is a small effort you can make that would really help get these guys back off the endangered list!
So there you go, a few ideas for September. Have fun out there looking for kestrels on the wing, spotting shorebirds on the coast, and helping out the loveable hedgehogs! A great time for making some images, September really is the start of my year, as we move on into some of the best months for wildlife photography!
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