My image of a herring gull snatching a Cornish pasty recently won the Bird Behaviour category in the Bird Photographer of the Year Awards 2016. I also received a Highly Commended award for my lesser spotted woodpecker image in the Birds in the Environment category. Below, a slightly more beardy than usual me receiving a prize from Chris Packham (credit: Rob Read).
I've just had a 2 page conservation story published in the Daily Mail, highlighting the problem of marine litter in the UK and how it affects our wildlife. The piece also went out on the Mail Online, which is the most read online newspaper site in the world, so it's great exposure for the story. I spent last summer working with seabird scientists, researchers and conservationists to document their work, and at the end of the summer, I visited RSPB Grassholm, which lies 8 miles off the coast of Wales and supports 10% of the global population of northern gannets. The press piece focuses on the Grassholm gannets as they are the most severely affected by marine litter in the UK - mainly due to the island's proximity to ocean currents like the Gulf Stream, which brings floating debris into the heart of the gannets' foraging zones. The birds mistake discarded fishing lines and nets for strands of kelp and seaweed, and bring them back to the island to line their nests, but unlike kelp, these man-made plastic fibres are incredibly difficult to break free from once entangled and can be a death sentence. Hopefully some positive changes will come from publishing the story in an outlet with such a wide reach. You can read the online piece here and I will be putting up a new gallery of the full project very soon. Thanks to Wildscreen Exchange for helping me tell the story.
I've just returned from Saint Lucia, after being invited back by Anse Chastanet Eco Resort for the second time. Last time I was commissioned to showcase the amazing bird life that can be found on the island, which you can read about here. This time it was more of a holiday as a thank you for the previous job and for getting features out in UK birdwatching magazines to help promote the resort and island. I took my camera just in case and I'm glad I did as there were a few surprises in store...
Firstly, I arrived to find that critically endangered HAWKSBILL TURTLES were hatching right on the Anse Chastenet beach! Meno (pictured) told me that it was the second time that week hatchlings had been emerging and that there was at least one more batch of eggs that could hatch any day. Amazing!
The next surprise was the rain. The rainy season was pretty late and when I arrived, everyone was talking about how dry it had been - but that was about to change. It bucketed down from the second day, but fortunately the rain in Saint Lucia isn't as bad as in the UK and the showers are usually pretty short during the day, and they don't stop the sun from shining. In fact it provided some nice opportunities to capture some images like this spotted sandpiper on Anse Chastenet beach, where I used backlight from the early evening sun to highlight the raindrops.
There were a couple of birds I wanted to see this time that I didn't manage to see on my first trip, and top of the list was the rufous-throated solitaire or "mountain whistler" as it is known locally. I'd heard them singing previously at Des Cartiers, but I knew that the Edmund Forest Reserve was supposed to be better and there was a good chance of seeing some Jacquots there too. We only had a few hours to walk the trails, but we saw plenty of parrots (although too distant for pictures) and Smith who was guiding was red-hot at calling the solitaires down by whistling their song.
My next big surprise was an osprey fishing in the stream at Soufriere, just outside the resort. Meno had seen it in the early morning on the way in to work, so I thought I'd chance it the next day, knowing full well that the likelihood of it still being there was pretty remote. My luck was in though and although we didn't see it catch anything, it made a few attempts and some very close fly-bys. What a bird!
On the last morning of the trip, I went to Bouton to look for parrots, and found a golden apple tree with one feeding in it just before sunrise. It left just before it was light enough for pictures, so I spent the rest of the morning waiting and hoping that they'd return. Unfortunately, my luck had run out and they didn't show, but I kept myself busy watching this grey kingbird trying to swallow these fruits that were just a little bit too big to fit down its throat. Normally they are flycatchers, and I hadn't seen them do this before - it would toss the fruit in the air and open its bill as wide as possible, hoping it would land at the right angle to swallow. It must have tried for about 20 minutes, before it finally got it down!
If you are interested in seeing or photographing the birdlife of Saint Lucia, I am currently putting together a list of contacts for future tours, so please get in touch. Massive thanks to Karolin and Nick for the invite, Jonathan, Meno and all the resort staff for making sure we had such a great time.
BBC Wildlife Magazine (October 2015) has just published my gull feature, which I've been working on for the past couple of years. It follows a summer of hysteria in the British media about gulls attacking people and their pets and hopefully provides a refreshingly accurate take on the situation which looks at the latest research and science and interviews experts in the field - many of which I've had the privilege to work with during the project. We published the feature early due to the media frenzy this summer, so I'm still working on the project, but these are some of my favourite pictures that either made the feature or will hopefully be published when the project is complete.
Check out the most recent Outdoor Photography Magazine ( Issue 194 / July 2015) to see my Amsterdam Herons featured as a photo-showcase..
"Market day in Amsterdam is no ordinary affair. Mobs of grey invaders descend from the skies to congregate around the seafood stalls. The collective noun for a group of herons is a ‘siege’, and with 15 of them perched on the stands and surrounding buildings, this is what it feels like.
Amsterdam has a large population of grey herons, thanks to its network of canals and waterways, and the sight of a cunning heron sneaking up behind a fisherman to steal a prize fish from his bucket isn’t unusual. But the most adventurous birds have learnt that if they make the commute there are more lucrative ways to make a living at the fish markets in the city centre."
This month's Outdoor Photography Magazine features a piece about the wild raven I photographed earlier this year in the Canary Islands. The locals knew him as "Geronimo" and to say he was a character would be a real understatement. Copy attached below..
On a visit to the Canary Islands to photograph ground squirrels, Sam Hobson finds the star of the show is an impressive wild raven, called Geronimo, with a penchant for biscuits and peanuts thrown by passing tourists. It took quite an effort to get this epic shot
"Earlier this year, I went to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands to research a few conservation projects and shoot a photo story on the invasive Barbary ground squirrels that have colonised the island. I quickly found the squirrels, as they gather anywhere there are tourists, and I decided to use this to my advantage by shooting them in context with some nice palm-tree-lined promenades and beachside resorts in the background. After I’d got the more urban images, I headed out on the tourist trail; up into the mountains to search for locations where I could photograph the squirrels in front of the island’s typically arid landscapes. After studying the map, I chose the road with the most lookout points dotted along it. I’d heard about a few cool birds I might encounter on the way, such as houbara bustards, cream-coloured coursers and Egyptian vultures, so I was keeping my eyes peeled, but nearly everywhere we stopped there were ravens, either cronking in the sky above or perched only a stone’s throw away upon roadside fence posts. I’d never encountered wild ravens as bold as these – they seemed to be taking up the role of gulls or crows, which were notably lacking on the island, and were scavenging for pickings around the outskirts of towns and villages. We drove higher into the mountains and when we reached the first of the lookouts, it was a wildlife oasis. Barbary squirrels, or ‘chipmunks’, as tourists call them, were coming out of the woodwork, sparrows were hopping all around my feet and within a few minutes a pair of ravens had landed nearby. It soon became obvious why the wildlife here was so habituated and concentrated, as a tour bus pulled up and its passengers got out with various tidbits to feed the squirrels and birds. A little perplexingly to me at first, the bus driver started shouting ‘Geronimo! Geronimo!’ We soon spotted a massive raven flying up through the valley towards us, straight over the bus and landing on a post very near the driver. The other ravens and squirrels scattered and Geronimo quickly hoovered up all the biscuits and peanuts he could before taking off into the valley, leaving the tourists to continue on their journey. Over the next few days, I returned to that viewpoint to see Geronimo a number of times. After a while, he started to recognise me and became a bit more comfortable with my camera and flash. I set up this shot by placing a piece of flapjack on my lens hood, using a bit of fill-flash and standing back a few feet with a remote release to fire the shutter. Unfortunately, the only perches available were either fences or ugly looking concrete, so I had to lug the rock he’s standing on about half a kilometre to the scene, but it was definitely worth the effort. I wanted to capture some of his character so it was important to get him big in the frame, and by using a wideangle lens I could get as much of the valley behind him in as possible – I definitely think he comes across as king of the castle. Shouting ‘Geronimo’ into a valley and watching a majestic wild raven fly from the distant horizon towards me and landing by my side is a wildlife experience I’ll never forget."
Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm f2.8, SB700, Pocket Wizard +III
Outdoor Photography magazine, 185, Moment with Nature
It has just been announced that the goshawk (der habicht) will be pronounced "Bird of the Year" for 2015 in Germany. I have been out to Berlin a number of times to photograph the urban population of goshawks, so I'm pleased that NABU will be using my pictures for their campaign. It's really great to see this often persecuted bird of prey being championed and and brought into public awareness. They are using one of my images for the poster and you can also download a brochure with loads of information (in German) and some of mine and my friends pictures here: http://www.nabu.de/aktionenundprojekte/vogeldesjahres/2015-habicht/17210.html
My urban peregrines are featured on the BBC England site today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29381032
A nice mention for Ed's urban peregrine book which can be ordered here: http://www.pelagicpublishing.com/urban-peregrines.html
I also recently had a gallery in The Guardian dedicated to my photography: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2014/sep/12/urban-wildlife-in-pictures
A series of 6 pictures from my urban peregrine project has just been awarded in the documentary series category in this year's British Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards. One of the images was also chosen for the invitation to the awards ceremony on Wednesday night.
My urban peregrine project has been my longest term UK project to date, so it's really nice to see them in the biggest UK wildlife photography competition.
Just been away for perhaps my last trip out to Berlin for a while to photograph urban goshawks. I went out there for the 4th time over 2 years last week to photograph my friend Norbert and his colleagues ringing nestlings. This time I took Ben Hoare, the features editor at BBC Wildlife Magazine to meet everyone and get involved. We had a great week sampling plenty of Berlin's bars and saw some great wildlife - not just goshawks, but urban wild boar too! Ben will be writing the feature and it should be published with my pictures later in the year.
The picture above is a frame from a timelapse sequence I set going on a camera attached to Norbert's head. Interesting to see things from his perspective!
A portfolio of my peregrines is currently up on the BBC Wildlife Magazine website, featuring some of the images I've been working on for the past 2 years, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to write a bit about the project.
My relationship with peregrine falcons has been a long one. I can't remember my very first encounter, but I remember becoming aware of them when I was studying wildlife photography at university in Blackpool. During the term, I'd occasionally see them on the church in the town centre or perched near the top of "The Big One" at Blackpool Pleasure Beach - the world's tallest rollercoaster at the time. Always at a distance, I wasn't sure that I'd ever be able to photograph them. I first witnessed one hunting on a field-trip to Heysham Bay, where 50,000 knot would roost at high tide. Without warning, a large falcon appeared out of the blue and piled into the roosting birds, causing pandemonium. The knot twisted and turned, splitting into aerial spheres of thousands of birds before coalescing into a tight mass, all the while with the peregrine stooping and chasing until it secured a victory. Another memorable encounter was when an adult bird smashed through one of the large double-glazed university windows - presumably unable to pull out of a high speed stoop after a local pigeon. It was a sad sight to see such an electrifying creature suddenly so still and lifeless, but as most of the scientific illustration course's models were getting a bit old and tatty, the college had it stuffed and it became immortalised in ink and paint.
During the Summers, I worked on a boat in South Devon that went on wildlife cruises from the Exe out in to Lyme Bay and the Jurassic Coast. We'd see peregrines nearly everyday and this is when I started to get my eye in, and learnt to quickly pick out their shape against a blue sky or a cliff face.
Since then, I have always looked out for them in likely spots and in any city that I visit, I watch the pigeons for the tell-tale behaviours that give away a patrolling peregrines's presence in the sky above.
But it wasn't until I moved to Bristol in 2010 that I got to know a particular pair of peregrines intimately, learning their daily habits and routines. I moved in to a flat in Clifton between the Wills Memorial Building and Cabot Tower, keeping my eye on the Wills Building as it looked perfect for a peregrine. It wasn't long before I was rewarded and I started to see them regularly - I could even hear the occasional screech, kak or ee-chup if I left my window open.
On a dark night in November 2011, I stepped out for a walk and could hear the male calling loudly. I'd heard about peregrines using city lights to hunt nocturnally, but I never thought I'd see it for myself. I rushed over to the base of the building and saw a bird in the sky, glowing in the tower's up-lights. It was the female with a kill. It was late, so the streets were quiet, which meant I could run about in the road like a mad-man to try and catch the plucked feathers as they fell. They'd caught a lapwing migrating under the cover of darkness - not a common bird to see in the middle of the city. I was totally blown away.
After this encounter, I started to get interested in the urban peregrines' diet - they could show us exactly what unusual birds were flying over our heads while we were tucked up in bed. I began monitoring the Clifton pair and my other local pair in the city centre, and started to discover all kinds of curious goings-on. Whimbrels, woodcocks, cuckoo, golden plover, water rail, little grebe, dunlin, jack snipe, skylark and teal were all on the menu - and none of them city birds. You would think that peregrines living in the city would just prey upon the pigeons, but during some Winter months, pigeons were making up much less than a third of their diet. They were hunting nocturnal migrants almost exclusively. I guess why go after a street-savvy feral pigeon, that knows the city like the back of its wing, when you can pluck a tasty game-bird out of the sky? I realised Bristol was pretty well located for passage migrants - frozen ground or snow cover in the north would push them to the milder south-west.
My peregrine watching became a round-the-clock pursuit and I'd take any opportunity to stop in and see what I could find in the prey remains. Some times it would just be a feather or a foot, but occasionally after a storm, I'd find the peregrine's winter cache completely washed out. There'd be wings, legs, whole bodies and one time, even 3 whole woodcocks lying in the street in the centre of Bristol. It's pretty difficult to ID bird remains, even if they are whole - a lifeless lump taken out of context is surprisingly unfamiliar when you don't have behaviour and habitat to help. I asked a man well known for his peregrine studies - Ed Drewitt, for help and we became friends, brought together by a morbid fascination for bird bits. He taught me loads, and even though I am now able to identify most of what I find, I still have to go to him with the more unusual stuff. Ed has been studying urban peregrines for the last 15 years and has recently written a book about them, which will feature a lot about their diet and around 20 of my pictures, including this one on the cover - perhaps one of the best looking peregrines out there, the Bristol city centre tiercel.
As I spent more and more time learning about the peregrines' habits and behaviours, my pictures started to improve and I started to learn to predict when they would be active and where to be to best see and photograph them. Peregrines might be the fastest animal on the planet, but they can also be the slowest - particularly after a meal. You can literally wait 5 hours for 30 seconds of action, so learning to anticipate their behaviours has been pretty useful, if not for anything else than to save me getting cold and restless.
The picture above is a good example - it was a cold Winter's morning, after a period of rain during which this family's food cache had been lost, so I knew they were hungry. The solitary juvenile from that year's brood was still hanging around, begging and being tolerated and I knew the adult male had a sneaky half pigeon stashed away on a different building to their normal cache site. It was only a matter of waiting for him to sneak off and fetch it, which as soon as he did caused the other 2 to chase him until he gave it up - it might look like a food transfer, but in this case, that was the last thing on the tiercel's mind.
Below is an image of the same Bristol family - this juvenile male was always playing with his food, and here he's practicing flying whilst carrying the weight of a butchered pigeon. I like the way it shows his tail feathers spread open for extra lift and you can just make out his mother, keeping a watchful eye on him from the building behind.
Through working with peregrines, I've had the opportunity to meet and get to know others who share the same passion, which has led to some great photographic opportunities, including ringing the nestlings around Bristol and Bath, again with Ed Drewitt.
Probably my most memorable experience though, was watching the peregrines at Charing Cross Hospital being ringed. Urban peregrine falcon photography can be tricky as you're always looking up and it's sometimes difficult to get that urban context - a peregrine with a cityscape in the background is like the holy grail! Nathalie Mahieu, who monitors the family there gave me the chance to come along and take some pictures during the ringing. I was pretty excited, as we'd be up near the top of the hospital, looking out over a busy London skyline. That morning the sun had just started to peek through the clouds as we went up towards the roof to access the scrape and by the time we got up there, there was just enough light to get the shutter speeds I'd need to capture the birds in flight.
You never know how the parents will react when the chicks are being ringed. Sometimes they will just disappear, occasionally they will react at first, then settle down and watch from a distance - particularly if they have had their chicks ringed before, and sometimes they will remain vigilant and agitated - flying backwards and forwards, calling as they closely watch the proceedings.
After about 15 minutes the whole thing is over and it's as if nothing ever happened, but those 15 minutes can be pretty productive if you can hold your nerve and not panic when there's an adult peregrine falcon buzzing past just metres from your head.
I haven't quite finished with the peregrines and I still monitor my local pairs regularly, but now I'm mainly working on an urban goshawk project, that should be complete by the end of the Summer, so watch this space :)
You can see more from my urban peregrine project on my portfolio site.
Ed's book is out in May, and can be pre-ordered at the Natural History Book Store.
I'd like to thank fellow peregrine people - Ed Drewitt, Nathalie Mahieu, Terry Pickford, Stuart Harrington and Dave Morrison for their help and advice and fellow photographer Bertie G for keeping me on my toes with his many exclamations of "urban peregrine, comin' in hot!!!"..