Wildlife Notes

6. Life in The Reeds

Article text
Sedge Warbler

Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4x Extender
F5.6
1/2000th
ISO 400
Tripod



Canon 5D
Canon 24-70mm f2.8
F13
ISO 50
Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 300mm f4 IS
F13
1/100th
ISO 400
Tripod

Having recently moved close to some reed beds I have been fascinated by their ever changing colours and calming motion. Their annual new growth and die back gives an evolving colour scheme accentuated by the changing light or wind conditions. I have also begun to appreciate the importance they serve as a wildlife habitat providing a hiding, feeding and breeding place for many birds, insects and creepy crawlies.

In the winter they are a safe haven for large numbers of roosting starlings who resemble a swarm of bees as they perform spectacular fly by’s before falling out of the sky into their roost for the night. I’ve noticed the very same behaviour in May and June from what looked like a large flock of Martins just before dark. The reeds also provide a super golden back drop for photographing water birds, especially in reflection.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F5.6
1/200th
ISO 320
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick


Of the wildlife dependent on this habitat the warblers and reed buntings have captured my interest recently. I find the Warbler migration from Sub Saharan Africa to the UK absolutely astounding. Apparently they don’t learn this; it’s hard wired into their brains from birth. I am amazed at the amount of things that seem to be hard wired into animal’s brains from birth, and I’m sure many human characteristics are hard wired, though we would probably like to think not most of the time. I believe one of these hard wired skills is the ability, if we just spend time looking, to naturally decode many aspects of the natural world around us – what animals are thinking, what they will do next etc. - A very useful skill for photographing wildlife.

The ‘common’ warblers in the reed beds locally include Reed, Sedge and Cetti’s with the occasional Grasshopper Warbler. For these insectivorous warblers it is mainly their songs which are most striking, the birds themselves are very much LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs), though the Sedge Warbler is quite pretty with its stripes and I find the Reed Warbler quite elegant.

Of the reed inhabiting birds, from a visual aspect, it’s the male Reed Bunting who wins hands down for me, with his super black head, white neck band and stunning back feathers. My best attempts so far to get an image leave much room for improvement.




Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F6.3
1/400th
ISO 400
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick

Apparently there are Cirl Buntings locally, though I‘ve yet to catch up with one, but did get the following image of a male a few years ago in South Devon, UK.



Canon 20D
Canon 300mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F7.1
1/500th
ISO 400
Tripod

The Reed Warbler has a repetitive, chatting, rhythmic song in groupings of 3 with some twitters. At first hearing it’s difficult to tell it apart from the Sedge Warbler, but with a little practice you can start to hear the difference. This Warbler is the classic host of the Cuckoo, who also migrates all the way from Africa to ‘parasitize’ these little birds. I always feel sorry for the Warbler when I see TV clips of them enslaved into feeding a Cuckoo chick which eventually becomes many times their size. The Reed Warbler is usually quite hard to see, especially to get a clear image without reeds being in the way, so I was very pleased to get the following image.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F6.3
1/200th
ISO 400
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick


The Sedge Warbler is usually less shy than the Reed Warbler and is much prettier with its characteristic eye stripe. It seems to have an angry, repetitive song with little rhythm that goes ‘all over the place’. To me it feels like the bird is really telling me off. This warbler characteristically launches itself into the air and then parachutes down to the top of the highest reed or a nearby bush to carry on its singing.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F6.3
1/200th
ISO 400
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick




Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F6.3
1/200th
ISO 400
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F6.3
1/200th
ISO 400
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick

The following image is an extreme crop to show the amazing number of insects this Sedge Warbler has caught to feed its chicks. How on earth can it catch and hold that many in its beak? Unbelievable!



The last ‘common’ warbler in my local reeds is the Cetti’s Warbler. These are very shy, I’ve not yet seen one in the open or perched outside a bush to get a good image, they are always shouting at you from inside the undergrowth. The image below is my best so far. They famously have the loudest song for their size. The song explodes out of their chosen hiding place and lasts for a very short time. The warbler then remains silent for 10 or 15 minutes before the next outburst. If you are close it can give you quite a shock. These birds are relatively new to the UK, having started their colonization in the South East in the 1960’s and are now relatively common in suitable habitats throughout South and Mid England. Unlike the other warblers they are resident and can be badly affected by a harsh winter. They are a rather plain bird similar to the Reed Warbler but with a greyish eye stripe, and a little darker and stockier.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F5.6
1/2500th
ISO 400
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick
Fill Flash

The Grasshopper Warbler is even harder to see than the Cetti’s Warbler. I think you never forget the first time you hear this little bird, its song is exactly like a giant grasshopper (perhaps with a metallic twang) and it is hard to believe a bird could make such a noise. When singing it can still be very hard to locate, it’s very adept at projecting its voice to other bushes. This warbler is best described as a cross between a Reed and Sedge Warbler with streaks on its back and slightly smaller than both. Its song is the real key to identification.

While taking these images I’ve learned the following which I hope may help others who wish to photograph these little songsters (or other small birds).

I believe in visiting possibly good areas before hand to identify what species may be around, where likely singing posts are and also where the best backdrops may be found. You don’t want to have waited for the ideal photographing conditions and then waste time looking for your subjects, especially if you are lugging a big lens around. An initial investigation is also not so weather dependent, and you get to learn something of the subject species habits that will help you when it comes to taking an image. Once a good area has been identified I then keenly watch the weather for a sunny morning, ideally with little or no wind.

It seems most successful to get up really early so you are there for the dawn chorus. Though the light will be low at first it gives you a chance to identify the good singing posts. It’s also just the very best time of day to be out and alive. I’ve found it’s most successful to quietly hang around or move between these singing posts, set up, and wait for the action to start. These signing posts can be anything that is slightly higher than the surrounding vegetation; it could be a tall reed or typically a bush or small tree. In the early morning I feel birds generally (and other animals) are more abundant and approachable. Birds are very focused on singing and being in open view to redefine their territory for the day after the darkness of night.

In all my planning and thoughts before taking an image I’m constantly striving to get as close as I possibly can without frightening the subject. Some individuals and species are more approachable than others. Over time you start to build up a subconscious feel for how close you can get by judging the body language or calls of your subjects.

If I’m not waiting for subjects to come to me (because of a favoured singing post or food source) I try carefully approaching them. The trick of not looking directly at them, not approaching directly and being very slow with a non threatening thought in you mind can work well. Keeping low is also a good tactic. If I’m approaching slowly with a camera and tripod it’s very important to keep the rig low, usually parallel to the ground, and then raise it slowly in front of you. Approaching slowly and moving the rig from your shoulder will usually spook your subject.

I’ve also found if another species of bird flies by or alights on the singing post the subject bird is more likely to appear to reaffirm its territory, so I know I must be ready for a quick chance of an image.

The waiting tactic allowed me to take these images of a Sedge Warbler no more than 2 meters away.



Canon 50D
Canon 300mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F7.1
1/2000th
ISO 400
Handheld

Its not just warblers who like the reeds, I managed to get these images of a rather ragged Blue Tit and a lovely Greenfinch while waiting for a Reed Warbler to emerge.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F6.3
1/1250th
ISO 250
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm f4 IS plus 1.4 Extender
F6.3
1/2000th
ISO 250
Tripod plus Wimberley Sidekick

My favoured gear for bird photography comprises:

• Canon 50D bodies (high pixel count and 1.6x crop body being ideal)
• 500mm F4 IS with 1.4 Extender
• 300mm F4 IS with 1.4 Extender (my hand held and flight images camera)
• Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II (if I can get really close to small birds)
• Canon Flash 580EX (for fill light)
• Flash Extender (to extend flash range and save battery power)
• Gitzo Carbon Tripod
• Markins Ball Head
• Wimberley Sidekick (for Canon 500mm)
• Waterproof camouflage Camera and Lens covers
• I have adapted a bag shoulder strap to carry my Canon 50D/300mm setup over my shoulder for quick access while using the tripod and 50D/500mm
• Rucksack capable of holding all the above with foam padding inside and a big heavy duty plastic bag and freezer clip to seal the whole lot should it rain
• I also sometimes carry a make shift hide comprising camouflage bivy bag, a very low small seat and light small piece of camouflage netting. Being inside the bivvy bag, seated on my seat and under the netting is an excellent way to keep hidden, warm and dry while waiting for particularly wary species

From the point of view of taking steady detailed images, with the limitations of available light and the wish to use as low an ISO as possible, in decreasing order of steadiness I will:

Always try to use a tripod or bean bag whenever possible

Try sitting down, lying down or resting on something (quite often my rucksack)

Use a mono pod (usually my tripod with one leg extended)

Shorten all the tripod legs, fix my rucksack belt round my waste and rest the tripod legs into my waist and belt while looking through the view finder.

As a very last resort I will hand hold (though if I am up around 1/800th or more I feel reasonably confident of a good image with a 300mm, IS, 1.4 Extender and 1.6x crop body.)

So my next challenge has to be getting up close and personal with a Reed Bunting and getting any sort of a clear image of a Cetti’s or Grasshopper Warbler. I feel quite confident about my chances of a Reed Bunting, though I think it will be a while before the two warblers are bagged. But that’s the fun of the challenge and the reason for the sense of achievement when we are successful.


The following links provide more details on Warbler natural history

Link To – Reed Warbler

Link To – Sedge Warbler

Link To – Reed Warbler

Link To – Grasshopper Warbler