Is it OK to edit photographs to improve an image? It's not's something I do very often (mainly because I'm not very good at it) but once in a while a photo seems to call out for a bit of tweaking. That's what I thought with this recent Cuckoo shot anyway. As long as it's not faking what happened or what I saw, I think it's perfectly acceptable to do this - after all it's only what darkroom photographers have done for years to improve shots. I'll let you be the judge.
I've just spent five days down in Kent, East Sussex and south-west Surrey looking mainly for Nightingales, Cuckoos and Dartford Warblers and, although I had only really had one good day of photography, I've come back knowing a lot more about how I want to proceed with my hobby.
I've always said that to take good photos there is no substitute for getting close to the subject and good light, no matter what equipment you have. Most people seem to think you need the best gear to get the best shots, but if you are close enough and the conditions are right, there's not much to choose between a lens costing £800 and another costing £9000. I'm very lucky as I do have the best gear in it's price range, so I've really got not any excuse for poor shots.
But more importantly for me now, I've learnt that if the conditions are not absolutely right, there's no point in taking even one photograph unless it's merely for a record or reminder of what you've seen. You need to be as close as possible, with the sun in exactly the right position (usually behind you), with an uncluttered background and on a clear day without any fog, haze or shimmer. The merest bit of haze, shadow or a fussy background can completely ruin the shot. And a really bright, sunny day is not great for photography.
I also need to stop taking lots of photos of the same bird in the same poor conditions, hoping that one of them will be acceptable - they very rarely are any different and I usually end up deleting them all.
Finally, I've learnt that once you've exhausted your local area of all its usual birds, you definitely need to travel to see new ones and there are certain places in the country and certain times of year where and when you'll get the best shots of your target species. I'm currently compiling a list of this type of information for future reference and although you can never guarantee that the birds will be there doing the same thing every year, at least it gives you a better chance of success.
So from now on I hope to take a lot less photos and to think about my shots a lot more in terms of light, background and composition and most importantly not bothering to press the shutter when the conditions aren't exactly right for the shot I want.
Not exactly a revelation or awakening, but a way to move forward.
So my last day on an extended weekend trip to Kent, East Sussex and south-west Surrey came to an end today with the highlight and main focus of the journey down south, apart from seeing my son in Chatham of course. I'd got wind of some great Cuckoo shots coming out of Thursley and, with a bit of investigation on Facebook, I found out the details of where it was and a how to see it. The locals have named him Colin, and David Sewell who I'd met and chatted with on Facebook, very kindly agreed to meet me in Thursley and take me to the site. As you can see, I wasn't disappointed.
Although I am generally very critical about all my shots, I have to say that I am very pleased with these and they may indeed be the best wild bird photographs I've ever taken. Isn't it nice when a plan comes together?
Whilst out and about in Kent last weekend I spoke to many people I met on my travels, and one particular place came up several times in my conversations - Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve. It was one of the reserves for which I had printed a map and ear-marked as a possible place to go, so with these recommendations I set off on Sunday.
It wasn't long before I was off the main M20 motorway and A-roads and driving down narrow country lanes with high-sided hedges And then I looked at my fuel gauge, realised the tank was nearly empty and that I was in the middle of nowhere with no signs of any properties, never mind a petrol station - I started to panic!
There was nothing to do except continue driving until I either found a petrol station or ran out of fuel. Fortunately I made it the pub at the Grove Ferry end of Stodmarsh NNR and managed to get some directions to an ASDA store on the outskirts of Canterbury. It was around 10 miles away but fortunately I made it there and filled the tank right to the top for the journey home tomorrow.
I was going to start my visit to Stodmarsh NNR at Grove Ferry, but after going so far out of my way to get fuel, I decided to begin at the Stodmarsh village end to which I was now much closer. I have to say it wasn't the easiest place to find on a first-time visit, although I think I'll remember the route if I ever go again.
My target birds here were Nightingale, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Cuckoo and possibly Bittern. From my recent searches in the last couple of days, I'd decided that I was a bit too late to see Nightingales this year, so I'd probably have to be content with just hearing them and the one fleeting glimpse I had at Cliffe Pools RSPB on the first day of my trip.
I had been told that Marsh Harriers were nesting in front of the Reedbed Hide, so that's where I headed for first of all and on the way there I met a couple who had stopped to listen to a Nightingale. Apart from a snippet on the car park later, that was the only indication I had of these beautiful songsters here today. And it didn't help by being almost drowned out by a nearby Cetti's Warbler!
At the Reedbed Hide I chatted with a local photographer called Alan (I think), who gave me some great information about the site although it was very quiet here today, as well as telling me his life story! To make things worse the weather was becoming duller by the minute and the sky was leaden grey. Despite the poor light I did manage to get some shots of a Great Crested Grebe, a Grey Heron catching a very small fish before flying off, and a drake Shoveler perhaps already going into eclipse.
I got my first glimpse of a Hobby through the hide window and Alan then went on to tell me the best place to see them on the route to Marsh Hide, the next one on the trail. The Swifts were gathering in large numbers and catching flies over the reed beds and they were soon joined by up to half a dozen Hobbies. Alan told me he frequently had twenty plus Hobbies in the air together here and that there had been a report of up to 60 birds present in the recent past. Dull grey skies meant that none of my photos were that good today, so I hope to return in better weather sometime.
At Marsh Hide a large party of birders was filling in the hide, and when we asked what they had seen there was nothing much to report except for a distant Greenshank. They soon left and so did we, and on the way back to the reedbed to look for more Hobbies, I picked up a Linnet.
To end the first part of my visit here, I went back to the Reedbed Hide where I picked up a Greylag Goose coming into land, but nothing else new. However, there were four other birders in the hide now and we had a good chat about Life, the Universe and Everything as birders and photographers usually do when they get together and nothing much is happening.
After a while I decided to leave the guys in the hide and visit the remains of the old Tower Hide in spite of Alan not being keen to walk down this causeway for some reason unbeknown to me. The Tower Hide has either fallen down or has been dismantled for health and safety reasons and is now just a pile of wood ruins with a metal fence around it. But I so glad that I came down here as I heard a Cuckoo which sounded fairly close and when I looked up it was in the tree above me. Not a great angle for a photograph, but i just love those stripey trousers!
As I was returning to the car park the weather was getting better and blue skies were showing at last. I met up with another a birder here who was listening for Nightingales and we had a couple of short snippets of song. We had a good chat about the birds here and the wider area before I set off back to the Grove Ferry end of the reserve for my final session. I was promised Cuckoo and Kingfisher in the area around Feast's Hide, but I saw only Lapwing, a Common Tern and Ducks.
The sun had come out and with a gentle breeze the reeds were swaying gently. It had turned into a perfect spring evening and I just sat back and took it all in. Marsh Frogs, which I'd first heard at Dungeness RSPB on Friday, were croaking in bursts from time to time, but I never managed to see one. In spite of the lack of birds and wildlife, I could have stayed a lot longer, but I had promised my son and his wife that I'd take them out for a pub meal as a thank-you for giving me bed and breakfast for the last four days.
But on the way back to the car I did have very brief glimpse of a fox bounding its way through a field of Meadow Buttercups. Perfect!
Today I visited Northward Hill RSPB, a site recommended by a couple of people on Thursday evening 'Nightingale Walk' at Cliffe Pools RSPB, including walk leader David Saunders. The aim was to try to get a better view of a Nightingale and a Cuckoo, and I set off early arriving at the locked gates to the reserve at around 8:00am.
I knew the gate was going to be locked, but I had been told that you could park outside and still go in. This proved to be very difficult because I wasn't happy with the parking spot, and there was no way around the tall gate so it would need to be climbed over with all my camera gear. I did a reccy by climbing over the gate and soon realised that it was a long way from the farm buildings which act partly as an RSPB centre for the reserve and form the starting point for the trails. Before climbing back over the gate however, I did watch a Barn Owl quartering one of the nearby fields for a few minutes.
I'd already decided that this was not the thing to do, and luckily I'd been told about another way of accessing the reserve through the woods at the foot of the hill. The problem with this way was that it was difficult to navigate the paths in the woods to be sure of where you were heading, but I decided that with the aid of Google Maps on my phone I could do it. So I set off to find another small car park on the edge of a housing estate where the track lead into the woods. As it turned out, this entrance was marked by an old RSPB sign and I believe this was the original way to access the reserve before the RSPB moved to the farm buildings.
I set off on the very pleasant woodland trail and was soon enjoying being out amongst the trees on a bright and sunny spring day. Dave had given me some good instructions about where to look for the Nightingales here, but they were based on entering the trails via the farm - coming from the other side, it took me a long time to get my bearings and find the places he had mentioned, like the Heronry Trail, the bridge over the stream and Sweeney's View, but eventually I did reach all those places.
The first bird I heard was a Cetti's Warbler, but try as I might, I didn't manage to see it. I continued to look around and eventually I came out at the farm buildings where I met a nice young lady who was the Assistant RSPB Warden. I asked her about Nightingales and Cuckoos and she kindly gave me a map and pointed out a place where a bird had started singing loudly in the last couple of days.
So I set off with high hopes of finding it but the first bird I heard was a male Cuckoo, which was clearly nearby but mobile. I caught a glimpse of it up in the trees and then it flew out calling to another tree about fifty metres away giving quite good views. That's where I took the best shots from this reserve today. I also had glimpses of a male Blackcap and a Chiffchaff but only managed record shots of them.
I later found the Nightingale spot as described by the Assistant Warden, and eventually the bird started being very vocal, but I didn't manage to get even a glimpse of it. So I tried recording it's song instead.
I finished off my time here with a walk to the top of the hill, enjoying good views of the surrounding countryside on the way. It was still quite early when I'd finished and although I had a date with Robert to watch the F.A. Cup Final between our team, Manchester United, and Chelsea, it was a late kickoff at 5:15pm, so I had time to do something else. Perhaps I mention at this point that today was also the celebrity royal wedding between Harry and Meghan Markle, but as that was of no interest to me, it didn't feature in any of my plans.
I set off for the Isle of Sheppey with the aim of visiting Elmley Nature Reserve again as well as the Capel Fleet Raptor Viewpoint on the Harty Ferry Road. When I arrived at Elmley about 45 minutes later I noticed that there was a sign for a wedding on the entrance gate - the buildings on the reserve can obviously be hired as a wedding venue, so that was going to mean a lot of traffic along the main and only reserve track - not good for watching birds and other wildlife.
The first animals I stopped to photograph were three Brown Hares lazing in a stubble field, and for once they didn't run off the moment I turned the engine off. I don't really understand the fascination with these particular creatures here as they are thin an rangy and not very attractive to my eyes. However, there certainly is no mistaking them for rabbits.
There were quite a lot of chicks about on either side of the track with them mainly being Redshank, Lapwing and Coot. This Redshank was carefully guarding one as it ran about feeding in the muddy edge to a pool and it would often let out a short burst of contact call.
On my previous visit to Kent in February I had intended to go to Dungeness RSPB which is in the south-east corner of the county about an hour away from my son's house in Chatham. However, there was so much to do in the North Kent area that I didn't find the time to go, so it was always going to be a key target site for this trip and today was the day that I planned on spending a whole day there. I'd been told by several people that it's a weird and wonderful place, and they weren't wrong with its gravel landscape and heathland vegetation. It's ideal for many types of scrubland bird, not to mention the exhausted migrants landing here from flying over the channel.
My first good bird at Dungeness was one I was looking to year tick for #my200birdyearlist. Even though it's distant this is the unmistakable sight of an Egyptian Goose. There were at least three adult birds and one chick present and, as this introduced bird is now a self-supporting UK breeding species in the wild, it counts for listing purposes. There were also two Little Gulls on the islands and although I didn't get a really good look at them, I'm still counting those too!
After this initial delight I didn't see much else at Dungeness today. Yes, there was a distant Great White Egret and a couple of equally distant Marsh Harriers, but none of the promised Hobbies or Dartford Warblers. The blazing heat had probably cause a lot of the birds to hunker down and wait for the cooler hours to come out and start feeding. So the rest ofd the birds mainly consisted of a few Curlews and Cormorants, some Common Gulls and a few Tufted Ducks and Mallards and some Common Terns - not really much to write home about. However, whilst I was in the superb 'new' Visitor Centre some very helpful local people gave me a few pointers about places to go and the name of Rye Harbour came up more than once.
Rye Harbour (that's the name of the town which is next to but separate from Rye) is on the south coast of East Sussex and only a short distance westwards along the coast from Dungeness RSPB. After a day of limited photography opportunities at Dungeness, it was nice to finally have something to shoot at here. It began with Avocets, some already having young followed quickly by Golden Plover, Ringed Plover and Dunlin. And then there was a Cuckoo and another Egyptian Goose.
There were some Common Terns nesting very close to one of the hides and a Redshank feeding.
It's a little gem of a place that I'd never even heard of with a variety of habitats particularly for waders but also for Common, Sandwich and Little Terns (there will shortly be a breeding Little Tern colony here) and Cuckoo. It's a place that needs at least half a day and better still a full day to visit over the tide, so I hardly did it justice in the few hours I was here this afternoon.
Finally, to finish it off, this Herring Gull was loafing on the grassy slope in front of my car.
P.S. Of course as often happens, on the following day some action took place at Dungeness RSPB when a Hoopoe and a Bee-eater appeared. Grrr!