Sunday, 2 October 2011

The food chain

At the end of September, my wife and I spent a week in Lancashire. We have driven through many times on our way to The Lakes and Scotland but never actually stayed there.

Our base was the week was Thurnham Hall which lies about five miles south of Lancaster. We did a walk every day, both in the local area and in the Yorkshire Dales that lie east of the M6, with Settle, Hawes and Ingleton within easy reach.

One of my goals during the week was to visit Leighton Moss RSPB reserve and, with it being only a 20 minute drive from us, we managed three visits during our stay.

One of the star species there is bearded tit and I never tire of seeing these fantastic birds even though there are a number of places nearby our home in Kent where they are resident. I did not manage any great photographs but one morning I got up early and caught a pair on the grit trays left out on the reserve. I shot some video on my 1D Mk IV / EF500 + 1.4x.

During the summer/breeding season, like many small birds, they feed almost exclusively on insects but, from mid-autumn to spring, their diet switches to seeds; in the case of bearded tit, reed seeds. To assist in the digestive process they ingest small quantities of grit to grind the seeds down.

Most RSPB reserves have a feeder station to attract (and of course provide food for) small birds. Leighton Moss is no exception and, in fact, it has the largest array of feeders I have ever seen! I spent some time photographing the small birds (including coal and marsh tit) although lighting conditions were not favourable as the feeders are under a large tree canopy.

I had worked out that the best time of the day would be mid to late afternoon so on our last visit set myself up behind the viewing screen at about 3pm. I found that the nearest feeder was about 12 feet away and my 500mm lens has a minimal focal distance of 13 feet, so I went back to the car and got a 25mm extension tube. Once fitted I could focus on the feeder and branch that suspended it. I had no intention of photographing the birds on the feeders - just on the nearby branches - but the birds rarely land on these, going straight onto the feeders before darting off with a seed!

After about 40 minutes I was aware of something flying past my left shoulder, shortly followed by the sight of a raptor hitting the nearest feeder and scattering the feeding birds to the trees. The invader was a male sparrowhawk which had attacked a greenfinch that was inside the cage of one of the squirrel-proof feeders.

I took a whole sequence of shots over the 90 second period that the bird was there. With the poor light levels I was getting shutter speeds of between 1/125th and 1/320th of a second with apertures from f/5 to f/6.3 at 800 ISO. Thanks to the wonders of image stabilisation technology, most were pin sharp.

The shots below are in chronological order.

Immediately after the strike
How do I get it out?

Squeeze and wait!
Trying to get it free
Do I need a 'Plan B'?
Shortly after this shot, the sparrowhawk managed to fly off with its prey in its talons. Quite a spectacle and, although there was not very much light, the quality and the even background helped to make for some very strong images.

1 comment:

  1. Martin - your sparrowhawk series is exceptional. Well done indeed. A.