Water shrew, Neomys fodiens, single shrew on rock by water, Warwickshire, July 2010
Water shrew, Neomys fodiens, single shrew on rock by water, Warwickshire, July 2010

When money is tight (and it is) I revert to staying at home and photographing our common British wildlife. They do not come much more numerous than the common shrew, but there are relatively few pictures of them around. The pygmy shrew is just as common, but try looking on picture library web sites for them. Very few people have done them.

Look for images of wood mice and bank voles and you will find masses. They are easy to catch, simple to keep alive and very prone to taking up cute poses. Put either in a glass tank and quite readily they will sit upright and groom themselves like supermodels preparing for the camera. Not so the shrews.

Of the three widespread U.K. shrews the one you will find the most pictures of is the water shrew. Second comes the common shrew and finally the pygmy. It reflects how difficult they are to photograph in that order.

I have just done water shrew and found it very difficult. Hyper active and never stopping to pose it consumed a lot of my energy over five days. It took many more days to trap and the traps have to be inspected every few hours to make sure they stay alive. I do not find it true that shrews die easily. Given food and water they are not difficult to keep. I had a supply of  earthorms and meal worms and they thrived.

Water shrew, Neomys fodiens, single shrew on ground, Warwickshire,
Water shrew, Neomys fodiens, single shrew on ground, Warwickshire,
Water shrew in a shoe
Water shrew in a shoe

Now I am doing the common shrew and it is even more difficult (and it bites). I have finally worked out a method to get its cooperation, but it is still hard. I am expecting the pygmy to be even harder to get to grips with, but so far failed to catch one.You need a license to trap shrews in the U.K.

Lesser-spotted woodpecker

Lesser-spotted woodpeckers are not so much rare birds as difficult to see, spending their time high up in trees out of sight. I have only ever come across three nests, the first of which I photographed by putting a 20 foot alloy scaffolding tower up. It was a lot of work over several days and the only day I got to actually take pictures it rained incessantly. This in the days of Kodachrome 64 meant flash was the only option. Looking back it is amazing that I got any pictures at all, but they were actually quite good and I was pleased to do a species that many never do.

This year I got to photograph one in Bulgaria, courtesy of Spatia Wildlife, that was only 1.6 metres high in a fence post and completely out in the open. They are very tame birds usually and a hide was unnecessary. We were a group of 5 on the tour and could stand very close out in the open, without the birds being concerned. As they were still feeding small young both adults would go completely inside the nest, which meant when they emerged they always flew straight out and away. A great opportunity for flight shots. I tried two methods to try and get them sharp. First I manually focused just in front of the hole and guessed whether the bird would go right or left. They almost never went in a straight line. The success rate was low, but as the birds fed every 5 minutes or less I had plenty of chances. Then I changed to servo focus and kept the focus points on the tree using all the focus points or ring of fire, waiting for the bird to stick its head out of the hole. As it launched into flight I pressed the button at 10 frames per second and hoped. The success rate went up. Once again the EOS 1d Mk1v showed its fantastic ability to track a flying bird. The Mk3 bodies would never have managed this.

Male Lesser-spotted woodpecker in dull light which was better than strong sun. 800 iso. 1/200th at F6.3. Auto exposure. 500mm f4 lens. EOS 1d Mk1v
Male Lesser-spotted woodpecker. 800 iso. 1/2500th at f7.1. Manual exposure. 500mm f4 lens. EOS 1d Mk1v
Female Lesser-spotted woodpecker. 800 iso 1/3200th at f7.1. Manual exposure. 500mm f4 lens. EOS 1d Mk1v

I use 400 iso as my default setting and can see no improvement in noise levels by going any slower. The difference in noise between 400 and 800 iso is slight and I do not hesitate to use it. I switched off the ability to increment the iso settings in 1/3rds in the custom function settings. Why do I need 640 iso? I just go from 400 to 800 to 1600.  Shutter speeds of around 1/2500th catch most birds in flight and for that I needed strong sun in the early morning or evening. When the bird was just perched at the nest entrance however softer duller light was preferable.

Little owl

Wildlife photography is a time consuming game. I did 5 sessions of 4 hours in a hide to get this picture, but before that spent many hours walking around and watching the bird. Once I had it pinned down to one hedgerow where it spent most of its time I had to find one branch that it sat on the most often. I visited the site most days for 2 weeks, both early and late in the day. During that time I also watched hares, kingfishers and found a fox earth with well grown young, which might be good for photography next year.

Little owl A0385
Little owl two minutes before sunset

Once I had decided on where to put the hide I had to get permission from the land owner. For once that was an easy task as he appeared in the field one day by luck. It can take days to find out who owns a bit of land.

The photography was then easy. I did 2 early morning sessions, but gave those up as the birds feathers were damp and tatty from feeding on earthworms in the morning dew. Instead I got in the hide about 1700 hours and waited until 2100 hours. The bird would put in several appearances during that time and was totally unconcerned by the hide. Other than change the perch for another I was stuck as to what to do next. Flight shots are what I would really like, but unless I find a nest next spring that will be impossible. With a nest and a regular flight pass it will be a good flight subject. I should also get some dead mice and get it perched with one in its bill.


Breezebrowser is still my favourite software for editing my pictures and deciding which to keep or delete. I can work faster with this bit of software than any  other I have seen, but since buying the EOS 1d Mk1v I have noticed how much slower it runs. It is especially noticeable when I bring four pictures up at once for comparison, which I do a lot. They take far too long to load and I was a bit slow to realise why.

The embedded jpgs within the raw files are much larger than on earlier Canon cameras. Breezebrowser uses these embedded jpgs rather than the raw file itself to display an image. I can’t see a setting in the cameras custom functions where the embedded jpg size can be altered, but have found a workaround that speeds things up. I am now shooting in raw mode plus small jpg setting on the camera. Then within Breezebrowsers Preferences/Image Display I have the raw and jpg files linked. When Breezebrowser views the images now it loads the smaller jpg file rather than the larger embedded jpg and things are back to the same speed I am used to.

Good pictures are seen or created before the camera is picked up

On a recent two month trip to Spain one of the commonest birds around was the little egret. A large bird, that is often easy to approach, especially from the car. Despite this I only photographed them once during the whole trip. The reason is that it is not just the bird that makes a picture. The background, foreground, overall colours and lighting are vital and if they are not right I do not pick the camera up.

Little egret
Little egret

The above picture is not one I would normally take. The background is dark, causing exposure problems with a white bird as the contrast is high. Generally the settings are not very interesting.

Eventually I did come across one in ideal conditions. It was on a beach in the Ebro Delta wading in shallow water. Importantly there was little wind, which kept the water smooth and the sun was coming directly over my shoulder as I approached. Although no longer close to dawn when the light would be even better the sun was still low enough to the horizon for nice light conditions.

It was not possible to get close in the car as the sand was soft. During my week there I towed three Spanish cars out of the sand on this beach, but unusually for me managed to avoid getting stuck myself. The egret was moving slowly left to right along the beach, fishing as it went. I parked 50 metres down the track in the direction the bird was moving, ran across the beach with my 600mm and a bean bag and lay flat on the sand and waited. This is much better than trying to stalk the bird. He is now edging towards me and I am motionless. Because I am low down I offer far less threat and when the bird finally passed me he was close enough to photograph with a 200mm lens. Before he got that close however I had perhaps 30 seconds to shoot pictures. As ever the low angle helps separate the bird from the background and makes the bird look more dramatic.

Little egret
Little egret

The blue water was still a little darker than the bird so I dialled in – 2/3rd compensation as I shoot in the Evaluative mode that exposes for the whole picture.