Olympus 300mm F4 Pro more observations

Well it’s still very much early days for me with the Olympus set up, and I still have a nice warm glow about the system. Thus far my only gripe is the autofocus on the E-M5 MKII. To be fair I kinda saw this coming, the E-M5 MKII is a cash saving compromise for me at the moment, as I just couldn’t bring myself to splash the cash for an E-M1 MKII which has an auto-focus system designed for sports and wildlife photography as well as the 300mm F4 Pro lens and MC-14 extender.

For example, what I’ve noticed is that with a stationary bird in reasonable light the E-M5 copes admirably and locks on without too much fuss in a manner not dissimilar to many APS-c DSLR’s, however, once the light levels drop or things start moving about, especially on a complex background the limitations of the EM5 MKII auto focus system become apparent. I’ve found myself on a few occasions having to snap the manual focus clutch in to place (which by the way is a very nice touch if you need to quickly flip into manual focus by sliding back the focus ring on the lens body), to rescue focus that the E-M5 has completely lost, but hey, I’m tracking small birds here in dense undergrowth, so let’s not be too harsh.

What is still apparent is the quality of the lens. Even when I’ve failed to hit my focus target, there is often an area in sharp focus such as the birds feet which demonstrate how sharp the lens is. It’s going to be interesting when we travel to mid Wales in a few weeks time to see how the E-M5 copes with Red Kites at the Gigrin farm Kite feeding station.

For now, I’m still happy, as long as I can stay patient until the E-m1 drops in price.

Olympus 300mm F4 PRO first impressions

Well it’s been a while since I let my Canon big glass go due to my ageing frame complaining about carting the weight around. I’ve been using our trusty Canon 400mm F5.6 since letting the 300mm F2.8 go, however, now that Helen has fully embraced the joys of telephoto photography we decided it was time to invest in a second telephoto lens to avoid arguments.

After much googling and rumination we decided to invest in a M43 lens, as I’d already been using a Panasonic GH4 for video work and panoramas for a couple of years. After comparing the two M43 telephoto options on our shortlist, the Panasonic 100-400 and the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO we finally decided, on the basis of looking at images and reviews, to go with the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO plus the matching MC-14 1.4 teleconverter.

Our primary interest in this lens is from the perspective of shooting birds, so the lens first real test was a Treecreeper close to our local canal.

At the time these shots were taken, I was still waiting for the teleconverter to arrive, so the shots were with just the 300mm lens, mounted on an Olympus EM-5 MKII.

The distance and size of the subject meant that the Treecreeper was quite small in the frame, so this is a good test of the lenses ability to stand up to a tight crop, a scenario that most of us photographing small passerines are used to.

Here is the full frame image

And here is a close crop of the same image

Bearing in mind that these shots are hand held, I have to say that I’m already extremely impressed with the Olympus lens. The lens has an in built stabiliser system which operates in addition to the sensor based stabiliser on the Olympus EM-5 MKII. The combined effect is quite amazing. As you look through the EVF, on half depressing the shutter release the stabilisers kick in and the image you are presented with magically transforms, looking like you’d suddenly put it on a tripod (I’ve read that Olympus hand select the gyro sensors for these lenses and I can well believe it!)

There’s obviously a lot more to think about with this combination. I’m interested to see how it’s close focusing (down to 1.4 metres would you believe) works for dragonflies and other small subjects like lizards, and there’s also still the question of how well the auto focus performs over time compared to equivalent DSLR combos.

I’ll endeavour to keep posting about this lens, as I didn’t find a lot of information online for bird photographers about it.  First impressions though are immensely positive, roll on June and our trip to Mid Wales where I’ll be seeing how the Olympus combo copes with Red Kites.

 

Kingfishers nesting again

The breeding season is upon us again and the Kingfishers have returned to the bank at Shugborough. With last year having been blighted by 2 nest burrows being destroyed by badgers, this year I’ve fortified the top of the bank with a large metal grid. The kingfishers started their burrow early March, but after I spent time placing the grid above the burrow, they then decided to move a few feet upstream, so I had to move the grid. Hopefully they’re settled now and I’m just hoping that this year they can have a better season and raise 2 or 3 broods.

Kingfisher roundup

female-2014a-800I last posted about the Kingfishers on the Trent back in June, so I thought it was about time I posted an update to summarise what happened after the first nest was dug out by a badger.

Unfortunately I have to report that the badger came back and predated the second nest burrow, after which the kingfishers abandoned the nest bank . I don’t know whether the adults survived the second attack, but after it happened in early July, I have only seen a solitary adult bird within the territory, which is not a good sign.

On a more positive note, I’m happy to report that the nest site a couple of miles downstream that was abandoned a couple of years ago was once again host to a pair of Kingfishers. This nest site, opposite a viewpoint at a local nature reserve gave many people the opportunity to watch young Kingfishers learning to fish in late summer and gives me some confidence that there are a good number of birds holding winter territories ready for the 2015 breeding season, when I hope the Shugborough nest bank will be host to a breeding pair again.

The making of Dragonfly

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andy-blackdarterWhen it came to thinking about a new film project after working with Kingfishers for several years, the idea for making a life-cycle piece about dragonflies was already at the back of my mind. I’d made a couple of 90 second shorts the previous year featuring dragonflies, and my wife and I had enjoyed studying and photographing these fascinating creatures for a number of years.

Adult dragonflies usually start emerging around May, with different species emerging at different times throughout the spring and summer months, and so it was in May 2013 that filming for the dragonfly project got underway.

The first footage shot was for the Chaser mating sequence, with male Broad-bodied Chasers dueling for the right to mate above a small pond at a local nature reserve.

Ensuring that you’re in the right place at the right time is probably the most important consideration for natural history film making. Many key behaviours happen over a brief period of time at a specific time of the year, and the consequences of missing one of these windows of opportunity may be that you have to wait twelve months for another.

emergence-set-upOf all of the key behaviours that I needed to film for the project to work, probably the most crucial was the emergence sequence. My plan was to film one of the Southern Hawker dragonflies that live in our garden pond emerging, the logic behind this being that using my own garden would overcome logistical problems, including the need to power cameras and lights during a 12 hour overnight filming stint.

In the end the emergence sequence filming worked out even better than I’d hoped. Most Hawker dragonflies emerge from the water during the night, so the sequence of events from larvae to dragonfly is usually shrouded by darkness. I had taken this into account and rigged up lights to enable me to film the sequence through the night. However, as luck would have it, two dragonfly nymphs decided to begin their emergence process just before dawn. With coffee on tap to keep me awake (I’d been up all night at this point) I filmed the complete emergence sequence seen in the film during daylight, on what turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. While the originally planned night-time shots would have worked in the film, the footage shot in daylight looks far more appealing and enables the viewer to really appreciate the delicate beauty of an emerging dragonfly.

Another aspect of the dragonfly’s life-cycle that I wanted to highlight was the aquatic phase. To get the footage, my wife and I ended up with 5 small aquariums in our conservatory, dressed to replicate a pond environment as closely as possible, using sediment and vegetation from our own pond. We then went pond dipping and ended up with nymphs representing several species that we introduced to the tanks. Many hours were spent observing the tanks with cameras at the ready, and the results are what you see in the film.

on-locationOnce all of the footage had been collated, the process of developing the narrative for the film got underway. I had a pretty good idea how the final film would be constructed, although in the course of development many changes were made, including the omission of some cherished footage that just didn’t support the narrative of the film.

Another piece of good fortune came about when I was looking for a suitable soundtrack for the film. I came across a website where a large selection of copyright free classical music was available. While looking through the catalogue of music on the site I noticed that some of Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’ suite was available from a performance by the US Air Force Military Band. As soon as I listened to Venus from ‘The Planets’, I knew it would be perfect as the main theme for the film.

The editing of the film was done using Sony Vegas Pro and took about 3 weeks, working 2-3 hours most evenings. The narration was added first, and once again the process of developing the narration was iterative, as some of the script that seemed to read well, just didn’t sound right when paired with the visual elements. I tried to develop and maintain a flow within the film, using the music to emphasize the action. The whole process was fairly organic, with many scenes being reshaped several times before I was happy with them.

In the end, I can say that I am really very happy with the final result. The response to the film has been really positive, I was amazed to win Best Documentary at the BIAFF 2014 Film Festival, and a further award at the International UNICA Film Festival in Slovakia. Even more surprising was the nomination for a Panda Award at the Wildscreen Festival, where my self produced film is in competition with professional wildlife film makers.

Dragonfly is available to view online in full HD here https://vimeo.com/76976406

Dragonfly wins another award

darter-closeup

I’ve had more great news about Dragonfly, my 15 minute film about the life history of these colourful insects. After winning best Documentary at the BIAFF Film Festival, Dragonfly was presented as part of the UK film program at UNICA the European Film Festival for amateur film makers held this year in Slovakia. I’m proud to say that the film has won a prestigious  Diploma of Honour at the festival. I’ll be travelling down to Startford in October to receive the award as Slovakia was a bit far to travel for me 🙂

Feeding young

feedintonest

After the failure of the first nest burrow, the kingfishers wasted no time excavating a new burrow. A month later and for the first time this year I’ve seen fish being taken into the nest, a sure sign that the eggs have hatched and the adults are now feeding young. The new burrow is lower on the bank than the first, so I am hoping that it will be out of reach of the badger that destroyed the first nest. The location of the nest is a difficult balancing act for the kingfishers to pull off. Too high and the nest can fall victim to predators from above, but too low and the nest becomes vulnerable to flooding and other predators such as mink. It really is a dangerous business for the kingfishers.

In the burrow after hatching

Observing the inside of a kingfisher nest in real time via the web cam set up by the Nature Channel in Holland offers a unique glimpse into the world of kingfishers. Here is a selection of stills from inside the burrow.

 

Facts and figures

In addition to the live camera feed, the Nature Channel website in Holland site has a clubhouse where volunteers monitor the kingfisher nest ( and other nest cams) 24 hours a day. The volunteers keep a record of how many times the chicks are fed each day and by which of the adults (fortunately the infra-red camera makes it easy to spot the lighter coloured lower part of the beak on the female).

Now that the chicks have fledged I have some statistics to share:

7 eggs were laid, 6 hatched after 1 egg was accidentally knocked out of the nest by parent.

24 days + 20 hours after the first chick hatched at 11:57 April 12, the 6th chick left the nest at 08:11 May 7.

During the first week the parents spent a large amount of time brooding the chicks, the female more than the male, who took on a larger percentage of the feeding at this time.

By day ten the adults were spending much less time brooding the chicks and the feed rate climbed significantly, the female bringing in significantly more fish than the male at this time.

The female continued to brood overnight in the nest with the chicks for eleven nights after the eggs hatched.

From day 10 to day 15 the highest feed rates were recorded, with 3 days of over 100 fish being fed.

By the time the chicks left the nest both parents had fed the chicks a similar number of fish, the male 577 (36%) and the female 594 (37%) (assuming that the 422 (26%) of feeds the counters were unable to attribute were evenly spread). In total 1593 fish were fed to the chicks.

The daily feed graphs showed that feeding commenced each day within a few minutes of sunrise, and finished in the hour before sunset.

Throughout the feeding period, the individual parents fed at irregular intervals, sometimes making several visits to feed within a space of a few minutes, while at other times they were absent for an hour or more. Despite this erratic behaviour, the cumulative efforts of both parents tended to even out during the course of a day, with the graphs showing a steady supply of fish being presented every day.

This graph shows a distinctive bell curve as the feed rate built to a peak and then tailed off towards the date when the young fledged.

This clutch of youngsters all left within a period of around an hour, the first chick exiting shortly after sunrise 6:19 local time (5:19 BST). Records from previous clutches at this nest site have shown that each clutch has left at a similar time, shortly after sunrise.

overall-feeding

This graph depicts the breakdown of the 1593 fish fed. Blue shows the male count, red the female and green shows fish fed where it was not possible to identify the adults gender. During the final few days the size and voracity of the chicks, taking fish at the nest entrance, made it increasingly difficult to identify which parent was feeding.

 

The graphs below show the feed count and feed times for each day (click thumbnail images to view graphs).

 

All six chicks fledge in Holland

IJsvogelNest-075812IJsvogelNest-080256

Great news from the Nature Channel webcam site in Holland. On May 7th Between 5:20am uk time and 7:11am all six chicks left the nest. From the time the first chick hatched around 11:00am on April 12th, the chicks spent just short of 25 days in the nest being cared for by their parents.

On the facts and figures post page you can read more about some of the interesting statistics that were gathered by the volunteers on the site.

The guilty party?

badger

After a week monitoring the top of the kingfisher nest bank with a trail camera, shortly after midnight on Saturday the camera recorded this image of a large mammal right on top of the kingfisher burrow that had been dug out a few days earlier. It is a badger, and the other shots I have show it moving off along the bank shortly after this shot was taken. I had seen a trail in the grass that appeared to be evidence that something was regularly foraging along the bank,  so I thought that whatever had predated the nest would return sooner or later.

The kingfishers have already dug a new burrow and have begun mating. The new burrow is a few inches lower than the first, but with a badgers sense of smell I don’t think it would be safe, so I will be securing the surface with a large metal grid in the next few days.

 

 

Nest predation

nest-predation2

While everything has been going well with the Dutch kingfishers, on the Trent things have taken a disastrous turn. My local birds appeared to have been running about 2 weeks behind the dutch birds and I was expecting to see fish being taken into the nest this weekend. On arrival this morning at the nest site I sensed something was wrong, both birds were outside the nest flying upstream and downstream and perching below the nest borrow entrance. The female wouldn’t enter the burrow, and while the male entered, he came out immediately.

My usual viewpoint is on the opposite bank from the nest, so I had to drive and walk across a field to access the nest bank. As soon as I arrived I could see that the nest had been dug out from above, there were egg fragments on the ground, and a hole going straight down to the nest chamber, which was about 10 inches below the surface.

nest-predation1This has happened before at this site, in 2011 the same thing happened, so I had placed a metal grid above the nest chamber for each of the last two years. The metal grid I’d placed above the nest this year looks like it was just a bit too far back, and the unknown predator had dug down at the side of it. I’d assumed the nest would be about 3ft from the bank face, but unfortunately it was only about 18 inches deep, so it remained exposed, despite my efforts to protect it.

I had thought that it was the noise of chicks in the nest that might bring about this type of raid, however, this nest obviously still contained eggs, so I’m assuming that the predator was using scent. It’s probably fair to assume that the regurgitated pellets that the kingfishers use to line the floor of the nest chamber must have a fairly pungent scent.

The only positive I can take from this is that both adult birds appeared to be fine. If they dig a new burrow I will use a larger grid to try and ensure that the burrow is protected. It does concern me though, that if this has happened twice in three years at this location, how often is this happening at un-monitored kingfisher nests along the river.

A little miracle

Since discovering the Dutch Nature Channel website with its live webcam feed from their kingfisher nest bank, I have been checking in most days to watch the adults brood the eggs and slowly fill the floor with tiny bone fragments from the pellets they’ve been regurgitating.

Today, twenty days after the adults began brooding at around 11am (UK time) the first chick emerged. Here is a video of the event.

Having observed Kingfishers for over ten years, being able to witness this event is a real treat for me. It’s one of the best things about modern internet technology, to be able to share such a privileged view of the natural world.

All 6 eggs have now hatched (a seventh egg was accidentally knocked out of the nest about a week into brooding). The first 5 have all hatched within the space of two hours, with the final chick emerging about 4 hours later… quite remarkable!

 

Kingfishers – inside the nest burrow

nestcam2The kingfishers that I have been observing nest in a natural burrow in a fairly fragile bank, so it’s pretty much impossible to know what’s going on inside the nest chamber, however there are now a couple of places online where you can not only see clips of behaviour from inside a nest burrow, you can actually observe the entire process live!

The Nature Channel  – (Holland)

This camera site is based in Holland. Follow this link and select the BroedwandCam for an external view of the nest bank or the IJsvogelnest for an interior view of the nest. I’ve been watching the resident pair for a couple of hours and it’s fascinating. You may find it tricky getting the streams to work, but stick with it as it’s well worth a bit of tinkering, and  if you’re using a Windows PC and Microsoft Internet Explorer you should find it easier. As I type this, the male seems to be uncertain what to do with the eggs, he turns up to relieve the female who seems to be getting brooding underway, but he just pops into the nest and comes straight out again, leaving the female to do most of the brooding, he doesn’t seem to know what to make of the eggs, hopefully he’ll get the hang of it.

Winnall Moor

This live streaming camera was set up by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust at their artificial nest site at Winnall Moor.

Here is a link to the live stream, although I’m not sure if it is running this year, as it seems to be off air as I’m writing this. However, here is a link to their youtube site, where some fantastic clips are available, depicting key moments in the incubation cycle from last year.

I highly recommend having a look!

 

Getting frisky

With the new nest burrow completed and accepted by the female, mating now appears to be in full swing. This years birds seem to be spending less time in proximity to the nest bank, the female seemed to be having to follow the male up and down stream, and when the male finally fronted up with a fish to pass to her, she was somewhere upstream so he ate it. I was beginning to wonder just how committed this male was, when he finally appeared opposite the female with a huge fish. He passed the fish to the female and after allowing here a few seconds to swallow it mating occurred.

The river level is ideal at the moment for the kingfishers and so far there is no sign of any mink on the river, fingers crossed that it stays that way!

2014 season underway

The kingfishers returned to their usual nest site on or around the 1st of March. The female could well be last years bird, although I always find it tricky being 100% certain about an individual bird’s ID after several months. The nest burrow looks like it’s already nearing completion, with a large pile of fresh dirt sitting beneath it. Both birds were present this morning, and there were vocal exchanges between the pair as they build up to mating. No sign of any fish passing or overt mating behavior yet, which I think is still probably a few days off.

I’ve been combing the banks looking for mink tracks, but so far I’ve seen no sign of mink in the vicinity so far.

Shugborough’s Kingfishers

This is a 15 minute film that I have made using the footage that I gathered during the 2012 breeding season. It follows the adults from pair bonding through to the end of a dramatic and incident packed breeding season. The film is in HD and can be viewed full screen if required.

2013 Season roundup

The Kingfisher breeding season finished a couple of months ago, so I thought I should post a somewhat belated update on the fate of the kingfishers second brood. My final update left things somewhat hanging in mid air with the male carrying a serious eye injury at the time the first brood fledged.

The sad truth is that the male was to all intents and purposes doomed from the moment he picked up that injury and shortly after my last post I saw him for the last time and he had sustained a serious breakage to the upper part of his beak.

The timing seemed terrible as the pair had already mated for a second brood and the female was laying eggs in the new nest burrow she’d excavated virtually single-handedly.

Incredibly, what followed was an incredible feat of single parent persistence. The female incubated the brood on her own and then proceeded to feed the young in the nest. Unfortunately due to illness I was unable to get prceise timings to try and observe the fledging or judge how many young she managed to fledge, but I know that she was taking fish into the nest burrow at a time that must have been within a few days of fledging, so I’m fairly confident that the second brood would have fledged successfully.

It’s likely that the brood size would have been reduced as the female was feeding on her own, but either way, I think its pretty impressive that this female managed to handle incubation and feeding on her own over a period of 6-8 weeks.

It’s also worth mentioning that other than a couple of sightings early in the year, this stretch of the river has been free of mink this year.

Well, that’s it really for this year. There are kingfishers present on the river and as we edge towards winter they are all settling into establishing their solitary winter territories.

Hopefully next year we’ll manage to avoid flooding and predation for a second year and hopefully next years adults will prove to be less accident prone.

Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival Sunday 8th September

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Well, earlier in the year I had a visit from a film crew and Philippa Forrester.

I’m now allowed to tell you that it was taken during the filming for Britains Big Widllife Revival. The segment will be part of the rivers programme that will be shown on Sunday 8th September on BBC1 at 5:35pm.

gbwr-1

As you may well have guessed if you’re familiar with our photostream, the subject of the filming was Kingfishers, and although the weather was a bit iffy, it did at least stay dry and the Kingfishers performed for Phillippa on the day.

I may well be appearing on film on Sunday, so if you fancy a laugh, tune in and find out if I manage to get through an appearance on national television without making an idiot of myself!

btw: I’m the one in the red life jacket that’s not Phillippa Forrester 😉

Andy 🙂

First 2013 brood fledged!

I’m pleased to be able to report that the first brood has successfully fledged, or at least I think they have. The first youngster emerged on Friday morning at 7:30am but was not followed out by any others. The male continued to take fish into the burrow on Friday and then on Saturday morning a second young kingfisher emerged from the burrow. I don’t yet know if this is the extent of the brood or whether any more are going to emerge or are hiding somewhere and I’ve just not spotted them yet.

Either way it’s a relief to see the youngsters fledge after the problems with predation and flooding last year. On Saturday the female appeared to be doing all of the feeding, as well as keeping an eye on the young outside the nest. I’m hoping the male is OK as he really has been a bit of a hero, continuing to bring fish to the nest while carrying an eye injury for the last couple of weeks.

Fledgling about an hour after emerging

Fledgling about an hour after emerging

I have some footage of the youngsters which I’ll post as soon as I get chance to put another short film together.