Wildlife in December - the practical photographer's guide

With the weather slowly turning colder and the forecast set for a hard winter, it’s a fantastic time to get out in search of some wonderful subjects for wildlife photography across the UK. Here are two of the best subjects to look out for this winter.

Waxwings come to the UK in search of shelter from the harsh winters of Scandinavia. Luckily for photographers, the UK provides a plentiful resource of food for them, giving some excellent opportunities for photography.

To find the birds in your area, one of the simplest ways is to watch the local bird sightings and head to known locations. Often one of the most popular spots are that of supermarket car parks, as these often host a large number of rowan trees around the edge. These locations also often allow closer views, with the birds becoming more used to people due to the high volume of shoppers passing by.

Look for the birds settling on perches with a background that’s at least 5m away. Working with a wide aperture of around f/5.6, you will be able to blur potentially distracting backgrounds for cleaner looking images. In most cases you are going to require a long lens of around 300mm or more to get frame-filling images. If you have a shorter focal length, try instead to focus on groups of the birds coming in to feed.

With the birds often staying in a given area for a number of days or even weeks, they can prove to be excellent subjects for the winter period.

Short-eared owls
Short-eared owls are awesome, and are one of my all-time winter highlights. Their brown form and yellow eyes make them wonderfully attractive subjects for photography.

To track them down, firstly identify their habitat. This usually takes the form of coastal marshes, reed beds or rough arable land that has been left fallow, as these have a high volume of voles, mice and other small mammals that the owls prey on.

After identifying a possible site, scan the area. When in flight they stay low, often below the horizon, and tend to flap their wings intermittently. In addition, be sure to check on top of fence posts or stonewalls, as often the birds will settle on these features to survey the area. Take your time and stay in one spot for an extended period, as often (without warning) they can appear seemingly from out of nowhere.

In order to get images, you will need to be close and this requires the use of fieldcraft to stay hidden. You don’t need to go full camo, but just think about your appearance in the landscape. If in an open section, look for cover in the form of features, be it brick walls, bushes etc and use these to your advantage. In certain locations it can be best to stay in the car, using the vehicle as a portable hide. This can be a fantastic way of getting close and reacting to the birds’ movements.

In terms of equipment, you are going to need a long lens, at least 300mm, to help you fill the frame with the birds, although if you are going for more ‘In the landscape’ images, a 70-200mm or similar zoom would also work well. A fast aperture will be beneficial when the light starts to dip, but with the owls often hunting in the day, this isn't always a problem. If working from a car, tripods aren’t a practical solution, so instead use a beanbag to rest your lens on the doorframe to help reduce vibrations when shooting.

Short-eared owls are simply wonderful subjects. After finding a site you will need to visit many times to get a number of good images, as they can be frustratingly difficult, but when you get the shots it is simply fantastic.

Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here