Feeling a lot more in tune with my time zone I looked forward to my days plan with some anticipation. Mike was off to shoot a Black Woodpecker nest in the morning and I was going to shoot Sousliks, the European Ground Squirrel. In the afternoon I would get the Woodpeckers, I couldn't wait, it was another on our top 3 target list !
First of all the Souslik though. I was delivered to a field on the edge of town, only a couple of minutes away from the hotel. The sun had yet to appear over the hillside and illuminate the scene.
A very dirty grey White Stork was wandering around looking for food before taking off with a very wet and muddy load of nesting materials. No wonder it was filthy !
Nicloi, my guide and driver for the day showed me where the squirrel burrows at the top of the field were and, laying on a provided mat and bean bag, I waited for their first appearance which was about an hour later.
One by one they started popping up all over the field, standing motionless at first whilst they decided if it was safe to come out.
But before long they were going about their business which was either eating
or delivering grass underground, presumably either nesting material or food for youngsters.
There's a limit to how many Souslik pictures you want, particularly ones that are obscured by grass so after taking a few more I wandered off to see what might by in the surrounding hedgerows and rose fields.
The answer was not a lot and so I decided to be more bold in my approach and stood up to take a few shots.The Souslik are quite approachable although some are braver than others !
I returned to the hotel having had an OK morning but was more interested to know how Mike had got on with the Black Woodpecker. One of the German guys had been the day before and had been disturbed by gypsies hacking down firewood in the locality of the nest, hopefully they hadn't returned while Mike was there. The good news was they hadn't and Mike had had a good session with around eight visits to the nest recorded over a 5 hour period. The only problem he had encountered was the back lighting, oh and getting to the site too. You had to traverse a small but fast flowing stream via a couple of stepping stones then climb a very steep earth bank . Exhausting when you have heavy gear on your back. Mike had ended with wet feet but seemed happy with his shots. He advised me that my 500mm on it's own would be more than adequate, and that was how I decided to approach the subject but first we had another photo opportunity at the hotel. On the previous day, an Aesculapian Tree Snake had been caught on the way to the hide and had spent the night in the hotel in a plastic box. Good job that we never had a visit from the room cleaners that day or any other for that matter. Maybe that's why !
Anyway, the snake was brought out after lunch for a photo session.
Although Europe's longest they are totally harmless to humans.
and keen to participate in a photo shoot too ! On the way back to the woodpecker nest we released it back where it had been found and after being tipped out of the box there was only time for a farewell snap and it was gone.
And so to the Woodpecker. The stream crossed without incident, the very steep bank climbed with loss of breath, I settled down in anticipation. The hide was a very temporary canvass affair, not too much room to manoeuvre but sufficient. It was dark in there too. Mike had offered a torch but I had declined. Mistake ! Still I managed.
I sat for nearly an hour when suddenly a burst of noise, the Woodpecker giving notice of it's arrival which I failed to anticipate and it was there on the tree folding it's wings. The visit lasted only 15 to 20 seconds and it was gone.
I'd hoped to get flight shots of it's arrival and had set up my remote control but it had fooled me this time. I would be ready when it came back ! This time I stuck a 1.4xTC on the lens and stupidly put the camera in to portrait position. At the first indication of noise I started snapping.
Damn, I hadn't left enough room ! By the time the second shot fired it was on the tree
Still , this time it stayed much longer and I took some nice feeding shots.
I was now totally prepared for the next arrival. 1.4TC removed... Mike had been right.... landscape mode, finger on the trigger ready at the first sound. However, I now had an additional problem... the light was fading. The afternoon session hadn't started until 3.30.. sensible if you were out in the open in harsh light but here in the woods that wasn't a problem. It was now after 6.00pm and I was due to return at 7.00pm. I had one last chance at current visit rates. I decided to go for every option.
First capture the arrival ! Go for the bigger picture, no TC !
It fooled me by arriving from a different direction so my compromised f number at f4 to allow more light in to the shot also meant less depth of field too as I was pre focussed on the tree. I had decided 1/1600th sec would be OK and the camera was set to auto ISO, which resulted in ISO 4000.
The next shot was slightly better as it neared the nest hole
I had then decided to go for the close up. In the dark I had prepared myself to stick on a 2.0x TC which I executed in grand style not knowing what shot's I missed in the meantime. I knew the f number would automatically go to f8 but I didn't have time to do anything else before taking a couple of shots.
The shutter speed was still at 1/1600th, the resulting ISO 25600. No attempt at noise reduction... not a bad job !
To be honest though a cropped bare 500mm image was pretty damn good
and so I regret that I stuck the TC on now because I missed the shots in between changing and the bird flew immediately after before I got a chance too play with reducing shutter speeds.
Still, the chick was there and so I can see what I might of achieved at f8, 1/60th and ISO 1250.
It had been a slightly frustrating session and yet magical. A photographic challenge which is what the whole point of the exercise. If you just hit the button and bingo, there would be little point. The Woodpecker was after all very near the top of our hit list and I was satisfied with what I'd got but I would have to let the others have a go before I had a second chance.
Two whole days had gone by, I'd spent a lot of time not seeing much and not getting much action either. I decided that the following day I would visit the Bee-eater hide. They were down the list of priorities but having seen one of the other guy's shots I decided that I could probably improve on my previous years efforts in Hungary.
Another indifferent meal, a few bottles of beer and bed. The company made up for the shortfalls in cuisine yet again.