Urban peregrines

Urban peregrines in Derby
Urban peregrines in Derby

It is no secret that peregrine falcons have been nesting on Derby Cathedral tower for a number of years. A nesting platform was provided for them in 2006 and the same two adults have reared young every year since then. Progress of the breeding attempt can be followed on the internet, so I knew that this year the youngsters had fledged during the middle of June. Nevertheless young peregrines stay in the vicinity of the nest for some time after fledging so I thought a visit might still be worthwhile.

Last Wednesday I arrived in Derby to find no sign of the birds in the vicinity of the Cathedral. I spent a while recce-ing the area for a future visit. A good location would not be easy to find. But during my wandering I had noticed a bird perched on the lettering about fifteen stories up on the side of the Jury’s Inn Hotel not far away. Without binoculars it was not possible to tell if it was a peregrine or a feral pigeon, but I knew the peregrines sometimes perched or roosted there.

By early afternoon I had found my own perch – jammed in between  the bridge railings and the eight-lane Derby Inner ring road as it crossed the River Derwent. Traffic screamed past just a couple of feet away from me. But I was exactly at right-angles to the side of the hotel where the bird was perching, and at about the optimum distance away. I spent an interesting afternoon there.

Sleeping peregrine
Sleeping peregrine (click to enlarge)

At one point a juvenile flew from the lettering to meet one of its parents about 150 feet above my head. The adult was carrying prey – a whole bird complete with two trailing legs – and the youngster turned over underneath him/her and took the prey in mid-air. I could just hear them screaming at each other above the roar of the traffic. The youngster took the prey on to the roof of a nearby block of flats to eat it. A few minutes later a peregrine (probably the same one) arrived, carrying the remains of a bird, and circled over my head, eating from its talons like a hobby does. As an ex-RSPB species protection warden I’ve spent many weeks (months!) watching peregrines but couldn’t remember ever seeing that before.

For long periods nothing at all happened.  Every so often a yell would come from the passenger seat of a van as it flew past. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing as adult peregrine replaced juvenile on the lettering and vice versa. At one point the juvenile appeared to fall asleep with its chin on the letter “r” and its feet stretched out behind it! I pondered over the thought that these young peregrines would regard their urban surroundings as completely normal while their coastal cousins might find them absolutely abhorrent if they were to encounter them.

It was not a particularly challenging scene to photograph. I wanted to include the lettering as the environment within which these urban raptors lived their lives, so I set up the Canon 5d3 with long telephoto on a tripod and trained it on the side of the hotel. I would need to use the perspective control tools in Lightroom to try to disguise the upwards angle at which the images were taken, so I zoomed out a fair way to allow for the cropping that would come with it.  I also needed to remember that the meter reading would need to be over-ridden to account for the largely white subject matter – in this case by about one stop, although had the side of the building been lit by the sun at least two stops would have been required. Probably the most important thing I needed was a great deal of patience, and in this case, by the side of the Derby inner ring-road – a slightly thicker skin than normal.


For information on the Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project, click  here


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Hawfinches in a Welsh churchyard

Hawfinch on yew.
Hawfinch on yew.

On a Friday afternoon recently I was on my way to a 5 p.m. appointment with a customer when I encountered a traffic hold-up in a mid-Wales town.  I soon realised there was no chance of making the appointment so I phoned up to re-arrange it. It took 55 minutes altogether to get through the bottleneck (a set of three-way traffic lights at some roadworks already abandoned for the weekend!) so I had plenty of opportunity to reassess the rest of my day. Would the evening be an opportunity for some landscape photography as I had originally planned? And, if so, where …….. ?

Another interesting possibility suddenly entered my consciousness. Some ten years ago I had been told that hawfinches could be seen at a particular churchyard during June. It wasn’t that far away! It might be worth a shot. Half an hour later I was there.

At first the churchyard was ominously quiet. Then a stocky bird flew behind a yew tree and disappeared. Hmmmm…..what was that? Before long a series of these apparently random bird movements began to build into a picture. And then a hawfinch perched for a few seconds on top of one of the yews. The churchyard was heaving with them! Well, I’m exaggerating, but these birds are so rarely seen, let alone photographed, and I felt that with patience I might have a chance to do the latter. Long after the sun had vanished behind cloud a hawfinch perched right out in the open on a gravestone.

The next morning one was present when I arrived about 7.30 a.m.; it flew immediately, landing briefly in a cherry tree (where I photographed it) before joining a group of others a few hundred yards away. It was to be my last opportunity for several hours. I searched for a position where I could observe as many of the yew trees as possible, eventually settling (literally) on a tomb by the main door of the church. Single hawfinches came and went, disappearing low into the yews, or dropping in from the top. A bird would fly behind a yew and not reappear from the other side. Birds flew behind the church. They flew into a sparsely-leaved holly tree and disappeared. It was as if they were wearing an invisibility cloak. On the odd occasion when a bird did perch out in the open it was silhouetted against an excessively bright sky. The sun was still behind the dark foliage of the yew trees so metering was difficult and a correct exposure virtually impossible. I tried to estimate an optimum exposure and use manual metering but that didn’t help. It wasn’t going too well.

More of the same followed during the afternoon. At one point a party of four (presumably a family) appeared from nowhere, flew a few yards above my head and went who knows where. I did manage to identify their redwing- or robin- like song/call but these were so high-pitched as to be almost “not there”. Enigmatic really is the best adjective to describe the hawfinch. To pass the time between their visits I photographed other species – house sparrow and jackdaw – images which, apart from their lack of rarity value, I prefer to those of the hawfinches that I did eventually manage.

Meanwhile passers by came and went. I felt rather self-conscious with my paparazzi-style lens. One young woman asked me what I was doing and I told her I was trying to photograph some unusual birds. What birds were they? “Hawfinches” I said. “Are they like magpies?” she asked….. Later she walked through without speaking and I got the feeling she had decided that the strange man lurking around the churchyard was up to no good. If you had a suspicious mind, read the wrong sort of newspaper, and knew nothing about birds, it would be easy to believe I was taking the ****. Hawfinches indeed……..

As the hours passed the sun gradually swung around to the west and sank lower in the sky. The light was getting better! There was a flurry of hawfinch activity during the evening and I managed the most successful images of the day. Phew! It had been worth the wait!

More from the beach with no name…..

Waterfall, Pembrokeshire.

After spending a couple of hours in Purpleworld I turned my attention to the main beach, at the back of which is an easily accessible cave. Following heavy rain a stream runs down over the cliff-top and deposits its contents on the beach, cascading across the cave entrance on its way.  This immediately suggested another photo-opportunity.

A waterfall is great subject matter and I have photographed them many times. In a typical location in Wales – shady and overhung with trees – I find they are often best tackled during cloudy conditions. This removes potential problems of excessive contrast if there is any risk of stray sunbeams reaching the image anywhere! A polariser is advisable to remove reflections from wet rock, a tripod a necessity, and a typical exposure will be about 0.5 second at f16; the small aperture will reduce any depth-of-field problems to a minimum. This technique allows the cascade to register on the sensor as a silky flow rather than water in stopped motion. Neither is an accurate representation of what the eye sees but only a movie camera could reproduce that.

In actual fact waterfalls are quite easy to photograph in this way, and those with a good eye for composition will often produce a striking image.  But there are an awful lot of well photographed waterfall images about! So when I have the time and opportunity I try to create something different and more abstract. I might use a telephoto lens at minimum focus for extreme close-ups, for example, and I have been behind waterfalls and photographed back out through the cascade (in the Upper Neath Valley for instance).  On this occasion – by now a  bright and sunny morning- the curtain of falling water was brightly lit against the darkness of the cave interior. On examination through the telephoto lens each individual  drop was acting as a prism and splitting the sunlight into a spectrum of colours. Wow!

I began work on a series of images, but it proved very frustrating. Using  a variety of different ISO’s, shutter speeds, apertures and focal lengths, I tried to find the best combination. Some exposures produced what looked like a completely dark LCD image,  but when seen on the monitor at home contained a few coloured streaks. Others seemed to be so overloaded with light streaks that they were almost white on the LCD. The cascade changed course and location unpredictably and the wind changed the angle at which the drops fell. A partial rainbow appeared in fine spray within, alongside or behind the main fall. To cap it all the tide was coming in and I was worried I might get trapped by rising water! After half a lifetime photographing in the landscape I don’t think I have ever come across a more difficult subject.

In the end it was the very first image that was my favourite, reproduced above. It is, in fact, by far the best picture of its type I have ever taken, and deserves to be seen much larger than it is here! You might wonder what post-processing I have used on it. Well, a slight crop and sharpen but you’d expect that. The main change I made was to the black point, moving the “blacks” slider in Lightroom 4 well to the left. This had the result of turning pale, out-of-focus (but just visible) background streaks into darkness. Oh, and I removed two short, out-of-focus, white foreground streaks using the Lightroom clone tool.

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