Serbian Birds Photo Tour Trip Report

Serbian Birds Photo Tour Trip Report

I’ve just returned from a successful Bird Photography Tour in Serbia with my two clients Ian and Alec. During the seven night all inclusive tour we used some excellent hides which really delivered, and we experienced incredibly consistent weather. We all managed some ‘firsts’ including the extravagant looking Hoopoe.!

A late night flight to Belgrade meant a quick stop over before being picked up the next morning. We were soon on the road, heading towards Subotica in the province of Vojvodina. Subotica is the most Northern city in Serbia, with many Hungarian influences. After checking into Hotel Galleria we were soon taken for our first hide session: the Tower Hide. Situated in flat, largely agricultural land this hide overlooks a number of small trees used by various breeding birds. This is a one-way glass hide which helps to reduce disturbance; the disadvantages are in loss of light – you lose around a stop. And yes, it can reduce sharpness a little, but with good light and good equipment I think it really is negligible. Nest boxes close to the hide allow amazing views of European Roller, Common Kestrel and Red footed Falcon. Perches have been expertly positioned, giving stunning backgrounds at a good distance for the majority of ‘wildlife’ lenses. During our first session we captured beautifully lit portraits and I managed to bag a decent flight shot of a Roller…  after failing miserably last year.! The hide gets very hot, but such is the nature of wildlife photography – it is a case of suffering for your art. The results are worth it! You can see some Roller Video Footage on my YouTube Channel

Shooting during this time of year means early starts and  the next morning we were out for 5.00am to try the Hoopoe hide. This was a real bonus, having only been set up this year by our hosts. I wasn’t too sure what to expect but it turned out to be one of my favourite hides. Myself and Alec settled into the bigger hide whilst Ian had a pop up hide to himself – both positioned at the same distance from the nesting Hoopoes. Between us we shot with a mixture of 400mm, 500mm and 600m  – all Canon gear.! The setting is just beautiful; perfect for the early morning light with a mixture of background colours and some semi-shade. After taking portraits we all had a go at flight shots, such was the frequency of the returning parent birds.

After a midday break and some lunch we headed for our next photography hide – the drinking pool. This is essentially a reflection pool situated within a woodland site, regularly used by a good selection of birds. The light here is best in the afternoon when the sun is directly behind. The great thing about this type of hide is you never know what’s going to turn up.! The record is around 15 species in one session and we did pretty well – reaching about 12. Both male and female Hawfinch were a delight as they came to drink and bathe; other birds included Tree pipit, male Blackcap, Jay and the beautiful Turtle Dove. The real highlight was when a juvenile Sparrowhawk came in!

After teasing us in the branches it finally dropped down and began to splash in the pool – just yards away! A magical encounter. The visit was a prolonged one… the longest I’ve ever watched a Sparrowhawk for. Whilst this is great if you’re a huge Sparrowhawk fan (like me!) it doesn’t help to attract the smaller birds.! Eventually the bird left and we got a few more images of various species before the light levels started to drop. Light levels aren’t really an issue for filming so I made sure to get some Video footage including this Bathing Jay!

Another early start and this time for pop-up hides at the Bee-eater colony. If you want to photograph colourful birds then you can’t do much better than a Bee-eater! Our host set up the hides, positioned strategically towards the slim perches and then we prepared ourselves. After a bit of a wait the birds were back, landing on the perches and dazzling us in the morning sun. The light was extraordinary – bright, but somehow with a different quality that didn’t seem quite as harsh as in the UK. We photographed a number of food passes, including one with a beautiful blue dragonfly.! The sounds of these birds were beautiful too – a lovely relaxed bubbling as they whizzed around the nest site. I also captured some Bee-eater Video Footage of the food passing.

Towards the end of the tour we visited Palic Lake. This area, designated as a protected nature reserve, is a tranquil haven for birds. Palic is home to a huge Pygmy Cormorant roost, a very interesting subject to photograph, with the dark shapes dotted around the white-washed trees. The tranquillity was only broken by the calls of Egrets and Herons that constantly flew past us over the reedbed. Unlike some reserves in the UK, here there is no struggling for tripod space – in fact, we barely saw a person during three hours. Great Reed Warblers were everywhere and we all managed to get something of this vocal bird.

The long days do take their toll so I had factored in a rest morning half way through. This was a good time to explore Subotica – a beautiful and relaxing city with friendly locals and some superb food.! During the week long trip we visited each hide twice, trying to capture something different. Me and Alec visited the drinking pool again and were quite taken aback when a huge Buzzard bungled itself in by the pool – one of the highlights of the week! On the last day, I went for back-lit Hoopoe shots whilst Alec and Ian tried the drinking pool again. This time they were treated to a male Sparrowhawk. I was gutted!!

This Serbian Photography Tour will run again in mid-May 2018. You can see more Serbian Wildlife on the Gallery Page at www.paulmiguel.co.uk  If you’re looking for a different destination with quality hides and a top class hotel, then this is the trip for you. Serbia really does offer very good value all round. Any questions about these bird holidays please feel free to email on paul@naturephotographycourses.co.uk or ring me on 07759485791. You may be interested in my other Small Group Nature Photography Tours

I’m looking forward to taking next years group already!

Paul Miguel

 

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Long Eared Owl Photography

Long Eared Owl Photography

It was a few short words in a travel magazine that began it all: my obsession with Long eared Owls. I had never heard of the owl roosts in Serbia, but after researching on the net I decided to try my luck at photographing the Long eared Owl roosts that occur each winter in Serbia.

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My first visit was in November 2015. After researching other locations for bird photography I spent my last day in the northern town of Kikinda, famed for its owl roosts. The day was wall to wall sunshine; glorious. At first the owls were barely noticeable, but then I suddenly spotted my first one – perched on a clear branch overlooking a well used path. It’s then that you begin to see what’s really there. As I walked under the trees I could make out another, slightly hidden behind the foliage – and then another, and then… well, when you really start to look you realise there’s actually about six all sat within a few feet of each another! I found one conifer tree and counted around twenty, all sat quietly above me. That day I barely stopped, shooting as much as I could. Most images were taken with a Canon 400mm and a 1.4x extender but sometimes it was possible to shoot with the 400mm alone.

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Long eared Owls have been roosting in Kikinda for years – in huge numbers. The surrounding farmlands are perfect for hunting, providing the owls with a high number of voles. With virtually no surrounding trees, the town makes the perfect (and only) roosting site. The streets are lined with both deciduous and evergreen trees, ideal for owls to roost during the day. The added heat of the town also helps the birds to avoid the harsh temperatures of the Serbian winter.

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Seeing the owls in such numbers in this fascinating urban habitat had really got under my skin. I just had to go back! February 2016 saw my second visit, but with poor weather it proved to largely a recce trip. I was introduced to two new owl roosts though – both with photographic potential.

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It was December 2016 when I made my third visit. Through new Serbian contacts I was granted access to higher floors of buildings; enabling me to get to the same level as the owls! With a spell of settled weather forecast I booked my flight with literally two days notice. This trip was undoubtedly the best so far. It also drew the attention of Serbian TV who Filmed me in Kikinda! During this trip I was able to get to eye level with a number of owls and explore more locations for future visits. Things were looking good..how to photograph owls

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One of the most exciting aspects was the possibility of capturing images at twilight. This would be virtually impossible had it not been for the nearby street lights. The result was images of Long Eared Owls with twilight skies lit purely by a mixture of natural and artificial light. Magical!

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This type of photography sure does test your long lens technique.! The only way to achieve pin sharp results with my newly acquired Canon 500mm lens was to rest a beanbag on top of an empty tripod head. Shutter speeds were insanely slow… and ISOs high. But.. it was possible – and the results… absolutely stunning! I really doubt it’s possible to do this anywhere else on the planet. It truly is unique.

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There’s no doubt the Long eared Owl roosts of Serbia are a true spectacle. Watching them sat in the trees peering down at passers by is quite bizarre. Its urban wildlife at its best!

If you’re interested in this unique experience why not book yourself onto one of the Serbian Owl Photography Tours in December. Serbia is a country full of surprises and this surely is one of its best.

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Robin on Spade Handle

Robin on Spade Handle

Processing some images for picture libraries I was quite drawn to this cheeky robin. You’d think this kind of image was easy but in reality there are few opportunities when everything comes together for perfect bird portraits. Photographed one crisp February morning, the quality of light made all the difference – along with a nice diffused background. The bird itself also managed to strike a good pose! Perhaps surprisingly this was the first time I had specifically aimed for this image.

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European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) adult, perched on spade handle in garden, West Yorkshire, England, February
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Photographing Harvest Mice

Photographing Harvest Mice

Most of my wildlife photography is done in the wild but occasionally I’ll take advantage of some captive set-ups to add a new subject to my portfolio. Harvest mouse is a subject I’d wanted to photograph for a while so I took the opportunity to visit Alan Heeley, a wildlife photographer in Derbyshire. Alan keeps harvest mice and provides workshops for photographers who want to get high quality images of Britain’s smallest mammal.

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I knew they were going to be tough but I was still surprised how fast they were! It really took about 15 minutes to get my eye in, by which time my images were starting to improve. We used a range of props, all natural looking, and an artificial background which worked well. The light was quite overcast but this made life easier, avoiding strong highlights and dark shadows. After a while we switched to a lighter background which I preferred and continued to vary the props – teasel, wheat stalks, flower heads and bramble were all used. Alan was really helpful in changing props and backgrounds – and giving tips on capturing the best images. He has a great sense of humour too so it’s always good fun.!

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The harvest mice put on a great show, at times posing really well. Tripods are pretty useless here – due to the nature of these fast moving creatures you really need to shoot handheld so can move around and react quickly. I shot with a Canon 100mm macro lens which could fill the frame if necessary. The biggest difficulty was getting a high enough shutter speed with a good enough depth of field for sharpness. When getting in close, depth of field was tiny, even at my chosen aperture of f/9. I opted for an ISO of around 2000 to get good settings and with the lighter background noise was minimal on my Canon 1D Mark iv.

It was certainly a fun session – exhausting too as it takes a lot of concentration with such quick animals. If you want to photograph these adorable little animals email Alan: alan.heeley1@btinternet.com

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The bramble was my favourite setting and this mouse was a right poser! Wonderful to spend a couple of hours with these tiny mammals. A big thanks to Alan Heeley – you can see more of his work at Alan Heeley Wildlife Photography

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Birds of Prey Photography Courses

Birds of Prey Photography Courses

A great way of getting into wildlife photography is to practice on captive subjects such as birds of prey. I don’t consider this as ‘cheating’. In the wild you often have to react quickly and know your settings inside out to get the best out of any given opportunity. Bird of prey workshops offer you the chance to learn the skills necessary – in natural surroundings and often with variable weather conditions. Working with SMJ Falconry in Oxenhope, Yorkshire we have access to wonderful surroundings including moorland edge with gritstone boulders and heather.bop02

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The male merlin is one of my favourite birds. This particular merlin is incredibly relaxed around photographers and often preens for us.

We also like to make use of prey. This peregrine was photographed with a quail. It soon ripped into the bird with feathers flying, making for images with real impact.!

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Flight photography is always a test – not just of the photographer but also the equipment. Our barn owl is perfect for straight flights and we can usually repeat this a good number of times.

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Willow, the female red kite is quite a star. We usually let her fly around the valley before photographing as she comes in to the food. The beauty of this location is in being able to get flight shots against the hillside rather than just sky.

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If you are interested in joining one of theses Bird of Prey Photography Courses get in touch: paul@naturephotographycourses.co.uk  Further photo workshops can be found at www.naturephotographycourses.co.uk  All the birds at SMJ Falconry are in remarkable condition and it’s obvious that this family run business put a lot of effort into the birds’ welfare.

 

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Gannets in the Mist…

Gannets in the Mist…

I recently led a Photography Workshop at Bempton Cliffs on the East Yorkshire coast. Upon arrival we were greeted by the thickest of sea mists with terrible visibility. I was pretty sure it would lift by the afternoon, but the fact is – it didn’t! So, rather than complain about what could not be changed, we persevered with our bird photography. It certainly gave opportunities for something different – which is never easy to do at Bempton. The histogram for our images was almost in one place due to the short dynamic range.

gannets1 The most difficult part was focussing. Regardless of lens speed, autofocus was having an absolute nightmare trying to lock onto wishy washy targets against a wishy washy background. I found the juvenile gannets slightly easier as the camera was able to lock on better due to their mottled plumage. gannets3 gannets6 The wind was also a real challenge. A strong easterly breeze kept the birds buffeted about and throwing sea spray onto our lenses. Yes, this was definitely a challenge!! As always its a case of keep trying and we all managed some reasonably sharp flight images including the additional guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes.

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A little closer to our cameras was this lovely pair of razorbills. Occasionally the sea fog thinned enough to capture some detail in the birds as in this shot here. A nice change from the constant grey fog.

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Thanks to my clients Louise and Martin who braved the conditions and embraced the challenge. It would have been all too easy to give up entirely..! As it happens I’m actually quite happy with some of the images and certainly gives me ideas for the future. If you’re interested in joining me on future workshops check out my Photography Course at Bempton Cliffs

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