2017 diary - Q1 (January - March)

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Local days out

Having just looked back at the opening section of my previous quarterly diary I think I’d better make this particular summary write-up a bit shorter!

Subject to the weather, the first few weeks of the year can provide some interesting and enjoyable days out locally. It’s also a good time for us as we wouldn’t normally have any overseas trips booked that soon after Christmas. Personally I feel that our local patch can become somewhat repetitive unless you can vary your approach or find different opportunities, but that can prove quite difficult at certain times of the year. However, during the early months there is usually something different to do if you put some thought into it.

Common Kingfisher - River Stour, Blandford, Dorset
Common Kingfisher - River Stour, Blandford, Dorset
 

We were out quite a few times this January in a variety of locations from the New Forest in Hampshire, across to Weymouth and Portland Bill. The species we saw and/or photographed at these locations also varied greatly including, but certainly not limited to, kingfishers during another pleasant mid-morning session on the River Stour at Blandford at the very beginning of the month, a barn owl a couple of days later hunting across Dorset farmland followed by short-eared owls that same afternoon over at Portland, and fieldfare, redwing and mistle thrush on Janesmoor and Longcross Plains near Fritham.

Fieldfare - Janesmoor Plain, Fritham, New Forest
Fieldfare - Janesmoor Plain, Fritham, New Forest
Redwing - Janesmoor Plain, Fritham, New Forest
Redwing - Janesmoor Plain, Fritham, New Forest

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Short-eared Owl - Portland Bill, Dorset
Short-eared Owl - Portland Bill, Dorset
 

We also saw goosander and mandarin ducks together with various woodland birds over at Eyeworth Pond in the New Forest, and general waterfowl and gulls down in Weymouth at Radipole Lake, albeit I missed the Mediterranean gulls again and couldn’t locate any of the bearded tits we’d seen just before Christmas.

Mandarin Duck (male) - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest
Mandarin Duck (male) - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest
Mandarin Duck (female) - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest
Mandarin Duck (female) - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest

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February though was a virtual non-starter locally, because of our hastily arranged safari (see below) and the subsequent time I always like to allow when back home for sorting, developing, cataloguing and sharing my photos before the next trip. However, by the end of the month the Kenya photos were dealt with and I was ready to start exploring the local patch again. But then, in March I decided, or perhaps I should say was told, that I needed to catch up on some DIY so, apart from a morning session down at Radipole Lake and a couple of long walks close to home, I didn’t really achieve much photographically prior to going to Finland. I’m glad I had the morning off from decorating though, as the few hours I spent at Radipole were very enjoyable. The primary reason for driving down was to photograph great crested grebes and, if I was lucky, to try to get a few shots of them during their elaborate courtship routine. Early March is a good time to catch this annual spectacle and, consequently, I wasn’t surprised to meet up with a few friends and fellow photographers down on the reserve who were on the same mission. It was a lovely calm sunny morning and, although the particular pair of grebes we were watching were a bit distant, we did see one good display when they came nicely together before both diving and coming up simultaneously with weed. Unfortunately once that bonding session was over they seemed a bit half-hearted about the whole affair and even drifted away from each other at times. Later on, I found another pair in one of the channels that were much closer and, although time was getting on now and the thoughts of romance no longer on their minds, I got some nice images as they went about their daily business.

Great Crested Grebes - Radipole Lake, Weymouth, Dorset
Great Crested Grebes - Radipole Lake, Weymouth, Dorset
Great Crested Grebes - Radipole Lake, Weymouth, Dorseti
Great Crested Grebes - Radipole Lake, Weymouth, Dorseti

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Great Crested Grebe - Radipole Lake, Weymouth, Dorset
Great Crested Grebe - Radipole Lake, Weymouth, Dorset
 

On the drive back home near Blandford I was pleased to spot a red kite hunting over a field quite close to the road. It wasn’t an ideal spot, but I was on my own so had my camera to hand on the passenger seat which was fortunate as I managed to stop on the verge to take a couple of quick shots out the window. Whilst the photos are nothing special, it’s nice to see that these beautiful, once persecuted, raptors are starting to become established again across many areas of the country and are slowly spreading their range further south.

Red Kite - off A35, near Gussage St Andrew, Dorset
Red Kite - off A35, near Gussage St Andrew, Dorset
 

I mentioned earlier that we’d been on a couple of walks close to home. One of those was around Moors Valley Country Park, which is literally a five minute drive away and a nice place to go for a stroll and get a bit of exercise. It was mid afternoon when we went so I decided not to take my camera with me as you generally only see mallards, swans and gulls. Well, that was a mistake! In addition to all the normal suspects, there were some teal and a couple of pairs of gadwall, which would have made a change. And, around the small island on the larger lake, I spotted a water rail that was quietly and slowly making its way along the margins - typical, how often do you see a water rail close in and relatively out in the open! We then noticed a couple of egrets amongst the reeds on the far side and, much to my surprise, saw that one of them was a great white. We’d had a few of these birds locally a few miles away at Longham Lakes and I can only guess that this particular bird may have been one of those. Anyway, lesson learnt, next time take the camera whatever time of day it is as you never know what you’re going to see.


Overseas trips

It’s funny how a negative situation can sometimes be turned into a positive one. This happened with our specialist bird photography tour of the Gambia, that was cancelled at the last minute (just a couple of days before we were due to fly out on the 24th January) as a result of the country’s political situation at the time and the possible risk of military intervention. Whilst we understood why the Government had advised against travel, we were both disappointed and frustrated, particularly when any potential problems quickly disappeared and flights were resumed literally a couple of days later. However, the deed was done and the opportunity missed, with the only good thing being that both the trip and separately arranged flights were conveniently rebooked for the same time next year.

But, we now, metaphorically speaking, had our bags packed and were ready to leave. So, with the ‘call of Africa’ ringing in our ears we found ourselves booking a hastily, although carefully considered, safari to the Masai Mara in Kenya. This was quite a strange decision given that we’d always avoided the Serengeti and contiguous Mara region due to it’s popularity. I’m glad that we took the advice of our agent though on this occasion, because not only was the area surprisingly quiet in terms of other vehicles as most visitors were far south in the Serengeti for the start of the ‘great migration', but we had the two small camps we stayed in virtually to ourselves. What a great trip - best safari to date for lions and cheetahs, plus a few other surprises. Also plenty of birds with some good shots of a wide variety of species from the mighty marshall eagle, the kory bustard (heaviest flying bird in the world), the beautiful grey crowned-crane (an ‘endangered' species) down to the diminutive pygmy kingfisher. An accompanying ‘travel section’ write-up for this trip including a map and some information about the Greater Masai Mara region can be found here.

Cheetah (female) - Masai Mara, Kenya
Cheetah (female) - Masai Mara, Kenya
 

At the end of March we travelled up to northern Finland for a short 5-night stay in Kuusamo for a chance of photographing both Golden and White-tailed Eagles in the snow, and to try our luck at the nearby Black Grouse lekking site. The region borders Lapland to the north and the Russian Republic of Karelia to the east. The general area is on the western side of the Eurasian taiga, deep in the boreal forest, and is one of the snowiest regions in Finland, with a ground coverage thickness of 80-90cm (31-35 inches), which lasts around 200 days of the year from late October through to mid-May. Kussamo town is around 800km (500 miles) north of Helsinki and only 60km (37 miles) or so south of the Arctic Circle. We were based in the town, but drove out each morning, often 50km or more, to get to the various locations on our itinerary. An extended introduction to the area, together with associated information about the trip can be found here in my ‘travel section’ write-up.

Northern Hawk Owl - Taivalkoski - Kuusamo, Finland
Northern Hawk Owl - Taivalkoski - Kuusamo, Finland
 


Other events and news

Not really news as such, but the above mentioned overseas trips both warrant a few notes regarding camera gear - one positive, and the other thought-provoking and slightly concerning.

D810 - not for ‘action’ or high ISO
Let’s start with the issue I’ve been deliberating over for some time. At present I’m still using the D810 as my main camera. I love the size, control layout, dynamic range, resolution and IQ. But, it’s a tad sluggish at times - frame rate and AF acquisition particularly. Generally I live with these restrictions and don’t have much of a problem. That being said I’d buy a 24 MP D900 tomorrow if Nikon announced that they were bridging the FX gap between the D750 and professional D5. Without moving back to DX and purchasing a D500 (which is a consideration) or spending a fortune on the bulky D5, I’m currently in limbo. There are rumours that a D820 may be coming sometime in the next few months and, if it does, I’ll almost certainly upgrade, but that will still not give me an ‘action’ camera. The shortcomings of the D810 were laid bare during our trip to Finland when a number of issues arose that were emphasised by comparison with how the D5 was performing in the same conditions. For five days I sat alongside another photographer who was alternating between the D5 and the D500, and most of the time using the same 500mm f/4E lens that I do. I don’t believe his end results were any better than mine, but the D5 dealt with everything thrown at it including sustained ‘action’ and ISO settings way beyond anything I would dare to go to. I won’t repeat all the issues here as they’re included as a footnote under the Kuusamo ‘travel section’ write-up. However, they can be briefly summarised as - problems with initial focus acquisition in certain situations, maintaining fast action focus , slow frame rate and low buffer capacity, and usable high ISO settings.


200-500mm zoom lens (update)
Having just reviewed my images from Kenya I thought I’d make a few observations about the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens that I purchased last June. My '2016 - Q2 diary' entry mentioned that I’d acquired the lens primarily for safaris and similar trips where the main focus (pun intended) was going to be on animals rather than birds. I was quite dubious when the lens was announced as it seemed too good to be true at the price. But, as it started being used, field tested and reviewed, it became clear that it was worth investigating. If weight hadn’t of been an issue I would still be using the 200-400mm f/4 in Africa, but that lens was exchanged nearly two years ago because, at 3.4kgs, it was proving just too heavy for some international flights as well as many of the internal transfers. I also found it physically big when trying to use it in the relatively restricted space of an open-sided vehicle with canopy roof supports.

The situation with selling the 200-400mm zoom didn’t arise again until we went to Tanzania in March 2016. We flew via Nairobi with Kenya Airways who have a reasonably generous 12kgs carry-on allowance, and within Tanzania we had some extra weight added to our ticket such that I was able to take the 300mm f/2.8, plus 1.4TC and 2xTC on one camera, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 on the other. With everything else I needed packed, my camera bag totalled just over 11kgs, which was fine for this trip, but would have been too heavy for Kenya. But, regardless of the weight issue, the 300mm plus TC approach was a bit restrictive. Fortunately, it was a ‘green season’ trip with more focus on birds rather than animals, but it was clear that I would need to acquire a telephoto zoom for the next trip. So, the 200-500mm was purchased a couple of months later.

I took it to France in July to give it a try, but quickly reverted back to my 500mm f/4 prime as I wasn’t impressed. In fairness I was trying to use it in a situation I hadn’t intended. The truth of this was born out in Zambia last October when I used it for the first time on safari together with my 70-200mm (sometimes with a 1.4TC) mounted on my other D810, and also with the 24-120mm for wider angle shots. Analysing the 5055 photos taken on this trip (prior to development), 3945 were using the 200-500mm, 1087 using the 70-200mm and only 23 using the 24-120mm. Apart from the awkward zoom and occasional focus acquisition problems I found it very usable and was very happy with image quality whether for animals or birds at longer distance.

The internal flight weight allowance in Kenya is far more restrictive as you’re supposed to have no more than 15kgs total (camera bag and hold bag). I struggled to get everything down to 18kgs and took a chance. I nearly had a problem at check-in and was told that next time I would need to book an extra transfer seat if I was going to exceed the limit! This simply showed me again that selling the heavy 200-400mm lens and purchasing the 200-500mm was the right thing to do. Anyway, for the Kenya trip, I lightened the camera bag further by omitting the TC and taking the much lighter 20mm wide-angle lens in lieu of the 24-120mm given that it was hardly used in Zambia. I thought I’d taken more shots on this trip, but was surprised to find that the total was less at 4561 (prior to development). But, even more surprising, was that 4503 of these were using the 200-500mm and only 58 with the 70-200mm. The 20mm wide-angle didn’t leave the bag, which again shows that if a camera and lens combination isn’t ready and available it doesn’t get used!

Without doubt, the 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens has been a good investment that proves you don’t always have to spend a fortune on equipment. Whilst there are three compromises in my opinion, they are all understandable and have little, if any, affect on IQ when compared with the much larger, heavier and far more expensive 200-400mm f/4. The first compromise is the f/5.6 aperture, but it’s a fixed aperture rather than one that narrows at full zoom as you’d expect on a lens at this price. The second and third issues are combined, so perhaps should be regarded as one. To reduce weight and cost, Nikon has had to incorporate an extending barrel rather than an internal focusing mechanism. This is not ideal, particularly when being used in a dusty environment like the African bush. My wife’s 80-400mm zoom has a similar action and her first copy of this lens was full of dust after one particular trip. However, I have to note that as yet, after two safaris with the 200-500mm I haven’t experienced the problem. And, of course, if you’re using the full focal length you have to keep winding the zoom in and out, which proves a little awkward and slow due to the diameter of the barrel and the fact that you need two separate quarter turns to move it the full distance.