Our March 2013 Introduction to Bird Photography Workshop was a half-day workshop designed for those new to photographing wildlife, or even new to photography. The aim was to give participants opportunities to learn and practice some of the basic techniques for photographing birds and also to learn a little about possible camera settings to use, suitable equipment and basic fieldcraft.
We met at the Fowlsheugh RSPB Reserve at Crawton on the North East Coast of Scotland. This stretch of imposing cliffs on the North Sea Coast is a major breeding area for Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Fulmars. It is also used by Herring Gulls, Great Black-Backed Gulls and a small number of Puffins. There was a brisk breeze and the threat of rain when we arrived but we were fortunate that the weather held until we were finished.
Photographing seabirds provides plenty of opportunities to practice and learn many of the basic skills needed for successful wildlife photography. On a cliff-top breeding ground like this there are always plenty of birds to practice and learn on. Panning to capture birds in flight, learning to read behaviour and predict photo-opportunities and dealing with tricky exposure situations all provide plenty of chances to get to grips with the basics of wildlife photography.
Learning to set the focus/exposure settings and pan effectively makes shots like this Fulmar in flight much more attainable
As with all of our workshops, we had done a good recce of the location beforehand. The long Winter had forced a late Spring and we had some concerns about whether the birds would be around in sufficient numbers. When we checked two weeks before there had been a few dozen Kittiwakes, about a dozen Fulmars and one solitary Razorbill pair but when we checked again just one week before the workshop, we were pleased to see large numbers of Razorbills and Guillemots and a substantial increase in Kittiwake and Fulmar too.
As we approached the cliffs, it was somewhat disappointing to note that the numbers of birds were well down on the previous week. There were still several nesting pairs of Fulmar and quite a few Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes flying around, so there were opportunities there but the Guillemots and Razorbills were all gone. In one sense this was not a huge problem because one of the people attending the workshop was very new to serious bird photography and was also using a digital SLR for the first time, so it did mean there was more time for him to learn about the camera and practice some techniques before the show really started. As we reached the observation building near the end of the Reserve, Howard began to prepare a cup of tea for everyone, whilst they practiced panning with the group of Kittiwakes that were using the air currents at that point to soar along the cliff-top. Before the tea was ready, a pod of Bottlenose Dolphin were spotted swimming south just below the cliffs and a couple of Seals also made an appearance in the water far below. We then spotted a bird that is more often seen further north, a Great Skua or "Bonksie" as they are known in Scotland. These birds are occasionally spotted flying north past the Reserve on their way to places like Orkney and Shetland at the start of the breeding season so it was a bonus to see this one. However, the Bonksie had an even better treat in store for us later.
After tea and Hob Nob biscuits, we had some more panning practice and then headed back to the most densely populated area of cliffs to work on watching behaviour for indicators of interesting things to photograph. When we arrived there, it became clear that the lack of birds on the way up had probably been due to some particularly good fishing at that time attracting the birds out to sea because there were now a lot more birds around the cliffs, including Razorbills and Guillemots.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a Great Black-Backed Gull swooped in and attacked an adult Kittiwake in mid-air, narrowly missing it on the first pass but quickly swooping round to catch it a moment later. The two birds tumbled into the sea and a spectacular drama began to unfold. The Great Black-Backs in this area regularly predate on Kittiwake chicks but it is unusual for them to attack a fully grown adult. Far below us, on the sea surface, the Kittiwake began to struggle for its life against the much bigger Blackie.
Twice the Kittiwake almost escaped, as the Blackie pressed home its attack
After killing the Kittiwake, the Blackie tore open the abdomen of its prey and ate the liver before appearing to abandon the remains. However, when a juvenile Blackie appeared and tried to eat from the kill, the adult soon put him in his place! As this was happening, there was a sudden commotion as an alarm call swept through the hundreds of Kittiwakes on the cliff and they rose into the air as one, like a piece of white silk floating in a strong wind. We soon became aware of what had caused them such alarm...the Bonksie was swooping in to steal the kill!
The adult Blackie puts the young upstart in his place
The Bonksie tore into the Kittiwake carcass as a little Fulmar closed in
Just when it seemed things couldn't get any better, the Fulmar stole the kill from the Bonksie, only to be chased off by the juvenile Blackie. The young Blackie was then chased by the Bonksie, which enraged the little Fulmar and he attacked the Bonksie! The juvenile Blackie then tried to steal the kill and he too was driven off by the fiery little Fulmar.
The feisty little Fulmar enjoys the spoils of his bold manoevre
The juvenile Blackie steals the kill back from the Fulmar
The Bonksie returns again to steal the kill from the young Blackie
The Bonksie reclaims the kill but the angry Fulmar is now pumped up
The enraged Fulmar launches a ferocious attack on the much larger Bonksie
The little Fulmar presses home his astonishing attack on the Bonksie
Once more the Fulmar chases off the juvenile Blackie
Whilst the Fulmar was busy chasing off the young Blackie, the Bonksie returned and stole the kill again, completing a remarkable series of events to round of an excellent half-day of bird photography. Our clients not only got plenty of opportunitites to work on panning and exposure settings with a large number of flying birds, they also had the chance to watch and photograph courting, mating and predatory behaviour and a quite extraordinary battle.
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