With the weather finally warming up and fresh green vegetation starting to appear, spring is certainly taking hold. This month head out in search of water voles and kestrels to get his wildlife photography fix.
Over the last half a century water voles have had a bit of a tough time. The release of mink into rivers and drop in water quality and suitable habitat has seen numbers drop drastically. Now, however, with thanks to the hard work of numerous conservation organisations, water voles are back on the rise and are amazing subjects to get out and photograph in April.
With the vegetation only now starting to grow, it’s the perfect time to get out looking for the signs of voles around your area. Suitable habitats are often lowland waterways with slow moving water or wetland areas with well-vegetated ditches and channels. The voles make burrows in soft-sided mud banks and create small low platforms of reeds along the water’s edge to feed on. If you spot one of these have a look to see if it has any Tic Tac style droppings – they’re a sure sign of water voles being present.
One of the easiest ways to locate the voles is with your ears. As you walk along listen out for the characteristic plop as they dive off of their feeding platforms into the water. Often when standing in a good location you can hear the voles long before you see them, the rustling and chewing noise as they scoff reeds and rushes a dead give away of their presence.
Try to get as low to the water as possible to make flattering portraits, working from a low angled tripod to help support a long lens safely and securely at the water’s edge. With the voles often being obscured by vegetation and only visible through small gaps, learn to focus manually, as it will far improve your chances of getting critical focus through vegetation and help remove the irritation of the AF locking onto non-critical elements within the frame.
With wet vegetation sometimes causing horrible highlights, also think about using a circular polariser to help reduce the surface reflections for more subtle images. For shorter lenses these can be attached directly to the front of the camera, however with larger telephotos they will often require a specialised drop-in filter instead.
A good location can present some fantastic opportunities for water vole photography so be sure to get out around your local waterways in search of these little beauties.
One of the countryside’s most easily recognisable falcons, kestrels are great subjects for early spring. Often early breeders in April, they can often be seen dramatically chasing each other as they defend and set up territories for the mating season. Look for the unmistakable hovers as the birds hunt for small voles over verges and pasture areas. Found all over the country, they can sometimes be very approachable, especially closer to towns and cities. In terms of images you will most likely want to work with a long lens of 300mm or more.
When choosing a shutter speed be sure to select one that reflects the focal length you are working with - remember that the speed should be at least the length of the lens in question, for example 1/500sec for a 500mm. In most cases, to get the best in terms of sharpness, 1/1000sec or faster would be preferable, especially for freezing those fast wing beats as they hover above the ground.
If you find a location where the birds are often found hunting, think about setting up a perch for them to use. Old fence posts are often a favourite among photographers and when sited with a good amount of thought for the foreground and background they can make some excellent images (remember to always get the permission of the land owner first, however).
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.