Flight Lines: Interview with Mike Toms

The Flight Lines Project is a collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). Using a unique combination of art, stories and science, this project aims to explore the lives of migrant birds and to highlight the challenges they face in a rapidly changing world.

In this interview with Flight Lines author, Mike Toms, we talk about the relationship between art and science, the importance of volunteer ornithologists and cultural differences in our attitudes to birds.


Flight Lines author, Mike Toms

I’m curious about the perceived division between the arts and the sciences. While it’s true that many artists portray images of the natural world in their work, there are not many situations where artists and scientists are required to work together towards a common aim. Flight Lines is obviously a wonderful example of this – where did the idea for the project come from and what do you consider to be the most important thing that came out of it?

There is growing evidence that audiences exposed to science and conservation messages through the creative arts are more likely to show meaningful change in their understanding, which suggests that those of us working in research should seek now opportunities to communicate the impact of our work. Flight Lines was made possible by the generous legacy left by Penny Hollow and the kindness of her executors. Penny, a long-standing BTO member was a regular at the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) exhibitions, a great supporter and a lay member of the SWLA. The bringing together of artists and scientists to raise the profile of our migrant birds was a fitting tribute to her interests and something that we had been looking do alongside our programme of research into migrant birds. Not only has the project enabled us to tell the stories of our summer visitors to new audiences but it has also helped to underline how art and science can work together to effect change.

Flight LinesOur knowledge of where our migrant birds disappear to each year has vastly increased with the development of ever smaller and more advanced tracking devices and locators. What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the study of bird migration?

It is the arrival of smaller and smaller devices that has revolutionised our understanding of the movements of migrant birds. The level of information that can now be collected through the use of GPS-tags and satellite-tags means that we can identify the sites and habitats used by migrant birds throughout the year. In some cases, such as with those tags that communicate via the mobile phone or satellite network, the information collected can be presented to the public in near real time, greatly adding to wider engagement with the science that is being undertaken. For the smallest birds, the tags used have to be retrieved the following year in order to download the data. As miniaturisation continues, we will soon be able to track the movements of Swallows, House Martins, Whitethroats and other small migrants in near real time. That will be a significant advancement for our understanding.

Whinchat, Blakeney by Richard JohnsonIn the UK I think it would be fair to say that we have an above average obsession with birds and their welfare. This is in stark contrast to many of the countries you discuss in the book, where birds are often viewed mainly as food or hunting trophies. What do you think is responsible for this difference in attitudes?

It is incredibly important to recognise the cultural differences that exist between countries in terms of how birds are viewed. Many of these are deeply rooted and extend back through generations, each shaped by local beliefs and opportunities, by living conditions and by trade. The hunting of migrant birds in North Africa, for example, is shaped by at least three different drivers: some are hunted for food by people living in very poor communities; others are hunted because of cultural beliefs, and many are hunted because there is a sizeable market for such commodities within the Middle East. It is important that we recognise how attitudes towards birds differ across the globe so that we can deliver approaches to conservation that are sensitive and appropriate.

Flight Lines trip to Senegal, West AfricaThe subject of supplementary feeding is currently a hot topic with the recent publication of an article in Science showing how great tits’ beaks have changed size due to the use of garden feeders. However, the messages we receive about feeding our garden birds are very mixed. Do you think the amount of supplementary feeding that occurs in the UK is a good thing overall?

The provision of supplementary food is one of the most common deliberate interactions between people and wild birds, supporting a wild bird care industry within the UK worth an estimated £210 million each year. Despite the huge amount of supplementary food provided in gardens we know surprisingly little about its impacts, which is one of the reasons why the BTO has been funding research into this topic over many years. Supplementary feeding may increase the overwinter survival of small birds, shape the communities of birds living alongside us and alter migration patterns and behaviour. It may also change the dynamics of competition between species or aid the spread of new and emerging diseases. Before we can say whether or not it is a good thing we need to improve our understanding of the associated costs and benefits, and look at these in relation to other human-bird interactions, such as climate and habitat change.

Scissor stone curlew by Harriet MeadCitizen science schemes are an incredibly powerful force in terms of obtaining large quantities of data and you frequently mention in your book how much of our knowledge about bird populations comes from the tireless efforts of volunteers. Do you think that being involved with a citizen science project is also empowering to the individual and can help to break down some of the boundaries between “professional” scientists and amateurs, making science and research more accessible to them?

The terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ are often used incorrectly, suggesting that staff are professionals while volunteers are amateurs, when what is really meant is that staff get paid and volunteers don’t . Many volunteers are experts in their field, sometimes the expert, and the right approach to citizen science should recognise this. We know from various research studies that volunteers participate in citizen science for a whole host of different reasons, some linked to internal values – such as feeling good about yourself – and some to external – such as sharing expertise, contributing towards charitable objectives. A well run citizen science project should make the science being carried out more accessible to participants, enabling them to see how their contribution is being used to answer a particular research question and empowering them to recognise the impact that their involvement is facilitating.

Do you feel that your art is influenced by your love of birds and wildlife and, conversely, do you feel that your art affects your appreciation of the natural world?

Some of my writing – the prose and poetry – is influenced by the natural world and by the sense of place. This feeling for the natural world is equally evident when I am participating in BTO surveys, especially the Nest Record Scheme, where significant time is spent immersed in nature, watching birds and their behaviour in order to find and monitor nesting attempts.


Flight Lines is published by the British Trust for Ornithology and is available to buy from NHBS.

 

How to choose a nest box camera

Nest box cameras provide an excellent way to observe the exciting nest building, egg laying and chick rearing behaviours of your local birds.

Deciding which nest box camera to choose can be confusing and several questions should be considered before you make your choice: Do you need a wired version or would a wireless option be best for you? Do you want a camera that you can fit into an existing box, or would you prefer to buy everything already assembled? Will you be able to view your footage on your PC or laptop? Do you want to stream your footage to a website? In this article we will address all of these FAQs and offer some simple advice to make sure that you get the best out of your camera.

Do you want a wired or wireless system?

Wired systems have a cable running from the nest box back to your house or classroom. This cable carries both the power to the camera and the signal from the camera to your TV. A wired setup offers excellent image quality but may not be ideal if you have children or pets in your garden or if a cable running to your bird box will interfere with the gardening. You will also need to feed the cable into your house, either by drilling a hole in the wall or by feeding it through an open window.

Wireless systems do not require a cable between the bird box and the television but instead transmit images to a small receiver situated inside the house. For some cameras, such as the Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit, a power supply will still be required for the camera (i.e. from a shed or outbuilding). Other cameras, such as the battery powered Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit have solved this problem by adding a battery box, allowing the camera to run off D-cell batteries. An advanced version of this camera system is also available. This includes a solar panel which will power your camera while the sun is shining, only switching to battery power at night or on dull days.

Another thing to consider with a wireless system is that the signal can be compromised by other wireless devices in the area or by trees and other structures between the nest box and the house. In some situations this can severely affect your image quality.

Do you want a complete kit or just the camera?

If you are new to this particular aspect of watching and listening to birds, a complete kit, such as the Nest Box Camera Starter Kit or the Wired Camera Bird Box, provide an excellent and economical choice. These kits include a bird box which has a camera ready mounted in the roof. An attached cable plugs into your television and supplies the camera with power. Alternatively, if you want a wireless option, the Wireless Camera Nest Box is a great choice and doesn’t require any complicated assembly processes.

For the handyman or woman who wants to put a system together themselves, either in a bespoke or existing nest box, the Nest Box Camera with Night Vision is a good choice. The camera comes with a 30 ­metre cable and extension cables are available to purchase separately. The Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit or the battery powered Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit are good options if you want to fit a wireless camera into your own bird box.

If you decide to go for one of these options then you will need to attach the camera to the ceiling or inside wall of your box yourself using small screws. A small file can be used to file down a part of the side wall to make a space for the cable to pass through. Alternatively you might consider buying a Camera Ready Nest Box which has a clip inside for attaching a camera, as well as a perspex window in the side which helps to improve the quality of daytime images.

What about watching on your computer?

All of the cameras and kits that we sell come with either a cable or wireless receiver that will connect directly to your television. If you want to view or save your footage onto your computer then an additional USB capture device is required. These allow you to connect your camera/receiver to the USB port of your computer and come with viewing software which allows you to watch and record your footage. Available for both Windows and Mac operating systems.

Can I stream my footage to a website?

There are lots of online services which allow you to stream a live feed from your camera online. Many are free if you are happy having adverts on your stream, or you can purchase a monthly or yearly ad-free plan. Our current favourite is Ustream (www.ustream.tv). Take a look at their website for lots of great resources to help get you started.

 

 

CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring: An interview with Susan Young

susan-young
Susan Young – Author of CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring

Susan Young is a writer and photographer with a background in physics and engineering. She is the author of the fantastic CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring published earlier this year. This great handbook provides lots of practical information on the use of CCTV for survey and research.

Your book on CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring, published earlier this year, is packed full of practical information for the researcher or amateur naturalist interested in using CCTV to monitor wildlife. Could you explain a little bit about your professional background and how you came to write this book?

I have had a very varied career and have always tended to look for new ways to do things. After graduating, I worked using applied physics in the manufacture of aero engines, and later, after a Masters in Engineering Management, worked in a large electronics company. For the last 15 years I have been a writer and (mainly) wildlife photographer, and found my experience of great value with the more technical aspects of photography.

After using various photographic systems for recording wildlife, I came to believe that CCTV had many applications for both the amateur and professional naturalist. As I have always enjoyed doing something different, I spent the last few years researching CCTV systems for use with wildlife.

I wanted to test CCTV in more formal environments and thus I volunteered for Natural England and the Wildlife Trust. With Natural England I have been researching the use of an underwater system for studying fish in rural rivers, and have also developed a system for monitoring rock pool life. With the Woodland Trust I have developed a portable CCTV system for bat monitoring, which is being used for a research project at the moment, and which can greatly reduce the need for night emergence surveys.

With this research I became convinced that there were many applications where CCTV could be of great benefit, but that the lack of clear, relevant technical information was a barrier to wider use. The more I discovered about CCTV, the greater my enthusiasm for the subject, and the greater the number of applications that became apparent. For this reason I decided to write CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring with the aim of encouraging wider use of what I believe is a valuable tool.

Do you feel that there is a need to bridge the knowledge gap between manufacturers/engineers and the individuals using field equipment? As an extension of this, do you feel that it would improve the quality of research or survey data if people had a better understanding of the functions and limitations of their kit?

In meeting both professional and amateur naturalists, I have often heard it said that manufacturers/engineers do not understand their problems. Without that understanding, they are unable to advise on the areas of use. In addition, the biological sciences are not generally taught with an emphasis on technology, which can leave graduates unfamiliar with technical language. Companies such as NHBS and, hopefully, books like mine, can help to bridge what is a very large gap in communication.

I feel very strongly that there could be great steps forward in research and survey methods if people were more aware of the possibilities of their equipment, together with an understanding of the limitations. For the keen naturalist, there is also a great number of applications for filming for pleasure.

We have found trail cameras to be extremely popular both with amateur naturalists and researchers. How do you feel these compare with CCTV systems and in what types of situations would you recommend each of them?

This is a difficult question to answer briefly!

I have used trail cameras for many years and without doubt they are of great value for indicating the presence of wildlife, especially in remote areas, but their short filming time makes them less practical for monitoring. CCTV is much more flexible and responsive, and has the capability of giving higher quality images, especially at night. CCTV can be used with underwater cameras, and with cameras that fit into small spaces such as bird or mammal boxes.

One of the main advantages of a CCTV system is that it can be set up to record at certain times as well as being triggered by motion or event. The wide range of CCTV cameras means that variable focus lenses can be used, allowing one to zoom in to the subject, noise reduction can produce clean images and features such as ‘smart IR’ prevent over exposure of nearby objects, a problem with night images with trail cameras.

If mains power is available, the advantages of CCTV become more apparent. Recent technology means that HD cameras can be used, giving high quality HD videos, and images can be viewed live on a monitor. If the internet is also available, images can be viewed remotely by smartphone, tablet or PC.

HD analogue video (AHD or, more recently, HD-TVI) is an amazing step forward in CCTV, giving videos of great quality at a reasonable cost and without the complexity of more traditional HD methods which require some knowledge of computer networks.

You have a vast amount of experience in the field using CCTV and must have collected huge amounts of footage from this. How does it make you feel when you are reviewing your videos and come across something amazing? Do you have a single favourite video or image?

There is nothing to beat the excitement of coming across a video of something unexpected. The otter swimming underwater was caught by accident while filming fish and is very short, but still very exciting, and something I never really expected to get, although I was always hoping. I try to plan a CCTV session to reduce the number of ‘empty’ videos and to make sure that I review small numbers without letting them build up over days. That way, the excitement is always there.

Finally – if you could set up a CCTV system anywhere in the world, where would you choose?

I would choose the UK. UK wildlife is very elusive and offers a great challenge. I am an ‘otterholic’ and would love to set up cameras on the Shetland islands. I have photographed otters with a DSLR, but there is nothing to beat the excitement of filming otters in action.

CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring is available from NHBS.

 

How to choose a nest box camera

Bird Boxes
Installing a camera into a bird box is a great way to keep an eye on the nesting birds in your garden. Image by Simone Webber.

Deciding which nest box camera to choose involves a complicated tiptoe through competing technologies and equipment. Before you start watching birds you have to decide what sort of system is best for you and, crucially, how much money to spend.

The first question you need to consider is whether to choose a wired or wireless system.

Wired systems have a cable running from the nest box back to your house or classroom, which carries both power and the television signal. This results in excellent image quality but may not be ideal if you have children or pets in your garden, or if a cable running to your bird box will interfere with the gardening. You will also need to feed the cable into your house, either by drilling a hole in the wall or by feeding it through an open window.

Wireless systems do not require a cable to run between the bird box and the television but instead transmit images to a small receiver situated inside the house. However, a power supply will still be required for the camera (i.e. from a shed or outbuilding) and the signal can be compromised by other wireless devices in the area or by trees and other structures between the nest box and the house.

Next you will need to consider whether you require a complete kit or just the camera.

Nest Box Camera Starter Kit

If you are new to this particular aspect of watching and listening to birds, a complete kit, such as the Nest Box Camera Starter Kit is a good and economical choice. This starter kit includes a bird box with a camera mounted in the roof, which provides colour footage during the day and black ­and ­white at night. A 30 ­metre cable plugs into your television and supplies the camera with power. Another option is the Gardenature Nest Box Camera System, which includes a bespoke red cedar nest box made to RSPB and BTO guidelines. A small sliding drawer at the top of the box houses the Sony CCD camera, which adjusts automatically depending on light levels. A 30 ­metre cable connects the camera to your television.

Nest Box Camera with Night Vision

For the handyman or woman who wants to put a system together themselves, either in a bespoke or existing nest box, the Nest Box Camera with Night Vision is a good choice. The tiny camera will focus from a few centimetres to roughly 30 metres, with high definition for excellent daytime and night ­time images. The camera comes with a 30 ­metre cable and extension cables are available to purchase separately. The Wireless Nest Box Camera Kit is a great option if you want to fit a wireless camera to your own bird box.

What about watching on your computer?

All of the cameras and kits that we sell come with either a cable or wireless receiver that will connect directly to your television. If you want to view or save your footage onto your computer then an additional USB capture device is required. These are available both for Windows and Mac operating systems and come with all the software you require to get started.

 

New range of Bushnell trail cameras now available

Bushnell Blog Photo

Bushnell Trail Cameras are rapidly becoming the cameras of choice for researchers, conservationists and amateur naturalists around the world. Their ability to let you monitor a survey site or capture the action in your garden when you’re not around makes them a great tool for anyone interested in wildlife and animal behaviour. This spring sees the release of a new range of Bushnell cameras with a model available to suit every application and budget.

The Trophy Cam line now includes the entry level Essential HD as well as the Aggressor HD which has higher resolution, a faster trigger speed and a choice of no glow or low glow LEDs. The brand new Trophy Cam Wireless (coming soon) completes the range and allows you to send images directly to your phone, tablet or computer.

The popular NatureView camera is now available in two models: The affordable HD Essential and the HD Live View (both coming soon). The HD Live View comes with two additional close focus lenses for great close-up images of wildlife.

The new Surveillance Cam is equally suitable for monitoring a survey site near your home or for security purposes. It utilises a WiFi capable SD card (included) to transmit images or videos to a nearby phone or computer up to a distance of 24m.

All Bushnell cameras are available as a starter bundle which contains batteries and an SD card; everything you need to get started capturing great images and videos. Other accessories include security cases and cable locks to keep your camera safe in the field, a tree bracket for easy positioning and a solar panel, which will extend the battery life.

 

How to choose the trail camera that’s right for you

Bushnell Dipper
This video of a dipper was taken with a Bushnell Trophy Cam and is a great example of what can be captured with an entry level camera.

UPDATE November 2017 – This post has been updated to reflect the trail cameras currently available.

Trail camera technology is developing all the time and the range of products on the market constantly expanding. While this is exciting, it can also be incredibly confusing, especially when you’re trying to choose which model is best suited to your needs.

Here are six things you should consider when trying to choose the trail camera that’s right for you:

1. Type of LEDs

The infrared LEDs on a trail camera provide the illumination needed to take pictures at night. Generally speaking, these come in two types: standard or low glow. Standard LEDs have a shorter wavelength which means that they will emit a small amount of visible light when activated. This will be seen as a small red flash. Low glow LEDs, having a longer wavelength, do not produce this tell-tale red glow so have obvious benefits for wildlife photography. Low glow types, however, will have a shorter range than standard LEDs.

2. Trigger speed

Trigger speed is the time taken for an image or video to be recorded after the infrared motion sensor has been triggered. If your subject is fast moving then a quicker trigger speed will help to ensure you capture great images. Fastest trigger speeds are currently around 0.07 seconds (e.g. the Spypoint Force-11D).

3. Picture and video resolution

As with any type of camera, image and video resolution are important, and the image quality you require will depend on what you will be using your footage for, along with your budget. Most trail cameras will give you the option to alter the resolution using compression or interpolation methods. This can be useful if you are deploying your camera for long periods, when memory card capacity may become an issue. It also means, however, that you should check the resolution of the camera image sensor as the advertised megapixel value often relates to the interpolated resolution (* see note below for a definition of interpolation).

4. Does it have a viewing screen?

Having an image preview screen in your trail camera is beneficial in two ways: Firstly, it allows you to quickly check the images that you have recorded without having to remove the SD card or plug it into a laptop. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it lets you take a few test images. By walking (or running) in front of the camera and checking the image captured, you can be assured that your camera angle and position is exactly right. The Bushnell Aggressor range and Spypoint Force-11D all have a good sized viewing screen.

5. Camera settings

All trail cameras will give you some control over the capture settings. Most will allow you to change the number of images taken per trigger as well as the length of video recorded. It is usually possible, as well, to specify the delay between photos and/or trigger events. Time lapse options allow you to take photographs at regular intervals between hours of your choice, and some cameras, such as those in the Bushnell range, can be set with two separate time lapse windows. This is useful if you are interested in both dusk and dawn activities.

6. Wireless functionality

Cameras with wireless functionality will send images directly to your mobile phone or email account. This offers huge time saving benefits, as well as reducing the amount of disturbance at your survey site. Several cameras now have wireless capabilities, and some will even allow you to alter your camera settings remotely. An activated SIM card is required to use these features. All of the cameras in the Ltl Acorn range are available with wireless capabilities.

 * Interpolation is where the software inside the camera produces a larger image by adding pixels. These extra pixels are created by application of an algorithm which uses adjacent pixels to create the most likely colour. 
 

The World’s Rarest Birds: an interview with author and birder Erik Hirschfeld

The World's Rarest Birds jacket imageThe World’s Rarest Birds is a sumptuous visual treat for birders, featuring a gallery of competition-winning bird photos from around the world. But it is more than that: Erik Hirschfeld – and collaborators Andy Swash and Rob Still – want everyone to be engaged with the plight of the rarest bird species. Here’s what he has to say about the book:

The World’s Rarest Birds compiles information from many different sources and represents a great conservation collaboration. What were your aims in writing the book?

I wanted to give the term “bird conservation” a more recognizable face. In order to evoke feelings, funds, and engagement for a cause, it is essential to make the cause recognizable. By presenting each one of the world’s rarest species in text and image, and sorting them in a geographical context, there is a bird for everyone: regardless of where you live, it should be easy to find the birds in your vicinity. I work much with beginners to birding, as a guide and lecturer, and the taxonomic order does not make sense to them. I think it is important to convince these newcomers about the conservation needs. It does not matter if you are a beginner or expert, Swede or Polynesian – there is a bird in the book that everyone can feel for in conservation terms. And that was my aim, as I think it is extremely important to spread knowledge about endangered birds.

Could you tell us a little about how you became a fully fledged conservation author?

My professional career is in an unrelated sector but I am basically a birder, and was heavily involved on the Swedish twitching scene in my early birding years. Over time my interest in birds has widened – I hardly keep lists any more, and I appreciate the birds’ context in nature more, as well as my own personal experiences of them. I am right now enjoying watching Rooks doing clever things on my street more than twitching a Yellow-nosed Albatross at my local patch (although I did twitch it…). I have always written: identification papers in the eighties, in British journals, and much about migration and faunistics. With the maturing of my interest it was quite obvious I should do something on conservation. I have been a staunch supporter of BirdLife International for 20 years, and am very happy that I could make them benefit from this book. It is important to remember though that the book is a team effort by Andy Swash, Rob Still and myself.

New Caledonia - The World's Rarest Birds page detailThere are some beautiful and striking images in the book, which we loved. Do you feel that the images are an essential way of engaging people with the species?

Yes, as I touched on in the first question. It is a matter of applying simple marketing principles from commercial contexts also in conservation and the NGO world, to make people aware of the birds. You know the old saying: a picture means more than a thousand words.

Some of the image contributions were from winners of an international photographic competition – did you get a good response?

Absolutely, I had tried it out with the Rare Birds Yearbooks so we knew it was going to be a success. The timing has also been good. With the digital photography boom, many people can take decent pictures, and you see much more camera equipment in the field now than 30 years ago when you had to wait a couple of weeks to get your films back. And we are very grateful to the photographers who submitted their images.

The World’s Rarest Birds is quite different in format and content from your previous series The Rare Birds Yearbook, did you also have a different audience in mind?

No, actually not, I thought that basically the same people would buy them. Andy Swash and Rob Still have been instrumental in the evolution to The World’s Rarest Birds and I was convinced by them from the beginning this was the way to go. I remember Ade Long at BirdLife suggesting already after the first edition of the Rare Birds Yearbooks that I should go more for photos and less for texts.

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway - The World's Rarest Birds page detailThe purchase of this book contributes towards supporting the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme which is a fantastic cause. Could you tell us about any notable conservation success stories that you have seen since your involvement with the project started?

Several. The Madagascar Pochard project in which the species population recently has quadrupled. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper project with artificial hatching and building up a captive population. The project that established a breeding centre for Spix’s Macaw, and now will release birds into the wild this summer. The banning of diclofenac in the Indian subcontinent which, slowly, helps vultures. Even if they are not saved yet, it is not all gloomy! And the many dedicated people and organizations behind these and other positive trends are success stories in themselves.

Buy a copy of The World’s Rarest Birds

Available Now from NHBS

Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part three: Paul Souders on “The grace of giants”

We are marking the forthcoming publication of the new 2012 portfolio from the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition with a mini-series of interviews with some of the category winners from last year. 

Our third and final interviewee is Paul Souders, who won the Underwater World category in 2011.

Paul Souders - "The grace of giants"
You won the Underwater World category in last year’s competition with “The grace of giants” (left). Can you describe the special challenges, and special appeal, that underwater photography must have?

I come from a long line of Pennsylvania dirt farmers here in the US. We are, by our very nature, sinkers not swimmers. I’ve been a professional photographer all of my working life, but it was only in 2005 that I learned to dive and then to photograph underwater. It was an entirely new world, with a vast array of new subjects to shoot and new techniques to learn.

I’ve enjoyed the opportunities it’s presented to expand my view of the natural world and the discipline it has required. Photographing large, unpredictable subjects like a giant walrus in ice-cold sea water at the edge of the world is not for the faint of heart. I can’t imagine that more than a handful of people have deliberately gone swimming with a walrus in the Arctic oceans, but it’s an amazing privilege to witness the sight of them gently gliding in their natural environment.

Could you reveal a bit about the photo and how you got the shot?

I’d imagined this photograph for years, but it took a lot of planning and effort to make it happen. I had to charter a steel-hulled yacht in Svalbard, 600 miles north of Europe’s edge, and drag hundreds of pounds of scuba and other underwater gear from my home in Seattle through four different airports. Walrus are by reputation, large, aggressive and unpredictable. It took an enormous leap of faith to get into the water with them. But sometimes you just have to hope for the best. We’d sailed to one of their haul-outs in the Svalbard archipelago, and found a few of them swimming in the water. I quickly put on all of my gear and then, as last-minute nod to safety, tied an old piece of rope around my waist for the boat skipper to hold onto. And then I slid off the iceberg and into the water. 

I could see the walrus circling below me in the depths, and they slowly came up, equal parts wariness and curiosity. They seemed impossibly big, but quite graceful and gentle as they swam towards me. One grew bold, and was soon pressing his whiskers and tusks against my camera’s glass dome. He even gave it a little tap, just to see if I was paying attention.

Apparently blue-lipped, hyperventilating photographers aren’t all that distracting after all, since they soon swam off, taking one last look at me before diving again into the depths.

And your tips for aspiring wildlife photographers?

Probably the best advice I can offer is “don’t quit your day job.”

There has never been a better time to be a nature photographer. In the last decade, we have witnessed a revolution in digital photo technology. Guided tours travel to wilderness areas that were once the sole province of National Geographic and BBC film crews.

Of course, there has never been a worse time to make a living as a nature photographer, since everyone and their dog can now go out on holiday, make amazing pictures and give them away on the internet for nothing.

The hard part for professionals is thinking of images that will show the world in a new way, to create pictures that people haven’t seen before. It requires a level of dedication and perseverance that should give any sane person pause.

Paul Souders’s website:

www.worldfoto.com/

Read part one: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part one: Steve Mills on “The assassin”.

Read part two: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part two: Peter Chadwick on “Taking off”.

Pre-order now and save 20% when you buy the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 22 book and wall calendar together:

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio 22 jacket imageWildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 Wall Calendar jacket image

Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part two: Peter Chadwick on “Taking off”

We are marking the forthcoming publication of the new 2012 portfolio from the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition with a mini-series of interviews with some of the category winners from last year. 

Next up is Peter Chadwick, who won the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife in 2011 with ‘Taking off’, pictured below.

Peter Chadwick: "Taking off"
Your photograph, “Taking off”, won the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife last year. What did it mean to you to win in this category?

My picture of the African Black Oystercatchers taking off from the rock as a wave crashes over them really showcases the harsh yet fragile environment that these birds live in, also highlighting their need for complex social interactions. In the early 1980s their numbers plummeted to around 4500 birds and through conservation efforts the population now stands at around 6000 birds. This makes them a good ambassador for the coastal environment, showing that we can make a positive difference if we choose to. Thus the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife was particularly fitting as it certainly helps me showcase these endangered birds and the marine environment in which they live. As a boy my excitement about the outdoors was certainly enhanced through reading all of Gerald Durrell’s books and it is indeed a great privilege to receive the award in his name.

Could you reveal a bit about the photo and the process of getting the shot?

This particular image was taken on Malgas Island, that is found within the West Coast National Park of South Africa. The island is critical to protecting breeding populations of Cape Gannets, African Penguins, Cape, Bank and Crowned Cormorants and of course the African Black Oystercatcher. The island in fact holds the highest breeding density of African Black Oystercatchers anywhere and breeding space is harshly contested for.

The island can only be reached by boat and weather is often a limiting factor to getting onto and off the island and any trips needs to be planned well in advance. As this is a protected area, special permits are also required. All food and water has to be taken with you and all rubbish obviously has to be removed. Planning for the trip is quite considerable and time consuming but it is an incredible privilege to sit on a small island with thousands of breeding birds. 

To obtain this particular image, I had been photographing the birds over three mornings at the same location and saw that they regularly met in the early mornings to strengthen pair bonds, proclaim territories and on occasion squabble with one another. The particular rock where these birds were photographed was the popular meeting point for up to sixteen birds and so I concentrated on this point, waiting several hours for the specific action to happen. In this particular series I took about seven or eight images but over the three days probably took about 75 – 100 images. Patience brings the reward!

And your tips for aspiring wildlife photographers?

I would say the most important aspect is to respect your subject – capture the image without disturbing your subject or manipulating the situation. Have patience and get to know your subject before going anywhere near a camera. Experiment and look at the work of other photographers but do not try to copy them – create your own style that makes you unique. I would say that only 20% of the image is created through technical knowledge of your equipment and 80% through your own creativity.

Peter Chadwick’s websites:

www.peterchadwick.co.za

www.photodestination.co.za/who-are-we

Read part one: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part one: Steve Mills on “The assassin”.

Read part three: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part three: Paul Souders on “The grace of giants”.

Pre-order now and save 20% when you buy the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 22 book and wall calendar together:

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio 22 jacket imageWildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 Wall Calendar jacket image

Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part one: Steve Mills on “The assassin”

We are marking the forthcoming publication of the new 2012 portfolio from the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition with a mini-series of interviews with some of the category winners from last year. 

Our first interviewee is Steve Mills whose 2011 category winning photo, ‘The assassin’, is pictured below.

'The assassin' - Steve MillsYour photograph, “The assassin”, won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2011, Behaviour: Birds category last year. What draws you to birds as a subject in particular?

For me, all wildlife is wonderful but birds are simply fantastic. For one thing they are so accessible. Close encounters with other wild animals are few and far between. They tend to be secretive creatures of the night, reluctant to be seen. It’s birds that allow us that connection with the natural world. We see them everywhere – in the garden, in the park, above the city etc. My fascination has always been more than simply ‘What bird is that?’ but rather ‘What is it doing?’ and ‘Why is it doing it?’ and I think this lifelong interest in bird behaviour has helped me enormously in my photography.

Could you reveal a bit about the photo and the process of getting the shot?

Following a week of snow cover and sub-zero temperatures in the north-east of England many birds were struggling. Snipe and woodcock, amongst others, had been forced to the coast in the search for unfrozen feeding areas.  Most had abandoned any pretence of secrecy and were probing anywhere there was even the tiniest patch of grass sticking up through the snow.

I drove around the lanes near my home looking for a likely spot and came across a tiny patch of exposed grass that would allow me to use the car as a hide with the sun well-positioned. With my 500 lens balanced on the window I settled down to wait. Eventually a snipe appeared and began frantically feeding only a few metres away. This was what I’d hoped for and felt my preparation had been suitably rewarded. What happened next was where the luck came in. As with all good wildlife photography there’s preparation, understanding the behaviour of your subject, some decent kit etc., but overriding all this is whether you get lucky.

The snipe, desperately hungry, showed little regard for its exposed position and within seconds had paid the ultimate price. As I watched the snipe through the camera my left eye caught a movement. A merlin arrived at speed inches above the snow, and hit the snipe talons first. The ensuing struggle lasted only a matter of seconds. After looking up, seemingly straight at me, the merlin gave a series of rapid and violent pecks to the head of the snipe to end the uneven contest. Of the 15 shots I was able to take this image worked best.

Have you any tips for aspiring wildlife photographers?

You’ve got to be passionate because it can be frustrating. There isn’t an album in the world big enough for all the ‘almost’ photos – those missed through not quite being in the right place, not reacting quickly enough or having crucially misjudged a setting. That happens to everyone and all you can do is to try to learn from these experiences to make you more likely to get the shot next time.

Wildlife, including birds, tends to be timid, so a long lens helps enormously but if you get to know how your subject behaves you can often predict what it will do and position yourself accordingly. For example, large birds always take off into the wind so by positioning yourself well you’ve got more chance of a bird flying towards you initially. Getting to know your subject also increases your chances of getting action shots such as a bird feeding, preening, wing-stretching, interacting with others etc. This type of action can often add punch to a photo.

Whatever camera you’re using, I recommend you make sure you’re completely comfortable with its settings. Make sure you can change them without losing vital moments having to fiddle about trying to find this or that button. Understanding your camera is vital because, in wildlife photography, you often don’t get a second chance.

Use the light to your advantage. If there is bright sunlight try shooting early in the morning or just before dusk when the shadows are less harsh and the bird is lit from a lower angle.

For birds, keep your shutter speed high. This is particularly important for moving or flying birds. To do this you may have to sacrifice depth of field or ISO.

Finally, never think that you have to travel across the country or even further afield to get great shots.  My wife and I run a conservation organisation in Greece – Birdwing – and this takes me to spectacular birdwatching sites where I spend days at a time behind a camera, usually in wonderful light. Ironically however, this picture was taken only yards from my house in the north-east of England, which demonstrates something I’ve learned time and again – in wildlife photography you never know what is around the corner and that extra hour in the field can sometimes be richly rewarded.

Steve Mills’s websites:

http://stevemills-birdphotography.com

www.birdwing.eu

Steve is the author of Birdwatching in Northern Greece: A Site Guide – available now from NHBS

Read part two: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part two: Peter Chadwick on “Taking off”.

Read part three: Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning inspirations, part three: Paul Souders on “The grace of giants”.

Pre-order now and save 20% when you buy the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 22 book and wall calendar together:

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio 22 jacket imageWildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 Wall Calendar jacket image