We have been feeding our Little Owls now for over two years and during that time they have rewarded us with some great photo opportunities. There is something really special about photographing wild Little Owls and when one lands it is really exciting. I have photographed them many times over the years but I still get a real buzz when one drops down. I have had mixed success in this hide and although I was really pleased with my winter shots, I wanted to get some more stuff on them during the spring. So once Mark rang me to say he had found some special perches I just had to find the time to go. I am so glad I did because Mark is an expert at finding perches and they suited this beautiful bird. Not only had he found some nice Ivy covered posts, he had also built a stone wall for the owls to perch on. We pride ourselves on finding new perches because that way our set-ups are not always the same and so people come away with different images.
I only spent a couple of hours in the hide and it was a very productive time. The male Owl was very busy as he was not only feeding himself but also the female who was incubating the eggs. The Owls have decided to nest in the tree right above our hide and so just drop down to feed when they need too. In the last couple of days the eggs have hatched and now both the male and female are dropping down. I wish I had the time to go back especially when the young are starting to fledge because once they have left the nest these bundles of joy will also visit the feeding site. If you are interested in capturing the young chicks then drop Liz an email or follow us on Facebook as we will update the page.
I also made the effort to spend a day in our new Kestrel hide too. I have been before and got some great stuff of the adult female which was in March. At that time the background was the ploughed field which was really complimentary to her. Now we are into late spring the crop has started to grow and so the background has completely changed. This vibrant green produces something different now. We had a nice surprise whilst we waited for the female to turn up. When she eventually landed for her free meal we realised it was a completely different bird. It was a young male and we are not sure if it is one of our female's youngsters, although it does seem a tad early. We haven't seen the female for a while so it is hard to tell.
It is always exciting when you attract wildlife in this way as you just never know what is likely to turn up or happen nature is so unpredictable. We hope he stays a little while because he is a stunning little male. We will also update on our female because we are sure she will come back soon too. What we really want is the adult male as they have got to be one of the most beautiful birds of prey in the UK.
Our site in Worcestershire has long been known for the Kingfisher hide, and the Little Owl but I have always wanted to add a classic farmland bird, the Kestrel. We have always had a pair around the area but they never came close enough to the farm to work with so a couple of months ago we started putting food out on posts in the fields around the outer edges of the farm to see if we could get one interested. Slowly but surely one post was having the food taken and we began watching to see what was taking the mice, and sure enough it was a male Kestrel. The task now was to get the post closer to the farm so again slowly a bit at a time we got the post and food where we needed it. Starting with a pop up hide it took a few more weeks to get the birds used to the hide then the camera and eventually the big step to build a permanent hide. I remember the first day in the new hide I had a fair but comfortable wait (with the heater) before the female came in, she was very cautious at first choosing to approach on the ground in the field but eventually settling on the mouse and then spending a good fifteen minutes on the perch, it’s so exciting and a really beautiful bird.
by Mark Hancox
Back to the Sparrowhawk - at last
I have always had a thing for birds of prey and I have travelled all around the UK and in Europe in search of images of them. One of the first species that I ever photographed was a Sparrowhawk. I had found a natural plucking post buried deep within a pine forest plantation, it was dark as the light never really penetrated through the thick canopy. I was also using film and so I was really limited on the quality that I could produce. I have still kept those old slides and the other day I dug them out to take a look for old times sake. They were awful and it has made me realise how times' have changed. They weren't very sharp and the background was messy with distracting lines. At the time I thought they were the best thing since slice bread.
But by looking at those images brought back some great memories of spending time in my little homemade canvass hide and I can clearly remember the excitement once the male Sparrowhawk landed on his plucking post. He was only there very briefly and as soon as he landed he would pluck some of the feathers from the small bird and then started to call. He was calling the female of the nest. Within seconds the female would swoop down and in a blur of wings she would land on the post and start feeding herself. This would happen a few times a day and I remember being so determined to nail the shot I spent most of the summer photographing these elusive forest hunters.
My images were poor because my equipment was basic and film really did have its limitations. Ever since those days I have always wanted to repeat the process but I have never found a plucking post and so my quest went on. Fast forward twenty years and I get wind of Alan Mcfadyen and his site in Dumfries, I am in heaven and I can finally get some decent pictures of this dashing forest raptor. Sparrowhawks are so difficult to photograph and I think they are harder than most other species, even Golden Eagles. They are notorious in attracting them to bait but with years of hard work Alan has managed it.
I have been to Alans hide many times now but in all honesty I have been left a little disappointed with the results. I have just never really had good light to work in but on my last visit the conditions were great with not a cloud in the sky. I had gone up with Mark and on our first morning we had only just set-up and heard the alarm calls of the small birds. They had all dissapeared and so we knew the Sparrowhawk was nearby. Then he just flew down from the trees and landed on the post in front of the hide. I will never get bored with this moment as it is such a thrill to see this beautiful bird at such close quarters.
There was still frost on the perch and ground which made a beautiful setting for him. He spent a few minutes eating his free meal and then as quick as he arrived he was off.
It was a long wait until he arrived again but by the time he did the light was fantastic and the sun had shifted behind the hide. The Sparrowhawk then decided to stay for a good half an hour and it was so rewarding to finally get him in the light that this site is capable of producing.
The next day we went in the hide for another stint and tried a different set-up. That is the beauty of the work Alan has put in because it so easy to change the perches around and so you can get something different on each visit. It is very easy for me to say this because it is part of our programme but in all honesty being able to photograph this lovely little male Sparrowhawk has got to be one of the best experiences to get in nature photography. It has got to be the only site in Europe to do so and I am surprised that more people from the continent are not coming over to try. He is coming very regularly at the moment and we have just opened up some more dates in early April. He is now in his fourth year of age which is a very good age for this species so we don't know how long he will stick around. I hope he does for a while yet because I would love to see and photograph him again.
Forest Hides in Dumfries - Latest Blog
I have been so busy doing other things and never had the time to visit the hides in our Dumfries location. I have been looking admiringly at Alan McFadyen’s pictures coming from this wonderful sight and I have been desperate to visit over the winter period. I had time over the Christmas period to go and do some photography and I had a fantastic 3 days utilising both hides. Alan has done a tremendous job attracting the Sparrowhawk and it has not been easy and takes a lot of dedication to place out the food everyday but his hard work has paid dividends in attracting this beautiful male Sparrowhawk and is probably the only place in Europe where you can achieve images of this elusive forest hunter.
I spent 2 days in the Sparrowhawk hide and the bird only came in a few times during this period but it was so exciting when he did show. The small birds that visit our feeders give the game away that the Sparrowhawk is around as they alarm call and dart for cover. It is really exciting waiting for this moment for the Sparrowhawk to land as you know he is perched in the trees above the feeding station waiting to see if the coast is clear, once the bird lands the adrenaline rush of seeing this stunning bird at close quarters is amazing.
While you are waiting for the Sparrowhawk to show there is plenty of action in the shape of Red Squirrels, Woodpeckers and a pair of Jays that visit the feeding site. We have 6 red Squirrels visiting all day long and watching the acrobats of this stunning mammal really does pass the time away. The Woodpeckers also visit throughout the day and great close up pictures can be obtained of these on beautiful perches because Alan has an abundance of perches for you to choose from.
I was desperate to do our new reflection pool where we have been feeding the Red Squirrels along the edge the reflection pool which is around 15 feet long which is a perfect distance for the Red Squirrel. Your lens is only centimetres away from the surface which allows you to produce a lovely low angle image of this beautiful animal as it comes to feed. The Squirrels visit throughout the day and the action is excellent all the time. We have also attracted small birds such as Robins, Chaffinches and Tits to the edge of the reflection pool. My own favourite was the beautiful Woodpecker especially the male with his stunning plumage.
To view more of the spectacular images taken at the Dumfries site please visit the Latest Images page on the website.
I am already looking forward for a spare date in the diary to go back as it is such a productive site with lots of images to be achieved.
Nature Photography Hides Blog
This is a blog that was kindly written for us by a great photographer called Steve Knell who is based in Huddersfield. This is the first of many blogs that are going to be written by some of our customers that have visited our many different hides. Steve has been photographing wildlife for over 25 years and his work is wildly published throughout the UK. He is represented by some of the leading Picture Agencies in the UK too. Here is a link to Steve's website to view more of his fantastic images:
A day in the Sparrowhawk Hide:
Every bird photographer will have been in a hide at some stage – whether a public one at a bird reserve or your own canvas one – let’s face it, to get close to birds, you need to be out of sight. This can be a very time consuming business – working out what, where and when to put up a hide – is it safe, is it in the right place and so on – and then you need the birds!
There is another way you can use someone else’s that is already up and running at a well-established feeder, watering hole/drinking pool etc. and that is exactly what I did this week. I had a day at the newly established Nature Photography Hides latest addition – a feeding station that has been running a couple of years in South-West Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway set in deciduous woodland near Laurieston. It has been very successfully run by Alan McFadyen who has now teamed up with Danny Green and Mark Hancox who are running a series of specially designed and situated hides up and down the country, usually for specifically targeted species – usually much sought after, in this case at Laurieston – Sparrowhawk. However, I had been in the hide earlier in the year and filled my boots with the brilliant male Spar that visits regular as clockwork throughout the year – today I was after Jay and Red Squirrel. On getting to the hide, the first thing I noticed was the mass of small birds – passerines, that were feeding on the numerous feeders right in front of the purpose built hide. Ok, they were mostly Chaffinches and Coal tits, but I had noticed the tell-tale back end of a couple of Jays disappearing into the woodland – always a flighty bird and difficult to photograph – I knew they would be back later when settled in the hide out of sight. On setting up my kit I found a major problem – my converter had packed up and no matter how much tinkering I did, it just wouldn’t read through the camera on the lucky side, I didn’t need it for the Squirrels or Jays because of the distance to the branches set up for them, but small bird photography was out for the day – they would be just too small in the frame meaning unacceptable cropping. At least Red Squirrel and Jay are roughly the same size so a straight 500mm lens was all that was needed.
An hour passed without my intended quarry showing when a lightning flash of grey/ blue came zipping in to the numerous Chaffinches – the male spar was here but he had missed, so as usual with him, he perched on the branches about 6 metres in front of the hide, just looking around.
He has become accustomed to a free meal laid out for him somewhere along one of the perches and it doesn’t take him long to find it – in this case, a laboratory mouse, supplied from pet food supplies – already dead of course! Normally he would eat the mouse right there but this meal was destined for someone else – he was still feeding young somewhere in the woods and after about 10 seconds or so, he was off. After that things soon settled down to normal – I find it amazing how quickly small birds return as soon as the spar has gone – literally seconds.
It wasn’t long after that the first red squirrel came bouncing down the grassy bank and headed straight for the peanuts.
Young Red Squirrel: This was a youngster – you can tell by the lack of ear tufts, but it was a beautiful colour, really glowing in the afternoon sun. This squirrel stayed for about half an hour and was soon joined by a second one – also a young one, but this one had a blackish tail which looked really attractive. Apparently, you can get up to 6 squirrels visiting, but that was it for me, but they stayed for ages and I certainly got plenty of pictures.
Great-Spotted Woodpeckers visited almost continuously throughout the day and for me, the opportunity to get images of the youngsters with their red caps was a bonus.
And then from out of nowhere, a family party of Jays came in, the adults ever wary but the young ones were much easier to get images of.
So, I had good images of my target species and had another visit from the male Sparrowhawk which repeated its earlier performance, but unexpectedly, another species dropped in to feed right at the end of the day – Stock Dove and not just one, but a dozen at least, though I only got a couple of decent shots on the branch because they were landing directly on the ground looking for spilt seed. Nature photography hides are setting up a reflection pool at the side of the existing hide and I think that Stock Dove will be a regular there and should look fantastic having a drink with a mirror reflection – I guess I will be making the 400 mile round trip again real soon!
We are pleased to announce that Mark has got the front cover image for the first edition of a new magazine Bird Art & Photography on sale at WHSmith. If you would like to book on one of our workshops then please visit our Hide Workshops page.